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.

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Yes. And No.

A poem by Roger McGough called The Leader neatly describes where my head was after I wrote The Confidence Project. Just substitute the word ‘Confident’ for ‘The Leader’ and you’ll have it. There I was, all dressed up with my great new attitude and nowhere to go. But then I began to say yes instead of no to things, some small, some more significant. Instead of panicking loudly at whoever is foolish enough to listen,  I started forcing myself to do things for other people. Make stuff. Turn up.  The thing is, I don’t like to commit. It puts me under pressure to live up to some expectation or requirement I’m not certain I can meet. But Confidence says yes where I would usually say no. I haven’t been this busy or satisfied  in years. It is possible that I have finally grasped the blindingly obvious fact that confidence isn’t a superpower that is imparted all in one go, fully formed, but grows gradually, as experience teaches you.  Replacing the long perfected and amusing excuses to say no with reasons to say yes is like learning a new language. That’s okay. I’ve learned new languages before.

And then there’s No. Starving myself of  my usual negative behaviours.  This means observing more and saying less. Trying less hard. Breathing out more. Allowing myself to relax before the event, not afterwards. Switching off the internal commentary. Relaxing for whole minutes at a time. I didn’t realise this until the church picnic I organised at the weekend. Tell you why. Because I fell off the wagon, big time. Instead of saying no to the first negative thought that sidled up to me, I let it in and shortly thereafter slid off into full-on sweaty-palmed panic at the thought of all that could go wrong (go wrong? At a picnic? Are you kidding? I hear you say…) no, really. It was a pitiful catalyst for an adrenalin overdose, but I felt powerless to stop it. And then I remembered to say no, enough. I shut my mouth and opened my eyes. These lovely people I was worried about were talking, laughing, eating, and playing games. In short, enjoying themselves. All was clearly well. Like it usually is.

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.

Eternity

The word eternity is often used in a negative way, like ‘I had to wait an eternity to be served in the restaurant’, or ‘it took forever to get home..’ With the increasingly short attention span of our times the notion of eternity is a bit alien. It can connote monotony, a never-ending amount of cloud-hopping, harp-strumming or just hanging out on clouds singing hymns, if you were raised in churches like mine. Mm. What fun.

The idea of nothingness is perhaps more comfortable. We live, we die, that’s it.

There are, of course, many theories about what form life beyond this one may take, and I’m not really trying to add to them, but a recent conversation with a friend set me thinking. She was talking about Kairos, a word used to describe God’s time, the time when a prophecy might be fulfilled, when God intervenes directly in human history. I started thinking about ecstatic experiences in which time essentially stops and the person involved is wholly caught up in God. I wonder whether eternity might be a bit like that. If God is the ultimate reality (which you know by now I believe He is), then eternity is the norm as it were, and time is a construction He made for people. It was one of the first things He did, to create elements with which to measure the passage of time. (Genesis 1: 3 – 6). Another friend said recently that the idea of eternity put his problems, even his big ones, into perspective. So a bad experience became a tiny fragment of negativity in the infinite sweep of forever. But that was in the light of his belief in a positive eternity with God, not nothingness.

Interestingly, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit God also made sure that life eternal was no longer available, setting angels in place to guard the way to the tree of life. In the creation story Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit because they would die. The snake queried that with Eve, essentially encouraging her to take a bite and find out for herself. What followed was that she and Adam were cut off from their source of life, God himself. (Genesis 3). In Jesus Christ that separation is reversed. He is the tree of life for everyone who believes in him. So for someone like me eternity doesn’t start once I’m physically dead. I already have eternal life.

We are driven by time in so many different ways. If eternity is some sort of existence outside of time and the relentless drive of the clock and the calendar, I see it as a gift. For myself, eternity, whatever shape it takes, also puts my daily ups and downs into a useful perspective. It helps me to take a deep breath when I need to, and to remember that in a thousand years today’s troubles will take their place in a much bigger picture.