New year, new me

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

It’s 2013, people!  Woohoo!  I love a new year, a new creative canvas.  All this American snow makes me feel like everything can be made new.  And this year I am especially excited because this blog is going to be growing and changing in big ways.

First, it has a new home (and a new name):

www.jennyfromtheblock.co.uk

(Thanks J-Lo).

I have loved writing here at “The Good Stuff” and sharing stories from my travels and my neighbourhood.  But I’ve been feeling for a while like I wanted to write about some other things too.  The reason I search out stories that give me hope is for more than just a sense of well-being and optimism.  It’s because they shape how I live.  They give me ideas and inspiration and encouragement to live a different way.  And I’d like to share some of those more practical stories too – not just the successful ones, but also my failures…

I hope to be travelling less this year than I did in my crazy 2012, so sourcing stories from all over the place will be less easy.  The blog will be a place to wrestle with how to live in the middle of the inner city (in our home, affectionately known as “the block”) and be a good neighbour whilst trying not to destroy the planet.  Or:

Attempts to live green and simple in the city.

(That’s the tagline).

So please stay tuned to the new blog (everything from this blog has been transferred handily to the archives), and watch out for some new features on green habits and simple living alongside the stories of hope.

Thank you all for reading and following.  See you at the new site.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Let’s get naked

Today I am excited to share a guest post from the husband, originally written as a Christmas reflection for a Christian blog called Threads.

I am very good at being ‘almost radical’. I am good at challenging people just enough to make me sound edgy or creative, but not enough to allow any allegations of taking things too far. It cleverly avoids criticism from those who may disagree, which might hurt my still-too-tied-to-my-identity, people-pleasing, wanting-everyone-to-love-me ego.

Sometimes that tactic comes from a good place of wanting to ‘start where people are at’ or be relational, but I have to confess that most of the time it just comes from a fear of being exposed to ridicule and challenge.

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus. This was not the arrival of a control freak, carefully managing their surroundings for least disruption to their ministry. He arrived helpless to this beautiful, yet broken planet, trusting himself into the hands of imperfect humanity. Thirty-three years after that meek entrance, he would be stripped and naked again. This thought is teaching me something quite profound:

You have to be naked to start a revolution.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7)

You have to be prepared to be vulnerable, exposed and misunderstood.

You have to be prepared to be mocked, caricatured and offensive.

Jesus’ unpredictable ministry was not the work of someone who had one eye on Jerusalem and one eye on Twitter to see how he was being perceived. They say I’m too obtuse? Let’s tweak that for future public engagements – give them a bit more solid theology. A little too angry? Let’s visit a nursery tomorrow – the tables will be too low to turn over anyway. Not nationalistic enough? Let’s wear some military garb for the next photo opp.

Those who have kicked off radical movements have always run the risk of being written off as lunatics or being ignored because of their lack of a media strategy. They have been prepared to be naked and resource-light in human terms. They have been prepared to look stupid, to be criticised, to be plastered across the press as hopeless dreamers, do-gooders, bigots, or irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend a good chunk of my time training believers to engage intelligently in the public square – in the media and in politics. It is hugely important. But in 2012 have we become so media-fixated, hypersensitive to criticism, and less rooted in God that we are paralysed from saying or doing what we are called to?

For Facebook friends, read ‘audience’ and for status update, read ‘press release’. We are becoming our own press officers, managing our public profile and perception. Our brains are becoming increasingly wired to insecurely gauge and seek responses to what we say or do. We edit our status updates and lives to present only the most appealing or acceptable part of ourselves, or what we think we can get away with. And that takes us right back to my disease of almost saying what I actually think. My calculation these days is too often: “How will this affect that person’s or the public’s perception of Christians?”(handily connected to their perception of me) rather than “God, what would you have me do or say?”

We are called to follow Christ, not employed by him to be spin doctors for the kingdom. Jesus didn’t want to be ‘Like’d. He wanted to be obeyed and worshipped.

Here lies Andy Flannagan – he was almost radical. Not an epitaph I want.

Is it time for us to shed the clothes of popularity, respectability and compromise? Is it time to get naked?

Christmas in a strange land

It’s only a few days till Christmas, and I am far away from home in the state of Arkansas, where everything is super-sized.  Happily I am not alone, and I’m enjoying some family time (being in the same continent as the husband has become a novelty this month) and meeting my new niece.  Who is completely beautiful.

But should you be lacking in inspiration this week, here are a couple of things I prepared earlier.

Last year I wrote a blog about how I try to hold onto the story of Christmas in the midst of family chaos, and I shared some liturgy we use.

Last week in Guatemala we filmed a reflection on the story from Mary’s perspective – you might recognise some of the thoughts from my earlier blog.

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Have a great Christmas. I’ll be back in the new year, with some changes!

Waiting for God-knows-what

It is the season of waiting.

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Or, parties. Calendars are awash with office socials, family reunions, carol concerts, school nativities, mulled wine on chilly nights, shopping-trips, ice-skating and tree-decorating.  Not mine, this year, because instead I am travelling to far-flung continents to hear new stories and meet new family.  And so for once I am a little removed from the hullaballoo and I am pondering the meaning of it again.

I read recently about a Catholic community who mark the season with simple, frugal living and prayerful reflection and my heart sank at the thought of opting out of all the fun.

And it brought me back to the question of waiting, what it means to wait, and how I strain to avoid it.

My friend Kelley just wrote a beautiful blog about her Advent ache as she confronts the trauma of today in Goma and Gaza, and in relationships closer to home.

“This Advent I stand in the ancient tradition of lament and longing,” she writes, “as my insides churn at the not-yetness of it all.”

Why would we choose to enter purposefully into a season of waiting? It is usually a chore rather than a choice. Ten seconds in and we (I) reach for our phones, for distraction.

But at the heart of this season, for those of us who seek it, is an unfinished story, and an invitation to wait not just four weeks, but as long as it takes.

I see it most clearly through Mary.

At so young an age she is chosen – and her soul sings. She is asked to imagine that something otherworldly could be possible.  She is asked to believe and she does.  (And this at a time when childbirth was perilous).

At the moments when our souls sing and we hear and see God alive in everything, extraordinary things feel possible. (Perhaps because they are).

It is afterwards, in the banality and prose of everyday living that it is harder to believe in miracles.

But that is where waiting takes us. For Mary, first it was nine months. Nine months of pregnancy, of feeling something real grow inside of her, the promise becoming tangible.

But it was also nine months of everybody else interpreting events in their own way. Who could possibly know or understand or believe the truth? There were nine long, painful months of watching her parents’ shame, feeling desperately alone (except for that time with her cousin), doubting herself. How much of that could Joseph share, how much was he prepared to?

And then there is the beautiful story of how her son was born, miles away from everybody who misunderstood, attended by the strangest assortment of guests.  And I imagine Mary’s tears when she sees her baby, and when, for the first time, she is able to share the miracle with a host of others – all of whom know that whatever this is, it is from God.

But what of the years that follow? In all the years of poverty and political oppression, in the mundane detail of family life, of finding enough food and earning enough money, what does Mary do with all those prophecies? Do they feel real? Does she know what any of them mean? Does she know who her son really is?

Waiting, in this sense, is never one thing.  It is a heady cocktail of joy and agony, of confusion and doubt, of excitement and fear. And sometimes it is just long and hard.

It is always easier to give up. It is less tiring and it hurts a lot less.

But Mary does not give up, she is there even the moment when her son is killed.  How could she begin to make sense of that day?

It is hardest to wait when it least makes sense, but at the heart of Advent is the invitation to do just that.  Because in all its brilliant beauty, the Christmas story is not an ending or a resolution and it does not answer every question.  It is a dazzling glimmer of hope and the promise of proximity and involvement.  It is a beginning but not an end.

To me, Advent is an invitation to wait as Mary waited.  Always pondering, treasuring these things in my heart, but also participating in the story without understanding fully where it is going and what that will look like.  It is looking for where I can step in, moving towards the brokenness rather than hiding from it.  It is not running away from the ache, the deep, long ache for the good ending I believe in.

The world just got a bit more wonderful

…because today my niece was born, and this post is written to her.

To my brand new niece,

I am writing this while your mother is in labour, bringing you into the world.  She and your father are an ocean away from me in England, from the rest of our family, and I so wish I could be with you, I wish that in the first few hours of your life I could hold you and kiss you and sing and whisper prayers over you.  But that will have to wait a few weeks.  For now I have only words on a page, but they are infused with my love and my imagination and I hope you will read them one day and know that I sat in eager, quiet, excited anticipation at the moment you came out into the open.

Welcome to our quirky family. (I’m speaking for the Groves rather than the Woogs here).  You are the beginning of a new generation, my parents’ first grandchild.  I can hardly believe that my little brother has become your dad, but I feel so sure that he will be a kind and wise and wonderful dad.  He’s big and strong, but such a softie underneath.

It might seem strange that I am writing to you before I know you, before we become proper friends, but I have been thinking a lot over this last year or two about family, about our family, about what there is to celebrate in our story, and what I hope will be left behind with past generations.  And I know you will discover so much of this for yourself, but I want to tell you what I’ve seen, I want to give you eyes to recognise the goodness, and I want you and your siblings and cousins to be the best incarnation of us yet.

It will be many years before you read and understand this letter, so if I’m honest I guess I’m also writing it to all of us, and to me, to remind me what I love about our family.

We are made up of soldiers and nurses (as your parents exemplify – at this point in their lives at any rate), of teachers and train drivers – practical people – but there is a rogue artistic thread that winds its way through us too.  Your great grandmother, Pat, a wry, elegant, resourceful army wife only gave way to her creative leanings late in life and became a painter (although she had dabbled in lampshade-covering earlier).  She taught me to draw, and to make fudge, and almost to the very end of her life, kept painting.  To reach the end of your life on earth, this complex and heart-breaking planet, with the desire to create and to participate still intact, is a glorious triumph of hope.  Too many of us retreat into criticism, cynicism, spectating.  I pray that hope and creativity will course through your veins to the very end, and that they will never be defeated by the pain you will encounter.

Our family laughs a lot and I love that.  There is always joy and silliness, and we never stay cross long as a result. At our worst moments we use humour to defend ourselves and hit out at each other unkindly, to get attention or to deflect it, and we wound people.  We go too far. That is the side that I hope you only observe and never join in with.  I hope we’re getting better.

You are the next in a line of strong and beautiful women (oh it’s so true on both sides of your family); we have fire in our bellies and will fight our way anywhere we feel called.  May there be fewer fights in your way than there were in ours.  And may you revel in your God-given strength and never feel you have to prove it.

And now some small kernels of wisdom I have accrued in 32 years of life in our strange family:  Trust people, even after you get hurt.  Listen out for God speaking to you and believe Him over what we tell you.  Tell people you love them and tell them why, tell them more than you think they should need to hear it.  And savour all the good food and drink.

Amelie May (yes, as I have written this letter you have been born and been named) you are so welcome, and you are so loved.  I am counting down the time to meeting you and I hope we will always be good friends.

With love from your old aunt,

Jenny x

PS Mum (your granny) always swore she didn’t want to be a grandmother, but she has been besotted with you since before you were born.

Retreat (revisiting something I said I’d never do)

When I was a teen I wanted to be an actress.  When I told people at my church they would respond with enthusiasm – “We do so need good dramas in church,” as if my grand ambition was to play Mary the mother of Jesus at Christmas or be in any of the half-baked comedy sketches that popped up sporadically on Sunday mornings or church weekends away.

And so I ventured out into the big wide world with my dream and needless to say found that the big wide world was less enthusiastic about me.  (We’re still working on it).  But I have successfully avoided church drama all this time.

A couple of years ago the husband asked me to write some monologues based on some stories from the Bible, pretty much the very thing I’ve run away from for so many years.  But I took up the challenge (I have a soft spot for him), and we interweaved them with songs sang around hay bales in the big top at Greenbelt festival one summer, with guitars and cellos and other nice stringed things.

It was good.  I didn’t want to cringe and run away.  And it seemed to touch people.

It seems I don’t hate Christian drama, I’m just really fussy, and I really want it to be good (not that I’m saying here that I do it better than anyone, it’s more that I want it to be better than I’ve experienced it to be, that’s what I aspire to). I want it to mean things that I think are important (and actually I have a head-start here because I do think that people’s encounters with Jesus, with God, matter profoundly); and not be heavy-handed or tell you what to think.  Then I think it can be quite beautiful.

Another thing I was told as a teen was that my vocation was either in the church or in the world (no sitting on the fence).  And I picked the world, which is in some ways laughable given that I have now spent eight years working with a charity who are passionate about the local church. But now as I come to unpick some of the things I learnt so young and which solidified too quickly in my worldview, I am returning to this dualism too.  It suddenly seems such an unnecessary dichotomy if we hope to be the same people every day and not play two (or more) versions ourselves. Of course, expectations and values differ in contrasting arenas, but surely integrity means some consistency, it means always being recognisably me.

And so it means not drawing such clear lines about where and when I will tell stories and for whom.

Which is a long way of introducing a project I put together this year for a network I do some work with.  Someone caught our double act (the husband’s songs, my monologues) and wanted to find a way to make a DVD.  The challenge this collaborator had in mind was contexts where Christians were working in tough places, amongst violence, poverty, oppression, injustice…and they often struggled to connect the huge questions raised by this work with their faith (too often presented in a pretty box).  Imaginative storytelling and music that brings Bible texts to life – resources that create an experience and the space for questions and conversation – could unlock a connection.  We hope.

So here is one of those sessions, about busyness.  There’s a monologue, some discussion questions about the Bible passage in question, and a song that gives you some space to reflect. There are six sessions in total and you can access them all online here.  Or if you’re after a DVD, drop me an email.

Busyness from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

Return from Oz

I just switched off for a week.  Well done to me (and the husband).

I’m fresh back from holiday, from 7 days of blustery beach walks and lie-ins, leisurely swims and horse-rides, cream teas and Sunday roasts (well, one of each), croquet, table-tennis and a lovely yoga class with the middle-aged ladies of Woolacombe.   I have read books and gazed out of windows and slumbered and journalled.  I have cooked hearty dinners and supped red wine.  I have noticed birds singing (loudly) in the trees around me and I have stopped to look at views.  I have learnt to reverse back along narrow country lanes to the nearest passing point.

This is where we were, looking out towards Baggy Point

If you want to do the same then head straight for the gorgeous Pickwell Manor in North Devon run by some great friends of mine: two families living in community together, trying to live sustainably and generously and to create a space for you to come and unwind.

I’m a big fan of rest, of building big blocks of it into life, of taking your foot off the accelerator and remembering that there is something more to life than ceaseless forwards momentum.  Amazingly, and wonderfully, I find that it all keeps going without me.

Part of what I wanted to do this last week was wrench my attention from the future and sink it back into the now.  I hate how I’m always about the next thing, always planning, organising, keeping things on track, rather than being fully present – and alive, and grateful – in the right now.  I took with me the book Present Perfect by Greg Boyd to help.  I love the imagery he uses from the Wizard of Oz – how we’re always looking for something which we already have:

You’re dreaming about what’s over the rainbow, in some mythical land of Oz, and this is the very thing that’s keeping you from experiencing the love and joy that’s already round you in Kansas.

He’s not telling me my life is already everything I ever want it to be, but that the things that matter most are already mine, so I can stop chasing them.  Phew.

He writes about giving a talk along those lines to a youth group once, only to be challenged by a frustrated parent afraid that their child will never achieve anything unless they are driven; ambitious; feeling a lack that would need to be satisfied by attainment, success, whatever.  A hole.

I don’t want to be driven by a hole in me. I don’t want to believe that the only thing that will drive my children to contribute to the world is their own sense of incompleteness.

What if I have enough, now?  What if I am free, and loved, and worth something now?  Can I believe that, not just on special holy days, but every day?

As I write I’m staying with friends who have a four year old son – a beautiful, exuberant, chatty little man currently making brownies with his mum.  Playing cars with him yesterday uprooted me right out of my planned afternoon activities and what I was counting on accomplishing.  And it was ok.  It reminded me that real rest, and stopping, is only possible when we can let go of that drivenness, that neediness, and be ok just with who we are and where we are.  Which is hard when we’re frankly so flawed and needy. I think it must be hard to get to that place without God (but maybe you have?).

Of course it’s all easier outside of London and all my normal routines, so I’ll get back to you about how it goes when I’m back.

Confessions of a reluctant city-slicker

I’ve been getting into the blogosphere more recently.  (Currently my favourites are Lulastic, Sarah Bessey, A Beautiful Mess and Godspace if you’d like a recommendation).  But I’m developing a worrying habit.   Somehow I am gravitating more and more towards American or Canadian mothers-of-small-children, living in big houses (by my British standards, I think it’s pretty normal out there) with outside space and animals and a love for home-baking and instagraming.

I’m not sure it’s good for me.

I dream sometimes of space. Storage space to begin with. Just a couple of large cupboards would do it, somewhere to stash the guitars. But then, there’s also a wild fantasy I have of outside space. Maybe a garden where I could grow veggies, and keep chickens if I ever overcame my fear of birds.  It could even include a view of mountains or a lake.  Actual safe space for kids to run and play in. Maybe a tree which I could hang a swing from (if I ever worked out how to make a swing).   Sometimes I get carried away and I fantasise about clean air, and time moving more slowly, and no big distractions but plenty evenings of staying in and laughing and talking. And sitting on the porch (does anyone in England ever sit in their porch? My only experience of English porches in that they’re quite cold and small and glassy).

We’re at the age where lots of friends are leaving London.

We all come here after university, in search of jobs and independence and culture and wanting to be part of something big.  And it is exciting (when it’s not lonely), it’s full and it’s fast-moving.  And then we hit our 30s and suddenly it’s too depressing how expensive houses are, and do you want to drag a buggy up 4 flights of stairs every day, and can you really keep living at this pace, and do you want your kids to go to inner-city schools, and maybe we’ve done London now.  The mass exodus out of the city takes place.

Can you tell I am grieving?

The thing is, I get it, it’s all for healthy reasons.  I want the space and calmness too.  Why would anyone in their right mind chose to live in the biggest city in Europe?  It’s full up. I mean the culture and everything is great, but I could easily take a year off art galleries and theatre trips now.

And it’s getting more lonely in the city.

This week I edited a film that made me remember why we stay.  Here’s a little clip.  It’s our mate Ash Barker who lives in the biggest slum in Bangkok with his family and who has just done a PhD on ministry in slums.

More and more, the inner cities are left to the super-rich and the poor. Who don’t often “mesh well together” (to quote Clueless).  And if the half of the world may well be living in cities by the middle of the century, I think a bunch of us need to stay and find a way to do it well and work for good, and get to know our neighbours, and help make the schools better (or whatever needs some help).  A grand ambition, I’m sure we’ll fail in countless ways, but this is our plan.

In praise of anchors

This week life has become small and quiet again.  I’m loving the rhythms of home.  And yet my mind races away to big questions.

There are decisions to be taken about the future which feel difficult. And as I think ahead I realise how bound I feel by other people’s expectations (my mother would be astounded to learn this as in her mind I have abandoned all of hers); and also by my own. How tightly should I keep hold of the things I dreamt and imagined for myself? Is that tenacity or closed-mindedness? I get lost trying to figure out which version of the future I am trying to walk towards, and if it matters.

I spoke to a friend this week, a wise and influential mentor, who by many standards has an impressive list of achievements under his belt. I asked him how he lives with so many pressures and expectations and navigates a way through. I was surprised by his answer.  He said he really doesn’t live under the weight of anyone’s expectations, and doesn’t have any kind of master plan or grand ambitions for the future.  He has two children with a disability and he loves how they have taught him to live in the present.   He has angled his heart towards an experience of life in which he knows he is loved by God.  Before anything. And then, I guess, there’s less left to prove to anyone else.

It’s a hard thing to hold onto. That knowing that you’re loved and you belong to God. I crowd it out regularly, and yet when I reach for it, it is a failsafe anchor.

I remembered how I’d been inspired last year on holiday by these words from Henri Nouwen:

If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God.  The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical or fruitful is completely irrelevant since the only reason to love is love itself.  Everything else is secondary.

The timing question doesn’t seem as important as the priority one.

I learnt very early on in marriage that my husband doesn’t love being landed only with the dregs of my time and energy after I’ve spent most of it elsewhere.

And yet. That’s what I do to God.  And the version of life where I run around keeping other people happy and trying to prove myself leaves me joyless and spent.

I need anchoring. In a (corner of the) world where I am spoilt with choices and opportunities, but where the needs and injustices are relentless and overwhelming, I need to be rooted in something bigger and deeper and stronger.

What anchors you?