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.

Plastic Fantastic

I’ve been thinking about how to follow through on a subject I promised to write about months ago: Fear. I had got as far as wondering if the fear of God is the only legitimate fear a Christian should have. But then I got blown off course, can’t remember how exactly. It seemed so negative when I came back to it. I think God agreed, because this verse popped into mind.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1 v7

The context of this little gem is a letter of encouragement Paul wrote to Timothy, a young leader of the early church in Ephesus. It certainly encouraged me to take my eyes off the problem and see what tools I had to deal with it instead. Power, love and self-discipline. But what to do with them?

About two weeks ago I learned a great word. Neuroplasticity. Not an obvious one for me. My scientific illiteracy comes from a long history of neglect, helped by using school science lessons for the discipline of daydreaming. But I met it in an article with other words short enough to keep my attention and long enough to seem credible.

Neuroplasticity is, as far as I understand it (see above excuse), the ability of the brain to rewire itself. For example, around an injury site in the brain, the various electrochemical processes that would have taken place there simply find new pathways around the affected area. I was talking about this to a friend at church, as you do, when she pointed me in the direction of Caroline Leaf, a Christian neuropathologist who relates the physical brain and the way it works to the Bible.

I have a neighbour who is a neuroscientist and not religious at all. I asked her about it, with some nervousness, 1) because I’m still shallow enough not to want to look a fool in front of a proper scientist/new friend/neighbour and 2) because I want it to be true, for God’s amazing design to be visible under a microscope, so to speak. So I handed her the book and asked her about neuroplasticity. She confirmed it was definitely true, even gave me examples.

Why am I so excited about this? Well, for a couple of reasons. The season I’m in, to coin some christianese, is a bit dry and dusty. The amazing truths that used to get me all fired up don’t seem to be hitting home. When I look back on earlier times in my life I seemed more, um, good, more connected, consistent, more certain about how to live my faith out. I was readily quoting scripture, encouraging others, praying at the drop of a hat, all that. I’m still praying – mostly short, sharp, ‘don’t let me say/do something ugly now’ kinds of prayers. I’m still quoting scripture, more to myself than anyone else, to help me mean those prayers, and yes I’m having to encourage myself quite a lot when it seems like nothing is changing.

Many of us who call ourselves the church are not living spectacular Christian lives feeding orphans or setting up schools or converting our neighbours or anything remotely like it. We may even be quietly avoiding difficult conversations, buying too much stuff, gossiping with our friends and sniggering quietly at the back of church like bored teenagers.

The point is, neuroplasticity tells me I am not only able to change, but designed for change. In both directions. The choice is mine. Each time I decide, with my mind, to go against my negativity, I am creating physiological, tangible change in my own brain. Even better, the Bible tells me that God didn’t make me feek and weable but able to choose and bring about changes. This verse bears repeating.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1 v7

Breathe out, people. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Day 40. Meeting The Elephant

I’ve been feeling a lot better since I put the fork down last week. Chronic self-criticism has been a fantastic distraction with years of life in it. A gift that keeps on giving, if you let it. I’ve used it to avoid all kinds of ventures, opportunities and challenges thus far. But it has been most useful in keeping my gaze averted from the so-called elephant in the room, the greatest complaint in my life (and possibly I’m not alone), which is against God himself. For not letting me have my way. For letting bad things happen to good people. For letting good things happen to bad people. For rain when I want my washing to dry. For sunshine when I’m sick in bed. For not letting me be in charge, basically. For being God. Sometimes I wonder if all people who identify as atheists really don’t believe in God, or whether they just don’t like him and would rather he wasn’t there. If I’m honest, and I might as well be, sometimes a small part of me wishes he wasn’t. Or would at least go on holiday from time to time so I could indulge whatever foolishness I had in mind, out of sight.

However. God is, and I know it. And the truth is that he does not have to do things my way. He doesn’t need my permission to act, or not act. And that is the major complaint I have recognised during this Lent discipline. When I started this I hoped to become more aware of my blessings, and expected to be writing about them. It’s impossible to ignore the good stuff when you’re censoring out the negatives. But I have been surprised by the turn this exercise has taken. It has led me into some dark places. I am grateful, though. At different times in my journey with God I have needed to see what’s really operating at my core, what drives my responses and my aspirations, not what I think is there, or should be there. And it is always the case that at the same time as seeing the sometimes ugly truth, I see more clearly the beauty of God’s grace, kindness and patience towards me.

The classic Biblical personality related to complaining, or with apparently every right to do so, is Job. He was a respected man in his community, did everything right as far as devotion to God was concerned and was prosperous. And to prove a point, God let Satan take it all away, his wealth, his family and his health. Job’s initial reaction is amazing. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the name of the Lord, he says. Then his three mates get into some theologising and theorising on the possible causes of his sudden and stark misfortune. Job’s answers to them reveal a strong sense of his own righteousness. Not pride so much as confusion about what’s happening to his life because he’s always done the right thing. This reaction flows freely with his mates. But faced with God, he dries up. I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth, he says.

My problems are strictly first-world. A broken fingernail in comparison with what Job endured back then, and billions of others deal with every day. It’s interesting to notice that I don’t question the blessings when they come along, only the things I perceive as negative. With this in mind, and still quiet inside since Lent started, I note that I am accountable to the same almighty God as Job. Who has the power to give and take away. So I think I need to continue to watch my mouth. Or rather, my heart, as Jesus said that the mouth speaks out of the overflow of our hearts.

So watching over my heart, I look forward to remembering and re-assembling for myself the events commemorated in the coming week, culminating in God’s greatest act of love towards me and all humanity on the cross.