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.
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.
"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 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.
*Dear Jesus, Sarah Young, 2007, Thomas Nelson