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…)

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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.

No prizes for busy

No, really. There are no prizes for being busy. No matter how many jobs you pack into your day, how many errands you run, tasks you complete, people you help, or laundry you get done. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there it is. We don’t get kudos for all this. We just get to do it all again tomorrow.

That said, there are blessings in it all, for all the times we moan and feel sorry for ourselves. For those of us who have families, people to care for who in turn care for us (though this may not always be obvious), there are many, many for whom this is not only not true, but seems impossible. A dream, even.

But I’m not just thinking about thankfulness, powerful as that is. I’m thinking about slowing down. Changing pace. Being in the moment. Being aware of the gift of now. Dare I say it? Relaxing. Enjoying what God has given you.

This doesn’t come easily. It has taken time and a shock to show me I had taken on more than I could reasonably achieve. I could hardly admit that to myself, because it felt wrong somehow to withdraw.

In the end, the pressure became too much. I went POP! And ended up in the emergency room.

Since then, God has kindly been reminding me of the following invitation from Jesus.

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11 vs 28 – 30

In humility I admit I am not superwoman, and Jesus does not ask that of me. So I’ve been handing back some responsibilities, and letting myself take a breath now and then.

Would-be Superheroes, there are no prizes for busy. So take some stuff off your to-do list.

compared to what?

I was a bit bored. A bit meh, as they say nowadays, with no inclination to work on the plentiful harvest of tasks around me started enthusiastically as recently as yesterday. Instead of getting up from the desk and doing something definite I decided to amble into some vague internet activity. Thought I’d look up a few names from the past. Peek at a few profiles.

Big mistake.

As I read of their apparently glittering lives and careers, I could feel my centre of gravity shift. My air began to escape, soon followed by tears. After an hour or so of this, I was flat, poured out. All my achievements suddenly tiny. My progress miniature. Meaningless. Anxiety pinned me to the ground, like those weights that used to drop from the sky in old Tom & Jerry cartoons.

You see, I haven’t yet grown out of comparing myself with others. A pointless, dangerous activity.

A wonderful discussion broke out on a great blog recently about this sense of inadequacy we all feel (women in particular) when we’re standing near a leggy gorgeous model-type. But our internalised sense of inferiority is what makes us feel cr*p, not how she or he, that glamour puss standing in the spotlight– looks. Surprising numbers of beautiful people feel ugly inside. We somehow believe we’re not quite good enough, or clever enough, or pretty enough or enough enough. I used to spend a lot of time picking at this scab. Comparing myself with my peers, or with people I studied with, or worked, figuring out what I should be aspiring to. Where I should be going, by when.

And where am I now? Right here. Alive. Blessed in countless ways. Challenged every day to get up and get on with it. Mostly succeeding. Making progress towards my own goals, no one else’s. Sometimes remembering to celebrate. So this detour into an old toxic behaviour was a useful lesson.

Don’t play with deliberate sin, a former Bible teacher once said to me. This habit of mine, of seeing what others are doing and comparing myself with them, is a sin for me because it is not based on faith, as it says in Roman 14 v 3. By looking at others I’m not trusting the process that I’m in with God. I’m looking around at the waves, like Peter did when he got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards Jesus. He was doing the impossible under Jesus’s direction until he got distracted.

I was doing the impossible (or at least for me the highly challenging) under Jesus’ direction until I got distracted. Now, my impossible (or highly challenging) may not look like yours. It probably is a bit pedestrian by comparison. But God and I know what progress has been made in this tiny mind and life this last while. And no amount of copying some other beautifully coiffed buffed or polished specimen is going to help me as much as listening to what God is telling me here in my life, in my circumstances, with my hangups and history.

So here’s a reminder for me and perhaps for you, if you need one. If you must measure yourself against someone, choose you. Measure yourself against yourself. Notice your progress. Celebrate your victories, however small. Often just getting through the day with a degree of equilibrium and good humour is victory enough.

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.

So where is he, then?

Been a strange Easter, this one. Full and empty. Empty of emotion, full of stuff – the stuff that comes with children and (at this time of year) egg-shaped chocolate. Full even with church stuff. But empty of Christ, somehow.

I often have a good wallow at Easter, it’s the time of year when I am allowed to dwell on the awfulness of the world and our sinful state. I can keen and moan over the atrocities, the cruelties and the callousness we hear and see so much of that it becomes wallpaper to our daily lives, barely noticed, largely overlooked.

Easter is when I am most usually acutely aware of the contrast between the naked, dying God and myself, one of the comfortable creatures He made, cushioned from the impact of his passion by some two millennia. Long ago and far away, the story that the world can’t quite consign to myth has, at this time of year, the power still to move me. Over the years I have relived the emotions of what Christians call Holy week in all kinds of different kinds of services and easter traditions.

This year has been different.

Because this year I am different. My perspective has changed. I’m seeing the same scenes from a different vantage point. The man is still accused by jealous religious leaders who fear his hold over the crowd. He is still betrayed by his friend, deserted by those who had eaten with him hours earlier. He is still flogged and mocked by the Roman guard. Still an innocent brutally executed. But this man is more than anyone at the time even suspected. They didn’t know what I know. They don’t know how this part of God’s story in our world continues. What the next chapter holds.

This year I am more focused on the risen Christ than the crucified one. They are one and the same, of course. The latter demonstrates God’s frankly incomprehensible love for the world, which is so good at bad, and his solution to the breach that this created between him and his creation. The former, the risen Christ, demonstrates that the evils of the world we live in are not enough to extinguish the hope ignited by the story of the Jewish rabbi who did not stay dead.

Where is he now, then?

With me as I type, as I go about my daily life, listening, shaking his head perhaps in dismay at times, but at others smiling, egging me on, encouraging me to dream, to speak up, to laugh, to trust, to engage. To discover where he is out in today’s world.

Oh he’s alive alright.

Extracurricular

Yesterday I met with some friends at a local festival where part of the kids entertainment was a circus skills area. For a while, like a proper grownup,  I watched kids having a go at hoola hooping, diablo spinning and poi twirling.

Then a child wandered up to me with a set of juggling balls and challenged me to have a go. Both of us were surprised when I got going quite convincingly within a minute or two. I had learned to juggle years ago but had no chance of keeping a full juggling set and children in the same house, not really.

After a few minutes one of the circus guys came over and complimented me on my technique. I’m sure he does that to all the mummy jugglers but I was very pleased all the same. He offered to teach me some tricks but I asked instead if I could learn how to juggle clubs. Yes, of course, he said, leading me off to a shady spot to start teaching me. Long story short – well not so long, actually, within about ten minutes I understood what I needed to practise to be able to throw and catch two out of three, and was successfully landing them both very quickly.

I would have happily stayed to work on it for as long as it took, but I had to remember that I was a mum and therefore on duty, not there to enjoy myself or learn a new skill simply for the fun of it. Lovely friends saw the look in my eye and valiantly held various of my youngsters back until the pressure became too great and no. 4 started hanging onto my legs, begging for attention.

Back to reality I came.

But my little brush with the circus was a wonderful reminder that I am also me. A large part of what I think I can do is about who I think I am. What I believe myself capable of. The skills and abilities God gave me.  Learning to swing clubs in front of my face may not seem like an obvious confidence booster, but I’m taking every hint I’m given that I can be more than just mum – and more than just a juggler.