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.

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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.

Fresh Wound

It’s over. Again. Another life in our family has ended. A slow puncture this time instead of an explosion. Everyone in our house, apart from the 4 year old, is moving slower, as if grief is a kind of invisible heavy gas we have to wade through. Holding your breath for months wears you out, wears you down. We’re all tired.

Yet I can say I see mercy in the midst of this. At the bedside a few weeks ago we were able to say thanks, we love you, goodbye. Whatever needed to be said and heard. We were there to help and support at just the right time. For reasons best known to God, we were spared the loss of communication and consciousness in the final days. It’s not easy being away from the rest of the family. Distance does not dull the pain or the sadness. But I have seen enough to trust that there is a reason for our being here now, for our being there then.

One of my children asked me if it was okay to shout at God. I said, No. He’s still God. But you can tell him how you feel. Perhaps I should have said yes, but I was a child raised to never shout at her own parents, let alone God. A different era, I know. At least shouting is communication. I am learning this from another child. And God is, thankfully, more patient than I and unlikely to shout back.

I have never before spent time with anyone so knowingly close to death, and her quiet dignity in the face of it and all the discomfort of her condition, was powerful. All my petty preoccupations dissolved in her company. This beautiful woman, my husband’s mother, had not been a great church-goer in recent years, but in those final days her calm anticipation of meeting God comforted me more I suspect than any clumsy words I found to say.

We will meet again. Of this I am sure.

John 14 v 1 – 3

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and  take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Memorial

18 months ago my brother died. On Sunday we remembered him with a memorial service. I was surprised by how uplifting it was. By the effect of being with others who knew and loved him and had supported our family. He would have loved it.

The clean break is the easiest.

The slow, progressive wrenching break is much harder. Our family is enduring one now in the form of recently diagnosed terminal illness. When my brother died suddenly it was weirdly easy to find words, to analyse and reconcile and comfort and celebrate. But I am silent before that which is ongoing and visible, and which I am powerless to stop.

All the emotions which flared and then faded into acceptance at the news of my brother’s death continue to flow from this new wound; anger, confusion, sorrow, regret, fear, to name just a few. I am afraid to spend time with the sufferer, afraid of adding somehow to the pain, ashamed to have nothing to offer, desperate to make it all better but knowing I can’t. I searched for something meaningful to say but found nothing. I heard myself talk but the words were not connected to my heart, which was simply breaking. Wordless. I prayed, feeling that if I had anything to offer it was this. I don’t know if it even made sense. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter.

I’m sure these emotions will fade into acceptance too. Over time. But learning to live with dying feels like stumbling into a whole new landscape.

He is risen. Indeed.

A lot can happen in 7 days. (Okay, 8, since I’m a day late). It’s just over a week since Good Friday, the annual remembrance of Jesus’ death. After this the biblical account of Jesus’ life becomes bizarre and improbable, reporting that the so very publicly executed young rabbi has been seen alive, and convincingly enough to transform his frightened followers into bold public preachers willing to face arrest.

I would like to say that my belief in the events of this week in history has been similarly life-changing, but the truth is more banal and frightening. I am still not the fired-up evangelist I imagine I should be. I haven’t, for example, given away my possessions and become a missionary in some inhospitable part of the world that hasn’t heard of Jesus.

I suspect that the years I’ve spent hand-wringing about this may be a cover for the fact that my mission field lies somewhat closer to home, in a culture where Jesus Christ is unknown, superseded by the knit-your-own-if-you-must approach to matters of faith. It would be easier for me to assume a mask of piety as a stranger in a foreign land than to keep the show on the road and show some ongoing integrity with my peers.

A week ago, as I re-imagined the horror of the disciples at the sudden, shocking death of Jesus, I felt a new edge to my sadness, a different kind of despair I suppose about the effects and scope of damage and pain caused by sin, by our rejection of God. But then three days after this bleak disappointment came the commemoration of Easter Sunday with its apparently ridiculous reports of resurrection. The gospels report that Jesus appeared a number of times to those first followers. Sorrow became joy. Fear became courage. A new religion was born.

There are times when contemplating the suffering, dying Christ has a certain passive nobility which fixes us in the agony at the expense of the glory. It can be easier to deal with the suffering since we are all familiar with that to some degree in our own lives. But it all goes a bit quiet for most of us after Easter morning. Once the chocolate’s been eaten and church goes back to normal, we get on with our lives, finding it easier to forget that He is still living His. It’s uncomfortable to deal with the living Christ because he doesn’t lie still and keep quiet, like some illicit lover hiding under the bed; he requires us to declare his presence, tip out all other competitors for our devotion, and allow him free reign over our lives. Dead deities are easier.

As the apostle Paul writes to the early church, I am, like all Christians, an ambassador for the Kingdom of God. A kingdom whose ruler is very much alive, well and active in the lives of his subjects. At this stage, a great part of my mission may simply be to live free of the anxieties, hang-ups and neuroses that have dogged me since I was a child, to embrace my life and my Source without fear. That may be groundbreaking in its own way, as the power which is enabling me to do what I cannot do for myself is the same power which raised Christ from death and proved that all things are indeed possible.

 

Friday. Good.

I’ve always wondered about the connection between Easter and chocolate. Let me not even get started on the man-size bunny that supplies eggs. Where I live now, in Australia, the spring theme of Easter at the beginning of autumn just adds to the strangeness. At the same time, it’s good to break out of the seasonality of the Christian calendar. The commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is relevant in all seasons, everywhere.

Whatever you make of it, this single execution some 2000 years ago is still news. Controversial, life-changing news for tens of millions. The danger for people like me who grew up in church and have heard the Easter story countless times is to let it wash over us a bit. Crucifixion is a horrible way to die, by anyone’s standards, and to become de-sensitised to it is to risk missing the enormity of what Jesus did.

Maybe to guard against that I have heard a fair few preachers deliver gory crucifixion sermons over the course of my life, doing in words what Mel Gibson did in pictures in his film The Passion of The Christ; it took me years to bring myself to watch it as my own imagination had already supplied plenty of footage, but I was glad when I eventually did.

My lent preparation for this weekend of commemoration, my phase of not complaining, really came out of a desire to get to an authentic gratitude, acceptance and humility before God. Not because I’m superspiritual (a casual browse of this blog will tell you that) but because that’s what God deserves.

Recognising a power greater than myself is not alien. My life, and yours, is full of authority figures, ranging from parents through teachers to bosses. I didn’t prostrate myself before any of these, but it is right and apt that I should do so before God. All the more so when the events of Easter remind me that He actually entered history and let himself be judged and killed by the very people he had created.

This morning in church we had a dramatic reading of the arrest and trial of Jesus. As usual in many churches, we in the congregation were the crowd who had to shout out at various times, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ It’s always powerful, and uncomfortable, to hear ourselves implicated in his death. A few days earlier, a crowd had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as a king. Now a different, or perhaps not so different, crowd were baying for his blood. Perhaps they felt he had betrayed them, sold them short, not given them what they wanted – a great political leader to overthrow the occupying Romans. Sometimes I might still feel something like that. I didn’t get what I wanted or hoped for. And so I reject him. I am disappointed that he hasn’t taken the world by storm, stopped evil dead in its tracks instead of relying on people, weak and flawed as we are, to let him work through us.

But then I remember that Sunday’s coming. And that though the crowd had the power to put him to death, it could not keep him dead.  And if we believe, we are also implicated in this resurrection. Rising from death.  The ultimate victory. The fresh start. New life. He had to die so that he could rise. So that we could rise. That surely makes this Friday the start of something good.

Happy Easter

 

 

Life

Jesus said ‘The devil comes only to kill, steal and destroy. I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’ He said that speaking about himself as the good shepherd, in John’s gospel. Chapter 10, if you’re interested. A full life. Not a life free of difficulties or limitations or stress or fear or pain, but one that is complete. A full life. That’s what I want. And I don’t want mine to be characterised by loss, death and destruction, which seemed to me the alternative to what Jesus represented. The devil, however you want to understand him, doesn’t offer me much worth having even if the secular world seems to offer all sorts of wonderful freedoms and opportunities in contrast to Christianity with its list of prohibitions and sensible shoes. (Okay, not all of us wear sensible shoes.)

I’ve had my periods of wandering off into what looks exciting in the without-God world. I’m not about to tell you any sensational stories because we don’t all need to get to the extremes. For me it was enough to realise that I was unhappy, empty and lost without God, and that living without Him simply wasn’t life.

Since my brother’s recent death I’m experiencing life differently. I am more aware of our connectedness to each other, our ability to feel part of each other. As a family we were surrounded by people who expressed that through their physical presence and through symbols of their shared grief. I can now better imagine the feelings of Jesus’ friends and followers after his death. Their leader, their friend, their teacher, gone. They would have been desolate, empty, despairing. And so are we all, who lose someone. That part of our lives that contained them stops with them. In a sense part of us dies too. Memories of them are also memories of an us that no longer exists. We are not the same after bereavement, we feel diminished. Lessened.

Then along comes Easter morning. And the ridiculous report that Jesus, so publicly despatched, has finished being dead and has been seen hanging around at the burial site. Another time, cooking people breakfast. Another time, letting one touch his wounds. What on earth do you do with a story like that? Do you let yourself hope that it might possibly be true?

I was the first in my family to see my brother’s embalmed body. I sneaked into the funeral home a couple of hours before our planned visit with the vicar. It was my first exposure to a dead body. I was a little freaked out, unsurprisingly. And the body lying there, when I finally gathered my courage to take the big journey across the small room, was a fair impression of someone who looked a bit like a waxwork of my brother. Not him at all. He was very much gone. And though in reality I probably would have had a heart attack, I would have loved him to just sit up and be alive, for all this pain to end. I could have helped him out of the coffin(he’d be a bit stiff by now, after all), got him into Mum’s car and presented him to Mum and Dad, and it would all be okay again. Better than okay, because he’d be back from the worst thing that could ever happen.

And anything could then be possible.