Thursday, 20 March 2014

Seemed like a Good Idea...

If I ever write an autobiography, it's going to be called 'Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time'

It's the story of my life. 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting thoughtfully by the side of a swimming pool watching my athletic older daughter at her swimming training. She switched between freestyle and breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly as the coach instructed, and he walked up and down the poolside as they all swam, calling corrections to their technique, monitoring times and chivvying when necessary, by turns stern and encouraging. 

Leaning forwards, elbows on knees, chin cradled in my hand, I reflected, 'I would have loved this when I was Lizzie's age.' 

Just think. You're young and fit and all the bits of your body do what they're supposed to do without hurting. Nothing is stiff, nothing creaks when you bend or straighten it. You can leap out of bed in a morning and jump back in it at night. You don't have to monitor how many painkillers you've had in a day to decide if you can treat yourself to two more at bedtime. You can spend a day at a gymnastics class, swimming training, bouncing on a trampoline and riding your bike and still have the energy to splash too much in the bath and resist bedtime. 

You can get out of breath without your throat hurting and starting to cough. You can break into an unexpected run without pulling up suddenly and limping. You are lithe, light and bendy. And swimming is your thing. So you're at a club where someone else takes charge of your fitness. Warm ups, intense training, cardiovascular workouts and muscle building is all thought out for you and someone else guides you through it. They watch that you're doing it right and correct you if not. They monitor how tired and out of breath you get and adjust the workout so that you're challenged but not stretched too far. 

She's eight years old, and she takes all this for granted. Two or three times a week, in a pretty swimsuit, matching hat and goggles, she is a fish. 

And I watch. 

And that fateful evening, I did more than watch. I thought to myself, 'I can do that, too.'

Where did that come from, God? Did you mischievously plant a rogue thought in my head, just to be funny? Or was it from the other guy? Because I sat there, clearly high on chlorine fumes, and at that moment, and for some time afterwards, it seemed like a Good Idea to join the adult swimming sessions that take place two or three times a week with the same coach. 

On my way out, I casually asked him exactly how fit you had to be to come along, and he waved the question away and suggested I come along on Monday. And my fate was sealed. 

The thing is, if I chicken out, I still see him three times a week as he coaches Lizzie and is teaching Katy too, and I haven't a clue why, but he's one of those guys that you want to please. A word of encouragement from him is a precious thing, and I've seen both my daughters blossom in delight at a compliment from the coach. So why on earth would I want to put on my swimsuit and climb into the water in front of him? 

It seemed like a good idea at the time. 

So, to bring you up to date, I'm swimming two evenings a week for an hour and a half each time. Yes, an hour and a half. Ninety minutes. I usually glance at the clock after about 20 minutes, which shows pretty much when I start longing for my bed. The first time I was there I noticed that it was 25 past the hour and congratulated myself on getting through the session, only then realising that it was twenty-five past eight, not twenty-five past nine. The horror. 

And yet, there have been moments of joy. One session each week we have some coaching on our technique, which is brilliant as I taught myself to swim aged about ten with no regard for conventional wisdom on how it's done. I have learned so much, and not just the true picture of how unfit I've become. I am improving. I can do a tumble turn (and even face the right way when I surface - how's that?) 

I've got a kick board borrowed from my daughter (and noticed that she's BITTEN it - why on earth would you BITE it? Must have a word but strangely it keeps going out of my mind) and a pull buoy and fins. A pull buoy is this devilish lump of foam that you place between your thighs to prevent you from using your legs when swimming, thus building up strength in the arms. Hmm. The fins, or flippers to you and me, are designed to make your legs work harder as you kick. I dislike the pull buoy with a vengeance but quite like the fins, because I hate my legs, and it feels like hard work when I've got the fins on. On the other hand, at least when I'm wearing them I can zoom through the water as if I know what I'm doing.

Feel a bit like Jacques Cousteau. 

So, splish splash. Got all the kit. Even a water bottle, so I must really be a sportswoman, mustn't I? 

Then, the icing on the cake. The other week, the coach said, 'Well done. Looking good.' 


It happened, it really did. I know because I checked with one of the other adult fitness people trawling up and down in my lane. She heard. He really did say, 'Well done. Looking good.'

She understood the magnitude of this incident. She quickly told me of an occasion when she had received a similar compliment. 'It kept me going for weeks!' she confided, and I know what she meant. I am still basking in that moment. 

Of course, it has to be said, I am not actually looking good, but you have to start somewhere. Me doing a tumble turn in my black cossie and black hat is reminiscent of a whale breaching. (NO! I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am. Even me.'

Even me. 

I have come a long way from the first session where I was so self-conscious that I pushed myself so hard that I thought I might either die or throw up, and now I know when to say, 'No, I'm having a rest.' and stare assertively through my goggles when the coach does that excruciating drill sergeant whistle-through-his-teeth that indicates we're supposed to be setting off from the deep end again. 

I have come a long way. That first evening, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life simply to walk out from the changing rooms to the far end of the pool in front of twenty odd fit and athletic-looking men and women. I really thought that someone might tell me I shouldn't be there, and my humiliation would have been complete. Actually, everyone is very friendly (even when I'm getting in their way) and yet there's no getting away from the fact that I am the most overweight and least fit of all of them. There are a couple of people older than me, but they are in breathtakingly good shape, and one lady of sixty still competes at county level.  I always let her go in front of me.

Actually, I let everyone go in front of me. 

It gets to half past seven in the evening on Mondays and Thursdays and I can honestly say that at that point I would rather eat my own feet than get in the car and drive myself to the pool. It's the time of day when the kids are nearly in bed, nearly settled, the end is in sight, coffee and a good book and an early night, and here am I preparing for ninety minutes boot camp. 

What on earth was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I need to get fit. I need to lose some weight, ease the old joints a little and try to get my heart doing its thing so that it can go on doing its thing well into the future. I think it's a good idea despite the trauma of changing rooms, swimsuits and fighting for breath amid gods and goddesses who don't seem to break a sweat or ever run out of breath. It feels right, even at the points when it feels so wrong, and I am feeling better for it, even if, inexplicably, the scales haven't yet registered the monumental effort that I'm making. 

But onward I go. Breathing a sigh of relief after each session that it's a few days until the next one. Wondering if my trousers are a little looser, and trying not to compensate with cake. Using up an inordinate amount of shampoo so that my hair doesn't fall out. 

I will carry on because I need to do something, and I like swimming, but if left to myself, I would make excuses and not bother;  I know this, because it's happened often. So, because I have a time and place that I'm expected, I feel more obligation to go. I'll keep going, because every time I've been, I've been glad I did. And I'll keep going, because I think it's right. Once I'd had the idea, it stuck in my head and kept coming back in a way that reminded me of the times when God has spoken to me. I'm not saying that my latest fitness campaign is sponsored by the Almighty, but I think He's smiling. 

Then today, I saw this, and it had new meaning for me.
'When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.'
Isaiah 43:2
He won't let me sink.

Thank you, God.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Seeing and not seeing

I was reading about the trial of Jesus; the crowd are growing louder and louder calling for Jesus' execution, but nobody knows what to do with Him.

Jesus appears before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate, and before Herod, and then is passed back to Pilate. An innocent man, He stands before the authorities bruised and bloody. He has been beaten, mocked, spat at and insulted, and yet Pilate knows that He has done nothing wrong.

Both Pilate and Herod don't want to make a decision. In all four gospels we read that they don't see a basis for a charge, and yet the mob are baying for blood and they are afraid. What are they to do? To begin with, they are uneasy, and want to see this 'King' for themselves, to find out if He was looking to depose them.  Then at the last they see the defeated, pathetic man dragged in front of them and decide that He is no threat after all.

None at all. He wasn't a pretender to the throne. He was weak and pathetic. Finished. Just another deluded Jewish unfortunate who the mob had turned against.

I picture Jesus in the fine robe in which Herod had Him dressed, blood and dirt caked on His face and body. Bruised, eyes swollen shut, nose broken and bleeding, handfuls of His beard torn out. Head bowed, exhausted, limping. Silent.

No wonder Pilate and Herod thought that there was nothing special about Him after all. He worked no miracles while they watched, He didn't argue with them, accuse them, defend himself. He appeared every inch the broken man.

The loyal disciples were nowhere to be seen, either. They were at a distance, in hiding, fearing for their own lives. What must they have been thinking? Surely they were convinced that it had all gone terribly wrong - where was their leader now? Surely this was not what Jesus had in mind when He talked of a new Kingdom, of justice and restoration and hope?

And yet, it hadn't gone wrong after all. Impossible as it is to get my head round, it was going exactly to plan.

At the time that it seemed completely out of hand, it was all under control.
'He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.'

Isaiah 53:7
Jesus knew exactly what was happening and at any moment He could have called a halt to it. An army of angels would have descended and instantly struck dead everyone who had injured, mocked or spat at him if He had only summoned them.
'Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?' 
Matthew 26:53-54
He had the power of Heaven at his fingertips and yet he was silent. He knew that it had to be like this. He was far from powerless, but he appeared totally broken.

It made me wonder how often I look at a situation, anxious and despairing, and ask, 'Where are you, God? Why aren't you doing anything?' 

When I'm in the middle of my struggles, the big and serious ones, or the daily trivia that gets me down, I sometimes feel defeated. I've been asking and asking, and yet God isn't helping me. Nothing is changing. I've been praying for this for years and He is silent.

The doctor says the very thing I've been dreading, even though I've implored God over and over not to let it happen. The situation that is out of my control seems to get worse instead of better. The people that I repeatedly pray for stay ill; the people that I long to introduce to Jesus stubbornly remain uninterested.

There's no point. It's all gone wrong.

Or so it seems.

Jesus looked a broken man. Not the Messiah at all, not the King of anything or anywhere. He went through all this horror and then on to an agonising and humiliating death without a fight and the soldiers stood at the foot of the cross and stole His clothes.

He looked like nothing, and yet He was everything. We know that he was indeed the King; the King of Kings. He might not have looked like the Son of God, but he was. He may have died the agonising death of a criminal, but he was alive again on the third day, and he will be back in triumph and majesty and glory and not a soul on the earth will be in any doubt about it.

When he stood before Pilate, Jesus was not what they thought. They didn't see the truth of the situation; how could they?  They saw what anyone would see, but they were wrong.

When my life seems to be falling apart around me, every door seems closed, there's no hope - it's all gone wrong - that's when I need to stop wrestling and striving and trust Him. Trust the One who put up with the cruelty and the injustice and the pain because there was a bigger plan. Trust the One who has the Plan right here and now, just as He did then.
'Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.'
Psalm 30:5b
The night lasted three days, and joy did indeed come in the morning. At first light, the women went to the tomb and found it open, and empty.

So when I think that it's all gone wrong, nothing can be right again; I can think of Pilate, looking at the beautiful, all-powerful Son of the living God, and shaking his head and seeing a pathetic man, beaten, defeated, deserted and left to his fate.
'Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.'
Isaiah 53:3b
It's not what we think. Just as God had not abandoned Jesus, we are not abandoned. Now, as then, when all seems lost, we can trust that the One who holds the universe in His hands has a plan that we cannot see from our limited vantage point, just as Pilate could not see from his.

Glory stood in front of him, but he saw only weakness.

We think we know, but we don't. All the time I make the same mistake as Pilate; I think that what I see is all there is to see.

We are called upon to stop staring at the problem and trust.
'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.'
Proverbs 3:5
My word for this year is 'Trust' and in so many ways already I realise that God has taken me at my word. There are things that I can't do, can't sort out, can't change, and He's asking me to stop trying to work it out, but to trust Him. It might look like a mess to me, but I don't see things the way He sees them. Every day it's a battle, because I seem to gather up the anxieties over and over again and hug them to me, but I'm trying to breathe out, slowly.

I trust you, Lord.

Like Pilate, I think I see, but I don't.  But you do, you see everything. You are my heavenly Daddy, my Abba, my friend and my God; you love me and you have promised that you will never leave me, that you will bring good out of even the most devastating circumstances. So, when I look around and I see all the things that I struggle with and so want to be different and I question whether you care about me at all...

I trust you, Lord.

Image: thorns_purple.jpg by lb63664 
Used with permission

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