Memories of a Brilliant Teacher

While we are in the midst of All This, pieces of Other News are still coming to our notice. Yesterday I heard of the death of one of the lecturers who taught me when I was a student. You will never have heard of Dr Stuart Warren, but he was the most gifted teacher at whose feet I ever had the privilege to sit. One of my contemporaries described him as “possibly the best HE Chemistry teacher there has ever been.”

Stuart had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what one needed in order to further one’s own individual learning. On one occasion he asked us to write an account (calling it an ‘essay’ would have been going too far for us chemists!) on “How do we know abc?” (‘abc’ in this case is a highly specific technical matter of chemistry which I will, of course, be very pleased to explain to any non-chemist who has half a day to spare.) The only feedback he gave me on that homework was one comment of three words; he wrote at the end of my effort, “I remain unconvinced” and left it at that. Those three words were a stroke of genius! I spent the next few days thinking, “Actually, I wasn’t convinced either”, went back to the question and sussed it out eventually. Years on, I related that to a member of staff in Chester who said, “We can’t get away with doing things like that anymore!” But Stuart was not ‘getting away with’ anything. What he did was exactly what I needed in order to have confidence in my own ability to work things out, to stretch myself and to carry on learning how to learn. His knack of knowing exactly what students needed was beyond our comprehension, because on other occasions we would ask a question and he would give us the answer straight away; he knew when we undergraduates were not going to get there on our own. His was a remarkable gift.

Stuart had a head start when it came to impressing many of us whom he taught; he was an excellent spin bowler and played minor counties cricket for Cambridgeshire. Very occasionally we persuaded him to turn out for the Chemistry Department team in the University league. This was far below his natural standard but he always took every match very seriously and, without saying anything, raised the performance of the rest of us merely by his being on the team. He was once asked in an interview what he would like to have been had he not become a chemist; his answer: “a professional cricketer, but I wasn’t good enough, [or] I suppose an actor, a novelist or an Anglican minister.” He was an inspiration in the lab and lecture theatre and on the cricket field; if his calling had been otherwise he would have been an inspiration on the stage, behind the page or in the pulpit too. He had many talents and was a lovely person.

I have always tried to live by one piece of advice Stuart gave to some of us whom he had taught as undergraduates. When we became research students and began University teaching ourselves, Stuart told us, “By far the most important thing is to be encouraging. If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them you like the way they draw their diagrams!”

So I conclude remembering Stuart with a word of encouragement. Staff, realise that students never forget the positive impact you have on them, on their learning and on much else. Students, realise that, just occasionally, your teachers might need a word of encouragement too; so tell them that their lecture was interesting, that they have just bowled a fantastic over or, just possibly, that you like the way they draw their diagrams.

Thanks, Stuart, for your encouragement. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

Peter Jenner, Senior Chaplain

 

News from the Mother Ship

It feels so strange in Chaplaincy House this afternoon. The last couple of hours have been reminiscent of working through a list of things to do before I can go on holiday or finish for Christmas. What has to be done to tie up loose ends, bring tasks to a conclusion and clear away piles of paper on the desk? … but this feels different, a drawing things together without the anticipation of holiday or Christmas, but preparing for uncertainty and with a certain sense of boding ahead.

There seemed a particular finality a few minutes ago; I put milk in my Last Coffee and then switched off the Chaplaincy House fridge. When did our fridge last get unplugged? It might now be taking an extremely well-earned rest but hot drinks on tap is the mark of a Chaplaincy which is functioning properly …cup of tea

… or at least it was. When the Archbishops made a statement a few days ago they issued instructions which included the suspension of public worship. However, they talked about our not ceasing to be the church, rather that we carry on being the church in a different way.

So, since the beginning of this week I have learnt a lot about unfamiliar software, like ‘Zoom’ to stream services, and new social media to keep in touch. (My thanks are due to Laura who corrected my spelling of ‘Whatsapp’; I had previously thought the concept behind ‘Wattsapp’ must have come from the inventor of the steam engine.)

In the past few days I have learnt again that the people who appreciate our prayers in difficult times are much more numerous than we often think. In our present circumstances I have noticed again the remarkable resilience, the innate compassion and the wonderful creativity of the human spirit.

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So, despite Chaplaincy House closing for the moment, we look forward to carrying on being Chaplaincy in different ways. We look forward also to the day when we will ceremonially switch the fridge back on again. Some obscure ancient saint must have written a prayer for the resumption of a hot drinks service and a thanksgiving for a place to keep milk cold. I will research that one.

In the mean time, apropos of nothing more than keeping up morale, I will tell you that my friend’s new job is in a factory that makes chess pieces. Next week he is on knights.

Keep in touch.

 

We didn’t expect to give up this much for Lent

I’m not the oldest member of Chapel Community but I do remember what I was doing the night President Kennedy was shot. Full details available on request. We do remember the moments when a big news story breaks and develops and we’ll always remember this year. Someone wondered whether 2020 has inadvertently downloaded a malicious piece of software from somewhere. It does feel a bit like that as we’ve followed the news lately.

I remember a lot of news stories over 64 years, but I have never known anything like this, both the level of disruption to what we think of as ‘normality’ and also the time we’re told it’s going to be before some sort of ‘normality’ returns. I’ve heard people say that in years to come this will be what we talk about in the same way that my parents’ generation talked about the Second World War, something which affected simply everyone in a very major way.

So: some of my thoughts at this moment at the start of all this.  Firstly, what to do in difficult times? Two things: follow guidance from people who know what they’re talking about. And I get the impression that a lot of people are being very sensible and doing what we should be doing, like singing Happy Birthday a lot.  And the other thing is: keep a positive attitude. That counts for a lot. At UCLAN one of the lecturers in psychology studies the psychology of survival; her conclusion is that believing you can get out of a dire situation is a major factor in getting out of it.

So: follow instructions and keep positive: for me, those are the most important things.  Part of the positive attitude is remembering that at the moment people are going out of their way to help neighbours and protect the vulnerable. Crises bring out the best in people. Think about the tireless helpers rather than the selfish hoarders.  And another aspect of positivity is that crises bring out people’s creativity, both in solving the problem and in keeping up morale. I liked the one I saw online yesterday; I’ll leave you to imagine the photoshopped picture that accompanied this:“Daddy, what did you during the great virus epidemic?” “Well son, I had the most dangerous job of all. I was rear gunner on an Andrex lorry.”

Then there was also the Facebook post: “I wasn’t expecting to give up quite this much for Lent.” What if everything that’s happening around us is actually the enforcement of a more major Lent than any of us planned? An enforced invitation to be resourceful and creative, an involuntary recruitment to a time of compassion and caring, an uninvited opportunity to be positive and hopeful. Franciscan spirituality tells us that if something is inevitable, however unwelcome it is, we need to befriend it. In St Francis’ prayer that extends even at the end to Sister Death. The disciples would never have set out to put themselves in danger on the sea while Jesus was asleep, but they learned something important that day, a bit more about awe and trust, which was no bad thing.

So, how to be hopeful in an extended and involuntary Lent?  Use time constructively. I exchanged emails earlier with a member of staff who’s self-isolated. By the time he’s back on campus, he aims to have written a book and learnt drumming. I’ve told him I look forward to experiencing the results of both.  Then: look for positive news. It seems that there’s good evidence that air pollution in China has plummeted. It’s a much more healthy place. Tesco’s in Chester sold out of flowers. Good appears in unexpected ways.

Then ask yourself: what am I missing? You’ll have your own answers to that, but Chaplaincy House just doesn’t seem the same without the people who live there, even metaphorically. So notice what you feel you’ve lost at the moment. And hence realise what’s actually important to you when it really comes down to it.

And then wonder what’s going to be different when we see each other again on the other side? And on that, here’s a piece we shared on the Chaplaincy Facebook yesterday. What did we do before we had screens which magically disseminated creativity?

How’s this for a thought to keep us positive and hopeful?

When this is over

Peter Jenner – Senior Chaplain

 

 

Into the desert with the Corona Virus

We have made a lot of changes in chapel about how we do things. The spread of infection has come to the forefront of our mind. I don’t know how you felt, but it hit me hard when I heard Boris Jonson say that ‘many more will lose loved ones.’ Some may have panicked, some will have made new plans, some will have rolled their eyes, some will have vowed to change nothing and decry those who are panicking. What a strange lot we are as human beings.

Mark, my husband, and I both work in environments with people from lots of different countries. We have discovered that people have a tendency to trust the advice of the country from which they are from. We have heard: “Post soldiers outside people’s houses and shoot them if they come out;” “Make everyone stay indoors and deliver state food packages.” It may be hard for them to hear the measures in the UK: “If you are not feeling well, stay indoors for a week.” “Ridiculous!” I am told. “It will never work!” Imagine, we have the audacity to dare to get through a pandemic by initially relying on people’s altruism.

God gave us the tools to deal with pandemics, but they have another name: the fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galations 5.22-23)

Firstly, Self-Control. That we have enough self-control to realise that we may not need 36 rolls of toilet paper and that we follow the rules when we are bored of them.

Next, we need patience. Patience to wait for an unfolding epidemic, patience to wait for medicine, patience to remember to put others before ourselves who may have underlying health conditions. Also, we need the patience to stay away from infection when we are bored of staying in. When we have lost the will to protect ourselves, we must protect ourselves for others.

We need kindness and goodness, where we are ready to help our neighbours when they have no one else. We need to be brave and we need to trust others, that they will leave enough for us. We need generosity with our tie and our patience. We need gentleness not judgement when we see others behaving badly; when we see others being selfish. We need to search for peace in a time of worry and fear. We need to remember to love those around us, with our thoughts and actions. We need to behave lovingly.

That leaves faithfulness and joy. Joy may be hard at the moment, but we remember at this time of year the joy of Easter. The ‘fear and joy’ of the women running from the tomb with the words, ‘He is risen’. Throughout our life we will experience fear and joy like the women at the tomb. And it is through our faithfulness, that we start to glimpse the world through God’s eyes. That we see the rhythm of life and death, fear and joy.

Let us prepare for pandemic with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Laura Rhodes – Chaplain

What does a Chaplain do?

I have to write an explanation of what I do as a chaplain.  So here goes:

When asked what we do in chaplaincy, my natural tendency is to laugh. My job is varied and always likely to take an unexpected turn. The major aspect is listening to staff and students and the difficulties they are going through. This can vary from home sickness, the ill health or death of family members, struggles with friends or colleagues, work, or anxiety. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a chaplain because you can meet them first, have a few cups of tea and decide if this is the person you want to trust with your difficulties, your secrets.

Sometimes people are in great distress. The current waiting time for help with domestic abuse is four weeks, for sexual abuse it is four months. We listen to people, give them a safe place to talk or cry or sit while they wait. We hear stories from staff and students, but we also have a place on university committees, so we are able to feed back some of the struggles that we have seen and heard to help improve people’s experience.

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In Chester we have a wonderful chapel community of staff and students. We meet each week for breakfast after prayer on a Monday, for lunch after prayer on a Tuesday and dinner on Tuesdays and after chapel on Wednedays. We pray for the university and the world and we have a service once a week. Our main Wednesday service is varied. We had a transremembrance service, where we read out the 20191126_192155names of the 291 trans people around the world who have been murdered this year. The week before we heard an inspiring talk about fasting in Islam. The next week we had a traditional Advent communion service. The following week we had students and staff dressed up in dressing gowns and cable-tie halos for a nativity procession around Parkgate Road campus and a Christingle service (like when you were seven).

20191120_142809I run a weekly baking session, whilst kneading and making breadcrumbs, whole life stories come tumbling out. Many languages are spoken and we learn through bread and cakes about cultures from all over the world; all from the tiny kitchen in Chaplaincy House.

I say yes to every manner of strange project. I work with different departments talking about wellbeing, reflective practice, end of life care, religious literacy, modern slavery or anything else I am asked to do. We support students with disabilities and talk about vocations. We work with the wider community, with Green Chester and get involved in local projects. And there is a LOT of washing up. We are working with students after all.

Laura Rhodes

Epiphany

I think that sometimes it’s easy to get lulled into some sort of complacency about things with which we’re familiar, and that a check with reality can be useful.

I live in a community of about 30 people, mostly very elderly and many with serious health conditions. I’m so used to our weekly fire bell tests and the slamming of the fire doors that I note them subconsciously and carry on with what I’m doing.  But late on Saturday night, things changed. The alarms rang continuously; I heard the fire-doors slam; I started coughing on the acrid black smoke rolling down the corridor.  I moved from complacency to reality.

The problems we encountered getting very frail and elderly people down the stairs, and looking after them; the noise and the mess of the fire engines, the firemen, the paramedics, and the alarms ringing and ringing … I was hit with reality. I’m now seeing the fire drills in a different way!

I think that I’ve viewed the tale of the three Kings in a similar way. three-wise-men-3257957_1920 I grew up knowing about the Baby, the Shepherds and the Kings.  I knew the Kings were wealthy men who wore sumptuous robes, and who travelled from afar bringing wonderful gifts for the new King.  Over time, I learned to call them Magi , to recognise that they were wise men, that they came a long way following the star.  But it was still a comfortable and familiar story.  Two events challenged this complacency…

The first time was when we studied TS Eliot in school. From the first time I heard the opening words of the poem, The Journey of the Magi,  I was captured by the sheer physicality experienced by the travellers:

A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for such a journey … the ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.

The sort of winters we used to have in the 50s and 60s! And the more we studied the poem, the more I became aware of the real difficulties of that journey:

The camel men cursing … grumbling … running away … wanting their liquor and women… the cities hostile… the towns unfriendly … the villages dirty and charging high prices.

This isn’t a graceful and easy journey across the sand dunes with a focus on Mary and a newborn King. This is a hard, cold, miserable, difficult time.  It’s as real as our own lives and experiences.

joshua-tree-3092596_1920The poem also has a darkness in it, far removed from the cheerful Nativity plays. In one line, the Magi describe seeing on the horizon: Three trees on the low sky. They haven’t yet met the Baby but unknowingly they already see signs of what was to come.  Standing starkly outlined against a darkening sky, the three crosses; the inevitability of the Crucifixion.

Eliot shows The Magi as thinking people, reflective, and suffering in order to do what they think is right: to pay homage to a child whom they know will change the world. For me, this poem brought hard reality to the story and thereby it became more powerful

The second time that reality offered me an insight occurred some 35 years ago in Fuerteventura, at Epiphany.  There weren’t so many tourists in those days and visitors and villagers mixed more readily. I was standing at the side of a small road, and suddenly found myself surrounded (pushed aside actually!) by scores of noisy and excited local children.

I looked in the direction they were facing – and there, against the strong light of the low sun, the silhouette of 3 camels coming towards us.  Lurching along the narrow road, enormous and splay footed, slowly coming nearer and nearer. And atop the camels – three Kings in glittering crowns and rippling rich jewel coloured robes, throwing handsful of sweets into the crowd.

For a minute or so, as they came alongside, I saw the tawdriness of the crowns and cheapness of the robes, but the kids didn’t.  The camels didn’t stop or even slow down: I watched them continue their slow rocking journey to the next village. And for a moment I saw the Wise Men in all their reality: scruffy, tired, on a seemingly endless journey following a star to find a king: the promised King.

If we accept that our own experiences can bring us greater understanding and empathy, we can see that the reality of the hard, messy, and unforgiving journey of the Magi, actually serves to strengthen the story.

These tough men, who unflinchingly trusted in the Star, brought us far more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, they lead us to the Light, to a greater understanding of God’s word, to a Grace beyond comprehension, to wholeness, healing and peace.

A new practice for a new year: Mindfulness

Wherever I go, I hear about mindfulness. It is a recommended practice in the workplace, it reduces stress, increases concentration, improves relationships. Local authorities have paid millions of pounds on training for mindfulness in schools – it improves wellbeing and helps aid good studying. In this university, there are mindfulness sessions, mindful art, mindful movement. It’s in vogue in the health sector, go to your doctor feeling anxious, depressed, burnt out and you are likely to find yourself having a conversation about mindfulness. You can buy a mindfulness colouring books, dot to dots, you can get any number of apps on being mindful and watch endless Youtube videos about it. There is even the MAPPG – the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group. There was a report in 2015 that said, for the future wellbeing of UK citizens, we need to take the enormous amount of research seriously and Mindfulness is the future.

So it’s big. But what is it? Mindfulness was started in its current scientific guise by Kabat-Zinn, who learnt the practice from Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk. He was a great friend of Thomas Merton, who was a Christian monk, who practiced the contemplative tradition within a Christian context. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

Being mindful is nether Christian or Buddhist or secular, it is a state of mind which is relevant to all people. So what about mindfulness and prayer? I was going to go on a mindfulness course recently and the leader of the group said you have to commit to doing an hour every day of mindfulness practice and I said, ‘Er that might be a bit of a problem. I have to do prayers anyway, does that count?’ ‘No’ I was told.  But I’m not so sure. Tim Stead, a Christian mindfulness practitioner says It could be said that mindfulness is to prayer what John the Baptist is to Jesus. John came not to save; not to do the work himself, but to help people get ready , so that when the moment arrived –  they would be in a place where they were ready to receive what Jesus had to offer.

I think for many of us, when we hear about mindfulness, it is naming something that we may have been doing already. An attitude of openness and willingness to dwell in the present, you could call it relaxing in God. Mindfulness may be very familiar by another name.

If we can be mindful of what is going on around us, that is how we can feel the spirit of God. Our response to situations can be from this spirit, rather than knee-jerk reactions of fear, or anger or envy. And whether the response is to endure bravely or to act creatively, a mindful prayer may help us along the way.

Laura Rhodes