a good shake

November 2, 2014

Part of my job is visiting churches around the city, taking a little slot in the Sunday service to talk about my work. I like it and I don’t like it. Sometimes I am offered five minutes, squeezed in between the children’s address and the announcements. Sometimes, like today, I am virtually handed the whole service and asked to preach, pray and bless. The good bit is the curiosity of visiting different traditions and seeing how they do things, and (honestly, very rarely) being touched by the teaching or worship. It’s nice to make links and attract new volunteers for my charity. It also helps me to understand this place better, and I recognise how joined-up my life is becoming here when I meet people who ask me if I know so-and-so from x school or y church or z charity and it turns out that the answer is yes.

Then there are the parts I dislike. The husband unit is usually kind enough to accompany me to these services (repayment for all of those years of my tagging along with him) and, from time to time, the church I visit is so overcome to have a theology PhD student/ministry candidate  in their midst that they forget that I am the guest, and they spend my entire visit fawning over him, and I wonder why I am there. These are usually the churches that are unknowingly anti-women. Then there are the ones that are clearly and distinctively anti-women and they make a big song and dance about how whatever message I bring is not a sermon, but a ‘word’ or ‘announcement’, and I watch from the pulpit as they sweat with vague regret about having invited me in the first place. Then there are the bitter old dears who’ve been singing the same hymns for 60 years and don’t like the cut of my jib. It is essential that they say something to let me know that my work (with young offenders) is not their cup of tea. “Oh, I’d just like to give those thugs a good shake!” <insert tinkling wealthy old-lady laugh as she adjusts her poppy brooch> “Oh yes,” I reply, “A good shake is exactly what they need. Forget love, compassion and good humour. Roughing them up will solve their problems!”

They have absolutely no idea how violent they are.

But then there are days like today, you know, where post middle-aged people come with tears in their eyes and say how someone gave them a chance once and it changed everything, or the people who grip your arm and say they’re inspired. Whether the inspiration can last beyond the church doors I don’t know, but hey, time will tell.

growing or shrinking

March 11, 2014

A sincere thank you to all who replied to my last post. The responses came in floods – hundreds of views, new followers, texts, emails, phone calls and conversations in person. I was really surprised and touched. Thanks for being friends and well wishers (in that you mean me no particular harm).

One friend who does not identify as a Christian asked me if I was saying that my faith was growing or shrinking. I was really surprised by that question, too.

The answer is complex.

The Christian life is one that pursues sanctification. Sanctification is the process of the pursuit of holiness. Holiness is fucking hard, man, and apparently involves a lot of not using the word fuck. Holiness, and I have encountered it, is beautiful. It is virtue embodied, and it is usually very hard-won, but it is more than just that. It is bright and free and kind, and it delights to spend time worshipping God and in service of his people. It gets angry at the right things and forgives everything else. As I strive to live gently in a violent world (inside a violent body with a violent heart in it) I am striving for sanctification.

I am watching my husband be sanctified. He is better today than he was five and ten years ago. Smarter, kinder, gentler, brighter, gooder. He is unrecognisable from fifteen years ago, where all those virtues were little seeds in him, and now they are young trees that jut out his orifices.

So is my faith growing or shrinking? It’s hard to say. I remain as faithless as ever. I remain weak in virtue and bursting at the seams with self interest. I am regularly seduced by bullshit and the delusion that I can control my life.

What does seem to grow though is my view of God. My view is more generous than it used to be. God seems bigger and wider and that cannot be because he has changed. It’s a question of perspective.

Father Ted can explain it better than I can:

I suppose I am a little closer to him than before. It isn’t that my faith is bigger, it’s that I am allowing the object of my faith to take up more of my landscape. I hope that clears things up a little.

the best imitation of myself

February 18, 2014

I realised quickly after moving to Aberdeen that I have a severe problem with trusting God.

That might sound very twee or commonplace but it really isn’t supposed to. Christians are always bleating about trusting God: ‘dependence on God’, ‘having faith’ and many other generic terms of Evangelicalese. I’ve always felt that I could do with having a bit more trust in God, sure, who couldn’t? But that all things considered, I was probably quite good at trusting.

Not so.

It turns out I don’t trust him at all. I strive very hard and put as many things in place as I possibly can to create a sense of safety. I have Plan B in place for when Plan A fails, and Plan C for when Plan B fails, and lots of alcohol for when Plan C fails. Then I have a cry and a bit of a meltdown and lather, rinse, repeat. Not so much trust as survival and a fragile self-belief.

When I moved here I gradually sank into a depression. I struggled to get out of bed. Once up I struggled to shower and get dressed. Once dressed I struggled to prepare meals or take a walk. I applied for job after job in my pyjamas on the couch. I went to volunteering, only just about managing to get myself washed and dressed for that weekly appointment, staying glued to the computer until the very last possible minute. Despite all this time on the computer, I would procrastinate replying to emails and text messages – duties that sat like lumps of raw dough in the pit of my stomach – because I could not bear to verbalise the staleness of my days to my friends at home.

To be honest, that has pretty much been the on-off pattern of the last six years, since I first lost my job at the start of the Irish recession. So nothing particularly new.

What was new however was being stripped of a support system. No friends, no church, no family, no nothing. The cultural wasteland that is this oil-drenched city couldn’t even offer me the consolation of coffee shops, museums to be explored, artisan markets etc. Being stripped of everything that usually acted as consolation to me for the pain of having no clear purpose and no good ‘job of work’ to do, became excruciating, and I began to feel desperate.

One day I spoke to one of my friends on the phone about this for a long time. Well, really, she did all the talking. She called. For me it was like therapy: I would gladly have paid a hundred pounds for it. For about an hour she just exhorted me to cry out to God for a ‘lifeline’. I said very little, tears and snot rolling down my face and splashing onto my dirty hooded sweatshirt as I sat curled on the sofa listening to her. She pleaded with me to do business with God: to ask him for what I wanted, to trust that he would provide. When our conversation finally ended, it was like the last drop of a hot toddy sliding down my throat and then I felt a terrible emptiness. She sent me a message within minutes with a scripted prayer that she had written for me: talk about interceding. She told me to read aloud the words if I just could not pray for myself. She sensed my stuckness and that I needed a bit of mothering. She understood my inability to ask God for what I needed when I knew all along that while he could give it, he might not. That’s so much worse than not being able to give. I realised in this inability to approach God once and for all that it was because I do not trust him at all.

So where is this going? Do you think I began to trust him? No, that would have been too simple. Instead of beginning to trust, I began to feel really, really angry with him instead. Good.

In my life, as in the life of so many people, amongst the flowers, lots of bad and painful things have happened to me and around me. Some unbearable things have happened. There have been dreadful losses and unsolvable problems. In all of my struggles I have never felt genuinely angry with God. 

Until now.

And wow the rage was strong. I had a good long, protracted rant and rave at him. To use an Irish expression, I fucked God out of it from a height.  One night in the middle of my burning rage a person I barely knew came over for dinner and I burst into tears at the table and interrupted her to demand why God revealed himself over and over in her life, miraculously answering prayers and for me he can’t be bothered. It was the most embarrassing dinner ever.

And then for some reason, to my outraged and utter surprise, he started to respond to me, in multiple and layered ways.

Not to disappoint but that is definitely a tale for another day.

And it occurred to me, in seeing these responses from God, responses I had asked for and longed for and hoped for and almost always failed to ask for, it occurred to she who can not and does not trust the God she has purported to follow for the last fifteen years, a God that she has torn her life apart for in the quest of the following – it occurred to her, to me, that all he is asking for is the actual, real me to be stripped bare before him instead of half-heartedly offering him the version of myself that I can tolerate.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I am being rewarded for fucking God out of it from a height. I’m just telling you a story.

Sometimes I feel that the city I am living in has to be one of the worst in Europe. So much money and so much poverty. So much ugliness and darkness. Such a booming sex industry while little cottage industries fail. So much vomit on the streets at night. So many alcoholics and heroin addicts and crying mothers because their children are not with them. It could swallow you up. And here I am in it hearing from God and feeling new things: things like excitement mingled with fear, and determination mingled with hope. I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what I am talking about at all. All I know is that I got really real with God and suddenly he is getting really real with me. Maybe it will all tumble down tomorrow, maybe not. But here it is. And here I am. And here’s I Am.

the ten series: two songs

October 14, 2013

If I thought choosing four books was hard? Well that ain’t nothin’ on choosing two songs out of all the many songs that have moved me. I don’t know how to make these choices. It would have been much easier to have ten songs and two secrets, although that probably would have been much less interesting for you the reader.

This whole ten-series thing is very ego-centric, so I hope you’ll forgive an indulgence where I talk about two songs that I love that I’ve sang at special moments. Having said that, I did not write the songs so can take absolutely no credit. Your relationship to a song changes when you participate in it rather than just listening. Its story becomes a bit of your story.

1. She Moved Through the Fair

Like many others, this song has been a party piece of mine for years. I have one or two friends who love to hear it and always ask me to sing it, and I love to oblige. I love the vocal trills and the sad storytelling and the lilt and the invitation to everyone present to join in at the key moment – it will not be long, love, til our wedding day. It’s a folk funeral ballad, based on an old poem altered by Padraic Colum, and sung to a traditional medieval tune, popular with travellers, and often mistakenly sung at weddings up and down the country.

One very sad day, a strange funeral day, I somehow found myself on the beautiful stage of the round auditorium of Old Cabell Hall in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a thousand seats rising up and around me, singing this song through tears as the faculty bluegrass band strummed behind me. The audience was just a handful friends.

I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

Here is a haunting version by the inimitable Sinead O’Connor.

2. The Trumpet Child, by Over the Rhine

This is an apocalyptic or eschatological song – in other words, a song about the end of the world. Its focus is the child who blows the trumpet that signifies the renewal of all things… in short, the hope of the Christian.

I’ve been asked to sing at over a dozen weddings over the years but this is the one that stands out in my mind. The bride and groom requested it for the church service, and I had the great privilege and pleasure of singing under the direction and guidance of the immensely talented Craig Skene and his band and the hired string quartet. The song itself is a carefully crafted work of art and their performance, and mine I suppose, was such that the whole congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end (if you’re not a regular at church, applause during liturgy is very unusual). Spine tingling – and a complete privilege to be part of it. Oh to write a song that good!

The actual performance itself was kindly recorded by someone in the third row with their phone, but the phone couldn’t capture it fully and as a result it’s fuzzy and distorted. But here it is in any case; you get the idea.

girl interrupted

November 13, 2012

Two posts in one week! It must be your birthday. All of you. All of you were born today. Happy birthday!

Before I begin, I’d like to apologise for the banner ads that WordPress have so unkindly put on my site. I do not earn money from these ads. Please install Adblock (an extension for the browser Chrome) if you want to get rid of them.

Now. Official business over.

I’m posting for two reasons: (1) I am avoiding doing my homework and (2) since I last posted, God has intervened in what I can only describe as my despair.

Although I am a reformed Christian, every week at the moment I attend Catholic mass. This is because I work in a prison on Sundays, and the Christian service there is a Catholic one. I love it. I miss my own community’s Sunday services sometimes, particularly the gusto with which they sing and the intensity with which they pray (not to mention the great coffee and cake), but I spend time with my community in other ways, like at ‘home group’ – a weekly bible study with about 10 others where we eat and talk and pray.

On Sunday morning I worshiped at mass with the prisoners as usual. But for me, it was not usual at all. For me, it was a moment of profound spiritual connectedness, experienced in the humblest setting imaginable. There were a number of elements that somehow came together in a silent crescendo in my very being that both chastised and comforted me. The experience turned my heart back in the right direction. I hardly know how to put words on it. Allow me to try.

The first reading was from I Kings 17:10-16. It tells the story of Enough. A woman is afraid to share, because she has so little. In her giving, she receives enough, and plenty more. The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry. The Psalm was 146:7-10. This psalm is, simply put, a song of a thankful heart. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Gospel reading was from Mark 12:38-44. Jesus suggests that his listeners to be wise about those who need to be seen to be important and successful and righteous, but to pay attention to those who, however humble, offer everything that they have, for others. Then, the prisoners’ choir sang a song that I didn’t know. It was based on Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Avid fans of Harry Potter will note that this was what was written on the graves of Harry’s dead parents, although Harry didn’t know what it meant.) And finally the sermon: it was just five minutes long and simple enough for a dull child to comprehend. The priest  invited us to consider that Christ stands in solidarity with us when we suffer and, that it is in giving, not receiving, that we receive.

And the only way that I can describe how I felt through this service was “ministered to”. It was as though the world around me began speaking to the needs of my heart. It is difficult to describe a spiritual experience, but that is what it was. Every piece of scripture spoke deeply to me, girding me with truth. The songs spoke deeply to me, singing lullabies to my grumbling. The sermon pierced me in my self-pity; my “what about me” monologue. The Eucharist nourished me. And the Spirit comforted me with a kind of warmth that pushed tears up out of nowhere to tumble into a prison pew.

My dear friend Eoin asked me recently what it means to have an “identity rooted in Christ”.

It means identifying with Christ before and above and beyond anything else. Before I am a wife, I am a follower of Jesus. Before I am an Irishwoman, a feminist, a daughter, a sister and a friend, I am a follower of Jesus. It means that my worth becomes rooted in what God says about me, in what God has done for me, and not in what I can achieve. My worth is not in my job, or my size, or even my intelligence. It is not in how nice I might be, or how horrible for that matter. It is not in my “good deeds”. My worth  is in and from my Creator, and that is completely liberating.

As this crescendo was bursting in my heart on Sunday morning, I was freed in a large part from my anxiety about this job, that I so wanted (and still so want). I saw with clarity that it really is okay to fail. I saw that I cannot be defined by my job, or my joblessness. My jug of oil is not going to go empty. My God lifts up those who are ‘bowed down’. I can’t join the ranks of those who wish to be successful in the eyes of others, but I’ve got to keeping giving my efforts and convictions everything that I am. And I have remembered (rightly) what my treasure is: it is the unquenchable love of my Father, and I want to live out of that reality, not of the reality that counts PRSI contributions and the age of my car. I am rich beyond measure. I not only have enough, but plenty. And I do not stand alone in suffering, at any moment, however self-indulgent that suffering might be.

And so I was ready, when I did, to get up off my knees, to go and minister to those broken-hearted prisoners, come what may.

And it is just as well that God intervened when he did, because I received the call this evening to confirm that I did not get that job.

there are no foreign lands…

November 3, 2012

… It is the traveler only who is foreign. ~ RL Stevenson

When I was a kid, my parents used to run market stalls on a Saturday or Sunday. We’d load up the car and the trailer the night before, covering our wares with canvas sheeting to keep off the inevitable rain, then rising at 4am to travel to the site and get our stall set up. There was a kind of rustic magic in the whole process. Despite being such unglamorous work, there is something a bit special about working in a market, particularly a working-class market. Cold hands, tea from a thermos, chips from a dirty van with a generator. Rain, chatter, coins. I loved it. I was also free to make my own money if I sourced my own product. I raided my childhood book collection and sold them all off for fifty pence or a pound apiece. Bonus.

My parents however weren’t doing it for the love of it: they were doing it out of sheer necessity. We used to pull in seventy pounds (€90) on an average day: this was around 1993-1998. That was nothing to be sneezed at for a low-income family and easily bought food and household groceries for the four of us for a week.

There was a single element that ever marred it for me. There were some people who regularly showed up at the markets who, I was warned, were violent thieves: people to be watched, but avoided, and certainly never to be crossed. I nervously sidestepped their kids, preferring to wander by myself, and avoided lingering at their stalls. These people were travellers or, as my entire family and community referred to them, knackers.

And just once, a traveller man threatened to beat my dad up if we set up our stall on a patch he had earmarked for himself.

The story above is the single negative experience I have for you from my experience with the travelling community.

This bright Saturday morning, a traveller and his son were extremely kind towards my husband and me. They did us an unnecessary favour that has had a very pleasant pay-off. That’s not all that surprising, because as I am now an adult, and free to decide about people for myself, I have had many positive experiences with the travelling community, and have found them to be, well, human beings. Beautiful, broken, normal. No longer an unknown entity to be feared and avoided; “othered”. There is nothing profound in any of this.

I just wanted to make the little point that it is a welcome relief to be unburdened of my prejudices. It’s a relief to be able to tell people apart and not view them as a type. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be the recipient of their grace and kindness. Being unburdened of prejudice means getting primed for love. This is part of what Christians call “sanctification” – being made more and more like God in his extravagant welcome. It’s good, like.

why i am no longer an apologist

October 21, 2012

If you’re unfamiliar with the expression, an apologist is one who, simply put, defends the faith.

I used to spend a lot of time defending my Christian faith. My own faith, as expressed in community, is a set of beliefs and practices that relate specifically to the Palestinian carpenter Jesus of Nazareth. I am gifted with a measure of cleverness and have cultivated an appearance of confidence so I would lead things, run courses, talk at little seminars. It was all, more or less, an attempt to justify, make credible, something that is fundamentally at odds with nature, something that is in fact, incredible.

And yet, there is a tension there, because I chose to believe what I now not firmly, but deeply, believe because, at the time, its truth seemed inescapable, and its truth seemed to resonate or perhaps, vibrate, with the rhythms of my deepest self. The rhythms of brokenness mixed with love. The rhythms of explosive life tangled in the grip of death. The shards of pain that seem to cut through places made tender by goodness. And so I hold now what I think are the truths with a kind of robust fragility. The truth itself is strong, like muscle, and my grip, weak.

For five years solid I surrendered my love of novels and plunged into Plato and Aristotle and Schopenhauer and and Kant and Nietzsche and Spinoza and Russell and Jung and Hume and Dennett and Arendt and Hegel and Heidegger and Aquinas and Sartre and Marx and Kierkegaard and Scheler and Singer and Descartes and Freud and Kuhn and Rachels and MacIntyre and Taylor and Adorno and Camus and all the rest and still my inexplicable love for this carpenter deepened and sharpened and softened, and still his songs and stories were lullabies to my restless heart. No parent told me to love him, and no teacher cared. But there was and is a flame that burns somewhere in my mind that provides light to everything that I can understand, because of him. And I have to tell people about him sometimes.

This is not something that is easily verbalised. It seems altogether rational to me, but its rationality is not its sum total. Because I am not just a brain; I am a person. And we can talk about chemical reactions and drives to procreate, but nothing can explain the deep rush of affection that surges up from my gut when I see my husband and partner of the the last fifteen years beside me on a Sunday night, drowsy and rumpled in slippers.

So I am no longer an apologist. But ask me what’s the reason for the hope that I have within me, and yes, I can work with that.