Food and Faith

Yesterday I got a message from my mum that said, ‘About your blogs. In some of the early ones there are some cliff hangers…….. Do you need to reread and pick ‘em out and address them?’. Well, I didn’t know I was writing cliff hangers! 🤣 and I’m sorry if you’ve lost sleep wondering if/when I’ll get around to addressing them*, but I did as my mama told me (I’m good like that 😉) and I thought I would write something about my love of food and faith, particularly the combination of the two…

Food in quarantine began well (if you like rice, which I do), but it seems to be on a sharp downwards trajectory. The last two nights I’ve had to call reception and chase my evening meal because they’ve forgotten me. One night I had a vegetable that was cold and hard and soaked in oil (and looked far from vegan, in a kind of rude way!) and I have no idea what it was. Lunch today was some kind of vegan sushi roll but, even after I removed the cellophane wrapper, I’m not sure the wrap was entirely edible. And I, like many members of society, have a real Hanger problem.

Needless to say, food has been on my mind quite a lot!

And I’ve also been reading this great book, Signs of Life, by Rick Fabian (founding co-Rector of St Gregory’s of Nyssa Church, San Francisco). In the first chapter he talks about an ‘open welcoming table’, meaning everyone is welcome to come and receive their mass, regardless of the point they are at in their faith journey (not dependent on baptism, confirmation, or even any kind of professions of faith). He describes the altar at SGN, and the two inscriptions on it. As you enter the church you can see the first inscription, which reads ‘This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them’…a version of Luke 15; a dismissive statement by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, intended as an insult or slur, but beautifully transformed here into an amazing message of welcome. And then, on the other side, facing the font, it reads, ‘Did not the Lord share the table of tax collectors and harlots? So then – do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve’, a quote from Isaac of Ninevah. Here, all are welcome, and you are also welcome to baptism, at whatever point in your journey that is fitting for you. A wonderful, inclusive, follower-led, God-breathed, holy welcome.

This ‘open welcoming table’ hasn’t always been part of my experience, my worship style, or even my theology. I can quote all the scriptures that say people should wait to receive the body and blood of our Lord. And yet, none of them make sense to me anymore. We can’t wait until we understand fully, or are worthy, or we will die waiting. And, for me, how it is at the altar is how it should also be at the dinner table, and vice versa.

Something happens in the mass that unites those who are present. Something happens at a dinner table that does the same. I’m sure that’s why Jesus spent so much time eating together with people. And what Jesus does, so we should too. A quick google search reliably informs me that food is mentioned 90 times in the gospels alone and eating is mentioned 109. It’s big business!

Eating together provides a shared experience, breaks down boundaries, disarms conflict, allows people to cook and serve and share and chat. Eating is also a basic human right and should be equally available to all people, all the time. And it’s also SO MUCH FUN!

Jesus could have commanded his disciples to do anything in remembrance of him. Every time you watch a sunrise; every time you get dressed; every time you walk on the street; but he didn’t. What did he say? Every time you eat this and drink this, remember me.

These musings about the connection between the altar and the dinner table, the mass and our meals, this open table welcome and those who are hungry each day; this lot has shaped me as a person, as a follower of Jesus, as a priest and as an advocate for those who are poorest. It has led me to transform a grade-II listed building into, not just a church, but also a Kitchen and a café that is free. It has made food more important in my life, not less and each of these musings have led to action, actions that have brought me face to face with poverty and injustice and the beauty of humanity and the harshness of addiction and some awful smells and some wonderful humans.

My musings about food and faith have given me sleepless nights, early mornings, so much joy, huge amounts of laughter, floods of tears, a more authentic expression of faith (I hope) and a church with coffee stains on the pews and marks on the floor. They have taken me on the radio and TV and to San Francisco and Hartlepool, and the more I think and the more I learn, the more I am convinced that something *extra* happens when Jesus-folk gather around any kind of table and invite others to join them too, so I will keep doing it, always. Partly because it’s one of the few things I am absolutely convinced about with my faith, partly because it accidentally turns out to be a pretty good model for evangelism, partly because it is loads of fun, and mostly because Jesus seemed to think it was a good idea in 1st century Palestine and doesn’t seem to have changed his mind since.

So, as one of my all-time favourite writers said, (rest in power, precious Rachel Held-Evans):

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more”.

Alleluia! All you have to do is come hungry…or hangry even! Let’s eat! 😋

*if you’ve been left with any other ‘cliff hangers’ drop me a line and I’ll do my best to address them! 💛

HALFWAY THROUGH!!!

I’ve made it to the midway point. Until now there has always been more days to go than the ones I’ve done but from today that balance shifts, and I couldn’t be more excited! In honour of this momentous day, I thought I would take a break from the usual style of blogging and share with you twenty things about #quarantinelife

  1. Location of quarantine? The Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel, room 2422
  2. Length of stay? 14 days (1st – 15th September 2021)
  3. Best thing(s) about the room? The view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge 😍 and the enormous bed which has marshmallow-like qualities
  4. Worst thing(s) about the room? No bath, no opening window, no fresh air, no visiting humans!
  5. Best meal so far? The vegetable fried rice, with crispy tofu, one lunchtime
  6. Worst meal so far? ALL of them on day 5, culminating in the worst dinner ever – like I didn’t even know what the ‘vegetable’ was, but it smelled super bad and was impossible to cut into…
  7. Best day? Yesterday was a great day – fresh bed linen, new clean towels, a supermarket delivery, a move around of the room to get a better view of the Bridge, and 13,000 steps!
  8. Worst day? Day 5 – I don’t know why (I mean, the food didn’t help, but it was already bad before then). I was just watching some rubbish on Netflix and tears started squirting out of my eyes, followed by some real ugly crying. I felt far away from the whole world, apart from the people who are the size of ants, wandering around 24 floors beneath me… 😭
  9. What am I reading? Well, as my dear friend Jenni would say, I have a bit of a book tapas thing going on right now. A veritable smorgasbord of books on the go; Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo (brilliant, really brilliant); The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult (she’s my favourite author but all the Egyptology is making it a bit of a chew to get into); Signs of Life by Rick Fabien (a gorgeous Jesus-book, about worship and justice and love and welcome, and all the other things I love about The Church) and I read The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman on day zero – all in one day – and absolutely LOVED it. Highly recommended.
  10. What am I watching? I’ve done a good dose of true crime docuseries viewing, with one called Sophie (a murder of a young French woman in Southern Ireland – deeply sad, strange, pretty disturbing) and another called The Case of Keli Lane (incredible, unbelievable, this one will live long in my memory, like The Staircase and Making a Murderer). I’m enjoying exposing my eyeballs to the utterly brilliant trash that is My Unorthodox Life while I eat meals – all of these are on Netflix. I also watched two Storyville documentaries that I had downloaded on the iPlayer (my brother will particularly enjoy my use of the phrase ‘on the iPlayer’!) – one about Hillsongs Church and one about a dreadful disease that leaves people locked in. Terrifying, both of them, in very different ways.
  11. Who am I working out with? I do two workouts each day (easier now I’ve cleared a bigger floor space…although, go figure, it was today when I bumped into the bed the hardest and thought I had broken a toe!). I’ve discovered the PopSugar range – which is good because there is a clock counting down in the corner, so you know how close you are to being done. But my old favourites remain the same – Les Mills (not songs from Les Mis as my sister first thought!! I mean, how much of a sweat can you build up to ‘On My Own’ or ‘One Day More’??) – Les Mills Body Combat is the best there is, although today I discovered Body Jam and found I smiled and laughed my way through an amazing hip-hop dance routine… (I’m super grateful that I found the window blind on day 2 so that the workmen across the way can no longer watch me working out!)
  12. Highest point so far? When an unexpected delivery of vegan cheese and crisps and crackers was delivered to my room, from a Perth Clergyperson, just to say, ‘welcome to Australia, I’m really glad you’re here’ (I love you already, Caro) 💚. I’m also very much enjoying saying a very simple mass each day. It’s totally life-giving. The arrival of Dettol wipes also featured pretty high! 😉 🤣
  13. Lowest point? It was actually day zero (I mean, knowing you’re on day ZERO is pretty soul destroying in itself!), when I found myself lying face down on the carpet, hideously jet-lagged, staring at the pattern on the floor. It was probably only for a minute or two, but that required some serious self-talk to get myself into line!
  14. What have I given up in quarantine? Apart from fresh air, outdoor activity, and other people (!), the big one was alcohol (way easier than I thought it would be), of course all my family and friends and job and home etc (a stranger feeling than I expected it to be). I’m also trying to give up multi-tasking, and just concentrating on one thing at a time. Incidentally, and accidentally, I’ve also given up waking up early, which is an amazing thing about the Giant Marshmallow bed.
  15. What have I taken up? Lots more workouts (these replace my daily dog walks…man, I miss Maggie 🐾), a slower pace of life, more gazing at beautiful views, more ‘wasting time’ with God, LOTS more drinks of water – so many – like, I actually might drown here!
  16. What am I most looking forward to? Obvs, seeing Craig, holding his hand, kissing his face! But I’m also super excited to stand in a wide-open space, breathe fresh air very deeply, stretch, put my feet in the sea, BE OUTSIDE…and I expect my first glass of cold fizz will be very delicious too.
  17. Anything I’m not looking forward to? Hmm…Not really. I think opening that bedroom door and walking out and hearing it close behind me (they don’t give you a key when you get here because you can’t come and go), will be a very strange thing. Negotiating Border Force at WA might be tricky too (Please God, could you sort that?)
  18. Things I’m glad nobody got to see? My stretching routine that strangely turned into liturgical dance this morning. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. Also, my ‘unique’ method of doing the laundry, whilst in the shower!
  19. Things I wish someone had been here to see? My amazing hip hop dance workout this afternoon – I *swear* I looked like one of the professionals!! 🥴
  20. The one thing I am most grateful for? I would like to say something profound and Godly, particularly as it’s the last question, but the bottom line is that I am super grateful for Wi-Fi – it means I can facetime friends and family, speak to Craig all the time, wile away time on Netflix, workout, connect with the online congregation for mass, receive contact as well as make it, basically connect with what is beyond these four walls. Sometimes it can feel like there’s nothing, or that everything happens there without me, but actually neither of those are true. And, of course, I am enormously grateful that God is holed up in quarantine with me. Phew.

Let’s hear it for the midway point; home straight, here I come!! 🥳

Busy Days in Quarantine

Today has been a busy day in Room 2422 at the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel! It turns out day six is when all the things happen…

First, you get a clean supply of bedding and towels, left at your door, so you can change your bed (you’d think this would happen at the midway point, on day 7, but that’s a COVID testing day and they probably want to spread the excitement about for the residents 😉)

Secondly, it’s about this point where you begin to fear you are more in danger of contracting scurvy, than COVID, so you branch out and order fresh fruit and veg* to be delivered from the local supermarket.

Thirdly, you realise that the view from the window is way better than the current view from your ‘armchair’ (it’s not an armchair but let’s not get too technical) and you change your whole room around!

Like I said, it’s a busy day.

And in this busiest of days, I’ve been thinking about two things…

The first thing I realised is that I found myself thinking, ‘gosh, there’s so much to do today I don’t know if I’ll have time to do it AND write my blog…’

The second is how different life feels when we change our view and alter our perspective.

But first the busy-ness thing. So, changing the bed and towels took me about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes out of a day where I have nowhere else to be and nothing pressing to do (I mean, I could do my tax return, but let’s save that for a far less busy day!!). And yet, that automatic feeling of ‘I’ve got soooo much to do’, felt so real. And I guess that’s because it is a familiar one.

When clergy greet one another (maybe other professions do the same), the first response to ‘how are you?’ is always ‘oh, y’know, BUSY’, (shortly before talking about funerals, always funerals). It’s like we make some altar out of over-activity and sacrifice ourselves on it, day after day. Like, would we have any self-worth if we weren’t always running around, doing all the things? And even if we aren’t, would there be anything worse than people knowing?! Even if we’re not busy, surely people need to think we are, because the only alternative to that is being lazy, right? Nothing in between.

Busy = good

Lazy = bad 🤦🏼‍♀️

In my first couple of days here, I realised I was always, like always, doing more than one thing at a time. I couldn’t seem to help it. Like, I was watching a documentary as well as playing candy crush (yes, some people do still play that!). Or I was showering whilst thinking about what today’s blog might be. Or, yep, scrolling through emails or social media, or images of wedding flowers, during morning prayer. Always at least 2 things, sometimes more. Busy. The enemy of peace I reckon!  Sound familiar? What might happen if we paid all our attention to the one thing we were doing, at a time? What if multi-tasking were outlawed?!  I’m trying it – repeatedly having to stop myself and re-concentrate on the one task (it’s so hard!), but I’m trying it. Wanna join me in that?

And then there was the second thing…how different life can feel if we change our view and our perspective.

When I ‘moved in’ (feels a more positive framing than ‘when I was first incarcerated’…!) my room was laid out in a certain way. The furniture was evenly spaced around the room. It looked tidy and smart, very practical. I think it was about day 2, whilst trying to figure out which piece of hotel furniture could double most easily as a makeshift altar for mass, that I moved the desk, so it faced the window rather than a wall. Turning the desk meant I got a great view of the Harbour Bridge – if I looked to the right (or a building site if I looked straight ahead). Doing that changed my prayers too, because now I was facing a huge sprawling city, and I’m on the 24th floor, so I could genuinely reach out and pray God’s blessings right over the top of them all. The room became slightly more cluttered and looked less pristine, but the benefits far outweighed that.

Then, today, whilst moving my bed to change it, I realised that with a bit of manoeuvring I could position my chair in another corner and have ACTUAL sunlight on my face, a great view of the Bridge, and see the clear blue skies. Why had I not noticed this before? Why had I been content to sit on my chair, opposite a wall without even a picture on (and facing the bin?!)?? so now the area around the window is cluttered with furniture, BUT I have a big clear area where I can work out (rather than clattering into the footstool like I have been doing – it’s a wonder I’ve not done myself an injury!), and I have sunshine and the most amazing skyline Sydney has to offer.

These two thoughts seemed unrelated but, as I write, I can see they are super related. If we took less time to be busy, like if we stopped building our self-worth on the size of our To Do list and the number of bits of paper falling out of our diaries… if we did that, and focussed on one task at a time, might we be quicker to notice where we are settling for staring – proverbially – at blank walls and stinking bins, rather than enjoying the beauty that the Creator lays on for us each day?

And maybe it’s OK for me to say this, from the ‘luxury’ of quarantine, but maybe it’s something you just want to think about and weigh, because I could’ve let every last sunset and every last blue sky (and every last workman in his scary lift thing going up past my window), I could’ve let all that pass me by because I was too busy, or because I was looking the wrong way.

I hope this is a lesson I keep with me when life genuinely is busy again but, for now, I’m just going to stop writing and watch this beautiful shimmer of gold evening light disappear off this hi-rise building as it sets.  💛

*for those of you who know me, you’ll be pleased to know that Australia also sells Dettol wipes, so my bathroom will be gleaming again, very shortly! 🤣

Doing New Things!

This morning I was listening to Morning Prayer on the Lectio365 app. If you haven’t heard it, or given it a go, I hugely commend it to you (you can find it here… https://www.24-7prayer.com/dailydevotional)

This morning’s bible reading came from probably my all-time favourite book, Isaiah, and was this well-known passage:

‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert…’
(Isaiah 43:19)

And how much that resonates right now!  See, says God, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it? Well, durr. Yes, yes, I perceive it. That view out of my window is definitely not Hartlepool, of course I perceive it.

Or do I?

Because, it turns out, God is so often doing a new thing – almost 1,300 times in the pages of scripture God calls God’s people to notice. And how often do we perceive it?

For my latest new ‘thing’ (this move, new job, new marital status, new membership of Team Baseley), I am fortunate enough to hardly fail to perceive it. But how often does one thing gradually turn into the next and the next and the next, without us seeing what journey God is taking us on, without us realising this is a NEW thing?

And that got me thinking about something else.

That got me realising that (I think it’s true to say) everything we do seems to be preparation for the next NEW thing that God will do. Like, nothing that happens to us – good or bad – is ever wasted. Every single thing, in the hands of the Loving Creator, is taken and used and remoulded and redeemed, until it becomes a building block for the next new thing, or the one after that…

So, the Gemma who, at 21, took a casual job in a marketing department of a theatre now knows how to write press releases, and speak on the radio, when something newsworthy happens in her church.

Teenage Gemma was interested in the needs of the many street sleepers in her hometown and would always chat with them; she went on to set up a soup kitchen to feed and provide for hundreds of hungry people in Hartlepool.

The Gemma who did a dance and drama degree because it was fun (and she fancied herself as something of a performer) now knows how to project her voice to a crowd and walk confidently in processions (I swear I use my dance and drama degree at least 3 times as often as my theology one!)

And the Gemma who was punished for missing church on a Sunday will always encourage parishioners to see family and friends – or whatever it is – and will never lay the blame on thick…

And youth-worker Gemma longs to see young people in her church, and community, and has been trained in how to reach out and talk to kids

And even the divorced Gemma might be able to share a few ideas of how she might try to do marriage differently this time. 🤷🏼‍♀️

So, back to this new thing God is doing. In many ways, I think I do perceive it, in part. But in so many other ways, I watch and wait to see which of my life experiences, thus far, will be taken and broken and reshaped and reused in this next chapter. I wonder which things from my past will come back, and how often I will find myself say, ‘so that is what that was all about!’. Do you recognise that in you?

Often, we don’t know what new thing God will do, or how our past experiences, or especially our past mistakes, will ever be useful materials in the hands of God, AND YET, time and time again, God proves Godself to be an incredible recycler of all the bits that have gone before.

The great Christian author, CS Lewis, wrote ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind’ (a quote I wrongly attributed to the pages of scripture for many more years than I care to disclose!). If we truly believe that we worship a Redeemer who takes our past and uses it to shape our future, then how can this fail to be true?

And, going back to that wonderful passage from Isaiah 43, do you know how it continues?  It goes on to say that this new thing God is up to is so that God’s people might proclaim God’s praise (43:21). All of God’s new things, are in order that we might give glory to God and proclaim God’s praise.

So, in this hotel quarantine, on my flight to Perth, on my (hopefully soon) reunion with Craig and in all that lies ahead, I commit afresh to proclaim the praise of the God who is always up to new things. I will proclaim the praise of the One who recycles the old to bring about streams in deserts and rivers in waste places. Alleluia!

What about you? What new thing is God up to, in and around you? Do you perceive it? And will you use it as a way of proclaiming God’s praise?

Give us your grace, that it may it be so Lord, for Your Glory, Amen x

Be Still…

Many years ago, I was on a Church ‘away day’ – literally that; a day when people from the church get together and go ‘away’ somewhere. For us, it meant a fleet of cars heading down the A45 to a retreat house half an hour away.

We spent the morning with coffee and song, we had bible readings and a talk, and then probably some buffet style lunch that almost certainly involved quiche and tired lettuce (staple diet of Christian gatherings, plus a cup cake, if you’re lucky). The afternoon was designated as ‘free time’, but the agenda ended with the terrifying phrase ‘feedback’.

Feedback is as fearful a word on an agenda as ROLE PLAY. Nobody likes giving feedback, let’s be honest. And this quiet day was during the reign of the scary vicar for whom every answer was wrong, and almost certainly pointed to a “deep routed spiritual issue”. So, feedback did not instil confidence in the heart.

We were given a list of things that we might choose to do during our free time; take a walk in the grounds and see what God might be saying through nature; walk the prayer labyrinth; write a poem, create a model out of plasticine demonstrating what God wants from you; spend time in church with these bible verses… Things like that.

By now I had been fully conditioned to work hard, do all the things, guess what the Creator of the Universe is saying, read the eyes of the listener when feeding back…and adjust your answer accordingly, so I knew I needed a whole lot of material in case my first answer was ‘wrong’ (how my heart actually breaks for that Gemma, she really was trying her best 🙁).  As soon as free time began, I set off, notebook in hand, ready to capture the words spilling from the mouth of the Almighty.

I rushed around the grounds, found a pinecone, picked it up. Check – that could speak about how, I dunno, God creates the seasons (lame, but I was just warming up).

I spun around the labyrinth, until I was dizzy (there was a lot to get done before the time was up). I could probably say something about how sometimes we wander off the path and get lost, but we just have to keep going. Or how God helps us when we’re lost. Throw in the parable of the sheep or something, that’ll surely get a smile and a nod.

I tried a poem; it was awful – something about hearts like conkers being smashed in the autumn and leaves crunching. I was running out of time.

The plasticine table was busy so I thought I would come back to that (I would rather take role play over plasticine any day so… 🤷🏼‍♀️).

I found my way into church and there were handmade bookmarks lying around, with ‘suggested readings’ on them. I sat myself down and began at the top. I could tick these off pretty quick, maybe find something really deep to say about each one and win the game.

Top of the bookmark: Psalm 46:10

I opened my bible to read “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Be still and know that I am God.

And in that moment, God spoke into my very heart; my anxious, racing, fearful heart and gave me God’s own translation of that verse. God said, ‘I am God, not you. Be still and know that’.

I am God, not you. Be still and know that.

It wasn’t a telling off, it was a reassurance. Gemma, you don’t have to do all this dashing around, trying to get everything done, trying to get all the right answers and all the praise for them. Slow down my darling and breathe.

I am God, not you. Be still and know that.

And many times, over the years I have been reminded of that. I have it writ large on my notice board in my office. I think of it every time am I stressed, every time I don’t know the answer nor how things will work themselves out.  I think of it when I am dashing around to get all the things done, and when I am holed up in quarantine with nothing much to do and nowhere to be. And in every situation, it always holds true.

God is God, not us. And we would do so so well to Be Still and know that.

So, this morning I decided to take a step back from social media; I don’t need to respond to every comment or answer every question or reply to every message or any of those things. This time in quarantine is a gift, a gift I’m hoping I never get given again, but I’m not going to waste it, because, through it, and at the end of it, I want to be closer to God and more like Jesus than when I entered this room. By the end of it, I want to know more about God and more about myself and I want to be as ready as I can ever be to step boldly into this next chapter, the one where I am Rector and Wife and part of the Baseley Team, and a resident of Australia. And to do that there is nothing I really need to do…I just need to place my hand in the hand of the One who so often and so gently reminds me that This One is God, not me. And I need to be still and know that.

How about you?

Good News?

I was about 35 years old when I first discovered the Good News of Jesus Christ. Seeing as I’d been a Christian for around 31 years and was already some way through the vocations process towards becoming a Priest, some might say it was a bit late! I would say, better late than never (particularly recalling some of the faces I have seen in churches over the decades. Some good news there would be a really great thing…! 😉).

I was brought up in a very conservative but charismatic Baptist Church – male headship, conservative theology (I think that might be where I was told I needed a ticket for the ‘angel train’. Gutted to discover there is no angel train in scripture. I was really looking forward to that), but lots of singing, good music, a great junior choir, a weekly memory verse in Sunday School and some wonderful people who still walk the same path as me today.  In this church I learned that God was angry, so angry in fact that Jesus had to die so that God could even *look* at me. There was a lot of talk and singing about ‘the blood’ and I became terrified of going to Hell. I also learned that, if I had sex before marriage, (i) EVERYONE would know and (ii) I would be like a piece of chewed gum or used sticky tape or half-eaten apple core, and nobody would want to marry me, ever. I followed Jesus because he was going to save me from all this, and because he wanted to be my best friend. The best friend bit was pretty good news, but it didn’t feel like it was Good News I wanted to share with my friends (capital G, capital N).  I thought they were probably better off not knowing that their particular train was heading to the fiery furnace. FOREVER. Zero chance of escape. 😩

When I came back to faith, in 2001, I went to the church at the end of my road. It was near and convenient and meant I could still party hard on a Saturday night and make it there in time for the service on a Sunday. Worship-style-wise, this church was probably middle of the road, fairly typically Anglican, with a mix of hymns and songs and with a very mini worship band that formed when the organist left. Theologically it was fundamental (no fun, and absolutely mental) and abusive. In this church I was taught that if I wasn’t in church on a Sunday morning my life was in danger because I was “outside the banner of God’s protection”. I learned that no matter how hard I tried and how hard I worked, how hard I prayed or how much I gave up, I wasn’t ‘assured’ of salvation. I could only hope for it. The more likely outcome was that I would be separated from God and could just watch Him from a distance and spend eternity wishing I’d done better. I also learned there were demons ‘behind every blade of grass’. Yes really. Years of therapy* later, I also learned a huge percentage of this theology was bullshit. And God didn’t hate me. The chance of me inviting friends to this church was NIL – mostly to protect them from the abuse and fear some of us went through. It wasn’t just that there was no Good News here – there was buckets full of Bad News, Dreadful News. And yet, somehow, in that place, God called me to ordination (but that’s a story for another day).

I escaped that church (fortuitously by being called a scarlet woman, once again!) and was ‘placed’ in an Anglo-Catholic church – verrrrrry traditional, bells and smells, robed choir, an adoration to Mary, bowing and kneeling, organist, sung liturgy AND liberal theology. I was told that I was to go there ‘to learn’, as part of my vocations process. It felt like punishment. I did not know when to cross myself (and was always a few seconds behind everyone else, doing my head-tummy-shoulder-shoulder tap – think about it – at a million miles an hour, and kicking myself when I missed one!). I didn’t know the words to the Hail Mary, apart from those that my catholic-educated niece tried to teach me, and that was something about the ‘lime man Jesus’, so I guessed that was wrong! I went to one service of Adoration and Benediction (you can read about it here if you don’t know what I mean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benediction_of_the_Blessed_Sacrament) and was fuming we didn’t get to eat the host at the end.  But my priest was amazing, and a super great friend and supporter. She gently and humorously talked me through things whenever I said, ‘what just went on there?!’ and she suggested I read this book, called Take This Bread, when I began to sense that this holy communion (or ‘the mass’ as she called it) was onto something. You can find it here – https://www.amazon.com.au/Take-This-Bread-Sara-Miles/dp/0345495799

I consumed this book (sorry!) in 2 days flat and to say it changed my life is no understatement, genuinely.   It led me on a journey that blew apart my theology, that gave me a new understanding and devotion to the mass (it comes from the word MISSION, and SENT, did you know?).  It took me to San Francisco to work with the author at the Food Pantry she set up. And it told me, showed me, and shaped me around the Good News of Jesus.

Without any spoilers, it talks about a committed Atheist, Sara, who is also a photographer, chef, journalist and lover of food and people. Whilst away from her home city of San Francisco, a new church opens there (https://www.saintgregorys.org/). It begins to win awards for its amazing architecture and artwork. Do check it out; the awards are well earned!  Sara comes home and wants to get some photos of this new place so wanders in. Midway through her photographing a service begins, and not yet finished, but not wanting to be rude, Sara stays put for the service. When it comes to the mass, the congregation make this holy dance to surround the altar, and everyone is invited to receive.  On her first taste of the bread and wine – the body and blood of our Lord, Sara writes, “It changed everything.  It was like a radioactive pellet inside me.  Eating Jesus, as I did that day, to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagine.  The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food – indeed the bread of life.”**

This book, this church ‘placement’, this liberal theology where nobody finds themselves on the outside but all are welcome, this realisation that we meet around a holy table to eat the Christ and then are sent – refreshed and refilled – to feed others; this was Good News. This IS Good News. This realisation that Jesus is obsessed with the poor, and with food; with eating with those who others say should be left hungry and then enjoying their company and learning from them. This was my radical conversion. And it changed me and is changing me.

It took me on a journey from conservative fundamentalism, bowed low with fear and anxiety, ashamed and without any sense of real value, to a place where I know the Good News of Jesus. I know, that just as Jesus says in Luke Chapter 4, so that same Spirit is also upon me and She sends me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives (that took me to India!), comfort for those who mourn. She sends me to tell others that this, here, is the year of the Lord’s favour. God isn’t angry!  It took me from Coventry, through theological college (where, thanks team, you all helped me unpick some more awful theology and pick up some foundational truths!), to Hartlepool, where God, through us, fed hundreds of people who others might count as ‘on the margins’. And now the journey leads me here, to Australia, to see what holy mischief we might get up to next.

And that is Good News! 🥳

*despite being a reluctant therapee (is that what you call someone who goes to therapy??), I am now the hugest advocate of talking therapies because it saved my life, healed my soul, rebuilt my heart and strengthened my ministry. Thank you Tony, you are a true saint…

** Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (London: Canterbury Press, 2012) p. 59

“Just” a Love Story ❤️

When I shared my first blog post about my arrival here in Australia (you can read it here if you haven’t already… https://wordpress.com/post/holyadventures.blog/14) my good friend Becky messaged me saying, ‘And I thought it was “just” (forgive me, please 😊) a love story’, meaning she didn’t know God’s plan had coincided with Craig’s marriage proposal, in a perfect combination, for this Holy Adventure.

Nope, I thought, not just a love story at all. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realise it really is ‘just’ a love story. One enormous one. One amazing, eternal one, that sprang from the dawn of time and goes beyond all time zones and beyond our wildest imaginings.

I grew up knowing that Jesus was my “best friend” and that God wanted me for a sunbeam (odd, isn’t it!?). I ‘asked Jesus into my heart’, aged 4, and every night thereafter for several years…just in case He had decided He didn’t like it in there and had wandered off somewhere. And I went to church. Every Sunday. I definitely called myself a Christian, and I was a baptised child of God, so I was one.

And then, aged 24, my marriage broke up.

My husband asked me to leave the house and then, because of that, my church asked me to leave that ‘house’ too. I left. Do you know what? I was glad to leave, because nobody had even asked if I was OK, and I really wasn’t. So, I left and I determinedly left my faith behind too. I had always been taught that ‘you can’t take yourself out of God’s hands’ but, if there was a way I could (I mean, God’s omnipresence kind of gets in the way here, annoyingly), then I would.

A couple of years passed and I quite enjoyed being mad at the Church and Christians (especially Christians; they were the WORST!). And Saturday nights were more fun when you didn’t have to get up on a Sunday.

In 2001, my parents were at a Christian Festival on the south coast of the UK, and they had a spare bed in their ‘chalet’. My mum called me up and, with all the ferocity she could muster (she would deny this, but she’s got a ferocious streak that one!), she said ‘get in your car and get down here’. And I did.

What was I thinking?! I thought Christians were the worst; the most judgemental, unkind, moralistic people I had ever met (apart from those I liked, obv – they got in the way of my argument a bit).  And there I was, driving for 3-hours, south, to go and spend 4 days with 15,000 of them in an enclosed space. All hands-raised, zip-off trouser and crocs-wearing, Christians*.

That first night I went into a huge marquee and listened to one of the few sermons I still remember (incidentally, one of the others I still remember was preached by my Craig on that first weekend we met…cute, eh? 😍). The preacher was a man named Steve Chalke (this guy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Chalke) and he talked about the Sermon on the Mount (you can read it here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5-7&version=NRSV). What he said was that the people desperate to follow Jesus were the outcasts and the sinners and the tax collectors and the prostitutes and HE WAS PLEASED TO SEE THEM! He was pleased to see them! I totally related to those people; this, so-called, ‘scarlet woman’ who had been kicked out of the church. Could it be that Jesus, the actual God-man, was pleased see me too?

In true Christian-festival-style, the evening ended with an altar call and Steve Chalke invited us to pray a prayer of YES to God. I don’t remember what he said but I remember closing my eyes and beginning a sentence that went ‘if you’re there, God…’ and then God literally interrupted (rude much? 😉) and said, so clearly, ‘It’s good to hear from you Gemma. About time too’.

Yeah, God gives me a hard time sometimes…🤨

God’s response, God’s call, was so loud, so clear, that I opened my eyes and wondered why nobody else in this big tent seemed to hear it. But it was God’s voice for me. The beginning of my new journey of faith and my revived relationship with the Creator of all things.  The beginning of a love affair, I guess. A really significant way-marker in the God Loves Gemma love-story.

So, yes, it is just a love story. And yes, I love Craig, so much. And his invitation to come to Australia came first. And my desire to be with him came first. But then God called. My Holy Lover invited me on this Holy adventure and, the truth is, even if Craig wasn’t here, I know that I still would be.

And this isn’t a love story of girl meets boy, girl moves to Australia for the love of him, and they live happily ever after (although, please God, let that be a significant chapter of it!). This is a story of girl meets boy, God calls, girl moves to Australia for love of them both (AND for God’s Church), and they all live (mostly) happily ever after. Amen.

*granted, I’m now ordained, and spend a real lot of time with Christians, AND in church. I swear by the truth that God arranged this to make sure I couldn’t run away again. And I also own a pair of crocs. True story.

Travelling Mercies

When I left the UK, I was sent on my way with so many different phrases: ‘safe travels’, ‘bon voyage’ (posh), ‘go well’, ‘see you later’ (for those who hate goodbyes), and then there was those who wished me ‘travelling mercies’. It’s one of those God-speak phrases, isn’t it? Kind of quaint, and a bit odd. Well, it turns out it packs a real punch, and is definitely going to be my future vocabulary for fellow Holy Adventurers. Let me explain…

Emigrating is a long process.

Emigrating in a pandemic is a significantly longer process.

Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders is virtually impossible.

Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders where your journey involves a layover in a state that is in total lockdown due to a spike in cases is actually impossible.

Maybe on another blog I’ll explain about the visa process and critical skills list and exemption to fly stuff, but suffice to say, there is a long old road to travel before you have flights booked, boarding passes in hand and are heading to the airport, but let’s just gloss over that bit for now.

And so it was, my flights were booked for 30th August. I was due to land in WA on 1st September. I knew I would have to hotel quarantine for 14 days, but then, then, I would enter the promised land and be reunited with Craig and begin life as a wife and Priest in Fremantle. All boxes ticked. All paperwork in hand. Ironically, I was Good to Go (bear with me. It’ll make sense in a few lines).

On 27th August, I woke up to an email alerting me to the fact that my G2G pass (Good to Go, see?) had been revoked. Without one of these, nobody can enter Perth, nor any area of WA in fact. I couldn’t get in. The side note explained this was because my flight path took me through New South Wales.  Perth was not accepting any travellers from there, due to rising rates of Covid. A little p.s. suggested ‘book a new flight that avoids NSW’. That simple, eh?

Long story, slightly shorter, several friends and family members spent a frantic 24 hours trying to find solutions to this not-insignificant problem.

We looked for new flights – there were none until mid-October, at the earliest

We looked for new routes – the one glimmer of hope involved needing written permission from the Sultan of Brunei to enter his country, and he wasn’t rushing to get his pen out 

We drew blank after blank, and yet, I mostly held on to this strange sense of peace and kept finding myself saying, ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’. And I was surprised to discover I meant it!

The advice from a wonderful woman from an Australian travel company, recommended to me by the diocese, suggested I just keep on applying for my G2G, in the hope that my application might eventually slip through the net. I did – 12 applications in the next 24 hours – until an exhausted sounding man called me, from Australia, to explain I must NOT submit a single other one and I would have to quarantine in Sydney and try again only once I was there. Nice that he remembered me… 😉

Time was ticking on, in that way that time does, and I decided to just show up at Manchester Airport and use my original ticket in the hope of making it through. A solid decision, I thought.

All good. Ish. So, I went to print boarding passes for my flights from Manchester to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Tokyo, Tokyo to Sydney, and maybe there might even be a blip in the system that allowed me a pass from Sydney to Perth and I could just see what happened? 

Not so.

Not in the least.

Instead, I was faced with various terrifying warning messages on each screen (the person whose job it is to write those must be very angry a lot of the time, I think).  One of the airlines had no record of my booking. Another airline recognised my flight number but not my name. And the real kicker was with Tokyo – I think that message said something delicate like ‘NO FLIGHTS PERMITTED FROM THE UK. DO NOT FLY’. It was subtle.

I was kind of out of ideas, and because it was Sunday afternoon, and I was due to fly on Monday morning, I didn’t really have time to think of any. But, also, I still had this thing in my head (or maybe it was my heart) that kept saying ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’.

My sister threw me a surprise hen-do the night before I was due to fly and, as a small group of Christian women do, when slightly emotional and bolstered by much prosecco, we launched into a prayer time. God really got it, both barrels. As did the angels, the saints, and anyone else who cared to tune in! And then we went to bed…

Not really knowing what else to do, we set off for Manchester Airport, with my life in the boot and my mum’s heart in her mouth. We said goodbyes, maybe someone wished me ‘travelling mercies’ and I went on my way (full disclosure: I thought I would be seeing them again, later that night).

Forgive that really long introduction to my journey, but hold up, because this is where the miracles begin…

I make my way to the check in desk for my flight to Frankfurt. My ticket says I will fly onward to Tokyo where I will need to COLLECT AND RE-CHECK my bags, for my flight to Sydney. I have no boarding passes, some uncertainty about whether one of the airlines knows I’m coming and a very stern warning to not enter Tokyo. The woman behind the desk (query, angel?) takes my passport and ticket print-out and starts typing. She looks baffled at her computer screen (a gaze I become all too familiar with), talks to a colleague, asks for my visa, looks concerned, repeats this process and then looks up and says ‘all sorted, here are your boarding passes for ALL flights. You’ll see these cases in Sydney. All done’.

Nothing to do in Tokyo. Nothing to do in Tokyo?? Travelling mercies.

My flight to Frankfurt and then to Tokyo are largely uneventful, except for each of the cabin crew, in turn, coming to my seat and saying, words to the effect of, ‘I see you are travelling to Sydney, via Tokyo? HOW THE HELL HAVE YOU MANAGED THAT???’  Travelling mercies.

I arrive at Tokyo airport and the cabin crew tell all passengers to remain seated while customs and immigration come on to do their checks. At that moment, a young Japanese woman gets on the plane, walks directly to my seat, and says, ‘come with me’. Just me. Everyone else is staying put. We walk through airport corridors, not seeing a soul. We walk through doors saying ‘no entry’ and through barriers she just moves to allow us through and she tells me I am the only person on that plane to be travelling THROUGH Tokyo. Everyone else had reached their destination.

She delivers me to security, and they complete their checks in record speed, no questions asked, and spit me out on the other side into the departure lounge. Travelling mercies.

My layover is more than 7 hours and I probably saw no more than 7 other travellers in that whole time. The airport seemed closed – all eateries and shops were shut – but from time to time an Olympian wandered past in their country’s kit. You couldn’t make this up.

Eventually it was time for my flight to Sydney to board and I hear an announcement over the tannoy, ‘can Miss Gemma (hard G, every time) Sampson make herself known at the desk’. Remember the woman’s reaction on that first desk in Manchester Airport? Repeat that, with three members of staff, in Japanese. They took my passport, then asked for my ‘other’ one(??). They took my visa and my boarding passes for all flights. They took my tickets. They wandered off, came back, stared at screens, and then said they needed to call the Australian Government before they could let me board the flight. There is a flurry of phone calls and then one of them says to me ‘everything is fine. They know you are coming. So sorry for your delay’. WHAT JUST HAPPENED THERE? Travelling mercies.

(Incidentally, I got on the plane and was handed a glass of champagne to say ‘sorry for the mistake, welcome on board’ – turns out travelling mercies come with effusive apologies and perfectly chilled fizz).

My arrival to Australia was nothing short of perfect – slick, smooth, polite, friendly, welcoming, no dramas and my bags came off first. My phone call with the exhausted Australian Border Force man had made it very clear that I would be quarantining in Sydney, and that there is a good chance that I will need to quarantine again once I finally make it to WA. But I’m praying for a perfectly chilled glass of fizz, straight off my flight from NSW, with my Craig.

Might there be one more travelling mercy, Lord?

Day Zero…

Do you remember that famous love story where boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, they plan to get married and a global pandemic hits and keeps them apart for nearly two years?? No, me either. But that’s my story; that’s our story; and that’s why, I find myself here, in a hotel room at Sydney Harbour, on “day zero” of my 14-day quarantine, just waiting to begin the next chapter in the rest of my life.

Maybe I should introduce myself (in case anyone ever stumbles across this blog who isn’t a Facebook friend or family member!)…

I’m Gemma.

A priest in the Anglican Church.

A lover of food and Jesus, and particularly fond of combining the two.

A proud dog-parent to Maggie (she will be a feature. Guaranteed).

A daughter, a sister, a friend, an auntie, a relative and a soon-to-be wife (please God) of the boy from paragraph one. My Craig.

I first met Craig way back in about 2004; this tall, bald-headed, potty mouthed, builder was standing and speaking at a Christian conference-type-thing, and I thought he was pretty special. In my own, awkward, way I tried to flirt (awful). He didn’t notice (standard). He mentioned his family and their plans to emigrate to Australia and there he was, gone (gutted).

And then nothing, for around 15 years

Fast forward to 2019 and our paths crossed again – virtually – via Facebook Messenger. Time had moved on, things had changed. I had got ordained. Craig had a great life down under and it would have been a completely stupid idea to fall in love, wouldn’t it? 10,000 miles apart? Both of us really happy where we lived and worked and neither wanting to move? Yup, that would be a completely stupid idea.

So, why am I sat on the 24th floor of the Sydney Harbour Marriott hotel with my capsule wardrobe (that’ll feature too; game changer), a pile of books, and a countdown to fresh air and human contact?!

In short, the answer to that is two-fold: the simple matter of a Global Pandemic and a tricksy God with an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

The thing about a pandemic being global means we’ve all experienced it, so you don’t need a(nother) blog to talk about cancelled travel plans, closed borders, postponed weddings, not seeing loved ones and how that combination creates the perfect storm to change perspectives. That’s a given, right?

But the Tricksy God thing might need a bit of unfolding.

There have been times in my life where I can, hand-on-heart, say I believe I have heard from God. I don’t say it lightly, nor often, because God is like Almighty and the Creator of the Universe, and all.  But sometimes I have felt called, or drawn, or led, or nudged, or booted up the backside, by that Source of All Life.

A while back I made a crazy promise (learn from me; don’t make promises like this lightly or you too might find yourself somewhere you never imagined). Anyways, a while back I kind of promised and kind of bargained with God a bit (again, risky). I said to God, ‘God, if I ever think you’re asking me to do something, I promise I will do it. If I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do I will do what I want to until you guide me otherwise’. It had a theological basis – check out this gorgeous prayer from Thomas Merton – https://reflections.yale.edu/article/seize-day-vocation-calling-work/merton-prayer – and I really meant it. Not in a ‘I’ll do what I want unless you stop me’ kind of way, but in a ‘I really want to do your will, if you will show me, Lord’.

During the UK lockdowns I had some pretty incredible moments with God. I realised for the first time that I am utterly loved by God – not for doing anything or being anything but just because. That was a great moment (and continues to be). And I also heard this call. It went something like this… ‘Babes (that was a new lockdown thing too – I know, it’s kind of odd to me too, but I like it so…) do you want to come on a holy adventure with me?’

God, in God’s infinite and warm grace and welcome was holding God’s hand out to me and inviting me on a holy adventure. I had never heard God speak to me like that before and it was kind of intriguing to start with. But God went on, ‘we can cause holy chaos together! I would love you to come. Come if you want!’

Come if you want? God was letting me choose? But how could I ever pass up an opportunity to go on a holy adventure, cause holy chaos, holy mischief even, with the King of all Kings? Particularly when God had been so kind as to extend the invitation!

God said so much more and has opened doors and borders where it didn’t seem possible but I’ll stop here for now. If I am going to be a Holy Adventurer, I need to kick this jet lag into touch and get some sleep!

Oh, and I’m determined to blog something on each of the 14 days of lockdown, and then regularly beyond that, so please keep me company. It’s pretty lonely up here!