All posts by Never Conforming

About Never Conforming

A prolific knitter and mature student studying Theology and Religious Studies, this blog chronicles Jo's diverse experiences and achievement over far longer than she cares to think about. With an increasing focus on knitting, the links are mostly of knitting-related pages of interest. Occasionally (and moreso in the past) there will be churchy/christian themed content but that's definitely waining. Oh, and for shorter but more frequent updates check out Jo on Twitter @neverconforming.

Overheards and expectations

I’m typing this on the gadget while being sat in a cafe in Shropshire and this is providing me an opportunity for highly entertained reflection which is challenging my expectations.

Since the mrs moved to the same city I’ve been travelling by bus more again. The journeys have varied from being completely unexceptional to highly noteworthy. On our latest explore we overheard a story which would have seemed quite at home on Jeremy Kyle. The woman in question was in a deeply personal conversation with what appeared to be her ex and she was suggesting that he couldn’t play happily families with her, their child… And the new gf! As the phone calls (plural) progressed prison was mentioned and reassurance that the person on the other end of the phone wouldn’t be arrested. This seemed particularly ironic as it was barely mentioned before the bus took as past the prison. Neither of us seemed convinced this was the kind of conversation you’d want overheard but the whole bus surely knew the gory details. Unfortunately this wasn’t an occasion where expectations.

Nor for that matter was a bus journey interrupted by girls who’d evidently sat on springs. Their conversations were interspersed by mock fall outs and moving from one side of the bus to the other to avoid or join one another. Their conversations were suitably mundane but facebook was referenced more than once.

The most recent experiences of facebook are those which have challenged by expectations more. From the random overheards, those noted while in this coffee shop will keep me entertained for a while.

A couple of gentlemen on a neighbouring table were catching up when one of them remarked “I nipped onto iTunes to check out his music. Do you have any idea how many albums he released?” followed by a response of “no, but I popped onto YouTube to see some of his stuff”. The conversation continued and later peels of laughter ensued in response to a comment about facebook posts. These guys were certainly on older side of the facebook generation being well into retirement. While this shouldn’t surprise me it did but with great delight.

I shouldn’t be so cynical though. Facebook has it’s uses above and beyond the normal. I “met” my step-sister’s daughter this week as she was staying with my dad. Dad, the girl told me, was playing fb poker and his wife was watching x factor so the 7 year old had been encouraged to natter to me. Dad explained later that she’d done all the typing herself and would I mind offering to chat again because it helped her learn to spell. I can’t say I’d ever imagined chatting to a 7 year old on facebook – I barely consider doing it *off* facebook!

Horray for those things that open new doors and challenge expectations.

Notes on my Spiritual Journey 5 – SCM

After a break from most church-related activities for all of four months, I found myself making a surprisingly big commitment given I’d just moved to Manchester to start a career in community cohesion and work in the crime and disorder field. I walked away from all that to return to SCM, but this time as a member of staff rather than student or trustee. As previously mentioned, the organisation has symbolised for me the space to find, well, anything and everything. To come into this organisation as a member of staff presented me with a daunting yet inspiring task as I was in awe of my predecessor.

In this baptism of fire, I quickly found myself meeting and greeting chaplains as equal and discussing complex theological issues more often than I could imagine. I was regularly writing, and commissioning resources to encourage students to engage more deeply and passionately about their faith. As the demographic to whom we were appealing were academic, highly intelligent adults, the level to which the resources had to be aimed was sufficiently high. As such, I had to ensure that my understanding of any given subject was good enough to do justice to the topic. This has equipped me to expect and relish highly discursive, well researched and presented theological discussions and services where appropriate.

It was also in this setting that I became more experienced and competent in producing alternative worship and liturgical resources. I was commissioning and writing prayers for all sorts of situations including a World Aids Day resource, a book introducing different methods for biblical study, and on themes such as being prophetic, life in all its fullness and global links. It was within the context of alternative worship stations that I felt I had particularly found my niche. It gave me the opportunity to consider what could be drawn from the passages in different ways. There was always something to make/create, something to listen to, something physical, something to hold, something to see, something passive/reflective. There was also always a challenging and confessional act, an intercessory act, an act of commission, an act of sharing, a meditative and responsive act and an act of thanksgiving and/or adoration. These activities were then drawn back into the worship later on.

As I became increasingly able to see the options for responding to the biblical passages in such a way, there were increasingly times where I felt I had something to say, as well as do, in response. SCM wasn’t the best setting for doing that but it also felt that I was in the time of stability that my chaplain had suggested and as such I spoke to my superintendent minister about a call to preach.

As these two strands came together I found SCM benefitted from my local preacher training, and my training most certainly benefitted from SCM. The approaches I’d gained and the commitment to look deeply into any given topic empowered me to engage considerately with the text, and take on board the nature of the worshiping congregation when preparing services for them.

The job was something I very much felt called to go to, and felt an awareness that it was time to move on. For me, the opportunity to engage in leading worship, encouraging others in their faith, offering pastoral support, growing communities and empowering volunteers to action was the appropriate ministry for me at that time.

SCM continues to be an organisation I feel privileged to have served, and I am frequently reminded what a great tool-kit for life I have gained from it. A familiar phrase to many SCMers is to have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That commitment to engaging with faith and society is essential to my own theology, and how I aim to live out my faith.

Bibles

Next week should, subject to results, be my final local preachers meeting on Trial. As part of it I will be completing an interview on 2 of John Wesley’s Sermons (The Almost Christian and The Use of Money) as well as doing a follow up interview about progress throughout my training and since I was interviewed last (when I prepared some reflections on the journey so far).

It also means the time has come for me to choose the Bible to request as an accreditation gift. For me this is far more exciting than having a service to mark the occasion or finishing the course etc. It’s been a while since I was given a Bible and I wouldn’t necessary want to use my Adventure Bible or my rainbow covered Good News Bible for preaching from. As such this is a nice opportunity to get something quite good and much more appropriate to a) adulthood and b) my current approach to the Bible.

What would you pick if you could ask for anything, well anything to an upper price limit? For those who have already been at this stage, what did you choose when you were given the opportunity? I quite fancied this one but can’t seem to find it close enough to the upper price limit.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Notes on my Spiritual Journey 4 – The Convent

My decision to leave university was both last minute and unexpected. As such, when I came to look for something to do a large aim was to find something which would give me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences and reassess my future plans. After an initial light hearted suggestion to my chaplain that I go off and become I nun, I approached an order in Birmingham to see if they’d let me live alongside them for 6 months. As it would have it, after an appropriate time of discernment for all concerned, I moved in about 6 months after leaving university.

The space provided me with great love and acceptance as well as encouragement to be myself. I truly began to understand that in serving the needs and requirements of those around me, especially those who were very humble and unassuming, I could not only find myself but also find great joy in that action. The regularity of routine, particularly meals and prayers, helped me to develop beyond my university experience and grow into an adult.

As part of my stay, I was encouraged to combine activity with action to deepen my understanding of my faith. I undertook an introductory course in Biblical Studies which helped my understanding, and my volunteering both inside and outside the community gave me many ways to see the ways in which the action was as important as the prayer and bible study.

The final part of my stay which continues to be of relevance to me is my spiritual director. During my residency, I was encouraged to find someone with whom I could share my thoughts and feelings about faith. I was perfectly matched on my first attempt to find a director, and continue to see him regularly. He has shared with me different facets of my spiritual experiences over the last 5 years. The sessions frequently provide a useful reminder of things which may have happened some time ago, or of changes I have made. My visits to see him also enable me to continue to visit the sisters and, no matter how formative each strand is, I find them permanently linked.

The sisters were truly welcoming and encouraging and it remains a great honour to have had them welcome me into their lives. They continue to be like family to me and hold a very special place in my heart.

Back in Time

The weekend was spent in a long planned and much anticipated break with some friends. We availed ourselves of a company perk of v cheap accommodation which turned out to be fantastically welcoming and well equipped but somewhat behind the times.

The weekend presented a great opportunity to catch up and enjoy company and scenery alike. We shared cheese and stories, cheese and wine, cheese and mead (yay) and cheese and cheese. Spot a theme? On Sunday we, like the good Christian children we aren’t, went to the local church service. Never have I wanted to wretch the poor limp, lifeless body of the service out of the preacher’s hands so soon into a service! Technically I don’t even think it had started!

It’s probably worth clarifying before going any further that this was a guest preacher who’d never been invited before and I strongly doubt will get a return invite.

On appearing at the pulpit she had the normal time for notices to sort her papers but she evidently didn’t as when she arose she then explained she needed to find the right pages so we’d start with ‘a half minute of silence… Amen’. I can’t honestly say it was any the more obvious she’d found them when she carried on but I guess she must have!

A time of praise would also have given her the opportunity to get sorted and for us it presented what in hindsight was the best of the time. During it, however, our concern and disapproval was clear amongst the five of us. A very formidable school marm-esque lady (of uncertain name) led the singing. At one point she informed us our singing wasn’t good enough so we’d have to do it again better. On another she apparently told off the choir and the computer in the same breathe for apparently not using the right words to a hymn (the computer had spelling errors apparently… It didn’t. It had the wrong words spelled correctly). The finest moment, however, was suggesting all cold callers should be met with bible in one hand and tea in the other to be invited in for discussion. It turned out she only meant religious door salespeople e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses. She made it perfectly clear that she wanted them to be banned from proselytising but that opportunities for us to convert the heathens were important for us. Kinda worrying for these 5 hellbound liberals when that’s the lightness.

As we returned to the main ‘preacher’ she continued in her dithery way through a kids address which would have been effective in anyone else’s hands. Well, almost anyone. Praise lady had a go in a way which only managed to further condemn this failing activity. Afterwards the kids were removed to a safe distance for junior church. The mrs wanted to know if she could be a child on this occasion.

On their departure we were introduced to the hymn with the immortal imagery that our walk with Jesus is like walking a dog (for him or us, we wondered? I also wanted to know whether if I clicked my heels together three times Jesus and I could go home). The Mrs finally gave in at this point and cracked up in tears and laughter. We weren’t sure whether the looks from the woman in the row in front were of sympathy or solidarity, or both.

The prayers, all of them in one go, were shared in appropriate style: wittery, incoherent and unpc. They included little direction but many uncertain uses of the words please and ‘Jesus I just erm’. Highlights included ‘the dark parts of Africa’ and only prayers for the Christians. Even the lords prayer was introduced with something like ‘i wonder if we could now say the lords prayer, erm, please?’

Our one reading was shared, despite two being listed (and the second being more interesting) and the sermon began. Well, you could say it was a sermon, or you could say it was the incoherent, disorganised, inappropriate ramblings of an ill-informed, ungifted and otherwise hopeless person trapped in 1930’s levels of political correctness and who represented not only an affront to my denomination or faith but to all even nominally religious everywhere. On this occasion perhaps I should call it the ‘sermon’!

After declaring her position as one who was pleased that the church followed the lectionary because it challenged her and others to look for something from the readings rather than just decide what to say and find scripture to back it up. If she’d managed to do this we’d have all found it more palatable. She didn’t. She didn’t even seem to have a theme through what she’d said, despite having proposed one at the beginning. What we did learn from her was that she couldn’t work from the lectionary and the whole of Mark was appropriately bastardised and yet she still failed to make a credible point. The only memorable point, however, was that Jesus is a voyeur but only of Christians. Apparently he doesn’t watch other peoples lives. If that’s not an advert for defection nothing is! She also clarified that Jesus hears everything we say and sometimes we should hold onto that and be quiet. We all wanted to suggest that this was one such occasion. She didn’t, however, say anything about the reading we’d heard.

As the ‘service’ drew to an end we had to sing the wrong hymn, thus confirming we were not singing from the same hymn (book) sheet. As we joined hands with those around us for the grace out eyes were met by pleading apologetic eyes who also were uncertain about which of our many sins had led to such punishment.

As we turned to leave the sympathy continued with an invite to the next service with the very obvious subtext that it could in no way be that bad, and should we be brave enough to return on that occasion we could even get an apple for our troubles. Bribery is always the way forward. 😉 More covert apologies were offered and we made the swiftest exit we could get away with. On our return to our own space all 5 of us cracked up in equal measure of tears and laughter. Never have any of us been to a service which has led to such levels of disbelief, anger, frustration and entertainment. The people seemed lovely and welcoming but the service really was an experience to be beheld but certainly not one to ever be repeated!

(aside: is it inappropriate to tag this in the ‘worship’ category?!)

It must be the middle of August (rant alert)

Every year at this time the news media in the UK seem to be filled with the similar comments about the education system. Take your pick from the following: “standards are falling”; “exams are getting easier”; “the opposition condemn (x element) of the education system”; “the problem with easy(?!) subjects e.g. media studies”.

I would like to stand up and be counted as one who truly hates this annual ritual and thinks it to be incredibly unfair and belittling to both students and teachers. It is not acceptable to undermine the work and commitment of some (even most) striving for the best results possible, and suggest that in some way it is less significant than the work of their predecessors.

Teaching is one of those jobs that I would not do for all the money in the world because it would drive me mad, but (and partly because of that reaction) I have a huge respect for teachers. Many of my friends and several of my family are teachers while my sister amongst others wishes to make it her career. And to make that commitment, even for all the rewards it brings, requires a submission to the education system which is fair political game for point scoring and bickering.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that some of the developments over the last few years have been appreciated while others haven’t. Growing up, however, I was used to curriculum changes (and sometimes very significant ones) occurring as regularly as every other year. No chance to get used to one set of goals and targets before the next is implemented. It is not going to be possible for either students or teachers to be able to fully reach their potential when there is no continuity from one year to the next.

It seems that the continuing and various methods of assessing students and their schools are never viewed as adequate. That may indeed be the case, but why is it that the majority of the discussions are focussed on this particular week/weekend (at least in the media). Every August, in the run up to A Level and GCSE results it seems that all those frustrated with the system or looking to score cheap jibes crawl out of the woodwork.

I would like to say to all those people: If it matters, keep talking about it and working for it throughout the year BUT shut up now! If you want to increase standards and celebrate achievement, do not do all you can to undermine them at the time when students are at their most anxious about results. Let us take the opportunity to celebrate with those who’ve done well, for themselves as well as by objective standards. Let us commiserate and have sympathy and understanding for those who have not achieved what they wanted or hoped for. But whatever you do, do not condemn the same students for the challenges or failings of the system over which they have no control.

Urgent Help Request

If any of you are about and can spare 5 minutes between now and midday today (UK time), please, please, please can you try and assist my sister in her final degree work.

She’s been publishing some of her recent pieces of work on her blog and would really appreciate any comments/critique etc which can be offered.

If you can’t get there by 12, please do pop along and make comments anyway.

Thank you so much.

Socks

A long time ago, I blogged about my first sock, and that inspired me to carry on knitting socks. Well, it inspired me for a few months during which time I made two complete socks from differing patterns and two half socks which matched. That’s the way they stayed until lent. After finishing the baby clothes I thought I’d pick up the unfinished projects and see where that took me.

I am delighted to say that of those three pairs of socks which were started 2 years ago, two have been completed and one completely undone.

These ones ended up with very different heels and I couldn’t remember what I’d done, so I undid them to have another go some time. The yarn is lovely – it’s hand-dyed Blue Faced Leicester yarn. Unfinished Sock
The pink ones have a heart pattern on them, and were themed for Valentines Day. They are now finished after quite some time as they were the first pair of this batch to be started. They are made of lovely hand-dyed Merino yarn.
Pink Sock Pink Sock Detail
The next pair are the nicest I’ve made yet. The yarn is Alpaca which is hand-dyed and it’s so, so soft. The nightmare with it is that it’s very easy to get in a knot, and the mrs spent lots of the weekend painstakingly undoing the mess I’d got the spare yarn into.
Alpaca Sock Detail Alpaca Socks
The final pair of socks were started on holiday after the Knitting Disaster, and are a pattern I made up as I went along. I like it when things work out, and they’re close enough to my size so I’m actually getting a pair. They’re made of Regia Designer Sock yarn, so they are neither hand spun nor dyed like the other socks. While perfectly fine to knit with they weren’t as much fun so I’ve reverted to the nicer yarns for the current project, which I’ll share in good time.

Notes on My Spiritual Journey 3 – Student Christian Stuff

The Student Christian Society was discovered at a similar time to the chaplaincy. A group of about 10 – 20 of us met weekly to drink tea and natter. Sometimes we’d do some theological discussion, and other times we’d go bowling. Once a term we’d do the evening service at the chaplaincy, and we’d go on an annual retreat. The group was made up of a quirky group of people but all of us found fellowship with one another. We had no expectations about each other’s beliefs, chosen worship styles, passions or university (for there were 4 to choose from). The group was a tight knit bunch but deeply committed to living out faith fully, and exploring together.

In my second year, things moved up a notch as I also discovered the Student Christian Movement, and in that a thriving group across the country doing what we were doing. I attended their annual conference and found myself encouraged to write prayers and interactive activities (alt worship) for the corporate worship one evening. In co-ordinating the worship from SCS I had benefited from a lot of advice from a good friend training as local preacher. On conclusion of the worship session, I felt greatly honoured and encouraged that several people from the conference asked for the resources to use within their own communities.

It was in this setting that I had found myself increasingly involved in preparing and leading worship for the student group, and within the chaplaincy. As the time came for SCS to lead their termly evening service, the group met to prepare it. As all of us had concerns and fears about ‘preaching’ or doing the ‘talky bit’ we opted for preparing a slide show enabling people to reflect personally on the word of God. As the Sunday of the service approached, I became increasingly unsettled that we had no exploration of the readings and, by about midnight the night before a feeling had boiled up inside me where I felt I had to respond to the readings by preparing and delivering a ‘talky bit’. The same friend who had assisted me with the prayers earlier, encouraged me and made time to guide me through some basics to consider as I prepared the reflection. The reflection was duly written and presented, giving more structure and definition to the service. I was encouraged to consider exploring preaching further, but on that initial occasion said I’d done more than enough of it.

I was encouraged to lead a similar section of the service on one subsequent occasion and found it rewarding.

On leaving university I continued by links with SCM nationally by getting involved in their board of trustees. This gave me unique opportunities to work alongside chaplains and to commit to this organisation which was increasingly meaning more to me. The space, at a national level through events and publications, informed me about ideas and influential thinkers I’d not had the opportunity to experience until then. In this environment I was not only challenged but equipped to respond to the questions which were emerging. It was the opportunity for me to grow faster, confidently and competently within the theological setting while being allowed to critique as many ideas as I embraced.

My time at SCS, and SCM, led to me seeking to ensure that such provision as I had benefited remained available for other students, and many of the people I met through the organisations remain good friends.