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.

Give peace a chance

Peace I leave with you, Jesus said to his disciples. My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14 v 27

I have got this rest thing all wrong. Been looking in the wrong direction. I have imagined and fantasised rest as an absence of doing, a break from activity. A stretch of time outside normal life, with stress receptors on pause. Hard-won respite from reality.

But without peace there can be no rest. When I finally reach that plateau called rest I am so exhausted from the climb and so tense from the preparation that I cannot actually rest. And resent those around me who can. Forced rest, like forced love, is empty and superficial. A pretty husk. Ultimately pointless. And tiring.

This year has started fuller than last, with a new job adding to the usual stuff that comes with a houseful of children and a micro(scopic) business. I’m working very hard, but despite a well-developed vocabulary for stress and anxiety, I’ve not much use for it these days because, in truth, I’m neither stressed nor anxious. No more than momentarily. Home life is shape-shifting as the children become more independent, more able, sometimes even willing. We’re all growing.

The anxiety of whether I’m good enough, whatever that actually means, is losing its relevance. I wonder now why I wasted so much time on it. I think I now believe that I am able and that such a belief is both appropriate and healthy. Talking to my husband a few weeks ago about work challenges up ahead, I heard myself say that I was going to learn a huge amount over the next few months. There was a pause while we both tried to recognise the speaker. This was new, for me to see opportunities to grow instead of mountains to climb. To be still before the unknown with openness and expectation, not clenched with fear and foreboding. It was like new language had been downloaded into my mind without my having to learn it. A strange tongue.

This didn’t happen overnight. To quote my favourite Bible teacher, Joyce Meyer, there’s no such thing as a drive-through breakthrough.

They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40 v 31

And I have been waiting. Expectantly. Like waiting for the man to come to install the heating system or unblock the pipes, I have been clearing my stuff out of the way so that God can get to work. He has heard my often tearful, snotty prayers to please help me stop going around in circles of self pity and introspection, blind to opportunities, blessings and gifts. He has reminded me of the power of worship to refocus and refuel. He’s given me some new practical strategies, too. Instead of staring at the problem until I’m paralysed, I step away for a while. And I have been asking God for help with specifics – that phone call, or phrasing that tricky email, that child kicking off. I get perspective by asking myself where this problem sits in the hierachy of The Worst That Could Happen. Death? Injury? The Wrong Envelope on Oscars Night?

I fall into bed exhausted and sleep deeply, rising earlier than I would like with a whole stack of tasks for the day ahead. But I don’t wake with a knot in my stomach these days, genuinely grateful for each day. The routine stuff of home that used to fill my time and take all day now gets done in a flash or not at all. So much more to do and so much more getting done.

Yes I’m boasting about God because what he is doing in me is worth boasting about.

He has poured peace into the place where anxiety used to smash me up like the blades of a blender. This peace grounds me instead of grinding me,  reminding me who I am. I use it to sift the thoughts that come. I consciously and regularly remember who God is and how he feels about me by reading and thinking about what his word says. And in those foetal moments when I run out of words and ideas – yes those still happen – God’s peace wraps itself around me like a blanket.

Perhaps all the time I wanted rest I really needed peace. The gift direct from Christ himself. I think of how Jesus breathed into the disciples just as God breathed into Adam. It was like Jesus was conferring a new kind of life on his followers. My God-breathed peace is becoming my default, replacing the darkness and negativity I lived with so long. In God’s peace I have space, room to manoeuvre, the choice to respond rather than react. Strength. Energy. Even courage. And in the midst of everything, rest.

Rest

The year that started without a focus let alone a resolution has its own word now. It’s not an obvious one. But it’s the one I have been given to take into this year. The word to keep returning to, checking myself by, measuring myself against.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am of the simple clarity of starting the year with rest. Judging by the space devoted to it in all forms of media, December is the month for looking back over the previous 12 at lessons learnt, mistakes made, goals met or missed, weight lost or gained. For me, and countless others, December is the month where time, emotion, creative energy and dutiful attendance are all demanded in a continuous sushi train of year-end pageants, plays, concerts, sports presentations, speech nights, shopping trips, cooking marathons, late-night giftwrapping, Amazon marathons, surprise entertaining, carols at midnight, lists and expectations.

So come January I am spent. Nothing left.

Last year, December was, well, largely as I have just described. We had moved back into the house after the fire in September and then I had got a new job. And suddenly it was December. And I was totally unprepared. Not in my usual, exaggerating for effect way, I mean totally. Unprepared.

I realised something was amiss when I and no.3 spent two days looking for the Christmas tree. It took us awhile to realise why we had a box but no tree. Oh, yes, she and I suddenly remembered. The tree was destroyed in the fire. Not burnt, just impregnated with smoke. I had until then forgotten how the house was back then, frozen in time, still reeking of fumes, just as it was when we fled weeks before. It was an eerie experience, which I thought I would always remember. Wrong.

So when I knew that the tree had been binned, along with 15 years of accumulated decorations, I raced out to the nearest stuffMart and replaced it. The matching baubles I bought for it looked a bit alien in our slightly chaotic, uncoordinated living room. Only the star, another cheap and cheerful addition, secured to the top with the help of a cardboard loo roll, looked like it belonged here.

I realised I didn’t remember anything about last year between preparing a guest room for my father-in-law in early December and the fire breaking out on the 27th. Christmas was totally eclipsed. I was surprised by this gap in my memory. I suddenly wanted to sleep for a week. No chance of that, not with the December juggernaut on the move. But I realised the family all felt the same way. Finally Christmas came and we could stop. We couldn’t even be bothered to overeat.

Like last year, this year sort of started without me. Adversity does strange things to your perception of time. It plucks you out into another time zone, contiguous with this one but bending and twisting away from it unexpectedly. I didn’t move into 2016 until about May.

I’m catching up though. 2017 started for me about a week ago, with a prompt to sit with God and ask for a word for the year. I wanted this. I wanted to start in the right place, not waste time and effort pedalling into the wind. If I’ve learned anything from this last year, it’s that  generally, God’s way is the more peaceful and the more powerful. The less I try to control events, people and outcomes the more space there is for God to move. And His moves are infinitely better than mine. So I sat still for a while and I asked for a word for this year. And the word He gave me was rest.

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings as eagles, they shall run and not grow weary. They shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31

So I will be learning how to rest over the coming year. How to work from a place of rest rather than stress, how to relax from a place of rest rather than guilt, how to enjoy, love, laugh and live the life abundant Jesus promised.

God made the rest day the first day of the week. I want to learn to work from a place of rest. I have a lifetime of busy-itis to fix. I think a year is a reasonable timeframe to work to.

Just as soon as I work out where to start.

Re-entry

We’ve just moved back into our house. It’s wonderful. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t spent some time this week rocking and moaning tunelessly to myself among the towers of boxes and jumbles of bags. I realise I hadn’t really given the physical reality of homecoming a single thought. At some level I think I had simply expected to walk in, put the kettle on and rearrange some furniture. If only.

I have instead been struck by inertia. Held down and held back by the sorrow and fatigue of 8 months lived in borrowed spaces. I grieve for what has happened, even though I am immensely grateful for the experience and I know that it has equipped our family in ways we will unpack for years to come. That kind of unpacking I can handle. The physical kind is making me want to weep.

But that’s just today.

Most of our boxes contain useless old rubbish we no longer need but have carted around with us for years because of some misplaced sense of obligation to the people or the era they came from. Pointless sentimentality has literally landed us with unwanted baggage. And when I get my second wind I’m ordering a skip so I can throw it all away.

My feelings may slow my progress but they are not in charge.

I thank God for the realities of my life, whether they feel good or not, because of what they teach me about Him. That He’s been with us every day of this strange nomadic year, and He’s come home with us too. I know with even greater certainty that his love is an unchanging fact of His nature, not mine. It’s neither a product of my wishful thinking nor a reward for my good behaviour. God is love. He loves me no matter what.

And He loves you no matter what.

Right. Back to the boxes.

 

Losing my religion

It’s finally happened. After months of mental paralysis I have faced the fact that much of my adult life has rested on a vain, empty fantasy. I am not, actually, in charge.

I am a different person to the one who stood watching flames lick the side of the house just over seven months ago. That person trusted God, but only as far as was sensible. That person was quietly desperate for a deeper connection with God but also scared of what that might mean. That person was also very concerned with what others thought. My Christian faith was very much focused on me. How I was performing. Or not. What I was getting wrong and what right. What boxes I could tick and feel like I was okay. I was obsessed with my image, constantly adjusting things to present my best side, so to speak. Hey, look at me worshipping. Does my faith look big in this?

In this year of house-hopping, God has helped me manage my end of things, keep my sense of humour and a reasonable equilibrium. No small thing. But as well as allowing me and the family to be pushed out of the house he’s also pushed me into more overtly spiritual territory. I have had to lean in, take refuge, really truly rely on this God I have claimed to trust since I was 16 years old.

I suppose the subconscious, or as I like to call her, my spirit, knows stuff before my mind catches up. She floats stuff to the surface that in my arrogance I think is the product of my imagination. Like the title of this blog. Relocation2011. I named it for the year we left England for Tasmania, an apt title for someone who even before that momentous move has uprooted a good few times.

We lived in three houses before we found a house to buy. And then came the fire. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that God was perhaps trying to tell us something, not by setting our house on fire (all credit to the six-year old for that) but by keeping us on the move, not letting us settle anywhere for long, showing us how much physical if not emotional baggage we accumulate whenever we stay still for too long. (The end of that particular road is almost, almost in sight. Last week I got to pick out paint colours. Yay!)

In reflecting on what the message might be, other than have a garage sale every six months, I have been drawn back to an invitation I received a couple of years before we left England. This was a call to full-time ministry. Like any reasonable person I ran like the wind of course, with many plausible objections, okay, excuses. Not unlike Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Jonah got a call to go to Nineveh and ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t run down here to the end of the world but when the door opened for us to come to Tasmania it seemed like a good opportunity to do my own version of a good but disobedient thing. I ignored what God was saying and decided that I would distract Him by focusing on being the good Christian wife and mother with a bit of extra stuff in Church at the weekends.

In the last few months I have had little reminders of this invitation to serve God full-time. To commit everything to God. And instead of finding it terrifying, I find I am now ready to say yes. I don’t know what this will look like yet. And annoyingly, the only one around me that is surprised about this is me.

Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks and to all who open the door he will come in and eat with them. I know he’s here in my life. I have only recently realised that I have not allowed myself to be at home with him, just hovering like an anxious host, tidying up around him and leaving the room from time to time. In his last recorded prayer in John 17 he talks about this strange intimacy between himself and God. I in You and You in me, He says. I have accepted Him in me, but not myself in Him. I have preferred to hold myself aloof from Him, to confect my own life which is neither in the world nor in Him but straddled somewhere across the two. I did it my way, as ole blue eyes used to say, and found my way uncomfortable, awkward and exhausting.

So I’m relocating.

Worship. The secret sauce.

Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice.

Philippians 4 v 4

Sometimes you just have to keep it simple. Get back to the basics. Who He Is. Who we are.

He is God. And we aren’t.

Like the woman who gave me a lesson in prayer one clear beautiful morning in Wells Park, Sydenham, there are times when we have to lift our heads out of our first-world problems and praise God for what we take for granted.

Sight. Feeling. Smell. Taste. Hearing. Family. Friendships. A roof over our heads. Clothes to wear. Food in the fridge. Choice after choice that is simply inconceivable to the millions living in poverty far away and on our doorsteps. Muesli or toast? Eggs or yoghurt? These shoes or those ones? Choice after choice that could have landed us in trouble, in hospital, in the ground – but didn’t. Endless mercies we won’t understand or appreciate this side of eternity.

It is hard to do sometimes because our stuff is in our faces. It’s hard to see past. But when I change my line of sight, lifting my head to worship, that tidal wave of overwhelm seems to disappear.

God is still God despite my issues, my problems, my perceived or real challenges. And he is always worthy of my praise, my admiration, my trust and my attention. This transcendent God, who could snuff my life out in a second, chooses to favour me with his love, to join his life to mine, to manifest in my life, at my side, in my heart, utterly committed in his love. It can sometimes take me a while to remember the power of worship to re-align my perspectives and my perceptions. I have phases when I forget completely to say thanks and I love you. When I choose to lie face-down in the sludge of my ‘problems’ instead of lying prostrate before Him. But when I remember to worship, well…that’s the secret sauce.

In the strange paradox of worship, I come away stronger, standing taller, surer than ever that the best is ahead and not behind me.

Hallelujah. Bless His Holy Name.