Meeting God on Punishment Beach

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Blow through the caverns of my soul.

‘So, how was the retreat?’

‘Er…’

I’ve recently returned from being on retreat with the Community of St Anselm. The title of it was ‘Life in the Holy Spirit.’ How was it? Hard to describe. And the lessons learnt from it, the moments of divine encounter will be processed more fully over the coming days, weeks, months, maybe even years.

We went down to the beach one day; the part we went to was rocky, the clamber to the sea made even more precarious by the blanket of seaweed. ‘This is a beach?’ Someone used to white sand and sapphire oceans asked. ‘It’s a punishment beach!’ Joked another. Punishment Beach. The promise of beauty and freedom with the reality of the risk of danger and where the only thing which is certain is uncertainty.

Sometimes life with God feels like Punishment Beach. You know it’s meant to be incredible, that the promise of abundant life is for you, and yet you punish yourself with striving, trying to earn the un-earnable, losing sight of the promise of love and slipping on the seaweed of lies that draws your eyes down to the danger, not up to the hope.

And then you join in a prayer prayed through the centuries.

‘Come, Holy Spirit.’

***

Formation is never-ending. God is not a God of the gaps when faith and reason kiss each other. Our ‘yes’ is a gift of grace where it’s no longer about living for God but living in Him; where you look for the work of God, not saying I will work for God.

In community, prayers you absent-mindedly prayed before you came are beautifully and joyfully answered. In fear of going down the steep hill, unsure as to whether you’ll make it back up again, someone offers their hand and you realise it’s okay to take it. You take the permission to be vulnerable and in enters God. It stings. He goes deeper. It’s agony. Why now, God? Why here? Because you don’t go into the wounded places alone.

We choose to live transparent lives; we choose to trust. Sometimes you have to bleed in the intimate public that is intentional community. God shows his love for you through other people. The people you laugh with, cry with, share with, listen with, pray with, sing with, serve with, praise with, dance with, be in silence with. And the gift of their trusting you with their story feels like the myhrr laid at Jesus’ feet, a gift, a treasure.

‘What is Jesus saying?’

‘I have never left you.’

‘And do you believe him?’

It’s not about emotions. But it is about trust. And risk. And freedom. You are worthy of love just because of who you are. When you all journey together, you gently wrestle the links of each person’s chains from them. It might be a long journey, but that’s okay. We’re all here, together. We offer our trust and say again ‘I choose you.’

And so at Punishment Beach, I found no punishment. Only mercy, and compassion, the whisper of God and the shouts of my community in chorus: ‘I love you.’

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Wax Strips And Wittenberg Nails

Office food

The office snack bowl: bringing together health-conscious head of fundraising and the rest of us who just want chocolate.

A friend of mine (and I genuinely do mean a friend, this isn’t a story about me that I’m embarrassed to admit is about me) was waxing her moustache. She applied the wax strip, smoothed it down, and prepared to pull. She began to pull it, decided it was too painful, so left it and went to bed. The next morning she woke up, had wax which had hunkered down and brought in several strands of hair from her head for good measure but had decided to divorce the strip of paper. That her face is now wax free (also hair free) is the result of perseverance and repeated exclamations of pain.

What is my point? Other than wanting to stress that this is not a personal anecdote because I am a boss at willingly ripping hair out of my body in acquiescence to patriarchal aesthetic standards. My point is this: unity hurts, but not as much disunity does. 

It’s Reformation Day (if you’re a church history nerd). It’s also Hallowe’en (if you’re into chocolate and exceptional grammar). This year Reformation Day is a bit of a big deal because it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There was a time when I could tell you a lot about the 95 theses, but that time was a first year undergraduate module on medieval and reformation theology and over time, the nuances of reformation history have been replaced by other, more exciting (and useful) theological facts. Anyway, long story rendered exceedingly short and majorly simplified: there was a colossal church schism in the West and, much like the schism with the East, our ecclesiology since then has been an almighty spit in the face of the call to be the Body of Christ. (I told you this was over-simplified, please don’t shout at me, I’m a theological ethicist, not a church history expert).

As it’s the 500th anniversary, there’s been much more of a buzz around Reformation Day than perhaps there usually is. Across my networks, opinion is slightly divided. My broadly Protestant Facebook friends are very happy about the Reformation and my more Catholic-leaning Twitter world is slightly less enthusiastic.

Say a miracle was to happen and Rome and everyone else reunited, and then West reunited with East, it would be amazing! Wouldn’t it? The church coming together as one body… although, if you’re an ordained woman or an ordained man who would want to say “ordained woman,” how idyllic will unity be in that instance? Can you even get unity through that chasm?

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. In genuine unity, you see that every human being is in the image of Christ, you capture just a glimpse of God’s love for them, and your care and compassion for them becomes consuming and forever unfulfilled to completion due to the postlapsarian condition. I’ve only been in the Community of St Anselm for a few weeks, but that vow I made ‘I choose you’ to my fellow community members has unequivocally become ‘I love you.’

On my lunch break, I think about the resident members sharing the peace with one another before they celebrate the Eucharist. As the majority of my colleagues come into the office around 9am, my mind is drawn to my fellow non-resident members going into their various places of work. Through Twitter, I see where in the world my Abbot is and I pray for him. My Sharing Group WhatsApp buzzes and I am reminded of these people who opened their lives to me and I to them and the humbling yet empowering privilege that is. I scroll through the notes on my phone and come across the words written down after time with my spiritual companion, words straight from God that sear through my inner being, the fire of divine love. And then I remember that even though our ultimate authority is on the throne, in this temporal realm she belongs to Rome while I belong to Canterbury, that whenever someone says ‘we all share in one bread,’ I can no longer say that without feeling crippling pain because she and I cannot share in one bread. 

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. Ask the God who hung on a cross until he died.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

I liked the Eucharist a heck of a lot more than I did before I donned an alb, took a cross, and said ‘I choose you.’

Disunity destroys your ability to see the image of Christ in another. Disunity distorts what truly matters, it values things over people. Disunity revels in jealousy and greed and anger. Disunity treats the cross like a game of capture the flag. Disunity says ‘this is my body, broken for some of you.’ Disunity would have been a full stop after the gates of Eden closed. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens. God makes us garments and clothes us. He covers our shame but we still feel acutely that shame. But I’d rather feel that than death. Disunity brings death.

Unity hurts; to turn to the person who has wounded you and say ‘peace be with you’ can be utter agony. But disunity, it might feel gratifying now, it might shirk the responsibility of reconciliation in the present, it might seem like all you are missing is a toe here and a finger there, but the end result is a pain unendurable.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

‘I Love You’

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Community of St Anselm 2017/18.

Yesterday was the commitment service for the Community of St Anselm. It was wonderful and moving and inspiring and humbling. There are so many things to pick out from it to reflect on, but forgive me for being selfish and wanting to keep some of those things between me, God, and my brothers and sisters in the Community. One of the things that has struck me when speaking to people who’ve been in the Community in previous years is that they have talked a lot about how brilliant and transformative the experience has been, but they have kept the finer, more intimate details to themselves, and I find myself very sympathetic to this. In what I’m sure will be a year of challenge and change, some things God says are just too intimate and precious to cast out in the abyss of the internet.

But here are a few reflections on yesterday:

Joy. One of the things I love about our Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is how he exudes joy. After we had processed out following the service, he smile was wide and his enthusiasm was infectious. There was a real sense of joy among us all and for me, the joy had trumped the anxiety I initially felt.

On the train down to London, I was re-reading the Rule of Life and the person sat next to me, a lady from Minnesota, asked me what on earth it was, so I explained all about the Community. Her questions were things like ‘so you have to think about religious things all the time?’ ‘You have to cut yourself off from the world?’ ‘You have to follow all these rules?’ And there is a certain amount of limiting myself involved in this year: sacrifice of time and money, the journey of descents, committing to community life and the quotidian recognition of my sin, their sin, my repentance, their repentance, my ‘I choose you,’ their ‘I choose you.’ But the kenotically-transfigured life can be a conduit of deep joy. And the service revealed just a glimpse of that.

Trust. We committed to trust God, to trust each other, to trust those who lead our Community. Trust is hard. Trust is risky. Trust is life-giving. To choose to trust someone and to have someone choose to trust us is a remarkable thing. The cross we now all wear around our necks is a sign of that committing to trust made tangible. In the service, the words preceding being given our crosses were these:

Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Members of the Community of St Anselm, I invite each of you to take this cross and wear it as a constant reminder of your obedience to his command. Put it on each morning as a sign, each day, that you will choose this path. Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Carry the cross outside these walls and share God’s deep love, proclaiming his kingdom in word and deed.

Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Dare to trust the God who saved you and saved the world. Dare to trust.

Love. When our Dean preached a homily at our first eucharist service a few days ago, he said he had asked God what he wanted to say to us. ‘Tell them ‘I love you.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

No better words have ever been heard.

Here’s to a year of joy, here’s to a year of risk. Here’s to a year of God saying ‘I love you’ as we say the same to one another. Here’s to a year which sets the course for a lifetime. Here’s to a year in God’s time.

So, Why Celibacy?

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Life plot twist.

‘So, why celibacy?’

This isn’t necessarily one of the first questions you expect to be asked by one of your new housemates shortly after you’ve moved in and part-way through a corporate Netflix binge. Then again, I was only allowed to become the new housemate on strict instruction that I didn’t get engaged within a month of moving in. (It’s been nearly two months, I’ve kept my word). In fact, far from suddenly getting engaged, I informed my new housemates that I was becoming a sort of nun. Somehow, despite that, they still let me move in.

‘So, what is it exactly?’ That’s been the most common question.

The provocative answer: well, I am becoming a sort of nun for a year. The most annoying thing about that is I spent four years of life running open days for a theology department where I categorically denied that the only career opportunity open to theology graduates was being a nun. Side note: let me tell you about all my transferable skills…

I’m embarking on something new born from the wellsprings of the ancient, the Community of St Anselm led by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I’m going to be a non-resident member, which will mean continuing with the day job, getting to know the train from Oxford to Paddington and back incredibly well, and, well, those are the only things I know with certainty. There’s a rule of life to follow and I’ve re-read parts of Cur Deus Homo by the man himself (Anselm, not J-Welbz) in a move that made me nostalgic for THE1060.

I don’t know what this year is going to be like or really what it is going to look like. I know a couple of people who’ve done it in previous years and their faces light up and they gush when asked about it. Right now, I find I am incredibly apprehensive. The desire to go deeper and to be really changed, to encounter God in new and profound ways seemed like an awfully good idea at the time, but now it feels terrifying.

There are two reasons for this:

What if God doesn’t speak to me?

What if He does?

I had a tutor at university who was genuinely such a lovely man but who couldn’t cope with silences. This meant that every time he asked our first year lecture class a question about philosophy of religion, he answered it himself within seven seconds. Once he tried to go longer and I don’t remember a more uncomfortable five-minutes-felt-like-five-hours of my life. I do empathise; the teenagers in my youth group are exceedingly vocal about Grand Theft Auto but are overcome with muteness whenever I utter the words ‘let’s pray, shall we?’ But it’s a similar thing that I often have with God. I can talk about God for a long time. I have three theology degrees which have resulted in roughly 600,000 words written about God. But I can still find myself thinking God is giving me the silent treatment when I’ve only given him about ten seconds in which to speak.

Silence will form a key part of St Anselm life. On my application form, I spoke of how apprehensive I was about this part, how cautious and intimidated I am by silence, the fear that God won’t speak.

But now, it is not so much the silence I simultaneously fear and long for, but the voice that breaks through the silence.

‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

It’s easy enough to say.

‘See I am about to do something in Israel that will makes the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.’

And that right there is the hard, terrifying, uncomfortable, direction-changing , life-giving, Spirit-imbibing part. 

But, maybe that’s why we do this in community. I can say ‘Lord, I am listening,’ but if my ears start to tingle, well that’s where you don’t want to go it alone, that’s where you need those people who have committed themselves publicly to loving you, and you them.

Here we go. A year in God’s time. God, where you lead me, I will follow. God, where you call me, I will go. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

***

If you need a laugh 10/10 recommend watching a hapless evangelical (me) try and work out how to put on an alb.