Smoke, anyone?

I wake to thickness. My breath labours, though I can’t yet smell the smoke. The fine particles powdering the air and setting off my asthma come from hundreds of kilometres away to the east, a tiny incursion on my summer, a broken fingernail compared to the raw devastation suffered by those living in the fire path.

The torch of anger, fear and pain blazes through public and private commentary on this unprecedented fire season. Fingers point, blame is apportioned, scorn greets the responses of authority. We are all affected, all involved, whatever our politics, outlook or beliefs. The dry tinder of our polarised, simplified public discourse is easily ignited by such overwhelming events. The only innocents are the victims, the habitat and its animals, and the firefighters working to contain and subdue the blazes.

Long, cold showers needed all around.

Fire is a leveller. After the flames, the rebuild. Of course it needs to involve honest, generous cooperation. To honour the call to steward the earth for the good of all. To encourage intergenerational respect and collaboration across lines old and new. To birth humility as we are reminded of our shared vulnerability, responsibility and capacity as humans.

We flower briefly here. And I acknowledge that my hope will be shared and spoken by many, not least in Canberra. But fine sentiments are quickly clouded by the demands of more immediate life once the crisis is over. After our own fire my new-found clarity faded as normality resumed. We found new junk to fill our restored house, new petty concerns to fill our minds. The fire changed me but perhaps not enough. It became another one of those things that happened, not a defining moment.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here. Let’s hope that this does change us all, for the better, for good.

Listen. Notice. Appreciate. Enjoy.

Like every new year, this one has started without asking my permission, checking my readiness, or waiting for me to complete my do-list.

The words come as I walk along a hot Melbourne street with half of the family. It feels uneven. As the eldest emerges into adulthood and the youngest out of infancy, the two in the middle are on their own adventure, reconnecting with wider family overseas. Our never-tidy life, unpacked and repacked in moves large and small, planned and unplanned, is re-reconfiguring. It always feels strange, although this time it’s the most predictable. In all families eras pass quickly, but each one seems more decisive. As we move awkwardly through the new year crowds at Flinders street four words parachute into my mind.

Listen. Notice. Appreciate. Enjoy.

I can stress with the best. Strain towards whatever I imagine passes for the ideal. I tend to imagine that I just have to flap really hard to fly, forgetting that part about being seated in heavenly places with Christ. So I immediately start trying to apply these four words to the family members I’m with. There are only two of them, how hard can it be. I try to listen to, notice, appreciate and enjoy them in a very deliberate and let me just say exhausting fashion. No surprise that I end the day on my last nerve. The following day I realise my mishtake.

You meant me to apply these words to You.

Listen to what You are saying. Notice what You are doing. Appreciate who You are. Enjoy You.

I no longer expect to know when You are saying new things to me. A quirky memory and shrinking attention span makes everything new. Whatever their vintage, these words land noiselessly from elsewhere, like raindrops on parched earth, come to refresh. Or commandos, come to do a stealth job on the enemy. Either way, they are not for punishment or correction. This is not a setting straight. This is a place setting. At a feast. In the presence of my enemies.

The performer in me is frustrated by this but also challenged to do the best listening, noticing, appreciating and enjoying that I can. But these words invite contemplation, not action. They assume Your sovereignty, Your activity and Your permission to engage not in doing, but in being. An invitation to receive who You are and give You the attention that is due to You not just in dutiful Bible study or prayer but in a delightful search for Your footprints, the traces You leave in the world You made and love and came to re-engage.

Handing over

My last post spoke about the new adventure I was on, training for the priesthood. You could call it chickens coming home to roost as many years of church nerdery made the pathway plain. When near–strangers started telling me they thought I was already a priest it was time to face reality.

Been a messy old time since then. Have to admit that saying yes to God has unleashed a new level of internal chaos, a sometimes harrowing reality check, as my ‘stuff’, my weaknesses and hangups and the like, has decided to parade through my mind, out of my mouth and into my behaviour like my own personal mardi gras, leaving trash, debris and hangovers in its wake. Old weaknesses have taken on new energy, former issues long buried turn out to be alive and kicking, and people I considered forgiven have been discovered still residing in the dark places of my heart.

So much for my yes to God. I clearly need a priest.

I also lost my innocence during this last year. I considered myself a woman of the world, with my carry-on bag of carefully-remembered slights, petty misdemeanours and immature actions of others against me. I had travelled a bit, and read a bit, and thought I knew a bit. Then God brought me up close with the results of deliberate cruelty, wilful brutality and calculated damage in a human life.

It took my breath away. Shut me down.

My words were too flimsy and brittle for the weight of it. I could not trust them to betray my own impotence. So I stopped writing altogether.

I was right. My words could do nothing. But God’s word? That was different. And that was his gift to me. To see God’s word salve, bring hope and give a measure of peace to abject grief and profound sorrow. To see my own words distract and confuse where God’s word invariably comforted, encouraged and embraced. Whether received or not.

So as John the Baptist said, I must decrease and God increase. Not to play-act piety, but to get out of the way so that he may be clearly seen and heard. To let others experience the word that brings life. That is life.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.