Thursday, 11 September 2014

A gentle bump

So here I am again after a long break.

Busyness, holidays, minor illnesses, small emergencies, life events, daily distractions: the sort of time-consuming hamster-wheel kind of family life that consumes all in its path.  Not all bad things, not all good things, just things. For someone like me, who needs periods of space and solitude in order to function properly, the summer is a stressful time too full of people and activity, even though they might be my favourite people in the whole world, and much of the activity is stuff I've been looking forward to for months. It's exhausting and non-stop.

There have been times when I thought my head might explode.

You'd think I'd need the peace that only God provides even more than in my normal term-time routine, where I build in periods of withdrawal where I can, wouldn't you? Well you'd be right. I  need Him more than ever.

Funny that I seem to lose my grip on Him at the very time I need Him the most. It happened last year, and probably the ones before that as well. I get stressed and overwhelmed and instead of clinging more tightly, I let go and drift off. I'm the first to admit that it makes no sense.

Even the odd time I have had where I could have slunk off with my journal to find a little oasis of the kind of peace that only He gives, I've found myself reading paperbacks, checking social media or frittering away precious moments of peace on trivia.

Then this thing happened.

On holiday at the seaside. I had been in the sea with my husband, swimming back and forth, enjoying the waves, the sparkle of the sun, the cool of the water, the warmth on my back, and I'd just decided to get out and join Grandma and the girls on the beach. I wasn't in deep water; I put my legs down on the sand and stood; it was about chest level. Something bumped into my leg. Gently, but a definite bump. Not like seaweed, which would have made me yelp, given my irrational fear of seaweed, but I thought, maybe a fish? Sharks are pretty rare off the north Norfolk coast, I believe.

I began to wade back up the gently shelving beach, towards my youngest daughter who was happily hopping about in the surf. As I turned to let my husband know I was heading in, there between us was a Grey Seal. It looked right at me, turned, and looked right at him. We watched it for a long moment, before it dived back underwater and swam off, resurfacing occasionally to have another look round.

What about that?

On my way up the beach I found my oldest daughter squatting over a rock pool near the beach groyne that leads down into the sea. She'd found a little starfish. A few paces later and there was a feather on an untouched area of sand. A perfect grey and white flight feather.

As I stood on the beach on that beautiful warm summer day, blue sky, shimmering sea, soft sand, surrounded by my family, all (at that moment) content and occupied, I had one of those the penny-drops moments.

A seal, a starfish, a feather.

God keeps on giving, even when I'm not receiving. He goes on laying His gifts in front of me, even when I'm not looking out for them. His generosity does not depend on my willingness to receive, any more than it depends on my behaviour, whether I've earned it.

He just keeps on giving.

It blew my mind.

How pleased God must be when we do notice something, and stop what we're doing to smile and marvel and thank Him for the little bit of loveliness He has placed in our path. For years now I've prayed for eyes to see and ears to hear, and I know that God has answered that prayer, but I now realise that I have the ability to turn it off, as well. It's hard to fathom, but I can choose to be blind, and deaf, and ungrateful. I must miss so much.

But there's more, too. God never stops giving, and He never stops loving, either.

He just keeps on loving me.

You know that old thing that we've heard, 'There's nothing that you can do to make God love you more, and nothing that you can do to can make Him love you less'?  Well, it suddenly made sense.

I do things that pull me away from God all the time. It might not be a huge great sin that I commit that lands me in the lowest place possible, knowing me, it's more likely that it's a slow drift that takes me away from His side, just like the insidious little currents that slowly and imperceptibly pull you away from the shoreline if you swim out too far.

And yet, His love for me doesn't change. Not one bit. He still loves me enough to lay beauty in my path just to make me smile.

Then the third thing in this trilogy of personal revelations: He doesn't want my guilt.

He just wants me.

God waits patiently for me to remember who He is, who I am, and to look up into His face once again. He is there, where He's always been, waiting for me to come back. And when I do, He holds out His hand for me to take and He is just pleased to see me.

No recriminations. No stern talking to. No rehashing of my failings, no comment on how long I've kept Him waiting or how many of His treasures I missed. No ground to make up. Just pleasure that I'm back.

My daughters are at that age when quite often one of them stalks off on their own if we've had a confrontation or I've failed to live up to expectations in some way. When they come back our relations are sometimes strained for a while. Hurt feelings on both sides, ruffled feathers. It would be unwise for one of them to ask me for something at a time like this, when I'm feeling raw or annoyed. Grumpy and disinclined to co-operate. We need soothing words and a period of reconciliation.

Not so with God. He throws open His arms and welcomes us while we are still far away.

I am not in disgrace. I don't have to work my way back into His good books. No probationary period.

How He loves me.

So I stood there on the beach, looking at my daughters happily jumping in the waves, my husband relaxing in the sea, my Mum watching us all from a deckchair with a smile, and I realised that my Heavenly Father loves me so much that He keeps giving me gifts, even when I'm miles away from Him.  And on top of all that, He's so tender when He reaches down to touch me. Like the grey seal - a gentle bump.

And that night I intended to get some of this down in my journal and spend some time thanking Him for this amazing generosity, but it didn't happen. I was busy, distracted; believe it or not, my mind was once again elsewhere. It turns out that I am capable of turning away even after such precious and loving insights.

Days later I opened the devotional that I'm reading (intermittently) and found this:
"Gently bring your attention back to me, whenever it wanders away. I look for persistence, rather than perfection, in your walk with Me.  I not only accept you as you are, I love you as you are...You can easily fall prey to self-rejection if you have unrealistic expectations of yourself. I want you to bring your focus back to Me gently, without judging yourself... I always welcome you back with unfailing love." *
He doesn't want my guilt. He doesn't want me to waste time and energy berating myself for having the attention span of a begonia. He doesn't want me to feel bad that I let Him down. He just wants me to try again.

He waits, and welcomes, and keeps on loving.
Father God, thank you for your unfailing love. Love that keeps no record of wrongs, holds no grudges. Love that never changes.
Thank you that you know me better than I know myself, and yet you love me still. I want to stay close to you. I want to see and hear all that you have for me; I don't want to miss a thing, and yet I am easily distracted.
Help me to bring my attention back to you and place my hand once again in yours. Thank you that you are always there waiting for me.
Amen.



Reference: 

*Dear Jesus, Sarah Young, 2007, Thomas Nelson

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

It happened...and I'm still alive

Well, I worried and worried and fretted and flapped and chewed my fingers and asked 'What if...?' and the very thing that I feared so much has happened. 

Swimming. Source of endless angst for me as it necessitates getting my out of shape body out of comfy jeans and T shirts and into a garment that's small and tight and doesn't cover anywhere near enough of me. I read articles about how to choose a flattering swimsuit and I can never understand it. If it doesn't cover chin to ankle in dark coloured flowing fabric, preferably bias-cut, then how on earth can it be flattering? 

Anyway. 

I have Big hang-ups about the way I look, and I have started swimming again to try to get a big fitter, and (who knows) a bit thinner. 

I started swimming with the swimming club that my daughters go to, as they have a 'Masters' squad (ha!) that trains twice or three times a week and has in one lane a handful of older people that are closer to my level of fitness than the svelte gods and goddesses in the other five lanes. They sashay out from the changing rooms laughing and joking in their beautiful colourful swimsuits while I sort of skulk in my black one that's intended to make me invisible. 

Despite all this, I have been enjoying it.

I've perfected the art of draping my (large) towel over one shoulder, carrying my kitbag in front of my legs and scurrying between the changing rooms and the pool incognito with my hat and goggles on. You'd be amazed at how quickly I can arrange my things on the poolside and get into the comparative safety of the water if I time it right.

All this time (since February) I've been working on this. I know that it's unlikely that any of the other swimmers are particularly interested in my progress along the side of the pool, and I have repeated to myself over and over that I don't know any of them, and so what they think doesn't matter to me. 

And then. 

And then the devil upped the ante. At least I think it must be the devil's work, because no sooner had I started to get used to the way things were, things turned into a nightmare.

My older daughter swims three times a week with the same club, though at the up-and-coming end of it rather than the gasping for breath end. Sort of like the sublime to the ridiculous. There is one session a week that Elizabeth can't go to as she is committed elsewhere. Many of her swimming friends do attend that session, and it was always on a Monday at 5pm - 6pm.  This never mattered in the least, until they moved that session to 7pm - 8pm. 

This is the hour immediately preceding my swim. These kids, friends of my daughter, would be getting out of the pool just as I was getting in. Only a bunch of kids; eight, nine, ten, eleven year olds. Surely once they'd got over the hilarity of Lizzie's mum in a swimsuit and goggles surely the interest would wane? Maybe so, but the fear of being recognised by anyone made me blanch. 

Then, hot on the heels of that awful thought was another, more sinister concept. If those kids were emerging from the pool at 8pm, then their mums would be waiting in the changing rooms for them, just as I was stuffing my clothes in a locker and trying to sidle past to where the water is. 

The Sunday before this new arrangement started, I couldn't sleep. I worried and worried. I strategised that if I arrived ever so early and got changed in loads of time, I could maybe wait until the kids were just climbing out of the pool, which is the cue for the mums on the viewing balcony to get up and come down the steps to the foyer and changing rooms. In that minute while everyone was in transit, I could take my chance to dive out and down the far end of the pool, walking flattened against the balcony wall where they couldn't see me. This was the best plan I could come up with and hinged on split second timing. 

I worried and worried. I asked God to make me thin overnight (not for the first time). I asked for a mysterious blanket of fog to descend over the pool between 7.55 and 8.05pm.  I asked for courage, for discovery was inevitable.

I even had a dream about it that night; no kidding. I dreamed that I was in exactly this situation and I was so worried, but when I arrived that night at the pool everyone was leaving the building via one door, and I was able to enter through a different entrance at the other end of the building. Perfect! In my dream, my anxiety evaporated. Problem solved. I come in, they go out, and never the twain shall meet.  

In my dream, I said to myself, 'God will make it alright'.

I woke up thinking, 'God will make it alright'.

Of course, even that relief and reassurance, throughout Monday the tension mounted; I was aware on some level that it was unlikely that God would make it alright by changing the fabric of the sports centre in time for my swimming session. I seriously considered giving it all up and not bothering. If things hadn't already been so hard regarding this swimming thing, I might have decided to stop going at this point, but seriously it seemed that there had been one obstacle then another in front of me since I started this latest fitness drive that I am stubbornly convinced that it's the right thing to do. It must be doing me some good. It must. I don't want to be intimidated.

So Monday night came and I put my plan into action, and do you know what? It worked like a charm.

Nobody noticed me. Hallelujah.

If only that were the end of the story. The following week, the stress levels climbed, the same situation, and one of the kids pointed at me and waved. A couple of weeks later and I got cheers and a round of applause from the balcony. Several of the mums have asked me about the swimming; some of them have laughed. One pulled a disbelieving face and said, 'You?!'

Yes, me.

Some of the mums have said how brave I am (they don't know the half of it), and one or two have congratulated me. A couple have even confessed to a degree of envy. On the night of the embarrassing applause, one of my fellow swimmers said, 'Take no notice. You're having a go, they're just up there sitting down.'

This week I swam and as I walked onto the poolside half a dozen of the children waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back, and I didn't glance up to the balcony (with my contact lens out I don't see very much, anyway). I had a laugh with a few other swimmers in my lane, learned some things, swam a personal best and I'm starting to master the butterfly.

Yes, me.

So here's the thing that I need to keep hold of.

The thing I feared happened, and I'm still alive. They found out about me, they saw me, they laughed at me (but not all of them; and that's important), and yes, it was pretty much as bad as I thought it'd be, but I'm still here. The world is still turning, and I am still swimming.

Progress-wise, hmm, well, who knows. I scrutinise my body and the scales for signs of a dramatic up-turn in health, but if there are any, they are so gradual as to be imperceptible, but that's alright. I didn't get out of shape in the space of a few months and so getting healthier will be a slow process too, I guess.

I'm thanking God for two amazing things that have happened to me lately.

1.  I am actually enjoying myself.

2.  I am not afraid of being seen any more.

Well, not as afraid as I was. I don't relish the long walk to and from the changing rooms, but if I meet someone I know I no longer feel that I might die. This is a very small thing on one level but on another, for me, a Very Big Thing.

God did indeed make it alright.




Monday, 7 July 2014

Revelation


I feel the need to preface this little moment of insight with apologetic words; I am quite sure that many people have long understood and accepted this simple yet life-changing idea and have built their life on it. If they were to stumble upon this they might shake their head and wonder why I'm making such a big deal of it. Of course God wants us to trust Him with it all. Of course we are of value; Jesus died for us. 


I'm sorry; I never really got it. Not in the 'changes the way you see everything' sense. Head knowledge, not heart knowledge; there's a world of difference.

I'm not sure I've got it yet, to be honest, but I had a glimpse. Like once before, ( The View Looking Backwards - was that really three years ago?!) I think there's a place in my life where there's a kind of viewing platform. There's a mountain range that I'm climbing, and every time I get to a summit it turns out that there are more mountains and I have to descend and climb another one. 

Somewhere beyond this range there's a final mountain, and at the top there's a place where you can stand and turn round, and see how very far you've come; how many mountains you've climbed. 

What's on the other side, I have no idea, but it's better and more beautiful and easier walking than this. 

So here it is. Be gentle.

I was nine, and in the middle of a game of rounders on the school field when I first compared myself with the other girls in their navy blue PE knickers and realized that I was bigger than most of my classmates. 

The realisation came with a sense of shock; I'd never given much thought to my body; it did what it was supposed to do; I was quite good at sports and had plenty of energy. I looked about at the slender and slim one day with different eyes and realised that there was considerably more of me. 

My head filled with static. I can remember it now.

That day was born an acute sense of self-consciousness and shame. 

I longed to be slim, and for thirty-four years my self-esteem has ebbed and flowed in direct correlation with the numbers on the scales.

And then, the slow revelation.

My longing to be slim is a longing to be approved of by other people, to be thought beautiful by the world’s standards. 

By 'the world' I mean 'other people' as a huge homogenous group. 'Them' as opposed to me. I'm aware that world in its entirety has no interest in the size of my thighs, but whether we like it or not the society we live in dictates what is acceptable in terms of beauty, acceptable behaviour, all the social norms and to reject those dictates is practically impossible because of the pervasive, subliminal, insinuating nature of the brainwashing.

In our culture thin is acceptable, fat is not.

It soon became apparent after that day on the rounders field that the world did not find me beautiful; it was not possible. I didn't look like any of the girls or (as time passed) women I saw all around me. I was the wrong shape. I weighed too much. I remember one science project when we were aged eleven where all the class had to be weighed and measured and I cried the night before and I hung back in the hope that the other kids wouldn't notice the number on the scales. They did. One girl came up and read it off the little dial and announced it loudly to the rest. 

I wanted so badly to fit in. I still do. I still don't like what I see in the mirror even though I know how completely I am loved and accepted by my heavenly Father. 

But I am realising that setting so much store by what Other People Think is a lack of trust in the only One whose opinion matters.  My wanting to be loved by the world is a lack of trust that God will meet all my needs, emotional and otherwise, and so I’ve been looking elsewhere for affirmation and security. I put the opinions of others before God’s.

I realise that to court the friendship of the world is a big mistake. If I ever did manage to gain entry to the gang, she'll turn out to be the worst kind of friend. 

If I get thin enough to meet with her approval, my nose will be too big, or my laugh too loud, my ideas wrong, or my faith unacceptable. I can alter and tinker and edit myself to try to fit in over and over again, but ultimately I'll be rejected because I am just too old to fit her image of perfection. My needy membership request will time out; if indeed it hasn't already. I will never, ever measure up, because the bar will always be raised just out of reach.  

If my daughter at school met a girl who treated her like this, I'd advise her to seek friendship elsewhere. I've said a thousand times, 'A friend should make you feel good about yourself, not bad.' And yet the world made me feel bad for being me, and for decades now I've let her get away with it. She's nothing but a bully.

I feel so sad for those actors and actresses who are defined by their beauty and then feel forced to pursue it relentlessly as it fades; surgery and make up, carrying on a pretence that they still have what was so prized for a fleeting season in their youth. This is not to say that they aren't still breathtakingly beautiful, but the world - she is fickle and demanding. She will always criticise and wrinkle her nose; discard people who no longer fit the mould, even if they were once celebrated and revered. There will always be a new, youthful star with taut skin and pert breasts and full lips, no wrinkles, no stretch marks. 

I never realised that it was a question of trust. I can't trust the world, for she will aways let me down, talk behind my back and find a reason to criticise me.

Well, no more.

God wants me to look only to Him for my value, for only He sees things clearly. Everyone else's opinion is limited and fallible and bound in by what this broken world thinks.

God made me and He doesn’t make mistakes. God is the Good Friend. He is never making impossible demands of me, and when I struggle to meet them, making more. He never asks me to be thin when I'm not, to be young when I'm getting older. God will never make me feel like I'm never picked for the netball team. I am chosen

I am loved beyond what is reasonable, right now, as I am. All of me. I am not too heavy for Him; my heavenly Daddy can lift me onto His shoulders and carry me effortlessly. No matter how much of me there is, the most beautiful part of me is Him. 

I am a daughter of the living God and I make His day. It says so in the Bible. Zephaniah 3:17. This is from the Good News Translation and it's definitely good news. 
The Lord your God is with you;
    his power gives you victory.

The Lord will take delight in you,

    and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you...
He is joyful over me. Some translations say He exults over me. He celebrates who I am. He loves me enough to die for me, just as I am. Every wrinkle, every scar, every grey hair, every inch of me.

No wonder God has never granted my prayer to wake up one morning a size ten. If He had done that for me I would still be dependent on the size on the label for my sense of worth. He wants me to trust Him; to trust that I am loved, and to love Him back. 

He wants my heart, and unlike the world, He'll take care of it. 

I trust you, Lord. 



Lord God, take this little glimpse of what might be and turn it into something that I know really down deep in the heart of me. 
Take head knowledge and turn it into heart knowledge. Help me to walk taller because I know that You delight in me.  


I want that to be enough for me. 


That enormous, life changing, gobsmacking revelation to be enough. It amazes me that it isn't; that I still want the people in the swimming pool changing rooms, the mums at the school gates, the people in the clothes shops that only stock clothes in small sizes - those people, whose opinions Do Not Matter - I still want them to approve of me, to accept me. I want to be acceptable. 


And yet, I am acceptable; I am accepted. 


Lord, in that verse from Zephaniah, you said that you'll give me victory. Please give me victory over this. I don't know what life might look like with this victory, but I am longing to find that viewing platform and see both how far I've come, and what the view is over the other side. 


Lord, thank you that you take delight in me, just as I am.

Let that be enough. 


Amen.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Fog in June

June is a busy month. I should really learn to expect it, but it creeps up on me every year.

June is that no-man's-land between Spring and Summer, starting with a half term and ending with the rabbit in the headlights realisation that the Long Summer Holiday is looming. June for me means my husband's birthday, Fathers' Day and my eldest daughter's birthday, as well as some painful anniversaries: my Dad died nine years ago on the day before hubby's birthday, and his funeral was two days before Elizabeth was born. Nine years ago, June changed for me from just another month to an emotional cocktail that seems to pack a more powerful punch every year.

So I should see it coming, perhaps, but I didn't. 

May ended on a bit of a high. A Writers' Weekend in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, old friends, new friends, time spent laughing, crying and soaking up inspiration. It was one of those minor mountain-top experiences. Not an Everest of mountain-tops, but bigger than Ben Nevis. A Mont Blanc of weekends, maybe. I got some glimpses, scribbled notes and tried to pin down ideas, and came back home itching to explore further some of the things that God had whispered to me.

Some things about who I am/who we are as women of God, something about self-esteem and trusting the One who made us/about another way to live...freedom...peace...healing.

Big things, hey? Exciting! I was excited and energised. I felt as if I was on the edge of clarity. Not finding out the answers to all life's problems, but almost understanding that there was a place that I might get to where things are better than this. Where things I've struggled with for three-quarters of my life might start to be untangled and leave me a freer person; living in that peace that Jesus promised, that I've never been able to find. 

And wouldn't you think that right there would be the recipe for a period of great productivity, growth, spiritual exploration?

Some really good blog posts? 

Nope.

Just couldn't get going. I have a myriad of excuses; I was very tired by the weekend itself, the drive there and back, the early mornings and late nights, the emotional energy of all the processing, and of being surrounded by people, however engaging... I needed a bit of down time. A few days away from the computer. Too much to do, so little time. 

I find that I work through things best when I write. So often I start a blog post in one state of mind and finish in another; I understand things better when I write. I pick things apart and work out what's really going on and sometimes I surprise myself. I do this in my journal as well as on the computer, and so you'd expect that I'd be scribbling away madly after the high point of the weekend, wouldn't you?  As my computer gathered dust my notebooks would be jumping off the shelf? I'd need more ink? 

Nope.

That seemed impossible, too. Concentrating on anything seemed impossible. It all became terribly complicated until it was just too much.

Enthusiasm and energy leached away into lethargy. I put down my devotionals and started reading an old thriller. When I found out I'd read it before I carried on reading it anyway.

That just about sums up the last few weeks.

'Just too much' characterised June this year. Nine years ago I wept and wept and from a fog of shock and grief begged God not to let me go into labour and miss my Dad's funeral, and this year I've shed tears and begged God to help me fight my way out of another fog. He answered my prayers then, and I believe that in time He'll answer them now.

I don't know what's happening, but I know something is. I guess that sounds very odd.

I know there are lots of people who would advise me to stop thinking so much and get on with the everyday stuff, and I know they're right. I am a Myers' Briggs INFJ and I make heavy weather of everything.

I am not waiting for God to show me what He wants me to do with my life, I should get on with doing the things that He has already shown me I should do with it. I have a family, a home, school stuff, church stuff, writing stuff. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Yet I can't shake the feeling that it's a time of waiting, too. Active waiting, as a good friend said to me. Stopping, listening, trying to be still and wait until the swirling thoughts settle into something that I can see. I know He won't let me down.

So I'm trying to put something down, words on a screen, taptaptap on my little keyboard, fully aware that I make very little sense. I know that God won't leave me here. He is doing something - Aslan is on the move! - and perhaps He put His finger into the waters of my mind and heart and stirred them up until the pool is swirling cloudy so that in time something of worth that might rise up to the top.

I need to stop asking 'What? When? Why?' and just focus on who He is. There is peace in His presence, and I should nestle up close. Stop trying, and let Him get on with whatever He's doing. He'll tell me what's going on when He's ready.

I hope so. I do hope that the confusion and frustration of this month hasn't been for nothing; but He said that nothing is wasted. Not even the tears.

Well, there have been plenty of those.





Image credit:  whirlpool.jpg by pippalou
Courtesy of Morguefile.com. Used with permission




Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pulling the buttons off

The power of words has been on my mind a lot lately; words that build up or words that destroy. It's an easy thing to understand that words spoken over someone can encourage or damage them; there have been times in my life when I've been crushed by things said to me, and times when I'd been inspired. 

Words, words, words.

But something else kept nagging at me, and I realised that the power of words also extends to things that are said about someone, when they're not there. And that's a different kettle of fish. 

Everyone knows someone who's constantly running down other people, don't they? Anyone who's ever stood for five minutes in a school playground at pickup time would be able to identify a few people who don't seem to have a good word to say about anyone. Whether it's the shoes, or the hair, the tattoos, or the latest pregnancy, or the frequency that their kids get headlice, or the latest photos on Facebook or...or... anything. We all know people like that. The ones who have sharp nails and rip someone to shreds just for fun. Who seem to love the cut and thrust of the school-run and turn up twenty minutes early to get in some good gossip. 

I'm not like that, you know. If I'm early for the school pick up, I hang about at the end of the road or wait in the car until the children start appearing, and then dive in, deftly scoop up my offspring and scurry off, waving a few times and smiling like a loon. I don't do playground bitchery, so I'm OK, aren't I?

(Interesting note: my computer autocorrect tried to change 'playground bitchery' to 'playground butchery' there. I think that's pretty much the same thing, don't you?

So - it's not my thing. But wait a minute.

An unwelcome thought came to me: I'm no better.  I'm just different.

I think I am much more subtle. When I say, 'I think', what I mean is I haven't really thought about it much at all, until lately. Some things have happened that have made me consider more closely what I say, and how I say it, and I realise that I fall into the same trap as ScaryMum at the school gates, even though I got there by a different route. 

I love words and I use a lot of them. If one day it turns out that there was a quota of words assigned to each of us for use in our entire lifetime, then my last decade or so is going to be pretty quiet. There's nothing I like more than a chat over coffee with a friend, and I think this is where I come unstuck. the more you talk, the more chance you have of using words for the wrong thing.

How easy it is to make someone laugh at someone else's expense, then clap your hand over your mouth and say, 'Oops, shouldn't have said that!'  Easy to boost your own stock in a subtle way by making oblique observations about a person.  Criticise someone's decision, make fun of someone's mannerisms, pull a face when their name is mentioned. Easy even to pass on gossip under the guise of being concerned about someone. There are sophisticated ways of doing what ScaryMum does up front in the playground.

Then there are the occasions where it's not even you doing the talking. How easy it is to sit and listen and sip your coffee while someone else's reputation is chipped away in front of you. To smile and laugh and encourage the other person to offload their bitterness or irritation, legitimate or otherwise. Then place becomes strewn with the metaphorical corpses of all the people whose characters have been assassinated before you've finished your cappuccino.    

I had a dream a while ago that I puzzled over for days before it became clear. 

I was walking down a road near where I live. I passed a crowd of people who were excited and shouting (a bit like they used to do when two people had a fight in the playground, remember?)  As I walked past, I heard a shrill female voice yell, 'There she is! I'm going to kill her!'  I caught the eye of another lady and I grimaced at her. This could be messy.

 I hesitated, but decided that I'd better turn back and see what was going on. I wasn't going to let this woman murder someone. 

The crowd was shouting and screaming but I saw that the aggressive woman had hold of another, smartly dressed lady who looked frightened. The aggressor decided that she wasn't going to kill her after all, just 'rip her to bits'. 

'Ripping her to bits' meant that the angry lady was going to destroy the woman's fine clothes. The victim was wearing a designer outfit and the other woman was determined to ruin it. 

First of all she took her expensive shoes and snapped the heels off. The crowd cheered.

So relieved was I that there was to be no bloodshed that I decided to join in. I reached out for the victim's beautiful silk blouse and pulled it hard. It tore, and all the buttons flew off.

At this moment, I looked down and realised with horror that I was wearing the torn blouse.

And I woke up. 

I think that the dream tells me that when I collude with someone else to damage a person's reputation, I damage myself. When I pick the buttons off someone's life, or cut someone down to size I, too, am diminished. It might not be actual bloodshed, but wounds are inflicted nonetheless. And just as I pulled the buttons off her blouse, I exposed the nasty part of myself as well. 

I decided that I needed to be much more careful with my words. I mustn't score the quick point with a facetious comment at someone else's expense. I need to be careful what I say and what I listen to. I quickly realised how difficult it was. 

The newsreader had a new haircut and it made her look like a nuclear mushroom. A man interviewed in the street on the news had a painfully tenuous grasp of grammar. A politician said something that made my skin crawl and I couldn't resist making an unpleasant and personal remark back at the telly. And that was just in the course of the breakfast news. There was still an awful lot of day left to negotiate.

I have comforted myself by mentally pointing out to God that I'm not the worst. I know there are people who are much more vicious and open about their nastiness and gossip, but I know that it's no defence. If the pass mark for a test is 100% it doesn't matter whether you get 99% or 19%, you've still failed. I know that my sins have been dealt with my Jesus on the cross and that I am pure and forgiven in God's eyes, but the nagging thing for me is twofold:

1.  This is one of those sins that we tend to accommodate. We build it in and excuse it and we just accept that that's day to day life. Everyone does it. 

2. In the Bible, it says this:
'With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers (and sisters), this should not be.'  James 3:9,10
I don't want to be a person who sings praise to God and then is mean about someone over a coffee half an hour later. I don't want to be a person who writes a blog about living as a Christian and can be overheard in a cafe speculating about someone's private business. I don't want to be but I'm aware that I am sometimes exactly that person. 

We are held to a higher account, those of us that love Jesus and want to be different. We are looking for holiness. Our value comes from being daughters of God, not from other people's opinions of us, and if we need to bolster their view of us at someone else's expense, then we are doubly in trouble.

I was praying about this issue and trying to wriggle off the hook by telling God that it wasn't really a Big Thing, was it?  A picture came to mind of a fog. A swirling, dense, smog-like fog. Greeny-grey, and so impenetrable that when someone walked into the fog, they disappeared from view.

The fog is the business of talking about someone behind their back; using words to pull someone down. The whole gossiping, tale-telling, criticising, condemning malarkey that we all play at to some extent, from time to time. 

When you reach out to touch it, just to see what it's like, it sticks to you. The deeper in you go, the more grubby you get, until being dirty is the norm, and you've forgotten what fresh air feels like. 
You breathe in the toxic air, and if you’ve breathed it in, you’ll be dirty on the inside too and eventually you’ll breathe it out again, infecting those around you.

I don't want to live in the fog, Lord. 


I don't want even to play at the edges where I have the illusion of safety, but keep putting a hand in to find out how it feels. I don't want to be the sort of woman who feels better about herself by belittling others. I don't want to do this, but you have shown me how hard it is, how engrained in our culture, how petty meannesses and jokes at others' expense are considered socially acceptable. 


Father, I want to be different. (In a good way, please). I want to find positive things to say instead of giggling at the gossip. I want to hold my tongue no matter what the newsreader's haircut is doing. I want to bite back the clever remarks, even if they might win me a laugh. 


I want to build up, not destroy.

I want to encourage and inspire, not diminish and criticise.

I want the words that come out of my mouth to bring you glory.


Prayer:

Lord, shine your light to dispel the fog and show it for what it is. Burn it away so that it no longer stops me from seeing. Open my eyes to see it all around me and show me the danger of flirting with it by messing about at the edges. 

Send your Holy Spirit to give me the wisdom and strength to walk away from the fog. Make my words kind and gentle. May I speak your truth and nothing else. 

Amen


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