Saturday, 20 December 2014

Poverty and riches

I saw a little crib in a Nativity tableau the other day. There are a multitude out there, with Mary serene in a spotless blue dress, Joseph indistinguishable from the shepherds, three wise men, several months too early and an elderly Tiny Tears doll swaddled in a crochet blanket, all squashed into a cosy-looking stable. It made me think.

I was born in poverty, too.

Not the sort of poverty that speaks of cold and deprivation; oh no. I have, all my life, been warm and looked after and well fed (just look at me) and I had my own Tiny Tears and all the accessories. No, not that sort of poverty.

When I was born, the birth that I'm talking about, I was as poor as it's possible to be in every way that matters. I had nothing, and the day I realised that was the day that I was born.

That should be my birthday, really; that was when life began for real. I realised the lack - the void. The gut-wrenching poverty. The absence. The emptiness. The need.

For me, I didn't have to live with that feeling of poverty too long, for no sooner had I realised that I did not have the only thing that mattered, that I longed for it, asked for it - then it was given to me.
You are endlessly generous like that.

How much more awful for those who feel that desperation but don't know where to come to find it, this new birth. It must break your heart, Father God.

That day you stripped everything away from me to reveal what actually mattered. I had nothing, and my birth in poverty was yet an elevation for me, for the Creator of the world had business with me. With me. To touch me with the revelation of my need - the moment I understood and my soul reached for you was the moment that the floodgates of blessing from Heaven opened and I became rich.

I look at you, baby boy in an MDF manger, and I realise you knew poverty too.

For you - you had everything, Everything, and you chose to lay it aside to come to this place of filth and cold and hurt to be close to us. You laid aside your majesty, as the song goes, and chose the sweat and smells and roughness of humanity.

You were rich, and you became poor. I was poor, and you gave me riches.

You and I, reborn - humble, vulnerable nakedness. For you, the vastness of Almighty God, shrunk to inhabit a tiny kicking, crying, feeding baby. For me, the smallness and pettiness of a created being expansively given another chance by the grace of the One who reached down and lifted up my chin so that He could look into my eyes with love.

I am a baby as you were. I have all that I need only because you provide it. Mary fed you, cleaned you, dressed you, sang to you and loved you into childhood, adulthood, to execution and beyond. I live because you sustain me. Everything that I have comes from you. If you forgot about me for one second I am sure that I would cease to be. I am hopelessly dependent.

I am uncomfortable in my manger of hay; it prickles. I'd like it to be more comfy. Sometimes don't feel at home because you have given me that longing for my eternal home, and yet you, you lived among us naturally, freely, as if you never felt homesick for the heaven that you had left behind to come here to us.

I sense the Somewhere Else, sometimes; me, insensitive and short-sighted as I am, and yet the King of Glory walked purposefully away from that place; you chose to become small. The limitless in a limited body. The transcendental made finite.

I am lifted gently out of the dirt to be called a Child of God. A crown has been placed on my head and a robe around my shoulders even though there I am hopelessly unworthy.

I live honoured as your daughter, heir to a wonderful place in your Kingdom. You, the very Son of God, fought your way down the birth canal of a peasant girl and landed in straw, surrounded by livestock. With the hands that arranged the stars in the heavens and created the animals and the birds you'd have brushed against the roughness and splinters of an animal's feeding trough. With your first breaths you would have inhaled the odour of cattle. Me, I'm used to the stench of life down here - it seems normal to me, but to you, it must have been strange indeed. You came from a place of peace, beauty, power and honour and put yourself in the hands of two poor, bewildered kids, far from home, who had only the faintest inkling of the magnitude of what was happening.

My rebirth opens up miraculous doors of wonder and possibility; you became confined in a tiny, frail body, kicking and wailing, feeding and sleeping.

You were born so that I could be born again.

And I've realised by staring at that roughly-made trough-cradle, that it is when I stand with nothing, without anything at all, just me as you made me, unable to conceal a single thing, a single part of me - that's when I am most blessed. I am a new creation.

You had it all, just as you have once again; you turned your back on your glory to become one of us.

You were exalted, and you became weak. I am weak, and you raise me up. I can't get my head around it. You know what it feels like to be poor, to be vulnerable, to be human.

Lord Jesus, baby Jesus, King of Kings, Redeemer, Saviour.


Happy Birthday.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The queue for haloes

Katy, then aged five, was getting dressed in her costume for the school Christmas play. In reception, most of the girls were making up the heavenly host of angels, and most of the boys were a fairly rowdy bunch of shepherds. Everyone wanted to be Mary, or Joseph, or (for some reason, that year) the Innkeeper, but no, the main characters were selected from the older classes. 

I remember clearly arriving at school and entering the classroom to find a scrum of harassed parents all struggling to shoehorn their excited children into their costumes. 

Teatowels abounded, as did satin, glitter and tinsel.  Katy's angel costume (Sainsbury's, £5.99; I am no seamstress) was on the desk and we were expected to get our little angels dressed for the last rehearsal before the Main Performance later that day. 

Katy was distracted by the classroom decorations and was more interested in pointing out her moose - or reindeer, or whatever - among the herd on the wall. A little boy next to her began to cry because his tea towel had a mysterious stain on it, and his mother was mortified. Someone else's wings had come un-velcroed and there was some stamping going on until Mummy could find them in the crush and stick them back on. Nobody noticed that they were now upside down. 

Katy attempted to put her white tights on over the top of her outdoor shoes and I was getting hot and bothered in my jacket and woolly hat. It was quite stressful. Things were said, and I know that you know what I mean. 

And then, all of a sudden, she turns around and there is my five year old girl in a white and gold angel costume, standing on tiptoe for a cuddle. Well, I had difficulty letting her go. 

One more hurdle - she had to fetch a halo from the teacher who was doling them out and she needed me to help her put it on. Katy has very silky, slippery hair, and so a headband with a lump of wire and tinsel attached was a bit of a balancing act. 

She sashayed off for her halo. Minutes later she returned with a small thundercloud where the halo should have been. And then it came:

(Accusingly) 'Mummy, how come I'm always last in the queue when they're giving out haloes?' 

There's one to write down and repeat in a wedding speech one day. My gorgeous little girl stood there  with a scowl and her halo all lopsided. She wanted one of the newer haloes; one that wasn't slightly battered from being fetched out every December for the last few years, but the shiny ones had already gone by the time she got to the front of the queue. 

Her halo was not what she wanted it to be. 

I think I was also at the back of the queue when they gave out haloes. I don't know anyone who was at the front, to be honest, though I suspect I know a few who were further up than I was. From where I'm standing, other people's haloes seem much more highly polished than mine.

Katy's five and I was impatient, frustrated and irritated; ready to shout at her (and indeed, probably would have done had we been at home and not in a sea of other, more rational, patient Mummies and Daddies). She was wriggly when I wanted her to be still. She was excited when I wanted her to be calm. She was happy and distracted and I was narked about having to get her into her white tights and then realised that they were on the wrong way round and the heels were in front. I snapped at her. 

She was an angel in the school play but her halo wasn't quite right. 

My halo is a bit battered too, Lord God. It droops quite often and I'm sure that it should shine a bit brighter than it does. But you love me anyway. 

She stood there, my little angel, looking disgruntled and disappointed and I pulled her into my arms for a hug and we cuddled for a long few minutes, right there in the middle of the busy hustle and bustle of pre-dress rehearsal preparations in the reception class at school. 

Two of us with less than perfect haloes. 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Family Rules

There's a plaque on the wall in my kitchen; one of those cheery wordy ones with an inspiring message that are so popular at the moment. It's even made to look distressed, as if it's old, thus lending it more gravitas, I suppose.

It would be easy to fill my house with words on the walls but one can certainly overdo it. Even with just the odd one here and there it's so easy to become so familiar with them that I no longer read the words.

However, I find myself examining this one afresh, because I have changed the way I do things. For the sake of my back and the proximity of the radiator now that the nights are drawing in, I've moved my primary spot for writing to the kitchen table, rather than my perch on a stool at the island unit. Here, the chair may be hard, but it has a back on it, and the fridge is no longer at arms length. This can only be a good thing. Now, from this 'desk', I am straight opposite the plaque. 

FAMILY RULES, it says. 

Yes, one of those. Bought with the children in mind, because children need rules, don't they?  Children need reminders of what's right and what isn't. The problem is that as I sit here nursing my coffee I realise that I need reminding too; possibly more than they do. After all, they're only seven and nine, and I'm supposedly all grown up.

Family Rules. 

'Keep your promises'

Right. Problems here right away. I don't like promises, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it says in the Bible,
 'All you need to say is 'yes' or 'no'. Everything beyond this comes from the evil one.' NIV (Matthew 5:37)
I want my children to grow up trusting my word; that if I say I'll do something, I'll do it. I can see the sense in being very careful what you say you'll do. On a practical level, I learned very quickly that small children have highly selective memories that are totally incapable of retaining information about likes and dislikes ('Yesterday you liked bananas!') but perish the thought that you should blithely say 'yes' to some outrageous plan one evening only to find it impossible (or impractical) to follow through the next day.

Mum, you promised. Then you're left in the no man's land of 'well, I didn't technically promise...' and I hate that sort of wriggling. So I say annoying things like, 'We'll see.' or 'I'll think about it.'  A distinction without much difference, perhaps. But I don't promise, and I tell the children not to make promises, but to let their word be enough. If they say they'll do something, do it. Don't swear on anything, don't bargain, just say yes or no. I'm not sure they see it quite as simply as this.

Under 'Keep your promises' is:


Oh my word, there's a can of worms. My daughters are sometimes remarkably generous with their things, and other times meaner than Scrooge.

'Can I borrow your green crayon?'
'No. Get your own.'
'Mine's broken.'

That kind of thing. I find large portions of my life spent brokering peace deals about who has the gadget for how long before having to hand it over in order to avoid A having possession of it for a nanosecond longer than B. Also removing said gadget from both as a potentially expensive tug-of-war begins. So the 'Share' part is definitely for the kids, then.

Or not. I recall just the other day becoming rather animated (shall we say) when my favourite pen was missing from the pen pot on my desk for the millionth time when I wanted it. On numerous occasions have I retrieved it from wherever it turned up but this time it was Gone For Good. I made dire pronouncements about nobody ever begin allowed to touch my pen pot again, ever. The following day my mum handed me a package containing a replacement pen. Ahem.  The kids so far have been afraid to touch it.

Good sharing, then.

Think of others before yourself.


This is written rather small, and is easy to miss. This is quite convenient as quite often I would rather pretend that I haven't seen it.

I have to say that having children is a painfully good way of finding out how selfish you are, should you want to know, and I can't say that I did.

Since my babies came along it's been a long, drawn out battle between their needs and my desire to please myself. They won't/can't give in, and I don't want to, so the battle continues to rage. I want the house the way I want it, I want to spend my time the way I want to spend it, I want to eat when I want to, sleep when I want to, and so on. I don't want to wipe bottoms, make endless meals and find an inordinate number of replacement batteries for things that beep.

I love my family more than I can possibly put into words, but it is not easy to think of others before yourself. It isn't. And when I get a good run at it, and keep everybody happy for a while, the little voice in my head might pipe up with things like, 'So what about you? Who's making you happy?' and spiky little things called Resentment and Self-pity and Irritation dig in.

St Paul knew it would be like this. He said:
'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility, value others above yourself.' (NIV) Philippians 2:3
It's hard to put others first. It's dead easy some of the time, because I love my family and I want to make them happy, and I love it when they are happy, but consistency is key and that's downright difficult. I like peace, and giving in and choosing your battles and letting go of control-freakery and so on are ways of keeping the peace. But sometimes, just sometimes, I throw all this up in the air and inwardly shout, ME ME ME.

Moving on...

Say I love you. 

This part is easy. We say 'I love you' lots. Several times a day. I am blessed beyond measure to have a family that loves each other and I tell my husband and he tells me, and I tell my girls and they tell me, and he tells them and they tell him... and so we are pretty much loved up most of the time. So we nailed that one, didn't we?

Well, it occurs to me that there are times when those words are the furthest thing from my head, and sometimes that's when they're most needed. When I've locked horns with one of the girls over something vital to their wellbeing - like whether it's cold enough for a coat, perhaps - how much I love them is not foremost in my mind. When my daughter is in the  middle of a tantrum because the same shoes she's worn for three months suddenly 'feel weird' and can't be worn today, the last thing on my mind is to tell her how loved she is. Perhaps that's when she most needs to hear it.

Listen to your parents

Of course. This is 'a no-brainer' as they say. Most of what I say is definitely worth listening to. Children should always listen to their parents. Just like I did.

Hmm. I'm not sure whether the most senior member of my household might agree with that one. I remember a conversation from way back when that went something like this:

'Have you done your homework?'
'It'll get done, mother.'

Still, I grew up pretty well, didn't I?  Maybe they will, too.

Do your best

We do our best, in this house. Most of the time. One of my daughter's teachers at parents' evening a while ago said, 'She does her best, usually, except when she doesn't.'  I can understand that. Sometimes we cut corners. Sometimes it's too hard.

We do our best to do our best.

Say please and thank you.

Last night, an exchange in our house:


'Mummy, you didn't say 'please'.'

The conversation didn't end there, but we'll draw a veil over the next bit.  My example might not be perfect, but I have been known to offer a plate of biscuits to random visitors to the house and automatically say, 'Thank you, Mummy' when they take one, before clamping a hand over my mouth. Parents of my daughters' friends tell me that they are polite and remember their please-and-thankyous when they're out and about and so I think we do okay. Always room for improvement, though.

'Please, if it's not too much trouble, would you mind removing your wellies from the table?' might have been better, I suppose.

Always tell the truth

Oh, another can of worms. Straightforward and black and white?  Yes, on one level, it certainly is.
Witholding the full horror of the truth from a small child is sometimes required, however, as it was on the day some years ago when my littlest girl asked me how much I loved Scruffy Barney (her favourite, special toy). I said that I loved him very much, because she loved him. She then went on to ask me if I had to save either Scruffy or her sister from a dinosaur, who would I save?  She was devastated by the answer and cried for about half an hour.

Always tell the truth?

Always tell the truth to your mum, that's what I say. I have always known when my daughters are telling lies, but as they get older it gets harder and harder, as does making them believe that Mummy always knows when they're not telling the truth.  There's a felt tip pen scribble on the bookcase and both of them deny having anything to do with it. Was it Daddy? Or Grandma? Or maybe I did it by myself without realising? All these were serious suggestions.

I still don't know who did it. I moved the lamp six inches to the right and now you can't see it any more. Sometimes moving on is the best thing you can do.

Laugh at yourself

For someone like me, among the most self-conscious souls in the world, this isn't an easy one. I'm better than I was, but still not that good. My daughters take after me - or maybe it's just because they're little - but we need to work on not taking things so seriously.

They have such a wonderful sense of humour (when it's not bottom jokes, or cackles over Uranus and its gassy atmosphere) and sometimes a very clever wit. Quite often, though, one of them will say something funny and we'll all laugh, and they'll be embarrassed and cross. Laughing is good, we say, it's a gift to make people laugh. We're laughing with you, not AT you; 'But I wasn't laughing,' they say.

Ah, well, that's where we come unstuck, then.

Hug often

This is a bit like 'Say I love you'. We hug all the time. We have different levels of hugginess, but we are a fairly tactile family. One daughter creeps onto my lap at any excuse and the other needs to be sneaked up on, but I love that we hug. There are moments when a hug is exactly what's needed, however, and it's the hardest thing. The mean times, the irritable times, the tantrum times. The refusing-to-admit-I'm-wrong times. Hug then, too. That's when a hug really does say more than words.

Use kind words

Sigh.  For someone who loves words, who enjoys playing with them and trying to get them to do what I want them to do, I sometimes get it spectacularly wrong. Words can build up or destroy, and I know how easy it is to disregard the dozen nice things someone says and remember only the bad thing.

Whoever said that 'Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,' had no idea how words can penetrate the heaviest armour and wound on a profound level. I have been guilty of saying terrible things to the people I love and have carried that guilt for a long time. Controlling my temper and making sure that in the middle of the anger and the confusion and the excesses of emotion harsh and hurtful things don't slip out is very difficult indeed.

I need a lot of help here.

And finally:  Love each other

And this is what reassures me. Most of the prescriptions of the plaque look straightforward enough in theory, only to turn out to be complicated in practice. Most of them I fail at on a daily basis: we all do. It's hard to share, to do your best, to be unfailingly truthful, to use kind words. It's just hard.

So is loving each other, but we do.  And because we do, we try, and we keep on trying. It was very easy to buy this little plaque and choose where to hang it, and indeed, I showed it to the girls and got them to read it out loud. They weren't that keen, and I can see why. It's a lofty ideal to have words like that on the wall, and I need to remember that I don't live up to them any better than my little girls do. It's good to have them in front of me to remind and inspire me; to have them there on the wall to say, 'This is what I'm aiming for. This is what I want to be like - a person who does these things' . And then I can try, and keep trying.

I know I get it wrong, and often, but I am not crushed or discouraged by the distance by which I fall short.

The reason I'm not is that I know that I am loved anyway, just as I am, with all my failures. Just as I don't stop loving my girls when they are caught out in a lie, or when they don't do their homework, or when they fight over a crayon, I am loved. Even when I snap at my husband, or do what I want to do at someone else's expense, I am loved.

A long time ago Moses had a different plaque with ten Family Rules and they're downright impossible to live up to.  There's only ever been one man in the history of the world who managed it. Moses even hurled them on the floor until they smashed into small pieces because he was so frustrated at the people's disobedience, but God never stopped loving His people.

Even though I have the Rules before me and I forget them and choose to do something else over and over again, even so, I am forgiven. Even when I try to reinterpret them and wriggle out from underneath my failure to keep to the rules, I am forgiven, and I am loved.

There's so much to learn.

Keep Forgiving. That should be on the plaque as well.

Keep trying. 

There is always another chance.
It's never too late to try again.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Playing small

Hello God.

I've been thinking about my hopes and dreams recently -  and I began to wonder what it is that is stopping me from really going for it; giving it all that I have. What stops me from going out on a limb. What is it, really?

I read about stepping out in faith and following the path you have chosen for us. Not dawdling along and collapsing on the nearest bench, opening my packed lunch when it's only half past ten, but actually striding down the path, one foot after another. Walking with you, trusting that there is always more path even though I can't see it. Believing that if you started me down this path then you know where it leads and you do want me to get there.
'For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.'
Ephesians 2:10

You made me. You made me to do something with my life and you have a plan. You didn't intend for me to sit comfortably and admire the view.

I am pretty sure that the plan is not for me to sit here drinking coffee, eating too many biscuits and waiting for something to drop into my lap. Just treading water. I need to find some get-up-and-go, and for someone low on confidence and energy, whose inclination is towards excessive napping and whose default position is procrastination, I'm going to need some help.

I do think that recently you have been prompting me. Not in any subtle sort of way, either; it's become impossible to ignore, and so here I am, preparing myself for the next step.

Max Lucado (Again. I am a big fan) said this:
'What about you? As God calls, he equips. Our maker gives assignments to people. What have you done well? What have you loved to do? Stand at the intersection of your affections and successes and find your uniqueness. You have one. An uncommon call to an uncommon life.'
(Cure for the Common Life, 2006, Thomas Nelson)

I want to live an uncommon life. I don't want to be run of the mill. I don't want to meet you on the Big Day and feel that I let you down. I don't want for you to ask me what I did with the gifts you gave me and for me to be unable to look you in the face because I never tried.  I don't want to look back and see how wonderful the tapestry of my life could have been if only I'd had more...what?  Courage? Faith? Get-up-and-go?

This inspires me:
'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.'
Marianne Williamson, 'A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles' (often attributed to Nelson Mandela).

My playing small doesn't serve the world. If I bury my talents in the ground and eventually give them back to you unused and muddy then you've said that you won't be best pleased. If I plant the seeds that I have, then who knows what might grow?

From tiny acorns grow towering oak trees.

From tiny acorns...
But it's easier to play small. Less scary to curl up in a ball and hope nobody notices me if the alternative is to stick my head above the parapet.

I'm not good at boldness and I live in fear of failure. I hate being laughed at. I worry about what people think. What if I invest enormously in something and nothing happens?

On the one hand I know who you are and I know what you're like and I love you and I trust you and I know that you have a job for me to do with this life and I know that you won't let me down. On the other hand I doubt myself and I worry about things going wrong and the result is paralysis.

Rabbit in the headlights.

My playing small doesn't serve the world. Who am I to hide my light under a bushel? The world is my oyster!


This is hard. I feel as if I'll set myself up for disaster. If I claim to be good at something, to have Big Plans, then people will laugh at me. It will all go wrong.

Mr L again:
'The fire of your heart is the light of your path. Disregard it at your own expense! Blow it. Stir it. Nourish it. Cynics will doubt it. Those without it will mock it. Those who know it, those who know Him, will understand it.'
Max Lucado Daily Devotional, 19 April 2012

Who cares what the cynics say? (Little voice in my head says, 'I do') Who cares who mocks? (and again). But maybe it's worth the hassle and the ridicule to look in the eyes of those people who know you and understand. I'm working through this in my mind. I'm not sure what the plan you have for my life looks like, but I do know that you have one. I know that you've made me just the way I am for a reason. There's something that you want me to do with this short time I have down here, and I'm certain that it's not just to sit here and worry at my hangnail.

When I meet you face to face to I really want to try to explain that I could have made a difference and I chose not to?

But I don't want to live my life as you would have me live it just because I'm afraid of the consequences if I don't. I want to please you.  I want to achieve something for your sake; to show the world a little bit of your glory. To wrap up my life's work with a bow and present it to you as an offering. To leave this place a little bit different (and in a good way) from the way it would have been without me.

Good and faithful servant, as the story goes. I want to be one of those.

So I don't want to play small. I want to think big, because my big, even my BIG is only the tiny tip of the iceberg of your Big.
'Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Chris Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!'
Ephesians 3:20

So is my small insignificant? I have found over and over again in the last couple of years that if I give you a little, you give me back something huge. You take my tiny, imperfect offering and magnify it until it becomes something wonderful. Immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. Think of that.

My wildest dreams are nowhere near wild enough.

You can do it. I can't, but you can. And you don't wait for me to be ready, you ask me to step out in faith, relying on you, not myself. If I waited until I was ready then I would still be sitting here contemplating a coffee and a packet of biscuits in a decade's time.
'If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.'
CS Lewis

See? I'm getting the message. You know what I'm thinking and you keep nudging me. I tell myself, I can't do anything much at the moment - maybe there'll be a better opportunity in the future. You send a morning devotional with CS Lewis to tell me that a better time will never come. I convince myself that I don't have what it takes and you send Max Lucado to tell me:
'God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called! Don't let Satan convince you otherwise. He'll try. He'll tell you God has an IQ requirement or an entry fee. He'll tell you God only employs specialists and experts. '
You keep on going. Am I listening yet?

Another morning devotional sent to my phone in the last two weeks:
'Jesus said: 'What are you producing with your life for the Kingdom of God?'
(Robert Boyd Munger, 'My Heart - Christ's Home Through the Year, 2004, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)

And I have my hands over my ears and I'm just wanting to go to sleep, because it's easier and I'm feeling a bit tired.

It seems too hard to look into the future and determine to do something with it. Easier to take each day as it comes, in my routine, in my rut. Trundling along, not pedalling particularly hard. Not taking any risks. Not upsetting the applecart.

But you didn't call us to live ordinary lives. You told us that we were chosen, special, extraordinary.

Your Holy Spirit lives in me; how can I be run of the mill? If you ask me to do something for you with my life, who am I to argue with you? If you tell me that I'm good enough, who am I to say, no, I think you're wrong?

My playing small doesn't serve the world.

Help me not to play small, Father. At times I feel very small indeed. I feel powerless and afraid and inadequate. But you said:
'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'
2 Corinthians 12:9

Well, I am weak.

Distractions here, there and everywhere. I feel as if I have a million reasons why nothing I try would ever amount to much. I feel as if there's no way I could ever accomplish anything for you. As if everything I touch will turn to dust. But you keep nudging. With infinite patience you keep on smiling and then sending something else to throw light on the seed you planted a couple of years ago. You have a plan for me and the time is right. Not my time; that will never be right. Your time.

Give me courage to set out on this journey, to take a step, and then another. I look at the mountain and I know that I can't climb it, Father God, but with your help I might just set out for base camp, and then see what's next.

Give me wisdom and patience and always more faith. More of you.

I don't want to play small with my life. I want to show your glory to people; to shine as a child of God, because that is what I am. I want to be all that I can be; do what you made me to do.

I want to live an uncommon life.

Edited and reposted from April 2012, because guess what? I'm still not there. But I am packing my rucksack, and I'm preparing for a long journey. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dreams and dead things

I don't like autumn. I know, every time I say that (and I have mentioned it before) there's a collective groan from the autumn-lovers.  They speak of vibrant oranges and yellows and reds and the exhilaration of kicking their way through piles of gorgeousness on brisk, bright mornings and they eat pumpkin and make chutney and so on.

I don't do any of that. Today the rain keeps on coming down and it's mid-morning but still hasn't become properly light. It's dank and miserable. Everywhere the world is getting darker. Death is all around me. The few leaves that weren't blasted into next week by yesterday's storms are swirling into brown drifts. The plants need cutting back to clear away the dead stalks, spent seed pods and rotting foliage, and I'm not tempted to go and do some gardening.

Autumn is a time of decay, shrinking, dying. 

I sit here with both hands round a cup of coffee and I listen to the rain on the roof and contemplate the long months until the days start to get longer. 

I know, it happens every year. You'd think I'd be used to it. Perhaps I should stare at a white screen for a while until I get my share of daylight. Alternatively perhaps I should shut up and look on the bright side. 

It'll soon be Christmas. 

Anyway, I think I'm growing up. I've realised something about autumn. 

Leaves are falling from the trees onto my flower beds. They will eventually make a blanket over all the sleeping shrubs and bulbs and the blanket will help keep moisture in and protect the ground from frosts until it slowly composts down into the soil. The drifts of fallen leaves will dissolve into leaf mould, leaving my heavy, clay-ey soil richer and conditioned. 

Underground, I imagine the roots and bulbs snuggling down for a winter sleep and taking on board the nourishment from the soil around them. Undisturbed by footballs and footsteps, the garden rests. Takes a deep breath and sighs. Relaxes before the brighter sun, warmer temperatures and longer days start to signal that it's wake-up time. Spring rise-and-shine time. 

But autumn is for snuggling down. Putting on the heating and digging out the woolly socks.

The tree lets the leaves fall to protect itself from the relative dryness of winter - it's a survival mechanism. The dead stuff that falls and decays and is so often the focus of my autumn grumpiness is essential to the cycle of the plants in the garden. 

Things fall and die. As a result of their death and decay, something new can grow.

And if that's not a life lesson, I don't know what is. 

For a long time now I've felt as if I'm stalled. I want to move forward and yet I've had no idea which way was forward. To step out in faith without knowing exactly what that meant. I had some ideas that came to nothing. God has asked me to wait, and I have not waited graciously.

I'm ready for the new growth, that moment in spring when you look around you as if you were seeing for the first time and suddenly there are bright, impossibly green shoots everywhere you look. I want that. 

Rapid growth, dramatic development, shoots and buds and blooms. Colour, not darkness. Not the leaf-mould, mulchy, sodden ground wait, wait... it's a slow process. 

Maybe it's all a slow process. Maybe there's a place where dreams go to die and as they fall, limp and lifeless, they start to enrich the soil around them. Perhaps God is saying that something has to die for something to be born. The dead thing isn't lost, wasted, useless; it's a catalyst for something new and beautiful. I didn't realise that my plans were the leaf-mould of the future and it has been no fun to watch them curl up and slowly turn to compost, but I believe His way is best. 

His dreams are bigger than mine. 

So the soil of my life is being forked over by the Gardener. He's digging in some of the leaf-mould as things die and decay. He's digging deep, and it's not comfortable. If I am the soil, then my instinct is to stay dense and full of clay, but things don't easily grow in soil like that. The good stuff needs to be worked in until the whole texture of the soil changes. Until it is transformed into something fertile. 

Who'd have thought that the good stuff turns out to be the stuff that gets thrown away? 

So I am soil, and I am in need of nourishment. I am claggy clay, but partially leaf-mould and I am waiting. I am changing, slowly, imperceptibly, into soil in which God will make something grow. 

All in His good time. 

It turns out that there's a reason for autumn. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The devil in the deep end

The wheels came off my swimming programme last week.

I have been plodding along, or trawling along, for weeks and months, feeling a bit better about things; about the shape of my body (if not its weight) and about the undeniable improvements in my stamina, lung power and recovery times. I find that in my lane of fitness swimmers (as opposed to the competitive swimmers in the other lanes that often leave us floundering in their wake), I can keep up pretty well, most of the time. We get out of breath, we have a laugh. 

It's been good. 

Then, last Monday, this happened. 

1.  I had a great 50m sprint. Personal best, everything went well. 
2.  I had an appalling 50m sprint where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and, blimey, has it cast a long shadow. 

So, in order to explain, I need to dwell for a few precious moments on 1. 

We swim from 8pm until 9.30pm on a Monday night and a Thursday night (others do a third night as well, but that's a step too far for me!). Usually for the last half an hour we practice timed sprints where the coach sets us off from the blocks in batches of four to six and calls out times as we touch the wall, and then do it all over again a few times. 

It's taken me some considerable time to feel halfway comfortable with this last half an hour, because after an hour's strenuous swimming I rarely have another gear to change up to. Still, I have a go. 

Have a go I did. Four of us dived off the blocks, and I got it right, for once. The right height, the right depth, the right glide, perfectly timed breakout, great! Swam well, turned well, swam some more and hit the side ahead of two out of three of the other swimmers. A friend even called out from the other side of the pool how well I'd done. Hooray! 

And then. Round two. Dived in, goggles came off. Or they didn't actually come off, just slid low enough to be a complete nuisance. No idea how the dive went as couldn't see anything and so mistimed everything. Turned too far from the wall so lost all my momentum and had no push off, then ended up veering slightly off course and finished the fifty half way under a lane line which forced my head down when I tried to take a breath, and so inadvertently inhaled a load of water. 


Pride comes before a fall, hey?

I felt so odd. No idea what happened, really, except I was thoroughly disorientated and felt terrible. People's voices were coming from a long way away and my head hurt with one of those vicious chlorine headaches that you get momentarily when you inhale water. No fun. I suppose the only up-side is that feeling appalling took my mind off having made a total mess of it all in front of twenty onlookers. 

We switched to 25m sprints and I managed the 25m but not the sprint part. I then climbed out of the pool on wobbly legs and called it a day. I had to stand and watch for the last five minutes as I couldn't rely on walking the length of the pool without falling over, feeling so woozy. 

Twenty minutes later I stood outside the sports centre leaning against the car wondering if I was going to be sick, but the nausea ebbed and I managed to get home to my bed without incident, and lay before sleep reflecting on the evening's sublime-to-ridiculous experiences. That was that, I thought. 

Let's draw a line under it. 

Sadly, no. 

I woke up on Tuesday morning with my face on fire. Pounding headache, painful jaw, eyes as if they might explode. Dramatically runny nose, sneezes, coughing. This was my sinuses' way of telling me that they were Not Happy at being swilled out with chlorinated water the evening before.

It took me a while to work this out, of course, and I marvelled at the sudden onset of such a powerful cold. I felt fine on Monday! Nary a sniffle, and yet Tuesday, there weren't enough tissues in the northern hemisphere. It was only when I was feeling grim still by Wednesday that my acute powers of deduction belatedly kicked in. The GP agreed with me and I have precious antibiotics. 

I've had to cancel a week's worth of everything. Sent my apologies that I would't be swimming on Thursday, though I didn't explain why; didn't think anyone else needed to know. Ahem.

So what I have I learned this last week? 
  1. I can have great triumph and unmitigated disaster within the same five minutes.
  2. Triumph and disaster may both be impostors but it is very hard to treat them the same.
  3. Chlorine is not my friend.
  4. Don't underestimate my sinuses' power to make me miserable. 
  5. I am so, so fortunate to have antibiotic medication available for occasions when my co-ordination deserts me and results in snorting half a swimming pool. 
Talk about first world problems.

Well, if anyone reading this was looking for spiritual truths, or uplifting devotions, sorry 'bout that. I was just writing about the main event this week.  It does feel sort of significant for me, in a way, as my pursuit of better fitness with my swimming has long been part of my struggle with self-esteem and body-image problems, and it feels as if this is yet another excruciating twist in the tale. On the other hand, I have got this far and in a way it's amazing that I could contemplate messing up publicly in the pool and yet I will go back there next week (I hope) and risk doing it all again. 

Maybe the devil is finding new ways to try to derail me; a new way to stick a spanner in the works. First the huge challenge of going to the swimming club at all, getting into a swimsuit, trying to keep up with those much fitter and more streamlined than me, the fear of people seeing me, then the certainty that everyone would, and then they did - I survived all that. So this is a reminder that no matter how far I've come, I still have the ability to get lost following a straight black line.

You couldn't make it up, could you? 

Listen, I'll be back. I've ordered new goggles. They'll solve all my problems. 

Won't they? 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Nineteen miles upstream

And the rain comes down. It's very hard to feel motivated to do anything on a day like this.

Karen Carpenter sings:

'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. 

Here's a thing. I found myself exploring the book of Joshua in the Bible. I started out searching online for cuddly walruses (surprisingly hard to find) and then, link by link, I found myself reading the book of Joshua online. Walruses to the Ark of the Covenant.

It reminded me of some sermon notes I made quite a while ago, and when I looked them up, well, you've done it again. Something I learned three years ago, and I need to learn it again. 

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... most of the time 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 imagine they're not that keen.

'You first.'
'No, after you.'
'No, I insist.'
'I went first last time.' 

But, Joshua said that you would take care of it, and they believe him. So they step in...

And take care of it 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.

This is what I scribbled down:

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.

Oh, Lord, so much of this year is about TRUST. It's my word for the year and, blimey, you've taken me at my word indeed. I'm trying, Father, I'm trying.

2.  Am I standing in mud with the tide against me, holding on to a heavy burden? I have to stand firm.
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.

It's hard work, and I'm not very good at suffering in silence, am I?

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? What does that mean, exactly? I'm good with metaphor and analogy, but not so good at applying it in any concrete 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 properly explored yet for fear of failing; in case they don't work and 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, if only you'll show me what that actually means.

But I'm afraid, and I have so little energy.

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, back in the book of Joshua.

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 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.

I hear you telling me 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
Well, not one wet foot, apart from the brave souls who stepped out first, now standing with their feet planted in the mud, Ark in their arms, thinking, "Get a move on. This thing's heavy and my feet are freezing."

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 have the courage.

I want to get to the other side.

*Rainy Days and Mondays, The Carpenters, 1971, A&M Records

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Still tired. Revisiting an old post

So, sitting here with the keyboard under my fingers and feeling so, so tired. 

So unmotivated, so discouraged, so apathetic. Thinking I should post something, I should try to write something even when the brain is fuzzy and the words don't come because that's what I should do, and I always do what I should do. 

What I said I'd do, what I am expected to do, what I ought to do. 

And this came to mind. Already written, not new, already posted here in February this year, when I was feeling a bit like this. I wrote this as if Jesus said it to me.

Maybe He did. Maybe He's saying it again.



You there. Feeling overwhelmed; trying not to cry. This is for you. 

I know that you're so, so tired. 

I know what's going through your mind right now, and I know that it's all jumbled up and confused and you've given up trying to make sense of things. I know that you feel that everything is going wrong and that you're further than ever from where you want to be. I know that you're exhausted trying to keep up with your racing thoughts as you struggle to work out what to do next; what to say, where to go, what to think, what your next move should be. 

I have a message for you. 

You're not on your own. I know what you're going through and I am right there with you, even in the dark. I never lose my way, and I will not allow you to be lost either, because you are my beloved child. 
'...even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.'
Psalm 139:12
You know when they tell you that the darkest hour is just before dawn, and that at the moment that you think you simply can't keep going any longer - that's when daylight might break over the horizon?  

It's not as simple as that. It's not a matter of holding your breath and putting everything on hold until you can see again. Only I know how long the darkness will last. It might be that at any moment glorious light will flood your life and everything will fall into place, or it could be that you can't see the way forward for quite some time. Don't be afraid of the darkness.

I want you to learn to breathe, even when it's dark. I want to show you how to be so calm, so still, that you can see the pinpricks of light in the night sky. I want to show you the stars. 

I'm teaching you about trust.

When you are still enough, close enough, you can learn to find beauty even when your eyes cannot make out anything else. There is beauty in the dark too, because I am there.

I see you agitated because you can't see, because you don't know. I see you struggle to make sense of life, trying with all your mind to understand things that are out of your control. 

Stop. Be still. I will fight for you.
'The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.   Exodus 14:14
There are times for dynamic action. When you can see the path ahead and you know what you need to do, these are full-speed-ahead times. There are other times when I want you to do nothing. Times to hide in the shadow of my wing. You're always asking me what to do, but doing is not always what is necessary. Sometimes I want you to stop, just sit with me for a while.

When it's dark and confusing your instinct to rush off can cause you to trip over things, to dash off in the wrong direction and I would save you that.
'Be still and know that I am God.'
Psalm 46:10 
Stop thinking that it all depends on you. You are not responsible for other people. You're not responsible for their happiness, or their success, or their opinion of you. You answer to me and me only, and I say - stop. Just for a while.

Stop striving. None of your dreams depends on you. I have the keys to all the doors that you wish would swing open in front of you and my timing is perfect. I see the end from the beginning - I know the damage that would be done if I gave you all that you ask for when you ask for it. I know you. 

Maybe the dawn is just approaching, or maybe the night will go on for a while yet; that's up to me. I will work it all out for good.  If the darkness persists, then I want you to come close to me and hold on tightly. 

'But those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not be faint.'
Isaiah 40:31
I want you to rest and listen to the beat of my heart, feel the warmth of my arms around you, draw strength from my strength. If you are still enough, if you put aside the hopes and fears and worries and lean into me, you'll hear my voice whispering to you in the dark. Listen to me. I speak words of truth. I guide you. I prepare you. I inspire you. 

I will give you the strength to carry on. 

I will never leave you in the dark. 

With my love


Thursday, 25 September 2014

The thunder of great waters

I did a little musing as I sat on a railing watching the sea do its thing back in the middle of summer when there was time for sitting on railings and watching the sea.

The tide was in, and there was a strong breeze that gave the waves white tops and blew spray at me from time to time. The sun was in and out from behind fluffy clouds and there was nobody else about.

Dear God,

The sea is like you.

It is eternal. Always there, never stopping, never still. It never rests, never sleeps. Shifting, multi-faceted, unpredictable, wild and untameable. Breathtakingly beautiful in all its moods, whatever the weather. That beauty is a complex mixture of light and shade, a million colours; shimmering, sparkling.

It engages all the senses - the blue, the green, the sunlight and reflected sky, the sound of crashing, thundering - and the soft and reassuring sound of surf on shingle.

I sit with my eyes closed and feel cool spray on my face; I swam and was embraced by its silky coolness, lifted off my feet by the swell.

I taste salt on my lips and inhale the fragrance that you only find at the seaside: freshness, brine, the smell of open space and freedom. I find that I breathe more deeply at the seaside in moments like this, luxuriating in solitude; just me and the vastness of you.

There is another sense that the sea touches, for me; the thing inside me that longs for you; the thing that is more than imagination, that comes from the deepest part of me.

My soul reaches for you, because you seem more tangible to me at the seaside.

I watch the ocean and see my God.

The sea is relentless and powerful. You cannot keep it out, you cannot keep it in. It will go where it will. The sea demonstrated its power when the tidal surges engulfed our coast a few months ago; I have seen the destruction left behind. The strongest man-made structures - concrete, iron bars as thick as my wrist, bent and broken like matchsticks, and discarded with the next wave. Flooding, overcoming defences, washing away things that we cling to.

The fury of the sea in a storm; deafening and intimidating. Restless, ruthless, threatening...and yet. that same sea reflecting a cloudless blue sky, soothing and welcoming, splashing on sand and shells, gently caressing my daughters' feet as they play at its edges.

Glory and majesty - the sea reflects the sunrise and the sunset, the beginning and the end, and will still be there, churning, shifting, waiting for the next day. It was made on the second day and will be there on the last. What are we, in comparison?
"Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?"   Job 38:16
The sea shows us our smallness, our frailness. It allows us to interact with it in a small way; it gives up some of its treasures and allows us to form a relationship with it but it demands respect. It gives life and sustains life and can take it away in a moment. We try to harness it, to subdue it for our own ends, but it will only allow us so far. We hover at its edges, gazing awe-struck into its depths, and it is pleased to show us some of its wonders, but we are never in control.

It has hidden depths that we cannot imagine.

Underwater mountain ranges that we have never seen. We don't know how deep it is - it is unfathomable. We cannot draw maps or chart the seabed. We are too small, too weak; our most impressive technology falls short of something so primeval.

We see the surface, and the things it permits us to explore, but it leaves us in no doubt that we are quickly out of our depth. There are things impenetrable, places we can't go, experiences we'll never have, whole ecosystems that we know nothing about, creatures never seen, photographs that will never be taken.

A mystery. Pre-historic, vast, sheltering, nurturing, secretive.

We are so small. We make mistakes; whole aeroplanes are swallowed without a trace in the depths. We are reminded of our fragility, and it's power.

Endless contrasts. I held in my hand the tiniest of crabs from a rock pool, a starfish. The seas are home to countless microorganisms too small for us to see - and then huge and powerful creatures like whales and sharks, seals and fish too large to land in a fishing boat. The delicate and the vast. Floating, mystical jellyfish, shoals of translucent fish, and predators with row upon row of lethal teeth. Things that we eat, things that would eat us. All life is here, and death, too.

"There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number, living things both large and small." Psalm 104:25
Dangerous, yet healing. The sea helps to heal wounds, sterile and soothing. Life-giving, life threatening. Hidden currents, lurking dangers play alongside soft surf and exhilarating swell. It supports us, keeping our boats afloat and our bodies buoyant.  Full of joy and fun, beauty and possibility, yet we misjudge it at our peril.
"You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them." Psalm 89:9
Only Jesus had authority over the sea. There has only ever been one man who was unafraid, who spoke to the waves and they obeyed him.

I sit here and lift the camera to my eye and realise that the sea cannot be captured.

No wonder that throughout history we have been fascinated by it. We have tried to copy it, to halt it, to pin it down on canvas or film, to recreate it to take away for those of us who live inland, but we cannot, for no sooner have we frozen a moment in time, than that moment is gone and the sea is completely different.

It is only now. It was, it will be, but it is always the present. No two waves are alike. They each hit the seawall differently, throw different fountains of spray. There is no pattern, no predictability. It does its own thing, regardless of time, of me, of everyone.

There is so much to see. It whispers, shouts - booms an insistent invitation to tiptoe at the edges, come a little deeper, discover something new, dive in, explore, immerse yourself.  Be brave, get used to the coolness, the movement; enjoy the ride. Know who you are, and who the sea is; don't forget. Don't take it for granted, have respect, but come and enjoy.

Be washed clean. Be lifted off your feet.

Inspiration is here. Beauty is here. Refreshment, restoration, healing, strength are to be found here.

There is no barrier that you cannot break down,
There is no space you can't flood,
No door can keep you out,
No defences you can't breach.
"Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea - the Lord on high is mighty." Psalm 93:4
You are here.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Letter to little sister

To my littlest girl

How I love you. I'm not sure that either of you will understand how enormous that love is until you have babies of your own, but until then I will keep telling you.

Does your Mummy love you?
That's right. How much does she love you?
All round the world and back again. 
More than that!  Why does Mummy love you?
Because I'm Katy
That's right. When will Mummy stop loving you?
Never, not ever.
That's right. Never, not ever, not no-how. 

I won't stop telling you, because I want you to keep that knowledge really deep down in your heart, somewhere that is safe where you can reach for it whenever you need to, because you are the little sister.

Comparisons are inevitable. Everywhere you go, your big sister has already been there, done it and got the T shirt. We can't help that because you've been to the same nurseries, schools and clubs. In many ways she's a formidable act to follow because she's good at so many things, and because she's good at them, you long to be good at them too.

Who knows? you might be. But you're very hard on yourself. When you find that you can't do something she can do, always remember that she's almost two years older than you; it might be that at your age, she couldn't do it either.

But that doesn't solve the problem. It just reinforces the fallacy that you are both on the same path, just that you set off a little later than she did, and that's not how it is.

You are different in so many ways. You don't look the same; people sometimes don't realise that you are sisters. You think differently, you have a different way of looking at things. You speak differently, you laugh at different things, you respond to people in your own individual way.

You are both unique. You are both special. And, my little love, you shine just as brightly as she does.

You are you; you're not her. You're the only one who can do Katy. Oh, my lovely, you do it so well. That's because you didn't come off a production line, you were hand-made by the Master Craftsman.

Your heavenly Father lovingly made you just as you are; that's how He wanted you. He didn't make a single mistake. He was careful, thoughtful and thorough when He designed you, and when He had finished, He looked at you and smiled with delight. I bet He said something like, 'Well, look at this beautiful daughter of mine!  A masterpiece. She's exactly right,' and the angels all cheered and clapped and admired you.

God never makes mistakes. He never gets things wrong - He doesn't make a Mark 1 version and a Mark 2, with improvements. No, He knew what He was doing when He made you. You have a totally unique set of characteristics, my beautiful girl. There is no-one like you.

This is true of your big sister too, of course. She is put together with the same care, the same attention to detail, the same joy.  She's different, though. He didn't mean to make you identical. He wanted you to be different.

And one thing that you can be sure of: when God gave out talents and gifts, He was even handed. There is no-one fairer than God. There's no way that He'd favour one of his daughters with more gifts than another, no matter how it might seem at times. He gave each of us a different set of skills just as we each have our own personality.

It's hard it is to follow in someone's footsteps. It's hard to follow someone who does well, who wins things, who attracts attention for being great at something. It's hard not to look at them and wish you were the same. And when you envy someone their gifts, you start to overlook or undervalue your own.

It's a lie that some gifts are worth more than others. This world perpetuates the myth that some people are better than others because they are faster, stronger, louder. Look at the politicians, the athletes, the celebrities. Some people have gifts that are very obvious; they're there right in front of your eyes. Some people are breathtakingly beautiful, skilled and articulate and the world adores them, and other people have gifts which are much more subtle, but no less important. The world is not a reliable gauge of what is valuable.

For example, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa of Calcutta died on the same day. Diana, famous for her beauty and scandal, filled the front pages for weeks and the world grieved extravagantly. Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to caring for the poorest and weakest, was mentioned briefly on page 8 of the newspaper I saw. For whom, do you think, was the biggest party in Heaven?

Sometimes we have to look past the limelight and the adoration of other people to see the truth of what gifts really mean.

I love that your big sister is good at sports, and I cheer her on with all my heart, but my pride comes from how hard she tries, how determined she is, how gracious in victory and defeat, and the spirit in which she takes part. Make no mistake; I cheer just as loudly whether she comes first or last.

And the same is true for you. I cheer for you, my darling. I cheer for you in my heart every morning when I watch you walk up into the playground of the big school you've just started. I cheer for you in your new role on the school council. I see you growing up into such a beautiful young woman, inside and out, and my heart swells with pride. Trophies and medals and mentions in the school newsletter won't change that.

Who you are is the most important thing, not what you can do.

You will find more gifts as you get older; you don't get them all at the same time. You'll try things, and sometimes you'll succeed, and sometimes you'll fail, and sometimes, strange as it sounds, it's through the failures that you grow the most. Some of your gifts are easy to see already, and others will be ready for you to unwrap when the time is right. Right now I can see kindness, warmth, generosity, the ability to make people laugh, the desire to make people happy. Your quick wit, your ideas, your ability to point out things that no-one else has noticed. Your courage, your determination, your thoughtfulness, your tactile affection, your enthusiasm.

These are powerful, precious things, beautiful, never to be underestimated. This world badly needs people like you.

Don't compare yourself with anyone. Have confidence in yourself, because you are enough. Know how loved you are. By me (and lots of other people) and the One who made you. If He'd meant you to be good at the same things others are good at, He'd have made you that way, but the place would be very boring if we all excelled at the same things, wouldn't it?  You are in this world for a very special reason that's specific just to you, and He's given you all you need.

So cheer on your big sister with me, and celebrate who she is knowing that you are celebrated just as much. Don't wish you were someone else, or try to be like them. Put all your wonderful energy into  making the most of every opportunity, discovering more and more about yourself as your life unrolls in front of you, full of potential and promise.

Be yourself, my treasure. 

There is nobody like you.

With my love - all round the world and back again


Thursday, 11 September 2014

A gentle bump

So here I am again after a long break.

Busyness, holidays, minor illnesses, small emergencies, life events, daily distractions: the sort of time-consuming hamster-wheel kind of family life that consumes all in its path.  Not all bad things, not all good things, just things. For someone like me, who needs periods of space and solitude in order to function properly, the summer is a stressful time too full of people and activity, even though they might be my favourite people in the whole world, and much of the activity is stuff I've been looking forward to for months. It's exhausting and non-stop.

There have been times when I thought my head might explode.

You'd think I'd need the peace that only God provides even more than in my normal term-time routine, where I build in periods of withdrawal where I can, wouldn't you? Well you'd be right. I  need Him more than ever.

Funny that I seem to lose my grip on Him at the very time I need Him the most. It happened last year, and probably the ones before that as well. I get stressed and overwhelmed and instead of clinging more tightly, I let go and drift off. I'm the first to admit that it makes no sense.

Even the odd time I have had where I could have slunk off with my journal to find a little oasis of the kind of peace that only He gives, I've found myself reading paperbacks, checking social media or frittering away precious moments of peace on trivia.

Then this thing happened.

On holiday at the seaside. I had been in the sea with my husband, swimming back and forth, enjoying the waves, the sparkle of the sun, the cool of the water, the warmth on my back, and I'd just decided to get out and join Grandma and the girls on the beach. I wasn't in deep water; I put my legs down on the sand and stood; it was about chest level. Something bumped into my leg. Gently, but a definite bump. Not like seaweed, which would have made me yelp, given my irrational fear of seaweed, but I thought, maybe a fish? Sharks are pretty rare off the north Norfolk coast, I believe.

I began to wade back up the gently shelving beach, towards my youngest daughter who was happily hopping about in the surf. As I turned to let my husband know I was heading in, there between us was a Grey Seal. It looked right at me, turned, and looked right at him. We watched it for a long moment, before it dived back underwater and swam off, resurfacing occasionally to have another look round.

What about that?

On my way up the beach I found my oldest daughter squatting over a rock pool near the beach groyne that leads down into the sea. She'd found a little starfish. A few paces later and there was a feather on an untouched area of sand. A perfect grey and white flight feather.

As I stood on the beach on that beautiful warm summer day, blue sky, shimmering sea, soft sand, surrounded by my family, all (at that moment) content and occupied, I had one of those the penny-drops moments.

A seal, a starfish, a feather.

God keeps on giving, even when I'm not receiving. He goes on laying His gifts in front of me, even when I'm not looking out for them. His generosity does not depend on my willingness to receive, any more than it depends on my behaviour, whether I've earned it.

He just keeps on giving.

It blew my mind.

How pleased God must be when we do notice something, and stop what we're doing to smile and marvel and thank Him for the little bit of loveliness He has placed in our path. For years now I've prayed for eyes to see and ears to hear, and I know that God has answered that prayer, but I now realise that I have the ability to turn it off, as well. It's hard to fathom, but I can choose to be blind, and deaf, and ungrateful. I must miss so much.

But there's more, too. God never stops giving, and He never stops loving, either.

He just keeps on loving me.

You know that old thing that we've heard, 'There's nothing that you can do to make God love you more, and nothing that you can do to can make Him love you less'?  Well, it suddenly made sense.

I do things that pull me away from God all the time. It might not be a huge great sin that I commit that lands me in the lowest place possible, knowing me, it's more likely that it's a slow drift that takes me away from His side, just like the insidious little currents that slowly and imperceptibly pull you away from the shoreline if you swim out too far.

And yet, His love for me doesn't change. Not one bit. He still loves me enough to lay beauty in my path just to make me smile.

Then the third thing in this trilogy of personal revelations: He doesn't want my guilt.

He just wants me.

God waits patiently for me to remember who He is, who I am, and to look up into His face once again. He is there, where He's always been, waiting for me to come back. And when I do, He holds out His hand for me to take and He is just pleased to see me.

No recriminations. No stern talking to. No rehashing of my failings, no comment on how long I've kept Him waiting or how many of His treasures I missed. No ground to make up. Just pleasure that I'm back.

My daughters are at that age when quite often one of them stalks off on their own if we've had a confrontation or I've failed to live up to expectations in some way. When they come back our relations are sometimes strained for a while. Hurt feelings on both sides, ruffled feathers. It would be unwise for one of them to ask me for something at a time like this, when I'm feeling raw or annoyed. Grumpy and disinclined to co-operate. We need soothing words and a period of reconciliation.

Not so with God. He throws open His arms and welcomes us while we are still far away.

I am not in disgrace. I don't have to work my way back into His good books. No probationary period.

How He loves me.

So I stood there on the beach, looking at my daughters happily jumping in the waves, my husband relaxing in the sea, my Mum watching us all from a deckchair with a smile, and I realised that my Heavenly Father loves me so much that He keeps giving me gifts, even when I'm miles away from Him.  And on top of all that, He's so tender when He reaches down to touch me. Like the grey seal - a gentle bump.

And that night I intended to get some of this down in my journal and spend some time thanking Him for this amazing generosity, but it didn't happen. I was busy, distracted; believe it or not, my mind was once again elsewhere. It turns out that I am capable of turning away even after such precious and loving insights.

Days later I opened the devotional that I'm reading (intermittently) and found this:
"Gently bring your attention back to me, whenever it wanders away. I look for persistence, rather than perfection, in your walk with Me.  I not only accept you as you are, I love you as you are...You can easily fall prey to self-rejection if you have unrealistic expectations of yourself. I want you to bring your focus back to Me gently, without judging yourself... I always welcome you back with unfailing love." *
He doesn't want my guilt. He doesn't want me to waste time and energy berating myself for having the attention span of a begonia. He doesn't want me to feel bad that I let Him down. He just wants me to try again.

He waits, and welcomes, and keeps on loving.
Father God, thank you for your unfailing love. Love that keeps no record of wrongs, holds no grudges. Love that never changes.
Thank you that you know me better than I know myself, and yet you love me still. I want to stay close to you. I want to see and hear all that you have for me; I don't want to miss a thing, and yet I am easily distracted.
Help me to bring my attention back to you and place my hand once again in yours. Thank you that you are always there waiting for me.


*Dear Jesus, Sarah Young, 2007, Thomas Nelson

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