Friday, 28 October 2011

Church towers and poorly person biscuits

God, I am not feeling well. 

Haven't I been a picture of stoicism?  I am writing this from my sickbed (well, actually, I've made it down to the kitchen but I carry with me an aura of unwell-ness.)

If I'm honest, I'm feeling a lot better. I don't think this particular tummy bug is going to see me off. Not that it wasn't particularly unpleasant while it lasted, but I am soldiering on and am pleased to be here after all the last thirty-six hours have had to offer. 


Did you know, I can see our church from my bed?  I imagine you did. Languishing there today, when I was finally well enough to draw the curtains back (can you see how brave I've been?) I found myself looking at the church tower over the roofs of the houses between here and there.  I like that I can see it from here; not sure why, but it comforts me. There's definitely an emotional attachment. Thankyou for that. 

I like that I can see the church that means so much to me, where I find my church family each week; as special place I go to be with you. Where I go to worship you. Your house. And I can lie in bed and see the very top of it and I like that. I often find that my eyes are drawn to it; and I have to say that funnily enough (and significantly) a while ago when I was feeling a long, long way away from you I didn't want to look at it at all.  Clearly the state of my spiritual health can be reflected in the feelings I have looking out of the window at the tower. 

I can hear the bells as well. If I wake in the night I can hear the bells chime the hour and I like that as well. They're not loud enough to keep me awake, though. Might have different feelings towards them if they did...

I've been very well looked after while I've been poorly. I've had get well cards and presents from my little girls (fridge magnets from my fridge, small fluffy toys, items half-inched from Grandma's and brought as little loving offerings to cheer me up); I've had cups of tea and glasses of water and warmed wheaties and lots of sympathy from my husband who was similarly afflicted a few days ago (and is therefore clearly to blame) and practical assistance from my Mum, who took the girls for a haircut when I wasn't able to, did some shopping and delivered plain biscuits to try to tempt me to eat something.  

In our house plain biscuits (Rich Tea) are known as 'Poorly Person Biscuits'.  Easy on the stomach, not too rich, nice to nibble. Today they did the trick just as they did when I was tiny.

So, here we are. A lost day lying in bed feeling poorly. Didn't manage much in the way of prayer because I was mainly asleep, but I was not unaware of you, Lord. As well as the church tower, from my bed I did admire the beautiful blue Autumn sky and the sun shining off the wet roofs between here and church. I think it's been a lovely day.  I am very grateful for my family, who have somehow managed to get along mostly without me for a day and a half (and who knows, I might just manage to stretch that into tomorrow if I play my cards right?) and as I lay in bed I did think more than once how fortunate/lucky/blessed I am to have a comfy bed, a warm duvet, a nice house, enough to eat and drink, indigestion tablets and paracetamol and warm wheaties and small girls to deliver Get Well wishes. And so much more. 

Well, I'm getting better. Feeling like something to eat now. You know I'm poorly when I'm off my food, and now I'm feeling peckish, I must be on the mend. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A time for everything

God - there's somebody out there who thinks like me. 

I imagine that doesn't come as any surprise to you, since you are omniscient. And you made me. But I read something the other day that reflected so accurately how I've been feeling and realisations about myself that I've been having that it amazed me that someone had encapsulated it already. I suppose it really shouldn't surprise me as I don't flatter myself that I am profoundly original and revelatory in any way, certainly not with regard to theology, but it was surprising and reassuring. A bit strange, actually, to read in someone else's words thoughts that I'd had so recently. 

What was also interesting was that a friend gave this book to me because it reminded her of me and she thought that it would speak to me. I wonder which pages she looked at! This definitely speaks to me because it speaks about me.

It's a prayer by Eddie Askew in his book of prayers and meditations, called 'A Silence and a Shouting' (Published by The Leprosy Mission International, 1982, London).

This particular prayer is on page 21 and is inspired by Ecclesiastes 3:1-11.

'There is a time for everything
And a season for every activity under heaven...'

Ecclesiastes 3:1

Eddie writes about busyness and the pressure of time; the fact that in this passage from Ecclesiastes God is telling us that if there is an appropriate time for everything, then there is clearly an inappropriate time as well. That our work is given to us by God and that we are never in possession of all the facts; only God can see the big picture. That we can only do as much as we can do, do it as well as we can, and then rest and allow God to do the rest. Someone sent me a picture on Facebook the other day. It said, 'Let Go and Let God'.

Here's how Eddie Askew puts it in his prayer.

'Lord, I get so busy.
Sometimes because I want to help.
Sometimes because I can't say no.
Sometimes because I'm flattered to be asked. 
And it all adds up to strain, to tiredness,
to not having two minutes to call my own.'

Ooh that sounds familiar. Quite often I want to help; I'm carried along on a wave of enthusiasm and bite off more than I can chew. I've said a few times that if I ever write an autobiography I'll call it, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time'.

Quite often I can't say no, though I'm practicing. I'm flexing my 'I'm sorry, but no' muscles a bit more often lately. Not easy though. Usually accompanied by pangs of guilt and second thoughts. 

Flattered to be asked? Oh yes. I'm usually surprised that people think I can contribute to something and if people think I can, then I should oblige, shouldn't I? Last year I took on an important role pretty much for this reason only and I've been oppressed by it all year, dreading the regular commitments and worrying about it until lately I reassessed priorities and resigned. Would that I hadn't said 'yes' in the first place.

Eddie again:

'Lord I feel like a mouse in a treadmill.
Rushing around, faster and faster.
Getting nowhere.'

Oh yes. I mentioned this some time ago only I think I chose a hamster. 

'And the first thing that goes out of the window 
is you.
No time, Lord, sorry!'

Oh yes again.  How often have I lamented recently that I thought when Katy started school this September that I would have more time, and that one of my plans for that new time that I would have would be to spend a regular time with you, Lord? I said that it might not be a daily thing, to start with, but I would definitely find time to sit with you, read, pray and learn to listen. I've been going on about wanting wisdom, wanting to learn to hear your voice and follow your call and then the reality is that Kate has been at Big School for a whole half term and I've just been chasing my tail taking on new commitments and 'yes' to everyone but you. 

Eddie has been there. He knows. He told you about this syndrome already, didn't he?

'Lord, it's at times like this when I need you most.
Yet you seem so far away.
Why, Lord? Where have you gone?
Then I hear it, the quiet voice... still and know that I am God.
You are near. You have been all the time.
And I understand
that I can't hear you if I don't listen.
That I will feel alone if I don't give time to you.

I have written the exact same sentiments over the last few posts right here.  Lord, what are you saying? What should I do? Guide me! Speak to me! Yet I am moving so fast with so many things in my head that even if you were shouting at me I would still fail to hear you. 

On the Quiet Day last week it took me a while to stop, to slow, to reach a place where I could sit next to you and be. The quiet voice. You reminded me of who you were, who I am, and you told me that I needed to slow down. That it was ok to 'be'. More than ok, it is necessary for me.  Without it I've felt so lost and confused. Things have closed in on me. My spacious place has become claustrophobic.

The quiet voice. Be still and know...

'Lord, I just thought so much depended on me.
I know the whole works wouldn't end if I took a break,
but it made me feel important.
I need to remember that it's your world, your work.
I'm glad to have a part in it, but it's yours, not mine.
And when I've done what I can,
I can safely leave the rest to you.'

You must be shaking your head when I admit that sometimes I feel as if everything rests on me. Some days I feel as if I'm constantly keeping someone else happy; and rarely that person is you. How absurd it is on so many levels! That I am the only person who can support all the people in my life, that it all depends on little old mixed up me, that the person who comes last in the queue of people I need to keep happy is the Creator of the Universe, the One who made me, died for me and sustains my every breath.

Absurd indeed.

'Lord, still my heart.
Help me cut down the adrenalin.
Give me your peace.'

Amen. Eddie Askew, thankyou. You put it into words. I flicked through the first pages of your book and the Lord spoke to me through you. 

Lord, God, forgive me for getting it wrong over and over again.  I went to the Quiet Day and loved it; learned a couple of things that meant a lot to me and wrote down what was going to change when I got back. I realised that I need to spend time with you and that it's alright to build time with you into my week. Have I done it?

Nope.  Of course, it's half term week, so the children aren't at school, which sort of cuts down the opportunities for peace and quiet even more, and Bryan's been poorly, so that means that I've taken the children out a bit more than I might have, but I suspect that these too are excuses.  

I'm sorry for all the times that I think that things depend on me, when they depend on you.
I'm sorry for all the times that you give me a little job to do and I think that I need to do the whole thing.
I'm sorry for all the times that my ego tells me that everything rests on me; that no-one (not even you) can do the thing as well as I can.
I'm sorry that you get so crowded out that you fall off the bottom of my To Do list. 

Lord, thank you for your patience with me - that I turn back to you and I'm almost afraid to look up at you because I've let you down again, missed the point again, got it wrong again - and yet instead of impatience and frustration all I see in your face is love. You just open your arms and smile and restore me and give me another chance. And another. 

Thankyou that it's never the end, when I get it wrong. You never wash your hands of me, no matter how obtuse I am. You find a way to speak to me even in the vacuum that I leave behind as I rush from one red herring to another. You took me on a Quiet Day and to make sure that you made your point my friend gave me this so that I would be reminded of the lessons I learned on that day and yet failed to act on. 

Let it be different, this time, Lord. Help me to change this. Live differently. Let's meet up more regularly.

I know - you're waiting...

Saturday, 22 October 2011

In the eye of the beholder

Hey, God.

Just a short one tonight as I'm waiting for a Chinese Takeaway to arrive and you know how my attention tends to wander when I'm hungry.

I just wanted to say thank you for making this world so beautiful. Today I went for a drive and a bit of a walk in the wonderful Derbyshire countryside and it was late in the afternoon and the sky blue. Autumnal nip in the air but the scenery was fantastic. Orange and yellow in the trees, grass looking lush and everything tinged with gold because of the low sun. It was gorgeous.  As you know, I'm not a particular fan of this time of year, much preferring the bright new shoots and hopefulness of the Spring, to the back end of the year but on days like today, I have to give it to you; you knew what you were doing when you did Autumn. 

I'm sure you are basking in my approval, aren't you? 

The other day we went to see a display of new sculpture at Chatsworth - part of the outdoor exhibition they have each year. I enjoy it; it amazes me to see what people's imaginations can come up with. I try to have an open mind with regard to 'art', for several reasons. One, it is in the eye of the beholder so I am allowed to decide; maybe something will move me. Two, I'm supposed to have an open mind rather than just fixate on the Pre-Raphaelites and conclude that nobody else can paint. Three...well, can't think of a third reason but I try, nonetheless.  

Some of the sculptures brought to mind The Emperor's New Clothes, to be honest, but some of them were nice to look at. At several points I felt like calling out to clumps of admiring people, 'But it's made of plastic! It's hideous! Look at those wonderful trees behind you! That's art!' but I'm sure you were proud of my restraint. Each to their own. clearly I'm missing something. Hmm.

It was an interesting walk, and the children got to decipher a map with all the sculptures labelled and hidden in the gardens. And they were selling ice cream too. 
Now that's Art. 

Elizabeth and Katy had an enormous ice cream each and they had a whale of a time dashing in and out of the little pathways, spotting the sculptures and telling us where we should go next. Their responses to the man-made creations were wonderful; out of the mouths of babes indeed. Katy saw a semi-transparent sort of mirrored cat shaped thing that was about twenty feet high and she stopped and gazed at it with puzzlement  before announcing that she didn't like it because it got in the way of seeing the pretty bushes. Ahem. I'm with her on that one. With all due respect and everything. 

Perhaps my daughter and I don't understand it properly. I definitely think that there might be a chance that we're not 'getting it'. Anyway, it was an experience and we had a lovely afternoon so I'm not criticising. Really. 

Nothing that these artists had made compared with the breathtaking beauty of the landscape in which they were displayed. Even the most elegant, creative, subtle installations (is that the word?) was left standing by the wonder of the natural world around them. Huge boulders, flowing water, towering trees and flowers. Acres of grass and splendidly glowing Autumn leaves.

I just wanted to say thankyou. Thankyou for surrounding me with beauty and increasingly, giving me the eyes to see it.

It makes me want to take my camera  everywhere so that I can capture the moments where you speak to me through what I see and store them away forever. So that I won't forget, so that I can show people. So that I can praise the Creator who made things beautiful and intricate and amazing just because he could. For no better reason than you wanted to. 

You are all things creative and captivating so works of art flow from you. You are nature. You are the essence of everything beautiful. 

You filled our world with treasures and it's up to us to see them and give you back the glory. 


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

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

' 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. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Silence and chaos

Me again, Lord.

You'll never guess what I'm doing tomorrow.

There's a stupid thing to say, since you knew before I did.

Well, I'm going on a Quiet Day. From morning till mid afternoon I shall be quiet. I can sense you smiling.

This isn't the first time I've had a chance to do this, but it's the first time I've said yes. I think the reasons I've shied away from a quiet day several times before are that I'm a bit frightened by the idea.  I'm not very good at being quiet.  Being the mum of two small children with a To Do list as long as my arm means that I often long for peace and quiet, but what I mean by peace and quiet is perhaps not the same as Quiet. I like to have an early night where I sit here in bed like I am now, with my little laptop, a coffee and my wheaty. I like to sit and read. I like to listen to music and I like to fall asleep. All of those things are peaceful for me, but all except the last one require a prop of some sort. I am not the sort of person who spends much time alone with my thoughts, and I'm afraid that I don't spend much time with you in prayer, either. So, five hours of quiet. And I'm not supposed to take my computer with me. Or spend time checking email or Facebook or playing games on my phone.

I have no idea what I expect to get out of this day. I have long thought that I need some space; what tends to happen to me when I get too stressed is the feeling that things are closing in on me. I get a stifled, trapped sort of feeling. The opposite sensation from the 'spacious place' feeling which is when I feel free and relaxed. The claustrophobic feeling I get is when problems crowd in on me and my shoulders are tense and raised up a few inches. My emotions are much closer to the surface and although I can be alright superficially, I am not equipped to cope with stuff that might happen. I am fine, and I seem fine, but let something go wrong and I have no reserve.

Like church on Sunday. The children weren't particularly badly behaved but they were giggling and generally acting like four and six year olds and whether I was or not I felt observed and disapproved of in my inability to get them to sit quietly or join in the singing. I couldn't hold back tears and ended up dragging them outside. Their behaviour, while not great, didn't warrant being whisked out of church but I was brittle enough to have cracked with a bit of pressure.

That's how I am at the moment. A veneer of 'I'm fine, thanks'ness and beneath that, a bit of a mess. So I am coming to get away from the place I usually am to come and sit with you in the hope that you might restore me a little.

The other reason I'm coming is to try and see if I can sit with you a while and listen. And maybe I'll come away feeling clearer. All year I have been at some sort of crossroads without really understanding where or why or which way next. I have felt you calling me to a deeper relationship with you, and since Katy has started school I've wondered what you want me to do with my time. Maybe you've been telling me all this time and I've been too busy with...what? to listen. I want to try again tomorrow.

A few days ago I wrote about crossing a river, like the Israelites. About having the courage to put a foot in the rushing water without knowing when the torrent will stop, but just having the faith to step out. Maybe tomorrow you'll give me some idea of what this means for me.

Lord, I would love it if you would speak to me as you do to some people I know who seem to have a hotline. I know a couple of folks who ask you questions and then seem to get answers from you. Those who say things like, 'The Lord told me this...' and 'I feel that God is telling me that....'

I ask and ask and hear nothing in particular.  My answers always seem to be hindsight-type answers where your purpose might become clear months, years down the line. I would love to be the person who could hear you. To know you so well that your voice was clear despite the background noise. I suspect that it might take more than a Quiet Day to get there, though, Father. It might well be a life's work.

So anyway, I am off on a Quiet Day. With mixed feelings, really. Part of me is relishing the idea of quiet and peace and slowness. Another side of me is worried that there is so much I should be getting on with that I'm wasting time and won't be able to focus or relax anyway because of the lists in my head. Back to the optimistic part of me and I want to find some peace, proper peace, an active thing, not just the absence of chaos. The pessimistic side of me counters by saying that that is impossible as the chaos will come with me because it's in my mind. It might take weeks of silence to let the noise and confusion settle a bit.

But I don't have weeks. I have a day, to start with; five hours of silence in which to try to be still, to slow down my mind which is so often racing and full of jumbled things. To try to break through the fog in my head and find a bit of clarity. To listen for your voice in case you want to say anything, but to sit a while on the riverbank with you and enjoy your company.

This is exciting and scary and daunting and appealing and challenging all at the same time. Oh, listen to me. How hard can it be? It's only a day. I'm not going on a remote retreat for six months with only a camel for company. Lunch is provided. I can smuggle in my phone if I want; I doubt if this thing is policed. I'll get out what I put in, I'm sure. And I do want to get something out of it. I'm just not sure what.

Help me to find you, Father. I'm not good at looking for you and I'm terrible at waiting and being still. Five hours seems like a long time. I just want to give you this day. Take it and use it, Lord. Help me to be open to whatever you want. Lead me wherever you want me to go. Whether it's to think, to pray, to listen, to write or even to sleep, lead the way. I've got such a long way to go and I can only take baby steps. I'm tired and confused and fragile and I want to let go and let you.

I'm off to sleep now. I'll see you in the morning.

Looking forward to it. 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Accepting the good gifts

Hello God.

You know what?  I've been thinking about the fact that you did something amazing for me, knowing full well that there is no way that I could repay you.

You died for me. You love me so much that you died to save me, and there's nothing that I can do ever in my life that will be nearly enough to say thankyou.

As the cliche goes, I am forever in your debt.

You knew that, and you did it anyway. Billions of times over, because you did it for each one of us.  Whether we turn to you or not, whether we love you or not, whether we say thankyou or not. You knew how every last one of us would respond and you died for us anyway.

It's a strange thing to understand, really, because it's not the way it works down here in this world, is it?  I mean, we do do things for each other, it's just that we don't do them for nothing in return. Not for long, anyway. The odd occasion that I've found a friendship is all one way it sort of petered out after a while. I had a friend in school; we sat next to each other in a couple of lessons. It was always me who phoned her, me who arranged to meet, me who sent postcards from holiday and then from university. I did it less and less often and after a while we lost touch. Even as a Christian on those all too rare occasions that I keep on giving because I know that its the right thing to do, it isn't really a proper friendship. It becomes something that I do, usually with bad grace, I'm afraid.

It's easier to keep on giving to people that you have no relationship with. Charities where you can be faceless and uninvolved, distant. How hard it is to have a sustained relationship with a person from whom I can expect nothing in return. Yet you keep on loving us - even those among us who never at any point realise what's real and true and come back to say thankyou.

It's their loss, and what a loss. But instead of withdrawing your affection as I did with my schoolfriend when it becomes clear that there's nothing coming in return, you love and you love and then you grieve that they never understood.

I have friends and we look after each other. I have a down day and my friend is there for me. She has a problem and I try to help. We both struggle at the same time and we support each other. It's an even sort of thing. That's mainly how we work; we give and we get.  We need balance, because it's what we understand. With work colleagues, in business and everyday life we call in favours. You owe me, I owe you. I'll make it up to you. We'll straighten things out. It's my turn next. We hate imbalance.

Even on a more fundamental level, in our world you don't get something for nothing; I want a loaf of bread, I buy one. If I don't have any money, I can't have one. If someone offers us something that we need that they don't use any more we say 'Can I give you something for it?' because we don't expect to receive for nothing. It's not easy just to take it, to accept it. We hate to feel beholden. We like it all to be even. We hate to be at a disadvantage.

So you come along and you say forget about that - this is for nothing. There is nothing you could give me in exchange for this. The biggest gift we could ever imagine is ours and we cannot deserve it.  There is no human achievement so great that we can say that what you have done for us is our due. We can't ever hope to break even.

So what do you want in return?  Well, I suppose you want everything. Nothing and everything. You want our lives, nothing less, and yet you leave us free to carry on living them. You won't force it - you won't manipulate us. We can hold all that we are and all that we have tight in our hot little fists all our lives if we want to and never surrender a minute of our attention or a tiny bit of our love or a single effort but still you go on loving us. You don't revoke our privileges because you don't get back a fraction of what you put in.

Wow. How do I get my head around that? I find it hard to receive at the best of times.

It's hard. It's hard for me to accept something from someone else even in everyday terms, to be honest. Whether it's a compliment:

'You look nice today.'
'Really? You must be joking. I'm having a fat day.'

'You're good at that.'
'No, not really. I don't think so.'

Or perhaps it's a good turn. Someone did something wonderful for me a few months back; something really thoughtful which required time and effort and really touched me. It was out of the blue and unexpected. In a conversation a few days later I wanted to redress the balance but there's no real way that I can. At least not in the foreseeable future because we're not close enough for me to offer anything that an equal would offer.  It's uncomfortable for me to be on the receiving end like that. All I can say is 'Thankyou' and mean it.

I need to learn to say 'Thankyou' instead of deflecting compliments. Sometimes people just want to do something nice and that's that. What is it that always makes me think I'm unworthy of random acts of niceness? Why do I always tell people, 'You shouldn't have.'? Why shouldn't they? Why do I find it so awkward to be a recipient?

Maybe it's easier to give than to receive. I think perhaps for me it's a control thing, like so many things in my life. I know where I am when I'm giving, when I'm deciding. It's nice to make someone happy, to step into the breach when there's a problem. It makes me feel good. I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I do something nice for someone. Is that just me?  Whereas there's an element of vulnerability in accepting from others that maybe makes me uncomfortable. I don't like to feel at a loss. Needy. Perhaps I see neediness in myself and that's why I hate to draw attention to it. Maybe I need to just step back, smile, say thankyou and appreciate that other people can get the warm fuzziness too.

Or maybe as always I'm over-thinking. Sometimes I need the grace to say, 'Thankyou' and take something in the spirit in which it's meant. I don't do something for someone with the intention of recouping my loss at a later date so probably neither do other people. They don't have some sort of tally of who owes who what in terms of time, gifts, kind words or thoughtful actions. And in accepting graciously I am honouring the person who gave. In attempting to deflect them with 'Oh, you shouldn't have,' I'm rejecting their kindness because they clearly thought that they should, and that's why they did. It's a rebuff to tell them that they shouldn't have.

And then there's you. You did the biggest thing for me. Nothing I could ever do could pay you back and I will never be worthy of what you did for me. I can't earn it. Not with a lifetime of sinlessness (yeah, right) and a lifetime of good deeds and holy thoughts and scripture read and neighbours converted. So much less so with part of a lifetime grudgingly meted out to you for your purposes and measured against my own plans and ideas.

'If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!'

Matthew 7:11

I would give my two daughters the world if I could. I love to make them happy. I can't do it all the time because their idea of what will make them happy is somewhat different from mine. I don't give Katy as many sweets as she'd like, or Lizzie a new stuffed toy every time we walk past a toy shop but I am guilty of wanting to please them. I am quite sure that I get it wrong sometimes and make bad decisions. I love them and I love seeing their faces light up when I have a surprise for them or when I am able to give them what they want. Their joy is all I need. It makes my day.

How much more then....

I think that much of the time you are longing to give me good gifts but for some reason I'm reluctant to let you. I don't know why; maybe I'm just focused on the sweets and the toys and the things that are bad for me and instead you have something better, but to me I don't recognise it as a gift and I turn away.  Maybe I'm afraid that you're going to ask me to step out of my comfort zone, or maybe I just feel comfy as I am, familiar with my own insecurities and difficulties but confident that I know what I can and can't do, so there's no use you asking me. If I actually allowed you to equip me for a new job, then a new job would need doing.

Maybe it's safe and comfortable here on the mountain after all. Maybe that river looks too deep and too fast and too wide. It looks nice over there on the other side but this side is alright after all. Familiar. Safe.

I don't know if this is true. I just have a suspicion that you have so much more for me. Are my hands full of the trivia of my life and so you can't give me something else, something better? Am I too used to the familiarity and comparative safety of my imperfect and damaged little life to accept the upgrades that you want to install?  Or are you just trying to meet my eye and I'm looking anywhere but you?

As I write the children are squabbling and dinner will soon be ready so my thoughts are starting to scatter. Time to go.

Show me, Lord. I do want to grow. I want to be useful to you. I want to be all I can be. The last few months have bruised me a bit and made me take steps backwards instead of forwards. Deep down in the middle of this mess there's a light that never went out and I want you to help me make it shine brighter.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Suffer the little children

Right, God, I'm needing some advice.

I am a Mum of two small children.  Getting bigger, but still small; they're four and six. This means that they have a limited attention span, lots of energy, no volume control and a low boredom threshold. None of these attributes are character flaws, I don't think; they are four and six. The ability to remain quiet, sit still and concentrate develops in the years beyond four and six - in some cases far beyond. 

I'm setting the scene. 

My children are, to me, endlessly entertaining, frustrating, endearing and irritating. I am quite sure that the casual onlooker would agree with me in varying proportions here, but I do admit that loving my two daughters unconditionally in the way that only parents are able helps me to live with them despite the negatives. The wonder of them tends to outweigh the frustration they cause; is that a bit what it's like for you?  I completely understand if so far this is pretty much how you feel about me. I can be endearing when I try and I have a winning smile, after all...

Moving on. 

We go to the family service at church on a Sunday morning as a family, and the reason we do this is because I love you and I want to worship you, listen to you, speak to you and learn more about you and more about how to live my life as you want me to live it. I very much want my children to come some day to a place where they can say the same. I believe that children have their own spirituality and even though my own witness to you in family life is patchy and sometimes must be a big letdown, they amaze me with their perception and their faith. Remember when Katy asked me for a specific prayer just before her operation?  I had no idea that she'd remembered it, and no idea that it had helped her. And Lizzie too has said things to me that show that she has experienced you in a simple, child-like sort of way. 

I also come to church to see my church family. To meet people who accept me and love me and support me and to offer my acceptance and love and support to them as well because that's what we do. I've had my ups and downs and I find that I need my Sunday visit to church, just like my home group and whatever else I'm involved in at church to keep me going. If Christianity is a crutch for the weak as some have alleged, then I'm weak and I'm limping - I need that crutch. So I come on Sunday needy. 

My girls for the most part enjoy church; they like their Sunday school groups; they like making things, they like it when there's something interesting to look at or listen to, and they like the cake afterwards. What they're not so good at is sitting still when grown up things are going on. They are four and six, remember. 

I want my children to learn about you, Father.  I'd love it if they caught on about you a whole lot earlier than I did. I want them to understand that it's the most important decision that they could ever make. I want them to learn to talk to you, to lean on you, to learn about you and to listen to you. I want them to be able to worship you. So I can understand that to whisk our little ones off to Sunday school at the first opportunity, while undeniably giving hard-pressed Mums the opportunity to relax and concentrate on you not only places a burden on the Sunday school leaders but also denies the children themselves a chance to learn to worship in the midst of the rest of the church family. If they can listen to the music, hear the singing, look around at people lost in worship and feel the Holy Spirit moving, then so much the better. I would like this for my children. 

So I encourage them to listen, to look and, where possible, to sing. Of course, Katy can't read the words and Elizabeth isn't yet quite quick enough with her reading to keep up with the songs, but on rare occasions she has a go at a simple chorus. When she does I love it. I love her little voice and I love that for those moments she is engaged instead of wriggling and asking over and over when she can go to her group. Katy sometimes likes being picked up and now and again she leans on me in a sort of contented trance as I jiggle in time to the music in an attempt to keep her interested. 
How can they sit still?
They're superheroes

The level of engagement that I manage to achieve of course is directly related to the status of the children; if they are sitting or standing nicely without drawing attention to themselves, not talking, shouting, fighting, tickling, crawling under chairs, walking along seats, climbing on radiator pipes, running about or laughing excessively, then I am able to worship (with one eye on the screen and one on the children ready to extract, correct or disentangle if necessary). If they are committing any of the above crimes then I am unable to join in with any sincerity as my mind is occupied with crowd control. I know there are only two of them, but it sometimes feels like many more. I don't know if they look around at other people and see men and women engrossed in your worship but it seems unlikely that they see me that way as I am always keeping an eye on them. 

When the girls come back in after Sunday school brandishing their creations they are always voluble in their enthusiasm. Katy usually announces what she's been doing at top volume whether we are in the middle of a hymn or a prayer.


She announced, recently.  I love to hear her story and as any Mum would I break off to welcome her back and admire her handiwork. You've been there. I'm sure my lack of attention at that point doesn't offend you. You'd have your arms open too, I have no doubt.

The service ends and after the notices, during which I am asked approximately every eleven seconds how soon the girls can go and get a piece of cake or a flapjack, they dash off for refreshments. They're full of energy, having been sitting nicely during the worship, (ahem, well, as nicely as we could manage) then in their groups doing activities, and then (ahem) sitting nicely again. They are at the back of church like exocets, grab cake, then seek out their friends and then... well, who knows. I gather up bags, coats and craft activities and then try to find them. 

This is not easy, as they could be anywhere. They travel fast after an hour or more of containment. They want to make noise after having been shushed for a long time, and they want to run about and climb after having been urged to sit or stand still for a long time, and they get excited in a large building with other children of their age. They are hungry and are allowed something sugary and what follows is a burst of energy.

Meanwhile, back in grown-up land, I want to chat, or drink coffee, or find people I need to talk to, or perhaps even speak to someone new and welcome them to our church. I might even feel like indulging in a little morsel of flapjack myself. But it isn't as easy as that. 

There are those who feel that children should understand that the church is a your house, and that their demeanour should be correspondingly respectful.  That shouting, squealing, running or climbing on seats is inappropriate and offensive. That children should sit nicely, be encouraged to join in by all means, but parents are responsible for maintaining a level of behaviour in their offspring that doesn't permit the letting off of steam in the church building. Outside the church is a churchyard, where of course we need to make sure that our children don't show disrespect for graves or memorials, and there is a busy road without adequate gates which poses obvious problems. So they can't play inside, and they can't play outside, but they need to play because they are little and they've been trying to behave for an hour or more.

What do you think?

Tell me, because I really don't know. Really.  I can see that children need to learn respect. I understand that there are levels of behaviour that are unacceptable. I know that not everyone looks at my children and their foibles with the same affection that I do. I understand that a noisy child can interfere with someone else's concentration and enjoyment. I can see that a child dashing about after a service with a chocolate muffin in hand might leave a trail of crumbs. I know that you are our Lord God as well as our Heavenly Daddy and you deserve the utmost respect. 

I don't think that small children are showing disrespect when they run about. They just run about because they're children and they can't seem to walk anywhere. I don't think they're being disrespectful when they shout; its just because they're children and they can't seem to speak quietly. We keep telling them and eventually they'll get it. I don't even think they show disrespect when they climb underneath the Holy Table to make a den, though I do understand that for some, even more tolerant people, making a den underneath the Holy Table might be a step too far. One person says that if we worry about children pulling the cloth off the table and thus upsetting the candlesticks, we should just move the cloth, whereas someone else says that it is an outrage that we allow children there at all.

Who is to say who is right, but you?

What do you think?  If you're four, a line of chairs in a row looks like something that needs walking across like a bridge, especially if that means that you are for a while on the level with the crowd and able to see and not at everyone's hip-height. If you're a grown up a child walking on a row of chairs might look like a lack of respect for property and the likelihood that those chairs might be a bit grubby next time someone sits on them.

Who is to say who is right?

So the children need to play, and playing is awkward in the circumstances.  Every parent knows that you can only push things so far and so - we leave. We go home. Elizabeth sets off on her scooter with energy and Katy dances along or wants us to swing her between us as we walk up the road, leaving behind the church family enjoying drinks and fellowship. It's easier that way.

What can I do, Lord, or is it just something that needs time? Someone told me when I had a moan that it was something that all mums go through; just a phase that passes. Someone else told me that there were years when their children were small that they just didn't attend church because it was too hard. Someone tells me don't worry if your children make a noise because they are family too and someone else asks me to quieten them down. Someone says don't worry about chasing them about as we all have responsibility to care, protect and correct our children and someone else says that they are my responsibility and I shouldn't try to abdicate that. Who is right?

Maybe we're all right. Everyone seems well-meaning. Maybe it's a matter of perspective. But what do you think? 

"Then people brought the brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'"
Matthew 19:13-14

How wonderful it must have been to be able to bring the children to you in the flesh, to say, 'Here are my little girls,' and then you pull them towards yourself, smile and pray for them with your hand on their shoulders. I know we can still do this now but, like Thomas, I would love for you to do it in the flesh. I do have faith, increasing faith, but I need more. How easy it must have been for those Mums to encourage their children to approach you with a smile. For me, I feel the need to make church attractive to the children, to try not to put them off. I worry that containing them, limiting them, making them try too hard for too long will make them not want to come. Until I can somehow get across to them something of who you are... but then nothing is impossible with you. I just want to introduce them to you, Lord Jesus. I want you to bless them.  To bring them close as your own.

Lord Jesus, how much do you expect of our children? How child-like should they be and how grown-up should they be? What pleases you? That they're there at all, even if they're making a noise, or if they're sitting beautifully without drawing any attention to themselves?  I know that you love them whatever, that's not in question, but how should we get through our services? I know I can't possibly be the first harried Mum to have put the question. Is it me that needs to grow up?

Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I resent that it's all made more difficult. To those who shrug and say it was difficult for them too when their children were little I feel like protesting that surely it shouldn't be so difficult. It's all about acceptance, isn't it? About families. It doesn't mean that we don't get it wrong, but it means we should encourage, not discourage. Facilitate, not impede. Make it easier, not harder. Include, not exclude.

Children are not the congregations of the future, they're the congregations of now. If they are not welcome to be themselves now then they won't be there at all when they're grown up. If we are a church family, then we're a family, and families include the old, the middle aged, the young. They include those who can be quiet and those who are not very good at it. You can no more penalise a child for being childish than you can an elderly person for being old, surely?

I don't say that we should sit oblivious or indulgent as our children rampage round causing damage and mayhem and disrupting proceedings. Of course we should teach and correct and guide. Of course there has to be a limit just as there is in any other area of life. We should set an example and we should show them what is expected. It's just that I think that we sometimes expect too much.

Perhaps we're all expecting too much. Maybe we're asking too much of children, of parents and of those who like an uninterrupted service. I don't know. I really don't know. This is not a tirade at the unfairness of life, Lord; I just don't know what to do. I think that you understand all this. I think that you understand that the small children can't be quiet and pay attention for long and you love them anyway. I think you understand that parents get stressed by trying to make sure that their kids behave themselves and you love them anyway. I think you understand the people that are upset by what they perceive to be inappropriate behaviour and you love them anyway. I think that it must grieve you that we can't find a path down the middle.

Maybe it's just how it is. We are not perfect, after all. Our church is made up of imperfect people and so things are bound not to run smoothly. We're bound to annoy each other. Is that it?  Sometimes try as we might we can't see things as others see them. We assess and we criticise and we judge. We all do it. We shouldn't but we do.

I'm sorry.

Maybe I should just accept that life is difficult with young children even in the bosom of my church family, and get on with it. Many's the time I've left in tears because of this dilemma. Perhaps my expectations are the ones that require adjustment. Maybe I am looking for too much. Perhaps I should just be thankful for any sparkling moments of true worship that I manage in the middle of it all. Maybe this really is the only way forward. After all, they'll grow up. They won't always be so small and then I know that I'll miss their antics and wish that they were six and four again. Next year and the year after will have it's own challenges.

Maybe we all just have to turn up each week and do our best and smile when we can. And when it gets too much, we can leave, can't we?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Not one wet foot

Morning, God.

This morning's turned into a bit of a mess.  Realised that I should have paid my credit card and yet couldn't locate my online password; was on a small piece of paper stuck to the fridge with a magnet that Katy likes to play with and isn't any more. Realised that I need a new tax disc for the car imminently and then while making an online application for that realised that the MOT is out of date. One of the children has written on the dining room table, Katy's room is such a mess that I trod on something precious when I went in there in the dark this morning to wake her, and I have a headache.  

And it's raining.  

And my coffee went cold while I was taking my car to the garage and locating the small slip of paper that contained the magic numbers to pay my overdue bill. 


I know, I've been reading the daily devotional that emphasises the need for Christians to be efficient and methodical with their finances. I know. Stop reminding me. Usually it all trundles along, sort of, but just occasionally it gets derailed. Deep down I'm an organised person. Deep down under layers of confusion and apathy, that is.

Karen Carpenter sang:

'Talking to myself and feeling old
Sometimes I'd like to quit
Nothing ever seems to fit
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.'

I never knew Karen, but she was on my wavelength. 

I'm off for a new coffee, a paracetamol and a scrub at the dining room table.


(Did you know that a combination of toothpaste and hairspray removes marker pen from laminate surfaces? I suppose you did. The wonder of the internet, and the wonder of twenty-first century chemicals. Our dining table is restored to its former glory. And the bookshelf.)

Right. I'm going to start this day again. If I could I would do so by returning to bed and trying again in a few hours but in the absence of that option I am going to flick a switch in my head and pretend that the last hour hasn't happened and I am gliding along like a swan, with poise and elegance. Never mind if my legs are going like the clappers under the water.

I'm going to focus on something positive. 

Yesterday was a strange day, Father. I was so depressed to begin with. The gloom had descended again and I was feeling very low. If I hadn't been doing the intercession prayers at church there's no way I'd have gone; I trudged in feeling very negative and all it took was a friendly face to ask me how I was for my eyes to fill with tears. Completely inappropriate with minutes to go before the start of a service in which I'm taking part, but you helped me pull myself together and hold myself there. The prayers went ok, I think, but what really woke me up was the sermon. 

You spoke to me. I wasn't expecting it, or particularly in the mood for it, but you caught my attention. 

Joshua 3 and 4. The Israelites are crossing the River Jordan to take possession of the promised land.

Now, I've never really given much thought to crossing rivers. It's dead easy. There are bridges. Big bridges to drive over, railways, viaducts, footbridges, ferries... sometimes I don't even need to get out of my car. But the Israelites didn't have these luxuries and an immense rushing torrent of water maybe a mile across might well have looked like an insurmountable barrier. So that puts a different complexion on it.

Still, Joshua knew that you wanted them all on the other side of the river. And he told them what to do.

The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant set their feet in the water of the river, which has overflowed its banks because it's in flood. It's a big, wide, fast river. Joshua has prophesied that you will stop the water from flowing so that they can cross. So they step into the water. I wonder if there was a

'You first.'
'No, after you.'
'No, I insist.'

sort of moment. But, Joshua said that you would take care of it. So they step in...

And you did. But you didn't stop the water right there, like the parting of the Red Sea - you stopped the water nineteen miles upstream. So, they stepped in, carrying this precious, heavy load, and they wouldn't have known immediately that they weren't going to be swept off their feet. They went in anyway. Surely the waters would have taken a while to subside as there must have been quite a lot of water in nineteen miles of Jordan, but they stood in the river and waited.

You didn't let them down. The waters subsided until there was dry ground. The priests holding the Ark of the Covenant stood there until every last one of the Israelites had passed by onto the other bank. That would have taken some time as there were getting on for three-quarters of a million of them, I'm told. They stood there, presumably in the mud, heavy burden on their shoulders, but standing firm.

So this was the basis of what Matt had to say.

1.  I have to trust that you will do what you've said you'll do.  The priests had to step into the water before the flood waters stopped. They had to commit themselves. Joshua said that you would hold back the flow and they trusted in you. They wouldn't have known that you'd honoured your side of the bargain for quite some time, but you had. You said you would.

So - all those times when I think, 'Where are you in this? I asked for your help and you're not helping me', it could be that you have built a dam nineteen miles upstream and I just haven't felt the effects of it yet. You may have done the work, but I am just not yet in a position to know.

2.  I have to stand firm. If I feel as if I'm standing in mud with the tide against me trying to carry a heavy burden, then I have to just keep upright and be strong because relief is coming. Perhaps you have given me a job to do and I'm wavering and uncertain that I can carry on doing it - I should stand firm. Maybe the priests were tired and aching and needing a rest but there were still a few thousand Israelites still to cross. They stood firm.

3.  Maybe I'm still on the river bank and I'm scared to put my toe in the water. Time to climb in. Time to step out in faith.

So here I am contemplating where I am in this scenario.  Maybe all three? I definitely feel as if I should be taking a step somewhere but I've long been asking you which direction.  Are you telling me that I should just step off the edge in some way? I've had so many questions about what you want me to do with my life and I've had ideas, some of which have just evaporated, some of which seem to be coming to nothing, and some of which (the most precious and fragile dreams I have) I have not even explored yet for fear of failing. In case they don't work. In case I make a fool of myself. In case I have to discard hopes that I've had for a long long time.

So maybe now's the time to put my foot in the water. And not in a dangly-what's-the-temperature-like-shall-I-shan't-I sort of way, but a wholehearted step-off-the-edge-into-the-torrent sort of way.

Whoa. Scary.

But you've said that whatever my own personal promised land, you'll get me there if I follow your lead. You've planned something for me and if I can only hear your voice, you'll guide me. So if you are with me, who can be against? If I hold onto you, you'll keep me upright until the waters abate. After all, you've made a dam upstream, if only I can wait for relief. If only I can trust that you'll do what you said you'll do.

Like they did.

And then at the same time as hesitating on the bank, I am stuck in the mud. At times lately I've felt as if the burden I'm carrying is far too heavy and I shouldn't have to carry it on my own. I've felt misunderstood, resentful, frustrated and angry at things that have happened and I've felt isolated and hurt. I've felt that the anxieties building up around me have grown to monstrous proportions and I'm no better equipped to cope than I've ever been. You told me on Sunday that I should stand firm. Sometimes movement is not required; I only need to stand firm and hold onto my precious burden, and fix my eyes on you rather than down at the mud. I'm playing to an audience of one. Stand firm until the job is done and then I can lift my feet out of the mud with a satisfying squelch and climb onto the bank. (Where, presumably, the priests had a bit of a break from carrying the Ark of the Covenant. Surely they sat down and put their feet up and had a snack while someone else took over then? The Bible is strangely quiet on these details.)

So here's the thing. I know that I'm vacillating a bit at the moment. I know that I've got some things wrong recently. I know that I'm filling my time with so many things that there is so little left for you. I know that I have so many unanswered questions and I'm constantly complaining that you don't speak to me when it's quite likely that you're there, just where you've always been but I just can't hear you over the background noise of my life.

I need to stop and listen.  And then I need to get on with it.

Give me strength, Lord, and courage. Help me to believe more than I do now that I can step into the current and not be swept off my feet. Help me to believe that upstream you have made a dam and even if it doesn't feel like it straight away, you have honoured the step I've taken. I just need to find the courage to climb down off the safety of this riverbank.

Even though this bank is the wrong side of the river, and I can see where I want to be, and you've promised to see me safely across, I am hesitating. I'm not sure. I keep making excuses. I'm scared of committing myself. What if it goes wrong? What if I can't do it? What will people think? What if...

'And there they stood; those priests carrying the Chest of the Covenant stood firmly planted on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground. Finally the whole nation was across the Jordan, and not one wet foot.'

Joshua 3:17 The Message

I'd love to have seen that.

I wonder how this translates into what you want from me in my life. I wonder what my River Jordan is. I wonder what you want me to carry across. I wonder what you are doing upriver. Show me, Father, because I want to know. I want to climb in.

Friday, 7 October 2011

One hundred blessings

Dear Lord

One hundred blessings.
One hundred lovely things that you've given me.
One hundred things that make me happy.
One hundred random, in no particular order, brainstorming things that are on my 'Like' list.
One hundred things to be thankful for.
One hundred just because it's a nice number, not because it's exhaustive; I may yet make a list of another hundred.

I am blessed in so many ways that I couldn't number them all.

1.   Your unending, unconditional love.
2.   My family.
3.   A house to live in.
4.   Food in the fridge.
5.   Sleep.
6.   Coffee.

7.   Red wine.
8.   A comfy bed.
9.   The wonderful scent of my children.
10.  Warm sun on my face.
11.  Hugs from my husband.
12.  The tick of a clock when there's no other sound.
13.  A good book.
14.  My friends.

15.  A churchful of voices singing praise to God.
16.  Spending time with my church family.
17.  The sea.
18.  A shoulder to cry on when I need one. 
19.  Easter.
20.  Seeing Bryan get off the train home on a Friday night.

21.  Rainbows.
22.  The Bible.
23.  My children running towards me after school shouting, 'Mummy!'
24.  Not being woken up in the morning.
25.  Dinner in a restaurant.
26.  Big trees.
27.  A message from a friend out of the blue.

28.  The smell of baking bread.
29.  Taking photographs.
30.  Laughing until I cry.
31.  When my daughters laugh until they cry.
32.  Making people happy.
33.  Good news from the bathroom scales.
34.  My favourite blackbird, Streaky. 
35.  Roast parsnips.

36.  Singing at the top of my voice on my own in the car.
37.  When the words of a worship song suddenly jump out at me.
38.  A tidy house. (hahahahahaha!)
39.  Dry stone walls.
40.  Tickling my daughters.
41.  A tiny hand curled round a pencil and a face concentrating hard to write their name.

42.  Christmas.
43.  Watching my children sleep.
44.  Bacon sandwiches.

45.  A good film.
46.  Watching my daughters and Grandma play together.
47.  The colour purple.
48.  My favourite mug.
49.  Nativity plays.
50.  Looking at a photo of my two girls as I sit at my computer.
51.  Washing dancing on the line.
52.  White chocolate
53.  Soft blankets.

54.  The Derbyshire countryside.
55.  A warm wheaty on a cold night.
56.  Hearing my little girls say, 'Amen'.

57.  Sun sparkling off the sea.
58.  Having my back scratched.
59.  Music that makes me want to sing along.
60.  Stroking a cat.
61.  Frost on leaves.
62.  Stained glass.
63.  New shoots on plants in Spring.
64.  Glimpsing a kingfisher.

65.  Seeing the Northern Lights.
66.  Strawberries.
67.  Going for a walk with a friend.
68.  Rollercoasters.

69.  Freesia.
70.  Email chat with friends on the other side of the world.
71.  Penguins.
72.  Sitting by the fire on a cold rainy night.

73.  Sunrise and sunset.
74.  My scrapbooks full of memories.
75.  Good news.
76.  Celebrations.
77.  Fireworks.
78.  Christmas carols by candlelight.
79.  Ladybirds.
80.  Swimming underwater in sunlight.
81.  A little hand in mine as we walk.

82.  Fish and chips by the sea.
83.  That little moment when you realise that you are nearly asleep.
84.  Buttered toast.
85.  A joke from a four year old.
86.  Quiet.
87.  A sky full of stars.
88.  A song that brings back a forgotten memory.
89.  Snuggling.

90.  An 'I love you' card from one of my daughters.
91.  Encouragement from a friend.
92.  Dew on a spider's web.
93.  A tree growing out of a rock face.
94.  When my cold feet tingle in a hot bath.

95.  Icebergs.
96.  Crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils.
97.  Toasted marshmallows.
98.  A late in the year barbecue cooking in warm coats.
99.  Pebbles on the beach that smile.
100.Comfy slippers.

...and so much more....

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

An audience of one

Are you listening, Lord? 

Are you watching? 

Are you there, right there, as I sit in front of my computer with my fingers on the keys?  Because I've started this and I don't know what I'll say next. 

It's something about who I am and why I am that I want to get off my chest today; it's a bit vague and I'm hoping it'll take shape as I talk because quite often if I waited until my ideas and questions had form I'd wait forever and I'd be sitting here intending to talk to you but never starting because I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to say. 

So here I am. Are you? 

You've said you are, and so you must be. 

Waiting. Watching. Listening. Waiting with a smile, encouraging. Expectant, because you know what I'm going to say before I do.

'Before a word is on my tongue, you, O Lord, you know it completely.'

Psalm 139:4

I spend my life trying to please people. I'm not sure why, but I worry an awful lot about what people think. Always have. To some extent I'm better than I used to be, but I'm still preoccupied by people's opinion of me too much of the time. 

I'm the sort of person who stops in the supermarket to exchange a spontaneous few words with an acquaintance and then plays the conversation back in my mind over and over wishing that I'd said something else, or not said anything; considering and fretting over what the other person thought, what impression they must have of me. After such an inconsequential exchange I am quite sure that the other person is thinking of nothing but the frozen food or their shopping list but I can go over it and over it. You'll know that it's not unusual for me to make a phone call and then put down the phone afterwards and stand where I am chewing a finger, deep in thought, and I'm rehashing it in my mind. Usually there's something I'd have done differently.

So you'll know what a minefield of potential gaffes the average day is for me. And it's not only what I say - it's how I look (what do people think?) and decisions I make (do people approve?) and how I act (how do people see me?). 

I know what it is that I want people to see when they look at me; I know what I would have people think, most of the time; it's just that I always fall short of my own idea of what I should be, and so I'm convinced that I fall short in other people's assessment of me as well. I'm constantly assessing and regretting and wincing at my perceived mistakes. Sometimes I'm crippled by it. Immobile. I assume that the thing people notice is the bit I'd hide if I could. I assume that other people are always assessing too and yet I know this isn't true. Most people are much more peaceful and accepting than I give them credit for. But then again...maybe they're not...

You see how I tie myself up in knots? 

Somebody said something to me the other day that has thrown all this into relief. 

I am playing to an audience of one. 

Of One. 

It doesn't matter what other people think. The only opinion that matters is yours,  Lord God. 

Of course, I have programming that needs to be undone I think; I seem to have become wired to assess and worry and this has given rise to self consciousness and diffidence and indecision. I almost never have confidence in my own decision making; if I decide something and immediately someone questions me I am invariably shaken. I wonder if I was right after all, should I perhaps have thought differently... and the process cycles once again. 

Why am I like this? I don't know. That's a whole other Thing. Maybe one day I'll luxuriate in someone's deconstruction and come out understanding myself in a whole new way; or maybe one day I'll just learn to let go of it and be transformed into a whole new person. Maybe I can climb the mountain to a higher level where the air is different and I can be freer. Who knows, but you? 

But I had a little breakthrough.

An audience of one. 

Recently I've had to make several decisions involving different people with different expectations of me. Each time I've been in the position where I couldn't please everyone. Each time I've agonised about it and worried about it and the truth is that there is only one opinion that really matters. I still have some tricky decisions coming up and I need to be sure that I am doing what pleases you. Not pleasing other people so that they will have a high opinion of me. Not pleasing other people so that I can gain a sense of self-worth because they depend on me. Not doing something so that I look good/busy/godly/committed/needed/competent/efficient/any other adjective I can insert to prop up my frail ego. What other people think is of dramatically lower importance than what you think.

'Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of God.'

Galatians 1:10

An audience of one. 

Lord, that's easier said than done. I often feel obliged to do things - I find saying no very hard. I worry that people will be disappointed or disapproving. But I find that when I take on something for the wrong reasons it becomes stressful and oppressive and overwhelming; indeed I've just extricated myself very painfully from one commitment that has been nothing but anxiety from day one and I am still not sure why I said I'd do it in the first place, other than that people expected me to. Not good enough. 

It all comes down to being close to you. Walking close enough to hear your voice. Holding on tight enough so that I feel your presence. Stopping long enough to look and see the real picture. If I don't do that then I dash past knocking things flying and getting it wrong and having to go back and pick up the broken pieces. 

So I have lots of claims on my time. Since Katy has started school I have more time and I don't know where it's going. I'm busier than ever and the only, only thing I'm sure of is that you are waiting for me to dedicate some of that time to you. There are worthy things out there; enjoyable and less so, things that are productive and undoubtedly need doing - but I need to stop, wait and discern which of those things are for me because you want me to do them, and you have equipped me for them, and which I would do only because someone else wants me to do them. 

What do people think of me?

What do you think of me?

An audience of one.

I want you to approve of me. I want you to be pleased with me. I want to be less concerned with the opinion of others. I don't mean that I want to be careless of it - but not desperate for it. I just want to learn how to walk with confidence in the steps you have carved for me, secure in the knowledge that I am doing all I can to be your servant, and my significance comes from that. Not from the ideas that another person has of me. Of course I want to be thought of highly, and I should, because I carry the family name and I should look after it.  I mustn't pursue others' approval at all costs. 

'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for his people. Remember that the Lord will give you as a reward what he has kept for his people. For Christ is the real Master you serve.'

Colossians 3:23,24

Amen. Help me to remember that, Lord. I keep forgetting. My need to get things right has sort of gone askew and I need to ask myself who is marking the scoresheet? Who says if it's right or not? Every person in my life thinks that I'm someone different; only you know me, all the sides of me. You know me inside out. Every strength, weakness, hope, dream, fear, insecurity and foible. Many people would not love me so much if they knew what you know.  People would reassess their opinion of me dramatically if they knew all that.

But you love me anyway. More than that - you delight in me. 

You accept me because you made me and the angels celebrate when I get something right that pleases you. With everyone around me I have to play a part - even with people that I love who love me. Only with you can I lay my whole being down and be assured of perfect love however badly I get it wrong. However many times I have to ask your forgiveness. Why would I close my eyes and walk past that wonder in pursuit of another human being's flawed opinion that isn't based on all the facts? 

You are my Father and I am your child and I want to light up your face with pleasure because your opinion of me is the one that matters. I want to remember at those moments when I could go one way or another that you are my real Master. I serve the God of the Universe. Please give me wisdom and discernment and integrity. And courage.

I am playing to an audience of one. 

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