Things I Liked In July

Each month I do a post covering ‘things I liked’ – from articles to videos to tv shows to books to anything in between. Here’s my list of what I liked in July. What have you liked this month?

15 Ways To Catch Up With Friends That Aren’t Grabbing A Coffee Or A Cocktail

Look I love coffee. But not all my friends do. Not all my friends are most comfortable and talkative sitting at a table surrounded by strangers. Here’s a list to jump-start some ideas about interesting things to do with friends.

Lifelong Vegan

Kamina, of Nina Kardia and We Write You has started a vegan coaching business. I did a session with her, and it was really helpful. You can read my testimonial here!

10 Famous Book Hoarders

I am a minimalist in every area of my life….except my book collection. Beautiful libraries are my jam. I loved this list of book collections.

5 Things To Love About Black Sheep

I’ve been going to Black Sheep at least once a week for almost a year now. It’s dog friendly and will give you delicious delicious coffee. Here’s some other things that are good about, as written by Milika.

Hogwarts School of Arts and Music

Twenty years of Harry Potter (see my reflection here) has brought the much loved book series back into the light of public view. I loved this piece which argues that most of the analogies people are making about the real world and the HP world get it all wrong. Have a read (please!).

Constraints Can Breed Creativity

I’m finding this more and more true – when I limit myself, I am freed to be more creative, happy and productive in the space I’ve made for myself, rather than being overwhelmed by the hugeness of the world and it’s options.

Sayable

This blog is rocking my world and my heart right now. The above post gave me life on a day when I was tired and sad. It reminded me of the contradictory wonderful nature of my God and my faith. Lord, I believe – help my unbelief. It is all Jesus, all the time – I bring nothing to the table.

Everything Sayable writes has me saying – yes, me too. Here’s a bonus post on how to pray when you don’t know how to pray and here’s another bonus post on our hiding places.

Women and The Reformation Part 4 – Always Reforming

This is part four in my series on the Reformation and it’s impact on women. You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.

The Counter Reformation

The Counter Reformation is the name given to the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. Even before Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was starting to adapt and change – this was certainly made more necessary, however, with the advent of the Reformation. Recently, historians have revealed the importance of women to the Catholic revival after the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent has been called the launch point for the Counter Reformation – the Catholic Church declared a number of the Protestant beliefs as heresies, as well as revising and confirming the Catholic liturgy. It shaped and defined the future of the Catholic Church.

In this period of history, women often used their social status to negotiate their own spaces for religious expression. Where the traditional institution did not make room for them, the women forged their own groups and positions. For example, women in the Benedictine convent of Überwasser used their elite social status as ‘members of the noble class’ to challenge the reform of their convent. The nuns revealed themselves as more than silent brides of Christ. As another example, the group of pious lay women known as the Lichtmutter (light mothers) were overseers of the provision of candles in the parish church, but who came to fulfill a range of duties including the collection of alms and church maintenance.

At the close of the Council of Trent Catholic society offered two respected roles for women: wife and cloistered nun. By the end of the following century women had numerous other roles available to them, such as nurses, teachers and activists. They were integral parts of the new Counter Reformation society.

Where are we now?

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation changed society for all people. As we have looked at, it’s easy to notice the changes it brought to the lives of women, for better and for worse. But where are we now? What difference has it made?

Most Western Protestant Churches are still dealing with the ‘women’s issues’ and struggling to find answers. This is telling; women are still seen as an issue. The leadership of women, the place for women as teachers and preachers is still contested and viewed by many (both men and women) as unbiblical.

Of course, some denominations have embraced the idea of female pastors – though sometimes for societal reasons rather than the conviction of scripture – and even in these churches, women are still facing struggles their brothers in Christ are not. Women often still feel like second class citizens in the church family.

Always reforming

I think the Reformers would be horrified if the Reformation had stopped with them. Reformation is not a one time event in history, but an ongoing attitude and process as we look at the Bible as we make decisions around how we do church and how we follow God.

The world is changing – it was changing for the Reformers, and it hasn’t stopped since. We will always be reacting to events around us as a Church, and we will always be tempted to both cling to old traditions out of fear and to leap ahead without stopping to check before we jump. Instead, we must turn again and again to God’s Word, just as the Reformers did, as we evaluate where we are heading as a Church.

References

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/

Review: Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe: Private and Public Worlds (Social History) by Sherrin Marshall

Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance

Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze

The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg

The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green

A Key to Counter Reformation Women’s Activism: The Confessor-Spiritual Director (Journal of Feminist Study In Religion) by Patricia Ranft

The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/

The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by Mihai Androne

More Than Footnotes: Part 3: http://juniaproject.com/more-than-footnotes-part-3-women-reformation-era/

Women and the Counter-Reformation in Early Modern Munster: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1688

I Went To A New Church

Over the last few months I’ve started going to a new church. I’ll be honest and say this process hasn’t been easy, but it also hasn’t been as hard as it might have been. I’ve learnt a lot about churches, people and myself, and I thought it was time to reflect on that a bit.

Myself 

I don’t like large crowds of people. I already knew this, but I’ve realized more than ever than a growth group or bible study with a few people is much easier for me than a church service with 60 people.

It’s okay to low expectations of myself in terms of social interaction at church, as long as I get to church. Even if I need to leave five minutes after the service ends or arrive five minutes after it starts, that’s okay – meeting with God’s people is still good and valuable.

Church

My favourite part of church is singing songs about Jesus – for similar reasons to why I like prayerbook services. I think the first function of a church service should be the family of God telling each other the truth we believe about Jesus – through song, through prayer, through reading the Bible.

I’m not sold by the concept of a traditional ‘sermon.’ I don’t think it’s the best way to hear the truth about Jesus, encourage each other and grow in him. It would be different if it wasn’t so hard to preach a good sermon – but it is.

People 

The first conversation isn’t hard. It’s the second, third, fourth conversations that transition into building a relationship that is hard.

People are generally friendly and kind. People are also busy and already in relationships. That’s okay. There will be people with space in their lives for you. Keep meeting people and you’ll find them.

If you’re going to a new church…

Taking it slowly is okay. You won’t feel connected and at home straight away – commit to a certain number of weeks before giving up. Inconsistent attendance is better than nothing.

Small steps all add up. Be friendly and open to possibilities. Keep persisting.

If you’re welcoming new people…

Be willing to not just have that first conversation with someone, but the third and fourth as well.

If you don’t have the energy or room in your life for a new relationship, connecting them with someone who does is a good idea.

Women and The Reformation Part 2 – Women In Action

This is part two in my series on the Reformation and it’s impact on women. You can read part one here. 

What The Reformers Thought About Women

Before continuing to examine how the Reformation changed things for women, I want to pause and take a look at what the Reformers themselves thought and said on this issue. As always, there is a mixed bag of opinions, with contradictory opinions sometimes expressed by the same Reformer. This is a very quick overview, not a detailed analysis, but is neccessary to show the framework the Reformers, including female Reformers, were often dealing with.

John Calvin saw the commands given by Paul about women remaining silent in the church as coming under adiaphora or ‘things indifferent’ – things that could be changed as circumstances also changed. While he did not have women taking on roles of leadership, he was opened to the possibility that churches in a different culture might permit it, or that it would be necessary in times of crisis.

Luther held seemingly contradictory views on women – naming them flighty, vain and weak, yet loving and valuing not only his wife and daughter but many women he worked closely with, as well as defending women publicly, advocating marriage to take more of a shape of a partnership and working to increase educational opportunities for women. For example, he once proclaimed “would that every town had also a girls’ school, in which girls might be taught the gospel.” He established a school in Wittenberg to train young girls in reading, writing, mathematics and music. But Luther viewed education not as a pathway to other vocational opportunities, but as a way to train girls to be good mothers and wives.

Writing

The translation of the Bible into ‘common’ languages (not Greek and Latin) meant that theologians and preachers began preaching and writing in the vernacular as well. This made thoughts on theology available to women for the first time, as previously not even wealthy women were educated in classical languages. This also enabled women to become more involved in writing and publishing because of the Reformation. The Reformation allowed women to write about a ‘masculine’ subject: theology.

Katherine Zell wrote at length about clerical marriage, having married a priest herself, she corresponded with leaders of the Reformation throughout Europe and she wrote a book of meditations on selected Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Marie Dentiere is another example of a woman who was writing at this time – she published the first Protestant history of the Genevan Reformation. More importantly, she wrote to Marguerite of Navarre, asking her to protect the persecuted Calvin and Farel, and included a detailed explanation of the woman’s right to read and interpret the Scriptures, which will be looked at in detail in the next section of this series. These women are examples of what was happening all over Europe – women were reading the Bible for themselves, and were able to write and speak on theological subjects, expressing their thoughts and opinions on important matters in a way that had not been available to them previously.

High Profile Protestant Women 

High-profile women were also becoming more involved in writing and reformist thinking. Marguerite of Navarre, the sister of Francis I of France, wrote the Mirror of a Sinful Soul. Similarly, Katherine Parr, the last queen of Henry VIII, wrote a book called the Lamentations of a Sinner which was the first devotional text written in English by a woman.

Marguerite of Navarre had reformist leanings but saw herself as orthodox – Katherine Parr, on the other hand, maintained that people needed live their lives according to the doctrine of the Gospel. She wrote on the evils of the Papacy, and promoted the reading of Scripture and the marriage of priests. She was also around at the same time as several key Protestant woman in England, such as Anne Seymour, the Countess of Hertford, Katherine Brandon, the Duchess of Suffolk and even the Protestant martyr Anne Askew.

Anne Askew was a female preacher, who explained the word of God in English to any who would listen. She was arrested and tortured. Despite this, she refused to recant or name others, and eventually was burnt as a heretic.

Katherine Parr went on to help pave the way to a Protestant regency for her stepson, Edward the Sixth. She also had a key role in guiding Elizabeth of England’s education, teaching her to value the Scriptures. Elizabeth translated Marguerite of Navarre’s Mirror Of The Sinful Soul into English as a present for Katherine, and then the following year translated the first chapter of John Calvin’s Institutes into English. Clearly both women had a shared interest in reformed theology.

Katherine Parr also influenced Jane Grey, who was her ward for a time after the death of Henry VIII and Katherine’s remarriage. I’m going to finish this section of my series on Women and the Reformation with Jane’s story.

She was intended as a Protestant bride for the new boy king, Edward, but when the Edward’s health failed, the succession was rewritten to place Jane next in line – as a great niece of Henry VIII and a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

The events of Jane’s short-lived reign generally show a young girl placed in an impossible situation by adults who should have known better. But her faith in the period after this was truly remarkable for a girl only sixteen years old. Mary, the new Queen, daughter of Henry VIII, promised to pardon Jane from the sentence of treason and the punishment of death if she converted to the Catholic faith. But she was staunch in what she believed, knowing that faith and Scripture alone were enough to save her from a fate worse than death. She is a true example of the kind of education the Reformation opened up to women – if Jane had lived a hundred years earlier, she never would have had access to the tutors, books and learning she did. These things gave her confidence in Christ and certainty in what she believed about his death and resurrection to face turmoil and death without fear.

References

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/

Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance

Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze

The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg

The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green

The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/

The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by Mihai Androne

Women and The Reformation Part 1 – The Ordinary Life

The Reformation changed the landscape of faith in Europe and worldwide. Plenty has been written on the history and stages of the Reformation, and I will not try to rehash what has been said already by those with a better understanding of the topic. But for the context of this post, I will summarize the Reformation briefly.

The Reformation was a movement in the 15th Century, in Europe, where preachers and thinkers began to move away from the traditional structures of the Catholic Church, towards an idea of the priesthood of all believers, with a focus on the Bible being available to everyone in their own language, and of salvation coming through faith in Jesus rather than the offices of the church.

How did this massive shift affect the lives of women? The question of whether it was good or bad for women is too simplistic. I want to explore how it changed things – then we have a starting point to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of this new way of Christian life.

This is not an academic essay, but I will list at the end of this piece the main books and websites that helped my thinking. These would also be good starting points if you wanted to explore this subject further.

Identity

The introduction of the concept of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a huge one. This was the idea that all believers had direct access to God through Jesus Christ. All people could have direct access to God through prayer and reading his Word (the Bible). While previously people’s relationship with God was mediated through a male priest, now all were equal before God through grace. Women were being encouraged, for the first time, to read the Bible for themselves. With this came an increased level of education and general literacy for women.

In terms of identity, the Catholic Church had previously portrayed women as saints such as the Virgin Mary, or as temptresses and the root of sin, like Eve. Now, women were grasping a new identity for themselves – redeemed children of God, part of his church family and valued as believers.

In addition, the Reformation placed a stronger emphasis on the whole church body being the ‘bride of Christ’ – a female role, in relationship to Christ Jesus as the bridegroom. This raises other ideas about the different roles in marriage – the bride as subordinate to the husband, the head of the wife.

 

Education

The Reformation changed the nature of Education drastically, especially for girls. Previously, the school system of the Middle Ages relied on parishes or convents running schools. But the Reformers put forth the notion of unrestricted education that was open to all young people, regardless of gender or social class. This transferred the responsibility of education to the political authorities. There was also a new focus on the importance of family education, which gave women a new role as they began to take responsibility for educating their children in Scripture and doctrine. Luther in particular believed it was the parents’ responsibility to bring up their children to become well-read Christians, and that domestic education and schooling went hand in hand for the process of raising educated believers.

This approach to education meant many girls were attending school for the first time, and the question of how to approach the teaching of girls was being asked by more and more people. One interesting sign of the new interest in female education was that people were writing and publishing books on the subject.

Luther and other Reformers felt that girls as well as boys should learn not only religion but also history, classical and modern languages, literature, music, and mathematics. Programs that balanced work and study were proposed for students without academic ambitions. Students were encouraged to spend part of the day studying the rest of their time learning a trade or skills to help them in keeping a home and raising children.

Some Reformers and schools also encouraged intellectually-qualified girls to study the liberal arts, like their brothers; at this time there was also a need for female teachers. However, Luther’s focus on education for girls was primarily to train them to be well rounded mothers and wives. We will look more at the Reformers’ attitudes towards women in the next section of this series.

Home Life

The Reformation placed an emphasis on the family unit as a household of faith. Marriage was viewed as a tool designed by God for the sanctification of Christians. In some ways, this elevated the traditional roles of wife and mother as supremely valuable and integral to the life of the home. Virginity and chastity, while still valued, were no longer idealized and glorified. The role of women in the family was acknowledged and praised in new ways, which some have interpreted as being liberating for women.

The flipside, however, is that choosing a celibate life dedicated to God became much harder to pursue, and was much less valued. No longer was the convent and veil a choice for women who did not wish to marry. In some ways, the changes made life more restrictive for women, in that there was less choice available.

Marriage and motherhood carried intrinsic risks for women; death in childbirth was a reality, as well as the heartbreak of infant mortality. Nuns had traditionally lived longer, not only by avoiding childbirth, but by avoiding the diseases of the masses.

For the ordinary women, the Reformation brought about many changes to their lives, from their identity as children of God, to their increased access to education and the new value placed on their roles in the home. However, things were still a long way from being ‘equal,’ and there were certain disadvantages and restriction of choices that came with these social changes. I’m going to keep exploring wider aspects of how the Reformation changed things for women in the next few parts of this series.

 

 

References

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/

Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance

Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze

The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg

The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green

The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/

The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by Mihai Androne

Things The Kids of Ministry Workers Wish You Knew

Being in and around churches and ministry for so long, you learn quickly that people have definite ideas and expectations of what the kids of those who work in ministry should be like. The high school/youth group phase can be especially trying. Whatever ministry role their parents are in, here are a few things these kids want you to know.

Note: all these things are subjective. Some of these things are okay in context. But unfortunately they mostly happen outside of genuine relationships or care, and this is what is most frustrating.

Please don’t share your strongly negative opinion about their parent/s ministry. Way to make things awkward.

Please don’t follow up a comment with ‘but don’t tell your Dad/Mum/parents that!’ That puts them in an uncomfortable position, and it’s usually because you said something without thinking – and now they carry the burden.

Please don’t start off small talk with ‘it must be so hard to be (insert name)’s kid!’ They appreciate you’re trying to connect. But it’s a deeply personal issue and asked out of the context of a relationship, it might be really hard to answer.

Please do respect their privacy. It’s hard enough growing up, making decisions and figuring out life while feeling like there’s a whole audience watching.

Please don’t ask them to fill in for a ministry position just because they are always around. There might be someone else who fits it better (and appreciate the opportunity more).

Please don’t label them as ‘PKs’ or ‘MKs’ (pastor’s kid or missionary’s kid). It implies that all kids of those in ministry are the same or have the same struggles.

Please don’t assume that because their parents are in ministry, they will automatically be Christians. They might be seriously struggling with their faith or they might disagree with their parents or their church on theological issues. Respect their autonomy by giving them space to work these things out – like you would for anyone else in the church.

Please do put in the work to build a genuine relationship. Yes, you know their parents and might have heard some stories about them, but that’s not the same as knowing them or having a relationship with them. You can help them feel less isolated.

Please don’t assume they know who you are (or should know who you are).  Even if you have met them once or twice before, don’t be offended if they can’t place you. They probably meet countless people at church every week.

Please don’t use them to get to their parents. Don’t try to impress them, and don’t ask them to share information about their parents. It puts them in a very difficult position (especially if they are still a teenager).

Please don’t play favourites. Don’t give them special treatment, or always pick them out from the crowd.

Please don’t hold them to a higher standard either. Don’t expect better behavior than you would of anyone else their age.

Out Of Control

I like to be in control.

I like to feel I am on top of a situation. I like to know all the relevant information and to feel I can make an informed decision. Then, I like to know that I have the ability to follow through on the decision. I like to know I can implement the plan without too much fuss or stress.

This works sometimes. I can control my schedule, my exercise, my eating, my spending and how I use my energy. I actually get joy out of discipline, out of control and measured responses, out of patience and necessary self-denial.

But I can’t control everything. The idea of someone having power and influence over me, the authority to direct my life and make choices for me, can be scary. I have quit things or said no to things because I fear it will take over too much of my life, or force me into certain paths of decisions. Sometimes that’s a healthy fear. Sometimes it’s not.

Self-control. I can control myself (most of the time). But there’s often things in my life outside of my control. When I have a chest infection, I can’t exercise the way I want to. When I eat dinner with friends or family, I eat what has been prepared and served. When my university changed the structure of my degree, it extended my time at uni for an extra six months. All outside of my control.

Though these are things I want to control, it doesn’t always work out that way. When we try to control other people, we quickly learn we can’t. Sometimes, people simply have different priorities and focuses than we do. No one is in the wrong or the right – we just want different things.

There are many things in my life that not only are out of my control, but should be out of my control. I am learning that it is not always good to be in control. My life is not my own. I am not the one pulling the strings or writing the script.

I easily forget that I am not God. I am not the one who is in charge and it is not my responsibility to ensure the world is run right. My idea of how the world should be run is not always right and even if it was, I have no authority to change things – not the kind of power God has.

Even my own life does not belong to me, but rather, I have given it to Jesus. Christians say that phrase often and easily – give your life to Jesus – but it is a heavy, serious thing. I have given control of my life to someone else. I have given up autonomy. I have submitted to a good God who knows more and knows better than I do.

I have acknowledged that when I try to control and manipulate things, people get hurt and the world is worse. I have accepted that I do not know best. You would think this would make giving up my life easier – but it doesn’t. It is the most difficult thing I have ever done. It is the process of daily denying myself autonomy and submitting to Jesus instead.

What does this look like? It means choosing kindness when I would rather be cruel. It means prioritizing relationships and people when I want to hide away. It means choosing to be generous with my money when I’d rather spend it on myself. It means that in all my decisions, I consider God’s glory and his will as the first priority, before my own wants and desires.

Because even though I struggle with wanting to be in control, I am learning: I can trust God with all these things. I can hand over these worries, these fears and the situations in my life that I don’t like and I can trust that God is good and is in control of all things.

A lot of the time this means my life will not look like what I might have envisioned. But that is okay. I believe God has a better vision for my life than I do, because he values my eternal safety over my here and now safety.

It does not mean my life will be easier or ‘better’ by human standards. In many ways, it will be harder. But that is okay. God does not want an easy or unchallenging life for me. Rather, he wants life to shape me to be more like him.

How do I know that God has the best intentions for me though? How can I trust him? How can I believe all this pain and sacrifice is worth it? Well, a God who was willing to give up his life for me must be trustworthy. A God who loves when he has right to hate must be merciful. A God who keeps his promises will keep me safe.

I can rely on God. In fact, I must rely on him. I don’t have the power to control things. But God does. I can rest safe in the knowledge that he is in control and he is good.

Imagination – Part 2 – Escapism

Hiding from reality in books, tv shows and other alternative worlds is a common tactic people use to unwind. It’s so common, we gave it a name – escapism. We disappear from view, from ‘the real world’ for a few hours, to live through characters with more interesting lives, or worlds with more exciting adventures. We lose ourselves in the make believe. We escape.

Why do we like escapism? Wherever it is that we prefer to escape to, there’s a pull towards leaving our own world and problems to dwell in another world. We are attracted to worlds where the problems are usually easier to solve, or at least, there’s different problems to solve. There’s a clear issue or tangle to sort out. There’s a more obvious divide between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies.

The good guys are good and motivated by honor and charity and justice, and the bad guys are bad and motivated by greed and hate. Even when the good guys mess up, it just makes them more relate-able, more like us – and in the end, they still sort it all out anyway.

That last part is the key – the thing that draws us towards these stories is that we know there will always be a resolution. The story line finish, the plot points will resolve and there will be a clear solution to the problem. Most of us will be dealing with the same stressful things next week, or even next month, as we are today. Our problems are generally ongoing and exhausting, without a clear end or fix in sight. Not so in the fantasy lands we escape to.

Of course it’s not just fiction that we can use as an escape. Some people use work or their area of expertise or a hobby or interest area. They spend all their time reading about it, or only interacting with others who share this niche interest. Of course, when you only spend time with people who share this hobby, and never talk about things other than the hobby, there’s no risk of deep friendships developing. It’s emotionally safe – and it’s escaping true emotional connection and accountability.

So there are many forms of escapism that different people use in different ways to cope. Is that so bad? Well, like most coping mechanisms, what is helpful in small doses becomes unhelpful when we rely on it and use it constantly. Finding the balance between disappearing to other places to recharge, and living more in fake worlds than in the real world is a tricky tightrope to walk. Generally, when you’re consistently avoiding your real life problems by investing emotionally in fantasy worlds, storylines and characters, there starts to be a problem.

I have certainly spent times in my life on the wrong side of that balance – where the stories I am viewing and reading seem more real and important and interesting than the real people I see day to day. When life is hard, it feels like, well, why not? Why not escape for a while and check out emotionally until things are better? But of course, the difficult things don’t just go away. They will still be waiting when I get back. They still require my time and energy to tackle and solve.

So I’m trying to be more aware of my flights of imagination and the joy of escapism as a useful coping strategy, without relying on it to avoid the difficult things in my life all the time. I am trying to find that delicate balance between enjoying something and being consumed by it.

There are times when it’s okay to use escapism as a temporary form of coping. Sometimes, you can’t deal with the difficult thing or react to the hard conversation straight away. Sometimes you need to pull yourself together for a few more hours of class or work or social interaction. Sometimes, if ten minutes of escape into a book or to your Instagram feed is what you need, it’s okay to do that. Sometimes that is what will help you keep it together until it’s an appropriate time to process what has happened emotionally.

However, spending hours in these escapes, constantly checking out from real life and avoiding work and responsibilities in favor of an alternative reality is where you run into a problem. It’s where I can see I am struggling, if I’m spending all my time in the fantasy world of a book or tv show rather than staying on top of my uni work and talking to my family.

There’s a big difference, at least for me, between watching the new episode of a tv show I am watching and then talking to someone about it, than spending hours scrolling through the internet for more gifs and reviews of the latest thing I’ve watched. This is when I need to stop, take a break and start focusing where I am right in the moment, and what demands are making me want to run.

Everyone deals with these things differently. Maybe escapism isn’t the temptation you face or maybe you find it easier to visit these make believe worlds without neglecting real life. But i think a lot of us still have work to do in finding that balance between a healthy coping mechanism and an unhealthy avoidance strategy. I know I do. I’m going to keep working on it.

Liturgy for the Broken Hearted

On Wednesday, I was struggling. I didn’t have the words to cry out to God. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to say the things I needed to express. I know God understands what I am feeling. But not being able to articulate it to him left me trapped in a un-communicative spiritual vacuum. My brain was broken. My heart was hurting. My emotions were on edge and my soul was sore.

Wednesday was also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. You may have read about my exploration of Advent, and how it has helped me to slow down in a season where we are tempted to be busy and frantic. So now I’m also exploring Lent, and what this spiritual season could look like for me, a mixed-up Protestant with uncertain opinions and a theology based on clinging to Jesus.

Lent takes place in the 40 days leading up to Easter (the time we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection). It’s a period of reflection and sacrifice, in the light of the sacrifice Jesus made at the cross. It mimics the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, praying and fasting.

In my new tradition of vaguely following the church calendar, I went to an Ash Wednesday prayer book church service with some friends. I had almost no emotional energy and still no words to speak to God with. But that was okay. The beautiful thing about liturgy is that you don’t need to find your own words. You only need to repeat the good, faithful truth words of the service along with the congregation.

As we spoke and prayed our way through the liturgy, I was reminded again and again of truths I know, even though I didn’t have the capacity to express them myself. I spoke of the truth that God is sovereign, I acknowledged him as my Lord, I thanked him for the cross. I repeated the glorious truth that I am forgiven, I am accepted, I am loved, despite my brokenness.

In those 45 minutes, we prayed, we thanked God, we took the Lord’s Supper and we were marked with ashes. The physical  mark of the ashes helped me to recentred myself to the reality I live in. I was told to remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. The way the Lord’s Supper interacts with taste and smell and the feel of the wood under my hands were tangible things that pulled me out of myself and pointed me to Jesus and the reality of his love.

Liturgy helped me. I didn’t need a chaotic rush of noise and complex ideas. I didn’t have the energy or strength of mind to follow a complicated 30 minute sermon. I didn’t even have the words to express to a small group of people what I was feeling and thinking. I just needed Jesus. I just needed to hear and say the words of Gospel over again. I needed to be reminded that I am part of a larger whole in the church of God.

These are the words that reminded that I am sinner, loved and redeemed by God:

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.   

Snapshot: Steinhof

As part of my Inclusive Education Course over here in Austria, I’ve visited a lot of organisations and sites as part of our ‘excursions.’ They all relate in some way to how people outside ‘mainstream’ society have been treated and educated. I’ll be writing some snapshots of these places to summarize what I have seen and learnt. 

Warning: this post talks about things like Nazis, tortured children and deliberate extermination. If you aren’t up for reading about these things, skip this post.

During my course in Graz, we had a weekend trip to Vienna. On the Saturday afternoon, we went to Steinhof.

When Steinhof opened in 1907, it was a fairly progressive mental health hospital, at least for it’s time. It had a park where patients could walk and a church where they could worship. They were housed and treated in the rows of pavilions that make up the bulk of the hospital.

However, when Austria was annexed just prior to the Second World War, the function of the hospital started to change. Soon, not just the mentally unwell but many types of ‘socially undesirable’ people sent to Steinhof. Communists, the same-sex attracted, women who gave birth outside of marriage, children with autism or other behavioural disorders – anyone who didn’t fit a narrow criteria of ‘normal.’

The Nazi Government did not want to waste food or medicine on these people, so treatment was stopped, which killed many patients, and food was scarce, which killed even more. Then the experiments started. Over half of the hospitals’ patients were children, and a number of the doctors, led by Heinrich Gross, began carrying out experiments on the children’s brains. These experiments often led to agonizing deaths for the patients.

Of course, patients there didn’t just die from starvation, a lack of treatment or experimental torture. Some were very deliberately killed. If their file was reviewed by the head office of T4, the Nazi extermination program, and it was decided they weren’t worthy of life, they would be injected with a cocktail of drugs that would slowly kill them over the next few days.

Obviously, visiting this site was an intense and slightly horrible experience. I think the worst part was knowing that those running this hospital of death were never brought to account for it. Heinrich Gross, the main instigator, didn’t face trial until the early 2000s, and it was never concluded as he died in 2005. After WWII he had a successful career as a psychologist and university lecturer in Vienna.
Visiting was one of the most emotionally intense and awful experiences I have been through, but it feels even worse knowing most of those running these experiments and death hospitals got away with it and never faced a trial. The sense of injustice overwhelmed me.
When we labelled people as ‘other,’ when we begin to think of people as different and not like us, we run into trouble. It’s easy to dehumanize other humans if we’ve already convinced ourselves we don’t have that much in common with them anyway. It’s easy to forget that we are only who we are through God’s grace and luck. If we were the other, the marginalized, the forgotten and despised, how might we view things differently?
I am still figuring out what this experience has taught me, but most of all I think it has served as a warning – that to be human does not always mean we act humanely. That mercy and compassion do not come naturally and can be waylaid easily. That justice does not always happen this side of heaven, and we cannot assume things will work out for the best if we do nothing. That horrors happen, often behind closed doors and with the approval of the state.
How do we react to the things humanity is capable of, both in the past and the present? How do we deal with the darkness in us, collectively and individually? I’m not sure. We look to Jesus, who is light and grace and mercy, the perfect example of humanity. We try to live like him, treating others with compassion and grace, whether or not we think they deserve it or not – for if Jesus loved us at our worst, how can we deem anyone unlovable?
These things help. But they don’t solve the reality of living with the knowledge of what humans do to each other. I don’t know how to reconcile that. I don’t think we are meant to be able to reconcile these horrible misdeeds though. It should hurt. It should make us uncomfortable and angry. It should make us feel awful. Maybe these are the only right reactions to injustice and suffering. Maybe we need to grieve, despair, and then get up, fix our eyes on Jesus, and try to do better.