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.

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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…)

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.

Don’t say this in church

A few weeks ago I stood up in church at the end of the service and proposed that the women take a few hours out for a break at a local spa. I didn’t notice I had used the word ‘pamper’ until I was questioned nervously about it afterwards.

I made a mental note not to say pamper in church again. It freaks people out.

Perhaps it’s because we women, daughters of that naughty Eve, well, we’re not meant to be pampered, we’re meant to work. To serve others continuously. To give and not to get. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive. We know how well we’re doing by how much we’re doing.

Anyway, pampering is worldly, right? Advertising assures us ‘we’re worth it’, and wallpapers our magazines and screens with luxury holidays and homes and lives.

The church should be steering clear of all that, surely. A good church woman cares, provides, supports, helps, prays, teaches, visits, organises and bakes, with endless patience, good humour, creativity and calm. Definitely no pampering.

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe when Jesus told his disciples to come aside and rest awhile, as he did in Mark 6 v 31 he meant it.

The disciples had been busy. The crowds were continuous. The demands were many. The disciples were, as we are, finite and human. Exhausted. Jesus told them to rest. And he tells us to rest too.

When I stood up at the end of the service I saw some very tired women and men. But the discomfort over the idea of pampering made me wonder how much we think God loves us. Call me crazy, but I believe He loves us enough to let us have some time to relax once in a while. He even mandated it, in fact. Rest was part of God’s design. In fact, as Joyce Meyer pointed out recently, Adam’s first day on earth after he was created was a day of rest.

In rest we drop our cares for a while, we relax, we enjoy the blessing of leisure. We take a break from the routine, we remember who we are and what it is to simply be, without the weight of responsibility. It keeps our minds healthy. It keeps us humble, not puffed up with the conceit that we can keep going without a break. It connects us back to the joy of simply being alive. It refreshes us, reinvigorates us. Makes us feel good.

So I’m off to the spa.

Hallelujah.

When two is better than four

The youngest one and I went to the park so he could start learning to ride his bike without training wheels. I thought this would take a week, perhaps, judging from previous experience with his sisters. But after holding on behind while he rode across the field three times I decided to let go. Off he went, perfectly balanced. When his sisters rode past a few minutes later I called them over to watch. He rode round and round the field, whooping. I was so pumped that when of the girls started turning cartwheels, I decided to do one too.

Oops.

I had clearly forgotten how heavy and stiff I was on the outside because on the inside I was light and springy with excitement. So I did a cartwheel, or my impression of one, and when I landed I felt as if my left leg had been pulled out of its socket. There’s probably some proper medical term for it, though I’m sure FOOLISHNESS would cover it adequately. At least I provided a comedy moment for a couple walking on the pavement opposite the park, who had to turn their faces away, no doubt to hide their laughter. I hobbled home slowly while my children rode on ahead.

That was about 3 weeks ago. My left leg has almost returned to normal function, though the pain has been anything but funny. But my son’s joy was worth it all. He’s been beaming ever since. Looking for every opportunity to ride. Which led to the next challenge. You see, I had become nervous about cycling, basically because apart from a short spell at University, I had done very little of it. It was on my list of new year hopes to get back on my bike, and now the boy had learnt, I would have to do it. No more hiding behind the baby because the baby has grown into a confident, bike-riding boy. So without letting myself think too hard about it, I took myself into the local bike shop and made enquiries.

This week I went for a ride with a lovely woman who works at the shop and takes beginners and nervous riders out twice a week. She turned out to be Myra Moller, an elite cyclist from New Zealand. If I had known that beforehand I might not have gone, too intimidated by her pedigree. But she was patient and fun. And when I got back, I was beaming as much as my son had been 3 weeks ago. He and I are both learning about the sheer rush of overcoming a challenge. Now I’m more confident about cycling myself, I’m looking forward to taking him and myself out riding more.

Thank you Lord for what our children teach us.

No more cartwheels though.

Breathe out, focus.

Here I am, coming up for air (read the last post if you don’t understand why) and relieved that today is the last day of the school year. From tomorrow, no more routines, no more deadlines, no more school lunches to make and shop for, no more getting kids out ready for school ‘til early 2015. Congratulations to all parents for making it to the end of term. I salute you.

All this time off (for the kids at least) sounds great. And for me it is too, at least for the first couple of days. Before the kids start to fight and the house collapses into a chaos of abandoned clothes, toys, crockery and lolly wrappers. At this stage even I begin to crave order. Understanding dawns about parents who schedule their kids’ holidays as tightly as term time. I’m torn between admiration for them and sympathy for their children, knowing that I would have hated to have to go anywhere or do anything much in my summer holidays.

Those were different times. My parents, like many, simply didn’t think that way. The only commitment I had was a Christian youth camp which ate up a week of real time, two weeks of anticipation and at least another fortnight of coming down again. Happy days. At least one of my tribe will be going to a similar camp again this year, and is there in spirit already. Apart from that, a weekly date in a park with some other harassed mums is probably the most planning I’ll achieve.

We haven’t really thought much in our family about how to do this Christmas. Last year was one of the best for me since I was a little girl. I had been worrying about my parents’ first Christmas since my brother’s death and toying with the idea of going back to the UK to be with them. With a week to go I finally broached the subject with Mum. They had made plans to go away. (Very sensible of them. And they had a great time, btw.) Relief lifted me instantly. We had a quiet day at home and then went to the beach for the late afternoon sun. It was glorious. Beautiful.

That Christmas spoiled me. Now I want the same again. I want the peace that came from the inside out and had nothing to do with how amazing, or big, lunch was, or how fantastic the presents were. It was a peace more poignant somehow after a difficult year. We need that this time around, after another loss. We need the peace that is beyond understanding, peace that is for me an almost physical sensation of relief and wellbeing. The angels in the Christmas story proclaim peace on earth and goodwill towards men. I find I need to cut through the false gaiety of this season to get to anything like that.

Doing the nativity play this year has helped. Having to focus on the story made me, well, focus on the story. Not on what I disapprove of or think is too commercialised and shallow. Not on how spiritual I am failing to be in imparting to my children what this time is really about. Not on what gifts would delight them without spoiling them. None of that. It made me focus on the story. Jesus’ birth in such basic and precarious conditions, moved me again, touched my heart again. It made me think more about those who live under the threat of oppression, with no home to go to. It made me think of the poor, the vulnerable. The director picked a great Third Day song which told the story from the nativity all the way to the resurrection. Despite my ridiculous dreams of the night before, no one forgot anything, the dancing angels managed not to collide and the set remained in place throughout. They’ve even asked us to do it again.

You may not have had a nativity to plan, but unless you live in a cave you’ve probably seen your fair share of Christmas tat by now, from gift catalogues to food porn convincing you that your festivities need some or other special recipe or product to really make it special. I invite you to simply focus on the story as I did and see what happens. What happened to me was that instead of being very grudging about the whole thing, I find I am excited to celebrate the greatest event in human history and I’m actually looking forward to Christmas. Quite a novelty.

Living small

This morning I listened to a radio phone-in about small houses. These are tiny dwellings where radical downsizers are discovering that what they need in their lives is not more, but less. Last time out I raved about my new sciencey word neuroplasticity and the implications of it for actually getting my act together. Since then, a sort of paralysis has struck. The book I’m reading asks me to concentrate on one toxic thought at a time and systematically work through them. Now, that’s all well and good. But when all the toxic thoughts and their hangers-on decide to storm in at once, this becomes a less straightforward and linear exercise. Not unlike my lent challenge, I am all too aware of, and have been somewhat overwhelmed by, the legions of these negative ideas and patterns in my thinking. Instead of building healthy new thoughts I’ve been paralysed by the old ones.

What has this to do with small houses? Maybe nothing much. But Jay Shafer, the man described as the pioneer of the tiny house, said on the radio this morning that we all need to be editors of our own lives, to figure out what we really need and dump the rest. In conversation with a good, good friend yesterday I actually became tearful listing all the  things I want to be able to do better (or at all) to somehow feel like I’m doing okay. Accomplishments I need to achieve in order to feel acceptable. Or successful. Or even just competent. It included perfect housekeeping, wonderful nutritionally-balanced meals from scratch each night, keeping my temper at all times, keeping on top of the kids’ schedules, exercising regularly, keeping things tidy, getting the kids to do more around the house, being more available for them, having some kind of career that fits around all that…and so on…

Yes, I know. It is insane. But in my head it was all pretty reasonable. Listing those things was like reaching under the bed for a sock or something and pulling out lots of old, half-forgotten bits of memorabilia from recent and more distant past, all a bit dusty and half-forgotten. It felt like the mental equivalent of looking around my house and seeing piles of stuff I’m going to get to one day and sort through or mend or use to make a replica of the car in back to the future.

You see the problem.

I’m sick of it. So in the spirit of the small house movement, I have decided to live only with I need. No more misguided expectations or trophies to earn or polish. I have decided to take out the rubbish, dump the clutter and keep it simple, with a verse that God very kindly dropped into mind just yesterday.

He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6 v 8

It’s worth saying that this comes from the prophet Micah, whom God uses to tell Israel that they have royally messed up, thrown his blessings back in his face and gone their own sweet way. In the previous verses, Micah suggests ways Israel can show spectacular commitment and piety, which is perhaps what lies behind my silly striving. It is because I really love God and know his love for me that I want my life to display something of his nature, which is to have it all together, to be orderly, to be present, to be patient, etc. Like the people of Micah’s time, I often torment myself with alternative visions of my life in which I am doing something so spectacularly good that no one could doubt my commitment. But that’s not necessarily what God asks of all of us. His requirements of us are more low-key and no less challenging; to live our lives reverently. it is to  act as he would act, to love what he loves, and to acknowledge Him as God.

Act Justly, love mercy, walk humbly. Once I figure out how to get started with all that, I’ll let you know.