I Am A Soul Sista

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Youth ministry means cake.

Dear Soul Survivor,

I’ve recently returned from you. I’ve returned from you every year for the past ten years although this time a pretty naff cough and cold has returned with me which, as one of my youth group suggested, is probably because I’m getting old. Honestly, you give up your annual leave to take your youth group to Soul Survivor, you put up with camping for five days, AND you share a tiny number of toilets with thousands of teenagers and this is the thanks you get!

(Although I think we all know it’s because I’m getting old).

In the past few years, Soul Survivor, I’ve had a few frustrations with you. It hasn’t been anything major; your theology is legit, your biblical exegesis is sound, your ministry is life-giving. But, in the past few years, I’ve just felt a bit let down by you.

I became a Christian at a Soul Sista event in Watford in 2004. It was great. It was very pink! I bought a hot pink t-shirt with ‘I am a Soul Sista’ emblazoned in black on the front and I wore it all the time, it was my favourite. I was incredibly inspired by these women who led worship, who preached passionately, who made real to me the God who loved me so much he died for me. As part of a community of women, it felt like a family and it felt like being a girl of God was something to embrace. My confirmation presents a few months later were books by Beth Redman, the most played CD was Precious (a CD I finally tracked down a few months ago and I bawled in the car with the nostalgia-cum-joy).

And then I started going to Soul Survivor in the summer. In those days, I was a passionate worship leader, my guitar was grafted to me. I went to every seminar by Tim Hughes, but Lex Buckley was who I wanted to be. I went to more Soul Sista events. I saw women lead and it gave me hope. You know, Ali Martin, she’s been my favourite preacher since I was 12 years old. As a teenager, her example meant everything. As preaching gradually overtook worship leading in my passions and in my giftings, I used to think ‘what would Ali do?’ as well as ‘what would Jesus do?’

When I ended up in a church which was vehemently opposed to women in leadership, seeing women lead at Soul Survivor was my only hope. As sermons and services and pastoral sensibilities which whirred inside me were shut down by callous statements of my being a weaker vessel, not permitted to have authority, commanded to stay silent, seeing women on the main stage at Soul Survivor was the only thing that encouraged me that I wasn’t going insane, that my calling was from God and it was just the church I was in that had the problem, not God.

But then, you look again at that stage and you start to ask yourself, ‘where the women at?’ One female worship leader; one female speaker who only gets one turn at speaking. An annual seminar saying ‘Soul Survivor affirms women in leadership’ but it starts to just seem like lip service.

And that hurt.

It felt like you were saying one thing, but doing another.

And I’ve been torn. Because people have leveled pretty rough criticism at you guys for the gender disparity issue, and it’s like being caught between my divorced parents. I love you, Soul Survivor! I will always defend you because you’re brilliant, but you really let a load of us women down.

So this year, on the final night, when Mike called on the guys in the room to treat women with respect; when you had incredible women (plural!) preaching on the main stage; when you had a seminar on women leadership where again, guys were called on to cut out the patriarchal crap, it meant the world. (Just to say, the joke that followed Mike’s words on night 5 diminished the impact slightly, but that’s my only niggle).

I want the young women in my youth group to know that God has called them because of who they are. In a world where misogyny has quotidian fatal consequences for women, my prayer for them is that church is a place of empowerment and not of silencing. My prayer is that they will never believe the lie that their gender makes them anything other than equal in the eyes of God.

Soul Survivor, for years you were the place that made these things true for me. Please, keep doing this. Please keep being that place for the girls in the church because these girls become women and we discover that the world doesn’t get easier, in fact, it gets exponentially harder to be female. At 12 you made me feel grateful to God that I was a girl and this year, for the first time in a few years, you made me feel the same.

I love you, Soul Survivor. What a privilege to be part of the fruit of your faithfulness to God.

With love,

Hannah

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Living In One Room

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One of the less dungeon-esque student digs.

There are several things spending seven years as a full-time student teaches you:

  1. It is possible to live off 9p jars of “curry” sauce from Sainsbury’s.
  2. The more degrees you gain, the harder you have to work to prove you’re employable.
  3. How to have your life fit into one room.

I was once chatting to a colleague at one of my summer jobs where she was lamenting the moving in process with her new partner. He had no furniture, but he did have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of books. I smiled sympathetically. My earthly possessions are basically 80% books, 15% Pinterest-inspired room decorations, and 5% useful items, i.e. an air bed, a laundry basket, and a candy floss pink bin. It’s a seven-years-spent-as-a-student problem.

One of the things you learn as a student is how to make four walls contain your whole life. As a fresh-faced fresher, my halls of residence room betrayed my overwhelmingly heteronormativity (‘Even your bloody hole punch is pink!’ exclaimed the jock who was my new flat mate). Without a social area, without a proper kitchen (catered halls still one of the best decisions ever) my life had to fit in that one room.

By second year, the refusal to turn on the heating had us all fleeing from the drafty living room to our beds, curling up under duvets. On my study abroad year, I lived in an apartment where I just had my room, with a fridge acting as my bedside table, sharing a bathroom with a girl from deepest, darkest Quebec. Even when I worked as a junior dean and had my own flat, my claustrophobia compelled me to move the bed into the living room, so again, my life became confined to one room. Two more years of student life, two more years of living in a room.

And now? Well, now I’m in a house. And yet, I find myself so often just in my room. There is a whole house. It has a sofa and a television and a tumble dryer and housemates and a garden and yet, so often, I retreat to living in just one room.

There’s a Tim Hughes song that, whenever I hear it, makes me feel physically sick with guilt. It begins, ‘I don’t want to get there at the end of it all, looking behind me to see there was so much more.’ These lyrics floor me. They make me feel utterly horrendous. Here am I, a person claiming to have been saved by grace, to have experienced the awesomeness and magnificence of the Holy Spirit, and yet, I seem to approach my spiritual life like I do houses: one room rather than the whole house.

In Luke’s Gospel there is the story of perhaps my favourite encounter that Jesus has.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you… Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’

It’s easy to make our worlds small. And yet, just look at the freedom that comes from opening up, from letting Jesus in, from letting him begin a good work in us. For whoever has been forgiven lots, loves lots.

The Tim Hughes song continues, ‘take this pocketful of faith, it is all I have today, I’m giving it all, I’m giving it all.’ In the encounter between Jesus and the Woman With A Past, she gives it all, her pocketful of faith were tears, hair, and an alabaster jar of perfume. She gave it all. The best place to ever be is at the feet of Jesus. And that was where she was. At the end of it all, she won’t see that there was so much more.

As for Simon the Pharisee? I’m not so sure. Only semi-embracing Jesus is like living in a house and staying in only one room. You get a glimpse. It’s nice. It’s comfy. But there is so much more.

It’s costly to give it all, to break a jar of perfume and weep at Jesus’s feet. But not as costly as not doing it at all.

To quote the great John Newton: I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great saviour.

Formidable

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Colour co-ordinating since 1992.

‘Tell me, what was your granny like?’

I paused, sniffed, and smiled.

‘Formidable.’

My granny was brilliant. And terrifying. Extremely loving, but formidable. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril! Partly it was the matron in her; this was a woman who had nursed prisoners of war, seen unimaginable horrors, and yet, had never let despair get the better of her. People adored my granny (but they still didn’t mess with her!) In her time at St Paul’s Cathedral, she’d unceremoniously told all sorts of people to get over themselves when it came to women priests or gay clergy, but heaven for-fend an unsuspecting minor canon rock up thirty seconds late. My motto growing up was ‘if mummy says no, ask granny.’ It was a winning strategy! My granny was brilliant, my granny was formidable.

My granny would have had no time, and I mean no time, for my conduct in the service of remembrance my church had on that cold, November afternoon. She’s have been mightily unimpressed by the way I sobbed throughout, trying to sing ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ as a film of phlegm formed across my throat, popping at ‘unbounded love thou art.’ And she’d have told me to get it together as I tearfully hugged the vicar, painfully twisting my neck as I suddenly panicked that I would get mascara on her on her brilliantly white surplice.

My granny would have had a lot of time for another service where she was remembered a few months earlier: her funeral.

My granny had a very dark sense of humour. That, and she was incredibly pragmatic about death. While other people’s Christmas traditions include playing board games or going for wintry walks, my granny used to take Christmas lunch as an opportunity to reel off a list of people who had died that year and then explain that she didn’t have much longer left. Once she told me that I didn’t have much longer. I was twelve…

As part of that, she was pretty open to jokes being made about her death; she was especially taken with my suggestion that I would put her ashes in a Super Soaker to make it easier to scatter them along the Thames riverbank. (This was vetoed by my mother who, when I accidentally knocked the bag containing the ashes against a railing said ‘Will you stop hitting your grandmother?!). I also used to joke that I would take her funeral, but I’d do it in my charismatic evangelical style with drum kits and smoke machines, rather than her diligent and longstanding open catholic Anglicanism. She told me I could do that over her dead body to which I said that I actually could do it over her dead body.

Does anybody else have a family dynamic like this, or is mine just weird?

And so, on a beautiful August day, I stood at the front of a crematorium, room full of family and friends, and took my granny’s funeral. In what I know was the Holy Spirit, my inner core that day was the same formidable spirit by granny wonderfully embodied. My voice never cracked, my resolve never waived, the words of the Church of England funeral service were never clouded by tears. I sang ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’ one hundred per cent phlegm free. In preparing for and taking that service, God spoke to me gently, yet profoundly. And I think my brilliant, formidably granny would have been proud.

One of her favourite prayers that I included in the service was this:

God be in my head,
and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes,
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
and in my thinking;
God be at my end,
and at my departing.
Amen.

My granny was understated in many ways. She wanted to eschew a funeral service altogether because she didn’t ‘want to cause a fuss.’ She embodied this prayer. In her understanding, in her looking, in her speaking, in her thinking, God was there. At her end, at her departing, God was there, and it was my privilege to be there too.

One year ago today, she departed. My brilliant, formidable granny.