Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The story of a miracle

The story of Jesus' birth is told in two of the Gospel narratives. Last year, I told them both for New College School of Divinity's Centre for the Study of Christian Origins Christmas video series.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

a message to my friends

Dear friends – Adelaide friends in particular,

leaving New College for the last time 
This is a strange old season I am currently experiencing. For a couple of months in Edinburgh it felt as though I was drifting, without direction or purpose. For the past couple of weeks in Adelaide it feels as though I have been hiding, overwhelmed by the gratitude of many friends for having me back in Adelaide.

I am super grateful for the many friends who want to spend time with me – what a gift it is to be so loved – but I find I have not the capacity for more than a very limited number of close confidants in this short season in Adelaide.

I’ve not even made it to church yet, so daunting is the prospect of all the well wishing people wanting to connect with me. That feels ridiculously ungrateful of me, for the love and support of this community of faith carried me through the three years in Edinburgh.

But I am trying to be kind to myself, not only in taking the time and space I need, but in not feeling guilty for doing so. I’ve battled some quite serious fatigue this past 18 months, and need to be very careful with my energy so that I am healthy for taking up a placement in the new year.

The jet lag has been awful this time around, compounded by the emotional upheaval of finishing a PhD (don't underestimate how complex the emotions at the ending of any season), and of leaving a city that became another home and friends I deeply love and appreciate.

Returning to my long time home feels a bit overwhelming, for it is possible I will only be in Adelaide a short time, if opportunity calls from beyond. I can only hope I don’t retreat too far back to cause me harm, or hurt my friends. I am so grateful to have so many friends, and sorry not to have the capacity to be more present with them in this season. 

I do try to make myself available to my friends, my various communities, with openness in sharing my story publicly in various ways. As one who affirms the particular importance of embodiment, it pains me to be unable to be more present physically, embodied, with those friends and communities. So I concentrate on the gift it is to connect with people in different places in whatever way I can, and the gift it is to be loved and have my story appreciated. 

I love you, friends and communities, and value your stories, too. Thank you for your patience as I restore my energy, give due attention to the ending of one season, and discern and prepare for the next. I will be physically present with you again somewhere soon, I am sure. Until then, may we remain connected through story and Spirit. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Midweek Musing. Applying gratitude.

It is the final week of my Scottish Sojourn, and my thoughts turn towards home.

And as I prepare to move back to Australia, I am aware of the heightened vulnerability of my current state of being. I have spent everything on this PhD, financially and personally.

My bank accounts are near zero, and there is ever diminishing room left on my credit card. What financial debts I have, thankfully, are with friends or family, on generous and compassionate terms, and will not break me. I cannot say the same for the financial burden facing many of my friends in the PhD program.

My energy levels are even closer to zero, and I can feel the same chronic fatigue-like symptoms of aching muscles, sore throat and stuffy sinuses, inability to concentrate, and overwhelming tiredness I have felt before during this season of prolonged and intense stress.

But I am returning home, to be enfolded by the love of my family, warmed by Adelaide friendships and Australian sun, and energy will soon be restored. There is hope and anticipation for new adventures to lift the spirit. There is much satisfaction from a successful season in Scotland.

I will be soon engaged in the task of establishing a new home, and the financial cost of that is a little daunting with my empty coffers. But I am not feeling overwhelmed, or even panicked. For I have decided I will take my time to furnish whatever abode I find myself making home for the next season of my life. This time I will not accumulate donated stuff - however generously offered - simply to fill empty rooms. I will not buy the cheapest things simply because they are the cheapest.

This time, as I establish my home, I will be intentional in choosing furniture and furnishings that reflect who I am, that support the way I want to live. I want to create a home that is welcoming and nurturing for me, that extends an embrace to my guests. I want to be a careful steward of my financial resources, to pay attention and not take for granted what I hope will be a more secure financial situation in this next phase of life. I'd like to invest in quality, in beauty, in local and ethical production where I can. I will be grateful if I am, at last, in a position to be able to so choose.

And as I turn my thoughts towards something new, there is much I have learnt from what has been.
I have learnt that I can indeed live on the smell of an oily rag, if I must; can turn suitcases and boxes into shelves and drawers, and make do in a sparsely equipped kitchen.
I have also learnt that while I can survive on cheap, quick and easy meals, I function more effectively with less sugar, more vegetables, and do appreciate carefully prepared meals.
I have learnt that I belong to a vast, generous, kind community of friendship across the world, that I am not alone, am needed by and need you.
I have learnt the value of the 'stuff' we gather in our home, to remind us of who we are, to shape a way of life that sustains and restores and delights. I have remembered the value of delight.
I have learnt that I am right to seek a place in which to live that allows me to retreat. I have also learnt that I appreciate a comfortable armchair or sofa for sitting, contemplating, reading, stitching.

I have learnt more about my gifts and skills as a storyteller, a poet, a minister; as one who offers the artistic perspective to challenge, heal, lament, and celebrate; one who tells our stories and listens to stories for the strengthening of people and community; one who holds people safe in the discerning process, the learning process, the work of worship together.
I have learnt ways to polish my creative work, to make my creative work earn me something to live on, to share my creative work with my communities. I have learnt that people do indeed value my creative work, and I have learnt that I would rather not have to rely on that work to make me something to live on, that I would appreciate some freedom to simply create.

I have learnt the depths of my resilience, the heights of my courage, the extent of my commitment to the call of the Way of God as the way I choose to live, and I have learnt to trust all this.

I have learnt to be grateful for all that I have, to recognise that although I am financially perpetually poor, I am among the richest humans, with access to health care, education, nutrition, clean water; with the privilege of choice, the gift of experience; with love and embrace from a committed family, generous friends, and faithful church communities all over the world. I have learnt that I am rich, and richer still when I share of that wealth I have received.

With five days left to live in Edinburgh, there is much more I could, and perhaps need, to say, and in time I am sure I will. These are the words for today, five days before the Scottish Sojourn comes to its end.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Christmas Blessings

From Sarah Agnew to your worship celebrations and under your tree: gifts of story and poetry for Christmas.

In church

Christmas Anticipation
This is a bargain, with stories, play scripts, liturgies, poems, and prayers for a very small fee. Enough to keep the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany stories alive for years to come!

To speak to the heart 

On Wisdom's Wings 
Sarah's first collection of poems tells stories of discovery of self, love, healing, God, place in community.

The Only Constants 
This collection of poems depicts life in a season of change and the threads of friendship, love, and Sacred Presence that remain constant throughout.

To listen with your heart 

In His House 
Stories and poems composed and recited by Sarah for your listening pleasure. Woven through with inspiration from her beloved Shakespeare, these pieces travel through love stories, the intrigues of spies, battles with depression, and a pilgrimage to a dream come true. 

Blue, Koala? 
Sarah has composed and recited this story of a Koala who loses herself in a dark hole, and her friends who search for, find, and wait with her until she emerges once more into the light. Told in verse to delight listeners of any age, this is an honest depiction of depression and its impact on those who love the ones who suffer.

For the stocking 

In Prayer and Protest 
A small collection of poems for the poignant moments in life. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Midweek Musing: responding to the story of Koala Blue

People have been listening to Blue, Koala? and sharing their responses to the story. Here is a selection for you to muse on, and be inspired to listen (and maybe even purchase and download) the story for yourself!

I feel so fortunate to have been involved in this project! I'm glad the world can engage with the story of Koala Blue. I had a great time creatively collaborating
– Grace Mitchell, Artist for album cover, and the forthcoming printed book 

I love the story. It took me on a trip, panic as I reflect on friends who are often in a hole and me unaware.
But also joy, so hear that people kept looking and kept close by even when not ready to come out of a hole.
I need reminding that those people are in my life too.
A resource I hope to use with my young people - where appropriate. And for personal reflection.
– Nicole, Adelaide

What a beautiful gift to the world. 
– Donna Marie, Black Mountain 

The story is truly clever and insightful, truthful and honest, and yet full of hope. There are some great lines that allude to some of the realities of mental illness: about Koala Blue having neither climbed up nor jumped into the river; about Goanna that 'if she heard then she did not understand'; and Wombat's comment that 'if she's in a hole I know how to dig', alluding to the why and how Wombat has the wisdom that Roo seeks out. It is thought-provoking and also encouraging for someone who can relate to some of the characters. Really enjoyed and appreciated it
– Alice, Adelaide

a story of depression, and friendship, written and recited by my dear friend Sarah.  Only $7! Great for big and little kids!!
– Melissa, Adelaide 

The book sounds wonderful, deep, honest, not scary but totally real.
You are an amazing artist, poet, story teller.
– Tamar, Jerusalem

Our friend Sarah Agnew has a story to tell. It bears learned wisdom worth hearing, and gentle challenges worth receiving. 
– Craig, Adelaide 

Monday, 16 October 2017

'Me too'. On being sold lies about beauty and human dignity.

Today I posted the 'me too' status update on Facebook, along with many, many – too many – women who are showing in the weight of numbers of these updates just how prevalent the sexualised objectifying of women is in our society.

My sisters were concerned. For the 'me too' statement says the one posting the update has been sexually harassed or assaulted.

I didn't mention – but I am now – the groping in a swimming pool when I was in my early teens, by a boy I didn't know, didn't even see as he swam past and copped a feel. I don't think I've mentioned it to anyone but the friend who was with me at the time as I surfaced, gasped for air, stunned almost to speechlessness. Truth be told, most of the time it lies forgotten. I shook it off as the immature idiocy of a teenage boy; but underlying that response is the deeper disturbance of being treated as an object that boy thought he had a right to touch, uninvited.

Instead I assured my sisters that my part in this is as one who has experienced the not so harmful harassment of cat calls when I was younger.

Predominantly, that is true. But it is still not 'OK'.

Who wants that sort of attention? To be ogled at, lusted after, like some possession they want to own. Nobody. And then the sad truth is that when you've been young and skinny with boobs and blonde hair and had that sort of attention then with time, health issues change your form so that you no longer receive that sort of attention, you feel yourself to be unattractive, undesirable, ugly.

It's not that the cat callers were necessarily deeming you beautiful, but that society has a picture of beauty that shape our notions of what is desirable and the cat callers affirm your adherence to those notions.

We need to change our pictures of beauty to be more nuanced, fluid, generous, to be richer and deeper. This will make advertising more of a challenge, the selling of 'beauty' products difficult, I'm sure, for a different understanding of beauty will no longer hold that some of us are 'broken' and need fixing with all those products and services we are forever being encouraged to buy.

Capitalism and commercialism have a lot to answer for in the shaping of our perspective of ourselves as humans of dignity and worth. We allow ourselves to be sold the lie that we are inherently wrong, in need of adjustments and improvements.

It is time to reclaim the narrative that humans are inherently good, to see and encourage others to see ourselves and each other as beings of dignity and beauty, find that within ourselves, not in bottles and treatments and products of enhancement.

It is time to shape our notions of beauty to those that will not encourage us to cat call, to grope, to treat another human as an object that we have a right to lust after, to touch, uninvited.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Midweek Musing: Created

Reflection offered in worship at Greyfriars Kirk, 8 October 2017


This is the story into which we are born, called, and must choose each day to embrace or reject.

I have spent a lot of time over these three years in Edinburgh with Paul’s letter to the Romans as the test case performance at the heart of my PhD (which is now submitted and in the process of being examined). Most themes and stories and experiences now call to mind for me something from the letter. And so it has been with the theme for today’s worship. These words come early in the letter.

Rom 1:20–23

Ever since the creation of the world
Creator’s eternal power and divine nature,
invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen
through the things Creator has made.
So they are without excuse;
for though they knew Holy One,
they did not honour them as Holy One
or give thanks to them,
but they became futile in their thinking,
and their senseless minds were darkened.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools;
 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal Holy One
for images resembling a mortal human being or birds
or four-footed animals or reptiles. 

Paul describes what he sees as the consequences of rejecting our call to live the story of being created – he gives some more specific examples, then this vast list:

Rom 1:28–32

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge Holy One,
Holy One gave them up to a debased mind
and to things that should not be done.
They were filled with every kind of wickedness,
evil, covetousness, malice.
Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness,
they are gossips, slanderers, Holy One-haters,
insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil,
rebellious towards parents,
 senseless, disloyal, unfeeling, without mercy.
 They know Holy One’s decree,
that those who practise such things deserve to die—
yet they not only do them
but even applaud others who practise them.

When we live another story that places ourselves or other idols in the place of the Creator, the consequences are the diminishing of life and wellbeing for us all. Ourselves, our ideas of what is right, even the Bible, can become idols we worship instead of God.

Apparently, it is not so easy to tell from my accent anymore, but I am from Australia. Back home at the moment the people are being invited to complete a one question survey on whether we think the laws about marriage should change to allow same sex marriages. Now, I don’t mind where people stand on this question after faithful interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition (I’m going to focus on our tradition, for I cannot speak for any other faith tradition).

What I do mind is the way that people, and it is mostly on the negative side of the argument and claiming Christianity, are not respecting those who differ from them in faith, interpretation, lifestyle, sexuality. There is much waving around of the bible and particular interpretations as unerring, enduring Truth with a capital T; there seems to be more concern for protecting one’s ideas than concern for our fellow creatures and their dignity. For to vilify those we fear is to fail to see them for what they are: created. Just like us.

In my work as a storyteller I have composed and performed a series of stories from such settings as WWII, the protestant reformation in Holland, and catholic persecution in Elizabethan England. In all the stories of the (in)humanity series humans do unspeakable things to each other because they do not see each other as human, as being as worthy as themselves. Humans in these stories also act with incredible courage because of their understanding of themselves as created in relation to God, and of others as created and thus having inherent dignity.

For me, the story of Agnes Magnusdottir as told by Hannah Kent in the novel Burial Rites is about a transformation of vision. She is sent to live with a family while she awaits execution, and the family gradually let go of their fear, and embrace love. I was so moved by it, that I wrote my own poetic version of this story of transformation.

Agnes’s Story 
(you can have the video of this, filmed at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and on location in Iceland)

We are not only called to affirm the dignity of fellow humans, but of all that is created. Francis of Assisi, or we might even say Australia’s own Steve Irwin, saw such dignity and worth in the animals of earth, fellow creatures to love and celebrate. On days such as Harvest Thanksgiving, which we celebrate today, the church celebrates the gift of being created, being part of all that is created, living, dying, sustaining a cycle of precious, wondrous, life.

Jesus came to issue the invitation again, from within the flesh and blood of humanity, the dirt and dust of the earth. Taking the place of the created, while simultaneously being one with the Creator. What a mystery that is, and what a gift of love.

Jesus, as I experience both him and the biblical tradition, follows the line of Wisdom tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures – we heard of Wisdom at creation, Wisdom who shows the way to God’s heart, the way to live well, issuing the invitation to all to participate in the story of the created.

How to live the story … I was struck by Paul’s words that nothing in all creation can keep us from that story and our place in it – not even death. Not even life. That struck me in particular – not even life.

I have wondered whether our fear of death leads us to idolise life, as we seek every way possible to hang on to it. Lezley told us the story some months ago of the dragonfly before it is a dragonfly – all they see beneath the water is the loss of another into the unknown. But when they emerge themselves above the water, they discover flight, and light, and life!

To be created is to know only in part, as the dragonfly before it flies. We are not the Creator. It is difficult to let go and flow with the cycle of life, to imagine what life might follow from this one we know.

We question nature and order,
the certainties of the past,
the discoveries of new days,
yet find you are not silenced. 
You are in life and all we learn,
even if not known or fully understood. 
How you care will always feed our questions –
why we suffer pain and grief and loss?
how we live and laugh and breathe?
Those words come from Lezley Stewart’s reimagining of Psalm 8 for her doctoral project.

We seek to know our place in creation, and come again and again into the story to remember to see ourselves, each other, and the earth and all that lives
as we are : created.

May it be so.