During the conference, we were invited to make a bookmark which, at its end, would be gifted to another woman.
As you may expect, some of us happily dived in and began stitching and sticking, designing and decorating. others shrank back in terror, claiming to be useless at sewing, having not a creative bone in their bodies. Most, but not all, created a book mark, and, of those, most were submitted for sharing.
It's no surprise to anyone that I had lots of fun and, in the end, contributed five bookmarks (three of them are in this photo, but I'm not saying which).
As it happens, the one I was given is in the photo and, by chance, I know who made it. From what we shared over the conference, I know a little more of her story and of the love with which she created her bookmarks (she also made more than one).
For me, the exercise was worth deep reflection... on our fear of failure, our confusion of excellence with value, of the potential inweaving of self with creating (whether it's poetry, sewing, music, art, accountancy or cooking dinner), or the love that covers over a multidude of bodged stitches, wrong notes, soggy bottoms and arithemtic errors.
It's curious, isn't it, how parents and grandparents delight in wonky drawings and overly-iced cakes given by children, yet as adults we demand perfection from one another. Thank goodness God is parent not peer - delighting in our endeavours, putting our metaphorical pictures on the equally metaphorical heavenly fridge door, and telling the angels, 'yes, so-and-so did that, isn't it good....'
I will treasure the bookmark I was gifted, less for what it 'is', though it is lovely, and more for what it 'means'.
A century since the first ordained woman Baptist minister was recognised by the Bpatist Union Britain, around fifty Baptist women in ministry (ordained, in training, lay and even one or two 'not sure it's OK') gathered in Birmingham for an event to share, celebrate and encourage one another.
It was a truly wonderful couple of days in which we worshipped together, listened to each other, learned from one another, reflected together, crafted bookmarks as gifts for each other and shared cake.
Violet Hedger and Edith Gates are the two women to whom we trace our twentieth centruy roots (early Baptists had lots of women in ministry, then they gotorgansied and shut them up!), the two giantesses upon whose shoulders we all stand. So, the violet/purple theme reflects Violet's name, and it is good, very good, that she is honoured as the first woman who was able to complete study at a Baptist college - paying her own exam fees at a time when men had theirs paid for them.
I wanted to been part of the conference, yet I was a little wary - I was not alone. Fears of tokenism, presuppositions about theology and spirituality... all of these were named at various points.
Perhaps it sounds daft to say that I was glad I hardly knew anyone there - but it was a good, healthy, sign that there are now so many more women in ordained, and other recognised, ministries. It was good to see women in the 20s and 30s, as well as 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. It was good to have hair in all colours from white and gry, through black, auburn, brown and blond to fuschia and turquoise! It was good to meet charismatics and contemplatives, introverts and extroverts, those from radical, affirming and welcoming churches and those from more conversative churches, evanglicals and liberals... and all saying 'we delight in this diversity'.
I liked that it wasn't just a talking shop, but that we promised each other that we would do something more... so I'm stating here, so I can't wriggle out of it, that I have promised to go with the women in NWBA as they take this forward with their RMs, and that I will take it forward here in Scotland where I am still the anomaly.
I'm staying at the BMS International Mission Centre (IMC) in Birmingham. I come here three times a year for meetings and very occasionally I stay over for one reason or another.
It's a lovely place, and, for many missionary friends, the place they lived and trained before going overseas.
Whilst I have no significant links to the place, whenever I arrive here from Glasgow, having walked up the hill from Selly Oak station, I call to mind the former BMS missionary who was part of the Gathering Place, and who would tell me tales of arriving late, even later than the late pass she was granted coming from Glasgow, and climb in through a back window...
So, as I enjoy the view from my 'back window' and a day in this place of learning, love and laughter, I will recall JD. And I guess I leave a 'footprint' of my own as one of the countless people who pass through this place engaged in the Missio Dei is one way or another.
Time now for breakfast, and then the conference begins!
From psalms to hymns to worship songs, we sang our praises and our prayers this morning, in a wonderful 'Songs of Praise' style service during which the five folk we recently Baptised covenanted with us in Membership. Not often my voice cracks doing the words, but it did today! Such a precious and beautiful moment.
Afterwards, we made our way over the road to the Botanic Gardens to share a picnic - and what a wonderful feast we had. Persian soup, Scottish strawberries and oatcakes, English cheese and cherries... melon and hummus, crisps and breadsticks, eggs and apples, biscuits and bananas... a veritable feast with something for everyone, and a fair amount ot leftovers taken away afterwards.
It was an absolute delight to see young, old and in between all enjoying each other's company, sharing food and stories, and watching the children play with those from families and groups sitting near us. Here, in the park, on a sunny day, people of many races, faiths, nationalities and cultures shared the simplest of human joys - food and friendship.
As we move into summer, and as services take a slightly different format for a few weeks, it felt like we marked the transition in a good way - and maybe, just maybe, God smiled!
I know quite a lot of church folk read this blog, and I know that sometimes things I write here can be heard in ways other than I intend - I hope that's not the case here, but just to be on the safe side, I assure you that all is well, and I am simply exploring some tentative ideas that emerged this morning.
Some ministers are super-spiritual. They get up before God does, pray for hours at a time and read ginormous chunks of scripture every day. I am not one of them. Indeed, since my brain was fried by chemotherapy almost eight years ago, I've never quite managed to return to the rhythms and models that served me well for around thirty years.
One thing that does work for me is silence (or at least absence of conversation) and doodling, two things that retreats not only permit, they encourage. So this morning I had a half day of 'retreat at home' and it's been good.
I began sitting in my office and looking up on the internet some worship songs I love, but that, undoubtedly for good reasons, are never sung in the communities of which I am a part these days. As the music washed over me, I allowed myself to doodle, to let my brain go wheresoever it wished. I filled three pages with very different doodlings, culminating in the one that I've included above.
As I created the pattern, my mind wandered back through time to summer 2003 and the NBC leavers' retreat when we went to a centre at Blackley in Yorkshire, and were sent out for an hour or so to mull over the story of the great catch of fish from Luke's gospel. At the time, I had yet to settle in a church, and had twice failed to be called following a 'preach with a view', and it wasn't a nice feeling. As I looked out over the fields, I became aware of the pylons - the visible expression of the national grid, a network that carries electricity throughout the British mainland (and indeed, beyond). Let down your net... but where? It gave me permission to express my frustrations and feats, as well as reminding me that somewhere there was a fish to be caught, a church that would call me. And there was, and there has been again, and God has been faithful.
At the moment there is a lot of change going on in my world, and the one thing that I am confident is not changing is my call to the Gathering Place - this is still where God wants me to be, it is still where exicting things are happening, it is still a place that gives me more joy than not! So why this story again?
I recalled the two catch stories, Luke and John, and phrases that popped into my mind, and then checked them in a a couple of Bible translations.
So here's what emerged...
Put out into deep water
'You and your partners' (GNB) let down your nets
Throw your nets to the right side
Deep water - now there's a challenge! Paddling in the shallows is easy, almost risk free, but ultimately not going to catch any fish. So I am starting to wonder what our 'deep water' might be.
'Your and your partners' - the GNB captures the intent of the Greek beautifully, since the 'you' is explicitly plural. I don't think I've ever heard a sermon that noted the plural language here, because the focus has always been on Peter. Indeed that's how it was back in 2003, at least as I reflected on it. The nets are not mine, nor are they yours or theirs, they are ours. And that's the important point for me, and for us, to be reminded of. We can't just sit in the boat and enjoy the ride, we all have to muck in together in the hard labour of fishing. In a few weeks I will be preaching on Jesus calling his disicples, so hopefully I will remember this idea and work it in!!
Throw your nets to the right side. We read this, correctly, as throwing the net to starboard rather than to port, yet we never translate it thus. So I found myself thinking about the other meanings of the word 'right', which historically at least, would have been implied. Right as 'correct', as 'good', as 'appropriate' or 'best'... I I wondered, what is the correct, good, appropriate or best direction to cast our nets, to expend our energies? What is the place where the 'fish' are to be found? Some hints are emerging, some ideas being explored, but it's a really good question to ponder some more.
It was a good morning, and I feel refreshed, restored, renewed. And those songs? Well here's one of them, should you fancy a listen.