Monday, 30 July 2012

Labouring in vain

Well, God, I've learned something.

Hallelujah!  I hear you say. I think there might actually be an angelic echo, too. 

I haven't enjoyed learning it, very much.

It was my turn to do the intercession at church on Sunday and I dashed something off midweek when I was tired and then I didn't come back to it until Saturday evening when I made a couple of hasty changes and printed it out for Sunday morning. Sunday morning came and I got up late, rushed to get ready and hurried down the road.

The prayers at our church usually come right after the sermon. Sometimes, when it's my turn to do them I sit listening to the talk with a growing smile in my heart as I can see how your Spirit has linked up the words of the prayers I wrote with the words of the preacher. It's happened on a few occasions and if I'm honest, I'd started to expect it. On Sunday I listened to the talk without any sense that this had happened. In fact, for the first time ever, I scribbled a couple of extra things in the margin of the prayer I'd written to try and tie them together with the sermon a little bit more. When I got up to read them at the lectern, I wasn't feeling very confident. Much less so than usual.

It went OK. 

I made a few mistakes, stumbled a bit, and I got through without much conviction. I sat down again. It wasn't horrific, it wasn't particularly embarrassing, it wasn't a complete mess, but it wasn't right. I didn't do my best, and it showed. It wasn't very good. I knew that on this occasion there wouldn't be many people who came to thank me for the prayers, or tell me that they'd been touched by them. They just didn't seem to connect. As there always is, there was an awkward silence after I sat down as people wrapped up their own prayers, and then the music group took us into the last song. 

Afterwards I mentioned to a friend that I didn't think it had gone well, and she told me that it was alright, but not my best.  I spoke to the preacher who kindly encouraged me but mentioned that I should slow down a bit; there was no rush as I delivered the prayers. I hadn't realised that I'd galloped through them, but it didn't surprise me because I'd approached the lectern just wanting to get it over with. I hadn't even read it through aloud before I went to church with the sheet in my bag. 


Yesterday afternoon these words went through my mind over and over. 
'Unless the Lord builds the house,
Its builders labour in vain.'
Psalm 127:1

Indeed. I wrote the prayers yesterday and they were alright, but your Spirit wasn't there as it has been in the past. People weren't set on fire. I say that, but I suppose if I'm honest I haven't got much idea what people thought and perhaps there was someone there who needed to hear exactly what I said in the way I said it; I know that you can use the most faulty of our offerings for your good. Who knows but you? But I know that I gave you less than I should have done. I built that house, and when it was finished it didn't meet building standards.

I'm sorry.

Not enough prayer went into it as I read the Bible readings for the day. I didn't spend enough time thinking and I didn't invite you into the process.  I just thought I could do it. I thought I was pretty good at writing intercession and I could do it. There. Said it. 

I'm sorry.

You know, last night I felt as if you were shaking your head. Not in an angry way, for you are so gentle when you're teaching me something. I saw you with a sympathetic but slightly amused expression as you looked at my discomfort as the penny dropped. I would much rather have felt that I'd done a good job; it's always nice when people tell me that what I write touches them, or inspires them, or encourages them, and I suppose that I thought it came easily to me. It turns out that it doesn't; it's you. It's you all along. It's not me. 

Without you I can do nothing. Funny, that; I think you mentioned it once:
'I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.'
John 15:5

Recently it's been hard to come here to write as well. I've been avoiding you, a bit. I can scribble away in my journal; it's not that I've felt that I've lost you, because you've been right where you always are, but I've felt self-conscious and preoccupied about what I write. It's started to feel artificial and awkward and I've been struggling for inspiration and... words. 

Lord, I think I've always known that the words that I put down on a page aren't my words, but yours. I've loved writing all my life but it's always been hard and discouraging work until I started to make my writing an offering to you. Since that day the words have come and it's been a joy, a solace, an inspiration. I've loved it. It has helped me immeasurably.  Then all of a sudden it's as if I've lost my way; forgotten what I know to be true. I've been afraid that I can't do it any more, when the truth is that I've started to think that it's me that's doing it, and that's where I've gone wrong.  The words aren't mine, they're yours. Why should I feel self-conscious? Why should I worry what people think? It's not about me.

It's about you. It always has been.  Forgive me for forgetting this, Lord. I've started congratulating myself on what I can do, and the truth is that I can't do it without you. When I don't invite you into the process the result is awkward and stumbling and dry. No depth and no conviction. No inspiration and no truth. 

If I remain in you, I bear fruit. If I don't - I don't. 

This morning I was so miserable and I asked you for help. I went to bed feeling a bit low last night and had uneasy dreams and woke up feeling even worse, and tired too. I snapped at the children for waking me early, and I snapped at them for not co-operating during the interminable teeth-brushing and then as they ate their breakfast with my long-suffering Mum I sneaked off to try to check in with you. 

I've been doubting everything. For quite a while I've thought that it was clear that you wanted me to write. There have been so very many indications that you were with me. I felt a very clear sense of your voice and I was so sure, and yet for the first time this morning I sat with my journal and wrote that I was doubting whether I'd got it wrong. I said, 'Lord, I'm doubting everything. Have I just made a huge mistake?' It's right there in my journal. And then...

The labourers labouring away in vain was still running through my mind and I picked up my phone and a Bible app to try to find the reference. As it opened, the verse of the day flashed on the little screen.
'O Sovereign Lord, you are God!
Your words are trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant.'
2 Samuel 7:28

Thankyou thankyou thank you.  It made me stop in my tracks. It addressed exactly what was wrong. 

Sovereign Lord, you are God indeed. You are a compassionate, gentle, loving God, who cares about his children so much that he involves himself with them on such a personal level. Even those who go off on their own thinking that they don't need you. 

'Your words are trustworthy.'

Your words are trustworthy; mine - not so much. When I use my own words, nothing much happens. It's ordinary. It's OK, but nothing special. No inspiration. No meaning. When you speak, that's when it's worth listening. That's when there's fruit.

But you gave me more than this. You told me that you have promised these good things to your servant.  Not just random good things, but the things that I knew about. The promises that I know about already. These promises. Good things. You have promised, and you don't break promises. If I have a promise from the Lord God Almighty, then it will happen. Whether today, next week or in twenty years time, you will fulfil your promises. The Bible is full of examples. You are faithful to your servants; to those who love you. Lord, I am your servant. I don't want to forget that. 

It's all for you, Lord God. 

Who am I that you reach down to correct so tenderly? That I let you down and your response is to nudge me back with gentleness and love? 

Thankyou. It's been a powerful lesson. Help me not to make that mistake again.
'Blessed are those whom God corrects'
so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.'
Job 5:17


Monday, 23 July 2012

My spacious place

Hello, God.

This is how it was.

I was trapped in a deep, deep hole. A mine-shaft. It went down and down and down and I was flat against the wall on a ledge only wide enough for my feet. Unstable and terrified of falling off. It was so deep that I couldn't see the bottom and I was so far down that I couldn't see the top. There was only darkness. Afraid to move, trembling and unable to get my breath, I was so scared and I was crying out to you.

You heard me. Suddenly you were there next to me. You had your arm around me and I cried harder and harder. You asked me if I wanted you to help me climb out but I was paralysed with fear and there was no way that I could step off the ledge to try to climb. You offered to carry me out on your back and  I nodded tearfully. You helped me climb on, and although I was scared I didn't feel as if I'd fall. In no time we were out into the sunlight and we collapsed onto the grass at the top of the mineshaft. 

We were on a cliff top. The grass was soft and green. Behind us were cornfields behind a wooden fence, and fifty yards in front of us the cliff edge and below us a wide sandy beach and the sea. The sky was vast and blue, the sun shining, a few white clouds dotted about and the odd seagull swooping.  A huge wonderful landscape, wide and sweeping.  

We sat by the mouth of the mineshaft. I took deep breaths. I felt safer but I didn't want to move in case I fell in. You saw my unease and so you filled in the hole. Just like that. Immediately grass began to grow over the new earth. You asked me if I wanted to stand on top but I said no. I didn't trust the new ground. It might give way and swallow me. I might find myself back on that ledge in the darkness. 

You got to your feet and you walked onto the new grass. You turned to me and stood with your arms wide as if to say, 'Look!' A gentle breeze was blowing and it blew your hair and your clothes. You looked strong and sure. You stamped a couple of times to demonstrate how firm the ground was, and then you began to dance. Faster; you danced a comical little jig with a big grin on your face. You made me laugh. You invited me to dance with you but I shook my head. I was happy to sit on the soft grass leaning back on my elbow and watch you, dancing in the sun. You asked me why not and I looked away, 'I'm too clumsy to dance.'

You stepped over to me and held out your hands. I hesitated. You took my hands in yours and pulled me to my feet. You drew me gently towards you and we danced. With my cheek on your shoulder, we danced. Slowly swaying on the miraculous new ground with the sea beyond and the sun above, we danced. 

After a while we sat down again and you told me I was precious. You had a present for me. From nowhere you produced a big bunch of beautiful flowers. Red and orange and yellow blooms, vivid and jewel-like, with lush green foliage, you handed them to me with a smile. 

Incredulous, I looked at you questioningly, 'What is this?
You said, 'The Holy Spirit. A gift. For you.'

Later you were looking for someone. She was hiding in the cornfield, crouched deep behind the long stalks waving in the wind on the other side of the fence from the grass where we were sitting. You knew where she was straight away and you went over and leaned your arms on the fence, looking down at her. She was crying. She had tried to hide from you because she was Unworthy. Your face was kind; gentle and patient. You asked her if she wanted a cuddle and she nodded yes through her tears.

Effortlessly you leaned over the fence and picked her up under her arms and lifted her out of the cornfield into your arms. She was just a child. She clung to you and cried and cried. You wrapped your arms around her, laid your cheek against her head and rocked her gently from side to side. After a while you pulled away so that you could see her face and you asked if there was anyone else with her. She pointed behind her and there, still in the field was a toddler, scarcely old enough to stand alone, wailing piteously with both arms outstretched to be carried. She was Lonely. 

You cuddled them both. You were kneeling on one knee and they were clinging to you and crying. You smoothed their hair and whispered kindness to them.

When they were calmer you began to look for someone else. You didn't have to look for long, even though she'd tried to get away from you. Standing in the far corner of the cornfield under a huge oak tree was another child, older, maybe seven or eight. She stood with her arms folded and scowled with a sulky expression as you approached. You held out a hand but she didn't want to come with you. She was Control, and she wanted to stay that way. You talked softly with her and eventually, reluctantly, she followed you. As you turned to leave you looked up into the wide limbs of the tree and saw another little girl sitting on a branch. Her name was Grief. She stared at you silently with big, tear-filled eyes. You opened your arms and she slipped easily off the branch into them.  She put her arms around your neck. 

You walked down the path at the side of the cornfield away from the oak tree and towards the cliff path and the grass again. You were carrying the youngest child and leading the other three. You were gentle and loving and so kind. I watched from the edge of the grass, leaning on the fence, my back to the cornfield and the sun warm on my face. 

You walked to the edge of the cliff and you knelt down and spoke to them. Three of the little girls responded to you immediately and lifted their arms to be picked up but the older girl turned round and looked at me. She didn't want to go. The others did. One by one you picked them up in your arms and threw them high into the air; Grief, Lonely, Unworthy. Each one became a beautiful white bird that fluttered high above before catching a thermal and rising higher and higher into the blue sky. Last of all you turned to the older child, Control. She looked up at you, then pleadingly at me, and when I didn't respond, she turned and met your gaze and slowly lifted her arms. You threw her upwards and she too, soared away. 

You turned back to me. We stood, you and I, looking at each other. Me, leaning against the cornfield fence, the wood warm on the small of my back, you at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted by the sun, the sea stretching behind you to the horizon. You were smiling, with your head on one side. You lifted your arms until they were stretched wide.

This is our place. A place where I can breathe deeply, where the air is pure and sweet. A place where I can find you and you seem always to be waiting for me when I go there. I feel light and happy and free. 

It is my spacious place. 

'When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
He brought me into a spacious place.'

Psalm 118:5

'He brought me out into a spacious place;
He rescued me because he delighted in me.'

Psalm 18:19

Thursday, 19 July 2012


I am weary and burdened 
 and I want that rest you mentioned.
My burdens are trivial:
daily stuff, detail stuff,
motherhood and marriage,
women and worry.
Who I am and what I'm for;
when to pursue the dream 
and when to stop trying.
All too difficult.

I know that burdens come much heavier than mine:
dirt and drought and death,
fear and fighting,
bombs and bloodshed.
Add guilt to my burden
because life is difficult right here
And yet I have nothing to complain about.
I am blessed but broken.
I'm feeling small.
Inadequate and fearful.

Still I come.
I come because I know your grace
and you know my dissatisfaction.
You love me anyway.
I come because I'm thirsty 
and the water that you give brings life;
heals and restores
gives energy and hope.
I bring hurt and wounds
and you give me water
to drink and bathe and swim.
I can stand under the waterfall of peace
naked but somehow unashamed.
Washed and nourished.

You see me.
I can't hide from you,
and so I approach;
just as I am.
You are the God who sees.
You see it all.
You see my weariness and weakness,
ingratitude and pride -
and instead of anger 
you pour out never ending love.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Blessed are the peacemakers

Evening, Lord.

I seem to spend much of my life trying to avert war. 

I do. Conflict, at least. Alright, anything from bickering and squabbling to major civil unrest. It's tiring. 

Is that what you think when you look down on this earth and count the places where we're at each others' throats?  Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you wonder at our ferocity as I sometimes wonder at the fury of my two small girls?

They are seven and five years old. They are beautiful children with smiles that light up a room. They are sweet, thoughtful, loving and gentle. 


Then there are the times when the explosions come out of nowhere and ignite everything around that's flammable. I am speaking mainly about my littlest daughter, Katy. The Tantrum Queen. 

I would love to see inside her head, just for a minute or two. Half an hour, tops. Surely it would explain so much to me if I could just get a look at the world from her point of view. What is it about getting up time or teeth-brushing time, or getting dressed time, or leaving for school time, or mealtimes, or going to bed time that is so incendiary? If only I knew. Her temper can go from 0-60 in a matter of milliseconds. There will be hardly any warning before the balloon goes up. And when it does, we need to run for cover. She can scream, she can shout, she can kick, hit, throw things and turn over small coffee tables. There is no earthly point in reasoning; the order of the day is to prevent serious injury. Most at risk are the shins and eardrums. 

Lord, keeping the peace is not easy when it is necessary to get out of bed, clean teeth, get dressed and eat meals, then do it all in reverse on a daily basis. I can't let her live on Haribo sweets in her pyjamas until her teeth go furry; I don't think that's anywhere in the job description for being someone's Mummy. So carrots need to be eaten. Toothbrushes have to do their thing. Socks need to be put on and rules have to be stuck to. 

I guess every mum feels like a referee. I'm just having a moan, that's all. If the children are quiet, playing nicely together, laughing - I rush to smile and point out how proud I am of the lovely way they're playing. Within seconds, someone's been assaulted. They can be best friends in all the world one minute - Katy wailing how will she possibly manage at infant school without her Elizabeth, who starts Juniors in September - and then moments later she'll be hurling a marker pen at Lizzie's head and telling her she's a stupid girl and she hates her. Elizabeth can be charm itself at a teddies' tea party with her little sister and half a minute later kicking Kate under the table because she was 'looking at her with a funny expression'. 

I am stern, I am understanding, I am patient, I investigate. 

I am calm, I am fair, I am judicious, I blow my stack. 

Blessed are the peacemakers. How blessed are they if they avert a crisis a few times a day, run away and hide a couple of times and then once or twice make it a whole lot worse?  What about those times when it's completely unclear who is the aggressor, who's in the wrong, who did it or threw it or tore it or spoilt it? What does the peacemaker do when two angry children with mutinous faces are expecting justice for the Nth time in an evening and the would-be peacemaker just wants a coffee and five minutes peace? 

I would love to know how you train a child in the way that she should go with gentleness and compassion when you have to tell that child that she can't have a biscuit because tea is nearly ready, knowing full well that you might as well light the blue touch paper and retire to a safe distance. When do those susceptible grow out of tantrums, Father? Does it ever happen? Do I want to know the answer?

I'm not really going anywhere with this, Lord God. I love my girls and I wouldn't have them any other way. Actually, I would. I'd have them a bit less volatile. A bit more understanding of my point of view. A bit less heavy sighing and eye rolling from my older daughter and a bit less shrieking and flailing from my younger one. But I don't seriously think that my experiences differ from the norm very much. 

It's just a stage they're going through, isn't it? Isn't it?

Thankyou for my girls, God. I love them to the ends of the earth. Oh, Lord, I bet it's quieter at the ends of the earth, is it? Not so much arguing and bickering? Who has the bigger biscuit, who is hogging the red pen, whose sunflower is the largest?  I love them. I would do anything for them. I so want them to grow up as thoughtful, compassionate women. I want them to do things to help people, to make people happy, not putting themselves first whatever the cost. I want them to be fair, generous and warm. 

Sometimes it's hard to stay one step ahead; to know how to play it. I find myself making so many decisions on a daily basis and trying to second guess the outcome of each one. Always analysing the implications, looking for negative precedents that I inadvertently set that might come back to bite me one day. I know the danger that lies in the three words, 'Just this once...' 

I know the onerous weight of having to be oh-so-fair every step of the way. Nobody's slice of cake must be larger than anyone else's.  The felt-tip pens must be equidistant from both colouring books. Perish the thought that one should get to wear their favourite T-shirt when the other's is in the wash. Often I feel ill-equipped for the task of being a mum; I don't feel very grown up myself. 

Endlessly entertaining, endlessly confounding. Frequently surprising, frequently infuriating. Challenging, amazing, hilarious and awe-inspiring, my daughters leave me shouting with frustration and speechless. 

'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.'

Matthew 5:9

Lord, does this include those of us that simply want to make a happy home for our families? For those of us that resolve every night to be more patient with our children, and for those of us who look forward to seeing their little faces as they emerge into the playground after a school day only to be cross and irritable before they even get back home?  

I do my best to avoid flare-ups and disagreements and sometimes I unthinkingly cause them. I try to choose my battles. I try to intercept missiles and intervene in a timely manner, and sometimes I put my head in the sand and hope that nobody gets seriously hurt. I think this is family life. Am I wrong? Somewhere, is there a mother who presides over a brood of children who never have a cross word? Nobody ever feels hard done to? 

I don't think so. 

Lord, I know that you don't have any grandchildren. My two girls are your children and so am I. I have my fair share of sulks and strops and tantrums. I dig my heels in and refuse to be placated just as Katy does. I roll my eyes and do my own thing like Lizzie. Lord, is it as frustrating to be our Heavenly Father as it is sometimes for me to be their earthly mother? 

Give me what I need to do this job well, Lord. Give me wisdom and an insight into their world. Give me a sense of humour. A bigger one. A better one. A sense of humour that's more easily accessed than mine sometimes seems to be. The ability to throw caution to the wind and let them make a mess without fretting that everything isn't perfect. 

More love. More generosity. More gentleness. More fun.

This job is far too big for just me, Lord. You chose me to be mummy to these wonderful children so full of potential and you don't make mistakes - you think that between us, me and you, we can do it.  Help me hold up my end of the bargain. Lord, I need your help. I need you to teach me to be all the things that we want them to be; no good trying to get them to do as I say and not as I do. Change my heart to be more like yours, Father. I'd rather have them take after you than me. Teach me to guide and to forgive as you do, over and over again; and the many times that I get it wrong, Lord, give me the humility to own up and be grown up. 

Thankyou for the immeasurable blessing of my two girls. For their smiles, their wit, their energy and their inspiration. I would do anything for them - I pray that they know that. Please Lord, help me to help them grow up to know right from wrong. To choose kindness over selfishness and forgiveness over conflict. To understand their worth and know that they are loved so, so much. By us and by you. 

I once asked you for patience. You gave me two children so that I could practice and get good at it. Hmm. I won't make that mistake again. Maybe when I'm as old as Methuselah I'll have patience in buckets. Alternatively, by then I might just be so hard of hearing that I can't hear the shouting. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Beset by barnacles


Lord, you made barnacles, and you had your reasons. I really don't know enough about barnacles to discuss it with you, but I want to thank you for them today as I have been thinking about barnacles. I realise that I have my own little raison d'être for the humble barnacle.

I'm sure you have others.

Pushing on. I am beset with barnacles. I think it might just be the human condition, but I have come to learn in the last few months that I have a particular problem with barnacles. Until very recently, I was feeling quite triumphant about the barnacle situation as well, as I have at last acknowledged my barnacle disorder and taken steps to rectify the situation. Sometimes with a degree of success, hence my feeling of increasing confidence.

A wise man told me a while ago that when something was worrying me, or upsetting me, or making me afraid, I should ask you, 'What is really happening in this situation?' and also, 'What am I believing that is not true?'

I started to do it, and I was amazed at how often I realised that my reaction to a problem was based on a  mistaken belief. Someone said something to me, I felt offended, I went away and thought about it and concluded that this person said what they'd said simply to upset me. Moreover, they have never thought much of me and were deliberately going out of their way to alienate me. It sounds sort of ridiculous when put like that. Actually, it sounds sort of ridiculous when I think about it objectively at all, but it's astonishing how many transactions like that I had going on. Some big, some small.

Some of them involved you (He doesn't love me); some involved my family (I am a terrible mother) and some involved random other interactions (They don't love me and think I'm a terrible mother). They might not involve anyone else at all (It's going to be a terrible day) or just might be my own insecurities talking (I can't get anything right).  Lies. Not true. Horrible, mean, depressing, discouraging lies. I have a habit of buying them wholesale.

They were like barnacles on a rock. Small and crusty. Sneaking up on me surreptitiously and clinging fast. I started picking them off the surface of the rock, which is me. I am the rock. I have to sit in the water because that's where I live, and because I am always in the water the barnacles come and cling to me. They seek me out because I'm a rock; a sitting target. I can't stop them heading for me, but I can stop them clinging. I don't need to be a rock covered in barnacles.

I realised that I needed to remove the barnacles because if I wasn't careful they'd be weighing me down. I understand that when you have an excess of barnacles on the hull of a boat the increased drag can cause the boat to use up far more energy than it needs to and it will go more slowly and be lower in the water.
Chipping 'em off
This is an analogy I can relate to. With all these things clinging on to me with their sharp little hooks (yes, I know barnacles don't have hooks but you get my drift) I was certainly lower in the water and much less likely to be making much progress let alone a bow wave. Hard to move much at all when you're weighed down with excess baggage.

What am I believing that's not true?

So I started pulling off the barnacles and discarding them. People are generally not out to get me. People on the whole don't tend to think about me so much that they make judgements about who I am based on what I'm wearing or where I sit in church. I make mistakes, but all is not lost.

I could see more and more rock. The barnacles still settle and some of them dig in for the long haul but I'm quicker at spotting what they are and trying to pull them off before I need to go into dry dock to have them surgically removed. I know I'm mixing my metaphors. It's fun.

But then it happened. You know exactly when it happened, Lord. I'm still not completely sure what to do with it, but you showed me something for a fleeting second and a whole new Thing began.

What if my rock is actually a barnacle? The big rock on which all the barnacles were sitting. The thing with the surfaces worn smooth from the wind and waves, the huge, sturdy thing that doesn't move, that feels like it's been there forever. What if it's not real? What if it's just another enormous barnacle?

My rock is my life. All the things that I've taken for granted. The bits of me that I just accept as unchangeable. Things that I think I know about me; things that have been there for so long that I can't remember a time when they weren't there. Me. Essence of me.

In my case, I've assumed that I am not very confident. I'm just not. Some people are, I'm not. Years ago I learned that people didn't realise how little confidence I had; I tend not to show it much. That's alright. I've learned that if people don't see how little of me there is inside, that's ok. I've managed to get by. My rock is also made up of an apologetic feeling. I assume that if I meet new people they won't particularly like me. Why would they? If someone new comes to church I won't visit them with a casserole; why on earth would they want me at their door? It is far too presumptuous to assume that they'd want to be befriended by me. Other people are much more likely to be welcome. If someone does something nice for me, I am so, so grateful. I am amazed at their generosity; that they would go out of their way for me. Why would they do that? Oh thankyou, thankyou so much. I appreciate it more than you can know. Thankyou again. You're brilliant, you know. I'm so grateful.

It's low self-esteem, it's an inferiority complex, it's a fearful attitude, it's a fear of failure, it's this and it's that and it's made up of a load of rubbish and I know intellectually that it can't be true... sigh. I know from what I know about you that you want so much more for me.

Is my rock not a rock, but a barnacle after all?  Could all that stuff somehow be picked off along with all the day to day barnacles?  Have I built my adult life on something that isn't real? Or needn't be real?

I can't just chip off this barnacle. I can't do it. This rock is too big and too heavy and I can't get my arms around it, let alone lift it, even with a crowbar. You're going to have to do it, Father. It's a job too big for me.

You know what worries me more than anything?  I don't know what's left if this rock/barnacle is tossed away into the sea the same way as all the other little tiny barnacles. If I'm not a rock sitting quietly at the shoreline attracting barnacles, what am I?  What is there underneath the insecurity and fearfulness and inadequacy?

What's left?

This is how far I've got, Father God. I'd love to finish this off with a flourish of freedom and triumph but the truth is that I'm still wondering about this rock. I'm still chipping off the barnacles and throwing them away while occasionally tapping at the rock itself and wondering.

It feels like a rock. Looks like one. It looks like me. But you told me that I don't have to live feeling like this. You've told me that I am immensely valuable. That I am loved by my Creator, who chose me because he knew me and loved me before the world began. That I am unique and special and that I should be flying, not limping. Why would I live a half-life when I can have live life to the full?

So. Take my rock, Lord. Do whatever needs to be done. I don't know what shape that might take; I'm not much keen on it being painful. I don't know what lies underneath the rock, or what sort of thing I am if I'm not a rock. I hear you telling me I'm beautiful and full of potential but I can't see it. If I'm going to feel exposed and vulnerable then I know that you'll be there protecting me. I know that you love me far too much to uproot my rock without preparing what's underneath to see the sunlight for perhaps the first time.

I don't have the answers, but I trust you. I trust your timing and your judgement and I trust that you love me. I trust you to be gentle.

I want to be barnacle free.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Go in the strength you have

Morning, God. For about another half hour, anyway, then it'll be lunchtime. Another opportunity for me to put off the things that need doing and go and do something else instead. I am the Queen of Procrastination. 

I've been away for a few days and couldn't get Internet access where I was. How appalling is this? I  have been separated from my email. Facebook was closed to me. And all the myriad of daily devotionals that stoke me up for each day were forming an orderly queue and chatting among themselves outside my inbox until such a time as they were allowed in. 

I am now home, I am plugged in, the Wifi is doing its thing, and the processor is whirring. I have a million new messages. Pingpingping.

I now realise that I am, perhaps, on too many mailing lists.  Still. 

I settled down in front of my little computer and began to browse through the mail. Interesting stuff. Some of it challenging, some inspiring, some a bit too high-brow for the way I'm feeling. I bookmarked a few. One stood out. 


I like Gideon. Gideon felt small and inadequate. I know that feeling.

Judges 6: 12.  You sent an angel to chat with Gideon and the first thing the angel said was, 'The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.'

I wonder if Gideon looked behind him at that point. He wasn't feeling very mighty, or warrior-like. He was hiding, actually.  He was feeling defeated and small and insignificant. What's more, he didn't feel particularly that you were with him.

'If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders...?'

Gideon was quietly doing his thing, minding his own business, and you came and told him to stop doing his thing, and go do a great thing.

'Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?'
Judges 6: 14

What about that? The clue is in 'Am I not sending you?' I think. If you, Mighty God, were telling Gideon that he was up to the job of fighting the Midianites, then he probably was. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I'm not the one hiding from these same people and wondering what on earth is going on. Gideon argued with you, didn't he?

"'But Lord,' Gideon asked, 'How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.'"

You've got the wrong guy. No, you were patient and reassuring.

'Pull yourself together, Gideon. How many times do I have to tell you? I am God. If I tell you you're going to be Superman, then you're going to be Superman. Time to man up.'

Or not quite like that. You told him that you would be with him. Time and time again Gideon asked for proof that it was you, proof that you definitely were talking to him, proof that he'd heard you correctly. Did you get impatient? No, you humoured him. Did you get a bit annoyed that he kept asking you for a sign? Nope. You gave him signs.

You are endlessly patient. But that isn't the whole story. Of course, there's the little story about Gideon's defeat of the Midianites, the ongoing chronicles of the people of God and the glory of you shining through your servant, there's that. But the thing that struck me today is how you stoop down to choose ordinary people to do the extraordinary. When those ordinary people have hangups ('But I'm weak! How can I do this thing for you?' or insecurities ('I am the least in my family!') you reassure and equip.

You say, I will be with you. I'm going to hold your hand.
Go in the strength you have.

You didn't make Gideon feel strong. You didn't double the size of his muscles, or give him a couple of tanks and a huge army - you simply said, 'Go in the strength you have. Am I not sending you?'

If you're sending us, we'll be alright. You wanted Gideon to trust you to equip him when he needed equipping. To step out, just as he was, knowing that the Lord was fighting with him. You weren't talking to the person behind him who had bigger biceps and a bit more charisma.  I don't think it's any different today.

Don't you say to me, 'I am with you.'? Don't you say to me, 'Go in the strength you have?' and also, 'My power is made perfect in weakness.' (2 Cor 12:9) Don't you ask me to step out in faith with the knowledge that you are beside me?

Not the woman on the other side of church who is more beautiful than I am, slimmer and more confident. You've got something else up her sleeve for her that's none of my business. You have a plan for me that I'm just perfect for. You know what you're doing when you're asking.

Sigh. So hard.

So nothing changes. I compare myself with others just as Gideon did and I find myself wanting, just as he did. I wonder why I should try anything when a little voice tells me that it's been done better by someone else already. I wonder why I should even entertain the possibility that you have a calling for me, little me, pathetic little me... just as Gideon did.

I'm not saying that you want me to come down a mountain and defeat an army. I'm not saying that I am a spiritual giant of the stature of the Old Testament heroes. But what I heard as I read the story of Gideon this morning is that the Biblical Big Guns had cold feet too. Even they doubted themselves and felt small and insignificant sometimes. All human life is in the Bible indeed.

I so often feel ill-equipped for the task of living as you would have me live just on a day to day basis. If you have something else for me, something for me to do, or say, or write, or tell people about, then I'm quite sure I'll worry about that too. Why me? How, me? And yet you've answered it before.

'Am I not sending you?'

This is what I want. If the Lord God Almighty is asking, then I'm dancing. If he's sending, then I'm going. Because you also say, 'I'll be with you.'

There's no safer place than where you are. Even on a battlefield. And my life sometimes feels like a battlefield. But look what Gideon did. He defeated the Midianites, just as you said he would, even if he was from the weakest tribe, and the least in his family.  You chose him.

So when I feel defeated by circumstances and inadequate and afraid, I should remember that your power is perfect in weakness. If weakness is required, I can provide it!  In buckets. When I am weak, you are strong. If you are by my side, and I am hearing your voice, then I have sufficient strength for the next step. You will provide what I need. I need faith, Lord. Always more faith.

I need only hear your voice which told Gideon, 'Go in the strength you have. Am I not sending you?

Amen, Father. I find it so hard to believe, sometimes.

Bury this deep in my soul, will you?

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A gentle answer turns away wrath...


Oh, hello God.

I am cross. I am scowling. My shoulders are tense. If I wasn't typing my fists would be clenched.

Everything in my world is conspiring to annoy me. Someone is going to get a piece of my mind, as they say. If the children don't settle to sleep soon, it's going to be them.

I read this, the other day:
'A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.'
Proverbs 15:1

That might be the case. I'm sure it is. If you say it is, then it is. Sorry. I'm sounding very crabby, aren't I?

It's just that it's hard sometimes. (Crabby, and now whiny.) It's hard not to retaliate, to snap back when someone snaps at you. It's hard not to be sarcastic. My mum has always said that if I can't think of anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say anything at all, but that is also not easy. It's very hard to maintain a dignified silence, sometimes. Jesus, when you were around here, did you ever get so fed up with people that you wanted to shout at them? Point out their shortcomings? Get them off your back? Put them down?

I don't suppose you did, did you?

I do. Often. Usually with my family. When I feel that people aren't doing what they should do, when my children won't co-operate, when they come up with a million reasons why they can't do as they're told - that's when I get a bit snippy. There's no merit in being able to silence a small child with nasty words, is there? No prize for stirring up a husband's temper by being sharp and critical?

Oh dear.

You see, I'm good with words. Sometimes. I think in words and I can usually make them do what I want. It's very satisfying and it's a gift that I love. I have a need to express myself and for the most part that's a good thing. But occasionally it's bad. I can think quickly and I can articulate my ideas and sadly, the flip side is that I can come out with something really cutting or hurtful if I'm provoked and angry before I can stop myself.

Being a words sort of person has a down side. Several, in fact. I often bore people with long winded explanations or flights of fancy that incorporate imagery or extended metaphors; that's one. Another, and a bigger down side is that I'm nifty with words when it comes to being nasty, as well. I don't blow my own trumpet when I say that I have a way with the cutting phrase. The mean remark. Something quick and cold. I'm not proud of it, and as I get older I try harder and harder not to indulge this side of me.

I say 'indulge', because a gentle answer may well turn away wrath, but a harsh word is so satisfying. Someone winds me up, or irritates me, and carries on doing it, and it is so, so tempting just to say something to shut them up. To wipe the smile off their face.

It's something that I battle with. My two daughters are beautiful, clever, creative, imaginative, wonderful and sometimes endlessly frustrating. A hundred reasons why they can't put away their crayons. A thousand reasons for not cleaning their teeth. A million why they can't settle to sleep at night. How easy is it for Mummy to close their bedroom door abruptly with a sharp word. How often do I come downstairs and after a cool-down period - usually only ten minutes or so - I'm back up there feeling remorseful and hoping they're not asleep yet so that I can put the record straight with a cuddle. How many times have my crossness at teeth-cleaning time only served to make Katy clamp her lips closed more firmly?

Words are my friends and also sometimes they turn on me.

'A gentle answer turns away wrath'. It does. I used to work in a busy clinic at a hospital and when people had to wait for their appointment they were often angry and critical. I found that an explanation and apology given gently and honestly diffused a situation where meeting their anger head on with defensiveness led to a bigger explosion. It's so much easier with people I don't know. Somehow it's here at home that it's hardest to handle conflict.

There have been flash points in conversations sometimes in this neck of the woods where the whole evening ahead hinges on a gentle answer...or a harsh word. There have been times when no sooner are the harsh words out of my mouth than I wish that I could take them back and replace them with the gentle answer. Wrong choice. Was it worth it, to get that off my chest, that sharp remark that I just couldn't bite back?  Nope. Too late... so much harder to pick up the pieces than never to smash it in the first place.

It's a temptation. For a brief, fleeting second, it's good to hurt. The darkest side of me that hits out when upset or wounded or furious wants to land a good punch.  Some people would throw one physically, but I might just lob in a bit of sarcasm or a cutting comment. There. How do you feel now?

You know all this. You made me this way! (See? It's your fault). You've seen me in action on numerous occasions. You've also seen the times when I do manage to control myself and bite back the bitterness or the rage. Those times aren't as numerous as I'd like them to be, Father. I want to be someone known for her gentleness and her encouragement, not the hurtful stuff. And I want to be known that way in my own house. It's said that you always hurt the ones you love; I think that's the case. The people that I love so much that I would die for, the ones that I spend all my time with, the ones that see me at my best and worst - they are the ones who bear the brunt of the overtired me, or the irritable me, or the hormonal me. Bless them, Lord, for their patience and forgiveness.

I read this verse from Proverbs and I didn't like it much. I didn't like it because I know that far too many harsh words come from me, and nowhere near enough gentle ones. Help me, Father. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control, and I need more, please. Lots more. I want to build people up, to instil confidence and contentment, not tear down self esteem and bring fear and uncertainty.

I don't like to admit any of this. It's fairly easy to hide from the outside world, but you know, don't you, Lord. I'm needing some help with it all. Forgive me all the times that I get it wrong, Father. Heal the wounds that I leave behind me when I say things that are harsh. Help me do it all so much better.

More gentleness, please, less harshness. More wrath turned away, please, and less anger. More massaging and less stirring. Building up, not tearing down.

And for now, I'm going upstairs to see my children, who have kept quiet since I left them in no uncertain terms that I didn't expect to hear from them again tonight. Elizabeth's little face was sad when I snapped at her. I'm hoping they're not asleep yet as I want to give them hugs and kisses and snuggle them down and wish them good night with gentle words.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

To sleep, perchance to dream

I had a dream the other night, Father God.

It was one of those dreams that is somehow so different in the way it feels, so vivid, so high-quality that I think it's from you. I've only had a few such dreams in my whole life and I've had two in the last month or so. Thankyou. I'm hugging them to me because they're so special. 

Also, I wonder if you could see your way clear to sending me something that maybe clarifies a couple of things?

In my dream, I was standing at the front of church with two or three people standing in front of me. We were in a loose circle (I know, if there were two others, we'd be a triangle, if there were three, we'd be a square, but you know what I mean). I was speaking and I was full of the Holy Spirit. Overflowing. I was talking to these few people, not to the whole congregation, though the church was full. I was emotional and excited and somehow I was carried away with what I was doing. It was intensely spiritual. I began to speak in tongues (which I've never been able to do) and I was full of praise and delight and wonder.

Oddly, even in the depths of this powerful dream where I was praying aloud in the spirit, I said to myself, 'Am I dreaming?' and answered 'No! It's not a dream!' and then, bizarrely, 'I can't wait to tell my friend about this!'. Once again I asked myself, 'Am I dreaming?' and concluded that no, it was real. 

It was real.

Of course, I woke up and it had been a dream. 

It was amazing, God. I loved it. I'd like to do it again, please. Any time you feel like it I'm ready; indeed I settle down to sleep these days with a sense of excited expectation. But the thing that concerns me slightly is that I am very, very sure that you were telling me something in this dream and I'm afraid of missing the point. You know me - I worry about getting it wrong.

So please may I have a sequel? Or a replay with subtitles? Slow motion?

I love that you communicate with us. You're not a God who sits aloof up there and just watches impassively but that you do speak to us in a myriad of ways. You are endlessly creative in how you reach out to me. You know me so well that you know the ways to get my attention, and you keep on surprising me. You speak to me through people, through things I read, through music, through art. You speak to me in pictures and words. In the beauty of creation and in ideas that pop into my head for no apparent reason. You have even embraced the digital age with enthusiasm - I have heard your voice in a text message from a friend.

I've heard it said that you are communicating all the time, yet I only tend to hear you from time to time. There are days when you're everywhere and days when I can't (or won't) find you. It's as if I only intermittently pick up the frequency. Teach me to tune myself in better, Father God, so that I can listen closely and more often.

So, back to my dream. I like very much that you chose to come and have a little chat while I was doing what I love doing the most: sleeping. I'm good at it, but I rarely get the chance to get the sort of practice that would keep me in peak fitness in that area. Do you think I should try to do more of it in order to be more available for anything that you want to say? Please?  The Lord told me that I should stay in bed. Hmm. I'm not sure that there's a Biblical precedent for that one, sadly.

Thankyou. For reaching into my life. The picture you gave me is deeply embedded in me. It couldn't be otherwise; it was unlike a normal, common-or-garden dream where I can suddenly fly, or find myself naked in Sainsburys, or anything like that. It was from you. I like it. In my dream I was ecstatic. I was fully myself and it was easy. I was full of your Spirit. I want that very much - who wouldn't?  All I need now is the wisdom to understand what you want to say, or the patience to wait until you make it clear. I want to hear you clearly, Lord.

And I want to be overflowing with your Spirit too.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Rainbows and promises

It's pouring with rain, God. Again.

It's been throwing it down for weeks now. It's supposed to be summer. I know you have your reasons, Lord, but it's maybe worth telling you that we're not best pleased down here to be all brollied up in July. 

It's made me think of Noah. You know - things like incessant rain, rising flood waters ... Is there something you're not telling me?  Is there someone round here who's supposed to be building an ark? I'm looking out of the window and seeing rain bouncing off the roof of the playhouse, splashing into puddles that indicate where the uneven bits are on the patio, dripping off the lintel. Yes, the grass is a vivid green that I almost wouldn't expect to be found in nature. Yes, the plants are doing fine, and each night we're saved the task of watering the pots of begonias. Nature might love the rain, but when the skies are dark and the clouds are low and it rains rains rains all the time, I start to long for a bit of sun.

School sports days are being cancelled (is that an answered prayer for some?) sports fixtures and concerts are being cancelled, summer fairs and fundraisers are being cancelled. We're used to rain at Wimbledon but couldn't you have fixed it so that the Queen didn't get rained on for her Jubilee pageant?

I know that you can't keep us all happy at the same time, God. I was reading just the other day that in Senegal recently the rains came after eight months without a drop and people were dancing in the street. I know that where forest fires are blazing a downpour or two might mean life or death. I know that drought and famine go hand in hand. I shouldn't moan about the rain.


Moving on.

The other day the rain stopped for a little while. There was a chink of blue between the dark masses of the heavy grey clouds. A few intrepid rays of sun lit us up with a strange light for moment or two.  Just for a short while all the detail came back that had been blurred by the falling rain. Everything was still there, even if we'd been unable to see it because of the rain.

The flowers in the garden were like jewels. Leaves beaded with water. Birds seemed to come from nowhere to find worms and visit the bird table before the rain came again, and the wind was still. All was quiet. It was a very special moment. Beautiful. Too brief to grab the camera, but I happened to be looking out of the window. Everything paused.

Another day the sun came out just before the rain stopped and there was a beautiful rainbow. Clear as anything over the rooftops there was this vibrant rainbow in front of the purply grey skies. I love rainbows. I have always stopped whatever I was doing to go and look at a rainbow. Why did you invent rainbows, except to be marvellous?  Lord God, I love you for rainbows alone. You did it just because you could. Because you could do something amazing like make a rainbow, and then smile and say, 'It's good.' Wow.

A few days ago I read this. I've read Genesis a few times and can't say that this particular bit ever leaped out at me as it did the other day; I reckon it's because of all the rain we're having.
'I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.'
Genesis 9:13

The covenant. The promise that you would not destroy the world again as you did in Noah's time. Your promise to us. You gave your word. You don't break promises.

No wonder rainbows make me think of you. No wonder they enthral me. They are a sign of your promise - then, not to destroy us and now, to save us.

All colours are there. All the beauty that refracted light can come up with. Red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet and all the shades in between. No paint set has a colour that isn't in the rainbow. No computer palette has a hue that isn't in the sky as light meets water after a storm.

The rain pelts down and we all take cover. Everything is wet and dripping. Skies are dark and oppressive. And then - the sun comes out. Weakly, then stronger, as the rain turns to a fine mist. We emerge from our hiding places and lift our faces to the warmth. The light. The colours appear in the sky as we gaze upwards. All the colours of our planet in a vast arc across the sky.

Who can say there is no God?

Your promise to us. Why should you have promised to Noah that the floods would not come again? You knew that we would not appreciably change our ways. Modern man is no more righteous than Noah's contemporaries; why not flood us right now? (You're not, are you? As the rain hammers on the roof windows here I'm suddenly struck by anxiety. But no, you promised...)

Why make a covenant at all? You don't owe us anything. You don't need to answer to us, however much we sometimes believe we can control you. You promised us because you are merciful. Because you loved us then and you loved us now. You want a relationship with us. A dialogue. And so you made a covenant.

No wonder the rainbow makes me think of you. Your power, your creativity, your majesty. Arcing across the sky. Appearing at the intersection of rain and sunshine. After the storm, you shine. You were there all along, above the clouds. We can only see the clouds from our vantage point down here, but the power is always there on the other side. We look up and see only heaviness, darkness, difficulty, and yet you are no further away than you are when the sun beats down out of a clear blue sky.

The dark clouds part and the rainbow begins.

Your promise. You won't destroy us. More than that, you want to save us.

'In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'
Luke 22:20

The old covenant, the new covenant. Old promise, new promise. The new promise written in blood. A bigger promise than the old one, even though what Noah went through was pretty dramatic. 

You'll save us. You sent your precious Son to write us the new convenant in his blood. You came to us. Why a new promise? Because you loved us so much that a promise to refrain from destroying us was not enough for you. You wanted to draw us to yourself, and yet we were too sinful to have in your presence. What to do? You wanted us near you, but you cannot be in the company of anything that is unholy. You cannot change, we don't want to change. It's an impasse.

You sent your only Son to buy us back. Make us clean enough to be with you for all eternity.

A new covenant.

A new symbol. This time bread and wine.
"In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.'"
1 Corinthians 11:25

I don't know what the theology is in this, but I think you meant that every time we eat and drink, we should call to mind what you did for us on the cross. Not just when we're standing in church with the liturgy of Holy Communion, but three times a day as we eat our meals and drink our coffee. You didn't want us to remember you on a monthly basis, or even weekly, but all the time. Just as we need to eat and drink to live, we need you. We can't live without you, and what Jesus did opens the way for us to live forever.

You promised. You promised us that you would never leave us. You promised us that you would always be there. That there is no darkness dark enough that your light cannot penetrate it. You promised us that even when the clouds are low and it seems as if the rain will never stop, there will be a rainbow.

And when life eventually is done, the dark clouds will part for the last time and there beyond will be the rainbow in all it's magnificent glory.

I bet it looks even better from your side.

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