About coram deo at home

Wanted to save the world since I was six. Discovered I needed saving along the way. Became a theologian to join the signposting team, marking the way of salvation. Trying, together with my husband, to lead our four children along the road. Always looking for fellow travellers.

Holy Saturday

The big news from the nature reserve this week is that the tadpoles have hatched. Last week we had frogspawn; this week we have tadpoles! They’re difficult to see, since they’re about the same colour as the bottom of the pond. Midday was the best time of day to see them. At the ends of the day I mostly saw the reflection of trees round about the pond. And it was impossible to take their photo! Anna and I also saw some peacock butterflies, which also moved too fast to be captured in a photo. But there were some things that stood still.

My own vegetable patch (top left) has been planted: potatoes, onions, leeks, and beets. Carrots, radishes, and salad greens are in big pots, and the tomatoes are in small, plantable pots. We’ll see. I’ve never had much luck with tomatoes on this side of the Atlantic. The sheep are self-explanatory, and I’m not sure what is flowering in the top right corner. Ditto for the weed with the lovely flowers in the next row.

I think the budding tree might be a sycamore, the one without any leaves is an alder (another late leafer), and the last is a willow, of course. The bird is a bullfinch, unless I am mistaken.

Apart from the forget-me-nots, the flowers are all in my front garden. I planted some bulbs in December, and I’m very glad I did. It has been great to watch them grow, and satisfying, since I am not good at growing anything I can’t eat.

The odd one out is the pizza. But it is a family favourite, all made from scratch and cooked at ridiculously high temperatures on Lewis’s Big Green Egg. Pizza night was Maundy Thursday. We joined the Dominicans at Blackfriars in Oxford for the Mass, and we will tune in again tonight for the Vigil.


This week I have watched the death toll rise and feared for all the vulnerable. There are no words.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. 

The cruelest month?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.

I’m not sure whether April really is the cruelest month, but this year it might be. By all accounts, the pandemic is bound to get worse before it gets better. It hasn’t been a happy week, but at least my family are all well, so I must summon some gratitude and get on with it.

The natural world carries on without regard to the number of new COVID-19 cases (on the rise) or the stock market (not on the rise). Birds still flit to and fro carrying nest-making materials, singing their usual songs, and occasionally staying still long enough for me to identify them.

Early springtime is erratic. One day, we have sunshine and almost-warm weather; the next, it’s blowing a gale and threatening snow. The signs of spring are also inconsistent. The oaks still think it’s winter, while the gorse blooms bright yellow.

And in a strange twist of fate (par for the course this week), wordpress won’t let me upload any new photos. Cruel. 


Signs of spring

A small but significant thing I miss: chatting with the folks who work at the local co-op. Strange as it seems, those brief interactions with relative strangers—talking about the weather, mostly—were an important part of my day-to-day life.

Yes, folks. I am an extrovert. Guilty as charged. A friend on facebook suggested that the time for misanthropic introverts has come. Great, I’ll just bring out my inner misanthropic introvert then. Oh, wait, I haven’t got one of those!

So I am here, chatting to the blogosphere—all you relative strangers—about the weather. That’s right: I plan on posting a ‘small talk’ blog once a week, to prevent myself going mad from the lack of human interaction. I propose to share with you some of the signs of spring that I have seen on my daily walks. (Also essential for my sanity; I do maintain the requisite distance from any walkers I see.) In part, I want to pay attention to spring for deeper, more theological and spiritual reasons. But mostly, I just want to talk about the weather.

This week in the local nature reserve:

I am no expert, so feel free to correct me (or fill in the blanks) here. From top left: blossoms on the hawthorn tree, daffodils, frogspawn. (I have been checking almost every day to see whether the tadpoles have emerged.) Bottom row, from left: a pheasant, willow blossoms on the path, candelabra primroses and narcissus.

If I were more technologically astute, I’d include some bird song. Here again, I am definitely no expert. Our woods are full of birds. I’ve seen blue tits and long-tailed tits, great tits and a bullfinch, all the usual suspects (magpies, blackbirds, pigeons of all sorts, crows, and robins), plus a jay and a load of others I’ve yet to identify.

Most of the week was spring-like: sunny and almost warm (I’m from Southern California, so what passes for ‘warm’ here doesn’t impress me). Today, though, I wore my big coat, and I needed it when the wind got up and closed the gaps in the clouds overhead, and the rain began. (Best not to think about the laundry I left on the line—ever the optimist!) I wasn’t sorry I’d ventured out, but I was glad to have the appropriate attire! Now, as I write, the sun has emerged again and I see blue sky between the clouds.

Spring is coming, and it seems completely unaware of the predicament we humans are in. The flowers are blooming and so are the trees, the lambs have been born and the birds are nesting. And for all these signs of spring, I am grateful.

a thing about theology and disability

I frequently tell my students that sometimes writing clearly requires stating what seems blindingly obvious. Don’t worry, this is not a post about good writing. (If you want to read some, my current example is Bill McKibben’s Falter. I wish my prose was in the same league as his.) This is a post about something that is blindingly obvious to me, and how it came to be that way. That is, most of the things that seem to us to go without saying don’t just appear that way. They’re things we’ve learned. In my case, I have learned them the hard way (which often sucks, but the lessons stick).

This is a story about how I came to think about disability and God in the way that I do now. Once upon a time, I was teenage girl who intended to have kids and be done with it by the time I was 30. Why? (Wait for it…) Because I was so certain that I could never, ever cope with having a child with Down Syndrome. (File under ‘Please God, don’t send me to China’.) Well, I was sort of right: I am not good at coping, and sometimes I fail spectacularly. I was wrong, though, to think that my life would be better without a child with Down Syndrome in it.

About 18 years ago, I was a PhD student writing about Christian identity. As I thought about what it meant for someone to be a Christian, I found myself thinking about things like ‘imagination’ and ‘belief’. If Christians are shaped by doctrine and Scripture, then how can a person who doesn’t understand either be called a Christian? I’ve written a good bit about that elsewhere—not only in my dissertation, which became a book, but in articles I’ve written since then. Christian discipleship is fostered by study of Scripture and doctrine, but not because knowing stuff gets us closer to Jesus. The object of the discipleship game is to follow, and being smarter doesn’t make us better followers. ‘Taking every thought captive to Christ’ is the imagination’s job with respect to Christian discipleship; the more, and the more elaborate and fancy the thoughts, the more help (from doctrine and Scripture) we need to capture them.

There is an implication of my proposal that I don’t spell out, though. I don’t say it in anything I have published, and yet I keep saying it—to students, to friends at conferences, in emails—as if it ought to be obvious. It is that disability names a feature of most human lives at one point or another, but it does not name something that impairs a person’s discipleship. That is, ‘disability’, as we human beings think about it, doesn’t block a person’s relationship with God. As my friend John Swinton has pointed out, we are known by God. So we should not make the mistake of believing that human being’s relationship with God depends on the person’s ability to know God. Scripture and doctrine agree that we can’t. But we are known by God, and can come to know God in that being known. Disability doesn’t get in the way of God knowing us. (Now there is a lot more to be said about that, in a lot more technical detail. But I hope that we can agree that, for example, I don’t need to be able to speak to be able to pray. I’ll leave it there, and be glad to answer questions.)

The point is that, from God’s point of view, we are all ‘disabled’—we don’t know how to pray as we ought to; we cannot see God; we don’t have the capacity to know God. If we want to pray well, we ask for help; if we want to see God, we ask for God to reveal God to us. And we wait. The only thing that really counts as disability here, the only thing that impairs our relationship with God is sin: we turn away; we refuse to ask; we refuse to wait. That, and not any impairment of mind or body, corrupts our relationship with God. No hearing loss, no paralysis, no cognitive impairment, no mental illness, nothing that disrupts our earth-bound and social existence can separate us from the love of God.

A long time ago, I was the mother of a tiny child, a little girl with Down Syndrome, whose potential for Christian discipleship I came to see as fully equal to my own. And she cannot explain the Trinity to me, but she can draw me into prayer. She remembers in her prayers those for whom I have forgotten to pray. She knows how to say sorry (though she doesn’t like to say it any more than anyone else does) to others and to God.

I am grateful for having been ‘sent to China’: from within this landscape I see things differently. I see what really impairs us human creatures—it’s not the limits of our intelligence or our skill set; it’s the limits to our humility, patience, and love. And I am unspeakably glad that I have daily before me a model of humility and an encouragement to my patience, and that in this crazy life we have together, there is Love—more than I ever knew there was in the whole world.

Deo gratias.

I suck at everything

I suck at everything. No one will miss me.

Or so I think, more often than is good for me. And when I think it, I am sure beyond all doubt that it is true and real and final.

I take a walk, long after dark, almost always in my slippers, and care not what might go wrong with this stupid trek. Except sometimes I hope the neighbours don’t spot me and decide I am crazy. Eventually I decide not to go into the woods, because I have begun to think that maybe someone will notice that I am gone. Then who knows who might come looking for me and what unwelcome chain of events might be set in train. However much I suck at everything, and however sure I am that no one will miss me, I am not (that) crazy. (Still, I’ll step into the road and glare at the car approaching, as if to say, ‘You’re going too fast. If you don’t slow down, you’ll hit me and it will suck for you. I really don’t care.’ The car slows and I move on like a cocky 5-year-old who has chased away some seagulls.) Dejectedly, I turn for home. Like Lucy Pevensie, I find I’ve not been gone long enough. I guess time in my own private anti-Narnia passes at a different rate from ordinary clock-time, too.

The thing is, there is a dark narrative that flows deep beneath the surface of my ordinary, everyday life. In this story, I am no good. Against every possible measure to which my paltry achievements might be set, I am a failure. I’ll spare you the litany, for it is depressing for me and would be boring and ridiculous to anyone else. This storyline runs alongside a stream of peace and sense of place in the universe, one that is entirely disconnected from the notion of my usefulness. So mostly I walk in the narrow space between these two opposing accounts of who I am and what my life is about. Sometimes I wade happily in the latter stream, feeling, well, invincible.

And then something nudges me, and I stumble. I fall into the waters of the dark and dangerous stream, somehow at once turbulent and deep. I am pulled down, as if by a heavy stone, by the sense that I suck at everything, and nobody will miss me. Fortunately, I am too stubborn a swimmer and too petrified of drowning to go under. After thrashing around for a while in the murky water, I crash back onto my slim patch of ground soaking, feeling like the Hulk in the film—the one in which he has that countdown since his last ‘hulking’. I’ve probably smashed some things, emotionally and psychologically speaking, as I tumbled through the current. I’ll spend the next few days muttering apologies shamefacedly.

This is my life as I know it. As I have always known it. Ever since I can remember. Sometimes it doesn’t suck. And the greatest gift I have is being able to forget how awful thrashing around in the churning and murky water was, for stretches long and short in between my plunges. I am grateful for that. I’d like to be able to remember just a little bit better, when I am clutching at fast-moving branches, that it isn’t always like that, it’s not always dark and terrifying and desperate. For the time being, I’ll take my persistent and stubborn refusal to drown as good enough. After all, it’s worked so far.

And for that, in the grey light of morning, I say: Deo gratias.


All set for Christmas?

A few people have asked me whether I’m ‘all set for Christmas’. This is one of those questions that makes up autumnal small talk around here, beginning very early in November.

It may be an unintended rebellion against the idea that ‘all set for Christmas’ has to do with buying presents and not with the orientation of the heart, but I have yet to purchase a single Christmas gift.

Advent starts tomorrow. I can’t say at the moment that my heart is in the right place, the place of expectation and longing for the kingdom of peace, where all tears will be wiped away, and creation will be released into the joy for which it was made. Being all set for Christmas, for me, is about the preparation of the heart.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the tree-trimming, the present-wrapping, and all the yummy things that are a part of the external preparation for the feast. But these do not make me ‘all set’ for Christmas.

Come to think of it, only God can do that. All I can do is keep looking in the right direction and wait for it.

Death among strangers

It’s a funny thing. Talking to relative strangers about the deaths of loved ones. Hardly a light topic for an early Friday afternoon, but there we were. I’m not sure how we got on to the topic, really. We’d started out talking about window cleaners (the folks who do ours aren’t very good, and apparently are a lot more expensive than the guys who do theirs).

Then, suddenly, we’re talking about Terry, who died at 54 of a massive heart attack—me, with his widow and his daughter. It was a shock. It was the middle of the night. He’d been watching the football and didn’t come up to bed. And it hurt my heart to hear it, of course. I thought about the shock of my grandmother’s sudden death, and the upside-down-ness of the world after my mother died unexpectedly.

The funny thing isn’t death, of course. The funny thing is how much less alone in the world I felt afterward. Nothing funny about a man dying at 54 and leaving a widow, grown children and adoring grandchildren. But in the talking about it, with the crazy things the relatives did and the way the then-25-year-old daughter managed everything, there were the funny bits and the shocking bits, and the poignant bits. How the then 7-year-old grandson was devastated and still hasn’t fully recovered. How the siblings who weren’t speaking to the deceased wanted to elbow their way in to everything. How his widow struggled and couldn’t get out of the car at the funeral home.

We laughed and gasped. We didn’t cry. (We don’t know each other that well, I guess.) And I thought about those I loved who have died, and those I dearly love who someday will.

I can’t say the conversation ‘cheered me up’ exactly. How could it? But in a strange way, a way I can’t quite understand, I know I’m better for it. My feet are on the ground, and my heart feels full of life.

It’s a funny thing.


Dandelions and cow parsley

Today is the feast of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus. I didn’t appreciate her ‘Little Way’ very much, until I realised that the hidden, everyday works of love were the way for me as well. Big ascetic or evangelical dreams (self-saving and world-saving) yielded to practical realities: caring for babies, tying children’s shoes, marking essays. Yet I resisted the little way for a long time.

And then I read John Swinton‘s book, Becoming Friends of Time. Not because I thought it would do me good, but because I was asked to review it. (I would have read it anyway, but maybe not yet…) Finally, after being the mother of a girl with Down Syndrome for fifteen years, it dawned on me that maybe I didn’t have to convince Anna to go faster. Maybe I needed to slow down.

Easier said than done. A good starting place (I’ve not got beyond the starting place, really) has been walking Anna to school or home from school. Hurrying is not an option. The conversation often flags, and other times consists mostly of free association—Anna talking about movie after movie as each character reminds her of another. It’s not really about conveying information as much as it is about being together.

Along the way, however, I’ve learned some things about my daughter I might not ever have known. Like, she really likes ‘cow parsley’ (which I think is the same as Queen Anne’s Lace, but I wouldn’t swear to that). She looks forward to seeing it every spring. Her other favourite flower is a dandelion. She also knows about violets and lemon thyme. We don’t see those often, but she points hopefully to likely suspects and asks.

Walking slowly, talking about not much, noticing the change of seasons. That’s what we do. I have begun to notice how Anna’s ‘Little Way’ is like the way mapped out by St Thérèse: she forgives all, loves without reserve, never complains. She may not always understand, but she always listens. She points out the cow parsley and is thrilled to see dandelions. She dances like nobody’s watching. There is a freedom in her that is rare and precious, and a love that never fails.

So on this feast of the ‘Little Flower’, I thank God for my own little flower, who blooms in and out of season and brings light to my often troubled soul.

Deo gratias.

On motherhood and loss

There’s a country song I used to hear on the radio—back when I lived in the South. I remember two snatches of the chorus and the general plot of the song, which was about moving away from a best friend as a child, going through divorce as an adult, and anticipating the loss of her mother (a true country song!), who told her ‘time will ease your pain’ and ‘life’s about changin’— nothin’ ever stays the same’.

Somewhere along life’s way, I have begun to understand the truth of both of those things more deeply. While I am not sure that time heals, I have experienced the weakening grip of grief as the loss drops further into the past. That’s not to say that it doesn’t trip me up when I am not expecting it, but that it doesn’t squeeze me so hard that I struggle to draw breath. And life is about changing. Everything changes. Nowhere do I see this more clearly than in my own children. Infants become toddlers and toddlers go off to school, where they advance year by year, becoming teenagers in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Of course kids grow up, and that’s good, right? I suppose so. But I don’t always experience it in that way—and not just when my older teenager is yelling at me. There is a sense of deep sadness I experience when I look at photos of my babies. I looked forward to being a mother of babies and toddlers more than I looked forward to anything else in my adult life. And now that time is over. Gone. It’s not coming back. As much as I long to go back, just for an hour, and hold that baby whose photo sits on my desk, I can’t. ‘Life’s about changin”, and it isn’t easy.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of loss that time doesn’t ease as well as one might hope. Because it recurs every day, or nearly every day. I miss the baby I nursed and the toddler learning to talk and the preschooler full of wonder and curiosity. In a few years, I’ll miss the child and then the teenager. One loss recedes, and another takes its place. It has to be this way: ‘nothin’ ever stays the same’.

I don’t expect that every parent, or even every mother, experiences the growing-up of children as loss; neither do I believe that I am unique in this respect. Of course there are joys as well—seeing the children learn to do new things and become more mature is a delight, too. Yet the delight is never unalloyed. The difficulty is compounded by the feeling I often have that I didn’t know what I was doing and so I made mistakes—and that those mistakes have shaped my kids in unhealthy ways. The loss I experience is tinged with regret, the loss of an opportunity to help my child develop strength, courage, compassion, or gentleness.

Sometimes it feels pretty dark. I remember sitting in front of a statue of Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms and feeling unbearably sad. Doubly so, because the chapel in which I was sitting had been one of my ‘thin places’—I was used to feeling consolation and peace in that place.

Two things have comforted me in this continual loss that is motherhood. The first is the pietà—the statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. She must have endured in-between losses just as I have, and then faced the ultimate loss in the death of her son. I can’t say that contemplating the pietà brings joy. Not exactly. But there is a sense of peace and consolation in being in Mary’s company.

The other thing that has comforted me is the prayer attributed to St Ambrose, sometimes called the penitential prayer. Midway through the prayer, I find words I can say with my whole self: ‘I repent my sins, and I long to put right what I have done.’ Nowhere is this more true than in my parenting. I can’t even begin to name all the mistakes I have made, and—here’s the kicker—there is absolutely nothing I can do to ‘put right what I have done.’ I can do better now, but I can’t fix the past.

I wonder whether Mary worried like that. Did she blame herself for leaving Jesus behind in the temple? Did she wonder whether she had raised him properly as he carried his cross? Did she think maybe it didn’t have to be this way? St Luke tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ after the shepherds came to see her newborn baby. I don’t imagine she stopped pondering things in her heart. But I don’t think she fretted, at least not in the way I do—a fringe benefit of being ‘full of grace’ may be that there isn’t room for niggling anxiety.

Mary lost her son on that day in Jerusalem. Her grief as she held his body must have been acute. On that day, she had to do what we all have to do—what I, as a mother, have to do: trust. Because I cannot put right what I have done, but there is One who can. Rowan Williams has said that ‘grace can remake, but will not undo’. Even God doesn’t undo those things I wish I hadn’t done. In the redemption of all things, the loss I have felt and the mistakes I have made will all be woven into the re-making. The One who ‘orders all things delightfully’ (Wisdom 8.1) has taken all these things and is putting them in their proper places.

I can’t say that takes away the sadness. It does give me hope, though, not only for the end of all things, but for here and now, in the not-yet. It’s not just time that will ease the pain: God isn’t waiting to put right what I have done wrong; God is doing it even now, though I may not be able to see it. I pray that I will have the grace to co-coperate with the work of redemption and not keep throwing spanners in the works.

Deo gratias




Children and the future

Back in the 1980’s, Whitney Houston released one of the sappiest songs of the decade. Do you remember it? It began, ‘I believe the children are our future—teach them well and let them lead the way…’ Banal platitudes, of course. But the thing about banal platitudes, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in 2005, is that they’re very often true. So it is in this case. The trouble is that we seem to be unable to take it seriously.

I don’t mean that we don’t educate them. They’re pushed relentlessly to achieve in mathematics, science and English. And they are taught what is expected of them in the world of work. Recently, I attended an event at a primary school in the next town, and found a poster in the school hall identifying the traits and skills that would make them employable. Four- to eleven-year-olds need to learn arithmetic and reading and science, of course. But I am not convinced that they need to worry about getting a job. They have a job: childhood. One of the key principles of Maria Montessori‘s educational philosophy is that the child makes the man or woman. Children are fashioning their future selves through all their learning, play-based and otherwise. And it’s hard work.

It’s hard work that’s made all the more difficult by that message I found proclaimed in the school hall: what you’re doing now is about your future. That may be true, but it isn’t what kids between the ages of four and eleven need to be concerned about. Our job as adults is to worry about their future. It’s not fair for us to transfer that worry on to them. They need to be supported in their learning by having their curiosity stimulated and then having the materials in place so that they can satisfy that curiosity. I teach university students, many of whom have managed to get there without having any intellectual curiosity left. Very few of them are there because they had a thirst for knowledge. They’re there because their degree is a qualification they need to be employable.

It’s hard work, too, because there is more to forming one’s future self than learning math and English. We were fortunate that our children’s primary school did a good job teaching them about justice and mercy. But here, too, I think we fail children, even when we have the best of intentions. The kids’ primary school was recently ranked ‘gold’ for promoting children’s rights. While all the things listed are things every child should have—an education, freedom of expression and association, freedom to practice their religion, and so on—teaching children about their rights changes their vision of who they are. No longer are the duties of parents, schools, communities, and governments the responsibility of the adults: children need to know their rights and have the courage to demand that they be respected. If that’s really the case, then we have failed them, and failed them very badly. If it is true (and I think it is) that a society is judged on how it treats the most vulnerable, the fact that we as a society think children need to look after their own rights is disgraceful.

The freedom that children most need is the freedom to be children: to learn through play as much as possible, to be curious and to have their curiosity nurtured, to be free to express themselves in a community—that is, in a place where they naturally bump up against each other and have to learn how to get along with each other, preferably with a minimum of adult intervention. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy concentrated not on the learning of academic subjects, but on becoming people of peace. We hear a lot about how Montessori-educated kids are self-starters, imaginative folks, entrepreneurs. But Montessori wasn’t nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times for forming entrepreneurs. The true cornerstone of her educational method was forming children for peace through education.

Recently, I came across a meme designed to get us to wake up: ‘If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the civil rights movement, you’re doing it right now.’ I wondered how what I do on a daily basis would measure up. Then I thought about Maria Montessori. She was nominated for a Nobel peace prize for resisting fascism. But what she is chiefly remembered for is the path she charted to peace: giving children the space to become people who embodied it. The only way to make the world a more peaceful place is to raise children who know what it looks like and how to maintain it.

The thing is, saving the world, and all the vulnerable people in it is not something we adults can do on our own. It is an intergenerational project, and our most important part in it is to raise that generation who will be the change we hope for. Montessori believed that ‘if help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children’. All the band-aids we adults can put on the world are nice. But without raising a generation of kids who know how to heal its wounds, the sores are just going to get worse. Whitney Houston was right: the children are our future. Now we have to work on that next bit: teaching them well, so that they can lead the way to peace.