Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Reading: Stories, Not Lists

As I wind down coming up to Christmas, I like to read a solidly non-academic book that will not help me in any way to achieve study or work-related goals.  So, a few weeks ago I headed to the Oxfam Bookshop to choose such a read.  I was sort of hoping to get a second-hand copy of Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' (we're going to South Africa in April) but the closest thing I could find was Ffyona Campbell's 'On Foot Through Africa'.

I remember the author being on TV in the early '90s, after her mammoth trek from Cape Town to Tangier.  She persevered through illness, attack and war zones to make sure she took every single step along the way, never taking a short cut even when it seemed justifiable to do so.

This adventure/travel book won't help me with work or study, so it meets the Advent and Christmas holiday reading criteria.  But even such carefully selected easy-on-the-brain literature can touch on spirituality.

"feel excitement about where you are,
not about where you will be."

Yesterday, on the train, I was struck by Campbell's words on page 144: "feel excitement about where you are, not about where you will be."

Very apt for the season of Advent!

The past 24 days have been like a long walk towards the exciting destination of Christmas.  I think it's really good that the church tells us to value waiting, preparing, journeying, and not just rush straight into Christmas. There are lots of voices telling us we can have it all now, instant gratification, instant cash, ... including (sadly I think) some voices within the church that we call prosperity teaching.

'On Foot Through Africa' is such a good read, precisely because it is far more than a list of successful arrivals in linear fashion across the map.  Campbell integrates experiences of suffering, defeat, sickness and fear.  She isn't scared to admit when she's the cause of her own troubles, her self-absorption or insensitivity to her fellow adventurers.

Integrating the hardships along the way turns her book from a list into a story.  And stories are way better than lists, if you ask me!

I think if our lives are all about the destinations, then we are like lists.  And lists are not the most exciting (or human) of documents.  Lives that are just lists of successes, are fragmented, indigested lives, sort of semi-fictional accounts selected carefully to project our best side in the hope of getting a job.

It's the long times in between successes that make our lives into stories.  The journey.  The long hours waiting, hoping, persevering.  That's what makes a good novel: connecting fibres, texture and depth, shade and light.

I like what Ffyona advises herself.  She won't make the journey, let alone enjoy it, if she can't choose to be excited about the now.

I have to learn to be patient along my path to finding out if I am to be trained for ordination or not.  It would feel great to be relieved of the wait, but the journey itself is good for me.  I dare say the same has been true during times of illness - I've learned more from suffering than from the cure (great as that is when at last it comes).

God's long, patient pedagogy can only be experienced fully if we learn to wait.  Advent is good for that.  And good for us.  It trains us for the hard bits of life we often want to pray away, fast-forward past to the end.
I've enjoyed my Advent reading, and letting an unlikely author speak to me about my faith journey.  Has the makings of a good New Year resolution ...
... but for now, I'm off to enjoy The Christmas Story.  Merry Christmas!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Morning Walk

Between services at the Muff and St. Peter's churches yesterday, I enjoyed a bracing walk through a much underrated park in Derry, along the river from behind Sainsbury's to the steps under the Foyle Bridge.  I couldn't even tell you the name of it!
I don't often blog about walks (food, yes) but this one was spectacular.
The grass was crystalline with frost; the winter sun hung low and searching; the sky looked limitless, big, bright and blue.  Perfect morning's weather for a good old think.
So I thought.  And prayed.
The thing weighing most on my mind was a course mate who found out recently that she won't be sent to Dublin in the spring time to be considered for ordained ministry.  I don't know if she saw it coming, but I sure didn't.  I felt pretty floored by her news, so I can barely begin to imagine how she must be feeling.
Because even if we couch plans in very tentative terms, remembering to say all the if's and should's when we share our future dreams with other people, inside I think we can't help but become attached to those plans.  I know I have it all mapped out in my imagination.

What if I get bad news, too?  What if I get a 'no' and have to reconsider what I do with my life?  It'll be painful if the path I end up treading doesn't take me via the place I've imagined.
I'm doing a foundation course with a view to training for ordination in the Church of Ireland.  My bishop recently agreed to send me to a selection conference just before Easter.  I think I should hear either way within a couple of weeks of that.  I suppose I've kept it quiet because there's always the chance I could get a closed door at any stage, and realize I'm going no further in this direction.  And because I find it easier to share good news afterwards than risk making myself vulnerable!
Or to put it another way, it's easier to blog about chocolate fondants three years later when they work, than when they don't! (For obscure reference, see previous post!)
I think I'll be OK, eventually, if they say no.  Hugely disappointed, because as I continue to journey with others on a similar path, and as my course progresses, I realize I want it more and more.  But OK, because there are actually few things I want to do in a dog collar that I can't do without one.  Lay people can preach and teach, visit, pray, lead worship, train and equip others, ...  I would see it as a great privilege to say the prayer of consecration and declare people husband and wife, but these in themselves are not burning desires of mine.
So, I'm still figuring out why exactly I want to take this next step.  Release from paid employment to give more time to the church?  Indeed.  Chance to do an MTh?  Absolutely!  But neither of those quite justifies the drastic step of ordination!
If it is a 'no' next year, at least I'll know.  And I'll think of other ways I can satisfy my craving for theological study, and other ways of serving.
So, for now, I'll keep wrestling with that little voice.  The one that asks more questions than it answers.  How annoying!  But ultimately very, very satisfying.  "What are you called to do?  What about ordained ministry?  But then, why would you need to?  And why would you want to?  And if they turn you down, what then?"
More walks required on frosty, clear mornings ...

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Four Chocolate Fondants

Three years ago (Sarah says it's more), I promised to make her chocolate fondant.  I used some friends to practise on, and served them some nice, if heavy, individual chocolate cakes.  I was beaten.

Three years (or over) later, Sarah was poorly and I decided chocolate fondants were the cure.  It was time to face my nemesis.

The trick, they say, is the preparation of the ramekins.  Upward strokes of melted butter, chill, repeat.  Mixture is at the right temperature and comes out easily.  You don't want to take any risks with these tricky little buggers.

An added challenge... this week is Masterchef final week.  So I am feeling all cheffy and inspired!

Fondants one and two: I make a batch of four, although I use an extra few dozen bowls and utensils to make one fondant gluten-free.  The GF fondant struggles to find its legs, but tastes yummy.  Looked a mess though.  I'll have to experiment with adding xanthan gum or vitamin C powder or one of those faffy ingredients that makes GF baking vaguely possible.  Sarah's, however, slid effortlessly onto the plate, held up strong with all that gluten no doubt, and score!  The centre was gooey and oozed out all over the plate in a very pleasing way.

Fondant three: If this were Masterchef, how could I ponce about with this recipe and impress Michel Roux?  I know!  Cut out some paper stars, add strawberries cut into flowers, and dust with icing sugar.  Fondant wobbles menacingly tonight, so it gets an extra one minute in the oven.  Capricious things, they are.

Fondant four: Out of strawberries.  What have we got?  Aha, tonight is clementine and pistachio night. Peel and de-skank clementine segments, make a wheel shape, and throw over a few salted pistachios.  Dust with cocoa powder.  Sorted.  Fourteen and a half minutes - that's what they need in our oven.  Maybe it's the big ramekins.

Next time: how can I booze them up with a good glug of brandy?

Oh, and Sarah is feeling much better, if a little full.  But she has requested no chocolate fondant for dessert tomorrow.