Smoke, anyone?

I wake to thickness. My breath labours, though I can’t yet smell the smoke. The fine particles powdering the air and setting off my asthma come from hundreds of kilometres away to the east, a tiny incursion on my summer, a broken fingernail compared to the raw devastation suffered by those living in the fire path.

The torch of anger, fear and pain blazes through public and private commentary on this unprecedented fire season. Fingers point, blame is apportioned, scorn greets the responses of authority. We are all affected, all involved, whatever our politics, outlook or beliefs. The dry tinder of our polarised, simplified public discourse is easily ignited by such overwhelming events. The only innocents are the victims, the habitat and its animals, and the firefighters working to contain and subdue the blazes.

Long, cold showers needed all around.

Fire is a leveller. After the flames, the rebuild. Of course it needs to involve honest, generous cooperation. To honour the call to steward the earth for the good of all. To encourage intergenerational respect and collaboration across lines old and new. To birth humility as we are reminded of our shared vulnerability, responsibility and capacity as humans.

We flower briefly here. And I acknowledge that my hope will be shared and spoken by many, not least in Canberra. But fine sentiments are quickly clouded by the demands of more immediate life once the crisis is over. After our own fire my new-found clarity faded as normality resumed. We found new junk to fill our restored house, new petty concerns to fill our minds. The fire changed me but perhaps not enough. It became another one of those things that happened, not a defining moment.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here. Let’s hope that this does change us all, for the better, for good.

Listen. Notice. Appreciate. Enjoy.

Like every new year, this one has started without asking my permission, checking my readiness, or waiting for me to complete my do-list.

The words come as I walk along a hot Melbourne street with half of the family. It feels uneven. As the eldest emerges into adulthood and the youngest out of infancy, the two in the middle are on their own adventure, reconnecting with wider family overseas. Our never-tidy life, unpacked and repacked in moves large and small, planned and unplanned, is re-reconfiguring. It always feels strange, although this time it’s the most predictable. In all families eras pass quickly, but each one seems more decisive. As we move awkwardly through the new year crowds at Flinders street four words parachute into my mind.

Listen. Notice. Appreciate. Enjoy.

I can stress with the best. Strain towards whatever I imagine passes for the ideal. I tend to imagine that I just have to flap really hard to fly, forgetting that part about being seated in heavenly places with Christ. So I immediately start trying to apply these four words to the family members I’m with. There are only two of them, how hard can it be. I try to listen to, notice, appreciate and enjoy them in a very deliberate and let me just say exhausting fashion. No surprise that I end the day on my last nerve. The following day I realise my mishtake.

You meant me to apply these words to You.

Listen to what You are saying. Notice what You are doing. Appreciate who You are. Enjoy You.

I no longer expect to know when You are saying new things to me. A quirky memory and shrinking attention span makes everything new. Whatever their vintage, these words land noiselessly from elsewhere, like raindrops on parched earth, come to refresh. Or commandos, come to do a stealth job on the enemy. Either way, they are not for punishment or correction. This is not a setting straight. This is a place setting. At a feast. In the presence of my enemies.

The performer in me is frustrated by this but also challenged to do the best listening, noticing, appreciating and enjoying that I can. But these words invite contemplation, not action. They assume Your sovereignty, Your activity and Your permission to engage not in doing, but in being. An invitation to receive who You are and give You the attention that is due to You not just in dutiful Bible study or prayer but in a delightful search for Your footprints, the traces You leave in the world You made and love and came to re-engage.

Next Level

So here we are. New city, new occupations, new schools, new neighbourhood, new realities. Or nearly new. Four months in. Okay, three and a half. Fourteen weeks. Funny how we can make things seem shorter or longer depending on how we describe them.

This has been big. I knew it would be but I also didn’t know. In the way that you don’t know a thing until you’ve done it. Like having your first child, you know it’s going to change you, your sense of yourself and the world around you. Knowing this in advance, you read and shop and prepare as best you can and and and…it still hits you like a freight train. What you don’t and cannot know is that birth is just the starting gun for the endurance course of new parenthood.

In a life with more than the average number of relocations, I had dared imagine myself equipped and ready for this one. I had forgotten how, like with most challenging things, the mind protects you from the pain. Witness the births of another three children. And when it came to relocating again, mine had convinced me that I could never again feel the pain I felt leaving the UK.

It was lying to protect me.

Because the pain of this move has been next-level. I stared at this last statement after writing it, wondering if that was true.  Dramatic, perhaps. But our private agonies are unique to each of us.  Next-level for me may not even register for you. But leaving the small island for the big one was also leaving the setting of our children’s childhoods, the place we’ve lived the longest in the 25 years of our marriage. I didn’t even recognise that until we left. Did not appreciate how deep went my roots there until it was almost over.

I’m grateful that I had forgotten the pain of past transitions. Otherwise I would never grasp the opportunities of now. In time I will forget this pain also.

We will go back, and maybe it will feel like coming home, and maybe not. And that’s as it should be. Because home is up ahead.

Handing over

My last post spoke about the new adventure I was on, training for the priesthood. You could call it chickens coming home to roost as many years of church nerdery made the pathway plain. When near–strangers started telling me they thought I was already a priest it was time to face reality.

Been a messy old time since then. Have to admit that saying yes to God has unleashed a new level of internal chaos, a sometimes harrowing reality check, as my ‘stuff’, my weaknesses and hangups and the like, has decided to parade through my mind, out of my mouth and into my behaviour like my own personal mardi gras, leaving trash, debris and hangovers in its wake. Old weaknesses have taken on new energy, former issues long buried turn out to be alive and kicking, and people I considered forgiven have been discovered still residing in the dark places of my heart.

So much for my yes to God. I clearly need a priest.

I also lost my innocence during this last year. I considered myself a woman of the world, with my carry-on bag of carefully-remembered slights, petty misdemeanours and immature actions of others against me. I had travelled a bit, and read a bit, and thought I knew a bit. Then God brought me up close with the results of deliberate cruelty, wilful brutality and calculated damage in a human life.

It took my breath away. Shut me down.

My words were too flimsy and brittle for the weight of it. I could not trust them to betray my own impotence. So I stopped writing altogether.

I was right. My words could do nothing. But God’s word? That was different. And that was his gift to me. To see God’s word salve, bring hope and give a measure of peace to abject grief and profound sorrow. To see my own words distract and confuse where God’s word invariably comforted, encouraged and embraced. Whether received or not.

So as John the Baptist said, I must decrease and God increase. Not to play-act piety, but to get out of the way so that he may be clearly seen and heard. To let others experience the word that brings life. That is life.

 

 

The shocking generosity of Grace

Someone told me that he relies on his intellect and common sense to deal with his own issues. If I’m unhappy, he says, it’s because I’ve f-d up somewhere. So I just need to go back and work out where that was, and fix it.

Prayer, he says, is pointless. Don’t imagine God will listen to your prayers, he says. God has a credit and debit sheet for your life, he tells me. Unless you are in credit God’s not listening, he says.

So he doesn’t bother. Waste of time, he says.

All you people in the churches and the mosques praying you’re all hypocrites.

Then he cites with disgust the example of a man who turned to Christ and became a priest after a life of crime. This man is a hypocrite, he tells me. The father of one of his victims vomited when he heard about this man’s conversion, he adds.

If I believed God was keeping a balance sheet of my good and bad deeds, I might as well give up now. Watch daytime TV till my heart stops. Or party like I had no hope.

My friend seemed comfortable with the idea that his own actions had doomed him in God’s eyes. Given the tools for the job, ie, free will and the knowledge of right and wrong, he had only himself to blame and only himself to rely on to fix things. The idea that God would intervene to the extent of granting forgiveness was unthinkable, at best naïve and at worst presumptuous. As far as he was concerned, God offered no mercy, no forgiveness and no second chances.

I agree that we usually know what we should and shouldn’t do. But knowing is not always enough. That old Christian cliché of relationship not religion truly shifts our motivation. When I do the right thing it’s because of a relationship that has changed my nature and motivation. I want to honour the person of Jesus, not simply keep my account in the black.

This strange and awkward conversation showed me the power and the shock of grace. Grace – undeserved blessing – violates our sense of natural justice. It dishes out reward instead if punishment. After all, why should we get forgiveness for our mistakes? Why not be made to live as cautionary tales for the generations to come? But if God is our father, then that natural law flexes under the weight of this father’s love. This father who tells us himself that he will forgive the truly contrite, the one with the courage to face Him with the wrong they have done. And once we have been shown compassion, it naturally follows that we in turn show compassion to others. Grace leads to more grace.

But really, grace? Seriously? It’s illogical. It’s anomalous. Why should a perfect holy God tolerate let alone pardon sin in people who know right from wrong and choose wrong? It’s another question for that interview in heaven. But maybe it’s because without receiving we cannot give. And a lack of compassion is poisonous. In individuals. In families. In nations.

I want to live in the peace God gave me. So I receive God’s compassion in order to be more compassionate. It doesn’t always work. I sometimes forget, both to receive compassion and to extend it to others. Wallowing in failures/mistakes/sins has a certain payoff for a while, but then the air gets a bit stale. I am learning to receive the fact God loves me and move on instead of enthroning my issues as if they were more important.

I am not my mistakes. Nor my successes.

I am a child of God. Loved and forgiven.

 

Unity

We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.

It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time.  This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.

So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark.  All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.

After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.

I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.

I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party.  Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.

What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.

It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices.  My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.

 

 

Course correction

Sigh. The more things change…

Months ago I described my epiphany with a declaration of intent to go into full-time ministry. Life took on a new, excited urgency while I waited to see what God would do with my generous offer of myself. I applied for and got a job with a Christian organisation running outreach courses. It’s been a steep curve, both stretching and affirming. Naturally enough this has filled my vision and my head for the last six months.

Then my manager asked me what I was doing about pursuing my vocation.  I was surprised to find myself reacting negatively, trotting out the same old excuses, feeling the same tug of conflicting emotions. The peace I had experienced before had been superseded by the busyness of my new role, its possibilities and opportunities. This Christian life is supposed to be all about dying to self and living for Christ. It turns out my self is still very much alive and kicking. Hard.

A few sleepless nights and painful conversations later, I gave in, again. Told God that he can place me wherever he wants to, hoping for the peace of before. Instead I felt flat and foolish. Unimpressed now with my years of acrobatic twists and turns away from God’s embrace, keeping close enough to feel his warmth, but just beyond the range of his all-consuming fire. I was exhausted by the struggle to keep my head above the waters, to avoid full immersion.

My internal critic pounded me with condemnation but then God sent a mature Christian to remind me that God is neither surprised nor disappointed by the time I have taken. Every experience is useful, even the wandering, the wondering, the downright disobeying and the genuine questioning. He loves me the same whether I say yes or no. Grace, the gift of love, was given in Christ because God is love, not in response to any input from me. I am God’s child and his love for me is an unchanging fact of eternity. He still and always loves me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I may even find out that I enjoy this ministry lark. It may not be the thing that I must do to sacrifice my fulfilment to the demands of the almighty, but it may actually be the fulfilment I was made for.

My son announced recently that he now loves reading. It’s really fun, he tells me. Small thing you may say. But after 2 or more years of tears and tantrums about reading, it was quite a speech. Over and over we had all assured him it would get easier and he would come to enjoy it like the rest of his bookish family but he couldn’t see it. Now he’s got it, he gets it. It’s great.

I trust that I will too. I dare to believe that after some 8 years of refusal, God may share my feeling of delight that his child has finally caught on and is ready to engage in some learning she might actually enjoy.