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.

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Crumbs

I have been thinking about names recently. Mine means brave and strong. The last things I feel myself to be. But I don’t think I got my name by accident and so, in the spirit of faith, I claim those qualities, even if I can’t yet see them. In any case, Jesus is both brave and strong. And he lives here, at this dubious address, in this over-sugared, under-exercised body, if the Book is to be believed. And if my experience of company in solitude, presence in silence and audience to my thoughts holds any weight.

It is too late now to retreat into familiar hiding places. In Finding Nemo, the daddy fish Marlin is in the habit of making a number of exits and returns to his anemone each morning, before plunging out into the world. I’m out past my comfort zone now but I don’t know the way back. It’s barred to me. I can’t go back to the home I remember because it’s not there.

Sometimes I look to where we used to be and imagine us all there again. But that is impossible. Like the river flowing past, the water is constantly changing. In the old neighbourhood, buildings are pulled down and new ones are built, the single marry or move away, children grow and leave. It all changes. So this desire for home is for a snapshot in time, or a series of them I have plated into a pretty meal to feast on at moments like this.

Thankfully God tells us in his word not to replay former things and look to the future. He calls us forward, out of our inclination to circle back to what was. New memories to make, new adventures to be had. Thankfully Jesus is here with me, quietly encouraging me, lending weight to the flimsy words I dare to speak on his behalf.

A woman asks me how she can keep going to church and Bible study when she, despite being a Christian, knows she still sins. Surely God’s holiness and purity make it impossible for her to access the great love she keeps hearing about. Surely, she thinks, she’s still too wrong to qualify for it.

I take a deep breath before answering.

When I realised I have talked continuously for about four minutes I stop and check that the line hasn’t gone dead. You still there? I’m sorry I just got carried away, I say.

No, no, it’s wonderful. Just wonderful. I can hardly believe that he loves me like that, she says. Go on.

So I do. And again, after I have talked for a good while without pause, I check in with her. I can hear the relief in her voice.

And I am blessed. Why? Because earlier this morning I asked God for an opportunity to explain the hope I have in me. Because I have avoided this for so long I don’t know how to do it.

But after talking to this woman I realise I just have to express what I understand. No more, no less. No big theological concepts, just what I understand. In Bee Movie (just humour me, I have little kids), Barry gives his friend Adam a piece of cake crumb from his new human friend. That’s what they eat? Adam asks, blown away by the taste. No, Barry says, that’s what falls off what they eat.

My point? What we believers have in the word of God is so amazing, so excellent and powerful that even the tiny crumb we offer in our slightly chaotic way is powerful and satisfying.

So let’s use what we’ve got and see what God does. The harvest is great but the workers are few.

shutterstock_91317458

 

Self. pity

 

We’ve now moved to a short-term rental following our house fire a few weeks ago, with a bit of geographical stability and a space to make our own for the next couple of months. I am now connected to the internet without having to buy endless cups of tea, the kids are back at school, my work is back on track, and we’re all set.  But with this has come an unexpected challenge.

Here it is. For a month or so, a handful of people have known about our situation and helped out in various, beautiful ways.We’ve got on with moving, moving again, keeping our temper (mostly) with the insurance process and all the rest.  At the start of a new school year, with families drifting back from their holidays, other people are asking me what happened. And each time I talk about it, and significantly, each time I sense their sympathy and watch them imagining themselves in our shoes, moisture appears at the corners of my eyes. And everything I then say, and they respond with, adds to my sadness.

When they say ‘oh, you’re so brave, you’re taking it so well,’ I want to lie down and howl. And yet a strange thing happens to my tongue. It stops wanting to say positive things about all the exceptional kindness we’ve been shown, and instead  it describes and lists the loss, the shock, the frustration, all that junk.

I first noticed this when seeing a potential rental house a couple of weeks back. I mentioned it to the agent and her hand flew up to her mouth. If she’d not been holding a clipboard she might have hugged me. A couple of our kids were wandering through the house and she said ‘oh, and your poor kids, oh love, how are you coping?’ Well I was coping pretty well at that point to be honest but I poured out a little bit of self pity and felt a bit less capable after that.

This has begun to snowball into extended conversations with various friends and school parents, all with a heavy emphasis on how terrible it’s all been for everyone. Yes it has been difficult, but in the grand scheme of things it’s all manageable. I know how much God has blessed us in the midst of this, and yet it is so easy to not say that, so much easier to harp on the negatives, which is what the world expects and which pays us off in the sympathy of strangers.

What God is teaching me in this is the wisdom of guarding my tongue. I need to watch what I say because at the end of one of these conversations I feel drained and disappointed, flat and ashamed. Because in failing to mention the kindnesses, the generosity, the hospitality and the support God has given us, I am discounting His work in our lives and our situation, and I’m failing to give him the credit for the fact I can still smile and laugh and make jokes and trust that whatever lies ahead he’s already there and he knows what we need. It’s like realising that worship is not to make God feel good but to make us feel good.

It’s a bit like teaching your children to do something that’s good for them. They think you’re just nagging them because that’s what you live for as a parent. That’s also true, of course ;), but usually it’s for their benefit. Like brushing their teeth. Or practising an instrument.

I have to practise not using my tongue in a careless way so that my words really line up with reality, so there’s no tension between what I need to say and what others may be expecting to hear. For my own sense of well-being and consistency. And to give God the credit that is due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puzzle. Part 3

So after two fantastic, chilled-out weeks, I finally came to the end of the big cat puzzle. I put the last piece in the box next to the leopard’s ear and sighed. Partly in satisfaction and partly in regret. Firstly, because it was over. Like all good experiences, they have to end. Secondly because after the last piece went in, there was still a hole in the puzzle. It may have been the 5 year old’s fault, or the dog’s, or mine, but 999 pieces do not complete a 1000-piece puzzle. Sigh.

As my eyes travelled over the puzzle, they kept coming to rest on that tiny spot where the tablecloth showed through.

I’m finding that in life, as in puzzles, you can have plenty, but what gets your attention is that-one-thing-that-will-make-it-all-complete. Where your fulfilment will be. It’s really obvious in children, who can forget about everything they got for Christmas or birthday and focus on the one thing they hoped for but didn’t receive. Or the one toy that got broken. Or the one party they’ve had to miss this year. And we adults are often not much better. We tend to over-inflate what wasn’t and forget what was. What we don’t have, rather than what we do. We get our long-desired thing and after a frighteningly short time it fades into the picture of our lives as if it’s always been there.

I finally got a fantastic stove about two months ago, after years of (sometimes) patient, (mostly) quiet waiting. It looked new and shiny and gorgeous and out of place in our kitchen, which is none of the above. Eight or so short weeks on it is becoming part of the new normal. I can barely remember what the old one was like any more. And yet I remember the feeling of longing for it.

No sooner do you plug one gap then another one opens up. I suspect that’s what all marketing taps into, leading our eyes to the one-more-thing we need to buy or study or do to complete our ideal pictures. Recently I had to prepare a sermon about the cross. Possibly the worst marketing tool ever. As one atheist friend explained, a much harder symbol to deal with than the blissed-out fat man. What you need is for someone to be executed on your behalf! Gosh, of course. Where do I sign?

And what has this to do with puzzles? Well, I couldn’t not work the puzzle into my sermon, given that it had taken over my life over the previous two weeks. Here’s how.

The cross is the bit that looks like it has no place, like it isn’t related to anything we might like to think about ourselves or God, and yet, without it, my Christian faith is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

The God I believe in connected with us through Jesus, who, in some way I won’t even try to explain even if I understood it, is both God and man. Divine and human. In his humanity he taught us a lot about ourselves, not all of it comfortable. He upset the religious elites and confounded the political powers. He didn’t rouse the oppressed Jews into an insurgency, but told them stories about something called the Kingdom of God and healed them and did miracles and spoke about forgiveness. Then he was betrayed by one of his followers and let himself be executed by the Romans. The End. No messiah, no king, no new leader of Israel. Just another deluded failure.

But within the week, his followers are out claiming that he is in fact alive. They do healings and miracles and teach as he did, with his power and with his authority. The cross now looks less like an end and more like a beginning. It is said that on the cross Jesus took on the punishment for all the world’s evil. So when I read or hear about the violence mankind does to itself, I look at the cross and know that God hates it too and does not leave it unpunished. When I feel bad about my behaviour or my lack of integrity, I look at the cross and see the lengths God went to to show me his forgiveness.

For me at least, the cross, this sobering execution symbol, is proof of my loving and just God. And when I lock onto that, I connect with God. And I am complete. Even if it’s not always visible. ( Especially to my family this last week. Er, sorry guys…)

Puzzle. Part 2

I’ve noticed that it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the patterns and shades in this puzzle each time I come back to it after a pause for something unimportant, like food or sleep. I need time to tune in again, slow my thoughts down. No wonder they use these things in therapeutic settings. My mother was a psychiatric nurse and I remember doing jigsaw puzzles on the ward with the patients. I was only young then, maybe six or seven, but I remember the sense of calm around the low tables where the puzzles were laid out.

For me it was a mysterious place where the grownups sometimes said strange things or would walk off suddenly or start singing or dancing. The ward was busy, with the occasional alarming outburst from behind a curtain or a bed somewhere. Conversation was scant, it was too disjointed for me to follow, so I remember I didn’t say very much. The patients and I came together around the puzzle, scenes with horses or rose-covered cottages or ships in full sail.

At that age, and in that place, seventies South London, I was used to seeing the brewery dray horses that still pulled the beer wagons around to the pubs, but the rest, rose-covered cottages and ships in sail, was the stuff of stories and a world I did not know. I loved working on these huge puzzles, just letting my mind wander to the places and the lives that slowly materialised out of all the disparate pieces.

The satisfaction I got as a child from fitting the pieces has not gone with the passage of years, the bearing of children or any of the other things that happen over the course of growing up. It is perhaps one of the deepest pleasures, understanding where, how and why things fit together.

Fast-forward exty years to my big cat puzzle. I find the piece of the right shade, pattern and shape for the bit of the picture I’m working on. It doesn’t fit. So I try to force it in. It’s slightly too wide or too high. The pattern is close to the pieces around it but not quite the same. I put it aside in frustration. It can’t fit anywhere else. Maybe it’s in the wrong puzzle. Can’t trust these manufacturers any more. After all, imagine how many they must produce. It must happen, right. Many pieces later, the ‘wrong piece’ fits in elsewhere and another unlikely piece slots into that earlier space. I stare at it. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. It looked like it didn’t belong and had nothing to do with the rest, but it fits. And now that it’s in place, in that way of jigsaw pieces, it’s disappeared. It’s become part of the whole. Without the whole picture that one piece is meaningless. Without that one piece the picture is incomplete.

So here’s today’s insight from the world of puzzles. We all fit.

I know, you don’t look/sound/think like anyone else. You like different music, films, styles of clothes. Or you were born to a family of musicians but you’re tone deaf. You are the curvy one in a tribe of wands. Or you would rather eat your own arm than go swimming and your Dad’s a swim instructor. You’re short not tall. Or practical not academic. Whatever it is, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Not here by accident but design. And even if you appear to look, sound and think like everyone else, there’ll be at least one difference that makes you you and no-one else. If the makers of jigsaw puzzles can turn the sky into hundreds of individually shaped and shaded pieces, how much more could the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, closely documented and yet-to-be discovered, make you just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y different from everyone else around you?

You do fit. You do belong. You may find your place easily, it may be clear. Or you may have to wait awhile, until the support of other pieces, people, are in place. But be assured. Be encouraged. You do fit.

Psalm 139 v 13 – 16

For you created my inmost being;

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

When I was made in the secret place,

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

Your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me

Were written in your book

Before one of them came to be.

Peace and quiet.

Been quiet for a while, just noodling around, reading other blogs, taking the pressure off myself to be constantly doing, producing, and figuring out. I was helped by the fact that the young ones were off school for two weeks. I did ask God for some peace, because holidays can be tricky, stressful times. And I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the need to keep them occupied and get work done and not let the house descend into chaos.

Well, He answered.

I have to say that it was a surprisingly peaceful, no, supernaturally peaceful, break. If this peace thing is what I’ve been missing out on for the last couple of decades, then perhaps I’ve been getting back pay because it has been supremely calm and peaceful in my heart, my house and my life for weeks now. Nothing spectacular has changed in our circumstances, but something has been changing in me.

Fellow travellers on the road of self-doubt and second-guessing will know what I’m talking about when I refer to the negative monologue that accompanies me through each day. Harping back to previous mistakes/ embarrassments or opportunities lost, or projecting new ones onto the horizon. Well, it still drones on but for some reason I find myself hearing it from a distance. It’s not an audible voice, but a cast of mind that I have been more aware of and detached from. The writer of a blog I follow wrote out of a depressive episode recently, with amazing insights for both official and closet depressives. I suppose I’m doing the opposite here, writing out of a period of extreme contentment, joy and stability.

Many months ago I heard an old song by Cece Winans called Everlasting Love. The last line, and the refrain, is ‘Know that the peace that comes from above is the same everlasting love..’ I am blessed to be able to say it’s easy for me to accept the notion of God’s love for me because of what he’s done in my own life. But I always thought of peace as a separate piece, so to speak. Peace was dependent on my having all my ducks in a row, behaving perfectly, doing good stuff. Performing. It was something I had to earn, in other words. Once all the work was done, then I could have peace. That’s even harder than trying to keep a house clean and tidy with four children and dog in it. Dream on.

The idea that God’s peace is part of his love, and as such is not a goal to achieve, but a gift to receive and breathe in, began to filter into my anxious thoughts through this song. And in tiny and large ways since, these thoughts have been confirmed. I am learning to increasingly lean into that love and trust it with the weight of my anxieties, ambitions, failures and successes. I have stopped trying to pretend to be other than I am, to appear less weird or eccentric or ‘religious’ or whatever, and I have found myself received by those from whom I expected rejection. I have approached scary situations with a sense of fun that has surprised me, and genuinely seen mistakes as stepping stones to teach me about myself, not gravel in my shoes to hobble my progress. I am taking myself a whole lot less seriously, ironically, by taking myself more seriously. I am taking charge of my emotional responses instead of letting that whining petulant voice have all the fun.

Who knows what will happen when I hit a major setback. Well, I’ll be writing about that too, no doubt. Trouble has come, and it will come again. That is a certainty in every life. But I refuse to miss out on the good parts by dreading what storms may or may not lie ahead. I have decided to learn to be content, like Paul, in good and bad times, in plenty and in want, in health and in sickness. Because God is the same always, and his love will outlast this life.

Not caterpillars forever

I have been looking over some of my posts of late. I seem a bit flaky, lurching from stability to crisis and back again. How come? How can I be sorted one minute and stressed the next? I travel in a straight line for a while, and then I stop and circle before I find my way back to the path.

Some days I just forget where I’m going.

There are two caterpillars sitting on a leaf when a butterfly flutters by. The first caterpillar turns to the second and says, ‘You’ll never catch me going up in one of those!’

I was prompted by this fine joke to look up the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Pretty amazing by anyone’s standards. And also pretty instructive. The caterpillar eats, grows and sheds a skin. It eats, grows (anyone else relating to this?) and sheds. It eats, grows and sheds. You get the picture.

In a letter to the Christian community in Rome Paul talks about how believers grow as they respond to God.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you will be able to test and approve God’s will – his perfect and pleasing will.
Romans 12 v 2

I’m happy enough to stand out and not conform when it suits me, but I suspect that’s not what Paul, the apostle who endured shipwreck, imprisonment and torture, had in mind. But he also says that a life responding to God’s love won’t simply improve my morals or make me nicer, but transform me. My imagination is unable to conceive what this might look like. So I take it on faith that change is a given.

Whether it’s changing country or teacher, or job or house, change cuts us loose from normality; suddenly all things are uncertain, shifting, impermanent. Almost as soon as it starts, what you have known starts sliding away from you. What has been will never be again.

Christians are promised this amazing transformation but in the meantime, we just see more of the same. We shed some old behaviours or habits or addictions or whatever, we look forward to being different and yet… we look the same. We can begin to doubt that anything is really different. That God has made a difference. We don’t fly to work or see through walls or, at least in the circles I move in, raise the dead. We can forget we’re moving towards something glorious.

Releasing the old to make way for the new is not a pretty or comfortable process. Think of the caterpillar’s bulk morphing, somehow, into a butterfly. Much like us. Like the caterpillar, all our baggage feeds into the process that produces a butterfly. We just have to take it on faith. And keep going.