Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hands together and eyes closed: a thousand days

So, God. 

At church we've had a Thousand Days of Prayer. We started this adventure on 11 October 2009 and we're about to finish it in a few days. Now, this is not to say that our church was devoid of prayer or pray-ers before that date, or that it will be all over and done with on 7 July 2012, but it was a specific focus for a specific length of time. We did things a bit differently. There were new initiatives and people have said over and over again that during this time they found new direction, or new depth, or new insight into prayer.

So what has changed?

Me?  Are you asking me

Ah. Well.  I still don't really know what prayer is. I have more books on my shelves about it than I had before; indeed I'm reading one right now. Two actually. I know that prayer is a way of meeting with you. If I could only learn to do it right I think that I would find that many things slipped into place. I think cultivating a consistent and faithful prayer life is a way of tuning in to your heart - the more time I spend with you in prayer, the more likely I am to recognise your voice in my life, and to discern the course you would have me take. Therefore, I am more likely to walk closely by your side, and more likely to fulfil my potential. Live fully.

So why is it so hard?  To draw close to you and listen as well as rabbit on. To be still.  I have time to read, plant seeds (even if I then forget to water them),  to have coffee with friends and surf the internet - why are you, the Creator of the Universe, Almighty God, so often bottom of the list? 

Coffee with Jesus, then.  Right now. Caf or decaf? I imagine you don't take sugar, do you?

Prayer is a privilege. An honour to have your ear. I'm sorry that so often I bend it with my selfish little woes and worries and then dash off before you get to chip in with anything that you want to say. 

So here is what I have learned during our Thousand Days of Prayer.

Beautiful. 
I have learned that when I give you a little, you give me back so much. I pick a daisy before it's squashed by the lawnmower and I hand it to you with a shy smile and you beam at me with delight and joy and you bring me a breathtaking wildflower meadow that stretches as far as the eye can see, complete with stream and vivid kingfishers, wonderful oak trees, deep blue sky and warm sun. I give you a tiny, common little flower and you invite me to sit and enjoy with you with the grass soft underneath me and the sun warm on my back and a fantastic view to the hills. 

I glance at you momentarily and you are so pleased with me that you bathe me in the beauty and light of your steady gaze. 

We make eye contact, you and me. I always look away first. 

I've learned that whatever prayer is, it is many things. I've learned that I can spend a day with a special friend and we talk about you. We talk about our hopes, our dreams, our plans and our troubles and we constantly dip back into you as we talk. We're getting better at it, these days. We are starting to know when to say, 'No, that's not how it is. That isn't the truth.' We sit at a table, my friend and I, and you sit there with us, as sure as eggs are eggs. Those mornings you are there too and we have come to recognise your presence. We sigh and we cry and yes, we complain and we lament - we could write our own psalms, and sometimes we do. But we laugh and we build and we cheer and we hope. 

That's prayer. It's an offering to you. Imperfect, yes. But it's full of your Spirit too. Whether we walk or sit, eat cake or do our best to abstain, you bless us. It's praise and worship and prayer.

I've learned that you love me so much and that you love to hear me talk to you and that you don't become angry and exasperated every time my attention wanders. That all isn't lost if I fall asleep mid-prayer. That you are a God of infinite forgiveness and that you honour my efforts, small as they are. You know where my heart is.  You're patient with my baby steps and you are happy to take my hand and lead me to the next thing when I'm ready. You don't rush me. You don't get irritable. You smile and you comfort and help me to follow. 

I've learned that I pray best when I write down what I want to say. Whether it's here, or in my journal, or in my Happy Book where I write down answered prayers and anecdotes and wonderful things that I've noticed, I have a need to record what's in my head. It keeps me focused. More focused. Facebook and YouTube are only a click away.

I've learned that I don't have to try to be someone I'm not when I'm with you. I don't have to dress up my language to speak in a way that seems holier or more appropriate for a conversation with God. How amazing is that? You made me how I am. If I have something to say, you know it before I've said it, so where's the point in translating it into lofty language as if somehow that's more what you want? You see the raw me, there's no hiding. Better just to say it. I've learned that you're generous enough not to worry when I don't express myself particularly well. You're all-knowing, after all. You get the gist easily enough. 
Cake. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't.
Usually we do.

I've noticed that when I do talk to you like this, time after time I start my prayer in one frame of mind and finish it in another. Whether it's a childish rant about the unfairness of life, or a prayer of overwhelmed worship, you draw me to you and I cannot help but heal a little bit. 

Your grace is beyond my imagination. 

I'm beginning to learn to hear your voice in my life. To pay attention to the little things that appear in my head each day. To be faithful to those little nudges and suggestions - call this person, send a text to someone, ask a question. Tell them they look beautiful, don't just think it. It's amazing that when I do as I'm told in this respect I then find that the co-incidences pile up. They were just thinking about me!  At that very moment they needed something very specific, and here it is!  I'm starting to recognise that look of recognition and astonishment, and I'm realising more and more how you use people to get my attention this way, too.  

Funny how there are more co-incidences when I pray. 

I've learned that I don't have to be on my knees to pray, though I'm certain there are times when that's the way I should be. I've learned that I can walk down the street with my iPod playing music in my ears, and you and me are having a wonderful time together. I've learned that I can sit in the garden and watch a bumble bee and offer the delight in my heart to you, and that's prayer just as surely as standing at the lectern in church with written intercession is prayer. That I can sit on the edge of my daughter's bed at night and kiss their forehead, inhale the warm fragrance of them and offer you the intensity of the emotion in my heart - the scale of my love for them, the guilt when I let them down, the hopes I have for them, the need to protect them, the overwhelming size of the job of being a mother. All that is prayer. 

You're there in the washing up too.
I've learned that I don't need to have my hands together to pray. They can be full of dishes or shopping bags or busy tap-tapping at my computer. They can be full of small girls or compost and seedlings or cradling a cup of coffee, and still they can be open to you. When my hands are tightly clenched in fists, that's when I'm struggling. When they're balled up in rage, or when I'm holding onto something so tightly that my knuckles are white, that's when I need to open my hands. That's when, if I let you, you gently peel each finger back until my hands are wide enough to receive the gifts that you want to give me. 

And what gifts they are. Nothing I could grasp in this world compares, and yet so often I find my hands so full of trivial things that I don't have room for the treasures you are holding out. 

I've learned that I don't need my eyes closed to pray. Quite often I find that it's a positive disadvantage to close my eyes, as sleep is constantly on the agenda and a nap is far too tempting. I find over and over that if my eyes are open, properly open, then I see you close by.  From ladybirds to lightning, rainbows and toothpasty smiles from my little girls, my eyes see your glory. The more I see, the more I pray. 

It's more than a shopping list of requests. Prayer is thanksgiving, worship, confession, amazement and recognition. It's about falling on my face, shouting, scowling, crying and howling. Laughing with you, listening to you, accepting when I'm wrong. It's about restoration, relaxation, a chat with a friend. Being stirred, challenged, comforted. It's all those things and I'm not very good at it.

But I'm learning.

Lord God, thank you that there is no one way to pray, because we are all unique.  The shape of my relationship with you is different from the way my friend relates to you. Thankyou that you delight in our individuality and you don't want us to mould ourselves to be all the same. Thankyou for liturgy and formality and for prayer where we lift our hands in the air and call out to you. Thankyou for silence and singing. For shouts and groans and tears and laughter, all of which you accept if we offer them to you as our prayer. 

Thankyou for this thousand days of prayer. May it be only a beginning, because I suspect that a lifetime of thousand days won't be enough to unravel it. We've just begun to dig below the surface and I know that this soil is so fertile that it's worth going deeper and deeper.

Thankyou again that you take what little we give and you give us back so much. 






Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Dwelling in your house

Evening, God.

I have so much to say and a few hours ago I felt like saying it. Right now I'm wondering when it might be decent for me to climb into bed and my eyelids are drooping at the very thought of it. But I'm going to make the effort. That's big of me, isn't it?

Here it is. Earlier today I read this:

'One thing I ask of the Lord
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.'

Psalm 27:4

I read this and I thought, 'Yes.'  That's what I want to do. I have read this psalm a few times and this was the first time that it leapt off the page and made my heart respond, 'Yes.'

I don't know about the 'One thing I ask of the Lord...' part; I have quite a list of things I regularly ask, but I know what this psalmist meant. I look forward to the day when I simply sit in your house and gaze up at you. I will live with you and I will spend eternity watching and listening and singing and soaking you up. I can't wait.

So on one hand, this is what I long to do. This is what my life aims towards; it's what I'm for. I have this longing because I was built and wired that way. But...and there's a big 'But'... there are a few obstacles before the eternity thing, aren't there?

The biggest one is the need to go on living life until it's time for eternity.

Tonight I made a lovely nutritious dinner for my family that took quite a while to prepare. I asked my eldest daughter to clear some toys from the table (yes, even if they weren't actually her toys but those of her little sister) and to set the table, which she did, grumpily, with heavy sighs. When the food was ready they both complained that their television programme hadn't finished. Eventually we did sit down to eat, but the meal was over in the blink of an eye. A tiny fraction of the time it'd taken to get ready. Elizabeth wouldn't eat her vegetables, Katy wouldn't eat her mashed potato. I found myself clearing pots in an empty kitchen once again and wondering why I bothered.

As Bryan was reading a story to the children I decided to run myself a bath; a rare occurrence in the week as I can always be sure that the moment I climb in to the bubbles one or both of the girls will shout or appear at the side of the tub with some pressing request or grievance. I put in my lovely new fragrant bath foam, I placed a book and a towel to rest my head by the bath and I stepped in.

Brrr.

There hadn't been enough hot water left after the children's bath and two loads in the washing machine. It was a very brief bath. I found myself getting dressed again muttering the word, 'Grace. Grace.' under my breath. Time for bed with a coffee and a book.

Nope.

I made a coffee, I put my feet up, I picked up my book. That was about the time that the children organised themselves into a tag team and came in alternately for the next half hour with many and varied requests. At one point I even ventured downstairs and microwaved my coffee warm again but it soon chilled for the second time. By the time the girls had conked out in their own beds, my eyes were too wibbly to concentrate and I ended up putting my bookmark back in the book in exactly the same place as it had been when I optimistically placed it by the bath.

How does life fit in with dwelling in your house?  I know that being close to you isn't something that only happens after I die. I know that life is made up of the things like this - the demands of family life, keeping on doing the things that nobody notices, trying my very best not to be devastatingly grumpy and snappy when there's no hot water left for me. I need to get the two things to live together, somehow.

Grace.

I need so much more of it. I find that I want peace and quiet when the children want attention. They should get the attention, but it's so hard. I know that they will only be young once and if I don't take them up on their offer of a Moshi Monsters' Mission now the invitation might not be extended again. Hmm. Perhaps that was a bad example. I know that a time will come when they no longer want 'just one more story', and yet I find myself resenting the fact that they won't go to bed and leave me alone. And then there's the guilt.

I feel as if my desire to dwell in your house is a selfish one. For me, it sounds great. But just as it wouldn't be fair if I were never around in body when my children need me, it's not fair if I'm continually trying to be somewhere else in spirit either. This is why I need to try to find out what dwelling in your house means, while I'm on the go. While I'm cooking food that nobody seems to appreciate, while I'm stepping on and sweeping up discarded Rice Krispies, while I'm grinding my teeth because there's no hot water left for me.

Sometimes I amaze myself. Katy asks me to lie down with her (again) at bedtime for a cuddle and I find myself sighing and looking longingly at the door because my evening is tantalisingly close, if only they'll just settle - I have to remind myself that my five year old daughter wants another cuddle. That Is Not A Bad Thing. It's the most wonderful thing in the world. Pull myself together.

Does that sound awful?  I love cuddling Katy.  Despite her protestations to the contrary, she won't be wanting Mummy to lie down with her when she's twenty-one, will she? How can I rush her and disappear to do my own thing?  It makes no sense. Oh, the guilt of motherhood. The way it messes with my head.

Some people say that there will always be a tension between the fact that we are not at home here in this world as we are citizens of heaven, which is our true home. Is that it? Or is it just that I still haven't got my head around the fact that I can't always do the things that I want to do at the time I want to do them?  It's all very well seeking to be with you but I have to learn to do that at the same time as the juggling of daily stuff that requires energy and patience when I'm already running on empty. Retreats and Quiet Days are wonderful -I could definitely do more of those - but they're only of so much value when it's the day to day hamster-wheel that needs shoring up by you.

Katy has a mysterious rash and the very lymph nodes in her neck that the consultants are keeping an eye on are vastly enlarged. Probably it's a miscellaneous infection; I know that in children these nameless viruses sometimes manifest with a rash where in adults they don't. She's waking in the night agitated but can't tell me why. She's well in the daytime, no raised temperature, eating well (except mashed potato, it would seem) and is happy and energetic enough. The rash is probably nothing much and the new level of enlargement of the nodes probably only because of the nothing-much-rash. But...perhaps I should tell the consultant?  Watch and wait, I think. Feel free to interject if you have other ideas, will you?

It's a glorious evening and the garden needs so much attention but I am exhausted. I want to sleep. I did want to have a bath, then a read, then sleep, but right now I'll settle for just the sleep. The weeds in the garden are waist high in places and I have a beautiful new plant that is looking for a spot to live. Don't let me leave it in the pot to die before I clear it a space.

So, Father God, show me how to get the balance right. Show me how to find space when space is to be found but not to resent the times when there is no space. Give me grace to replace the bookmark when someone wails and not to look at them witheringly when their crisis turns out only to be a misplaced piece of Lego. Help me to carry on providing meals and coats and dinner money and fill in forms for school trips with a smile even at those times when nobody seems to appreciate the behind the scenes stuff.

Perhaps I'm dwelling in your house when I'm scraping mashed potato into the bin or loading the dishwasher. Maybe I'm gazing on your beauty as I watch my beautiful girls sleep. Maybe lying next to Katy as she sucks her thumb and plays with my hair at bedtime is seeking you in your temple - and finding you there.

Help me to pick up one more set of pyjamas from the floor and locate Scruffy Barney one more time. Help me read one more story. Help me clear up one more mess.

And help me put the water heater on in time next time I want a bath. 










Thursday, 21 June 2012

Anecdote: Pine Cone

Dear Lord.

Sometimes you do things just for fun, don't you?  Just to be nice.  Just because you know it will make me smile.

Take the other day, for instance. You know that I love pine cones. You know this because you put this thing in me that loves pine cones; you know that I can rarely walk past a pine cone without picking it up, and if it's in good condition you know that I can't help but bring it home. I haven't even been put off by the odd creepy-crawly emerging from a pine cone. As a result, we have a pile of pinecones in the rockery, more on the bookshelves and still more hanging about the kitchen and in the fruit bowl.

The newcomer is on the right.
There's something about a pine cone. Long ones, thin ones, fat ones, big round ones - they're just lovely. The shape of them, the shadows, the texture, the fragrance. Yes, I have a thing for pine cones. 

So, cast your mind back a few decades. I was little, maybe seven or eight, and I was on holiday with my family. Where, I don't remember. We were walking along a path and there were pine-cone-trees right and left. There was dappled sunlight and lots of pine cones on the floor, and I remarked how strange it would be if a pine cone fell from a tree, right in front of me, right now.

And do you know what?  One did

Just like that. A pine cone fell from a tree and landed on the path right in front of me! What are the odds of that?  I was amazed and delighted. I was just happily walking along, thought what a coincidence it would be if a pine cone fell off a tree directly in front of me, and to my intense surprise, one did. 

Or so I thought. For thirty-five years or so, that's what I thought. 

Then came the day when it all fell apart. The conversation was on the subject of pine cones. My brain did a little riffle through the files labelled 'Anecdotes: Pine Cones' and came up with this story. I retold it, with due dramatic emphasis on the wonder of the falling pine cone, and my Mum dropped a bombshell.

'It was Dad.'

In the silence that followed I grew up.  My innocence lay on the floor in tatters. All these years I had believed in the wonderful mystery of the Pine Cone and it turned out that my Dad nipped around behind me, picked up a pine cone, and dropped it in front of me, to my childish astonishment. And then the secret was kept, year after year. Everyone knew but me. I continued to wonder at the marvel, but alas, it was all built on deception.

Hmmph.

You'd think it would have been enough to put me off pine cones, wouldn't you? When I finally did discover the magnitude of the deception I think I might have been forgiven for purging my house of all pine cones and refusing to have one near me ever again. I might have been scarred for life. But no, the humble pine cone was not at fault. My great affection for them remained.

One afternoon last week I was walking back from school with my two girls and they were behind me, negotiating with Grandma about a trip to the ice cream shop on the way home. I paused to let them catch up, and as I stood, looking idly across the road, what should happen but a pine cone. 

Dropped off a tree right in front of me. 

And this time, it did

With a small sound, a tiny brittle thud, a little pine cone fell in the middle of the road and lay there, looking at me. We looked at each other.

The fulfilment of thirty-five years of misapprehension and a few subsequent years of disillusionment. Lying in the middle of the road.  I wanted that pine cone.

Of course, at that very moment, that leafy little road became as busy as the M1 as car after car went past, slaloming in and out of the parked vehicles by the kerb. I didn't take my eyes of my pine cone, quite sure that after it's wondrous and timely appearance it was destined to be squashed beyond recognition by the school traffic. Children and mums I knew from school passed by and looked at us quizzically and I fear I led them to believe that it was one of the children who was insisting on retrieving the fallen pine cone.

'We need the pine cone!' I said by way of explanation, with a wry smile and just a hint of eye rolling. They laughed and nodded in amused recognition at the whimsy of a small child. Yes, we did need the pine cone, but I needed it, not the small children. Ahem.  We waited for the cars to pass, perilously close to my pine cone. 

As the exhaust fumes cleared, it was lying intact. 

Miracle upon miracle. 

So I am the proud owner of another pine cone. This one fresh from the tree. It dropped right down in my line of sight, co-incidentally and in an entirely random way. Nobody reached over my head. I even checked behind me this time. Nobody was there.

Except you. You were there, all around me. You knew about my relationship with pine cones and you knew about Conegate all those years ago. You knew that it would make me smile. You just gave me a present. It cost nothing but it made me smile. I was healed! 

Thank you. For laughter and jokes and family and for pine cones. 

Especially this pine cone. 








Friday, 15 June 2012

What a world

Hello, God.

I had a conversation this morning that was fairly depressing.  I was on my way back from the morning school run and started a conversation with a gentleman who lives near us. He is expecting another grandchild and I referred to the impending happy event with a smile, expecting - well, I don't really know, but surely a positive response. I didn't get one. His face fell, his body language closed up and he shook his head. 

'What a world to bring a child into.'

This was just the introduction; the conversation went on to address such matters as climate change, the exhaustion of the global oil supply, the rise of Islam, the over-fishing of the seas, the destruction of animals' natural habitats and the role of the clairvoyant in the decline of society.

When I finally got home I put the kettle on as a matter of some urgency and after that I glanced at the news headlines. To be added to this litany of doom were the lack of any vague sort of integrity in the political arena in our country, the ever-growing number of soldiers being killed in Afghanistan and the growing financial crisis in Europe. Also knife crime, pornography, the huge divide between rich and poor and the escalating price of vegetables.

What a world to bring a child into.

My neighbour felt pessimistic and hopeless about the way the world is going. I can see his point. When I read so often that we will still be working at seventy-five or eighty years old, that our children won't have decent pay-packets or pensions and will still be paying off debts from college when they're approaching senility it does sometimes get to me. When I hear about people blowing themselves up in terrorist attacks it makes me wonder how on earth we can defend ourselves against those who are willing to die in order to hurt us. When I read that the streets are full of predators who want to assault and abduct our little ones it makes me want to keep us all locked up in the house while we sit on the sofa and eat pizza.

You're in this with us.
My solution to all this is not to read the news very often, but I'm aware that this doesn't make anything any better. What it does do, mind you, is make sure that my head isn't full of the latest atrocity or dire predictions from the latest politician or financier with an axe to grind. I am a worrier. I tend to get anxious about things, even things over which I have no control (I'm sure you've noticed). So I tend not to read the news.

Is my attitude responsible? Possibly not. Sensible? I think so.

Something occurred to me, however. I surprised myself.

I don't feel the same gloom about the future that my neighbour does.

I am the mother of two small children who will in the next thirteen years be leaving school and perhaps going to university, where they will have to finance their ongoing education themselves. The world's resources are diminishing to the point where people suggest that we won't be driving anywhere in twenty years as petrol will be so expensive it will be the preserve of the wealthy only. The standard of living is likely to be in decline. The ice caps might melt, or freeze, or stay the same and the sea levels might rise or fall and there may or may not be any fish swimming about in them. I have every reason to be concerned about the state of the world that they will one day inhabit as grown ups.

So why aren't I worried? Why aren't I filled with misery and fear on this topic?

I wasn't sure, this morning. I don't really know about any of these subjects sufficiently to debate them, so it may well be as ominous as my neighbour suggests. But I feel hopeful nonetheless.

We're not showing our beautiful planet the respect that it deserves. We are making some bad mistakes; we are living in a culture of violence and inequality. All these things need looking at and sorting out. Every last one of us needs to change the way we think and the way we act. But it's not the end of the story. I realised when I'd rehashed the conversation a few times what it was that was missing.

You.

Yes, things are pretty dire. Prices are up and wages are down. Bad things are happening. But you are still in your heaven, and therefore all is well.

I have a hope. I look at my children and I see their beauty and their talents and their potential and I have such hopes for them. I hope that they will find out what you want for their lives and I pray that they will learn to listen for your voice and to see you in the world as they go through life.  Their relationship with you has infinitely more bearing on their happiness or wellbeing than any oilfield or invoice from the student loans company.

You are with us. You're with me and you're with them. You have a special place in your heart for children.

Father, it seems to me that it's all about perspective. I am the world's worst at losing perspective and becoming all het up and anxious about things beyond my control, but for some reason you were in my heart this morning and the lengthy conversation about the decline of civilisation as we know it failed to bring me down. Thankyou that you were there.

I feel as if I should be working up to some punchline or other, and sadly I'm not. I don't have any breathtaking insights about these things. I live in a world where our leaders sometimes lie. People do bad things. But I trust you.

You are good. You are all that is good. You are the Healer, the Comforter, the Guide, the Way and the Truth and the Life. You are the centre, and all else is trivia.

I don't mean that I shouldn't be concerned about global warming or cooling, or whatever it is; I suppose I should think about it more often when I put another degree on the thermostat on a chilly night. I know that to bury my head in the sand isn't the best way to do my bit in all these areas, but what I think I mean is that to focus on the negative (and there is plenty of negativity) at the exclusion of the good and the joyful and the optimistic is to deny your place in it all.  You love our world. It is not a bad place.  You made it, you pronounced it good, and you are invested in it.

You love me, and you love my children. You love all the children, and you're waiting for the birth of this baby with delight and anticipation, for you know all about him already. You can't wait to see the faces of his proud parents on the day he arrives. The world he is coming into is yours. You hold it in the palm of your hand.  You are the only one who is able to determine when it's time to give up on it.

Father, thank you for the hope that I have.
Thankyou that I can look to the future with hope rather than despair.
Thankyou that you are there for the next generation in the same way that you have been there for all the other generations. No baby is born without you as a witness. Nobody takes a breath without your permission.

Thankyou that there's nothing we can do to earn your love.
Thankyou that you don't erase us from the earth with one word for all the evil that we do.
Thankyou that we can look to the future with joy because you are always with us, just waiting for us to know you better.

What a world to bring a child into.

I sat on the bench in the garden with a coffee and a slice of toast and I contemplated the things around me. This tiny, tiny part of your immense planet. The sun was warm on my shoulders, the birds were singing and singing. I would really like to find out the difference between a wood pigeon and a collared dove, by the way. I will google it later. We've had so much rain lately that everything is a vivid, vibrant green. The peonies and lupins and poppies are blooming. The children in the playground at school were shouting and laughing.

It isn't a terrible, depressing, fearful place. It's a beautiful world full of wonder and colour and excitement and contains men and women who are inspired to do marvellous things in your name. A world full of potential for learning and exploration and delight. A world full of you. The beginning and the end.

What a world to bring a child into.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

A minor prophet

Afternoon, Lord.

I was reading something someone had written in an online diary the other day. They were asking and asking you what they should do with their life. Surely there's more to it than this?  The school run, the laundry, the shopping, the tidying... Where are the great things you want me to do, God?  Questions like that. 

Questions that I've asked as well. Sometimes I think I hear your answers and other times I strain to listen but all I hear is silence (and that little ringing noise that doesn't go away - any chance of a quick fix there?).  I know that I'm not on my own when I open my hands and my heart in front of you and ask you to tell me what to do with this life I'm living. There's so much literature about finding our path, our 'sweet spot', our purpose in life. It's all very inspiring; there's good Bible-based wisdom in it all. I want to do great things for you. I want to be involved in your Plan for the world. Not a bystander, not someone who takes the line of least resistance, but someone that you trust with a unique job to do. I want to understand what that job is and I want to do it well and I want to meet you one day and find you smiling. 

So the reply that my online friend received when she asked, 'What about me? What should I do with my life?' surprised me. You said, 'Just be.'

Be.

I'm not sure that this was the answer she was expecting. I know that there's a season for everything, and I know that this lady's life is busy with small children and work and other commitments and I know that her questions were born of a desperation to change from the humdrum to the extraordinary. To find some purpose that transcends the everyday. 

I want that too, Father. I love the full-colour roller coaster of life lived for you. I don't want to go back to the black and white or pale pastel way things were before. I want to experience all that you have for me. Fulfil my potential. Push at the boundaries and be all that I can be. 

It all feels about motion. Action. Dynamism. Excitement and suspense! Not stopping, waiting, resting, just be-ing. In fact that sounds a bit disappointing. 

And then I did that thing I do where I suddenly join up the dots. A few things that have been whirling round in my head like atoms flying around each other spontaneously collide. Ha! 

Just rewind a bit. A couple of months ago, I was leafing through my Bible and I came to the book of Micah. I didn't think I'd ever read any Micah but remarkably, there were a few notes in the margin. It turns out Micah is a minor prophet, and I learn that this doesn't mean that he was small in stature, or young, or not-very-important, it just means that he wasn't as prolific as other prophets like Isaiah or Ezekiel.  

He said some good stuff. He said that the Shepherd would be born in Bethlehem and would be the peace of his people. Oh yes. He said that he will shepherd his flock in strength and majesty and that his greatness will reach the ends of the earth. Amen to that. 

Micah also made some fairly dire pronouncements and a lot of stuff that I'd have to read with a commentary in my other hand, but I found this in chapter 6.
'With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?'
Micah 6: 6-7

What can I do for you, Father? 
What can I give you to show you how I feel about you? 
What should my offering be, now that we don't burn things? 
What do you want me to do with my life?  
How can I do great things for you? 

And then:
'He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.'
Micah 6:8

I liked this. I underlined it and drew a line down the margin. It seems to me to be a wonderful summary of everything you ask of us. 

Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

I filed it away. 

Some time later, a song I didn't know came on my worship CD in the car. 
'What shall I bring before the Lord?
And bow my knee before my God?
Extravagant sacrifice?'
(Andy Bromley, 'Love Mercy' 2004 Kingsway)

That sounded familiar. It's based on that bit from the minor prophet, isn't it? What's his name...
'Can I give you a thousand words
Or please you with ten thousand songs?
Extravagant sacrifice?'
Oh. This bit got my attention. I might not do songs (except when there's nobody else in the house, when I might turn it up loud), but I do words. Lots of them. I am full of words. When words fail me it's time to lie down. I love words. I always have something to say, and that's just it: I want to use them. For you! I want to write to you, about you, with you and through you. It's what I do. 

Can I please you with my words? 
'But you have shown us what is good
Through the message of your Son
Show justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.'
Micah. That's his name. He was saying that what you want is simple. You want us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you.  Burnt offerings? No, that day is done.  Extravagant sacrifice? Nope. You don't want that. It's simple. 

Be. 

This is good: do what is right. Be kind. Walk humbly with you. 

Maybe you have something bold and dramatic in store for each of me, now or some time in the future. Maybe you do and maybe you don't, but what comes first is the basic requirement. You have shown us what is good and this is it.  As the Message Bible puts it:
'It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously - Take God seriously.'
Micah 6:8 MSG

What do you want me to do with my life, Father?  Ah. You've already told me. 

Yes, I have gifts that I want to use to the full.  I want to do everything that you want me to in order to realise all the potential I have. I don't want to bury my talents in the ground, I want to invest them and give you back abundant returns. I want to be trusted with much, and make it wonderful for your glory. I want to make you laugh with delight.

But maybe I do already. You love me just as I am, right now, right here. Sitting here with cold feet and cold coffee and an imperfect mind that tends to wander when I try to spend a little bit of time with the Almighty God. It's much simpler than finding my sweet spot, or my hidden talents to tell me what you would have me do with my life; you have already told me the most important thing, which is how to be.
' And what does the Lord require of you?To act justly and to love mercyand to walk humbly with your God.'
If I get this bit right I wonder how many other things might fall into place? Get the everyday attitude to living right and you might teach me how to fly. If I want the icing on the cake I need the sponge bit first, don't I? And these are the ingredients. 

Justice, mercy, humility, God. 

Father, forgive me when I try to run before I can walk. Forgive me that I want to get ahead and start the exciting things. I have dreams and plans and hopes and I know that you're in them... so I want to thank you for reminding me of the foundations to the whole thing. They need to be solid, and the only place to build is on the Rock.

Maybe I need to learn how to be before I can learn how to do

Two lines in a book of the Bible written by a minor prophet. I could miss Micah so easily as I flip past. He's only short (might have been a giant for all I knew, but he chose his words carefully) but he packs quite a punch. 

Help me not to start to think I've got it sorted. Help me with the justice thing and the mercy bit as well. As a mother of young children too often I'm called to adjudicate and all the time I'm critical and irritable. Help me to do what is right. Help me to be kind even when I feel like hitting back. Remind me of your amazing forgiveness of me when I'm tempted to withhold mine from someone who's upset me. Show me the world through your eyes so that I can see what you see. 

Andy Bromley's song again:
My love more than a thousand words  
My praise more that ten thousand songsExtravagant sacrifice.'
The way I live is more of an offering than anything I might achieve. It's what you've asked for. 

I can't do anything or create anything that could honour you more than to turn over to you all that I already am. 

You have shown me what is good: to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with you. 

That'll do for me. 









Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Stepping off the edge

I've got something on my mind.

Oh, hello, God.

Sorry about that. It's just that I have something on my mind.  I'm preoccupied.

I think something has happened but it might turn out not to have happened at all and it would be helpful if you would clarify things, please, because I keep turning it over in my mind.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a sermon which used the image of a person jumping off a diving board to illustrate the idea of stepping out in faith.

A diving board.  The image was that I am standing on a diving board, one of those springy ones, and my toes are curling around the edge, and I'm looking down, and my arms are out to balance me, but it seems a long way to the water and I'm getting more and more nervous. I stand there, looking down, wondering how far there is to drop before I hit the water, and thinking about jumping.

I'm considering it; shall I? Thinking 'Yes, I will...' but still too scared to jump.

Perhaps you have so much more for me than I am experiencing. Maybe I need to jump.  Just jump. Stop thinking, stop weighing it up, stop contemplating the pros and cons. Dive in. Immerse myself. Jump in so that you envelop me, cover me. Your waters will meet over my head.

I could swim in you. You would surround me. You would soak me. You would hold me up.

But...isn't there always a but? So often I teeter on the edge for a while and then back away. It's unknown. I don't know how deep it is, or how cold it is. It's too far down. It's too scary. Too costly, perhaps.

Too much for me. I reverse along the board and back to safety.

I don't jump.

I sat in church and soaked up the sermon. I liked the image. I swim a lot (well, I did when I was on my last get-in-shape crusade and I know that there's another one coming) and at the end of the pool are three diving boards at different heights. When I was younger I used them all, and my favourite was the middle springboard.  With a bounce, bounce, bounce I launched myself into the water full of joy. These days I am much more sedate and I use the steps to lower myself gingerly into the water, struggling for a shred of dignity, but I remember those joyful days. In my head I can still dive in from the top one. The spirit is willing...

It worked for me, this image. A diving board - yes. Immersed in my God - yes! We sang the last songs and I went home.

Can't say that I thought about it much more.

In the middle of that night, I had a dream. Vivid and memorable, if brief. I was standing on a diving board. A springboard, just like the one in the sermon.

I stood on the diving board, toes curled around the edge. I looked down. It seemed a long way.

Then, I'm not sure what happened next; I don't know if I jumped or lost my balance, but I was falling. I was terrified and I woke myself up with a scream.

Sat up in bed and reached for the lamp, heart pounding. I actually screamed. I think the sound was more like one of those strangled sort of noises that you make in your sleep but in the dream it was a bloodcurdling scream.

So, Father, what does that mean? Does it mean something, because I can't get it out of my head. In church I liked the idea of jumping off the board into your love. I wanted to be immersed in you. I wanted to swim in your love and experience you in every way that you want me to. It seems as if in my dream I had different ideas.

I'm no expert on dream interpretation and I don't know anyone who is. It just seems like a strange co-incidence that I had this dream straight after the sermon on being unafraid to dive in. To commit oneself wholeheartedly.  Are you showing me that I haven't yet dived in, even if I think that I have?  Are you telling me that I am hesitating to take that final step with something? Are you telling me to get a grip because it's inevitable? Or are you just asking me what I'm afraid of?

I'm asking myself that as well.

Or - and this is a distinct possibility because I have a fertile imagination and a tendency to over-think - did I have a dream about diving boards and it turned into one of those ever-so-common falling dreams that are caused by chemicals in the brain and that's all there is to it?

I don't know. What I do know is that I do want to dive in. I want to bounce, bounce, bounce and then hurl myself headlong into you. I want to feel the cool water close over my head and I want to luxuriate in the depths of you. I want to swim and dive and float and explore everything that there is to explore. If I am teetering on the edge then I don't know why, because I trust you. I know you're there to catch me. I know that you won't magically vanish the moment I step off the edge. I know you're deep enough and wide enough and long enough to encompass me completely.

Maybe I'm a bit scared. A bit. With every step in my life that I get closer to you there are more challenges.  Life gets a bit harder; a bit more scary. I step out in faith and I find that I'm in unfamiliar surroundings. I can only see the step I'm on and yet you're asking me to put one foot in front of the other even though I don't know where that foot will land. What if the ground falls away? What if it's uneven and rocky? What if I sink?

I know that you are right next to me and yet I hesitate. I know that if I stick my head above the parapet in the Christian life I might get shot at. Oh, Father, give me more faith. More confidence. Show me how to take what I know to be true and stand on it. You're right there, smiling, beckoning, telling me it's ok to jump. Come on in! The Water's lovely.

So I was on the diving board and I was scared. I don't want to live my life like that. I want to be bold and secure and confident. I want to rise to the occasion. If you want me to step off, I don't want to hang back.

Father, I want to dive and swim in your love and I want to emerge from the water soaked in you. I want to experience all that you have for me in my life even if it involves stepping off into the unknown. I believe that you have brought me so far and you're not about to abandon me now.

I don't know if this was just a trivial dream, but it's certainly made me think. Have I really abandoned all that I am to you? Or am I holding back?

Do I run to the end of the board and jump into the air confident in your presence beneath to catch me or do I hesitate and falter?
Am I fully committed?
Am I afraid of making too big a splash? Attracting attention? Maybe I am too self conscious to hurl myself off the board with gusto.

Lord, thank you that you are big enough and strong enough to catch me when I jump and even when I trip and fall. Thankyou that your life-giving waters are always deep enough for me. You never run dry. You have depths that I cannot imagine.

Give me courage to jump today and to keep on jumping each day, each challenge - even when the boards get higher and higher and the low ground seems much safer. Increase my faith and take away my hesitation.

I remember the very first time I stepped off the top board at the swimming pool. I stood right on the edge, just as I did in my dream. I could feel the edge of the board under my toes. It seemed very high indeed, but I was determined. I'd been up there and climbed back down the steps more times than I could count, but this time was going to be my time. I didn't look down. I knew that the water was just where it had been last time I was swimming in it.

I focused on the clock at the far end of the pool and, eyes fixed on that clock I stepped off the edge.

I am focused. This time my eyes are fixed on you.

I'm going to jump.










Saturday, 9 June 2012

Just because

Here I am, Lord. 

I know that you don't forget about me for a second, but I'd understand if I sort of make you jump a bit by suddenly dropping in like this. It's been a while. I bet you're getting used to my absence, are you? 

My head's been full of things, both inspiring and uplifting things that require close examination, and also big bags of rubbish that need leaving by the bin for the next collection. It's all been in there. 

It still is, really. I'm doing my best to work through some of it. The last few days have just been jam-packed with things that require filing somewhere in the immense, disorganised filing cabinet in my head. At the moment they're just a pile. I need to label them either 'Important; action required' or 'File: to consider later' or 'Shred'.

So, there's a job for later. I took my inspiration for that little bit of imagery from the towering pile of paperwork accumulating in my kitchen, which is also on the 'To Do' list. Only much, much further down.

So, why am I here? You're bracing yourself for the punchline, aren't you? Not that you don't know what I'm going to say...

I'm here just to be here

I'm here to say hello. To smile up at you. To tell you that I love you.

You know what it reminds me of? The other day I found Katy rummaging through the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen where I keep vases for flowers. Alarmed at the energy with which she was moving glass and crystal out of the way I offered to help and after a lengthy process of elimination she found what she wanted. A small, squat glass pot.

Minutes later she appeared at my elbow beaming up at me.

'For you, Mummy. Because I love you.'

Four buttercups in a pot. A little offering. Made my day.

So here I am to offer you my buttercups. Well, your buttercups. Or the equivalent of buttercups.

I love you. 

I haven't got an agenda.

Well, of course, I do have an agenda but you know it already. You know the myriad of unanswered questions in my head and you know the anxieties and puzzles and complaints that are on the tip of my tongue, but you'll also know that I am putting them on one side right now because it's a long, long time since I just came to say hello.

Hello, God. How's things where you are? 

What are you thinking right now? What do you want to tell me? Can you make yourself heard through the noise in my head? 

Teach me to still myself, Father. I want to learn to grab the peaceful time I can get while the children are occupied and manage to make the most of it without waiting until I have an entire morning or a whole hour to myself. If I tell myself that I can only come to spend time with you when I have a decent stretch of quiet time to spare I'll never come. If I need peace, and solitude, and a few hours all to myself with no stress and no obligation and no phone ringing or need to be somewhere - then I'll find precious few times that fit the bill. You and me will end up waving to each other from a distance for months until I grind to a halt because I'm so depleted that I involuntarily drop all the things I'm carrying. 

So I'm here. I realise that I haven't even been able to come into your presence for two minutes without asking you for something despite my protestations that it's my intention just to be. All that 'please, God' and 'show me...' and 'teach me...' and 'will you...'  It's endless.

Sorry.

Lord God, I think you're great. I do. I don't know what I'd have done without you this last week. On Wednesday I spoke at a friend's thanksgiving service and I was so anxious about whether I'd be able to do it without breaking down. I knew that you wanted me to; I knew that you had your hand on the whole thing right from the start, and so deep down I knew that if you'd brought me this far you wouldn't desert me as I tried to do it. You didn't desert me; you were there and it was fine. Hard, but fine. You held my hand and I felt your presence as clearly as if you were standing next to me. Thankyou. So much. 

It's been raining for days. Heavy rain that makes a wonderful sound on the roof windows and light rain that makes you think you might not get wet as you nip out for a loaf of bread and then soaks you through before you get out of the drive. The grass is so green that it's almost an unnatural colour; it's emerald green. Glowing green. And growing fast. It's the sort of grass that makes me want to take my shoes off as it looks so lush. But it's a bit chilly too so I'll just admire it from the window. The baby begonias planted in the troughs outside the front door are thriving; they are vividly green and starting to flower even though they're tiny. The reservoirs are filling up after dire warnings about drought. 

Today I met a friend and we took about thirty children to a soft play place that was heaving with people because it's the half term holiday and it's raining, so where else would you take the kids when they're desperate to use up some energy? Actually, there were only six children but it felt like many, many more. I'm not complaining. It was a good morning. Lots of things went wrong, stress levels were occasionally quite high; it seemed that at no point in the morning were all six children happy at the same time, but it was a good morning. I realise that I'm not much different from the children myself. They spent the whole time at the play centre offloading grievances about each other; 'He hit me!' 'She said I was a baby!' 'He wouldn't let me go first!' and then the minute we climb into the car to come home they're telling me what a fantastic time they've had.

It was a morning full of interruptions and irritations but I got to spend it with a friend, and even though it was noisy and hot and even though we have a million conversations hanging in the air still, it wasn't a bad way to pass a morning. I think you knew that we needed topping up a little bit - I know it sounds trivial (it is trivial!) but there was a point when we had six irritable children, rain beating down and the possibility of a lengthy wait to get into a packed play centre in the middle of nowhere and I said, 'Please God, we need a little miracle.'

You provided one. We got in pretty much in the time it took to take off six pairs of wet shoes. We found a table, we got coffee. How's that? 

You're a God who cares about the little things. You cared about our stressful morning. You cared about small children with too much energy for a half term holiday of wall-to-wall rain. You cared about me and my friend getting a glimpse of each other and the chance to share the moments between bouts of refereeing, encouraging, commiserating, feeding and soothing. You were there. 

Lord, I just want to praise you because you are worthy of praise. I give it all back to you because it's yours already. You are faithful in the small things and in the big things. On Wednesday night at the thanksgiving service, and on Friday morning at the overcrowded play centre. You are there in the form of a tiny bird cheeping away on my arm and in the form of a friend with a smile when the rain is heavy and the skies are dark. You are there in coffee and hugs and green, green grass. 

So I wanted to drop in and tell you that it hasn't gone unnoticed. Well, I bet lots of things have gone unnoticed, because you rain down your blessings in quantity and quite often I'm oblivious to so many of them. But I noticed a few, and so here I am to tell you thank you. It means a lot.

May I soak up your blessings up as the flowerbeds are soaking up the rain right here. I pray that my own spiritual water-table is filling up nicely. I don't want a drought around here. 

Thankyou, Lord God. 

You are good. 

All the time. 




Monday, 4 June 2012

You are with me

Well, God. 

Been a busy few days, what with Jubilee things happening right, left and centre and the children on holiday. It's been a couple of days full of people and laughter and good things going on. It's been a happy time. I could go on and on about family - immediate family and church family and the wider church, or I could go on about the Queen and her sixty years of reign and how cold she looked on her barge on the Thames yesterday watching an endless flotilla with impressive dignity and stoicism despite the dismal weather.

But I won't. Or at least, I may well witter on about all those things at some point but there's one thing that happened in the last couple of days that stands out for me. It pressed all my buttons. It was only a little thing (actually, very small indeed) but it was a Big Thing for me. 

We were at the Jubilee picnic at church, which turned out to be a bit of an indoor event, thanks to incessant rain for an entire day, but at least we got to watch the events in London from the warmth of the church centre instead of a freezing boat in the middle of a river. I do admire the Queen. At no point was she seen with a Thermos or a thick blanket, and where the younger Royals were hopping from foot to foot and shivering she stood her ground with head held high. A bit of a grim expression from time to time, but she didn't knock off early and call it a day because she fancied a warm bath and a glass of wine. If a job's worth doing... Amazing stuff. 

Anyway. 

We watched some of the coverage indoors and we ate our picnics and we made bunting (how British is that?) and we painted faces and we did quizzes and we cheered on the little ones as they stumbled about in three legged races and the egg and spoon. When it came to the sack race, however, health and safety common sense dictated that we should brave the drizzle and nip outside so that the kids didn't fracture skulls on the wooden floors. So that's what we did. 

I didn't see any of the sack races at all, even though my own little girls took part in at least two races and had such a good time that they were full of it later. As they lined up at the starting line I went to stand under a tree to get a bit of shelter (didn't work, actually; the tree dripped on me) and there he was. 

A little tiny bird. Tiny. Little fledgeling. Sitting in the grass underneath the tree cheeping away at my feet.

Not sure what sort of little bird - bluetit, maybe. Someone suggested a chaffinch, but I think chaffinches are sort of pinky, aren't they? 

Well, you know what sort of little bird he was because not a sparrow falls without your knowledge, and I assume that counts for very small baby birds of undetermined species as well.  I think he must have fallen. He was small and damp and fluffy and had a very plaintive sort of cheep cheep in a small voice. 

He looked at me.

I wondered what to do. Knowing that there's no point in doing anything, really, if the poor little fella had fallen out of his nest then we busybody human beings can only make matters worse by interfering. Let him get on with it, maybe. Still, I stood next to him admiring him at my feet for a while indecisively. 

One of the teenagers picked him up and cradled him in his palm. The others came to admire him and he sat with a bit of a tremble and looked about him. Cheep cheep. Then the older kids' sack race was called and the boy looked about for someone to offload the little bird to. I held out my hand and the tiny little thing stepped onto it. He was so light that I couldn't feel any weight at all. Just his little cold toes and pointy little claws. He walked up my arm and settled in the crook of my elbow and there he stayed for a while. He looked around, he made the little cheep cheep sound that broke my heart as he called for his mummy. 

He was so beautiful. So tiny and so fragile. With his feathers all fluffed up he appeared at least five times bigger than he was, and still he was minute. His little eyes were bright and alert and he was taking everything in. He regarded me with a beady eye and I stared back at him. 

He was young enough not to be afraid of things he should be afraid of. I was soaking him up when he opened his little wings and flapped them in an unsynchronised sort of way. He didn't take off. He sort of jumped and fluttered and climbed his way up onto my shoulder where he sat for another few minutes before walking round the back of my neck to the other shoulder and eventually hop-fluttering onto the tree behind me. 

By this time my little friend had a small crowd of admirers. We took pictures and he posed for us beautifully. The rain got heavier, the sack races finished and we straggled back indoors for the quiz results and coffee and Jubilee buns. We left little beaky to cheep cheep for his mummy. Maybe she came and took him home. I don't really know how his story ended. I hope he was alright.

Here's the thing. A tiny little baby bird came to sit with me for ten minutes the other day. How often do wild birds come to say hello? How often do we get the chance to examine your astounding handiwork so closely? His tiny, tiny feathers in blues and greys and yellows. His little yellow beak. His bright little black eyes darting around. Sharp claws. No weight at all. He was absolutely beautiful. 

A breathtaking piece of nature in my hand. 

It was a piece of you. Even as I held his little feathered body I realised that it was the most special thing that was going to happen to me that day, even though it had been a great day. You know what? I was so pleased that this little bird chose me to walk about on for a few minutes. Me. 

It was a blessing from you.

I've decided it was a blessing from you. I know it was. I don't really know about random events, or the fact that I just happened to be the closest person when the senior boys sack race was called. I was just amazed and very glad that I got to hold him for a little while. It was a privilege. 

You were with me. 

You were there. Whether you were smiling down to see me open mouthed at your creation, or whether you sent a little bird to say 'Here I am - look at me!' or whether that little bird was a little bit of you to tell me 'I'm with you' at a time when I sort of need to hear it, I don't know. I don't know what or why or how, but I know you, my God, and I know that this was from you.

It doesn't matter to me if nobody else who was there would agree with me, but I know. I knew as he sat on my arm and when he fluttered his ungainly way onto the tree. It was a special moment. 

Thankyou. 

It was about his beauty and fragility and the strangeness of such a close encounter with wildlife, and it was about a little bit of unlikely trust that this amazing creature had in a few people who came close and said hello and marvelled at him. 

He was lovely. He made me think of you; it was an awe-inspiring few minutes. I'm sorry if I'm going on about it. 

I wonder where the little bird is now. I hope he was reunited with his family and I hope he got a good meal and a few more flying lessons before it was time for him to go it alone because he wasn't ready. But you know all that. You care about every feather on his back, because that's the kind of God you are. 

Thankyou for a few minutes on Sunday afternoon in a light drizzle underneath a tree while my children thundered about in wet grass and hessian sacks. 

Thankyou for the joy of children crossing the line in the egg and spoon race. 

Thankyou for the joy of sitting with a big group of brothers and sisters who just enjoy being together and sharing in your blessings. 

Thankyou for our Queen who has been steadfastly faithful to you despite a relentless job that must at times be very difficult indeed. 

Thankyou for red, white and blue bunting and iced buns and songs and nostalgia and for cold, wet days in June. 

Most of all, thankyou for the feel of tiny claws in my hand and the flutter of tiny wings as a small, wild bird climbed my arm onto my shoulder and made a cheeping sound.

Thankyou that you are with me. 

You are with me. 




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