We need to talk about Susan

1 Feb

I spend a ridiculous amount of my time talking about Dog Bounderby nowadays, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that we don’t have any other pets.

You’d be wrong.

I don’t know if you recall my ongoing struggle to own some goldfish, several years ago? It became, rather, an ongoing struggle to keep any goldfish alive for any length of time whatsoever.

I’m sorry to report that not long after I’d saved Belle and Sebastian’s lives, they died anyway. In fact, Belle died, leading me to heartlessly purchase a replacement (Belle 2). Belle 2 proceeded to slightly bully Sebastian, and to give him some kind of horrible disease from the horrible pet shop. Even though I separated them, keeping Belle 2 in a bottle for a while, he still died. And so did she. In maybe a couple of weeks.

I realised that although the pet shop I’d got them from had given me such a comprehensive interrogation before allowing me to adopt any of their precious fish, their fish were rubbish.

My relaxing goldfish project had left me stressed and heartbroken. Everyone told me to give up on the goldfish. Everyone except Tom. Tom had once kept a goldfish alive in a vase for a whole year and cherished it as his closest confidante – until he went on a trip and someone killed and replaced it and insisted for months that it was the same fish. (Uncool.)

So I went to a better pet shop and bought Cagney and Lacey.

Cagney and Lacey were much hardier fish. They were a plucky duo who doubtless solved plenty of crimes together, and once got a shout-out on national radio.


I left all my friends in Oxford, apart from Cagney and Lacey. They came with me on a lengthy and awkward road trip back to Bristol, slopping water all over my car in the process. There they lived in my (reluctant) parents’ kitchen while they were trying to pack up to move house.

But while I was away on holiday… Cagney died.

I think I’ve forgiven my mother for this. I mean, she didn’t replace her and insist it was the same fish or anything. I don’t think she was purposely trying to get my fish out of the damned way.

I mourned. And watched Lacey uneasily.

Then I had to move house again. I guess I can see how a person less attached to their goldfish might think that moving house with them isn’t really worth it…

The tank is too heavy to lift. So you have to empty most of the water out of the tank and store it in a bucket with a lid (because it’s so much better than regular tap water). You probably don’t have a bucket big enough so you have to use loads of slightly leaky ice cream tubs.

You can’t let the filter dry out, so that has to go in another tub of water from the tank – with the plug hanging out.

Then you put the fish in another container of water, and strap all these leaky vessels into your car with insufficient towels. You carry heavy buckets up and down stairs; you get soaked; your sole surviving goldfish isn’t grateful.

Well, maybe Lacey was grateful – it was hard to tell. What was more obvious was that after all of these house moves she was looking sort of sickly.

I went on holiday again. Lacey died.

Around that time, Tom asked me to marry him, so that cheered me up. I put the fish tank away for a while. Waiting until our lives were more stable.

A few months after we got married, we thought it was time. Time to get our own fish. Enter: Karl and Susan.

Karl was a fancy goldfish with silly little frilly fins, not really suited for any kind of serious swimming; the last of his kind left at the shop. Susan was a comet goldfish, sleek, streamlined; the fastest of her brethren. I asked the guy whether they’d get along okay. “Sure,” he said, “they’ll be fine.”

Within about three days, Susan had bullied Karl to death. She took all his food, she bodyslammed him into the gravel, she chased him for no reason. We separated them to no avail.

You see, Susan is a monster.

We moved house with Susan. Susan survived.

We went on several holidays without Susan. Susan survived.

We bought a dog and forgot to clean out the tank for months on end. Susan survived.

Susan developed a huge tumour on the side of her face. Susan survived.

The truth is, Susan’s still with us after two and a half years, but we don’t really talk about her. Do we love Susan? Probably? Are we scared of Susan? A little bit… When Susan sees us, she races to the glass and throws herself at us angrily, mouthing soundless underwater obscenities, cursing us: “Let me out! I’ll take you all on! ALL OF YOU!!”

I wanted a goldfish that would survive for a decent length of time. I just didn’t realise that in the brutal, fish-eat-fish world of nature, what I was asking for was an angry, bullying, psychopath.

Be careful what you wish for. Susan is waiting.




Let there be light.

17 Dec

Some years more than others, Christmas feels like lighting a candle in a very dark room.

Humankind doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job at being humankind right now, does it? But that’s how our story goes.

When it gets dark, we start to lose our way. We can’t see where we’re going any more and we can’t see each other. We trip up. We get scared. We get lost.

I love taking part in a carol service, lit by tiny flames (or glowsticks) in the darkness. It reminds me of the reason we can hope and not despair: introduce the smallest light into a completely dark room, and it can never be completely dark again. It’s impossible for more darkness to extinguish that light. With a candle, you can find your way.

And that’s kind of the message of Christmas. It’s dark down here. We need a light. So here are some lines from John’s gospel. Merry Christmas.

The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

“I have come into the world as a light, so that no-one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”

In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

How to be a Christian grown-up

28 Apr

This post will not actually do what it says on the tin, because I don’t think I know the answer.

I was reading this book called “Ordinary” by Michael Horton which a friend lent us. It’s basically about how nobody wants to live an “ordinary” Christian life, and why is that? And what does that mean anyway?

I don’t agree with Mr Horton about everything he says on what an ordinary Christian life should look like… but a couple of things have really struck me. One of them is this:

“We are all adolescents now.”

“The youth group was created, offering adolescent-friendly versions of church. In the second stage, a new adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, the church began to cater to them. Eventually, the church became them.”

“Like the culture generally, many churches deemed most ‘alive’ and ‘cutting-edge’ reflect a near-obsession with youth… Instead of the more biblical pattern of children growing towards maturity, churches [are] turning adults into children.”

This is quite a provocative thing to say, and a big part of me doesn’t want to accept that maybe I still think about faith in an adolescent way, but I think it might very well be true. I think it explains a lot of things I have been feeling.

Loads of people my age drift off and leave the church. I think one of the reasons is that their experience of being a Christian hasn’t matched up to their expectations. If they became a Christian as a young person or student, they were riled up to believe they were going to be a world-changing, radical generation, like nothing seen before. As a young person, they felt restless and passionate, they wanted to challenge the status quo, and they were encouraged to do that as the main way to really be serious about their faith. The thing is, feeling restless and passionate and challenging authority is part of being an adolescent. It’s normal and it’s a good thing to have those people around to keep everyone on their toes.

But what happens when you get a bit older and, having passed adolescence, you don’t feel quite so restless and radical and like you want to overthrow everything any more? As a Christian, you can start to feel boring and guilty, especially if your church still talks mainly to those revolutionary young people. You feel like maybe you’re not as good a Christian as you used to be. Remember how radical you were back then! How much you believed you would change the world! If you don’t feel that way now, you must be losing your faith, because that’s what your faith was. Or maybe you were mistaken about the whole faith thing in the first place. Maybe it’s time to walk away and get on with life.

Is it possible that if we spent time teaching young people not just how to be passionate young people but also how to be amazing, faithful, Christian adults, that they would stick around? The book says that in the past, older church members “took young people under their wing and taught them by word and example what it meant to begin to accept the privileges and responsibilities of membership in Christ’s body. Churches saw young people neither as the measure of their success, nor as ‘the church of tomorrow’, but as an integral part of the church today.”

Being a young person isn’t the most important time of your life. It’s brief. Being an adult lasts decades. Surely that’s the most important bit? And yet we aim so much ministry and adapt so many of the things we do to appeal to young people. That sort of traps everyone into trying to be an adolescent forever – and they get disillusioned when they can’t.

What does it mean to be a proper Christian grown-up, faithful to Jesus, in step with God and working with him? What does that look like? I don’t think it is meant to look like a youth conference. I think there is much more. I think if we really knew, then Christian grown-ups would not worry that they are boring or ordinary.

Disclaimer: This is just a theory. And I am sure there are a lot of churches teaching young people to be Christian adults.