Thursday, 30 April 2015

The road less travelled

Lost again. Where am I?

Father God, I am always asking you for directions.

I keep asking you where I'm going and when will I get there? 

I'm asking you to show me the next step, which path to take, to show me which door should I push.

Which way should I go? What route would you like me to take?

Where will you lead me if only I am willing to be led?

I should stop asking, and just wait for you to show me. Maybe in the waiting there's more to see than there is in this chase,  where I am concentrating only on the road in front of me, pounding footsteps, breath coming in gasps.

Maybe I could sit here for a while, by this crossroads, and feel the sun on my back, and the breeze in my hair, listening to the birds and noticing the small things. The ladybird that lands on my arm, the wild flowers that grow at the roadside. The way the leaves on the trees look so breathtakingly beautiful against the bluest of skies.

Stop. Is that alright?

Maybe that's better than tearing down the road without glancing left and right, backtracking when I realise I'm lost, only to set off at a gallop in another direction. Running, running, not stopping to drink in the view or notice that you're there, waiting for me to sit down next to you. Waiting to show me something.


I want to take the road less travelled. 

The road that is hardly noticed because the entrance is narrow; the one that's just for me, not for anyone else; the one that you're waiting patiently to take me down. My path.

You know this road so well - you know every bump and camber, every hill and valley. You know that there are place where the road leads perilously close to a sheer drop, where I'll need your arm to steady me, and you know secret places where there are still waters and lush meadows to rest in. You know when to stop to admire the view from the best angle and you know when how to guide me through the steep and treacherous parts where I'm scared to go alone and it's easy to lose my footing.

You want to walk this road with me, not just wave me off on my own. You want to point out the spectacular sights and you want to be there when I stumble.

You just want me to put down my maps and SatNav gadgetry and stop trying to do it myself.

To stop peering off down roads I'm not supposed to investigate. Those roads might lead someone else exactly where they're supposed to be going, but they're not for me. Those other roads often look easier than mine - prettier, more exciting; but you're waiting for me to stop looking longingly at the signposts or at other people's receding backs and look into your eyes. 

I'm going to sit here for a bit because I'm tired. Lord, I'm so, so tired.

I'm going to lean against this tree and watch the insects on the flowers and the sunlight filtering through green leaves and dappling the ground. I'm going to feel how soft the grass and the moss and I'm going to breathe in and breathe out slowly and deeply. Clean, cool, unpolluted air. I'm going to wait until the muscles of my shoulders relax and stop aching with tension and the noise in my head grows quieter and quieter. Until the peace that emanates from you washes over me, calming, soothing, comforting.

And I'll rest, leaning on you. I'll wait. 

And, Lord, when you're ready; when you think I'm ready, and not before, I'm going to take the hand that you offer me and let you pull me to my feet. And then you'll show me where to go, and I'll match my stride with yours.

We'll go somewhere, me and you.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

A whisper from the enemy

I'm over at The Association of Christian Writers (ACW) site today with a post about confidence and hard work and investing in the unknown and just generally listening to the voices in my head that tell me, 'You can't do this.' 

You know what happened?  

Some really lovely people took the trouble to comment on the post, or on the Facebook page, or to send me messages to reassure and encourage me. 

They said, 'Me too,' which is a wonderful thing when it feels as if you're the only one who's struggling with something.

It means a lot. I am feeling more positive than I have in ages as a result. 

Aren't people kind?  The folks at the ACW seem to me to be kinder and more generous than most. 

Have a look at today's post here:  More than writers: A whisper from the enemy

If you want to find out more about the ACW, check out the website: 

or say hello on Facebook: ACW Facebook group

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A faint whiff of chlorine

I have written so much about swimming, because our family has been completely consumed by it. If you think that I go on and on about it here on the blog, you should see my journal. God must be sick to death of the subject. 

One  minute you're thinking to yourself that it might be a good idea to get your little girls some swimming lessons, and the next minute the eldest is swimming ten hours a week and the youngest three and you find yourself turning up twice a week as well. And then there's the inordinate number of hours spent on the poolside or up in the viewing gallery plus galas that go on for so long you lose the will to live and kit that requires a second mortgage. Surely all you need is a swimsuit and a towel? Maybe one of those little rubber hats? 

You'd be surprised. And I haven't even mentioned the horror of the 5.30am training session. Least said about that the better, I think.

Sucked in, imperceptibly, bit by bit, then swallowed whole. That's us. 

In the past twelve months there have been many challenges as a result of the dramatically increased commitment to the swimming club. These challenges have been on several levels - logistical and financial, problems with timing and traveling, interpersonal stuff in the water and out of it. Tears have been shed and sleep lost. Energy and exhaustion both in the pool and out of it. Triumph and disaster. 

But last night, as we were getting ready for yet another practice, something else struck me. 

It was my younger daughter, Katy's turn. She's moved up to a new squad and although she's still learning technique, her lessons have taken on more of the nature of a training session in recent weeks. She's determined to follow in her older sister's footsteps and nothing is going to stop her. Her teachers have all commented on how hard she works, and how carefully she listens and follows instructions. 

Last night she was collecting her kit together and dancing about in her swimsuit. She'd put in on hours in advance so that she would be ready and she was discussing with Elizabeth what the night's lesson would be. They would be working on tumble turns (in the US it's known as a flip-turn, I believe - the way they do a somersault just before they get to the wall and push off with their feet all underwater). Katy was describing a problem she has with tumble turns and Elizabeth was demonstrating the correct procedure. They were having an earnest and grown up conversation right until it dissolved into hilarity when Lizzie fell off the sofa while trying to replicate the manoeuvre without the benefit of water. 

A jumble of thoughts went through my mind (once I'd established that she hadn't broken any bones). 
  • Katy was hanging on her big sister's every word because Lizzie is a great little swimmer and Katy so wants to be like her.
  • Lizzie was loving her sister's attention and admiration and was trying hard to share her knowledge.
  • Katy was jumping up and down in anticipation of her lesson; couldn't wait to set off.
  • Lizzie has gained so much confidence in the last year. It might be fragile at times, but her mastery of something difficult has boosted her enormously.
  • Katy too, in the last six months, has grown so much as she's made such good progress up through the stages in her swimming. 
I watch them swimming (for hours) and sometimes I see Lizzie in one of her training sets and she'll suddenly somersault in the middle of the lane before carrying on, hardly breaking stroke, just for the joy of being in the water.

Katy, too, will bounce up and down while listening to instructions in the pool, or spin round and round while treading water just because she can. I have a photo that was taken as Lizzie climbed on the blocks just before an event at a gala. She has a shy smile on her face. I love it. She looks so happy, so relaxed. 

They're enjoying it. Now, obviously, we wouldn't be doing this if they weren't, but I have to say that sometimes the happy part of it all gets lost in all the hard work, and the hamster-wheel of training sessions and rinsing swimsuits and washing hair. 

We know that they love swimming - as do I, believe it or not - but it can get very serious indeed and before you know it you've lost sight of the reason you're doing it at all. 

First of all, we got the children swimming lessons because we wanted them to be safe around water. To enjoy swimming pools and the sea and have a chance of knowing what to do if they ever fell into a canal or a river. That kind of thing. Then there was the opportunity to move from the lessons into the swimming club, and I was naive enough to think, 'Oh, that's a good idea. Lizzie can enter the odd swimming race. It'll be a bit of fun.' I had no earthly idea of what we were starting. 

But... before I once again get sucked into dwelling on the difficulties and negatives let's look at the good things that swimming has done for us: 
  • Both my girls are in great shape, physically. Lizzie particularly, as she swims so much and so hard, but Katy is catching up fast. Lizzie's little body is a lesson in anatomy and she is strong, fast and flexible. Her cardiovascular system allows her to swim hard for almost two hours and then produce a personal best in a freestyle sprint. Then come home and do cartwheels round the garden. 
This is wonderful for a mum like me who has struggled with her weight and size all her life. It is my prayer for my girls that they find a way of getting regular exercise that they enjoy, that doesn't feel like a chore. They're learning to look after their bodies in a way I never did. Lizzie learns about rest and nutrition and when to push herself and when to ease off. It's amazing and encouraging to hear them talk about healthy choices, even if they do then go on to snaffle too much pizza. 

I hope that establishing a pattern whereby sport is incorporated into their lifestyle might mean they avoid the problems I've had, physical and emotional.
  • They sleep well. 
  • They've made some good friends in the swimming club. It's widened their social circle from simply the kids at school and given them a different perspective. They spend such a lot of time with these children (and their little brothers and sisters) that they get to know each other well. 
  • They're learning about supporting each other when things go right and also when they go badly.
  • They learn about teamwork and co-operation - when you watch a relay team in action you realise how hard they have practiced working together. When someone is in a race, the others often form little groups at the end of lanes and cheer them on, and a personal best time is celebrated as much as a medal. 
  • Swimming is teaching them about keeping going when things are tough. About doing the hard thing, and not giving up. We're still in the  middle of this, to be honest, with Lizzie's early morning training. It is indeed very hard, and we haven't cracked it yet, but I live in hope. 
  • They're learning how to win and how to lose with grace. (On the other hand, they're only young, and they sometimes need a bit of help here...don't we all?) 
  • They're learning about listening, taking instructions, respect for authority, behaving well, trying your best, persevering, coping with disappointment and being kind and generous.
These are big lessons. I have difficulty with them myself; I think some of them are things that we have to learn over and over throughout our lives. Let's face it, some people never do get it, do they? I want more than that for my girls. 

Lizzie is almost ten, and she's growing up fast. Among the youngest in her year at school, she seems lately to have a new maturity, and I can't help thinking that it's partly because of her swimming and the things that she's experienced. She has friends at the club whose ages range from 7 to 16, rather than just her own age, and I think that is good for her. We have had some terrible times as well as some top-of-the-world moments, but I think she is growing up beautifully and I am very proud of her. 

As for Katy, her determination is so impressive and we've been so proud of how bravely she's responded to challenges. She has made up her mind that she will not be left behind and she is working so, so hard to improve her strength and stamina and technique. It won't be long before she gets a chance to race too. Can my heart stand it?

So it looks as if our total immersion (haha) in the swimming club won't be changing for a while yet. With both daughters enthusiastic and determined, the radiators and airer are constantly festooned with swimsuits and towels, and the basin full of damp kit. We are constantly searching for a way to keep goggles from misting up and we get through more shampoo than you can imagine. The man in the cafe at the sports centre knows how I like my coffee. When I walk through the front door, when I get in the car, when I kiss my girls goodnight I can often detect a faint whiff of chlorine.

It's life at the moment. It's hard work, unrelenting. Sometimes I just want a week or two off. 

Then, I look at my daughters enthusiastically stuffing kickboards and pull buoys and hand paddles and snorkels and flippers into their kit bags and squabbling over water bottles and oohing over the latest racing swimsuits and comparing notes on trackstart dives and whether your ears pop when you dive down to the bottom at 12'6" and I realise that they're healthy and happy. 

We'll keep going. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

He lives! (with an exclamation mark)

A friend sent me a picture from the internet. It was a picture of Jesus bursting out of the dark tomb into bright sunlight. Strips of grave-cloths flying everywhere, it is a picture full of energy and movement.

I love the idea of Jesus' resurrection as a dramatic, triumphant thing, not something serene and subtle. I think He would have emerged from that tomb exhilarated, breathing deeply of delicious fresh air. He'd have had enough of the suffocating claustrophobia of death, the crushing sensations of tightly bound grave clothes, the airlessness of a dark tomb, the cloying fragrances of embalming spices and ointments. 

He'd have stretched and flexed his muscles and thrown back His head and gazed at the starry sky - or the sunrise, or whatever time of day it might have been. He'd have lifted His hands and praised His Father in Heaven. He'd have smelled the grass and the dust and the flowers and felt the breeze in His hair and He might have smiled or even laughed to have conquered death so decisively.  He would have been wonderfully, thoroughly alive. 

He wouldn't be floating six inches above the ground with blond curls beautifully coiffed, hands folded in the sleeves of His pristine white robes and eyes downcast demurely. He wasn't a ghost, or an apparition; He was real. 

Jesus was a man. He was a carpenter, and then He was constantly on the move, so I reckon He'd have been in pretty good shape. He'd have had wonderfully strong arms and capable, calloused hands. He'd have been lean and well muscled (maybe even a six-pack, though that might be going too far).

He might not have been particularly tall; it seems that middle-eastern men in that era weren't particularly tall, and He'd have had olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes. We know from the Bible that He was not an especially handsome man - nothing that would turn heads if He walked past. 

I have an idea that if you looked into His eyes - if He was talking to you, if you had His attention - that perhaps that might have been another story. I think you'd have seen in His eyes something that you'd never seen before; you'd struggle to take your eyes from His. 

I bet He had the kindest eyes you've ever seen. Warm and intelligent and sincere. Eyes that could see into your soul; that could understand all the things you could never say, the good and the bad, the hopes and dreams and fears and regrets - and yet still you would know that He loved you. I think you'd have seen fun in His eyes; a joy of being alive alongside the sadness and compassion He had for the poor broken creatures that lived alongside Him. 

I think that Jesus was a man before and after His resurrection. Afterwards He was one hundred per cent alive, just as He was before. Blood was being pumped around His body, lungs filling with air, feet on the floor and all His senses keenly awake. I think He'd have enjoyed those days after His resurrection; He'd have been triumphant and joyful. He'd have known there was a job still to do, but He would surely have had a sense of satisfaction. He had done it, after all.

I have no idea at all where He spent those three days after they lifted Him down from the cross and placed Him, bathed with tears, in Joseph's tomb. A friend of mine mused: 
"Easter Saturday fascinates me, as one of those "between things" times, which is neither one thing, nor yet quite the other. Schroedinger's Saviour lies in the tomb (or does he?), resting for the Shabbat, and yet Peter hints that Jesus was already roaming the underworld freeing prisoners and causing his usual mayhem. Why not both? Why not be in three places at once? My God is beyond comprehension, wrapped in grave clothes whilst dancing at the pinnacle of heaven mantled in new authority and descending to the depths to set the captives free."  Karen Dibbens-Wyatt, April 2015
Why not all three places? It's a mystery beyond any human comprehension that a man could come back to life after he was categorically dead, and so all bets are off, I reckon. He might have disappeared from that tomb magically and turned up on the other side of the stone, or He might have pushed it away with superhuman powers. He might have vanished moments after He was laid in the tomb and visited Heaven and hell and all places in between, since God is outside time; there was no clock-watching throughout those three days. Who knows? I wonder if one day I might hear Him tell the story.

I like the picture of Jesus bursting from the tomb with untold power and energy. I see Him standing outside in the morning sunlight anticipating Mary's arrival and smiling to Himself as he relishes breaking the news. I think He enjoyed appearing amongst His disciples and looking with affection at their astonished faces.
'...he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ Luke 24:40-41
I think that He'd have smiled gently at Thomas as He offered proof of His death and His life.

Because, obvious as it sounds - the penny drops - if Jesus died, and rose from the dead, He is still alive today. Normal human rules do not apply to Him. For us, there is nothing so certain that we will one day cease to live, but for Him: been there and done that. It didn't work.

He lives! And He didn't sneak out of the tomb apologetically, it would have been a momentous moment. The whole of the universe would have changed forever.

That's worthy of an exclamation mark, and I use them very sparingly.

He knows what death is like, and He knows what lies beyond. He says it's safe for us to follow; more than that - it's glorious and beyond our wildest dreams. He says that He's prepared a place for us to be with Him for eternity. But if He's battled death and won, He is not waiting for us in the place beyond death, He is here on this side too. He can go where He wants.
'And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ Matthew 28:20
If that doesn't blow your mind, I think nothing ever will.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Empty hands

I had coffee last week with someone who has just finished treatment for cancer. 

It was an incredibly uplifting conversation. It's clear that God really can bring something wonderful out of the most depressing and ominous of circumstances. The cancer was stage three - it had spread to lots of lymph nodes and the doctors have no way of knowing whether it has crept further on still in the bloodstream. Time will tell. 

Isn't that the human condition? Time will tell. We don't know. Technology doesn't know. Modern medicine doesn't know. The best that we can offer is 'time will tell.' And we think we're really clever. 

And yet, in that inexplicable way that we hear about occasionally, it's not all bad news.

The cancer has brought this lady closer to her family. She understands her body more than she did before and has learned to listen to its needs with more care. She has been forced to reassess her priorities; both in terms of tasks that need doing with limited energy, and also on a larger scale, not knowing what the rest of her life looks like; what is really important? She has been in receipt of such care and kindness from the people round her that she now knows that she is loved after years of doubting it. 

All these things are precious gifts. I wonder, is it possible to receive these gifts without the imperative of grave illness? 

I found myself nodding in agreement as she spoke of priorities, of understanding the important and the trivial and learning to tell the difference, and yet I wonder if it's really possible to see such things as they are from a position of full health (as far as I know; time will tell)

Is it? Is it possible?

We spoke of those moments where something that you've always 'known' becomes real heart knowledge - the moment that the penny drops. The eyes widen slightly; something falls into place. You turn to another person and tell them of the mini-revelation you've just had and they look at you, bemused, because yes, they've known that too, but they don't see like you do. It's obvious... and yet it suddenly means something wholly different and more profound. 

The realisation that this is not all there is.

This life can be full of joy, or full of pain, or a mixture of both and many other things, but when you're in a place of grief and loss and fear and helplessness, it's a tremendous comfort to know that this is not all there is. CS Lewis said in his Narnia book 'The Last Battle', I think; this life is only the cover and the title page of the story of our experience. It's only when we reach heaven that the real story begins. A lifetime seems long (though only time will tell) and yet it is just fleeting in comparison with eternity, where the story will begin in earnest, and each chapter is better than the last... 

The realisation that any sense of control we have in this life is an illusion.

When all is well and life is trundling along uneventfully, we think we have everything sorted. All is well. I know what today is like, what tomorrow is likely to bring. I have plans. I know what I'm capable of, and I am full of hopes and dreams and expectations.  I want to be in control more than anything. I want to be able to decide what I do, what will happen and when.And then... I am not well. The doctors will do their best and my body will do it's best to handle the medicine that might be worse than the illness itself, but suddenly tomorrow is not guaranteed after all. Suddenly the hopes and dreams might have to be shelved. Suddenly I can do nothing about any of this. I am even too weak to climb the stairs unaided. 

When I open my hands to Jesus because there is no-one else, and nothing else to do (because I've looked around for something else - anything) I find that my hands are empty. They've always been empty. I've been grasping tight in my fists... nothing. Holding on to something that never existed.

My hands are empty. 

I am trying to be fit. I am trying to lose weight, to eat healthily, to get exercise to feel and look better. I think it's working a little bit - last night at swimming I paused at the end of my lane to catch my breath and I put a hand on my heart and felt it beating so, so fast - and I thought to myself how grateful I am that it can do that. I ask it to pump oxygen around my body faster, faster, more, more.... and my heart rises to the occasion. That is a miracle, and I can't do a single thing about it. One day it will stop beating completely, and I can do nothing about that either.

(I hope I'm not in the pool at the time.)

I'm not trying to be morbid or focus on the inevitability of death, though I imagine perhaps that's how it sounds.  As we had our coffee and my friend told me how different the world looks when you have a diagnosis of cancer, it was not a pathetic, frightening thing, though both fear and sadness were things we discussed. The 'penny-drop' moments that she described made me realise one thing, and it's a good thing, a reassuring thing, a very, very precious thing. Really, it is. 

Our lives are in His hands. 

In His hands, and there is no safer place. They are not our own, and we take every breath because of Him. 

I read somewhere one of those pictures with inspiring words on it that someone created, and it said, 'When Jesus is all you have, that's when you realise that Jesus is all you need.' 

When you have no certainties left - when your very life is threatened, none of the things we chase after in our affluent western world; wealth, position, influence, comfort... those things don't seem important. Not even the good, wholesome things like health, family, love. None of them will help when we glimpse death, and told that he might be coming soon. No, only one thing comes into clear focus, and that is Jesus. 

The only decision we make that truly matters is this. To open our empty hands and lift them to Him. And, as my friend testifies, the treasure that He fills them with makes us realise that we have never before known true riches.

That's what's real. 

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