What’s in a story?

It’s obvious that our lives are shaped by stories. Stories from the people we meet, stories we read in newspapers and novels, the meta-narratives we choose to shape our lives and now stories that proliferate on our facebook and twitter feeds.

Church is no different. We read stories from our scriptures, our liturgy retells our founding story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our sermons often contain stories and even our intercessions can be a way of telling a story about individuals in the congregation.

This morning at Church our vicar interviewed two women who had just finished a year’s course on discipleship. One of them said that the best thing about the course had been hearing the stories from other participants about what God what doing in their lives. This made me prick up my ears.

For a while now I have been thinking that it is a shame we don’t hear more stories from people in the congregation about how they experience God outside church in whatever it is they spend most of their life doing: parenting, working, creating, socialising or praying. In my tradition there is little room for this kind of testimony although it is sometimes woven through a sermon.

I would like to hear more of this because I think sometimes as congregation we can feel that we are the audience seeing and hearing what God can do but it seems like that activity of God is limited to those of us who preach and lead. Hearing a range of stories from a range of people would remind us that we are all the people of God and God is active among us all, shaping us and guiding us day by day.

It might be clumsy liturgically, it might be hard to work out who speaks and for how long and of course we might hear the wrong kind of story – stories that don’t fit our understanding of God, stories that discourage us, stories that leave us hopeless or stories that simply glorify the teller.

The theologican James Hopewell discovered that congregations can be identified by the stories they tell. Carrying out his research partly from his hospital room while he had cancer, he categorised four kinds of storyteller: the tragic, the ironic, the romantic and the comic.  You can read about them here.

After a while of trying to kid myself  that I was a positive person, I realised that most of my storytelling is  ironic – the hardest tone in which to communicate the gospel we were told. It is an understanding of the world that is based on a rejection of the supernatural and seeks to show the world the way it is. Hopewell gives this example of someone with a ironic world view talking about religion: “I think we got to keep up with people. We got to know about the world and what’s going on. We have to help people live in this world. Can’t just talk about what Jesus did a long time ago. We have to know the facts about here and now and apply the teachings of Jesus to these.”

While this was not my full understanding of the world, it was the tone I often used to talk about faith and I resolved to monitor and change the dominant tone of my story-telling. I still love a good story that demonstrates the vagaries of the world. If you have ever heard me on my favourite topic – holidays – you know that I love to explain that wherever and whenever we go as a family we always have rubbish weather. I have stories of the worst floods in 60 years, campsite evacuations, freak storms etc

But I also hope I tell more positive stories about what God has done and is doing, about the wonderful things friends and neighbours can do together, about the hope we find in this city and the depth of faith we share across our traditions.

In the last few weeks I have found it hard to respond to the hundreds of stories on my Facebook feed about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. I share my friends’ outrage that hundreds of civilians are being killed, that the conflict is lop-sided and the context of occupation, settlement-building and discrimination is unjust.  But so many stories that champion one side seem to demonise the other. And what is more alarming is that many of these stories spread like wildfire but they may not be true. For example, this morning I saw a story about a TV screen that had been sent up on a Tel Aviv beach for Israelis to watch the shelling of Gaza. It had been shared thousands of times. Scrolling through the comments it emerged this picture was almost certainly a fake – a doctored image of the screen set up on Copacabana beach for the world cup.

In much the same way, our city has recently been subject to distorted images and manipulative storytelling as the media whipped up a storm over ‘extremism’ in our schools. Whole communities  have felt villified and flames of fear and suspicion were ignited with subtle innuendo, by the association of ideas and careless use of language.

I think social media is a fanastic way of telling stories and I love to hear about what is on my neighbour’s mind, to eavesdrop on the thoughts of my friends. In fact I am addicted to it. I have learnt so much from you and had so many ideas challenged, stereotypes dismissed and understanding deepened.

So if you are one of my many friends who care deeply about  the conflict in Israel Palestine, please don’t think that I don’t want to know or that  I don’t care. I do. Passionately. But I am  trying to be careful  about the stories I tell, the stories I like and the stories I share.

This clip tells a story of former enemies discovering the bond of humanity in the midst of loss, conflict and grief. There are many others that I have seen shared that give a glimpse of hope, a taste of reconcilliation and tell a story of hope. Please keep sharing those too.


It’s simply a matter of taste

Today in church I  spoke to someone  who told me that her husband had left the service as he could not bear the noise the children were making – his sense of hearing was so good that the banging of a toy was unbearable to him. I immediately wanted to judge him for being unresilient and to leap to the defence of children who I regard as a intergral part of the congregation. But then I was suddenly reminded of the time a homeless man had wanted to give me a hug and as my rather good sense of smell  picked up a number of  distinctive odours, I flinched and stiffened, leaving him hurt and confused. ( I can’t tell you in how many services I have been distracted by the faint smell of ‘rat’ seeping through the ancient heating systems.)

Over a year ago I included this quote in  from Evelyn Underhill in a sermon while preaching at Queens: “The true rule of poverty consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interests, and deflect it on its road to God–whether these things be riches, habits, religious observances, friends, interests, distastes, or desires–not in mere outward destitution for its own sake. It is attitude, not act, that matters; self-denudation would be unnecessary were it not for our inveterate tendency to attribute false value to things the moment they become our own.”

What has remained with me from thinking about this phrase is that I cannot afford to hold on to my distastes if I truly want to love God and my neighbour. I expect for many of you that is obvious but I had grown up thinking that good taste – and therefore a strong sense of distaste – was an important thing to cultivate. Surely its good to be able to choose wine that others will enjoy, create a sitting room in which  people feel comfortable and blend spices to create a wonderful meal to noursish family and friends.

But I guess what ‘taste’  often does is enable you to belong to one group in society by understand and replicating the ‘taste’ of a particular culture and group. It becomes a way of dividing – of deciding who or what is ‘in’ and who or what is ‘out’ using arbitrary criteria that do not reflect God’s inclusive love for all people, all ethnicities and all cultures.  Thus it enchains the spirit, divides it interests and deflects it on the road to God.

This Ramadhan I suggested to my husband that we should try and be vegan. We lasted about two days. I found it left me unable to accept hospitality that was warmly and generously offered and my self-imposed sort-of-but-not really fast seemed far less important than being able to accept hospitality. But I wonder if there is a question of integrity that is an issue. How do I appreciate with my daughter  the latest band she is keen on when to my ‘taste’  it is barely music? What about fashion that reminds me of the awfulness of the 80s or modern art that is loved by a friend but looks meaningless to me? Does God see the good and creative in all these things or are there some colours that really should never be worn together, some notes so discordant and some painting so pointless that there is nothing to appreciate? How do I stop feeling pleased when a friend admires something I have chosen or a guest compliments me on my cooking (unlikely!)?

I remember when the children were toddlers, more than 10 years ago, one of them asking why God made knives when knives hurt people and my husband explaining that knives could be used to do good or to do harm and they were in themselves neutral. It was the way they were used that was either constructive or destructive. I wonder if the same is true of taste. Perhaps it does not matter what we instictively like or dislike as long we do not ‘attribute false value’ to those insticts  of our own as if they are intrisically better than the instincts of another.


The Freedom of Fasting

Hearing today’s collect at Evening Prayer reminded me why I was right at the beginning of my second, year-long ‘fashion fast’: “Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts….: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all your creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God…”

Sometimes we need to give the Spirit a helping hand and I certainly knew the tyranny of shopping was not settting me or my wallet free and was probably not doing much to contribute to the liberation of all creation. Its all too easy to shop and eBay from your phone and the thrill of a bidding war as well as  delight in a bargain meant parcels of various sizes and shapes were regularly appearing through our letterbox. So two weeks ago I realised it was time for drastic action.

From 2009-2010 I had a year buying no clothes (well I cracked after 11 months in TopShop in Solihull) and I found it helpful on loads of levels. (Eg I was able to close my wardrobe doors, it meant I could spend money on a fabulous family holiday and a party to celebrate our joint 40ths and I could admire clothes in shops and adverts with feeling like I needed to acquire them.)

This second attempt was triggered by a number of things. Firstly I just had too many clothes even after clearing out things I hardly wore and I things I can no longer wear. Secondly it made financial sense to  stop shopping. Thirdly I thought it would discipline me not to expand into a new dress size and fourthly it was a response to our final weekend at theological college which focused on the care of creation and climate change.

But what I found in the first week was that I switched my buying activity from clothes to bags, shoes, beauty products etc so as I came home with a new handbag I did not need I realised I had got to up my game and quit buying anything that is an inessential. (My father thought that should include wine but I decided that things you buy in order to share and build relationships were probably ok – so that’s food, coffees, drinks and presents).

In Birmingham at the moment a lot of people are talking about fasting and some of the things I have heard said have impressed me very much. I have heard many people say they prefer Ramadan in the summer rather than the winter because in winter you basically just skip lunch and that is not drastic enough to shift one’s focus to God and compassion. I have also heard people say that one should give as one fasts – and particularly one should give things that it hurts to let go off so I hope that while I am not consuming I don’t become mean and ungenerous. And many people have said its not the giving up that is important but the change in focus that accompanies it. There is no point in a fast that leads to self-absorption or pride but rather by denying oneself of something you should become less interested in yourself – and I really hope that happens, because in all honesty, theological training is a time when one can become just a little bit inward-looking.

Last Monday it was my privilege to spend the evening with a group of Muslim and Christian women and break the fast together at an event called an Iftar. There was a real joy in the sharing of food and prayers but many of the women who had been fasting for 19 hours did not want to eat much more than some fruit and perhaps yoghurt. That is a lesson I need to carry with me for a year so I don’t spend my first weeks of ordained ministry bidding like crazy on eBay and stalking summer sales on fashion websites.

The first weekend of July is full of celebrations in our family. In 2015 it will be the weekend of my ordination, my niece and nephews third birthday party, my parents 53rd wedding anniversary and my God-daughters 12th birthday. It will also be my first trip to the shops to buy two outfits – one for my ordination and one for a massive party afterwards. And then, after that, I will settle down to a sensible shopping diet of mainly fruit and yoghurt that doesn’t cost the earth but speaks of the freedom of the children of God.