Friday, 21 October 2011

The unforced rhythms of grace

Good morning, Lord.  

I am feeling perky this morning. Just got a job done that has been hanging over me for weeks and weeks and waking me in the night worrying (though that's not an indication of the seriousness of an anxiety; not long ago I woke in the night and couldn't get back to sleep for thinking that I need to clean the bathroom before we have visitors next week - next week! - and 'must add kitchen roll to the shopping list' was going through my head. I'm going mad.) 

So, job done, and as ever, it wasn't as stressful as I thought. Bryan and I went out for a drive in the country and breakfast to celebrate and anywhere with bacon and eggs, toast and free coffee refills is fine by me. All that caffeine is possibly one reason I'm feeling with it today. Ha!

Well, the ups and downs leave me breathless. This week has been a case in point; Monday I was anxious and restless (mid-ground), Tuesday was my wonderful Quiet Day away (more on this in a minute) - high - and Wednesday back to earth with a thud (low). Thursday was a depressed day, miserable and tired (very low) and now today, optimistic, buoyant and caffeine-fuelled (high). Let's stay here for a while, can we?

Tuesday. Ahh. Quiet for five whole hours and no pressure. Sit, walk, pray, write, draw, read, drowse, stare, listen, sit some more. Five hours just disappeared. Poof. It was wonderful. I didn't want to come home. I can understand why some people go on a retreat for a week or more. Much more. I can see why some people go to live on a remote island, actually.  I didn't really have any expectations about the day other than a vague anxiety about the length of time I had to be quiet for, but I needn't have worried. It was such a blessing to have a whole day just to be. To sit and contemplate and think or indeed not think. Lovely lovely.

It was a strange day, really. I started out sitting down by a window and unaccountably started to cry. I'm not quite sure why, other than I felt delicate and emotional. I couldn't put into words how awful I felt and the tears just came instead. I could have dissolved completely but there were other people in the room and I knew that if I let things go there'd be an awful lot of sniffing and nose-blowing involved and there's little chance of achieving that sort of thing with any subtlety on a Quiet Day. So best pull myself together. So I did. I sat and stared and talked to you a bit, sort of awkwardly, and then I started doodling and lost myself in an elaborate doodle for an hour and a quarter. I haven't done that in years. I'm quite pleased with the result at the back of my prayer diary notebook. 


It was a tree. Right outside my window down the garden was a tree. It was a big, big tree with barely any leaves left on it and it was blowing in a strong Autumn wind that was making wonderful noises around the eves of the chapel in which I was sitting. The rain kept coming in gusts on the wind and then the sun would make an appearance and the few remaining leaves on this tree would glow orange. It was bowing and reaching in the wind, yet so big and strong and permanent and such a lovely shape. I didn't really think about what type of tree it was. I started doodling and it was actually only as I was putting my things back in my bag hours later that I noticed a brown, dried leaf from that tree had blown and was stuck to the window sill in front of me. It was an oak tree. 

Earlier on this year I had a picture of a big tree and it's symbolism, (I am a tree) and this week it touched me that I happened to be sitting at a window on a day when I had sought to be with you and listen to you and right in front of me was that beautiful tree. I will always look at big trees, particularly oaks, and think of you. It makes me think of all that I'd like to be. 

So I doodled for a while and relaxed and found that my mind was clearing beautifully. I hummed in my head, I stopped and closed my eyes when the sun came out and bathed me in warmth, and I watched the tree being blown in the powerful gusts of wind but always straighten up as the wind dropped. It looked solid, strong, steady, reliable, safe, patient, enduring, timeless. Beautiful.

Lunchtime was a slightly strange affair as a dozen people ate sandwiches, made coffee and sat together munching away without talking (but hardly in silence - a bag of crisps can't be consumed quietly!) I think if the weather had been nicer I might have taken my sarnie and my drink and disappeared off somewhere in the grounds so that my crunching didn't add to the soundtrack but in the absence of that opportunity I left the crisps where they were and picked a book from the library shelf so that I didn't have to make eye contact in any self conscious way. There was one book that jumped out at me as it was lying flat on a shelf, out of place. It was called 'The Call to Intimacy: Finding Rest in the Love of God' by Tony Horsfall.

I only picked it up as something to occupy me as I ate but you left it there just for me, didn't you? This book was just what I needed. The author speaks about the guilt that people feel taking time out of a busy life full of commitment and 'doing' to stop, contemplate and try to deepen their own individual relationship with you. I know exactly what he meant. I have so many claims on my time, so many things that need doing and so many people to please that even coming away for a Quiet Day from 9.45am-3.45pm necessitated lots of arrangements by other people to help me and consequent guilt on my part. It seemed indulgent and selfish. 

I read that because I am programmed to 'do' all the time that I have a tendency to measure my relationship with God by how much I do for him. The author points out that this is moving me away from grace-based living and into works-based living. Perhaps because my church background is Evangelical Anglican I feel a moral obligation to do; the author quotes John Wesley:

'Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.'

and I've quoted that myself as a response to all that you've done for me.  After all, we go on so much about the need to be an active church; to be doing, reaching out, tirelessly working. We're constantly starting new projects and getting involved because it's the right thing to do - to further your plans; to do your will, to tell people about you. 

Clearly these things are not bad. I think you can't argue that we need to do. People need to learn about you and we have a commission to go and make disciples. But maybe we need to be careful about how much we're doing. How much we can take on and how much we are not doing because our time is full of things. And by this I mean me. I need to be aware not only when it's appropriate to say no, but when I am doing at the expense of being.

I have wittered on and on over the course of this year that when Katy started school and I had so much more free time (ha ha) that I would make a regular space to sit and spend time with you. I gave myself permission that it might not happen every day, at least not to start with, but this term was going to be a new start where I found time for you. To read, to pray, to listen. Particularly to listen. To learn to listen. And what has happened? Half term starts tomorrow and it hasn't happened once. Not once.

What am I doing instead? I am organising things, I am writing, I am volunteering, I am going to meetings, I am planning, I am attending church - I am doing.  On top of doing I have been getting increasingly stressed about commitments, increasingly tired and headachy and low. I wonder if I'm getting the balance a bit wrong?  Seems to be what is referred to as a 'no brainer' don't you think?

This Quiet Day has been the first opportunity to stop and breathe and think since school started. 

Phew. How wonderful it was. Have I said that I could have stayed there indefinitely? Yes, I think so, but it deserves saying again.

Tony Horsfall, in 'Intimacy: Finding rest in the love of God' goes on to say that perhaps we need to rediscover 'The unforced rhythms of grace.' (Matthew 11:29) and he quotes a lady called Dr Pamela Evans who says:

"'Discovering the rhythms of grace' speaks to me of settling into the need to stay in step with Him, neither lagging behind or being driven beyond His call."

Between them, they suggest that it is possible to be doing far more than you require of us. Really? This is a new angle for me as I've been working on the principle that I owe you so much that you deserve everything I have. I know that common sense tells me that you would not have me work so hard for you that I am exhausted and no use to anyone; and I wouldn't suggest for one minute that I do work that hard. My struggle is more a mental one; which thing to do is the most urgent/worthy/necessary/appropriate thing to be doing - and stopping to sit and contemplate, stopping completely to listen and do nothing for a while hasn't even been on my radar, let alone in my plans. 

What would people think? 

I can just imagine. 

'There she is, Helen's off on another Quiet Day. She went off in October to sit and draw trees and loll about all day and she's going to do it again. When there's so much needing doing!'

Going to do it again?  Oh yes. I am. 

And you know what else I learned on Tuesday? That there's a Biblical base for this idea. Oh yes there is!  (I am sensing a bit of eye-rolling here, Lord. Bear with me. I am but a child.)

St Paul (himself) tells us that we should live peaceful lives. Here it is in a few different translations:

'...that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.' 
1 Timothy 2:2 NIV

'...so that we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation.'
1 Timothy 2:2 The Message

'...so that we can live in peace and quietness, spending our time in godly living and thinking much about the Lord.'
1 Timothy 2:2 The Living Bible

See?  The penny drops. Are the angels cheering?

So, I need to find space, peace, quietness. I need more simplicity, more contemplation. I am liking the sound of that. And then if I get this piece of the jigsaw in place, my life should start to reflect you more. It may take a long time, I guess, but the more time I spend with you, the more this should leak out into my life, into all that I do

'Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.'
1 Thessalonians 4:11

I am going to make it my ambition. I know that I am sitting here now writing away with coffee after coffee and full of hope and good intentions and then this afternoon I am going to get a haircut, call at the supermarket (kitchen roll; left it off the list after all, also bananas), then collect the children, cook tea and clean the bathroom and then by evening time collapse in a not-very-contemplative-more-telly-watching sort of mode. I know that I am only taking baby steps and this might not change very quickly.

But I am going to change this. I am going to spend more time with you. I am going to get a grip and stop being swept along on a tide of well-intentioned busyness trying to meet everyone's expectation but yours. 

In 1 Peter 3:4 Peter encourages women with unbelieving husbands to live this way so that they may win them over by demonstrating '...the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.'

Hmm. Think you'd better ask Bryan about the gentle and quiet spirit. Still, I am a work in progress. May my spirit become ever gentler and quieter!

Mr Horsfall concludes this part of his book (as I was concluding my tuna and rocket sandwich - and very nice it was too) by quoting someone else, Henri Nouwen, in his book 'The Way of the Heart':

'There is always one more phone call, one more letter, one more visit, one more meeting, one more book, one more party. Together these form an insurmountable pile of activities. The contrast between the great support for the idea of prayer and the lack of support for the practice of it is so blatantly visible.' 

My first thought when reading this was that I should get hold of his book as it sounds interesting and then hot on the heels of that thought was that it was just 'one more book'.... I should skip to the prayer bit. 

Just glancing at my To Do list reveals that yes, I need to make two phone calls 'urgently', I have three letters that I'm halfway through writing, several people who are expecting me to visit, lots of meetings on the calendar, more books on the bedside table than you could shake a stick at and, well, not so many parties, but still. An insurmountable pile of activities. 

A quiet life.

Thankyou Father God. 
Thankyou for your endless patience. 
Thankyou for every baby step that you guide me to take. 
Please help me to carry this little revelation on instead of letting it languish under a pile of Things To Do. 

I started my Quiet Day in tears and ended it smiling. I started it with a jumble of thoughts and worries and ended it with a bit of peace and fresh ideas. I started it with despair and ended it with determination. 

When I sat down at the window, the horizon was foggy and blurred where the rain was falling on the hills in the distance and by the time I left the hills were crisp and sunlit. I know this parallel is a bit on the cheesy side but hey, it's true and I like it. 

Thankyou for my tree, my symbol of your permanence, your strength and your steadfast faithfulness. Thankyou for this book and your message to me that I don't have to meet everyone's expectation; only yours. An audience of one. Thankyou that you are not impressed by how much I do, but you want me to be still and listen. To life a quiet life. 

'Be still and know that I am God.'
Psalm 46:10

You are indeed. 

Thanks for the reminder, Lord. 













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