This afternoon, I met up with a friend and her Mum for brunch in Bath, and headed over to the central library for a reading of Pride and Prejudice. It was good fun – the first chapter was read by the guy who plays Mr Wickham in the BBC version of the film, and he had the perfect high pitched voice for Mrs Bennet,  as well as the the perfect posh English accent to go with it.

Pride and Prejudice is, in my opinion, one of the all time best love stories. It’s a classic boy meets girl, boy ignores girl, girl hates boy, boy falls in love with girl, girl scorns boy, girl and boy love each other in the end story. I love the films, I love the pomp and circumstance, I love the old fashioned male-female interactions, I find the slightly dry English wit hilarious, and I can totally imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet – she’s not pretty enough to be the belle of the ball, but she’s smart, has a quick wit, is strongly opinionated, and sometimes says the right things at the wrong times. I want my own footman. I want a horse and carriage. I think I can reserve the right to have men stand up for me every time I enter the room. And why isn’t my own version of Colin Firth emerging from a lake looking endearing, and dripping with water and good looks to meet me as I stand in the morning dew outside my lecture theatre?

As we were walking back to the train station, my friend’s Mum suggested that next year, we meet up again for the Jane Austen festival, but this time in costume. I laughed, and said that I’d carry a parasol for fun, but that I’m not sure I’m keen enough to dress up. But inside my head what I really thought though was …. “I’m black, and I would feel super weird dressing up in 19th century costume…” And I wondered why I thought that.

Every little black girl realises soon enough, that modern media isn’t going to represent her. 4 year olds notice L’oreal adverts. 6 year old see covers of Marie Claire as they tiptoe in their Clarks shoes waiting for their Mum in the supermarket, and 10 year olds buy pre teen magazines with blonde girls on the cover, wearing pre-teen mascara and almost-grown-up lipstick. Soon, you learn that if you want to see yourself, you might have to search a bit. Not every W H Smith stocks Essence magazine, and Superdrug may or may not stock your foundation shade depending on how much cream is in your coffee. It’s annoying, but you get used to it. It’s a fact of life, like the birds and the bees, only not so much fun.

At the time Pride and Prejudice was written, I would have been a slave. In fact many, of the families in the book had their wealth from the slave trade, and many scholars agree that Jane Austen was disapproving of the slave trade. While Elizabeth Bennet was poncing around from ball to ball, deciding whether she should look smoulderingly at Mr Darcy to entice him for another dance, or forever scorn him for saying that her looks were ‘barely tolerable’, I would have been poncing about from sugar cane stalk to sugar cane stalk, wondering if I should risk running away to join the Maroons in the mountains. I’m not being deep, it’s just a fact of life. Because of that, I feel awkward dressing up in the costume of the time. It’s nice to immerse myself in daydreams of Mr Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennet, and Victorian romance with swooping classical music in the background, and my black stallion riding across the moors as I gaze pensively into the mist wondering if my English gentlemen will re-propose to me after I courteously denied him via epic fountain penned prose. But unfortunately, at the time, I would have been a slave. Try as I may to forget this, I can’t. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll be wearing a bonnet any time soon. Pride and Prejudice is great, but it’s not representative of me. It’s not supposed to be. I don’t resent it at all, I just accept it.

Maybe one day I’ll stop over thinking things and be able to happily don my bonnet and regency costume. Until then, I’ll sit in front of my laptop with some Tesco’s popcorn, put on my best accent and say..”A Miss Bennet, a Miss Bennet, a Miss Bennet….and a Miss Bennet”.

Image

stem cells

Saturday mornings are perhaps my favourite mornings. I say perhaps, because they vie with Sunday mornings for first place. Saturday mornings go like this.

1)Wake up, feel the dribble on my chin, look embarrassedly around, remember I am in a bedroom by myself.

2) Panic for a split second – there’s a tutorial at 9? Didn’t that ward round start at 8? Huh? I have no clean underwear!

3) Calm down 30 milliseconds later after realising it is Saturday, not Friday morning.

4) Smile and thank God it’s Saturday.

5) Call Mum and chatter on the phone while lying in bed.

6) Tell myself I should read my Bible and go to Church for Bible study.

7) See no 6.

8) See no.7

9) and so forth…

I have a confession to make. For those of you who may not know what Sabbath School is, it’s basically a big group discussion/ study of a specific topic in the Bible that the church has agreed to read together.  I have Sabbath School avoidance disease.  When did I develop this ailment? Around 5 years ago when I moved away to university and started attending a new church.

Let me put it frankly. The outlandish, ridiculous, and downright implausible statements I hear on Saturday mornings are giving the Daily Mail comment section a run for their money.

Today I was late. I had every intention of making it to church by 10 o’ clock. Well, perhaps I had half-baked intentions.  Either way, at 10.45 I scurried in to a very warm Jamaican greeting, too late to hear the wacky statements made that morning, but not late enough to not hear about them from someone who was early enough to hear them. (Did you follow that? I almost didn’t.)

This morning’s gem, was a mini speech on the evils of stem cells. No, not what you might think – not because embryonic stem cells involve destroying embryos, which is perhaps killing a life. I could understand the ethical dilemma surrounding that. No, it was because…wait for it…if they implant animal stem cells into humans, they are creating half animal half human hybrids, and if these unfortunate creatures are part animal and part human… can they receive salvation?

I couldn’t make this up. This is 100% real, certified Saturday morning live feed, from an anonymous church somewhere in the South West of England.

And so the service went on. To add to the stem cell unsettlement, there was the small matter of the hymns. Now, I’ll admit to being a bit of a music snob (by church standards). I don’t ask for much really, just that songs be sung in tune, and at a reasonable volume. Enthusiasm, originality and flair are optional added extras. I just live in hope that my first two requirements will be attempted, if not achieved. This morning there was possibly an attempt, definitely not an achievement. Directly behind me was a pleasant man intent on making a joyful but tuneless noise, no doubt to support the joyful and tuneless praises of the praise team.

And so the service went on. I found myself becoming increasingly critical and increasingly disgruntled. Why were 60% of the people photographed in the Messenger (church magazine) white? This was an inaccurate representation. “Institutionally racist..” I muttered. Why is that woman letting her child run amok, up and down the aisles? Had she not read the Proverb about sparing rods and so forth? Why is the pianist so out of time? “They really should audition church musicians”..I thought. Why do West Indians always slide the second to last note of every song? “So unnecessary”, I sulked.

And then it hit me. It  is easy to love the church from a distance. It is easy to sit at home and have nostalgic ideas about the body of Christ. It is entirely different to be part of that body. I was sitting in my chair, criticising and complaining, when maybe God was trying to teach me about my own pride and arrogance. Sure, the stem cell thing was ridiculous, but so was my smug intellectual pride. Yes, the pianist was a bit out of time, but she was clearly trying, and at least she had kept up with her piano lessons, unlike an unnamed blogger who wasted a few hundred pounds and only has a poor rendition of Fur Elise to show for it. Maybe the woman with the unruly child had had a rough week, and simply lacked the energy to run around after him.

In the Screwtape letters by C.S Lewis, a demon writes to one of his understudies about his new Christian charge.

“When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.….. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”

The search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where God wants him to be a pupil. What he wants from the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise- does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.”

Do you sometimes find yourself being irritated or unnecessarily critical at church? How do you deal with it?

Peace x

miniskirthijab

I was walking along the street today when I saw something that made me smile. The street I live on is a cliche, almost a caricature of itself. It prides itself on unpretentiousness till it borders on pretentious, and strains to appear as if it is not trying at all. I’m certain my street is full of middle class socialists, male feminists, and heterosexual gay activists. Not that these things are necessarily oxymoronic (apart from the first perhaps), but nonetheless, enough to make me smirk. It’s a street full of students, hippies, non conformists, musicians, hipsters, druggies and the assorted waifs and strays of society.

Opposite my house is the local school – it’s a girls school, and every morning and afternoon out tumbles a gaggle of pre teens and teenagers – some uncomfortably lanky, some short and puppy fattish, but all with a regulation school skirt rolled up at the waist till it is satisfactorily immodest.

I don’t always pay much attention to them, but today I couldn’t help notice one striding towards me. She was tall and thin, clearly still growing into her growth spurt, face stamped with the type of east african features they like to put on postcards, dressed with the obligatory short skirt…and a hijab. There was no timidity in her walk, no awkwardness – she seemed unaware of the apparent contradiction between her head and her legs.

I know the feeing all too well. I remember 13. Age 13 I was in love with hip hop. I was banned from loving boys till I was 18 (said my parents), so hip hop was a suitable alternative with almost as much credibility, and no chance of pregnancy. I could admire my crushes from afar, but hip hop was close to me, pulsing directly though the earphones of my just about 21st century, non skip CD player that one of my friends had given to me when she had upgraded to mini discs. (Remember mini disc players? They were the one hit wonders of the portable music world).

On Saturday mornings I would head to church, CD player in my bag, waiting till lunch time we would sit and listen to music  – one ear plug in my left ear,the other in my friend’s right ear. Saturdays was strictly gospel. Sundays were strictly hip hop. We would burn CD’s with all the latest tracks, and swap them round ‘Oi Chris, can I borrow that bashment mix CD? – yeh, the one with the Busta Rhymes remix’. I had one CD that had everything you ever wanted for the weekend. There was the perfect mix of gospel and hip hop – all on the same CD. Kirk Franklin followed by 50 Cent, followed by Mary Mary, followed by Nas – a selection of high quality music for the cultured teenage palate. I look back now and cover my face in embarrassment. My very own hijab and miniskirt.

It took me some time for the religion of my parents to stop being their religion, and start being my own faith. It took some time for me to find the realness in the rules. I find this walk of faith is possibly the biggest challenge of my life. I can honestly say I am more blessed to have a faith that I have managed to cling on to despite my own failings than any degree or title I will ever hold. My walk is often full of hijabs and miniskirts. I have stood in pulpits and preached on faith whilst being riddled with my own doubts. I have given talks on purity whilst struggling to fight lust in my own life. I have encouraged others while secretly despairing. I have prayed for forgiveness and refused to forgive.

My comfort and hope is this. Just like the teenager I saw in the miniskirt and hijab, I am on a journey. I am in the teenage years of my faith. I am thankful that I can be certain that although God does not excuse my failings, he forgives them.  But every teenager must grow up one day. There is a time when, like the apostle says we are to ‘put away childish things’. I am not oblivious to my hypocrisy. There are times when my mistakes and regrets and contradictions pull at me, threatening to cause me to fall completely, but “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’. Phillipians 3:13,14.

Peace x