Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Vicar's Study - Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

'You can easily look up what Christians believe in. You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown up dignity. It is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an 'apologia', the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I'm not sorry.'
In the last few weeks I have been volunteering at a cathedral. Every evening at about quarter to five the choir wander in, a rag tag bunch of boys clasping music sheets and jostling each other as they head to their stalls. A couple of minutes later and the cathedral is filled with sound. Voices blending together, soaring. It draws me into another world, to a sense of order and of beauty and of rightness. Just for a moment as I sit there and let the music flow over me I feel connecting to something bigger than myself. I feel at peace.
It is with this kind of experience that Francis Spufford opens his book Unapologetic. No one can know if God exists, he argues, it isn't something that can be answered definitively one way or another whether you are the Archbishop of Canterbury or Richard Dawkins. But this sense of something, this whisper into the silence, he argues, is a reasonable basis for belief in something greater. Emotions are our 'tools for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn't susceptible to proof of disproof'. This emotional experience of an 'otherness', an order, a peace in the world, is the basis of what he explores in his book.

He is certainly not hopping on the hippy train and as he would put it 'joining John and Yoko around the white piano' and proclaiming the whole world to be one big ball of love and peace, man, if you just connect on in to it. No, for me, he gets to the heart of the Christian message about the world that both presents humanity as irreplaceably wonderful and heartbreakingly broken.

This he calls HPtFtU, the 'Human Propensity to F*** Things Up'. We all have it and we all spend most of our time pretending that we don't. Trying to label someone else as the problem rather than recognize our own dark corners. Peace, he argues, is hard won not some default state of human nature. It is our potential not our possession.

He is refreshingly honest about the brokenness of the church (that HPtFtU again!), the brokenness of the world and the depth of human suffering. He doesn't shy away from asking how on earth this can be the case if at the centre of the universe is a God of love. He presents no platitudes, no explanations that perhaps seem ok on the surface but even a tiny amount of exploration suggests a God who stands up to no ones definition of good. Instead he turns to the Christian answer to suffering which isn't a proposition so much as a story..
'Imagine a man, then....Imagine a man in whom the overwhelming, all at once perspective of the God of everything is not a momentary glimpse from which he rebounds, reeling, but a continual presence which in him is somehow adapted to the scale of the human mind, so that for him, uniquely, the shining is not other but self.'
This story of one man, Yeshua (his Hebrew name. Yep, you guessed it, it's that Jesus guy again!), doesn't pat us on the back and say 'there there' or 'just pretend it's not happening' but takes us into the depths of our human experience. I am about the embark in church on eight days of remembering the last days of Jesus' life. We engage in what probably looks like a pretty depressing set of services remembering a particularly unpleasant death to mark that hope in the human situation can't come from burying our heads in the sand.
It is about recognizing that we can't escape the realities of life and death, that we can only pass through them. But more than that it is about saying that someone already has. And not just anyone but The One. That voice of beauty and love and wonder that speaks in those moments of transcending peace. This act, this taking on of all that is broken in the world and in our own hearts, is the death knell for suffering, the remedy for the HPtFtU, the outstretched hand of unconditional love.

And what does that mean when we emerge from all this on Easter Sunday? Francis puts it well,
'Don't be careful. Don't be surprised by any human cruelty. But don't be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know'.
This is an extraordinary book, do read it.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Vicar's Kitchen: The Tea-vangelist!

Yesterday, ironically over a cup of hot chocolate, I gave a particularly impassioned speech about tea. My husband, who was claiming to only like a cup of milky builders (sigh), responded to my ten minute diatribe with, 'My goodness, you should be a Tea-evangelist!'.

As Barney Stinston would say – Challenge Accepted! It's also about time I broached this subject given the title of this blog. I don't want you all hauling me up on trade descriptions!


A few years ago I didn't even like tea. Looking back now on the dark time I'm not sure what I did for refreshment. I certainly didn't daily enter into a world of extraordinary flavours. I didn't have the option of deciding if I fancied a big caffeine kick or just a little caffeine nudge, as it were. I didn't have the opportunity to have Salted Caramel in my drink with NO ADDED CALORIES. It has been a revelation.

And now, dear reader, I share with you five of the best teas I have discovered on my adventures.

1. The Staunton Earl Grey - East India Trading Company

I discovered this tea while on a tea tasting at Christ Church College in Oxford with one of the East India Trading Company's tea tasters. Yes, people really get to do that for a living. This is a powerful brew containing the essential ingredient of a proper Earl Grey, neroli. In my opinion everything after you've had this is just a bad imitation. It is very fragrant and floral though so bear that in mind and brew gently!

2. Empress Grey - Marks and Spencers

This is my favourite every day tea. Where the Staunton is floral, this is full of citrus flavours. It has a light Chinese black tea as its base and is flavoured with orange and lemon peel. If you aren't a fan of the bitterness of strongly brewed black teas then this is quite different to that. It's also an absolute bargain at £1.49 for 50 tea bags!

3. Green Tea and Salted Caramel - Twinnings

This is a new one from Twinnings and it is AMAZING. Don't be put off by what sounds like a bit of a weird combination. The salted caramel adds a soft sweet note to the green tea that is just delicious.

Brew lightly with this and with all green teas giving them just a minute or so. I learned that from the East India Trading Company expert who informed us that we were all brewing our teas to death. In the case of Green Tea this is a bitter death indeed which often puts people off when they first try it. Brew less, no problem. Lovely tea goodness!

4. Cotswolds Fruits -  Huffkins Bakery

If you happen to live in the Oxfordshire area then get yourself down to Huffkins Bakery in Witney or Burford. If you happen to be here on holiday then stop by and buy all of their tea. You won't be sorry. This is a delicious fruity tea made up mostly of berries. It honestly tastes just like summer.

Lots of people have tried fruit teas and found the taste doesn't live up to the smell. That is often the case if you go for fruit teas that are more dust than fruit in the tea bag! Whole fruit pieces in this tea give a totally different and rich flavour.

If you aren't lucky enough to live near Huffkins then Tea Pigs Superfruit is similar and nearly as lovely.

5. Orange Rooibos - Trumpers Tea

I'm not a fan of pure Rooibos but I love it with added spice and I also love its wild cousin Honeybush Tea. This one is particularly lovely and is flavoured with African spices, orange peel and orange oil.

Rooibos is an African tea and it really does remind me of the feeling of the sun on my skin. It tastes like where it comes from, all sunshine and warmth. Loose flavoured Rooibos can be hard to come across but if you can't find this variety then Twinnings do a specialist loose version as do Whittards.

So there you are, the Tea-vangelist has spoken. Are you converted?!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Vicar's Sofa: Community, what does it mean to you?

It's all getting rather exciting in these parts as we start to prepare for a big move to my first Vicar-ing job. For the last few years, as regular readers will know, we have been living in the sort of semi-countryside. This has been lovely but a bit odd for this self confessed urbanite. From the start I have lamented the lack of light pollution (I like street lights, so sue me...!) and I deeply miss the ability to collapse into a coffee shop within walking distance from my house. Our next move is back to more urban surroundings and right into the heart of the town where we (the husband and I) will both be working as well as living.

It is pretty in the countryside, I grant you!

As well as worrying about the monumental amount of packing there is to do I have also been thinking excitedly about what life in this new little commuter town is going to be like. In many ways I already know it very well. I grew up about six miles away and I'm going right back into the golden world of my lovely friends and family. But in other ways it is completely new. A new bunch of people, a new town centre, a new lifestyle for us that will be very different from our little village with just a Co-op and a Post Office!

My first 'Googles' about the town (after the church, of course!) probably reveal quite a lot about my major concerns when moving to a new community. Search one – 'Haberdashery'. Et voilĂ ! A lovely little family run business pops up in my search findings. That's all my free time sorted, then.
My next searches of 'Vegetables' and 'Second hand furniture' are possibly a bit random, I grant you, but there is nothing better than wandering down to a good market for your food. The desire for a second hand furniture shop comes from a complete inability to pay hundreds of pounds for something I can get for a fiver. Though, to be fair, this does have its drawbacks. My brother, based on past experience of visiting us, enquires about the stability of every piece of furniture before he sits in it!
Second hand furniture rules!

But all this local shopping and eating is, for me, a big part of what it means to be a community. It's about supporting the people working in your area because you are neighbours but also because you want them to still be there selling you all this brilliant stuff. Hooray for towns with farmers markets and second hand shops (which my new town has both of, score!) And a double hooray for the unexpected bonus of a French delicatessen! Be still my beating heart, we will have proper Brie!

Shopping locally also means getting to know the people who live beside you, a very pleasant side benefit to the acquisition of excellent French cheese and unloved armchairs. This has also been something the church has been very good at in my life allowing me to make friends with people from across the generations. It also allows my to indulge my fantasy of creating a life reminiscent of the Gilmore Girls in Starshollow. Everyone should have a Luke and a Taylor Dosie!
Forgetting that 'No man is an island' seems to be pretty common in our towns and cities but, based almost entirely on hunch, I feel like the tide is turning on that. We do want to belong where we live, even if we are only there for a short time. Since leaving university I haven't lived anywhere longer than three years and I'm unlikely to ever lay down permanent roots till I retire. But I still want to wave to people as I walk down the high street and make a new friend that lives just up the road.  

So what do you think? Are we having a community revolution? Does it matter to you? And what are your top tips for growing community where you are?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Vicar's Kitchen: Veg Box Busting Soup

Dare I say it, we might just speeding out of soup making weather here in the UK. The last few days have been very Spring-like indeed so much so that I am considering digging out something other than the massive woollens I have lived in all winter. However, this being Britain, I'm sure we might have more soup appropriate days to come (even in mid summer!) so I'm sure this little gem of a recipe won't go to waste.

I whizzed up this latest batch of soupy goodness based on a recipe from French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. It is called Soupe Aux Legumes de Maman and has the added benefit of busting through the best part of the contents of our veg box. Dealing with this seasons glut of veg has been a little tricky and I was beginning to worry that I was forming a long term relationship with two turnips in my fridge. I've also been perpetually looking for recipes to deal with the cabbage glut we have going on so this recipe really does the trick.

This Veg Box Busting Soup is packed full of seasonal veggie goodness and I added a little kick to the French version with some Cayenne Pepper as well as simplifying the method to suit my laziness. It is pretty darn good if I say so myself!

Veg Box Busting Soup

2 potatoes
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 garlic cloves peeled
4 leeks
Half a cabbage
2 turnips
4 carrots
Can of chopped tomatoes
Sunflower oil
2 bay leaves
A pinch of cayenne pepper

  • Peel and chop the potatoes and add them to a pan with the onion and garlic. Cover with boiling water and boil for ten minutes. Drain and set the contents aside.
  • Prepare the other vegetables (except the tomatoes) by shredding them or peeling and chopping into small chunks adding them all to a large pan with a splash of oil. Sweat the veg for five minutes.
  • Add the potato and onion mix to the rest of the veg. Add the tomatoes to the pan along with the bay leaves and cayenne pepper. Cover all the veg with boiling water and simmer until all the veg is tender (about fifteen minutes).
  • Blitz up the soup in a blender and serve.
Enjoy, and may the sunshine continue!

Friday, 6 March 2015

Vicar's Sofa: Sick Day Revelations

Is it just me that has little life epiphanies during a period of illness? I'm now at day five within the same four walls and at the stage where I am vowing to never take my health for granted again. I'm also realising, due to this bout of forced inactivity, how difficult I find it to do nothing. And I mean really do nothing. No reading, no list making, no planning, no cooking, no cleaning, no working. Nothing. I've just been so wiped out that these things haven't been possible and that has been really quite hard.

I am perpetually busy and, honestly, most of the time that is just how I like it. I love new experiences, I love being with people. I like the sense of achievement from ticking things off my list. But I also get burned out and tired of constantly striving. This week has made me realise how liberating it can be to take my foot off the gas. Today as I sat huddled under my duvet thinking about all the things I was not doing and ought to be doing the thought suddenly popped into my head 'Why don't you just enjoy where you've got to?'

There couldn't be more apt thought for this weekend when I will be graduating from Oxford with a hard earned BA in Theology. This graduation caps such a happy time in my life living, working and studying in Oxford. I have loved being in this extraordinary city. I've loved digging up books in Bodleian and being in classes with incredible lecturers. My mind has been expanded in ways I never knew it could be. I can't wait to walk into the Sheldonian tomorrow and claim my place among the Oxford Alumni.

Graduating can easily become all about what comes next particularly as we are about to move house and job in the next few months. What will my professional studies look like over the next few years, do I have the aptitude to go further? What on earth is life going to look like in the long term? All questions I am thinking about and all important questions to consider but they are all questions for later. Now is about celebration, about just enjoying getting here. About being thankful for the extraordinary blessing that this time in Oxford has been and all the amazing and unexpected ways in which life has changed.
So perhaps this little time of being housebound will do me some good even if I am still feeling a little rough! Perhaps it will give me a little reminder that everything on the to do list does and will get done. Meanwhile its good to remember that all those lists I made in the past and all that work was for this moment, right now, so there really is no better time to stop and enjoy it.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day: Five Books I Love

I'm writing from my sick bed (I know, get out the violins!) but I couldn't resist posting for World Book Day. The one advantage of this enforced time at home is a renewed a appreciation of some of the lovely things I am blessed to have. So here, in celebration of the wonderful thing that is the book, are five of my favs that have made my life infinitely richer.

How much poorer would life be without rich fictional worlds to escape to? Every time I read about Mama Ramotswe I want to go back to Africa.

Books have hugely enriched my spiritual life and this ragged old copy of Margaret Silf's Landmarks speaks for itself as to how influential it has been for me (and my husband who has used it over and over again in his classes at school!).


And what about a beautiful old book? These Handy Shakespeares from 1892 are still my pride and joy since I picked them up working in a second hand bookshop.

In recent years I've gotten more and more into reading history. This book kicked all that off. Not only is it beautiful (and another find from that second hand bookshop) but is also based on where I grew up, in Windsor rather than the Castle that is! I'm not secretly royalty!!

My cookbook collection is growing to epic proportions but I just can't resist it when you can pick one up in a charity for the price of a magazine. My eclectic cookbook collection has taught me to cook everything from Spanish to French to Indian to Greek and I LOVE it.

And lastly, because I couldn't resist one more, what about all those childhood stories? They remind me of sunny days and, as Lewis Carroll writes in the back of this edition of Alice, of -
'that delicious dreamy feeling when one first wakes on a summer morning, with the twitter of birds in the air, and the fresh breeze coming in at the window when, lying lazily with eyes half shut, one sees as in a dream green boughs waving or waters rippling in a golden light'.

Happy World Book Day!