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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