Reflections on Psalm 139

It’s twelve months now, since my initial sign-off with depression and anxiety. Whilst away on retreat, I decided to reflect on all that has happened in the last twelve months, to learn to live with the gifts from this incredible journey, and to start to look forward again. This happened in conversation with Psalm 139:

 

1 – O Lord, you have searched me and known me,

You know me inside out, all of who I am.

2 – You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You are in my thoughts through all of time,

you can follow themes and connections,

you are under the mattress and at the bus stop and on the tractor,

even to the furthest reaches of Beloved,

you know where I am,

you know me.

3 – You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even on the floor of A&E,

you were with me, you held my hand,

through blessed black white rosary man,

you know all of who I am and where I have been.

4 – Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Through the stutter, through the fast and the slow,

Through everything and nothing

In dot dot dot    dot    dash

In the giggle, through the trees,

You know, you understand, you hear my voice.

5 – You hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

You called me to be in this place,

your servants laid their hands on me

and told me to wait, to be, here.

I struggled and I wrestled, I didn’t fit,

I trusted and I waited.

6 – Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

The gift of love, of light, of eternal I am, is beyond all words,

the peace that is beyond all understanding,

right here, now, if only I would open my eyes and accept the present,

the gift to be,

I am.

7 – Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

In the middle of the oceans, you are there,

In the bus stations in the dead of night, you are there,

In the charity shops and cafes, in the streets and on the train,

your presence is there.

8 – If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

In the Abbey, in the holly chapel, you are there, in my bed in Fordingbridge, you are there.

9 – If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

I ran to the top of the mountain in Japan, and in the fog, you were there.

I flew to the middle of the forest, up the longest river, and you were there.

I hid on the bus and under the bridge, and you were still there.

10 – Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Through the hand in the waters,

through the caped knight on the bus

through accidental Moldova

and Mississippi and Florida,

your right hand held me fast

11 – If I say, “surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.”

As I wore my heaviest clothes and hid under my blanket coat

As I sought darkness and cold and the light hurt my eyes

when my words could not be trusted,

my voice was not heard.

12 – even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Your presence was with me

the strongest light and peace,

beyond all time, connecting all things.

Energy and flow, light and life, beyond all imagining

in the middle of the best/worst, lightest/darkest, messy, paradoxical night.

13 – For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I was knitted together in my mother’s womb,

the only womb that I could be knitted together in, was my mother’s.

The pain of my mother’s womb, was used to knit me together.

14 – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made,

all of who I am, created by you,

in your image, I am a child of God.

Wonderful are your works,

exquisite is your humour.

15 – My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Through the darkness and the pain

the long nights in secret,

you saw me, knew me, loved me,

even when I could not love myself.

16 – Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

You are the God of all time, beyond all time, eternity in the present moment,

You are the energy, the breath, breathing life into all things.

Through all my days, in every moment, you whisper to me to choose life.

17 – How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

In that moment, a glimpse,

The vastness, the hugeness, the connection,

Awe and wonder, joy and peace, beyond my wildest imaginings.

18 – I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.

I try to hold on to that moment, a gift, the present, your presence.

A peace that lingers, that dwells in the depths of my being.

I come to the end, again and again.

Your gift to me, a grain of sand

The whole universe, all creation

In that grain, counted by you, known by you.

A gift to me, life in death, choose life, even now,

I am with you, do not be afraid

That grain of sand, symbol of hope.

19 – O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the blood thirsty would depart from me

O how I long for the easy answer

How I want the problem to be out there

To be other, to be in another.

O God, could you not make it that simple

If you could just change x, or move y

or if I could just be more patient, or thinner,

or sleep well, or more able, or breathe better…

or… the list goes on… and on…

O God, at least the paedophiles, the rapists

the polarisation of Brexit

or the systems that isolate and damage the poor and less able

surely those you could fix for me?

20 – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil

I want that to be someone else,

yet I know that voice is within me

I want to change the past

I want to control the future

I don’t want to meet you in this present moment.

And yet your rainbow reminds me

of the covenant between you and every living creature

Every one…

not just the ones I like,

not just the ones who are like me (there aren’t many of them!)

Every single living creature

known by you, loved by you

even the ones I find really difficult,

who I fundamentally disagree with.

Even those who have hurt me

even those who still hurt those I love

O God, this hurts

it feels easier, safer, to stay in my box

to throw stones,

to blame ‘out there’ or ‘other’

21 – Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

I do… the hate bit is easy,

I find my tribe, we feel cosy and safe,

we want others to be like us, to join us…

Yet you call me

to love the Lord my God, to love you,

with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

That’s so hard… I can try… for a moment.

And then you ask me to love my enemies, to love my neighbours, to love myself

Loving myself, accepting who I am, now

actually getting to know me, is a gift

it’s a hard, winding, unexpected road

Loving my neighbour,

actually being present to them in that moment

not fixing, or categorising

listening, being with them, hearing their story

am I willing? am I able to do that?

And loving my enemy?

am I really willing to see you, within ‘them’

22 – I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

Because that is so much easier,

to see them as other,

for the problem to be them.

23 – Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

You know me God, you know me before I know myself.

You know all my thoughts,

even the ones I don’t want you to know,

you know the shame, the embarrassment, the hurt and the pain,

the fear, the anger and the frustration.

You see all that I am, you know me,

and still, you love me.

24 – See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

You know there is wickedness and darkness in me,

and still, you love me.

You invite me to choose life

and even when I don’t, when the fear, the pain is too much

you love me

you breathe your life into me,

and the invitation is still there…

to choose life.

* [Scripture quotations are from] New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Nine months on… I could have had a baby! Rebirth & Recovery

Nine months on…. I could have had a baby in nine months!

Instead, in those nine months I’ve been on a journey, of death and life, of rebirth and recovery. It wasn’t a journey that I had planned; but it’s also not one that I would want to have missed. It isn’t easy, there has been intense grief and guilt, frustration, exhaustion and fatigue. And yet, in the darkness and pain, there is also light and life.

Nine months ago, I started on my own personal romp through the DSM manual of mental health diagnoses, initially collecting diagnoses of low mood, depression and anxiety. I took an innocent looking white tablet to help, prescribed by my doctor. Little did any of us know what would happen next… it turns out that I’m one of the small percentage of people who react to anti-depressants with a sudden mood-switch into mania – although it took 10 days before the doctors were able to recognise the switch.

In the mania there was such an intense sense of connection, of the connectivity of all things, of the deep connectedness of each of us to all of life. There was also an intensity of the present moment… all I could do was exist in each moment. It’s a little like the first time you see the baby on an ultrasound, the miracle of life, growing inside you… the awesomeness of everything.

All my usual quirks went into overdrive in the mania, as I became an extreme, intense version of my usual self. I pinged between having the working memory of a goldfish – not being able to hold a thought long enough to get to the end of a sentence; to hyperfocus – writing 40k words overnight.

Suddenly Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me. In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, there is such a sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I can do is be, is be who I am. I can’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I can’t trust my thinking, even that, I have to let go.

And then, with help from my colleagues and my bishops and my fabulous, patient husband, I go to the hospital. As I’m left at the hospital, I wonder if I’ve said goodbye to all those that I love. It turns out my sampling of mental health conditions is set to continue, as the doctors try to help, I discover the ‘joys’ of psychosis – another tick on the mental health bingo chart. As I encounter hallucinations and delusions, I can no longer even be certain whether I am alive or dead. Is this what is meant by dark night of the soul? This is a new liminal space for me, as I wrestle with angels.

And yet, there is also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.

At one time, all I ‘had’ was a grain of sand, found on my bed. And yet in that grain of sand was everything I needed to know, all the assurance of life and love, of knowledge and connection, the encouragement to choose life, even in that moment. That grain of sand existed, it was tangible, I could see it and touch it, the grain of sand made by God, known by God, counted by God. That tiny grain of sand, gave me such hope. I tried to hold onto it, my ‘possession’, my connection to the wider world… but even that grain of sand I gave away, a gift, to someone else that needed hope… my hope that this grain of sand would give them the hope of life too.

As I look back… those were the ‘easy’ times. There is such intensity about that time, such connection, all I could do is be in that moment, be present to myself, be open to those around me. It is the light that I found in that darkness, the whisper to choose life, the realisation that the grain of sand held all I needed to know.

And then comes the much longer journey of recovery… I’m still on that journey. There have been more diagnoses, bipolar, ADHD, autism, sensory processing…. Have I collected enough labels yet? There have been more medications, more side effects. I’ve had to go back to basics, relearning breathing, eating, sleeping.

I’ve had to live with brain fug, with fatigue, with not knowing one day to the next what energy I may have, and whether I’ll be able to put words into sentences. And that journey continues.

As I gain in strength, in confidence, I can feel the temptation to try and shrug off what has happened, to try and get back to ‘normal’, to put back on my old self. (I’m not sure that I ever was ‘normal’… whatever that may be! As someone recently told me, by me being at the more extreme end of many spectrums, it allows others to be nearer the ‘normal’ centre!)

This past nine months also feels that it has been a time of rebirth for me, of connecting with myself, of connecting with others. I’ve had the luxury of being stripped of all that I knew, all I could rely on.

As I prepared for ordination a few years ago, others talked of the profound change they felt in themselves at ordination. I didn’t feel this at the time. However, as I have come back to priestly ministry this year, I have felt a deep shift has taken place within me.

As I have lead services and presided at the Eucharist this year, on several different occasions people have described that I have been glowing. From within, I feel such a privilege to be able to stand at the altar and share the eucharist. The mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the paradox of brokenness and such love, the gift offered to all.

I feel humbled, in my own way, to have experienced my own sense of death this year and life through death. As Jesus said, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

And so, nine months on, there’s no baby to show for it… but I’m still here, learning to live again, to love again… to love others and to love myself; profoundly grateful to all the many people that have supported me, loved me and encouraged me over the last nine months; particularly thankful for my family, who have lived through this with me and continued to love me even when I’ve been very hard to love; praying that you will continue to encourage and support me over the next days and months of recovery and life.

Mental Health… some thoughts on my journey so far

IMG_2245Testimony that I gave today at Worcester Park Baptist Church

 

The statistics tell us that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime. For me, it turned out that this year was my year! I understand that Rowena shared some of my story with you earlier in the year. As we’re staying with my sister-in-law this weekend, who has moved to Worcester Park, I offered to come and share something of this journey with you in person.

Many of you will remember me from years ago, I grew up in this church with my family in the same season as Ali here. I was a member of Girls’ Brigade, I was baptised here in 1989, and I preached my first sermon here (well, half sermon, I shared a sermon with Dad – Peter Clark, on Hosea!) I’m now ordained priest in the Anglican Church, and I work with a group of 7 churches in and around Fordingbridge in the New Forest.

For me my mental health journey started during last year. It started very gradually, and it’s only when we looked back that we could see that the start of depression had crept up over the course of the year. By the time I went to see the doctor I had reached the point where my whole body was shaking, but even still, it was really hard to go and see the doctor, to stand there and say, I don’t know how to carry on, I need some help. As a minister, I’m used to being there for others, to hearing their stories, to caring… it was hard to admit that I too needed some help.

I was signed off work with depression and anxiety, and given some medication to try and help calm me down and reduce the symptoms. It was really difficult, I’m used to being confident, capable, energetic and enthusiastic… and yet at my lowest some days my biggest achievement was getting dressed and possibly getting to the Coop for some milk.

When I was first signed off, people were lovely, I received lots of encouraging cards & support. Most of us know someone that has, or has had depression… however, we’re not always good at realising that depression is more than just feeling a bit down for a few days… it hadn’t changed my faith, it’s not that I didn’t trust in God, faith doesn’t stop someone getting depression… I had some good friends that were willing to just come and visit me at home, to sit with me and not expect me to be well enough at that point to go out to social situations with lots of people. Going through the door of church and facing that many people felt impossible for a time. It was very precious having friends willing to ask how I was feeling today, without expecting me to be ‘better’, or to have to put a good face on it.
I made a decision early on, to be open about what was happening to me. Especially as a minister in a small community, I figured there would be a story going round about what had happened, so I wanted to let people know what was actually happening, and so I posted on facebook, letting people know that I had depression and anxiety.
In the new year, things changed, I had an unusual reaction to the anti-depressants. For me, they triggered an episode of mania, and eventually I was hospitalised. In the days before I went to hospital I had some really interesting experiences. It was during this time, when my brain had gone into overdrive, that we noticed enough of my quirks and were able to identify that I may have some other mental health conditions, and my GP referred me for further assessment.

Even just the possibility of the diagnoses was huge for me… and healing for me came in the form of acceptance, hearing the insight into who I am and how my brain works. On the Saturday before I went to hospital I looked at the mirror and smiled at myself for the first time in my life… a smile of acceptance… this is me, and I’m looking forward to getting to know me.
The line from the song that we’ll hear today came to mind – Will you love the ‘you’ you hide… I suddenly realised that I’d been hiding from myself all my life, trying to fit in, to conform… and yet I’ve spent my whole life feeling like a square peg in a round hole… this healing acceptance was me starting to accept more fully that I have been made in the image of God, and these aspects of me, they are who I am created to be… I may have been hiding from myself for years…
My new year’s resolution this year was reflecting on Jesus command to love God, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves….
I realised that if I actually loved others as I loved myself… then others would also get this barrage of self-criticism and frustration from me.

My resolution at new year was to learn to love the person that I am…
be careful what you wish for!….
For me, the mania gave me an openness, an expanded mind that was able to shuffle the pieces and see myself through this new lense… a lens that is still there, even now that the mania has gone.
This was an interesting time, as I realised quite how different our spiritual language is from our mental health language… the night before I went into hospital I had the most intense vision experience, as I felt so close to God and accepted and loved just as I am. I felt full of light and love, and a deep, deep sense of peace and calm. and all I had to do was let go… let go of my expectations of myself… let go of my fears… just breathe, be aware of my body, in the present moment, and allow God’s spirit to breathe through me.
The following day, in medical language, this suddenly gets described in terms like ‘hallucination’.
I’m still working on the language thing, how do I integrate both the spiritual and the mental health aspects of me…. there’s just one me! I don’t want to deny the intense spiritual experience that I had that night, I feel deeply touched, and transformed by what I encountered that night… but I’m also aware that I need to work with those wiser than me as I continue to recover, to discern the ongoing truth of that experience for me… and what of the experience I need to let go of.

While I was in hospital, there was a wall of inspirational butterfly pictures, with inspiring phrases on them. I asked if I could borrow one of them to put on my wall. The nurse said that no, that wasn’t possible – a decision she may later have regretted!, I decided to continue to post openly on facebook about my situation. At one point I described my stay in hospital as an NHS sponsored retreat! I posted on facebook about the butterflies, and asked people to send me butterfly pictures to put on the wall in my room. Apparently those detained in a mental health institution don’t usually receive that much incoming mail!
I was so encouraged by those butterflies, and I still have them at home now. Because I had let people know where I was and what was happening, they were able to send me their love and encouragement.
It was quite a hard thing to do though, to let people know about the mania… somehow depression is easier to be public about, as most people have some understanding of it… mania, and being sectioned in hospital takes you to a whole new level of ‘being different’…. and people have a lot of fear and apprehension. Having been public about it, there are some people that are still not able to have a conversation with me about it, as they can’t cope with it… we’re not supposed to talk about mental health stuff… especially the more weird bits of it…
and yet… by talking about it… others started to see that I’m still a person in there… I’m still me… going through these different experiences… However, even with being open about it… it can still feel very isolating.
For 3 months I wasn’t able to drive, I am on very strong anti-psychotic medication which acts as a huge sedative… so I was tired all the time. It was very hard to commit to things… I couldn’t plan when I would be awake, sometimes my speech was really slow, often it was like trying to operate through a brain fug… connecting with people was really difficult.
I’m finding on the difficult days even now, that when I look ahead, and try and work out the future… it’s really difficult, I get anxious.. . I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t know how much my experiences this year, and other’s reactions to it will affect my future.
When I look at what has happened, it’s easy to get frustrated and angry… and yet when I manage to stay in the present moment, with the people that I am with, to be still, to breathe, to connect… as the Psalmist says to be still and know that I am God… I know that I am OK… and that God is with me…

And mental health will be an ongoing reality for me. During February I was diagnosed with four new labels… we found out that I have ADHD, I am on the autistic spectrum, I have sensory processing disorder and I also have bipolar affective disorder. It is a lot to take in, I’m still processing it!

I am still taking medication for some of it, and there are other medications and therapies that I will be able to explore too, as I continue to recover. These are all conditions that I will have had all my life, they are part of being me… and they each bring with them incredible gifts, as well as challenges.
In some ways, the overwhelming number of labels has forced me to not get too attached to any one label… they’re helpful in their own way… but if we only see the labels… we don’t see the people. Sometimes the labels can act as a barrier… with people bringing their own pre-conceived ideas, and just seeing me through that filter.
At the end of the day, each and every one of us is made in the image of Christ… and sometimes when we pray for healing with mental health, that healing doesn’t necessarily mean suddenly becoming ‘normal’… whatever that is… (I’m not sure that I’ve ever aspired to be ‘normal’) sometimes healing can be the acceptance and the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to accept that this is who we are, and to start loving the person that we are… but often want to hide.
Lucy asked me what can we do as churches to help? I don’t have all the answers, there are various groups putting together resources that can help, but these are just a few of my observations,
I think as a church community, we want to be friendly and welcoming, to be inclusive for people regardless of their physical or mental health. Having been the other side of it, having people that were able to be alongside me, able to listen, encourage and support – even on days when facing a large group of people seemed impossible, people that remembered me, sent a text, checked up on me. People who were still able to recognise Rachel, regardless of the labels, or the particular difficulties on any given day, and able to be with me, to value me even when I couldn’t do very much. Who could still see that I was a person, and not defined just by a mental health label…
I think sometimes we can feel scared, we don’t think we know the ‘right’ thing to say… I’m pretty sure avoiding the person and saying nothing is almost certainly the wrong thing to do! Continue to treat them as people, ask how they are, sit alongside them…. And this may be for a long time….there aren’t necessarily quick fixes… mental health journeys can be long, lonely and isolating… hopefully as churches we can help people to feel less lonely & isolated.

One of the things I found hardest in my mental health journey is that I seemed to lose my voice, I felt no-one could hear or see me any more…only the fear and caution labels.

For me, the people that have made the biggest difference in this journey this year have been those that have been able to just be alongside me, to take me as they find me, to listen and encourage… but not be disheartened when there isn’t a magic fix or cure. I feel sure of God’s light in this journey, and although there have been some really dark times, and still are… it’s a season of putting into practice the question of trusting God, one day, one moment at a time. 

For me it’s remembering that God is always calling me, calling us into his light, his glorious, technicolour light –whatever we are going through, it is remembering that each and everyone of us is precious in God’s sight, made in the image of God.

Some organisations that can help:

https://www.mind.org.uk

http://www.mindandsoulfoundation.org

 

 

I’m pink, therefore I am?

So… it’s Easter Sunday… I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to Easter quite as much as I have this year… and an extra treat, as we have an Easter Vigil service here on Saturday evening, so I could actually re-encounter pink again on Saturday night – I may have worn my pink boots and had my pink hair again…

There has been something for me this Lent about becoming. About being willing to let go of what I hold precious, about being open to becoming, to understanding something of the potentiality in me, the calling to be all that God has made me to be. About the calling on not just me, but on each one of us to flourish, to discover who we are, and to continue becoming the people that we are made to be.

And so this Easter, for me it is remembering that Good Friday is on the way to Easter Sunday, the light and life of God. I’ve been reminded, recalling my journey into pink in the first place, and my journey through this Lent that God never tires of embracing us, of surrounding us with his infinite mercy. He meets us in darkness and disappointment, he meets us on the journey.

Today I’ve been noticing the story of Peter – Peter who denied that he even knew Jesus when he was arrested, Peter, who on that first Easter day doubts that Jesus is alive, and needs to go and see for himself, to check the story…. But Peter who is then entrusted to go out and preach, to share the good news of.

It’s a story of reality, of real people. Peter who has been to that low place, of complete rejection of his close friend, the death of his close friend, and who now encounters the life, the transformation, the love, offered by his friend.

For me, pink is a reminder of that life, it is a reminder that I can’t do this in my own steam, that the life we are called to is not one of ego, but of service. That we are each called to let go of those things that we hold close, the things that can get in the way of us encountering God, and reaching out to those around us.

I’ve rather cheekily re-written the great Cartesian motto, but this Easter, it feels right for me to take back the pink. It is my own story of God’s transforming love, working in my darkness and disappointment. It is a visible reminder to myself to keep on becoming, to keep being open to all that I am, to all that God has made me to be, to keep letting Christ work in me and transform me.

All week I’ve had great difficulty remembering what the Maundy means, in Maundy Thursday – and it’s this – it’s the new commandment that Jesus gave us – to love one another – as I have loved you, so you must love one another.

So today is a day to celebrate, to be open to the beautiful future, the abundant life that Jesus offers us… to let the light of Easter break through, bringing hope and love and light to each one of us and to the whole world.

IMG_7491

My sermon on 10th April followed up reflecting on some of these themes.

Letting Go

This has been an interesting journey through holy week this year – we’ve been in all our local primary schools exploring the holy week journey with the children. Several of the children have asked questions about Good Friday… and why is it called Good. It got me to wondering again, what does Good / Holy / Suffering / Long Friday mean, and what is its significance for me this year?

We see the awfulness of human beings, the distortions of power, the need to control others that is played out in the Crucifixion. We see the fear of difference, the spread of hatred, the cycle of terror that leads to Jesus being on that cross.

And yet, in that pain, we hear Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those that put him there, we hear him talking to others and still pointing the way to God’s love. We see him willing to let go, to let go of his very life here, to submit to that painful death.

Through it we see something more of God, whose love goes beyond and deeper than the mess and cruelty and power-games and institutions created by humans.IMG_7488

What does it mean for me, as I come towards the end of this journey through Lent without pink. As I reflected on the cross I made this clay cross, and at the bottom I filled it with little pink bits – beads & sequins – bits to remember this journey through Lent, this offering of my identity, this letting go of what I have created of me… and the encountering again of the awesomeness of the love and mercy of God.

 

Nearly there now!

OK, I haven’t been brave enough to post this series of pink reflections online until today. (If you want to start from the beginning of Lent, it starts here.) I think part of that is I wanted to make sure that I experienced this, and didn’t get too influenced by comments that others may make. I think I also wasn’t entirely sure that I would make it this far… and perhaps didn’t want to record any possible ‘failure’ in the seemingly simple task of giving up pink for Lent.

It’s nearly Maundy Thursday now, and I’ve nearly made it.

I have to say I’m glad that I’m now worshipping in a church tradition that has an Easter vigil on Saturday evening, so technically Easter will start on Saturday evening for me, and I can put back on some pink.

When I booked my appointment with the hairdressers for Ash Wednesday, to get rid of the pink, I also booked an appointment with them for Holy Saturday, to put the pink back in. But now I need to have a think, and work out if I need to put back on my pink hair. I’m still undecided. I don’t feel that I ‘need’ it in quite the same way that I did. However, I do rather like it – which is why I’ve had it pink for some time. Hmmm, a couple more days to decide. Perhaps I need to go and have a chat with my hairdresser (the rather fabulously named ‘Hairway to Heaven’!) and work out what I’m going to do.

I’m looking forward to the Chrism Mass tomorrow at Winchester Cathedral. One of the highlights for me is seeing all the different liturgical colour vestments – for me, it is a very visual reminder of these colours, of encountering God through these wide range of colours, and remembering that God is there throughout all these different seasons of life, seasons of the year. I’m open to see what happens over the next few days – three more days in black for me, and to see what colours I’m open to as I approach Easter Day.

Draining the colour

(Written 14th March)

OK, it’s now Passion Sunday, we’re entering the last two weeks of Lent. In our churches the crosses have been veiled in purple. I’m finally ready to try a day in black. Poncho is back in the cupboard, I’m not even wearing any blue. This feels very strange, and very uncomfortable (although strangely, 25 years ago, I would have been more than happy to wear all black.)

I’m surprised at how hard I’m still finding it to give up the pink – I thought I would have got used to it by now. I’m also surprised at how hard I’m finding it to actually get to the point of wearing just black. It feels very odd.

One of the things I have realised is that pink really is an expression of who I am at the moment. It does feel like it’s still a good colour, and it does feel congruent with who I am on the inside. Wearing pink I think does reflect something of who I am, of my optimism and cheerfulness. The combination of pink and my dog collar I think does speak something of my informality & approachability, which I think reflects my nature and my approach to being a priest.

However, I feel that I may have started to let go a little of my obsessiveness about pink, and hopefully may be a little more open to other colours – both me wearing them; but also to encountering aspects of God in other colours. Seeing the gorgeous nearly 3 year old Katie the other day, with her love of rainbows, helps me to remember more of the wonderful colours that there are all around us. I’m curious now to find out what happens to me come Easter… how much pink will I reclaim, and will I allow room for other colours? I’m not quite sure… part of me wants to just put back on all the pink that’s been lingering in my wardrobe…

A couple of weeks left to go now… I think I will spend a few more days in black, and see what happens.

Lent without pink continues here

Losing the plot without pink

(Written 3rd March)

3 weeks into Lent, and I hadn’t realised quite how difficult I would find it to give up pink. On a practical side I have to do the washing a lot more frequently, as I don’t have very many non-pink (or purple or red clothes). However, it has gone far deeper than that. I suppose I should have expected it – my journey into pink was related to my image of God, and to my developing identity. Giving up pink is challenging my sense of identity – what does it mean to be Rachel without all these bright colours. I’ve been wearing my new poncho rather a lot, with it’s streak of pink… and some have been suggesting that I’m not fully giving up the pink…am I ready to let go of even this bit of colour?

I’m also finding it disorienting in my prayer life too – which perhaps is a good thing. Have I got fixated on seeing just some aspects of God’s character – the life, the love, the energy. Have I closed myself off to other aspects of who God is?

I’m finding it really hard to settle, perhaps I need to reconnect with the stillness of God. Out and about here, in the beautiful New Forest, I can’t help but notice all the fantastic green colours around me, the signs of spring budding all over the place. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to notice other colours around me… has the pink blinkered me to seeing other aspects of God and this amazing world that we are in?

Am I willing to let go of my images of who I am and who God is… am I able to just be, to stay in the present? Have I started using my old images of God as a short-hand, to try and short-cut spending time with God now, but instead just recalling past experiences of God? Am I willing to encounter myself now, to let myself grow and change, to respond to the situation that I am now, to grow into my calling as a priest, and as a person.

I’m feeling exposed and uncomfortable… maybe this is what Lent is all about. 24 days to go until Easter… I’m not sure I’m ready for any more!$_12

(I may also have had another break of my ‘not spending any money to give up pink for Lent’. I’m really fed up of wearing my funeral shoes and I’ve splashed out on a new pair of black DMs from ebay… rather fabulous, black patent, heeled DMs…)

Lent without pink continues here

Cold and no pink!

(Written 17th Feb)

OK, I’ve worked out one of my limitations with giving up pink… all of my warm clothes are pink and most of my shoes are pink. My coat is pink, my cardigan is pink, my ponchos are pink… and the weather has just got very cold again. I’ve been wearing my black funeral shoes for a week now, and I’m feeling down.IMG_0622

I’m away on half-term with family and friends, and I’ve decided to crochet myself a new poncho that isn’t pink… or at least that was the plan. (and OK, I may be about to spend some money on giving up pink… I know I said that I wouldn’t… but it’s either spend some money, or wear full on pink!)

I went to Otter Nurseries – as they seem to sell everything, and they did have a lot of different wools for sale. However, most of them were really drab colours, and something that I probably wouldn’t wear again after Lent. I opted for a beautiful variegated wool… although I should probably confess that once I started to crochet it, I realise there is some pink in it. I’ve decided that for me, it’s good enough, and still counts as giving up pink – the predominant colours are greeny blues, which is a big change for me. When I wear it, it is lovely, but I still don’t feel at all myself when I look in the mirror.

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I had underestimated how hard it would feel to give up pink. One week into Lent and I’m feeling really quite down. When I look in the mirror, I don’t really feel like myself; I feel drab wearing black and dark colours. I’ve stood at my wardrobe, almost stroking the pink clothes, which I’ve now washed and put away… I want to put them back on.

I’m reminded of something I wrote on here a few years ago:

“The face I want to present to the world is this pink, cheerful, capable, in control person: And to be honest…I don’t really want you to see past that…I don’t want you to see that there’s a real person back there…who’s not totally sure of herself, and hasn’t quite got it all together…If I do let you in a little…I’m still likely to try and hide behind loud / sparkly / bright things…you see I don’t really want to even admit my vulnerability to myself…I’ve become a bit of a slave to this perfectionist lark…but the cracks are there…”

I’m realising that it’s not just that I don’t want you to see beyond this pink, cheerful, capable person… it’s that I don’t want to see beyond this pink, cheerful, capable person. I don’t want to admit that vulnerability, I don’t want to let myself be out of control – and this giving up pink is making me feel very vulnerable. Still, 39 days to go… I’ve never looked forward to Easter quite as much as I have this year!

Lent without pink continues here

Starting to go pink-free

(Written 10tIMG_6523h Feb)

It’s Ash Wednesday, and one of the first things I need to do is to remove as much of the pink as I can. So first stop for me is the hairdressers, to try and dye away my pink hair. When I get to the hairdressers I realise I’ve already overlooked one thing, as I’m wearing pink socks… it’s going to be quite a challenge to notice all the pink things, and to stop using them!

As the hairdresser finishes and I look in the mirror, it feels quite strange to be going brown again, already I’m starting to feel not quite like myself.

It may  help if I explain a little of my journey in to pink in the first place. I tend to think quite a lot in colour, and for a long time the colour that I associated with myself was blue. I painted my bedroom at home blue, my car was blue, my wedding dress was blue…. even my husband mostly lives in blue! In 2004, this started to change.

On Christmas Day 2003 I had a miscarriage, and my health also started to deteriorate, with bad asthma and significant fatigue (which was eventually diagnosed as underactive thyroid). I wasn’t very well, and I had to withdraw from a lot of the different things that I had been doing – I could no longer help on the summer camp that I had been involved with for years, I had to stop leading the youth groups that I was involved with, I had to reduce to part-time working hours. There were a lot of challenges to my identity.

I went on a reflective workshop lead by Rev’d Val Corcoran, and I started to play with colours and textures to represent my life journey. Towards the end of 2004 I started doing City & Guilds embroidery, and in our first term our focus was on colour, exploring all sorts of design work based on colour, and playing with colour in paints & threads. Colour was emerging as a significant thread throughout that year.

At work we were looking at questions around workplace dress & identity. I followed this up by booking an appointment with the fabulous Diana Blakeman at House of Colour, to work out styles of clothes and colours that suited me. I was somewhat surprised to find out that I was a Jewel Winter, and that bright pink was one of the colours that most suited me. I didn’t really want to hear that, and really wanted to just carry on with the black, navy & white that I mostly lived in. She challenged me to try wearing pink for a couple of weeks and to see what happened.100_1606

Soon after, in early 2005 I went on a silent retreat at a convent. I explored the image of God, firstly by playing about with paint to try and capture my own thoughts. The gold ball that I painted tried to capture my image of the holiness, the preciousness of God – but also something of the awe and perhaps remoteness, and also a bounded feel, for me this was something about rules and regulations, about laws and striving for perfection.

I then spent time looking at images of God drawn by different artists, from different traditions. I was particularly drawn to one icon, and in particular the red colour within it (Icons were not something I had particularly encountered prior to this – I’d grown up in a Baptist church, this was definitely new territory for me!) The blue and the gold I was familiar with, but the red really struck a dissonant chord with me.

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For the first time the humanity, the passion, the intensity, the feeling and excitement of Jesus the man struck a chord with me. Red was not a colour I had ever associated with God in any way. I spent some time with this image and exploring further scriptures to dwell on this colour aspect of God. The image I then painted was this:100_1608

This started to capture some of the movement, the energy, the dynamism, the desire of God. It was really challenging to put this on paper, as it was so different to the imagery I had let stay in my head for a long time. Part of me wanted to screw up this painting as soon as the paint started to touch the paper, it felt almost irreverent; opening me to a completely different perception of God. I spent some time sitting with this, letting the associated scriptures and imagery sink in.

I spent se100_1223veral days praying on this in retreat, of encountering these different aspects of God, and letting them seep into me. I created a simple card/ fabric butterfly, that felt like the new, fragile me, emerging from a chrysalis – the chrysalis of pain and poor health, but also the restrictions of trying to meet others expectations of me.

The encounter with this redness of God, the life-giving energy, was a realisation for me of the invitation to live the fullness of life, to allow myself to 100_1222get to know myself better, and to let different aspects of my personality & skills to flourish. And as colour has always been significant to me, this was the start of me really accepting the pink colour – the colour that had been identified when I had my colours done, started to feel like a God-given colour for me, and became almost a short-hand to myself, a reminder to be the person that I am, to allow myself to flourish and live, to love life and appreciate the goodness around me – and to encourage that flourishing in others.

Later that year, as part of my City & Guilds we had to create a wall hanging. I decided to use this colourful journey and to represent it in stitch & fabric. The spiral shell, still hanging in our living room, represents that journey, that transformation.

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Ten, eleven years on though, I wonder if I have almost stopped that transformation by capturing it in an image like that. I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s words: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

(I’m pretty sure Wittgenstein didn’t have in mind a pink spiral shell when he wrote these words.) However, I wondered if that is what had started to happen to me – had I become captive to this image of transformation, of pink. Was I inside it, or outside it? Was I stuck in a pink loop with no escape? In using pink as almost a short-hand to myself, had I tried to capture it… was I still experiencing God in this way? Was this colour still true to myself? Did it still represent who I am? Or am I restricting myself, stopping the continual change & transformation by hiding behind this colour?

I’m not really sure, and I think that is what I’m hoping  I may find out as I continue on this journey through Lent. I’m only one day in, and already I’m feeling very uncomfortable, and not at all sure that I’m going to make it to Easter… Easter is feeling a long way away!

Lent without pink continues here