dear Warwick graduand

warwick graduation

Dear Warwick graduand,

I’m glad that the sun has been shining for your graduation this week. That’ll sure look nice in those photos. I hope you’ve had a good time and not too much trouble keeping your family happy.

Just as an ‘oldy mouldy’ who’s seen a few Warwick graduations – fourteen, to be precise – come and go, I wonder if you might allow me, for an instant, to burst into all this Bubble hubbub, to burst your bubble.

I would like to invite you to identify who, or what, receives the honour from your graduation ceremony. There are two time-honoured ways of recognising what humanity values – the diary (time) and the wallet (money).

Let us think – you have spent the last three, maybe four, years of your life learning the ways of the world on this campus, examining some of the foundational theories of your academic discipline, and hopefully making some lifelong friends and not getting too drunk or high along the way. This has been, without a doubt, a formative period in your life. And you are emerging from it – you, with all your gifts and genius and weirdness and just distinctive individual interesting humanness – to a ceremony that allows you to walk across a stage for 30 seconds. Wearing basically the same outer costume as everyone else in your department (compulsory or else you cannot walk across the stage), identified only as ‘a degree holder in your subject’, and distinguished only from the other people walking on before and after you by the hierarchy of your degree classifications on your certificates. Hmm.

Let us think – someone has paid tens of thousands of pounds for your university education. Someone, somewhere, has worked really hard to generate enough of a surplus over and above the costs of survival, that you could be here. You yourself maybe, like many of my friends, have had to work part-time to keep yourself here. It has also cost your parents quite a bit to be present today (and astronomically more, if they’ve travelled from abroad) – look at that nice frock mum is wearing. And now that they are here, guess what? It costs yet more for you to be part of the 30-second walk across the stage in the right costume. Those flowers and balloons are not free. If your department is having a celebratory event, it also comes with a price tag. Hmm.

I am not saying that you should not have fun. I am not saying that you should not smile in those sun-drenched photos and be happy and have a great day. What I am saying is, understand that the flows of time and money on your graduation day are not really being directed by the University towards your honour – not very much, anyway.

What I am saying is, the universities across this country, indeed the world, convert the natural curiosity of young adults and the love that their parents have for them into large flows of time and money that shore up the university system. I am not saying that it is the universities’ fault either; that just seems to be the system, and indeed as far as Warwick goes, it’s a brilliant university to have spent three years at. Also, I know, I know, you have the day to get on with, and you’re not going to change the system today. But perhaps we should ask – as we pause to take off those high heels and apply plasters in between camera flashes – what exactly is it that we are shoring up? What are we celebrating and honouring? And perhaps more importantly, what should we really be celebrating and honouring instead?

Here are some suggestions.

1. You made it – many people don’t. Celebrate that somehow, partly through your own effort but very largely not, today the sun is shining and you are on a campus savouring this particular moment in your life. What a gift. Why should you be so lucky?

Please do NOT celebrate the fact that you, by your supreme human effort, have successfully climbed to the top of a very slippery pile, which usually involves desensitisation to your own values, and are looking smugly downward at all the other bodies that you have stepped on. Gross.

2. Your ‘framily’ – these are your friends and family who really, really do care about you. That flatmate who held your hair back when you were throwing up over the toilet. Your long-suffering parents who kept phoning you even when you weren’t really interested. Please, celebrate that you have them. Celebrate them.

If you are hoping that your 30-second moment of glory on the stage will produce this magic rush of approval and affirmation, and wishing that your awkward teenage brother and decrepit grandmother weren’t here, then have I got news for you. You are probably not going to finish your life rich and famous, but you can finish your life with lorryloads of framily. Public approval and affirmation will not make you feel deeply loved. Framily, although it is slow-burn and sometimes induces feelings of going crazy, will.

3. Uni Veritas – universities were originally started as a place for scholars to find the ‘one Truth’, the ‘Uni Veritas’, and to learn to live by it. Now, I happen to think that the original ‘one Truth’ that these places were set up for people to find is completely valid, because Jesus is the only thing (Person) that has ever made my world cohere. But this is not really about that, not directly anyway. The point is, celebrate the discoveries that you have made over the last three or four years as to how you want to live your life. Celebrate that you have certain values, which move you to live for things that are bigger than yourself. Celebrate your choices made consistent with those values, especially when you were tempted to sell out. Celebrate those times when you chose courage and fought fear. Celebrate your in this manner becoming more fully alive and human.

In other words, today, please don’t celebrate the university system, and please don’t celebrate yourself instead of that system. Celebrate your good fortune (‘God’, if you like), your community, and your ability to sell out your life for something much bigger than yourself.

Grace and peace, and sunshiney photos xx

social movements and Gen Y (or, stuff I’ve learnt from my students)

Oy! Don't so Lone Ranger leh

Oy! Don’t so Lone Ranger leh

I work with a lot of students, and many are really lonely when I first meet them. The more go-getting among them often have great ideas, followed by bursts of enthusiasm, followed by a gradual sinking back into normality/boredom when a project either successfully concludes, or bombs (or fizzles out in a middling sort of way). Eventually they get up again and have another burst of enthusiasm, for a different project. And do do do. And sink back. And rinse and repeat.

I don’t have a problem with this per se, in fact it can be a great sort of contained skunk works for rapid learning, and I don’t deny that it can produce some great results (in bursts). What I do struggle with, though, is the gap between most of these students’ huge hopes and dreams for things beyond themselves (peace in the Middle East, saving the environment, clean water and education for every child…) which will take massive sustained, coordinated effort to attain over years if not decades, and this pattern of scattergun, often Lone Ranger activity, which does not appear to me to be a workable, liveable means to achieving those huge hopes and dreams.

french civilian despair

The danger is that students then look at all these projects over time and think, “well, it was okay/good, but it didn’t really make a dent in (insert huge hope/dream). Come to think of it, neither did (this other project). Or (that other project). And they were all a heck lot of pain on my part for what they achieved.” This often doesn’t happen in a sudden realisation, more in a steady, creeping angst kind of way over a long period of time. And at this point, here are two destructive things that can happen:

1. The student loses heart. The gap between what they want to see in the world and their actual capacity to effect change just feels so unbridgeable, and they get discouraged and too hurt to try anymore. Something has soured. They retreat into their small dreams (sometimes telling themselves that those dreams are still worthy — which they are, they’re just too small for who the student is).

2. The student blames others. If only those guys over there had joined me; but they just don’t get what I’m trying to achieve (cue martyr spirit). So I’m going to try harder to do things even more on my own in future to protect myself. Or, poor me, stuck in this (job, relationship, other unfortunate situation) because I have to for (insert inevitable lifestory reason). If I didn’t have to do x, I could achieve so much more (cue self-pity).

Um, hate to break it to ya, but you are the only constant variable in your equation.

mo farah

One of my (smallish) dreams, which also happens to be one of the main purposes of the job I get to do (woop woop!), is to equip students and send them out into the world with both the heart that actually has those huge hopes and dreams, and the capacity to make them happen. Here are some of the things that I often find myself trying to teach/model to students in my job:

1. Focus your calling. You are probably not going to be the person who achieves peace in the Middle East and saves the environment and provides clean water and education to every child. But you might be the person who makes a massive dent in one of those. What’s it gonna be for you? (In the words of Jim Collins, what’s your personal hedgehog?)

2. Take the long view. It won’t all happen today, but it could happen in your lifetime. If x is really your hedgehog, which you will give your life to see happen, what do you need to start doing now so that you’ll be best placed to achieve it in 20, 30 years’ time? Sometimes these are really direct things, like getting more educational qualifications or work experience in a certain industry. But sometimes, these are strangely indirect things, like growing in perseverance through starting regular exercise. (And sticking with that image,) think of your life as a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Think movementally, not individually. Please don’t be the Lone Ranger, dreams that are bigger than yourself need movements that are bigger than just you. Who is going to be your mirror and your memory and cover your blind spots? Who can you hand on your massive hope/dream to so that it keeps growing past your lifetime? Most of us think in a rather loner, lifespan-limited way. Find a remedy for that. Live in community. Serve someone else’s hope/dream.

Gen Y are often characterised by sociologists as having little sticking power, and desiring community but being highly individualistic. Let’s buck those trends.

(Top photo from here; middle photo of French civilian crying as the Nazis occupy Paris from here; bottom photo from here. With thanks to all.)

rules, love, repentance

Been reading a crazy book lately, about freedom and church culture (those two things don’t really go together normally, do they!). Some mind-blowing truths about how to live in and govern freedom:

“When people sin, it is offensive […] it is natural to be offended when someone breaks the rules. We put people in prison and call them offenders. Our society is filled with sinners practicing sin, and naturally, our society is caught in a relationship with the rules. Even lawlessness is a relationship with the rules […]

Many rules call for many judges, and people love to play judge. That’s what headlines and newscasts are for, to help us sharpen our judgement skills […]

We have to be aware of how natural it is to be offended, and what offense does to you. What offense does to you is it justifies you withholding your love. I get to withhold my love from you when you have broken the rules, because people who fail are unworthy of love, and they deserve to be punished. In fact, what punishment looks like most often is withholding love. And when I withhold my love, anxiety fills the void, and a spirit of fear directs my behaviour toward the offender.

When we are afraid, we want control, and our responses to the sin of other people are a set of controls that help us feel like we are still in charge. The typical practices of the family, churches, and the government are to set a series of behaviours called punishments in front of an offender and require the offender to walk through these punishments in order to prove that the family, churches and government are still in charge in the environment […]

In a rule-driven environment, repentance […] signifies your willingness to let me punish you […] and the issue of the heart that led you to make the mistake in the first place is never dealt with, because the issue of relationship and love is never touched. The general attitude toward someone who is repentant in a rule-driven culture is, “You have surrendered your will to me in our environment. I’ll never be able to trust you though, because you have proven yourself to be a lawbreaker, and it will rest in my memory for a really long time. Until I begin to forget about how scared I was of you, I’ll never be able to empower you again.” […]

But true repentance is a gift. It’s not your option. It’s not your call. It is a gift that comes in a relationship. There’s no place for repentance in the rules, only for punishment. If you break our rules, then you pay our price. That’s just how it works. You pay the price in order to assuage the anxieties of the people in the environment that live within those rules. You do the crime, so you do the time. When we practice this in the Church, we are allowing ourselves to be defined by the limits of earthly government. When you break the law, the best earth’s government can do is to say, “We hurt them sufficiently so that you guys would calm down.”

The gift of repentance creates the opportunity for true restoration. In fact, it is absolutely necessary in order to heal a relationship that has been hurt by sinful behaviour. True repentance can only come through a relationship with God in which we come into contact with the grace of God to change […]

When God restores those who have repented, His process of restoration looks like reestablishing a royal family member in his or her place of rulership and honour […] the standard of the government of Heaven is that we learn to cultivate and protect our relationship with God, with love, and with each other. And if we can’t do it, we won’t reflect Heaven to the society we live in. We will just have stricter rules that offend us quicker, and we will judge more often and become more famous for being offended judges.”

— Danny Silk, Culture of Honour

end of my rope

This past week has been both very excellent, and very hard. Excellent because of many surprises and gifts, not least for my birthday, and because of lots of sunny experiences outdoors, including going to see the bluebells on the Warwick campus, which only last for about a week.

bluebell path

sea of blue

It’s been hard because something in me really rebels against being given things that I want to earn. After all these years of supposedly “living by God’s grace”, I am still, again and again, confronted by the fact that I obstinately think I should be able to make it alone. Surely surely, if I work hard enough, and am charming and pretty and bright and well-educated enough, I will make a success of my life and then I will be able to present it all to God for His approval. Up until then, God, really, it’s fine. I’m working on it, but it’s fine really and I’ll see you when I’m done. You’ll be pleased, I can tell you.

 I might shoot up a prayer on particularly desperate occasions, in the hope that God will align His powers to my agenda, but by and large, I put the food on my plate. I pay my bills. I cultivate my relationships. I get the promotions at work. I solve my own problems. And, just to show how competent I am, I help other people to solve their problems too.

But life has a way of blowing a fuse on you, which — sometimes — is Mercy’s way of reminding you that you can’t make things happen. (Sometimes it’s just crap that’s happening for no good reason.) And, you can also choose to do things that make you hungry for God, that enlarge that God-shaped hole inside of you, so that, even if you aren’t feeding yourself on Him yet, at least you know you’re hungry.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” — Jesus, Matthew 5.3

Awhile ago, someone I work with asked the question, “how can we arrange our lives in such a way that they won’t work unless God turns up?” That is, how do we make space to see God move, rather than just fending for ourselves in normal life? It’s quite a good question, if for no other reason than I have found that if I make my own heart desperate, God has less need to let the bugs get my attention. That’s part of what fasting is about, right?

Anyway, I think this is pretty much a season of learning to put myself in that hungry, desperate place. It’s funny because when we (my housemates and church community and I) started thinking about intentionally living in this season, I was really keen on it. I thought that it would be really satisfying, this having been my whole previous experience of ‘living by faith’; we would do some crazy radical things*, and then shortly after God would turn up, and we would have great stories to tell, right? Sure, we might go hungry and be miserable for awhile, but that would be a small price to pay for the miraculous returns and peer kudos in the longer run. (Did I mention I’m an achiever?)

God, however, is a lot cleverer than that, a lot harder to pin down and manipulate, and as a result, six weeks into our now-named ‘season of high challenge’, I am a lot more sobered than when we started. Whoever knew that He would bless us and provide for us, but not in the ways that we were expecting or asking for? Whoever knew that He doesn’t do things the same way twice? Whoever knew that He would use the delay time on coming through for us, and the fact that He’s just doing it in small and quiet ways, to shake my need for social approval? Whoever knew that He knows how to, while providing for me, still make me hungrier and more desperate than ever?

stretch of bluebells

very very blue

Someone I really respect once said that we make following Jesus easy and complicated, but it’s supposed to be simple and hard — all stripped back to that which really, really matters.

Hmm…I’m starting to think that I’m actually in a really good place.

*Sorry that I can’t be more specific about the crazy radical things yet, I’m sworn to secrecy until our season of high challenge is over. But watch this space…



I spent the weekend travelling to old places and new. I didn’t tell many people I was going, and as a result spent three days not speaking to anyone other than shop assistants. I went to this which was amazing. The picture above is from here, I bought postcards by the artist from the ARTs*LABO stall at the market.

It was good. I spent a lot of time by Tokyo Bay, watching ships depart and wondering why most of them are named something- Maru. I went to Meiji Shrine, where I was too early for the irises, then went back to the humid embrace of the rainy season, which is 9 days too early.

I am trying to forgive. I hold on to grudges unremembered by anyone else, and honestly, I think if I told someone what exactly I remember, they probably would find it quite horrifying. I find it quite horrifying. So I’m trying to forgive these little things I remember, to make space for new things. Memory is difficult, and talking about it is hard, because you don’t know how much people remember, and how much of yourself you will lay bare. I do genuinely wonder if my memories are my own, and how many of my stories in my head are just stories, half remembered conversations I’ve stiched together from different people, places I’ve imagined that I may not have been. It’s terrifying, this doubt. I envy those people who’ve had friends who’ve been with them ever since they can remember. I suppose that’s pretty much like a communal memory, for some things.

So I am trying to forgive, everyone, really, that I can, and slowly dissolve these unyielding pinpricks of time. For my own sake, and no one else’s. Since no one remembers, it is mine to let go.

bugs, Mercy, and being an achiever

You know how sometimes you get into a crisis, and it’s pretty obvious? Like the sirens are screaming and the bailiff is at the door and all the neighbours are watching, and there’s no denying it, girl’s got problems?

That has really only happened once in my life (and not literally). In the Good Girl realm of things (which I very much inhabit), crises rarely arrive with such fanfare. In fact, they very often don’t feel like crises at all, they feel like little niggling bugs which I can choose to carry on ignoring, to my peril. After all, there are so many other things I need to be doing. Better get achieving; YOLO and all, you know?

Maybe it’s having tried to get rid of the bedbugs in my room for about three weeks now*, but I have been learning to take the little niggling bugs seriously. The fact that they are small is no invitation to ignore them; they are in fact from Mercy, who is saying, “deal with this before it gets bigger”.

This week, the bugs were things like:

  • I didn’t know how I was feeling. When people who wanted a real answer asked, ‘how are you?’, it stressed me out.
  • I was working too hard.
  • I was late to things.
  • I was scratchy towards people.
  • I felt shallow. I could feel my smile getting thin, and knew that I was no bigger on the inside than I looked on the outside.
  • I had no peace about decisions. It felt like skating on thin ice.

Eventually, while talking to a friend, I realised that all these things point to the fact that I just wasn’t having enough space to connect with God and feel like myself**. I had made my life too noisy. Uhhhh, hello, old problem.

out walking with sheep

Sometimes, life is full of space and stillness and I go on walks…sometimes, not so much.

Being an achiever, having time to meditate and pray and generally hang out with God is one of those things that makes no sense whatsoever. Hanging out is not efficient. It is not successful. I want to try to turn it into a project with success/failure as potential directions, but that would defeat the purpose. It flummoxes the way my mind works.

However, it is essential if I do not want my epitaph to read, “busy person; no character”.

“The fruitful way into the depths demands a great deal of patience from [achievers] and the readiness to experience nothing spectacular for quite a while, or to be confronted with their own hostility, boredom, and superficiality […]

[Achievers] must confront the secret of the cross, which is the secret of failure: out of our defeats God makes his victories — not ours! This doesn’t occur to [achievers], this doesn’t work, this can’t be integrated into any system of promotion. [Achievers] on the way to redemption free themselves from their vanity and begin to hope in God’s sovereign activity, which can’t be manipulated.”

— Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert, from this very insightful book

The current plan for change is to get up half an hour earlier each day and just be with God with no particular agenda. I’m doing this with my housemate so hopefully the fear of social disapproval will work in my favour – we shall see.

*About the bedbug situation: the final cull is taking place this weekend – wish me luck and/or pray!
**Sometimes all the warning signs add up to different root causes, but this week was an elegant example of just one thing being the issue.

leaning the other way

leaning into windI had an assignment deadline yesterday, for this fundraising course that I’m doing over the next six months. First essay in a long, long while — I found myself really stressing over it. Would I have enough time to finish? Would I get my writing mojo on? What if I produced something incomprehensible/incoherent? What if (nightmare) I failed?

Having spent too much time on this assignment and lost too much sleep, and backlogged lots of other commitments this week, today I’m in a chastened sort of mood. I feel all disillusioned with this course process. Fear is just a lie.

There was a moment, while walking home from spending time with friends yesterday evening, when I only had an hour left to submit my assignment and was still 600 words over, that I realised something really important. Given my personality type, aiming to do as well as I can on this course and stressing about performance is entirely the wrong goal. It just heightens tendencies that I already have to an unhealthy level. To be arrogant but honest, there is almost nothing that will stop me doing well, because academically, there has never seriously been such a thing as me doing badly.

The right thing to focus on, and what, for me, will actually determine the success of this course experience, is whether I have a life while completing the assignments. Whether I still have regular mealtimes and regular prayertimes and regular seeing people times. Whether I keep communicating with my housemates and cleaning the kitchen. And having a day off and going on runs.

C S Lewis writes something in the Screwtape Letters that has really helped me to see this thing clearly:

“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger […] the game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”

The world isn’t linear, it exists in continuums and tensions, and so in his sagely way, Lewis is able to remind me that actually, when I think I haven’t gone far enough in one direction, there’s the whole opposite end of the spectrum to tend to as well. And going in that direction — now there’s a challenge which feels unnatural. But upside-down success looks like deliberately leaning that way, even if only flailingly at first, for that is how to learn.

(Picture from here. With thanks.)