Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Where you'll find me

Things have been a bit quiet over here, really because things have been a bit quiet in my life. I've found myself, at the end of another busy term, feeling pretty wiped out. All I've wanted to do is retreat under a blanket in my living room and stare at the twinkly lights on my Christmas Tree. My days have become the occasional trip out to sample the many festive varieties of hot chocolate available in Oxford, of course, with a book in hand. Work plods on but in a more leisurely pace, a lot is being produced from underneath my duvet! Other than that everything has become very low key around here.

In our mad cap world it can be such a temptation to just push on. To always be doing something exciting, to always have something to say. Right now I have neither of these things. My thoughts have gone quiet and I have no desire to make any plans. In some ways I am sure this is a natural thing, that it is important to go with the seasons and to give yourself what you need. So often daily life squeezes out the things of real value: just sitting idle for a while, a long lunch with a good friend with no where to rush off to, curling up on the sofa with a mammoth box set and a box of Quality Street, eating mash potato – A LOT of mash potato.

After a roller coaster few years and a busy term moving at lightning speed towards final exams I feel like my cup had begun to runneth dry. I need to be filled up again by all the things I love so that I have something to pour out again. So that's where I am right now, wrapped up and reflective somewhere in the Oxfordshire countryside. I will be back in due course, meanwhile I hope you are finding your restoration this Christmas, wherever you are.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Why I want* to be a Vicar

I had a request today via Twitter for a post on this subject and what can I say, dear blog readers - you ask, you receive! Just call me your Fairy God-Vicar. Hmm...that sounds a bit weird.....

Anyhoo, back to subject in hand 'Why I want* to be a Vicar'. I use an * here because 'want' has always struck me as a weird term to use when talking about this subject. When I first got through the selection process for ordination training people would often say 'So you want to be a Vicar?' and I would say 'No! Well, yes, I suppose. Gah! I don't know!'. There were a few quizzical brows! But the thing is, does anybody really want to be a Vicar? It's a massive responsibility to which you commit your whole life and that, if you have any sense, you feel completely inadequate for. To say it is something I 'want' to do just doesn't ring true to my ears even now.

No, rather than 'want', its almost a 'must' and there a few reasons for this. Firstly because of that pesky, every disruptive force, the notorious G.O.D. I didn't plan this or decide it would be a clever way to spend my late twenties. Rather it was something that burst suddenly into my life one day and just wouldn't go away. I first felt that this Vicar-ing lark might be for me when I got married. The only way I can describe it is that I felt a deep sense of recognition as I sat opposite the Vicar who would be marrying us. There was something in her that rang out like a bell to me. I knew that one day, I would be there. It would be me.

Being a (vaguely) sensible sort however I figured this strange idea, should it ever come to fruition, would do so sometime in the very, very distant future. I mean, who has ever heard of a twenty something Vicar? I had no mental image for that so I just carried on with life, wondering about it periodically but no more than that. It was simply an impossibility to me until I was much older, much wiser and perhaps had a rocking chair that I would rock back and forth knowingly in.

Until, that is, one evening on my way to church where, amid the turmoil of yet another disappointing job, I foolishly prayed that I might know what the right thing was for me to be doing with my days. I walked into that church and realised I has unwittingly stumbled into an ordination service. I felt sick throughout the entire thing, like the finger of God, in buzzing neon, was pointing right at me. From there I did a little bit of testing the waters, quite certain that I would be laughed out of whatever official church bods office I was sent to before too long. Three years later, here I am in my second year of training for ministry. Look who got the last laugh eh? Pah!

So the question of what I want and why I am here has felt like a journey of discovery. From sitting in my final interview answering the question of why church ministry was for me and (weepily) yelling out 'I don't care about anything else!' to realising on my many placements last year that what I have been called to is the most awesome of privileges. Slowly, I have been figuring it out. In many ways it feels like a process of decoding myself and my past, like solving the great big puzzle of why I came to be where I am and how that might be part of building a future for the church.

Yes, I am a bit of a wild card. I have no credentials to speak of, no great ancestry of Vicars behind me. I'm just a small, loud girl from Windsor who picked up a bible a few years ago and now gets to lead a church. But I've come to think that that, really, is the genius of it. Because God, my friends, has no favourites. We are all infinitely cherished and loved and if me being plain, ordinary and even a little bit daft at times helps people to see that then my work here is done.

So that is why I want to be a Vicar, to share this tremendous secret, this great big love I've found. I want people lives to be better and fuller and more technicolor than they already are. I want them to be themselves but in surround sound and HD. I believe that that is what knowing and loving God is all about. I want to build happier and healthier communities. I want to share gospel values of service and kindness and love. I want to be with people in their best and their worst. I want to leave the world a little bit better than when I came into it. And when you think about it like that, well, being a Vicar is the best darn job on earth!

Monday, 11 November 2013

The festival that shall not be named

Unless you have been living down a hole for the last few weeks you can't have failed to see the deluge of emails, tweets and adverts that have flooded our world all preparing us for the big 'C', the 'festival that shall not be named'. I have blogged about my great joy at this particular season but I am still a stickler for it remaining in its proper time and for me that means December. But just you wait, come December the 1st IT. IS. ON. Until then John Lewis can send as many anthropomorphised bears and rabbits in my direction as they like. I shall not be moved.

I am, however, starting to think about gifts for my loved ones as, well, I quite like them and want to get them something good. I also start thinking early because time is the friend of the well thought out gift rather than the last minute 3 for 2 from Boots. Time means I can do some online ordering from companies who are doing some real good in the world. There are so many people making beautiful and ethical products and I'd much rather be giving these that some naff plastic affair I picked up a couple of day before the 'festival that shall not be named'.

So here are a few tips for brilliant companies doing brilliant stuff for your nearest and dearest:

Crafts

Whether you are making your own items for your family (go you!) or you have a crafter in your midst there are heaps of excellent crafting companies online and many are small, family run affairs. I just got this stash of seasonal fabric for my 'festival that shall not be named' bunting from Plush Addict. Swoon.



Created Gifts

From one of my most favourite charities, Tearfund, comes this brilliant online shop full of gorgeous jewellery and homewares that are all fairtrade and made by skilled people from around the developing world. Lots of the products come with videos or stories about where the products came from. One of my particular favs are their bangles. Everyone needs bangles.

From Created.com
I also love Exclusive Roots who have a store in Oxford but also retail online. They have brilliant homewares, jewellery and fashion. I picked up a dress made for Paris Fashion Week by an outfit of Kenyan ladies for Global Mamas there and I still absolutely love it.

Beauty from L'Occitane

I recently went for a free facial at L'Occitane and bloomin' eck their stuff is lovely. Anything from their range would go down like an ice lolly in the desert with me this 'festival that shall not be named'. Even better than the general yumminess of their products is that their Shea Butter range uses fairtrade butter from Burkina Faso. Double win.

From http://uk.loccitane.com/
Fashion from People Tree

Got a passion for fashion? I do! And there is no where better to indulge than at People Tree as it is another fairtrade wonder! Lots of lovely dresses for all those 'festival that shall not be named' parties you will be going to as well as great gifts of cosy jumpers and scarfs for the people in your life that you really, really like.

Swit swoo from www.peopletree.co.uk
If in doubt, buy Tea

I'm afraid I'm going to break my rule with the next image, but you can handle it, right? You've survived much worse as you struggle round the supermarket listening to Mariah Carey belt out completely seasonally inappropriate tunes. The reason I am compelled to break my own rules is that I am just loving this tea at the moment. It is everything good about winter in a cup, warming, spicy and just darn perfect.


Happy 'festival that shall not be named' preparations my loves!


Sunday, 3 November 2013

London Calling

My husband and I have reached that landmark time and are both turning thirty within the next year, or the next week for him! This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out and enjoy our youth somewhat with a trip to London. We've been really missing our adventurous stint in Europe over the summer so we took to the capital with the full enthusiasm of the tourist but with all the added advantages of knowing the language and some hot spots to visit without the aid of too many guide books.

 
Westminster Abbey where we popped in for a spot of evensong
 
Entering St James' Palace
Raven at the Tower of London!
Being pretty obsessed with all things food and drink related this involved a trip to the Hummingbird Bakery in South Kensington for a Black bottom Cupcake and a brief detour from tourist activities to visit the Twinnings shop on the Strand. As a self proclaimed tea connoisseur and having a truly disturbing knowledge of the range of most British tea companies I breezed in and picked up some replenishments of the more obscure teas in my collection and was easily persuaded into buying a tin of 'Christmas Cheer'. It's packed full of cloves, orange and cinnamon on a base of Assam. As you can see I was most pleased (and a bit damp) by the Thames after my visit.




We then went to Covent Garden for cocktails in a bar so loud we remembered why we spend most of our time in the sleepy pubs in our village. Still you're only young once, the drinks menu was somewhat more extensive than our local and you couldn't get a better people watching spot in Britain! A sophisticated dinner of a meatball burger (yes, really) followed at husband's request and then we battled through the chilly streets back to our room in Hammersmith for some rest and recuperation (being nearly 30 and all...)


Our little B&B....
Today we spent our days exploring the Tower of London before bidding farewell to London and all its drama (and people, so many people!!) and heading home. The weekend was a great reminder that life is a whole lot more than work and deadlines. Yes, what you get up to in the working hours is important and can be wonderfully fulfilling but we are so much more than that. Life is for adventures too. Seeing new things, getting lost in the crowd, getting chilly and pink-cheeked and eating meatball burgers. Bliss!


Monday, 28 October 2013

People and Politics

Last night we braved 'the storm that thankfully never quite manifested' to head down to hear a guest speaker at church, one of the Oxford MPs, Nicola Blackwood. I've head Nicola speak before and always been hugely impressed by how eloquent and bright she is but more than that by her sincerity and clear desire to do right by the people in her constituency. That combined with her being that rare thing, a young woman in politics, finds me being quite a fan!

Hearing about the week she has ahead made my meagre workload of a couple of essays look like a walk in the park. Darting back and forth from the commons in London, debating hugely important bills on immigration, advising on Home Office committees, campaigning against exploitation of children in Oxford, not to mention dealing with a myriad of issues from the people here from pensions to childcare to transport to security to employment. Nicola was refreshingly honest that in this role where on election you suddenly have to be an expert in all aspects of human existence in Britain you have to work incredibly hard to get up to speed but you will also, inevitably, at times get it wrong. We all are human beings after all, and that includes our public representatives.

It really made me think about the way we speak about and treat those that represent us. Under everything Nicola said was the clear desire for public service that I found tremendously inspirational. She often mentioned wanting to do right by her constituents and her prayer requests were wisdom and energy to do just that. I know that feeling well as someone whose education is being paid for by the pounds in the church collection plate. I want to do right by those who have trusted me to be here and lead the church in the future.

Nicola's third prayer request, however, was for a change in public perception of politics and politicians. While working these manic weeks, and quite frankly she must be constantly battling exhaustion, she finds herself coming up against the perception that all politicians are all 'liars and thieves'. Of course we have a right to hold our representatives to account, and it is vitally important that we do so, but the common assumption that all politicians are motivated entirely by a quest for power and care little for the people they serve is plainly false. Don't get me wrong, there is a clear agenda of self promotion in politics and the behaviour of some politicians in the past has in part created this negativity in public perception. However that is one part of a much bigger picture of people sacrificing family, health and a huge amount of energy to try to improve the lot of ordinary people.

It's not holding politicians to account, then, that is to be critiqued but rather the failure to engage with politics because of assumptions that 'all politicians are the same' which, as Nicola rightly pointed out, damages democracy in this country. It also, I would argue, damages our relationships as human beings. If we disagree with a policy then we must and should speak out but the personal bashing of politicians is so common and so approved of and that worries me. Even more so when the stark reality of the time, effort and energy that our representatives put in is clearly examined and acknowledged. For them to do the best job for us and for our country they need our critique, yes, but also our support.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Scandal of Difference

A lot of my reading at the moment is around the subject of difference. This week I've been looking at the concept of masculinity and femininity. Or rather concepts, I should say. Because the one thing that emerges from even a quick scan of history is that whether it is about race, gender or background we are constantly trying to create categories. To make a mould and stuff people in it. This partly comes from a natural desire to categorize and make sense of the world but the problem comes when our understanding of the world is far too small.
 
Masculinity and femininity is a great example. The idea that there is one way to be a man and one way to be a woman is, quite frankly, utter tosh. And yet the desire to force people to conform to an idea that we as a society have developed as ideals can easily be seen when you look at the labels for those who don't fit. Enter the tom boys and effeminates, the geeks and the goths, the power women and the under the thumb man.

All these are considered aberrations. Deviations from the norm and, on some level, from what is natural and right. But natural is a massively over stated idea. Studies in cultures around the world tell us that what we assume to be natural for men and women in our culture is by no means the case in all cultures. In some cultures men raise the children, in some women do the bulk of the manual labour.

Historically it is possible to trace ideas about men and women changing over time. Our modern idea of femininity seems to have emerged during the Victorian Era. Before that women were considered to be sexual predators who needed to be contained by marriage (quite like men are often depicted today) and by their very nature inferior, intellectually and morally. By the end of the Victorian era women were held up as sexually disinterested and the ultimate example of piety.

Unfortunately a lot of these boxes have been religiously sanctioned. In fact my dissertation is about one such concept of the ideal male and female and how the Victorian ideal has been seen, in recent decades, as God's design for humanity. You would probably have guessed that I am not a great fan of this idea already but this week I particularly found myself thinking about what my faith really does have to say positively about these issues. Is it just a modern, gut instinct in me that says we should accept people in all their difference or is there actually anything to back it up?

Well this is where I am thankful for the veritable feast of oddballs whose stories are recorded in the Bible. Women leading the battle, men weeping, prostitutes saving the day, women four times divorced, pregnant teenagers, they're all in there and all held up as examples. Battered by life, a bit of a mess sometimes, but utterly beloved by God.

I deeply believe that the gospel is, at its core, a great big yes to us in all our variety. Jesus has no problem associating with those society considered to be abnormal or outcasts. The Apostle Paul who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament makes the bold claim that, drop the labels, we are all one in God. Jew, Greek, Male, Female, Slave, Free, Rich or Poor.

So what do you say? Shall we smash up the boxes? I think that the world might just be so much more interesting than our boring old norms and stereotypes would have us believe.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

First Week Reflections

Gosh, can you believe it? I have just finished my first week of year two at Vicar School! It's been a fascinating and, just like last year, tiring week. Looking around I remember so clearly how I felt to be starting college. Not only are you meeting a bunch of new people who will become very important in your life for the next few years but also processing a mountain of information and, if you are like me, trying desperately to quell the sense of rising panic as you realise, yes, you did actually sign up for this and this is your life now.

All this is combined with being fairly sleep deprived what with prayer starting at 7.30am and spending most of the night with obscure rules for worship running through you mind. If I sound negative then please forgive me! The whole experience of being here is wonderful and exciting and the best decision I ever made but still, it is tiring, it is hard and, in my experience, you have to spend an awful lot of time getting over yourself and that is pretty tough going. But more than simply passing on the message 'it's going to be all right' to the new students I found myself much more saying 'you are meant to be here'.

Watching the dawning horror on people's faces as they are signed up to lead a service they have never even been to before took me right back to being there myself. As you, dear blog reader, know well I am some what of a late comer to the party when it comes to church. This can leave me bewildered, confused and not a little bemused at times. What is instinctive to many is a serious learning task for me. I led a service this week where my prayer book was absolutely full of yellow post its to keep me on track. I had a friend sit in the pew nearest to the front so no one else would see my scribbled red notes to myself saying 'SIT!' 'STAND!' 'PRAY!'
 
Here we go again!
This world is an academic one and I sometimes forget that I arrived here last year having read basically no Theology and am now approach finals at Oxford Uni, for goodness sake! My degree was in Biology, if you want to know the evolutionary history of amphibians then I am your girl, but Theology? It was all new, every bit of it. Of course I've come to realise that a lot of this is my greatest strength. Fresh eyes and new experiences are vital to the church in this age of change. I am part of that and that excites me. The rest? Well I always remember that what is natural to many doesn't come so easy for me and pat myself on the back for sticking in there in the areas I find tough.

That, more than anything, is what I have been trying to impart this week when I come across a, completely understandable, little wobble. To be a diverse bunch is a wonderful thing. What I can do others run from, what they can do naturally in half an hour takes me a day and thirty post it notes. I sincerely believe that there is no one who walks into any new task fully confident in their ability. If they do then quite frankly they will likely be the one to miss out. Admitting that there are things you don't know means you are ready to learn and grow. I am not ashamed to say 'I don't know' because it is the only way I will learn and that it is more important that my pride.

All in all, it takes all sorts, doesn't it? And this week I have realised again that we really are the richer for it.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Autumnal Loveliness

Oh autumn. You are wooing me with your lovely orange leaves and cosy evenings. Anyone else with me?! There are just so many things to enjoy about this brilliant season but here are a few that are currently making my autumn days awesome.

1.New Crafts

I've always known I would start knitting at some point, it is one of the few crafts absent from my repertoire, the question was when. As I've been absorbed by my love affair with my sewing machine for the last couple of years the time just hasn't felt right. That was until I realised my great need for a chunky cream knit scarf and thus the stars aligned and I was off into the world of knitting.


And what a world! I spent Saturday morning perusing a yarn shop and my autumn evenings in front of the telly are well and truly transformed. It also means I get to dig out my Mum's old Golden Hands magazines. They are a feast of sixties joy, full of ways to knit, sew and embroider pretty much anything you could ever think of. And the pictures are hilarious. Love, love, love it.



2. Autumn Feasting

There is nothing like the cold weather/hot food combo. This week I've been making autumn soups from the glut of squash that keep arriving in my veg box. Here's my tip for a steaming bowl of autumnal loveliness.

Awesome Autumn Roast Veggie Soup


1 small squash, peeled and chopped into chunks
3 carrots chopped into 3 pieces
1 large onion, peeled and chopped into wedges
2 cloves of garlic (you can leave then whole)
A handful of chopped sage
1.5 litres of chicken stock
A little olive oil

Chuck all the veg a baking tray and toss together with the sage and some olive oil. Put in the oven on high (200 degrees C) for half an hour or until the squash is nice and soft when you put a knife into it.

Remove from the oven a leave to cool slightly. Add the veg to a blender with the chicken stock and whizz up. Reheat to serve and voila, autumn goodness in a bowl!

P.S You can basically chuck any veg in this soup so it is a great waste saver, Jamie Oliver would be proud!!

3. Autumn Fashion

If my local charity shops are anything to go by then now is the time to get down there and get your winter wardrobe sorted. My last trip saw me leaving with two new jumpers, two new woollen skirts and some brogues. Delightful.



Happy Autumn!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fake it till you make it


When you're self taught you always worry that you will be found out – Cath Kidston

The start of a new term, and my second year of training at Vicar school, is fast approaching. In terms of workload not much will change from now but there is something about it becoming 'official' that puts butterflies in my belly all over again, just like I had them last year. Perhaps it is that the start of something new always makes you stop and take stock a little. To look back and gaze a little further forward. That is where the butterflies come in.

One of the best books I read before starting training was by the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard. He described an incident where he invited the local primary school to the church for a special service. He went in to the school to do assemblies often but not in full Vicar garb so when one of the children saw him dressed up in robes and dog collar he said 'Mr Pritchard, why are you pretending to be a Vicar?' To which Bishop John thought, 'Crikey I've finally been found out! Why am I pretending to be a Vicar?!'

I've never met anyone who lives with complete self assurance or on some level doesn't feel like a bit of a fraud in their own world. I regularly chuckle to myself at what an excellent job I am doing pretending to be a grown up. Maintaining a house, having an ISA, going to garden centres. No one except those who have seen my CD collection truly understand that underneath I still have the mentality of a fifteen year old. I don't know whether there comes a moment when you suddenly think, 'This is it, I have arrived. I am terribly grown up.' Perhaps when you have kids, though I can quite imagine that moment arriving and thinking 'Why am I pretending to be a parent? This can't be safe!'

I suppose it is the same thing with work and it is deeply encouraging to here people I admire express the same feelings. The quote above comes from Cath Kidston's autobiography 'Coming Up Roses'. I love reading stories of business people who have made a hugely successful enterprise against all the odds. They always have such tenacity and self belief. And yet...that nagging thing still hangs about and Cath writes about consistently 'faking it till you make it' and the frequent moments wondering what on earth she had really gotten herself in to and if she could really handle it after all.

So as I start another term as a REAL TRAINEE VICAR. I'm going to take comfort that we all feel a small sometimes and it doesn't mean we can't think big. And hey, they may never figure me out...here's hoping! ;)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Daring Greatly

I've just emailed an article I'm really scared about. I'm not scared about the content, I stand by that. I'm scared of the reaction. You see, I've written what I believe to be true, something I think needs to be said but that I am pretty sure people don't want to hear. Man, it is scary.

While I was travelling this summer I read a book that describes my current feelings so well that it has made me think completely differently about it. The book in question is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She calls what I am currently experiencing 'a vulnerability hangover'. It's that moment when you open your eyes in the morning and thing 'Why on earth did I do that?' and want to crawl under the duvet and emerge when it is all over. In my case when everyone has commented and gotten over it.

I had a massive vulnerability hangover after writing about my feelings on the failedvote for women to become Bishops in Engalnd. Perhaps I was right to do so as I received some stark criticism in the comments that I was just too stupid to understand the mechanisms of the Church of England and their voting processes. What struck me was that this response was simply to a young woman expressing how it felt to continue to be excluded because of gender in her place of work. That post resonated with people, particularly with other women in my shoes, and I'm not sorry I wrote it.

And that is the nub of it really. That even when it is excruciating to put yourself out there, and writing is where I feel constantly compelled to do so, it is all part of daring greatly. If you hand on heart believe in what you are doing, you are doing so courageously in the hope of a better deal for everybody then vulnerability is just part of the package.

Brene starts her book with this brilliant quote form Roosevelt that deserves to be quoted in full again here.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Now when I feel those creeping feeling of fear and wanting to hide I am thankful because I know I have done something courageous. Success or failure doesn't really matter when you are being courageous and as Roosevelt writes both are inevitable at some point if you are going to step out and take risks. Instead it is being in the game, wanting to see change in the broken world and being willing to fight for it. That's worth a little vulnerability eh?


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Being Male, being Female - asking Big Questions!

Since I've been back from my travels it has been straight into the work but it hasn't felt like much of a chore. My major project at the moment is my dissertation which is taking me to far flung corners of the Bodleian Library and into parts of Oxford I've never seen before. It really is such a beautiful city and none more so that when you are studying in it. For me there is still no thrill quite like the one I get as I step into a library packed floor to ceiling with books. All those words, all those thoughts. It makes me buzz!


Yesterday I found myself in the Social Sciences Library amid what must have amounted to a least a hundred books on the subject of gender. I found myself a spot and poured over introductions to the research of the last fifty years. The questions are huge and stretch your mind to the limits. We are, after all, social creatures who have grown up in a particular culture. It is so hard to disentangle yourself from that and see things objectively. That was why it was so exciting to see books about what it means to be male or female in countries all over the world. It was the anthropologists who studied people in different cultures who first started to indicate that 'how we do it' is not the only way but rather is something we have constructed in our particular time and circumstances. Things can and do change.

For me this project is a bitter sweet thing. Sweet to have the time to read works of great women and to read about the history of feminism in my own country and culture. It is enriching to understand more about where we have come from and it raises so many fundamental questions. Why do we understand that to be a man is this and women that? What even is gender? Social research point to so much of our conceptions of maleness and femaleness being constructions of our culture and environment. As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote 'One is not born, one becomes a woman'. But of course biology and society are interacting constantly. We adapt to our environment, our biology, like our culture, is fluid not static. For me it has blown open the categories I have in my head. The pieces of my understanding are floating about somewhere in the air and are waiting to resettle again!

The other side of my research is looking at the theological understandings of gender, particularly in the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. The perception of women and femininity both shackled and liberated women over the last 150 years. Digging down to the base beliefs about men and women is fascinating and at times bitter. More than anything it makes me want to push on to seeing mutual respect and understanding between the sexes and opportunity based on ability and calling, not gender.

Today a former tutor from my college was made a Bishop in New Zealand. Times are changing. We really need to ask ourselves these big and deep questions and allow ourselves to be surprised by the answers. As for me, I'm having the time of my life and so thankful for the opportunities I am being given right now. Even more so in the light of what I am reading, knowing how privileged I am given how women have lived throughout most of history. It is a privilege and it is a great responsibility. Back to the books!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Paris, Fashion and Being You

While I was in Paris I fell in love. Not just with the winding streets of the Latin Quarter nor the Patisseries on every corner but with something just as important and enduring. I fell in love with Fashion. I have to be honest, it is not our first fling. Since the age of 13 when I got my first pay cheque I have been lusting after a new bag or some strappy sandals. But Paris? Oh, it is a living catwalk. This year has been a rather tumultuous one for me and fashion and my time in the city took me some way towards getting my thoughts in order and answering that terrible, terrifying question – what on earth should a 29 year old Vicar-to-be have in her wardrobe?

I trace this particular crisis back to a lunchtime seminar on female clergy and clothes. In fact, I can trace it back to one particular sentence. 'If you want to get into any senior positions in the Church of England then you need to wear black, it is the only colour anyone will take you seriously in.' Pant suits are the order of the day, boxy shirts are your uniform. A conversation ensued about why this might be so and the consensus emerged that this is really about what men wear. It seems it is just easier to be taken seriously in the church right now if you either are a bloke or at least attempt to look as little different from a bloke as you can. You can debate that in your own time!

Now, there is of course much to be said about wearing clothes that are appropriate for the task at hand. I'm not suggesting pink sparkly sandals are suitable funeral attire just as I wouldn't have worn them to a business meeting in my former life. Many women like wearing black and see that as a representation of the kind of minister they are. That, of course, is fine and good. But I immediately found myself reacting strongly to the suggestion that I had to wear black to somehow blend into the boys club and not offend anyone with my femaleness. Being a minster isn't something you do on the weekends or that you pop a uniform on for during the day. It is you life, your every day. I instinctively knew, dressed head to toe in black, I would be compromising who I am and the minister I want to be.
 
My moment of high fashion in Paris!
Being in Paris really helped me think all these things through because the women there look so utterly appropriate, completely unbloke-ish and with a glorious sense of style. Whether we like it or not we all have to wear clothes and our clothes tell a story before we even open our mouths. Being in Paris made me think about what story I am telling. Me in black tells a story about suppressing my femininity and character for position and to appease. That is not a story I want to live, let alone tell.

If I'm going to be here in this big old institution then I have to be here as exactly what I am and that includes the fact that I am young and female. How else will people begin to understand that God isn't only partial to greying white men in black? That he loves us all, multicoloured and wonderful as we are. Rather than being a distinct, unapproachable figure I want to project accessibility. Having a faith doesn't make you some kind of alien being with which normal humans have nothing in common. You can chat to me, make friends with me. We are the same. Personally, that is important to me and that is the kind of minister I want to be.

It also says something about craftsmanship. About valuing artistry and design. For a long time now I have been making up my wardrobe of mainly second hand and vintage clothing. I try to choose clothes that are good news for the people that make and sell them. This sometimes means paying more, sometimes it means picking something up for a couple of pounds in a charity shop. Either way it is intentional and resisting the throw away fashion trend we have fallen so heavily into.

And lastly it says something about honesty. Hiding who I am is the very opposite of what I would encourage anyone to do who came to me pastorally as a minister. I would say shine, let yourself be seen and get out there. I would say choose clothes with compassion and honesty. I would say 'Be you.' So for that reason I am going to embrace my wardrobe, strappy sandals and all. Me and fashion are back on track.
 
Women with a pink handbag, coming to a Church near you!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Joy of Travel

I can hardly believe it but here I am back in my little house, snuggled under my duvet with which I have been gratefully reunited, after one month of three countries, fifteen different places and near on different beds every night. I wasn't sure how I was going to take to travelling. I was worried that I was going to feel unsettled, that what usually gives me peace of mind is the things around me but the reality couldn't have been further from the truth.

The bay in San Sebastian
Certainly I'm glad to be reunited with a wardrobe full of clothes that I haven't painstakingly hand-washed in the hotel sink. Having proper English tea available 24/7 again has made me slightly giddy with glee but the experience of having only what I can carry and dragging out the same old pair of shorts day after day was oddly freeing. There really are no distractions from what is going on right there, where you are. Your options are limited in material things but wide open in experiences.


Me and my trusty bag for the month
And there were plenty of experiences to be eyes wide open for. The vast range of cultures as you travel north to south across Europe, the depth of history that my secondary school 'tudors and a bit about the world wars' education didn't even touch, the different lives we encountered lived in quiet rural corners or busy city streets. The whole experience energized me for my own journey, taking me away from everything I had constructed in my head, shaking it up and letting it all resettle again.


The Alcazar in Seville
I may have dreamed up a few new dreams. The best kind of dreams, ones that make you a little shaky and wonder if you can be that courageous. But being on the road (or rails!) was the best kind of tonic for that too. Granted, eighteen year olds the length and breadth of Europe managed to hop on and off trains with abandon every summer and I'm no stranger to travel myself. Still, there was something about seeing that line on the map, winding its way through France, Spain and Italy, and knowing that I had come to the end of it. My journey, that I painstakingly planned, with all the little niggling worries about what might or might not happen and realise that I did it. I got to the end and it was wonderful.

Avignon
But more than anything I am so thankful for the wow moments. It felt like the best gift I have ever given myself. The time, space and experiences to be truly, deep down thankful to be alive. To see something that makes me think with conviction 'Wow, I have really lived!' Travelling meant that those wow moments came thick and fast, barely a day passed without one. I feel like it has readjusted me somehow, reminded me that the world is a pretty darn amazing place full of new sounds, smells, tastes and glorious sights. That life is still wide open, it always has been really.

The Duomo in Florence
And so here I am, back to the life I left behind a month ago. Ready to open the books and embark on this coming academic year which in equal parts thrills and terrifies me. Bolstered by that gloriously stocked tea cupboard and a stack of brilliant memories I'm going forward boldly and letting myself think as vast as I dare for the next adventure.

Plotting in Paris!

P.S. I blogged all mytravel adventures over on Off Exploring and all the pics are now up there too. Yes, I was a bit snap happy!!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Toddler Tote Bag

I had such great fun this week with this little craft project for my niece's birthday. She is a brilliant, vibrant two year old and pretty sure to go nuts for anything with Peppa Pig on it. She also a big fan of bags, hey a girl needs to start young eh? And she needs something to carry around her Peppa toys, obviously.


These two facts combined left me wanting to make her something special that would be personal and super sweet so I came up with this, the toddler tote bag featuring Peppa!

I started by selecting some contrasting fabrics. I didn't need much as the bag is small enough for a little two year old to sling over her shoulder. I used thick curtain fabric for the bag to be sure it was sturdy enough to face the rough and tumble of toddler play and made the patch pocket in a floral cotton.

Here were my simple steps to making my toddler tote bag...
  • I first cut the large spotty fabric to my preferred size allowing extra for seams. I cut it so that the fold is at the bottom of the bag and the two sides need simply to sewn together, but don't sew it just yet!
  • I then designed the patch pocket. Using an embroidery hoop to keep the fabric taut I embroidered on my message using three strands of embroidery thread. I then cut the pocket down to size and stitched it along the top on my sewing machine. I then folded all the sides under and stitched the pocket to my chosen spot on the bag.
     
  • I then designed Peppa. I started by drawing a template on paper which I cut out and pinned onto felt. I then sketched Peppa's features in pencil and embroidered them on. Lastly I embroidered all of Peppa onto a round piece of white felt to create a badge and stitched this on with contrasting green embroidery thread onto the bag.
  • I then stitched my nieces name onto the fabric under the Peppa badge. An embroidery hoop wasn't needed here because the fabric was nice and thick so didn't warp.
  • I then sewed on a bow made of pink ribbon for a little extra decoration.
  • Decorations on I assembled the bag. To make the straps and neaten the top edge I added a line of herringbone tape to the edge of the bag (on the inside), tucked in the end of each strap and stitched a double line of stitching to secure the straps nice and strongly to the bag.
  • I then turned the bag inside out and stitched up each side. I finished by neatening the seams. This is optional but will hopefully make the bag last longer.
And that's it! Such brilliant fun and can be adapted to any child's current favourite. Sure to be a winner!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Signing Off (for a little while!)

My sweet blogging family, I'm going to be leaving you for a little while.

I am always so thrilled to see my little visits counter go up on this blog and I think of you all when I look at the little map telling me where people are reading posts from. The US, Asia, Australia, New Zealand (is that you Lynn?! *waves*) and closer to home in good ol' blighty.

Blogging is such a privilege. A place to process, a place to share, but most of all a community. I am most thankful for that. That you all stick around and read my ramblings. That is what has kept me coming back here for three years now. A great group of people who have grown with me and will continue to do so, I am sure.

But never fear, this isn't a mass Dear John Letter. As I mentioned in the last post I am simply signing off for the next four weeks while I embark on a little adventure around Europe. Being quite unable to not note down my thoughts in some way I will be keeping a travel journal on Off Exploring.
 
I'm not sure how frequently I'll do so, perhaps every few days, perhaps just once or twice but it will be evidence that we are still alive and hopefully having a wonderful time. You never know it might even be interesting, depending on how much Sangria I stumble across in Spain! 
 
The trip! Beaut!
I have one more post in the offing for you in my absence, a craft project that I have totally fallen in love with. It is currently shrouded in secrecy, MI5 style, as the finished article is a gift awaiting to be given. Saturday night it should be up on the blog through so do stop by then.

Anyway, with that I will say farewell, keep being brilliant, have a fabulous summer and catch you when I get back!

Friday, 5 July 2013

Adventures

July has brought with it some exciting events. I love the change of pace of summer and that, done right, it can give you some well needed time to reflect and, crucially, catch up with friends and family. It's also pretty nice if there is a little adventure thrown in there. This summer looks like it is going to provide all three.

Last summers adventure, looks great, was utterly terrifying!
Next week I'm going to spend some much needed time laying by a pool (albeit with some Greek verbs to learn!) and hanging out with my Mum, the perfect combination. Then follows a week in England before husband and I jump on a train to Paris and begin our European adventure. I've been working my little socks off to free up the time for this trip so I am absolutely thrilled it is finally here. We hit France, Spain and Italy, eat a lot of food, drink a lot of wine and generally just have a really great time.

A much more humane adventure, summer sun in Greece.
This trip also feels a bit more than simply a holiday though. After a brilliant but intense year I'm excited to be on the road with just a couple of good books and a beach towel. As much as training for ministry is a wonderful blessing it also leaves you very on show. People have expectations of you the minute you say what it is that you do, rightly so in many ways, and you are assessed constantly on every aspect of your being. This goes beyond simply competence at your role to who you are as an individual, again this is arguably as it should be, but it does make for a goldfish bowl like existence sometimes. For this reason I'm so excited to take some time to be anonymous. To be Nikki rather than a trainee Vicar and to have no objectives but to see where the trip takes me.

I'm also excited about embarking on an adventure. There will be so many things that I will see for the first time, so many new tastes and experiences, so much to take in. Whether it's walking the Alhambra in Granada at night or seeing the Eiffel Tower all lit up, I can't wait to stand and stare for a while. I'm so aware that it is moments like these that stay with you for a lifetime. Those moments where you need to sit down to take in everything that is around you and simply be grateful to be here and be alive. If life isn't punctuated with those moments I truly believe it is the poorer for it. You don't need to go to the other side of the world to have those moments, but if you can? Well, what a blessing.

And last but not least I'm excited about some time with the husband unit. When I got engaged someone said to me that marriage is like studying for a PhD in another person. Well five years in and I'm pretty sure I've got enough info to write a 70,000 word thesis! Still, the wonderful thing about relationships is that you can never truly get to the end of someone else. There is always more and even more so when you are making memories together. To learn more about each other and coax one another out of bad moods when the trains are delayed is all part of the experience and I hope we will emerge stronger for it.

So there we are! That is my next adventure. How about you?

Monday, 24 June 2013

Bye bye Driving Fear!

About twelve years ago I took my first driving lesson. I hated it. Everyone kept telling me that one day it would click and I would feel better about it but it never did. Nine months later and just before my theory test I was in a nasty accident when out practising with my Dad. My little car was no more. I had lost a lot of money for a 17 year old and all my confidence behind the wheel. I went home, in total shock and laid under my duvet all evening. I decided then that I would never drive again and stopped lessons immediately.

In the years that followed I was good to my word and never got behind a wheel, well, not in body at least but I certainly did in my mind. Driving still hung about constantly, popping up in dreams and nervous moments as a passenger. Nightmares about being forced to drive and feeling thoroughly out of control became a regular feature of my dream world. I built my life around not needing to drive, taking jobs in the city centre and living along good bus routes. Sure there were things I couldn't do but they were no way near as bad as actually facing my fear and getting back behind the wheel.

It was only when on yet another lift back to my house in the back of my father-in-law's car just over a year ago that the balance started to tilt in favour of driving again. It wasn't a need to get anywhere or some new job that I needed a car for, more than anything I was fed up of being afraid. Fed of being mastered by something that I could overcome. Fed up of making compromises. Fed up of doubting myself.

So the next week I started lessons again. I hated every minute. As I've written on this blog before, my circumstances changed, I ended up studying in the middle of the countryside and suddenly I needed to drive and yet it was so hard, so impossible, that I felt I would never get there. It probably sounds ridiculous to be so wrung out from simply learning to drive given some of the challenges people meet and overcome every day. All I can say is that it felt like so much more than a license and a freedom to get where I want, when I want. It was about whether I could really get over myself enough to succeed at something I knew I could do or whether I was going to be the sort of person who let fear dominate me.

After nine months of lessons I failed my first test. Two months later I took it again and failed for a second time. Despondent and thrust straight into the busyness of ministry training I put driving on hold again but booked myself into an intensive course and into another test for the end of the year knowing I would flake out if I didn't commit myself and some cash to the cause. That test was last Friday and much to my great surprise – I passed!

It is wonderful to consider all the things I can now do and all the restrictions that have melted away with this one landmark achievement. But more than this it is wonderful to have such a big, lifelong fear shunted firmly into the past. I am so tired and getting here has certainly cost me a lot emotionally and physically but the rewards are only just beginning.

So how about you? Any big fears you want to put behind you? If my oft winding tale towards being a fully licensed driver is anything to go by then anything is possible.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Choice – Part 2

A while ago I blogged about summertime and story telling bringing to your attention a really exciting campaign that Tearfund are running at the moment. They have recently released the next video in the series, isn't it beautiful?

Beautiful boys from The Choice video (Photo: Tearfund)
Poverty is such a faceless beast. Those in need become an amorphous 'problem', but in reality all the statistics are made up of individual people, like you and me, and each 'problem' has an infinite number of solutions. Children can have more than the generation that came before them. They can go to school, their parents can experience the deep joy of seeing their children have more and better than what they have had. I've seen it happen and it is brilliant. More, more, more, I say!

Fresh from the IF campaign I am really inspired by even the title of this new campaign. Because it is a choice isn't it? To give or to hoard. To be generous or closed. To see challenges or problems. To hope or to despair. While we're on the subject of the IF campaign and getting a passion for the opportunities available to make awesome choices for the world at large, check on this video The Hunger Museum. Isn't it fab?
 
 
Choice, opportunity and blessings on earth. Happy Friday!

Monday, 17 June 2013

One year down!

With the shake of a lambs tail (or about 80,000 words, but hey, whose counting?!) here were are, at the end of the first academic year of vicar training. I really can't believe it is here. The pile of reading on my kitchen table leaves me under no illusions that the work is over for the year but it still feels like a huge achievement.

At the final service of the year at the crumbly old Parish Church in the village I found myself a little teary. Looking around that church I felt deeply content and yet so aware of how I felt when I first sat there nine months before. Walking in excited, yes, but also with a deep wondering if this was something I could actually do. As I've written about before my journey into the glittering world of full time ministry hasn't been conventional. I've not harboured dreams of working under a beautiful spire my whole life or even set foot in a church voluntarily until seven years ago. Rather than creeping up on me, this whole thing jumped out of the darkness and it scared me half to death.
 
Pretty lovely college
Being not exactly what springs to mind when you think 'Vicar' combined with having to learn my way round 'church stuff' as an alien in new lands has, at times, made me feel deeply under confident. Believing somewhere deep down that, at some point, someone might just walk in and say 'What on earth are you doing here?' and send me back to where I came from. When the first set of essay titles came through I couldn't even imagine understanding the titles let alone writing several thousand words on any of these subjects.

This year, more than anything else, I am deeply grateful that I have realised, really realised, what utter tosh all this is. The pile of essays on my desk, all penned by my own fair hand, attest to this. The services led, the confidence bubbling up, the feeling of contentment and satisfaction all point like neon signs to the same conclusion. I always suspected, but now I know it to be true, that each one of us has come to this place exactly because of who we are rather than in spite of it.

The only thing to lament is when we fail to live up to who we really are. That is all that is really asked of any of us. Being accepted for who I am, mocked a little (!) and encouraged a whole heap has made such a big difference to me. I have never been shy in coming forward but now I feel so much more able to do this with all I am rather than attempting to present a version of myself that is so much less than I have to offer.

I am really, really REALLY tired and very, very, VERY aware that there is so much more to come but nonetheless this year has been wonderfully encouraging and deeply satisfying and it seems right to celebrate that. To push yourself to the edges of all you are is something I would heartily encourage. It is there that we really begin to grow and that feels simply brilliant.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Optimism

I don't really know how to start talking about the last week. Perhaps it is best if I just begin with a picture.

From http://enoughfoodif.org/g8/london
Yes, that is 45,000 people in Hyde Park this Saturday making an enormous noise about the scandal of 1 in 8 people going to bed hungry each day in the world. This was how I ended my week.

The event came hot on the heels of another trip to London to catch up with a truly inspiring woman, Donata Kalunga. I've blogged about Donata before, that in fact was how my invitation from the lovely Build ItInternational found its way to me, but to see her in London on my home turf was tremendously exciting. We listened to Zambian music from the London African Gospel Choir (patting ourselves on the back for remembering some of the words!) and heard Donata's hugely inspiring story again.
 
The lady herself!
Coming to the UK was the first time Donata had ever left Zambia. She had never even seen the sea before and was overwhelmed with joy to be able to paddle in the waves. When I asked her how she was finding England she said 'it is like heaven!' and then squeezed me tight squealing 'my grandchild!' (she has well and truly adopted me!) She also went to see Mamma Mia in the West End and reportedly laughed for the entire thing, no doubt utterly bemused!
 
 
Seeing Donata again was my first dose of optimism for the week. Donata saw a problem in her neighbourhood and got to work fixing it, 'Disabled children are not being educated, well then I'll open a school'. No money, no problem. All these things that might reasonably be described as obstacles Donata, and many others in Zambia, described again and again as mere challenges. Something temporary to be overcome.

And all this in an environment where there are so many challenges that it must surely seem impossible. Yet, optimism they have and they have it in spades. On the bus back to Oxford the sun was going down and I said to my (long suffering!) husband, 'That's how I want to be'. God help me, one day perhaps.

Saturday, then, was another experiment in optimism but this time global optimism. I've been keeping up with the IF campaign but I have to say that on my way to the rally, partly through end of term tiredness and partly through lack of awareness, I wondered if the aims of the movement really could be achieved. Can we really see an end to hunger around the world? Sometimes I think we are so used to living with the man made, global disaster that is poverty in this world of wealth that we are numb to it. I am numb to it. In the face of such overwhelming need we freeze like a rabbit in headlights and fall into pessimism.
 
 
If this is you then my goodness get yourself to a rally! Feel the atmosphere, see the thousands of people that believe change is possible, bring your kids, bring your granny and just be encouraged. In my own life I live by the maxim that nothing ever gets done through pessimism. Game changers are people who see opportunities and possibilities and grab them. Who strive forwards for change and forget the voices that say it can't be done. Being at IF gave me a sense of global optimism in action. Nothing will change unless we believe it will. People who believe in change make change happen.

I don't know about you but I'm ready for that. Ready for it in my own life, as Donata has so ably shown me, and ready for it in the world. IF is going full steam ahead, there is so much more to do. As for me I'm going to be an optimist and be part of the solution, fancy it?