As I read Joanna’s faith story, generously shared in the hope that it encourages others, I was captured by the phrase ‘women less quiet’. Remember, both the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus were revealed first to women. It is thanks to ‘women less quiet’, speaking out in courage, that other people have been helped to discover Jesus too.
…by Joanna Fielding
Since going into lockdown here, I have been reading a lot from Jan Richardson, who invites us to think about the connections between our own life stories, with the roots and relationships that knit us together and into a place, and the stories of our faith. “Where are you from?”
The last year has seen so many changes for me, that I have been asked that question over and over again – and found it hard to answer! Where do I come from? Who am I really?
My husband David and I moved to Slaithwaite in October last year, after 15 years living in Dunedin, South Island, Aotearoa New Zealand. The Maori people of New Zealand have a profound understanding of the importance of knowing who you are in terms of your place and your people. Every child needs to know their “mihi” – where is your mountain, your river; which is your people, your family? You recite your mihi and the knowledge of your place and people helps your listener to find a connection with you, as they remember someone they know from that place, or realise that they are related, however distantly, to someone in your extended family.
From that starting point of connection, a new friendship can develop. As Christians, we get used to telling this story with different levels. One is our “physical geography” of place and family – but the other is just as important to us, and plays a huge part in shaping our sense of identity as members of the church family. Where are we from?
Jan Richardson describes herself as being:
from women less quiet, women from the shout and the stomp, testifying wherever they could make their voices heard. I am from Miriam and Mary and Magdalena, and from women who carried their prayers not in their books but in their blood and in their bones, women who passed down the sacred stories from body to body.Jan L Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer
I love that sense of connection with mouthy women in the Bible and in the church family down the centuries! Let me tell you something of my story.
I was born in North Devon, where I lived with my family. Before moving to New Zealand, we lived in the Midlands (Leicestershire) – so this is the furthest north I have ever lived, though David’s family are all in Chorley, Lancashire. However my childhood was mostly spent near Exmoor, deep in farmland – dairy, beef and sheep, and many of my friends came from the local farms. Coming to live here, up on Pole Moor, with the sight and sounds of our neighbour’s cows in the field next to us, and the expansive views across Marsden and the Colne Valley has felt like a homecoming for me. After what feels like a lifetime of rootless years here and there in new places, this sense of unexpected familiarity has been a source of immense joy.
My mother took me and my sister to our local Anglican church where she was the organist. Each week we gathered with other children in the little village school next to the church, and heard stories, sang a hymn and collected a beautiful stamp to put in our Sunday school stamp album (anyone else remember those stamps?). When I was about 8, our mother took us to the Methodist chapel, which had a wonderful Sunday School – and the teachers and children really welcomed us. It was from those patient women – two farmers’ wives and the amazing Mrs Davis, a single mum who worked as the chapel caretaker and school cleaner, who missed out on chapel each Sunday morning, in order to teach us, week after week, enabling us to see and feel the reality of the love of Jesus in their lives, and therefore in ours. They were so patient with us rowdy kids, and it was from those teachers that I really began to think more deeply about what it meant to be a Christian, and to engage in the questions raised within any kind of Bible study, week after week.
It was in that time that I had my own first “real” connection with Jesus, in our garden at home, a sudden overwhelming sense of joy, and a warmth flooding through me, that God is real, that I was truly loved, as a child of God – and that sense of connection has kept me going through the years. Much later, at university as a member of our Methodist student society (where David and I met) – I learned about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience – and thought “Oh yes, I know just how that heart warming felt!”
Later we moved to a different area, where I joined the local Baptist church as it had a thriving youth group of kids my age. My own ideas about the Bible and doctrine were in some areas very different from theirs, and we used to argue for hours about interpretation of Scripture. However once again I knew that I was loved and accepted by this new church family, as I loved and accepted them – and I could also see and hear their genuine love for God, and their deep grounding in their faith. At university afterwards, reading theology for my degree, I realised that all those years of Bible study in my Sunday school and Youth group had given me a huge advantage with my essays and research, as I had a deep Scriptural grounding, and knew so many stories and verses that I could reach for when needed.
One of my tutors was N T Wright; he advised us one day to read Mark’s Gospel all through in a single session – and I did so, one evening. I can still remember sitting there in the lamplit quiet of the college library, coming finally to Mark’s account of the resurrection at the last, with all its bare intensity and urgency of the telling – and the hairs rising on the back of my neck, knowing that here was the heart of my faith; that Christ died and rose again from the dead, against all possible rational explanation. Mark says that the angel – messenger from God – entrusted this extraordinary message to those faithful and faithfully-mouthy women, the Magdalena, and Mary and Salome, and sent them out to proclaim the truth: that Jesus is alive now and our salvation is forever.
That knowledge of the reality of God’s saving love has stayed with me, and fed my life journey all through, from North Devon, to Oxford, to teaching in a mission school in Zimbabwe, through years as a Lay worker for the Leicester Diocese and Careers Adviser to teenagers in schools and a prison in Northamptonshire. Exploring what that saving love meant for my life, led me to finally answer God’s call to serve as an Anglican priest in the Dunedin Diocese in New Zealand, and as a hospital chaplain. I sought to express that loving presence of Jesus as I set up a new community playgroup, watching as lonely mums connected with other families for the first time in their neighbourhood, or sat with our little old ladies over coffee after our mid-week Eucharist, or sat by the bedside of farmers from my own rural parish, in the local hospital, hearing their stories of identity grounded in the land on which they worked in the path of their parents and grandparents.
How can I best express the love of God for me and for whichever place I find myself in at this time? This is the question which I have asked myself over and over again, as it shapes my conversations with God, my actions each day – here newly at home with David in Slaithwaite as it slowly emerges from lockdown, and in the wider community in which I live. The answer each time has a strong continuity, in my prayer life and worship, and also continues to evolve with each day and week and year.
Jan Richardson finishes her invitation to think about our identity in these words:
Where are you from?
What holds your roots?
How does where you’re from help you understand who you are?
How does your past help you find the path ahead?
Blessed be the people we carry in our blood.Jan L Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer
Blessed be the places we carry in our bones.
May our living make a way for those who come after; a path of blessing, a path of beauty.
In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L Richardson: Good Reads link