Adventure ahoy (pt. 1)

It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but in 3 days time I’ll be on a plane to California to visit my friend Mr. Beatton, and my other friend Ms Vogt. A few days at the end of my fortnight away will be spent mooching around in San Francisco, but the main point of my visit is to fulfil a long-term dream of mine to go visit Bethel church in Redding. I’m expecting great things, lots of God and some perspective on my life – I think in general different cities carry different vibes, and in order to get a bit of headspace you need to get out of your regular environment, but there’s something extra special about going to an environment that is so infamously glory-ridden as Bethel. I will surely be bringing loads of stories back with me. Bill Johnson has been quite possibly THE most influential teacher in my spiritual journey thus far, and here’s why:

 

Review: ‘It Chooses You’, by Miranda July

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Miranda July has been hovering round the top of my imaginary list of favourite artists for a while now (I don’t have an actual tangible ‘favourite artists’ list that I have written down, just a nebulous collection of people whose work I admire – anyway, the point is, July is up there). I stumbled upon her work almost by accident when I went down to Dublin with some acquaintances for a Sleater-Kinney gig. We spent the afternoon hovering near the venue and outside the stage door eating our packed lunches, hoping to run into the band members; fortuitously, it worked. We met Carrie Brownstein on her way to rehearsal, and after gushing and getting autographs, we engaged in a bit of smalltalk and she told us she’d just come from an arthouse cinema up the road where she’d seen a great little film called ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ by a woman called Miranda July and that we’d love it. I later learned that July and Brownstein were good friends (July directed Sleater-Kinney’s video for ‘Get Up’) so it was as much a sneaky plug as it was chit chat. Anyway, we had a few hours to kill before the gig and groupie-dom was wearing thin, so we decided to check it out. Thus began an enduring fascination. ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’  was equal parts beautiful and creepy and I had no idea what to make of it at first, but I knew there was something special about the way that July saw the world.

Fast-forward to 7 years later and Miranda July has released a bunch more material to help me grasp her mesmerising but elusive worldview. After MYEWK came ‘No-One Belongs Here More than You’, a collection of short stories with an inventive accompanying website, some web stuff, a crowd-sourced art project (‘Learning to Love You More’), another film (‘The Future’) and now a book based on July’s procrastination techniques while writing ‘The Future’. Ok, end of backstory, start of review.

‘It Chooses You’ touches upon many of the same themes dealt with in ‘The Future’ – ie. procrastination, human connection and the midway-between-quarter-and-mid-life-crisis that the age 35 represents. The book begins in the summer of 2009 with July nearing the completion of her screenplay, but suffering from hopeless writers’ block. To procrastinate, she starts reading junkmail, including a classifieds paper called the PennySaver, and begins wondering about the characters that may lurk behind the adverts. Rather than simply leaving it as a hypothetical musing, July actually phones up and arranges interviews with the people, and what starts as a procrastinatory device actually becomes a project in its own right.

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Each chapter is centred around a different interview and flows effortlessly between transcript and July’s prose, contextualising how she’s feeling, how the film is progressing and whatever profound insights she happens to be having. Interspersed throughout are candid photos by Bridget Sire, bringing the characters and situations to life. Image

If you haven’t got an idea about July’s writing style from the photos, here are some quotes. You should be able to figure out from these if it’s your cup of tea or not:

“…of all the people that I met, Domingo was certainly the poorest. Not the saddest, not the most hopeless, but the person around whom I felt most creepily privileged around. We drove home, in my Prius. If I interacted only with people like me, then I’d feel normal again, un-creepy. Which didn’t seem right either. So I decided that it was okay to feel creepy, it was appropriate, because I was a little creepy. But to feel only this way would be a terrible mistake, because there were a million other things to notice.”

“Despair was gathering. Only it didn’t feel like the sentence Despair was gathering; it wasn’t impressively dramatic like dark clouds before a thunderstorm. It was pathetic and tedious, like a person you don’t want to be around.”

“My inquiry was open-ended, but it wasn’t pretend, I wasn’t in a fairytale or a fable. I shut my eyes and absorbed the silent whoomp that always accompanies this revelation. It’s the sound of the real world, gigantic and impossible, replacing the smaller version of reality that I wear like a bonnet, clutched tightly under my chin. It would require constant vigilance to not replace each person with my own fictional version of them.”

What I love about July’s work is not just her unique insights into life, absorbing as they are. It’s the fact that any time I read, scroll through or watch anything she’s done, my mind is set alight with ideas and the desire to make something, anything. That, to me, is great art. It doesn’t stand aloof, setting itself apart as Something You Could Never Do. It spreads, like bacteria, and multiplies itself, triggering synapses and sparking creativity in others. It invites you in. This morning I was sitting in Browns Coffeehouse, reading the last third of the book, and I felt like my own creativity had doubled in size.

Incidentally, she did finish her script; in fact, some of the characters she met in the interviews made it into the movie. ‘It Chooses You’ is a lovely insight into the writing process, and will likely make you feel better about your own lack of productivity.

The phone rings in the middle of the night / My father yells “what you gonna do with your life?”

My first year teaching is nearly up – just a seminar and some marking after Easter – and it’s been quite the ride. I guess most of what this year’s been about has been not only getting my head around how to teach, but also reprioritising my life and career and watching my quarter-life crisis loom larger and larger on the horizon. On the face of it, I’ve done quite well for myself; part-time lecturer by the age of 24 (a job title with almost sufficient ponce to forever ward off parental enquiries – actual or projected – about “real jobs”), and when I’m not lecturing I’m working in a haberdashery which I could happily do for the rest of my life.

So, the question is, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? That’s what I’ve been wrestling with. I’ve swung quite wildly between “DO A PHD!” – “DON’T DO A PHD!” -“DEFINITELY DO IT! NOW!” – “DO IT AT CHRIST CHURCH!” – “DO IT SOMEWHERE ELSE!” and other similar clamourings. Here’s the long and short of it:
– Original plan: take the summer to write a proposal then go in for it next academic year (2013)
– Change of plan #1: met up to discuss my idea with Andy Birtwistle who would be my supervisor and is brilliant. Andy was ridiculously encouraging and upon discovering the proposal’s only 1500 words I think “The hell with it, I’ll do it this year!”
– Another colleague suggests I think long and hard about doing it at another institution to avoid the awkward career masochism of having all of your qualifications from the same university. Apparently my academic record is impeccable and I don’t need to rely on being known. Upon receiving similar advice from other trusted people I decide he’s right and set my heart on doing the AVPhD at Goldsmiths. I email the AHRC advisor to ask about funding.
– Reply: “Thank you for your enquiry; while AHRC funding is available across a broad range of courses, the AVPhD is not one of them. We are sorry to send a disappointing reply.”
– Current status: hmmm. I was very excited about that prospect. I’m not sure a full-theory PhD is up my street, mainly because it locks me into teaching. The job security of that type of employment is attractive, but the thought of spending the rest of my life in theory-mode as opposed to actually making stuff doesn’t quite cut the mustard, even though I am better at the theory thus far.

The other day my boss at The Sewing Shop asked me what my goal is. I found it quite hard to pin down; I told her I want to make films – music videos and documentaries, and then I kind of went off on one about how while I know what I want to do and I believe in working hard, I don’t want what I do  to be where I get my identity from/how I don’t believe in striving to make my dreams come true because God’ll sort it all out for me anyway…she stared at me blankly. I always struggle with getting this across, partly because I haven’t got it all figured out myself. I want to be quite upfront about the fact that God’s involved; there’s no way I want people thinking the way I go about my career plans is the same as everyone else because nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, somehow, I struggle to express it properly. You see, it’s not just my father asking what I’m gonna do with my life, it’s my friends, it’s my colleagues…everyone. Me too, but my life is not my own. The God bit’s fairly substantial.

About a year ago, I was visiting my friends from school, who are now living the dream in London. I made a similar blunder in trying to explain the “God+career” thing – it was nearly a year since I had finished my MA and I was working a crappy minimum-wage job with the prospect of lecturing a mere blip on the horizon. I wasn’t freaking out about it at all, even though I wasn’t being creatively fulfilled, because I knew my focus was meant to be on other things (like church, personal growth), and I knew God wanted me in Canterbury for the time being. Trying to explain that to people who’ve never experienced that way of thinking is a challenge, and trying to make it sound appealing…in the end, what I said got misinterpreted as “the church is holding me back from pursuing my dreams”, and I was perceived as unwise. When did pursuing your dreams become the sensible, safe option? I suppose the answer is that I’ve been mainly throwing myself into something more like “pursuing-the-dreams-that-are-bigger-than-your-dreams-but-also-encompass-your-dreams-but-sometimes-they-don’t-for-a-while”, which isn’t really a paradigm that most people have.

I’ve been reading Miranda July’s ‘It Chooses You’ (review coming very soon – July is a personal heroine of mine) and coveting her effortless way of expressing her personal growth and lightbulb moments. Truth is, I don’t have any at the moment. At the moment I am sitting on my new sofa next to my flatmate listening to Local Natives and trying to decide whether to end this blog post with a mini-manifesto of my approach to career-God-dialectics, or to actually think the subject through a bit more and write a proper post on the subject rather than rush to cobble something together. Slow-thinker that I am, I have decided to plump for the latter option; however, in the interests of catching-up, here’s my year of lecturing in tweets:

Hello again

I’ve been feeling the urge to resurrect this blog, although time will tell whether or not I keep up with it. It’s quite difficult when you live with friends! Anyway, quick catch-up. I have two new jobs, plus a mortgage! Number one is, I no longer work at the haberdashery-of-stress-and-inflexibility and now work at the fabric-shop-of-glory that is The Sewing Shop. It’s flexible, I can wear my own clothes, drink coffee, listen to Kylie Minogue AND make cushions and stuff at work. It’s lovely. Second new job is…I’m a freaking lecturer now. As in, running my own module and supervising dissertations. It’s really fun in one aspect, although I really do feel like I’ve been thrown in the deep end and am struggling to get to grips with the core material of the module I’m meant to be heading up. It’s all old-school television stuff, which is interesting for a bit but not something I feel I can really get my teeth into – not to mention no-one’s really shown me how to plan a lecture. No matter – the first- and second-year stuff is really fun (can’t go wrong with auteur theory and spectatorship) and I’m enjoying the practicalities of helping people with their essays/dissertations. Time will tell whether or not it leads anywhere. I could definitely see myself being up for doing this longterm if that proves to be a possibility, provided I get to actually teach things I’m passionate about.

Having a house of my own is also fun; freedom is so valuable to me, so things like painting a feature wall if I fancy it or simply knowing I’m not going to have to up sticks in another 12 months = happy Aideen. We’re also planning (me and my flatmates, that is) on putting a long-time plan of ours into action by putting up a local woman who is homeless. More on that later, perhaps. On top of that, we’re finally getting to host our own cell group, which is a dream come true (although very gestational at present).

Anyway, this is all just to give a decent impression of where I’m at at present and what major-life-events have taken place in the past few months. Hopefully actual content won’t be far behind!

Word.

I haven’t had much time to update this thing lately (by the way, Lent went off the rails weeks ago), but I wanted to highlight a little design blog that has been a major source of delight to me in the past few days. Jim LePage is a graphic designer who decided to do an original design for each book of the Bible, and the results are fantastic. The actual designs themselves are quality, but what I also like is Jim’s honesty and his curiosity. He doesn’t gloss over the gnarlier bits of the Bible or things he doesn’t understand; rather, if something stands out to him (such as the fact that many of the Psalms are about cursing your enemies or his boredom at the minor prophets), he simply makes a feature of it. Yet, despite his sarcastic streak, Jim maintains a sense of reverence and wonder. Take a look:





Epic times with an epic God…or, why Lent matters

A special treat for you all for today, the first day of Lent – my friend Practicing Human has written a guest post on the topic. I’ve decided to do Lent this year in the form of giving up coffee (1 Cor 6:12 – “…I will not be mastered by anything”, etc etc) and making a concerted effort to read about 10 chapters of the Bible a day. Would be interested to hear your thoughts/experiences in the comments. Say a great big welcome to my second guest blogger!

Greetings folks! This post represents my first ever guest-post. I’m quite excited that it is about such a fantastic and wonderful topic: Lent.

It can be an odd thing to find Lent wonderful. And so, perhaps it is worth saying a bit of how I discovered Lent and why I’ve kept with it over the years. I didn’t encounter Lent until my freshman year of high school. On one hand, I knew my Catholic friends occasionally talked about giving things, generally chocolate, up for Lent; on the other hand, I was clueless. My journey with Jesus started in a Lutheran community as I played electric bass on the worship team. That first year, my encounter with Lent was that it was a time for more. We gathered for more services, enjoyed more fellowship, and shared more authentically about our life journeys than any other time of year. I still remember the theme of my first Lenten journey: “Can you drink of this cup?” and I still have the clay pot that held the weekly reminder give-away of the core themes that members in our community discussed. I remember going to that same community on Maudy Thursday, watching the youth group perform the Passion Play, and leaving a darkened sanctuary shattered and confused about the 40-ft black drape that now covered the cross at the back of our sanctuary. On Sunday morning, our congregation was unexpectedly quiet as they entered this darkened sanctuary, the strains from the choir filled the air, and at the first proclamation of “He’s Alive! He’s Alive! He’s Alive and I’m forgiven! Heaven’s gates are opened wide! He’s ALIVE!!!!” the curtain fell, the lights came on, and the trumpets blared.

Not a bad recollection if you consider these events happened 14 years ago.

But, it seems so many people who have been in churches that put Lent on the calendar rarely encounter any joy during this time. And they certainly don’t encounter the sort of kid-in-a-candy-story kind of excitement that I generally associate with the Lenten season. What might be the difference?

It is much easier to reflect on these matters from my own experience and allow you to come to your own conclusions. So that’s my plan.

Reason 1 I love Lent:
In many ways, Lent has become my time to push myself spiritually. Lent carries with it a lot of suggestions about how to explore one’s spiritual life. We find the trinity of teachers: prayer, fasting, and service… or if you feel comfortable with less “churchy” language: Lent means getting connected with God, turning down the station that broadcasts your own needs, and tuning into the needs of others. Ironically, one of my more profound experiences with Lent occurred in the Cambridge Vineyard (in Massachusetts, not the university town in the UK). We were too cool to call our journey “Lent” but we called it “The 40 Days of Faith.” As I remember, one of the big drivers of that journey is that we were gearing up to try to buy property in Boston. The BIG and important thing though is that this 40 Days of Faith season invited our congregation to have faith. Moreover, we evidenced our faith in some pretty neat ways. We spent time trying to discern God’s work in our lives, asking Him to reveal to us the question behind the question: What do you want Jesus to do for you? We spent time fasting because the Bible tells us that the persistent junk present in humanity can only be cleared out by prayer and fasting. And we spent time praying for people we knew who didn’t come to our church that they would encounter God’s blessings on their lives. Not a bad way to go when you really think about it. But then we had a 40 Days of Faith Year 2. What were we aiming for this year? When we looked at where we were after doing this for the first year, we realised that we were not in the same place. At all. That made the goal setting that much harder… and that much more expectant.

So Lent offers me a yardstick because for 40 days, I actually try to follow a rule for practising my faith. A rule, for the uninitiated to the terminology, is a guiding framework and a way to measure how you’re doing. Drawing the parallel to New Years Resolutions, it is mucheasier “to get in shape” if you commit to “go to the gym 3 times a week.” Going to the gym 3 times a week is a rule. It works like a rulerand helps you measure progress. And a good Lenten rule is one that puts your focus on God and the people around you rather than yourself.

Reason 2 I love Lent:
But the real joy in Lent is not so much that I make this personal commitment to this growth season in Christ; the real joy in Lent is that myentire community makes commitment to grow towards Christ. Lent actually came into the life of the Church to remind us that being Christians is not a solo sport.

Many Protestants rightly observe that any discussion of Lent involves talking about something that is not in the Bible. But the Bible really only offers a window into the first 70 or so years of Christians. Revelation, the “youngest” book of the Bible, is ostensibly written between AD90 and 96. At this time, the Roman Empire was still doing a rather bang-up job at totally suppressing the Church. It really wasn’t until after the Edict of Milan in AD318 (when Constantine legalised Christianity) that it was even okay to be a Christian. The Church could now finally start shining Her light from a stable lighthouse rather than having to duck-and-cover everywhere She went. She stood tall, and She shone bright. She shone SO brightly during this time that one of Her biggest mouthpieces was nick-named the Golden-mouthed. If you do a web search for “John Chrysotom” and “Paschal homily,” then you will likely figure out why this guy rocked.

So what does this random Church history lesson have to do with Lent? Everything. Lent emerged because people started coming to Jesus in droves. Lent is the original Alpha Course. Lent is the original seeker-sensitive ministry. Lent is the original small group Bible study investigation. Lest you get on the early Church for a bad name for such dynamic and innovative programme, Lent actually comes from the word “Spring” as in the season of the year that buds forth new life. And what the Church was doing with all of these people coming to Christ during the Lenten season was preparing them for baptism at Easter.

But what happened next is not at all surprising: the people who had encountered the power of God so radically during their preparations for their baptism wanted to keep remembering what they had learned. They wanted to stand alongside the others who were preparing for their baptism. They wanted to do Lent as a whole group, a whole community, a whole family preparing to encounter the risen Christ at Easter.

Within the Orthodox Church, we have a huge emphasis on doing Lent together. We even have a whole series of Sundays before Lent to alert us all to the reality that Lent is coming. When you stand in an Orthodox Church and you hear the story of Zacchaeus, Lent is a mere 4 weeks away! The Church shouts, “Lent is coming! Lent is coming! Prepare yourselves for the season of repentance!” Preparations begin! And it is really important that these preparations begin early in the Orthodox Church because the Church observes a common rule of fasting, abstaining from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and olive oil. That list is also super odd, but it comes form the experience of the first Christians to observe Lent so it is rooted around a Mediterranean diet. And that observation brings me to….

Reason 3 I love Lent:
Lent is not so much about what happens externally as much as it is what happens internally. I entered the Orthodox Church fully in 2009, but I’ve been with Her to observe Lent since 2007. When I first encountered the list of what Orthodox Christians are expected to abstain from, I thought “GAH! What is there left to eat?” But fasting is not about the food.


Orthograph by Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts

We can all too easily miss the point of Lent, which is to show us our desperate need for a loving God. Lent is a season to be mindful of our ability to forgive, to be people of peace, to control our urges, to honour our neighbours as ourselves, to seek after the face of God… And if we make an earnest attempt at these goals, then we realise how easily we fall. We realise just how much we can do nothing without God’s help and His mercy. And we come to rejoice in God’s power and might.

Lent has always been before Easter as a way to offer to God our lives, celebrating His absolute victory over death. We enter into Lent to come out just that much more fully human when we proclaim the glad tidings of the Resurrection. And the grace of God transforms our humble offerings of an attempt to steward our stomachs into a mouth full of praise. We hope that we approach the Fast with a spirit that allows us to soften our hearts so that Christ Himself can come and dwell more fully at the very central part of our being.

Thanks so much for reading! And thank you so much Aideen for hosting these thoughts! A blessed Lenten journey to all.

The pitfalls of Kingdom potential

Okay, so I’m getting really excited by this season of MORE. God seems to be galvanising and bringing into reality things which had been bandied about by our community in theory-land for quite some time (I’ll perhaps share some stories with you next blog post or so). I can see the hand of God cranking up not only our worship life as a family, but also his influence in our daily lives. I’m having more God-conversations with friends and colleagues (don’t you just love those?), enjoying greater intimacy with God, hearing cool God stories from others and seeing a whole slew of answered prayers. The dam is bursting!

With this in mind, I want to discuss two potential pitfalls that go hand-in-hand with this sort of Kingdom amplification; pride and despair.
PRIDE
To paraphrase Bill Johnson, your weakest point is not at the moment of your greatest failure, but of your greatest victory. At times when things are clicking into place and we begin to live more and more radically for God, we are especially prone to the sin of pride – arguably the greatest sin in the Kingdom of God (it is, technically, what got Satan kicked out of heaven, as it were). Pride blinds us to our need for God and especially to our need for his grace.
One particular manifestation of pride that I have observed in myself and among followers of Jesus is the sort that creeps in when you are ‘getting it right’. We are called to live lives that are radically sold out for God, wherein we tap into all of heavens resources and pick up our cross daily. At Canterbury Vineyard, we believe unashamedly in not settling for anything less than the fullness and abundance of life promised to us by the scriptures – this means love, miracles, salvation, gifts of the spirit, fruit of the spirit, healing, deliverance, holiness, intimacy, passion and more. As we press into this lifestyle, frustration with the mediocrity of much of what passes for the Christian life today will arise; this is natural. However, we must never allow this to turn into pride or self-satisfaction. Don’t be deceived about your immunity from this; pride is like sand – it gets into every nook and cranny (even nooks and crannies you didn’t know you had). Have you ever looked at other Christians who are less on fire than you and gotten frustrated with them? Have you met Christians who don’t believe in miracles, who are hypocritical, who are too middle class, who aren’t as free as you think they should be, who don’t pray enough, who are not seeking God in every area of their life – and thought, “thank God I’m not like that”? Because I have.
Don’t ever forget that it is only by God’s grace that we get anything right. It is only by God’s grace that we found Jesus in the first place, and it is only by his grace that we find ourselves in a community that is going hard after God, and it is only by his grace that we actually take any of it on board ourselves.
DESPAIR
Another risk of not settling for mediocrity in Christian life is despair, or despondency. I see it rear its ugly head time and time again in my own life and in that of others. You pray for something and it doesn’t happen. You hear about the MORE that is promised to us by Jesus and wonder why you aren’t experiencing it. You see other people get set ablaze or experience victory and wonder what is wrong with you. You desire more of God, you desire miracles, you desire mountaintop experiences or a more tangible sense of his presence, you desire the salvation of your friends and enemies, you desire the influence of God over situations in your life, you desire spiritual gifts, you desire the Kingdom; these things don’t come as quickly as you’d like them to and you begin to wonder if they ever will.
‘Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”‘ – John 20:27-29
If we aren’t seeing all of the Kingdom that we want to, but keep pressing in anyway, we are blessed. It may be a cliche by now, but it’s vital to be intentional about which well to drink from – what God is doing – and his promises and potential – versus what he isn’t.
A couple of nights ago some friends and I wrote down some insanely outlandish prayers, just to put our money where our mouth is and mark out our territory as people who genuinely are seeking more. Among the stuff we listed came such gems as “I want to have frequent visions of heaven”, “I want to be sick with love for Jesus”, “I want people to be healed by just my walking into the room”, “I want every single one of my friends to know God”, “I want to see Jesus breakdance”, “I want to glow like Moses”, “I want to raise the dead” and so on. We did it because we know it’s possible, we did it because we know there’s more, and we did it because we know it’s ours. Does raising the dead and having frequent visions of heaven seem a long way off? Yes – so all the more reason to go ahead and make those huge requests! It’s all too easy to limit your imagination and faith in order to avoid disappointment, but we must at all costs resist the urge to shrink our vision to match our experience.

I challenge you to give your despondency to God and go ahead and make some ludicrously humongous demands on his generosity. Ask God to make you persistent and able to keep knocking until he opens that door. Do it now!