Alumni Interview: Cassandra Burton-Wood

Cassandra is an alumna of the Residential Fellowship (2018/19) and currently works at Victoria University of Wellington as a researcher in the School of Health and as a chaplain at the Anglican Chaplaincy. Cassandra is also an intentional community leader in Kelburn, sharing a flat with six students above the Chaplaincy on campus. Here, Cassandra shares some thoughts on the role and significance of Lent in her yearly rhythms.

At the beginning of a new calendar year and the arrival of the Lenten season, what are some of your postures towards time?

Here I need to confess that I am a solid “J” on the Myers-Briggs typology. I’ve always been super intentional about what I do with my time. Our family got our first computer when I was seven, and the first thing I did was create a personal timetable to make sure I was doing all the things in a day that I thought were important—including a 15-minute slot for reading the Bible before I went to school. Because I had started early, by the time I was in my early 20s, I had honed the skill of being realistic about how long different activities take and what was achievable, to the point where I could tell you with a high degree of accuracy where I was going to be and what I was going to be doing every hour for about the next two months. No joke. And I actually lived that schedule.

Living this way, in total control of my time, left me exhausted, distorted my sense of my own value, sidelined various relationships, and made it difficult to recognise and respond to what God was doing in my life because I was so fixated on my own plans. But I was very efficient. Over the last few years, God has been graciously (and slowly!) redeeming my relationship with time. More recently, I’ve been mulling on the title of a book that I haven’t read, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, which is a theological reflection on time and disability. I’ve been contemplating what it would mean to take seriously the idea that time is God’s creature and wondering if I’m taking it too far to consider that I could be a friend of time. Friendships aren’t really friendships if they’re all about controlling the other. The way you get to know another person is by slowing down and paying attention to how they are in the world. And you learn not to get mad at your friends for simply being how they are in the world—you even come to delight in their nuances. I wonder if I could feel that way towards time? All of this thinking is very much being tested in fire right now—working at the University front-loads my year. The six short weeks before Trimester One begins have been hectic.

What does the Lenten season represent in your life, and why do you think it’s important?

The Lenten season is a gift. Right now, it feels like the moment when, in the midst of a very busy day, a family member has arrived at my door and invited themselves in for a long cup of tea. I’m going to be stuck at the table for a few hours, hearing stories that I didn’t ask to hear and taking advice I didn’t ask for. It’s so inconvenient, especially the way it collides with the beginning of the university term. Ash Wednesday is during Orientation Week–welcome to university! Think on your sins! It’s so awkward, but that’s precisely why I value Lent so much. Living in the larger rhythms of the Church calendar challenges me to prioritise growing in the faith I confess each Sunday. The practices I pick up in those seasons need to displace other routines that are generally built around my work and responsibilities. It’s also more than a matter of integrity; it’s the opportunity—the permission—to let my life be focused around the very food that sustains me: Christ’s death and resurrection. The way that Lent is held in community, that it’s something I join the Church in, is also a gift. It’s so unlike the rest of my activities that require my resources and leadership.

What are some of the practices and disciplines that you want to adopt as we enter into the season?

Over the last few years, I’ve done two things during Lent: I’ve stopped snacking on sweet food and I’ve spent more time reading Scripture focused around the events of Easter. The former, for me, is about learning where my help comes from at precisely the part of the year that is the busiest and most tiring. Hunger, or more the mild withdrawal from a sugar addiction, is a constant call to prayer. It’s a reminder that goes everywhere with me; I carry it in my body into every task and meeting of the day—it’s hard to ignore. The latter, setting aside some time to more deeply engage with Scripture, is something I wish I did more of year-round. Seven-year-old Cassandra is probably quite frustrated that we’ve never landed a daily practice of reading the Word consistently! But I think I’m slowly starting to see something of the nature of time as the Church calendar expresses it. The rhythm isn’t even throughout the year. Advent and Lent are these two loud times of drawing close and drinking deeper—high points that refract into the rest of ordinary time. They are a gift in the way they respond to my limitations and my struggle to sustain reading the Bible consistently for more than a couple of months at a time; two seasons of formational, community-supported devotion. I think I’ll pick up those same practices again this year. I think the learning of Lent is slow—it’s an arc over the years of my life. I hope that in ten years’ time, I’ll be able to look back and see something in it that I can’t see now.

What are some opportunities that have emerged from the past 12 months, and what are some of the challenges?

One of the challenges that COVID posed in my spheres of work was the displacing of the university community. Some students moved out of the city back to their hometowns and didn’t move back. The international student population all but disappeared, which has ongoing financial ramifications for Victoria University of Wellington. The presence of academic staff has also changed as they struggle under a higher teaching load with fewer supporting resources due to decisions to manage the University’s financial deficit. It has been, and will continue to be, a strange time to be a chaplain. But there’s also this very exciting opportunity ahead of us to regather and rebuild a community within a student body that is hungering for deep connection. More than that, there’s a recognition with the Student Service team on campus that Chaplaincy can do that work in a unique and life-giving way.

What are you hopeful for in your work, home, and church life as we enter into 2021?

As I write this, I do find myself very hope filled to see glimpses of the glory of God as the love that exists within the Christian communities I live and work in is shared more widely. It’s easy to get discouraged with all that we are not as the body of Christ on campus. But the freedom we have to give to and love others because we have the smallest of understandings of what we have received from God is still something. To the student who has been evicted from their flat, who hasn’t experienced friendship that isn’t transactional or based on convenience, who looks to the future and feels only despair, it is the gift of life.

How are you praying as we enter into the new calendar year?

After the summer holidays, I have returned to the devotional, Seeking God’s Face, in the morning with a coffee. It’s the little bit of Scripture I ingest each day that helps me to pray out of trust rather than out of fear, letting my concerns be reshaped in light of who God is.  

What passages of Scripture have you found helpful and encouraging and why?

At the moment, I find the Psalms most encouraging. They continue to teach me the breadth of expressions that count as a faithful response to who God is. They represent a way of responding that does not ask me to overcome my limitations but to be a creature and to let God be who God is. Today I read Psalm 37:3: “Trust in the Lord and do good: dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.” What a promise. What a relief. 

What’s your favourite book?

Spiritual Healing: Science, Meaning, and Discernment

Ed. Sarah Coakley

Well, right now, this is the book I’m most excited to pick up when I get a moment. It’s a book mapping the interdisciplinary conversation that arises as soon as we start talking about spirituality and health. I get excited about wise and rigorous thinking when it comes to two of the most vague and amorphous terms that dominate my work.

(Image: Supplied)