Unity

We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.

It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time.  This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.

So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark.  All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.

After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.

I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.

I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party.  Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.

What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.

It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices.  My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.

 

 

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Give peace a chance

Peace I leave with you, Jesus said to his disciples. My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14 v 27

I have got this rest thing all wrong. Been looking in the wrong direction. I have imagined and fantasised rest as an absence of doing, a break from activity. A stretch of time outside normal life, with stress receptors on pause. Hard-won respite from reality.

But without peace there can be no rest. When I finally reach that plateau called rest I am so exhausted from the climb and so tense from the preparation that I cannot actually rest. And resent those around me who can. Forced rest, like forced love, is empty and superficial. A pretty husk. Ultimately pointless. And tiring.

This year has started fuller than last, with a new job adding to the usual stuff that comes with a houseful of children and a micro(scopic) business. I’m working very hard, but despite a well-developed vocabulary for stress and anxiety, I’ve not much use for it these days because, in truth, I’m neither stressed nor anxious. No more than momentarily. Home life is shape-shifting as the children become more independent, more able, sometimes even willing. We’re all growing.

The anxiety of whether I’m good enough, whatever that actually means, is losing its relevance. I wonder now why I wasted so much time on it. I think I now believe that I am able and that such a belief is both appropriate and healthy. Talking to my husband a few weeks ago about work challenges up ahead, I heard myself say that I was going to learn a huge amount over the next few months. There was a pause while we both tried to recognise the speaker. This was new, for me to see opportunities to grow instead of mountains to climb. To be still before the unknown with openness and expectation, not clenched with fear and foreboding. It was like new language had been downloaded into my mind without my having to learn it. A strange tongue.

This didn’t happen overnight. To quote my favourite Bible teacher, Joyce Meyer, there’s no such thing as a drive-through breakthrough.

They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40 v 31

And I have been waiting. Expectantly. Like waiting for the man to come to install the heating system or unblock the pipes, I have been clearing my stuff out of the way so that God can get to work. He has heard my often tearful, snotty prayers to please help me stop going around in circles of self pity and introspection, blind to opportunities, blessings and gifts. He has reminded me of the power of worship to refocus and refuel. He’s given me some new practical strategies, too. Instead of staring at the problem until I’m paralysed, I step away for a while. And I have been asking God for help with specifics – that phone call, or phrasing that tricky email, that child kicking off. I get perspective by asking myself where this problem sits in the hierachy of The Worst That Could Happen. Death? Injury? The Wrong Envelope on Oscars Night?

I fall into bed exhausted and sleep deeply, rising earlier than I would like with a whole stack of tasks for the day ahead. But I don’t wake with a knot in my stomach these days, genuinely grateful for each day. The routine stuff of home that used to fill my time and take all day now gets done in a flash or not at all. So much more to do and so much more getting done.

Yes I’m boasting about God because what he is doing in me is worth boasting about.

He has poured peace into the place where anxiety used to smash me up like the blades of a blender. This peace grounds me instead of grinding me,  reminding me who I am. I use it to sift the thoughts that come. I consciously and regularly remember who God is and how he feels about me by reading and thinking about what his word says. And in those foetal moments when I run out of words and ideas – yes those still happen – God’s peace wraps itself around me like a blanket.

Perhaps all the time I wanted rest I really needed peace. The gift direct from Christ himself. I think of how Jesus breathed into the disciples just as God breathed into Adam. It was like Jesus was conferring a new kind of life on his followers. My God-breathed peace is becoming my default, replacing the darkness and negativity I lived with so long. In God’s peace I have space, room to manoeuvre, the choice to respond rather than react. Strength. Energy. Even courage. And in the midst of everything, rest.

Rest

The year that started without a focus let alone a resolution has its own word now. It’s not an obvious one. But it’s the one I have been given to take into this year. The word to keep returning to, checking myself by, measuring myself against.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am of the simple clarity of starting the year with rest. Judging by the space devoted to it in all forms of media, December is the month for looking back over the previous 12 at lessons learnt, mistakes made, goals met or missed, weight lost or gained. For me, and countless others, December is the month where time, emotion, creative energy and dutiful attendance are all demanded in a continuous sushi train of year-end pageants, plays, concerts, sports presentations, speech nights, shopping trips, cooking marathons, late-night giftwrapping, Amazon marathons, surprise entertaining, carols at midnight, lists and expectations.

So come January I am spent. Nothing left.

Last year, December was, well, largely as I have just described. We had moved back into the house after the fire in September and then I had got a new job. And suddenly it was December. And I was totally unprepared. Not in my usual, exaggerating for effect way, I mean totally. Unprepared.

I realised something was amiss when I and no.3 spent two days looking for the Christmas tree. It took us awhile to realise why we had a box but no tree. Oh, yes, she and I suddenly remembered. The tree was destroyed in the fire. Not burnt, just impregnated with smoke. I had until then forgotten how the house was back then, frozen in time, still reeking of fumes, just as it was when we fled weeks before. It was an eerie experience, which I thought I would always remember. Wrong.

So when I knew that the tree had been binned, along with 15 years of accumulated decorations, I raced out to the nearest stuffMart and replaced it. The matching baubles I bought for it looked a bit alien in our slightly chaotic, uncoordinated living room. Only the star, another cheap and cheerful addition, secured to the top with the help of a cardboard loo roll, looked like it belonged here.

I realised I didn’t remember anything about last year between preparing a guest room for my father-in-law in early December and the fire breaking out on the 27th. Christmas was totally eclipsed. I was surprised by this gap in my memory. I suddenly wanted to sleep for a week. No chance of that, not with the December juggernaut on the move. But I realised the family all felt the same way. Finally Christmas came and we could stop. We couldn’t even be bothered to overeat.

Like last year, this year sort of started without me. Adversity does strange things to your perception of time. It plucks you out into another time zone, contiguous with this one but bending and twisting away from it unexpectedly. I didn’t move into 2016 until about May.

I’m catching up though. 2017 started for me about a week ago, with a prompt to sit with God and ask for a word for the year. I wanted this. I wanted to start in the right place, not waste time and effort pedalling into the wind. If I’ve learned anything from this last year, it’s that  generally, God’s way is the more peaceful and the more powerful. The less I try to control events, people and outcomes the more space there is for God to move. And His moves are infinitely better than mine. So I sat still for a while and I asked for a word for this year. And the word He gave me was rest.

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings as eagles, they shall run and not grow weary. They shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31

So I will be learning how to rest over the coming year. How to work from a place of rest rather than stress, how to relax from a place of rest rather than guilt, how to enjoy, love, laugh and live the life abundant Jesus promised.

God made the rest day the first day of the week. I want to learn to work from a place of rest. I have a lifetime of busy-itis to fix. I think a year is a reasonable timeframe to work to.

Just as soon as I work out where to start.

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.

The Confidence Project

Some of us are bold by nature. Some of us are made bold by the gifts we discover in ourselves. Many more have gifts but no confidence. We all have something to contribute to this place we live in. I believe we were put here for a purpose. I haven’t found mine yet, and for years, thousands and thousands of days, I’ve been afraid to try. Afraid to fail. Afraid to be laughed at, to be found ridiculous or pathetic or whatever. I’m going to stop gazing at and describing this fear, accommodating myself to it and generally paying it too much attention. It’s time to take more direct action. Dismantle and demolish those dusty old complexes I’ve extended and customised over the years and tear down the walls of the labyrinth I’ve constructed to keep my ambitions and dreams safely contained.

Some of us are bold by nature. Some are made bold by outstanding gifts. And some, like me, are frightened into it. You see I know that If I don’t take action now, I’ll be stuck with a set of regrets to recite to myself in old age. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen it happen. I know a man who has lived a long and peaceful life, given generously of himself and his resources, always helped out where he could. He’s a popular family man with plenty of social capital. But when he thinks he’s alone he rehearses aloud and bitterly the scenes in his past that should have gone differently. Decisions he was too scared to take, risks he couldn’t face. Conversations that wounded. And although his life has by many measures been a great one, he has trained himself to see only failure and missed opportunities. At a time in life when I would hope to be enjoying the simple pleasures of being present, he is haunted by regrets.

So that’s why I’m starting my Confidence Project. For people who can’t hold two positive thoughts in a row without feeling unwell. For people who find cat posters annoying. For the formerly cynical, who have discovered the fear behind their mockery. For anyone who wants to join me.

 

 

 

 

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.