Drawing the year to a close…

It’s almost the end of the year, and I suppose it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the year that has been.  It’s been a busy and somewhat crazy one in many ways, but a very satisfying one, too.  I’ve sung for so many people this year and have had some great responses and I have been made so welcome by people around the country.  It’s been a year of expansion and expression of the divinity that surrounds us daily, but which we are often too busy or distracted to notice.

I saw an interesting post on Facebook earlier today.  It said the following:

‘Another year is drawing to a close, which gives an opportunity to look back and see once more what God has done for you during the last twelve months. It will amaze you just how many blessings have come your way!  At the same time it’s also good to look back over the year to consider what you have done for Him. It might amaze you how little it really is by comparison.’

I thought this was a really interesting meditation, and I have been thinking about it since.  I started to think about everything that I am grateful for this year, and so many things came to mind.  It’s so easy to be pessimistic at the moment with so many problems in the world, and especially perhaps as England has been suffering with the weather so much – we’re usually spared the up close and personal natural incidents – the mood of the world seems subdued.  But as I take some time out at the end of this year, I am full of gratitude.  For my friends, my family, for the work I am given to do, for the calling that I have, for the faith people show in me and the faith I show in them, and the little blessings that remind me that God is there, just over my shoulder.

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To become a better person. Again.

After a conversation yesterday and watching ‘Bloody Sunday’ this evening, I’ve been prompted to meditate on this thought again.  For those who haven’t seen ‘Bloody Sunday’, it’s about the events around the deaths of 13 people in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972.  The discomfort I felt whilst watching it (and not for the first time) made me want to make a difference, to help the world become a safer, happier place.  But yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who has just returned from visiting Auschwitz, who said that when people were stating that visiting the death camp made them want to be ‘be a better person’ he responded with scepticism  (to put it mildly).  I could really relate to both sides of that – when I visited Auschwitz two years ago I wasn’t upset as I was expecting to be, but rather determined that I didn’t want it to happen again.  I left feeling positive, that I could make a change and help the world heal and become more peaceful.  And in response to my friend’s doubts about the longevity of such a desire, I’m sad to say that I think I have failed.

As some of you will remember, I am an RE teacher as well as a singer.  People are invariably shocked when they find out that my faith is such a deep part of me as it is because I am (in their words) ‘normal’.  I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that, but it must mean that people feel they can be honest with me and talk about things which they perhaps wouldn’t discuss in front of a ‘typical’ Christian.  I’m cringing as I write this!!!  But my experience is that people will come and confide in me things which they then feel embarrassed about when they learn of my faith – and this is the best way I can describe what I mean.

I often think that I want people to know that I am a Christian by the way that I act, not by the things that I say.  Slowly I think I’m getting better at portraying myself in the way that I would like to, and I am happy enough to ask God for help with this and depend on Him.  And I think that in many ways I do help – the education I help to provide, the support I give and the guidance I can offer as a teacher as well as the peace and serenity that I try to create with the music that I sing as all ways I can measure my progress in this.  But it all seems so futile, sometimes.

This evening the wind was blowing so hard and the rain was falling so heavily that I was genuinely concerned about the future of this world that we live in.  If we in the south-west of England are feeling the effects of Hurricane Sandy’s fury then I can scarcely imagine the fear being experienced by those who are being touched directly.  We take so much for granted, and I am especially guilty of clinging onto security in whatever form it appears.  A part of me loves the idea of physical security being taken away from us so that we can become closer and closer to the pure love of God, but the larger part of me remains terrified.

I know I’ve said it before, but what if suffering exists only to give us the desire and opportunity to do good things?  Is it enough to continue with life as it is, offering each other the little kindnesses that make us smile on a daily basis and comfort us when we need to be comforted?  Or should we leave our lives and follow Jesus as he called his disciples to do?  If we were to all do that, I’m not sure how long we’d last because to do so is to rely on those who have not left everything behind to follow God.  So surely God means each of us to serve in our own way?

This makes a lot of sense to me, but then the question remains: how do you become the best person you can be in your current position?  ‘Love thy neighbour’ is the simplest commandment to understand but perhaps the hardest to follow.

And the answer to these thoughts which keeps coming back to my mind is so simple:

Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.

Stay with Me

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The Miracle of Everyday Life

Well, today was an interesting day!  I’ve got the standard ‘teacher-in-new-job’ cold and am feeling rather ropey to say the least!  But today has been one of those days to be truly thankful, for the most unexpected of reasons!  Always the best kind 🙂

So I was lucky enough to only have 3 lessons today, all at the start of the day.  Thankfully, I asked if I could leave school after teaching my lessons to have time to rest and recover from this cold.  So I happily left and walked to my car, which I saw had a flat tyre.  Not something I’ve had to deal with yet in my 8 years of driving and owning cars.  So I made it to a petrol station nearby to put air in the tyre with the hope that I’d be able to make it to a proper garage and buy a replacement tyre.  The plan was simple but effective!

Except that there was a slight hiccough – the tyre was so flat that it wouldn’t accept any air from the pump.  No problem, I think – I’ll call the breakdown people as I’ve never changed a tyre before.  Another teensy problem – I’ve forgotten to renew my breakdown cover!  Oh dear!  Things looking less good by the minute.  I spoke to a couple of breakdown people and  found it that my mistake was going to cost me over £100.  Less good had turned decidedly to ‘bad’!

So the next step was to phone the lovely Nick who’d let me leave school early and who is an all-round helpful dude!  He was due to teach a lesson so couldn’t help me, but he suggested that I ask around the garage to see if anyone could help me change the tyre.  “You do have a spare?”  he asked.  I was quiet.  “I have no idea!” I responded.  Now feeling totally idiotic for being so neglectful of my car maintenance duties!!

So I went into the petrol station and asked if anyone could help me.  To my absolute delight, the manager said yes!  So he came out to the car and discovered that I didn’t have a spare tyre!  Argh!  Just as the panic was setting in and I was beginning to berate myself for being useless, when he told me that my car came with a puncture repair kit.  Well!  Forget your bike-puncture-putting-in-water nonsense!  This stuff was AMAZING and even I can do what it needs to fix a tyre now I’ve seen it done!  Hurrah!

So, having bought the manager of the petrol station a nice bottle of wine in thanks, I started on my way to the garage to find a new tyre.  With many a prayer that I’d make it there in one piece, I drove the 15 minutes and arrived at a tyre place, only to be ushered immediately into the bay for tyre replacement.  In less than 10 minutes I had a new tyre and was safely on my way home, thanking God for the grace I had been shown today!  This had been a long series of misfortunes, many of which hadn’t been helped by my own silliness!  And yet I felt like I was looked after at every turn!

There’s a saying that keeps coming back to me by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: ‘the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.’  I don’t want to judge people for believing or not believing in God – as far as I’m concerned their path is their own to follow and isn’t mine to judge.  But I was so grateful to see the hand of God in today, keeping me safe and shining through the hearts of those who helped me.  And grateful that I had God to thank!

Time to share the chorus of one of the songs I’ve written with you:

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El Camino de Santiago/The Way of St. James

This morning I went to St. Peter and St. Paul in Muchelney (near Langport, Somerset) for the first time since the concert I gave there in March.  I was asked back to sing at their team service, where all the churches in the parish worship together.  It was an honour to be asked back and lovely to see so many familiar faces again!

The theme for the service was the Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago – the pilgrimage walked by thousands of people a year.  Funnily enough, I’d had a conversation with someone on the bus to Taizé about the film called The Waywith Martin Sheen, which is about the road to Santiago, and when I’d got home I ordered the DVD as it wasn’t the first time I’d heard good things about the film.

But the film had just been sitting there, waiting to be watched, until I got a call from the priest at Muchelney asking me to sing and explaining that three of the parishioners had recently returned from walking the Way.  The time had come to watch The Way, and it was well worth waiting for.  If you haven’t seen it, do!  It’s an incredibly beautiful and moving film.

Anyway, so the service today was about this pilgrimage (which I now want to do!).  And I think it is the first church service I’ve been in for…years, if ever…that I have felt the power of God so tangibly.  There were photographs shown from the pilgrimage undertaken by the three parishioners, who had travelled with a group from the Diocese.  There were also stories and reflections, prayers and songs.  I felt really moved to have been asked to sing many of the songs during the service.

The most poignant moment was undoubtedly during what would ordinarily have been the slot for Communion.  However, rather than sharing the bread and wine, the congregation was called to lay down their burdens.  At their entrance to the church this morning, each person was given a pebble or stone to hold, as is done when walking the road to Santiago.  The stones are then placed symbolically at one point along the pilgrimage, and this was recreated during the service.  This was where I sang several songs, and I felt so blessed to have been part of it.  The lead-in to this was a reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.  Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ – Matthew 11:28-30

I then sang this song:

I can’t help but think about the significance behind this act of laying down burdens.  I remembered a Good Friday service where the congregation was asked to come forward and lay a nail down at the foot of the cross, to reflect on the closeness of the crucifixion, and this stuck me as just as powerful as that experience had been.

We carry around so much unnecessary baggage and so often we ignore what we are holding onto – perhaps because someone we know is suffering and we consider their burden greater than ours, or perhaps because we find it difficult to face the difficulties we experience.

It was a great blessing to share in the experience of the pilgrims this morning.  The question I am left with now is: will I walk?  And the answer may well be yes!

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The Feast of the Cross

Yesterday was The Feast of the Cross.  It has different names:

  • Greek – Raising Aloft of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross
  • Latin – The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
  • Sometimes – The Triumph of the Cross
  • Other times – Feast of the Glorious Cross

I’m sorry to say that this has passed me by until now, but I’ve been doing some reading and find it an interesting idea.

There are festival days for the cross on which Jesus was crucified throughout the year – 13th/14th September, 12th October, 6th March, 3rd May and 1st August as well, of course, Good Friday.  In the Orthodox tradition, every Wednesday and Friday hold commemorations of the cross.

I saw an interesting comment on an article recently, where someone said that Christianity didn’t begin and salvation didn’t start until Jesus resurrected.  I thought it was an interesting take but wasn’t convinced.  I have always thought of the resurrection and ascension as an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, a way to reinforce the belief in him as the Messiah (fulfilment of prophecy etc.) but of the crucifixion as the more significant act.  I couldn’t quite get my head around the comment that suggested it was less important than the resurrection.

If I feel like I need to reconnect with God on an emotional level, I will read the Passion in the Bible or watch a film like ‘Mary, Mother of God’ or ‘The Passion of the Christ’.  Seeing the pain that Jesus suffered is often such an overwhelming experience that it engenders deep love and humility, even if just for a little while.

So, at this point in the year, a long time since/to Easter, stop and think of the cross.  What an amazing display of unconditional love.  If only we could learn to do the same.

The offering I would like to make to you today is the title track from my second album, ‘Can You Hear My Heart?’, which tells the story of the crucifixion from the perspective of a disciple watching on in despair.  The question, repeated again and again, is a plea for comfort from the crucified Jesus.  And at the end, the answer is given.

Can You Hear My Heart? – http://soundcloud.com/kathryn-crosweller/can-you-hear-my-heart

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The Relationship between Trust and Forgiveness

In discussing trust at Taizé, we found it very difficult not to digress and begin discussing forgiveness.  A lot of the conversation centred around people trusting someone until that trust was betrayed, and then they would not trust them any more.  One member of my discussion group was very emphatic about her belief that trust must be earned and when it is broken, it is our right to withhold trust in the future.  We inevitably ended up talking about forgiveness as this seemed key to allowing trust to be created again.

There’s a section of the well known poem Desiderata which has fascinated me for a long time.  I’ve put the whole poem below for those of you unfamiliar with it, but the line which particularly intrigues me is ‘as far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all people’.  Take a moment to read the poem.

This idea of surrender is a really interesting one.  I was once hurt by someone so deeply that I thought I would be angry forever.  It took me several years to come to terms with my feelings and reaction, and I realised that I really hated this person.  This didn’t sit particularly well with me – I don’t like the idea that I hate someone and it made me unhappy to know that despite my beliefs I was unable to work on this particular issue.

One of the reasons I found it so difficult to forgive this person was because I felt that if I forgave them it would condone their actions, it would mean that my pain was unjustified; but having realised that this was a problem I suddenly let it go.  The person in question had very much moved on, so who was my hate hurting?  Me, and God.

So I came back to this line again: ‘as far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all people’.  I think there’s a really key point here, which came back to me during the discussion with my group in Taizé about forgiveness.  One of the girls was adamant that forgiveness had to be earned and it could be withheld at each person’s discretion.  When I quoted Matthew 21-22 (Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”) she reacted very strongly and said that this wasn’t practical.  In many ways I agree with her, but perhaps our understanding of forgiveness needs to be expanded.

A question I find very important is about prisoners.  If someone has been to prison to pay for a crime, shouldn’t we treat them the way we treat those who have never been to prison when they are released?  Surely the point of prison is to repay society for the crime they have committed.  If I go overdrawn on my bank account and am charged interest, that interest doesn’t carry on being charged once I’m back in credit!  But human beings are so much more complicated.  We find it so hard to forgive and so hard to trust, and the more I think about it, these two so often go hand in hand with each other.

To be a Christian is a hard job.  We’re asked to love everyone (Matthew 22:36-40) and forgive everyone (Luke 6:37).  We’re asked to let go of worldly possessions (Matthew 6:19-20) although the world around us is obsessed with ownership.  We’re asked to trust God even though we can’t see God (Proverbs 3:5).  My students often tell me that they think it’s impossible to love unconditionally, as Jesus taught.  A part of me believes that they’re right, but that doesn’t mean that I give up trying.  I watched some of the rowing during the Olympics and felt so impressed by the athletes who were clearly going to finish last but who carried on going anyway.  Surely God sees us the same way – we may not manage to live up to the ideals set out in the teachings of Jesus, but we try our best and God is there rooting for us just as I was rooting for the rowers at the end of the race!

I know how hard it is to forgive, and I’m certainly not judging anyone for saying that they don’t want to forgive someone who’s hurt them.  Everyone is different, and forgiveness can seem impossible.  But without forgiveness, can there ever be trust?  And without trust, can there ever be peace?

Bóg jest miłością, miejcie odwagę, żyć dla miłości; Bóg jest miłością, nie lękajcie się – God is forgiveness, dare to forgive and God will be with you; God is forgiveness, love and do not fear.

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Trust – Theme at Taizé 2012

Brother Alois, the prior of Taizé, wrote his letter for 2012 under the title, ‘Towards a New Solidarity’ (http://www.taize.fr/IMG/pdf/120enletter.pdf) and the theme for the Bible study and discussion groups was trust.  While the 17-24 year old groups spent a lot of the week playing trust games, the 25-35 year old groups cracked on with some fairly hefty conversations!

When I arrived in Taizé on the Sunday it was after a long journey.  I’d been travelling for 19 hours and hadn’t slept, so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for the inevitable queueing that constitutes the arrival at any place like Taizé!  So, in tiredness I looked around at the big groups of happy, laughing people and felt very out of the loop.  I suppose I felt quite insecure and out of place, as did many people.  In fact, Brother Paolo, the British contact brother, welcomed us on the coach with ‘don’t worry about Sunday, it’s chaotic – tomorrow will feel better!’ and several other people said that they just wanted to get back on the bus and go home the same evening we arrived!  Not ideal.

So when we had our first Bible introduction with Brother Matthew on the Monday morning, I had to laugh at the theme of the week – trust!  I found myself thinking that the beginning of the week had demanded that I trust the community, trust the welcome teams, trust myself (especially with my tent erecting skills!) and trust God that all would be well.  And it was so worth it!!!

My discussion group was a really diverse group of people, made up of one Polish, one Swedish, one Dutch, one other English, three German and one Spanish.  As you can imagine we were all coming from different backgrounds and our discussions reflected this.  I’ll write some reflections on these discussions over the next few blogs, but I thought I would start with an overview before getting started.

For now, have one of the chants we sang every day over the week.  Truly beautiful!  It means: ‘All life long, for the Lord I will sing; while I live, I will praise my God.  My joy is in God.’

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