The Fragment // Book Review

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‘The Fragment’ by Davis Bunn is the perfect holiday read for someone like me. An easy read, with a gripping storyline, and with spiritual truth woven through it. More than that, Muriel, the main character is a young woman, refusing to fit into the social and cultural norms of her day, post war 1920s in Alexandria, Virginia. In a way her desire to escape and not conform reminds me of my own journey – refusing to settle for what was expected of me – except she does it with much more grace and humility than I ever will.
 
Then very quickly her life changes as she heads off to Paris to work for an old friend of the family, an American Senator on a quest to find a fragment of the true cross on which Christ died.
(It is worth noting that whether you are someone with a passion for relics or one who finds the whole idea of them questionable, it doesn’t take away from a good storyline, so just shelve that, ok?!)
 
‘The Fragment’ reads like a more charming and less frantic Dan Brown novel, except here the input of Christianity is more obvious and certainly woven in as spiritual truth and not just for dramatic effect. Muriel’s initial desire to leave the mundane comfort of her home town develops as she realises that this is her calling, something she feels God has prepared her for for life. Seeking a calling that is so clear is something that will resonate with many readers I am sure.
 
The faith of Muriel and her boss and family friend, the Senator, is evident throughout, woven into the storyline with ease. It’s refreshing to read a novel like this which has such spiritual truth at the heart of it. And indeed, the story of the search for the cross is made on several levels. Their quest to find the fragment, the true cross, is echoed in the journey of Charles, a young man haunted by his war experiences who Muriel attempts to bring on a journey of his own towards the cross. She sees that his life can only be transformed by Christ but he continues to fight it, in a battle of inner turmoil.
 
Set in 1923, when woman had not long gained the right to vote in the UK and US, in France it would be another 20 years, and the author conveys some of the discrimination that abounded, the childish ways women were ignored, mistrusted or put down simply because of their gender. Muriel reacts to this with grace and patience and in this story she comes out on top, partly thanks to the generous and supportive senator who believes in her.
A cleverly written novel, perfect for the beach, sitting by the pool, or just for lounging around on an autumn evening in front of the fire (which it feels like as I write now in August) ‘The Fragment’ is available now from Marylebone House, priced £8.99.
 

Surfing Curacy

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This post started out as ‘surviving curacy’ and yet autocorrect made it ‘surfing’, which seemed apt as whilst writing I had just come from an afternoon on the beach with the family, surfing and body boarding in the Atlantic Ocean.

Surfing, even as terrible as we are at it, requires balance and poise. Life long surfers have a second sense of when the weather is turning, when waves might appear and then once in the water, an instinct that kicks in before the brain has registered the right wave approaching. The highs are great: overcoming nature, riding through the surf, staying up on the board for the first time; the lows immense: wipe outs, swallowing gallons of sea water (and occasionally vomiting it up again), injuries or broken boards. But the ocean is majestic, powerful, beautiful, vast, I’ve heard it referred to as the green cathedral. There is something spiritual about it, an energy that goes where it will. Strange analogy for curacy maybe? Well I’ve discovered after just 5 weeks in the role that curacy is all of those things…

For a start, ministry always requires balance, usually work-life being the hardest one to master. And I’ve not mastered it, especially in the midst of school holidays. Why so many curacies start right at the beginning of summer I don’t know. We’ve all just finished assignments and essays, brain dead and exhausted. Then for those of us with kids, which is quite a high number, a few weeks after we start and the kids break up from school for weeks on end. This has been the biggest challenge for us – starting a new full time job a week before the summer hols starts and 3 weeks after moving house. There’s been an almost unsaid and gentle battle over whose work is more important between my husband and I. This is the first time we’ve both worked full time for years, and now suddenly we both have important things on the same day that cannot be changed. Who gets to go to work? Who gets to try and ‘work from home’? Childcare has been balanced out between paid things, and grannies and grandad to the rescue – for us it seemed wrong to book our kids in for 7 weeks of summer camp and activities when we have never done that before. To be honest they have had enough upheaval recently and need to know that they come first. But whilst that was right for us as a family, it has brought its challenges. That said, God has been faithful, told us not to worry and with just a few weeks to go we are managing ok. Although whilst the house largely looks tidy, the hunt for the endangered species of cleaner is not going well. Lewes is the place where cleaners can command a huge salary and a waiting list. We’re not even on a list yet. This does not bode well. I’m not sure when I’ll next have time to actually sort and plan, my home making desires and skills sidelined for sermon writing and pastoral visits. For now don’t look at the fridge too closely, or under the sofa… I know some dioceses do ordinations in September which seems eminently more suitable for all concerned!

 

So, poise. Chances are the church any potential Curate heads off to will go into summer mode, which means nothing runs as it usually does, clergy will be away on hols, as will church wardens, key leaders and the verger. So, just as you learn where you need to be, then you find out actually that’s not on this week, that’s all off until September… Oh and Jo who gave you the keys last week, she’s away until mid August so make sure you have someone else to let you in to church next Sunday morning… This is where poise comes in. You need to act like you know what you are doing, even when you really haven’t a clue, which will probably be for some time.

Like the instinct of the faithful surfer, ministers need to be able to react on the spot. Like, in the first service I led, when the video wouldn’t work last minute, there were unexpected additions to the service, an offering being brought to the front I didn’t know about and I was the one out the front… I’ve discovered that most churches are filled with people who know far better than the Curate what needs to happen and when. They have likely been worshiping there for years and you are the young whipper snapper (or not that young actually in my case) arriving to lead them all into worship. Humility goes a long way.

Of course for us it’s more than instinct though, it’s being led by the Holy Spirit and being able to listen and of course to actually hear what God might be saying is vital. I’ve now led a handful of services and most of them were founded on a prayers like ‘Lord I don’t know what I am doing, it’s all up to you, just get me in the right place at the right time, please!’. Largely, thankfully, he has. I’ve only once been to the wrong building – we have 3 churches, 2 church halls, an office and a chapter house, plenty of room for mistakes there then…

So to the highs and lows. For me, there have been plenty of highs, I am really loving my curacy, the church is fab, the Rector incredibly encouraging – after my first preach his response was ‘the girl can preach’! This cheers me and it was not my best preach (& there is plenty or room for improvement!). The staff team are also brilliant and the people have been so welcoming and lovely. My first pastoral visit, taking home communion (with my new home communion set, an ordination gift from my parents) to a lovely lady who had been ill was such a privilege and I felt so blessed by going to see her. Wearing my dog collar with pride, has also been a surprise to me as I thought I’d wear it as infrequently as possible but I actually love it and love the visibly it brings, in terms of conversations with people I meet. Another plus being, the first night in our new local, not in collar, but ending up in a conversation with some young lads about faith, God, the church. I just knew we were supposed to be here.

I’m not sure there have been too many lows yet for me, probably just the sheer volume of information I need to take in and the whole balancing act thing which is proving tricky. From others I’ve heard though, it’s not always that way. The best I have heard of was where the church had filled the new curate’s fridge with food, left flowers, took meals and popped in with freshly made cake and to make sure they had all they needed. In others not so much as a welcome, visit from the Vicar or in fact anyone from the church and an expectation to take every service & preach on their first Sunday. Yikes…

And that great green cathedral? Well for me it’s the people. I love meeting new people, hearing their stories, finding out what makes them tick, who has God made them to be. That is the brilliant part. Seeing God at work in people. The metaphor of the energy of the ocean is not lost, people moving together as one in worship, but also free to move, to do as they will, ocean spray reaching out and touching others around them. Beautiful and majestic and with a very definite energy of its own!

This is God at work, in the church, in his people, sometimes unpredictable, but then our reliance on him is only increased. And where else to be on the ocean but in the safety of a divine lifeboat?

 

‘Still Emily’ book review

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I’ve just read ‘Still Emily’ in one sitting, on holiday surrounded by people, and have had to stem the tears pricking my eyes on more than one occasion. Emily’s story touched my heart, not with tears of sympathy but of love, of admiration, and in some sense, of understanding.

Emily began life healthily and despite what could now be seen as warnings, the shock of an NF2 diagnosis at the age of 17 was huge. This condition would go on to rob Emily of her hearing, her balance, ability to walk and more, yet she has refused to give in to the condition, not willing to be defined by it, and continued in her walk with God, perhaps closer than ever might have been.

(Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2) is a disorder that causes tumours to grow on the body and throughout the nervous system. Depending on where they grow they can cause conditions like deafness, severe balance problems, facial nerve paralysis, spinal cord compression and swallowing difficulties.)

‘Still Emily’ is a movingly honest memoir of Emily’s journey with NF2. Of the highs and lows – of which there are many, including the moment at age 17 when Emily’s family said goodbye to her as she lay in a coma, not expected to wake up. Like the times when she has been robbed of her sight for a period as well as hearing, in order to allow her eyes to rest and recover as they work harder than ever. I’m not sure I can begin to image the isolation and fear that must induce.

It is also a story of a family thrown into turmoil, but choosing to respond in love. Choosing to support, choosing to demonstrate the love of God in the face of adversity, united in their faith. Christian faith is of course a theme than runs through the book, not in an ‘in your face’ way, but in a gentle undercurrent, God’s presence and faithfulness the foundation in this inspiring story.

As anyone with a long term condition will know, it can be hard to remain always positive, even with God at your side, and Emily is honest about this, but also reminding herself, and us the readers, to focus on the bit that can be done, not the bit that can’t, as she recalls learning to sit again, able to do 20 mins at first but not the half hour she hoped for. The subtitle to ‘Still Emily’ is ‘seeing rainbows in the silence’ a choice that Emily has made – to always seek the moments of joy: ‘I choose rainbows. Every time. Even when they are invisible, I carry on looking…’

One of the things I love about this book is the truth that we are all worthy, no matter what we can or can’t do. A simple reminder that came to Emily when all she could do to help a fellow patient in hospital was press the ‘call nurse’ button, but in that moment, that was what was needed. This was something I too learned when recovering from back surgery last year, even in the tough times, in suffering and in the moments when we feel useless, helpless and alone, that to God we are perfect and he can use us all, whatever the circumstance.

This is a book about endurance, the faithfulness of God and above all, hope. In endless operations, physio and appointments, in pain, in disappointment, there is still hope.

 

‘Still Emily’ is available now from Malcolm Down Publishing, priced £7.99.

 

JOY // Guest Post from Katie Stock

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This is the next instalment in a year of guest posts on Joy as part of my year of focussing on joy (my word for the year). This month we have a post from Katie Stock. 

 

 

 

In my experience joy is an elusive state, something I observe in others, catch glimpses of in myself but can never quite grab a hold of.

Joy is mentioned 179 times in the Bible. Trees declare it. Men shout for it. Widow’s hearts sing for it. Joy permeates throughout Scripture.

The thing that all of the peoples, individuals and trees (!) experiencing joy have in common is that their joy comes from an experience of the presence of God.

Wherever God is there follows joy.

Then why do I not experience this? Do I not experience God’s presence? Do I not pray enough?

I certainly don’t pray enough. I experience God’s presence but not in a complete sense.

Joy is still elusive.

It is elusive because I am broken. I was broken at birth because of my fallen nature. I continued to be increasingly broken as I grew due to the sin of others around me. I continue to be broken due to my own sin now.

I struggle to experience joy. I know I’m not alone in that. But, rest assured, one day I will experience God’s presence in its unbridled entirety. Then we will all experience joy like never before. Then our broken bones will rejoice and we will be made glad with the joy of God’s presence.

 

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Psalm 51: 1-8

KatieStock

Katie Stock

Katie is a fundraising copywriter at an international NGO, theology postgraduate, Mama to the delightful Miss F & Miss T and wife to the inexplicably handsome Boy (her words!). Katie also won ‘Young Blogger of the Year’ in last years Premier Digital Awards for her rather fantastic Theology Bee blog – do check it out.

One Year On // Post Op

This was me post-op, listening to an 8 hour long worship playlist which got me through!

It’s now just over one year since I suffered a ruptured disk in my back and had surgery to correct it.

Recovery is ongoing.

They told me it would be at least a year and they were right. It has been so up and down throughout the entire year and yet hitting the 12 month mark did seem to bring a realisation that actually it is basically ok. The ups and downs are less violent and the swinging fear of it happening again, and euphoria over new things I can now do again are less pronounced.

I still carry a cocktail of painkillers with me wherever I go, along with my trusty back chair or roll cushion. I have to plan long journeys carefully and take time out from sitting for long periods, often choosing to work at home from the floor of my study, propped up by cushions laying in front of the laptop.

As I write a lone runner zooms past, red, sweaty and clearly enjoying herself. A momentary pang of despair hits me. We are on holiday at Spring Harvest in France. Last time I was here I was doing the same, taking time out of each day to run along the river soaking up the sun and enjoying a new route that hasn’t bored me yet. Last time we were supposed to be here I was actually at home in the post surgery phase. Hard to believe that that was now over a year ago.

There are still things I can’t do, or more perhaps, won’t risk doing. There’s talk of going canoeing this week and whilst I am desperate to go the truth is I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. To get to where I am now, I’ve seen physios regularly, faithfully done my exercises twice, if not three times a day, attended Pilates classes, sat correctly and not done anything stupid, and it still seems any kind of full recovery is a way off. Why would I risk it now? And yet I also don’t want to live in fear, don’t want to be defined by my health. Don’t want to be the boring mum who can’t play football in the garden with the kids, can’t actually change the beds for fear of tweaking something, can’t push a trolley full of food round the supermarket (thank goodness for online ordering). It’s all so boring.  People still ask me regularly how is your back? I’d love to say yes it’s fantastic, never better, but the truth is and my stock answer is ‘it’s ok, bit up and down but I’m fine’. It’s actually nice, having moved churches for curacy to be somewhere where many people don’t know I had the op, so I can escape the questions.

But as this is an update, for those that want to know… I am still doing physio twice a day (at home, I have a set of exercises to do), I walk every day, 3 miles if I can, to keep my back mobile and from seizing up, it’s also the only exercise I get. I am allowed to cycle too but I’m not a cycling fan to be honest so walking it is. Clinical pilates is once a week and boy do I notice it if I miss one. The pain is up and down, I still get nerve pain in both legs and numbness in one foot occasionally. It’s varied and changes from day to day. Sitting for long periods produces latent pain (ie: it appears after the event -usually the next morning), and I know when I’ve pushed it too much like lifting something I shouldn’t, or twisting awkwardly and usually the results last for a few days or longer. Paracetamol and Nurofen are my best friends and I don’t go anywhere without them, but I am thankful that the super strength pain killers, which I also carry with me in case of a relapse, have not been used for months now.

However. It’s all ok. Yes it can be frustrating at times and I hate carrying my back chair or cushion with me like some old lady, but it’s all manageable and I still say I wouldn’t change it for the world. Earlier this year I found myself focussing on the pain too much and I made a choice to remember the blessing of it all every time I felt weighed down by the pain. After all the pain is a reminder of a time which I doubt will be repeated. A time with God that was a gift. Such a special time, unable to do much at all except rest in his presence, read his word, pray. It was like being soaked in him for weeks on end. Oh how I miss that.

So now every time I feel the pain I remind myself of the blessing. And a blessing it was. Is even. It has changed my life, my faith, altered my view on so many things, given me more empathy and understanding and I hope helped me to be a better minister.

So for now I focus on that gift, that blessing and move forward…