Thursday, 26 February 2015

Cans of worms

Well, here's an update. Last week I was bravely announcing that I had a Plan for Lent. 

I was going to work through a list of '40 Things to Give Up for Lent' that I found online, and I was going to journal and pray through each one, telling God what was on my mind when I considered each particular word, and then listen to what God might say back to me. I thought it would be a learning experience, a little soul-searching, a little offloading, then perhaps some word of affirmation and determination.... 

That was the plan. 

You're expecting me to confess that I haven't been doing it, aren't you? That I got to Day 3 and tripped up, or that it's all become a little bit too difficult and I'll finish some other time. 

That's not it. I've done it every day. Thirty-four pages of journal and quite a few hours, actually. That's not the problem.

The problem with my Lent plan is that it seems to be having quite an effect.

The routine of doing it I've found quite easy; it's the things that I'm realising that are making it difficult. I've found that thinking and writing about these words causes stuff in my head to spill out that I either a) thought I'd dealt with years ago or b) didn't realise was there at all. Cans of worms, long shut up tight, and I'm levering the lids off. There's quite a mess. 

My word for this year is 'PEACE', and I am anything but peaceful, and this Lent '40 things' thing isn't helping. How can an examination of my heart on topics such as 'fear of failure', 'comparison' and 'your comfort zone' cohabit comfortably with PEACE?

So, in this short update, I bring you the news that there is work to be done, indeed, and I haven't even got to 'negativity' (day 16) or 'distraction' (day 22) or - gulp - 'worry' (day 30). 

Lots to consider, lots to confess. I'm just struggling to know how to deal with the things that are coming up. Over and over again I'm writing, 'I'll just leave this with you, Jesus.' 

I can't think of any other way of dealing with it. It feels right; some of the bad stuff had leapt back on board over the past few months anyway, and so the opportunity to confront what's going on seemed both necessary and God-led. I suppose that I thought there would be a sense of closure as I skipped through the forty things. And there isn't. No heavenly box ticked, no huge sigh of relief. No feeling of 'Right, that's done with.'

So, I conclude this is closely linked to my word for last year, that I was reluctant to replace as I chose My One Word 2015. My word for last year was TRUST, and as the year went on it became more and more precious to me. I know now that it is really my word for last year, this year and all the years that come until I run out of years down here on earth. 

TRUST is pretty much all there is. 

So, I trust you, Jesus, with my struggle with comparing myself with other people. I trust you with my fear of getting things wrong. I trust you when I put a wary foot outside my comfort zone, and I trust you that you will be there as I think about all the other terrifying things on the list. You haven't ever let me down. 

I trust you, Jesus. That must be the path to peace. There isn't another way. 

Ok, I'm ready. Day 9. What's it to be? 

Oh. 'Guilt'. 

Right. 



Friday, 20 February 2015

Forty things to give up

A quick note on Lent. 

I have done - and attempted not to do - many things for Lent. Giving up chocolate was not particularly difficult for me as it's not my biggest area of temptation in the food department. Biscuits were harder. Coffee would be impossible, though I did once go decaf for the forty days. 

I've given up Facebook, and found on the whole that it was a positive experience with a lasting effect. The time that I found by not grazing on trivia I spent journalling, and that has become something very precious in my life. Social media doesn't have the same hold on me that it once had, though I still have to be careful. No, this year, something different. 

A book? A set of Lent devotions? Hmm - I am swamped by reading at the moment and I'm thoroughly enjoying a pile of new fiction that I tell myself is essential as research as I'm trying to write a novel of my own at the moment. One of the websites with daily suggestions of good things to do and acts of generosity...? Maybe.

And then I saw an article that jumped out at me. A gentleman called Phil Ressler, Pastor of a Church in New Jersey, America, wrote an article entitled 'Forty things to give up for Lent'. The list just grabbed me - it stood out from the page and flashed repeatedly. Almost. Anyway, suddenly I knew what I was going to be doing that was different in the run up to Easter this year. 

So many things on Mr Ressler's list were meant Just For Me. I decided that I would pray through one of his suggestions each day. Maybe aim to devote at least one page in my journal to each topic. That seemed both positive and do-able.

I soon learned that he'd written a book with the same title as this article, and even as my finger twitched towards the Amazon link, (Ooh, there's a book, buy the book!) I had another thought - no, I didn't want this to become another exercise in reading someone's take on each item on the list - I'd read through all forty and identified at least three quarters of them as things that need attention in my life. Probably God would add the other ten to the list as well, and so I wanted it to be my prayers, and His answers. 

So, this is my plan. With just the words and concepts that Mr Ressler listed, I am going to bring each one before God and say what's on my heart, then listen for anything He would like to say to me. Some might say that this is a very inward-looking way of spending Lent, and that might be true, but I think for me, at a point in my life when I feel beset by loads of things that I thought I'd managed to beat, (most of which are on the list) it seems easily as valuable as cutting out crisps or resolving to do twenty sit-ups every day until Bank Holiday Monday. 

Ooh, the horror of sit-ups. 

Here's the list. If you know me even a little you'll see that we got off to a flying start.

  1. Fear of Failure
  2. Your Comfort Zone
  3. Feelings of Unworthiness
  4. Impatience
  5. Retirement
  6. People Pleasing
  7. Comparison
  8. Blame
  9. Guilt
  10. Overcommitment
  11. Lack of Counsel
  12. Impurity
  13. Entitlement
  14. Apathy
  15. Hatred
  16. Negativity
  17. The Spirit of Poverty
  18. Going Through the Motions
  19. Complaint
  20. The Pursuit of Happiness
  21. Bitterness
  22. Distraction
  23. Giving Up
  24. Mediocrity
  25. Destructive Speech
  26. Busyness
  27. Loneliness
  28. Disunity
  29. The Quick Fix
  30. Worry
  31. Idolising
  32. Resistance to Change
  33. Pride
  34. Small View of God
  35. Envy
  36. Ingratitude
  37. Selfish Ambition
  38. Self-Sufficiency
  39. Sorrow
  40. My Life
For each suggestion, there is a sentence explaining what the author means, but I am not making a note of that. I want to take each word and think about it, exploring what comes to mind, and then listen to see if/how God would have me change the way I think, act or speak. I suspect there's much work to be done. 

Time spent with God is never wasted, is it?  My One Word for 2015 is 'PEACE' - and it occurs to me that most - if not all - of these forty things are peace-stealers. Please God, it might be a long road, but I hope to take the first steps to reclaiming each of these bits of my life. 

So, this is my Lent Task. Time in prayer each day around these forty areas of life. I've already found that the first two stretched to multiple journal pages, much heart-searching and unexpected insights, so I'm hoping for real change over the next month and a bit. 
 my life. 

I'll let you know how it goes. 

I may need a new journal before very long. 




Article reference:  40 Things to Give up for Lent: The List by Phil Ressler, Pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Old Bridge, NJ. Published on the Church website 11/2/2015  
http://gs4nj.org/40-things-the-give-up-for-lent-the-list/


Friday, 13 February 2015

Just hold on

Last week I went prayer weaving.

No, I hadn't heard of it before, either. There's a little loom which consists of a series of removable prongs in a wooden base (five, in our case - just weaving something small). You take a ball of wool, or strips of fabric, ribbons - whatever you can make into strands - and weave it in and out of the prongs across the loom and back again. Knot two pieces together to change wool or texture, and then when the loom becomes almost full, pull the prongs out, threading the attached piece of wool through your creation. You can do this several times in order to make a piece that's as long as you want.

By the end, my piece of woven fabric was about eight inches long and about four wide. After removing it from the loom for the last time, you cut the warp threads (the vertical ones) and tie them off, and there you have it.

It's supposed to be a prayer.

The idea is that you have a conversation with God as you weave. You choose your colours instinctively and without too much deliberation in order to allow God to speak to you in whatever way He sees fit; through colour, through texture, through metaphor, through ideas or thoughts or words in your head.

I went along to the session feeling quite down; a prevailing mood for a while now. If I hadn't committed myself to begin there I suspect I might not have gone at all, and to be honest, I wasn't particularly up for having a conversation with God. I wasn't in the mood for more pep talks about persevering, or about counting my blessings. I was making up the numbers and, if nothing else, I'd decided that an hour spent doing something crafty might be a bit of relaxation time, and so I'd give it a go.

God started work a little bit before I did, that particular evening. I'd had to take my eldest daughter to swimming training at a pool some distance from church, and arranged for someone else to bring her home, so I was feeling a bit frazzled as I climbed into the car with twenty minutes left to do a half hour journey. For the first time in a few weeks I turned the music up as I drove off; I'm so rarely on my own in the car at the moment that I hadn't had the chance to listen to any music for ages. It was a Phil Wickham track called 'Just Hold On'.

Yeah.
'There is a battle in the distance
I see it flashing in the sky
It's gonna be a long, long night
All that was holding you together
Is crumbling apart
And left you with an aching heart
Take my hand, here I am'

The first thing that came to mind was that it feels as if I've been in a battle. This year has started with so many things to cope with coming at me from every angle. Things that I thought I'd dealt with (and written triumphant blog posts about) years ago are back to hassle me. Worrying about what people think, battling with indecision, pride, fear, tiredness and bad temper. Early mornings at the swimming club, self consciousness, feelings of inadequacy and anxiety about the future, and so on, and so on. And that old chestnut that when I need God most, I have no energy or desire to find Him.

Yes, there's a battle. Always a battle, but I've been struggling in the middle of it. It has felt like a long, long night, and I've been afraid that I'm coming apart, feeling downcast, miserable, apathetic, discouraged. Yes, that. What the man sang, that.

'Take my hand, here I am...

Love is gonna make it right
Just hold on, just hold on
There's mercy in the morning light
When you're weak love is strong
Hold on'

I don't really know what happened as I listened to that song, but a little glimmer of something seemed to penetrate the darkness. A ray of morning light, maybe. A little glint of something shining in the black. I turned the music  up loud. 

So, prayer weaving.

Each seat had a loom set up and ready for a participant. The vertical threads were already attached to the loom, and my seat had black threads already on it. Good, I thought.

I knew what I was going to do. The room was set out with multiple baskets and tubs of different fabrics, wools, yarns and ribbons in every colour, pattern and texture that you can imagine. While sipping my coffee before we began I decided where I was going to start. I chose the darkest colours I could find in shades of black and purple and began weaving. 

It was quite therapeutic, the in-out-in-out of the thread between the pegs, a rhythmic thing that I found wasn't conducive to thinking, really - more just switching off. My piece of work grew longer with each row of ins and outs and I changed material every few rows.

Fluffy black thread, chunky purple wool, tweedy fabric in dark colours, purple ribbon. I wanted there to be different textures, but little colour. Dark, drab, plain.

And then... a little glimmer of gold. A shaft of morning light in the gloom.

My mind was full of the symbolism of what I was doing. In-and-out, in-and-out. A rhythmic plodding on, sometimes fast and sometimes slow.

Sometimes tightly, weaving with tension, sometimes more relaxed, loosely.

Some threads were easier to use than others, some slipping through the fingers smoothly, and others lumpy and bumpy and hard to work with.

Some strands of fabric weren't really long enough - particularly the shreds of gold that I found; I wished there were more of those, but they were quickly woven in and then I was back to my dark threads.

Some of them rough to my fingers, some silky, some fluffy and soft, some thin and almost wiry.

In-and-out, in-and-out. Like days and weeks and months and years. Life (from where I was sitting, in that frame of mind) dull and monotonous. Too much dark and not enough light. Too dark to see what was ahead; not enough colour to inspire. And yet, bright threads woven through adding glimmers of beauty, changing the mood of the whole piece.

At the end when my piece of weaving was free from the loom, I found scraps of red and gold ribbon and tied off the ends - my little night-time prayer gilded at the beginning and end with little pieces of sunrise.

'There's mercy in the morning light...'

I was quite surprised at my piece, when it was finished.

I was surprised at how dark it was, in comparison with other people's. Bright colours everywhere, yellows and greens and reds and oranges... and then mine, by far the most miserable looking piece of work in the room. Still, to me it spoke of hope, the assurance that there is gold to be found even in the darkest hours, that after night comes morning, with it's rays of brilliance. That God is there in the blackness

'Take My hand, here I am...'

Afterwards, I took my bit of weaving home with me and laid it on the arm of a chair in the sitting room. As I sat, I was smoothing it out, fingering the different textures and gently shaping it in my hands.

As I looked closely, I noticed something; something that I hadn't intended when I'd selected the component parts.  I'd been looking for the darkest, drabbest colours that I could find, and yet... here was a dark-looking rectangle of wool and fabric, but examined closely it was full of hidden colour and pattern.

Much more beautiful than I'd anticipated.

I took photographs and took the lens as close as I could to the weave and I found that the camera found a depth of colour in close up that wasn't immediately obvious unless you held the fabric up to the light and examined it in detail. Through the lens, it looked different.

A browny-purple wool turned out to be made up of a myriad of different colours ranging from grey to beige to blue and green. A black thread had specks of vivid blue, and a dull tweed hid strands of yellow and teal.

More than meets the eye.

So perhaps when life is at its drabbest, most monotonous, then its beauty can only be seen through a special lens. Maybe I need eyes to see, and ears to hear. Perhaps there are hidden treasures that can only be found in close up, with concentration; only when I am enabled to see. Maybe even the darkest fabrics are made of tinier threads that bring their own colour to contribute to the whole - but from a distance seem invisible.

So my woven prayer was more of an offering to God: the God of the morning light, who invites me to take His hand when I am stumbling in the darkness. When there's a battle and the night feels long, He is there, and morning is coming. He took my offering and gave me something in return. He showed me that even in the darkness there is beauty - that black is not a colour on its own but all the colours combined. Sometimes even if we can't see them, the colours are still there, undiminished.

Maybe God's got plans for that darkness. He is a God who wastes nothing, remember; all the scraps of fabric that I knotted together go to create something with depth and texture. A combination of odds and ends, of lengths and strands. If anyone can bring good things out of bad, He can. If anyone can find beauty where all seems ugly, He can.

Beauty in darkness. Immense variation even in monotony.

Colour in the shadows.

'Love is gonna make it right.
Just hold on, just hold on'. 
Amen.




Phil Wickham, 'Heaven and Earth' 2009 INO Records







Thursday, 5 February 2015

Roll on Spring

Today's one of those days where spring seems a long way away.

It's a dark, dank day with wind that seems to be coming from every direction and throws cold rain in my face. The children have been bickering and fighting and I'm digging deep for reserves of patience that I can't find. Our house is particularly wintry today.

Lord - here you are. I'm dumping today in front of you because it's only eleven o'clock and I've had enough of it already. Last night I had one unsettling dream after another - about having experiments performed on me, about everyone laughing at me, about collapsing in front of a crowd of people. Getting up time seemed like the middle of the night, which is never a good thing. 

It's funny how the glass seems sometimes half full and sometimes half empty, isn't it? The other day we were marvelling how some of last years apples are still clinging onto the trees in the garden despite the fierce weather we've had recently. We commented on how they glowed in the light of a low winter sun, looking like little orange lanterns in the trees. Today they just look brown and rotten and even the birds don't want them.  The trees themselves seem more gnarled and covered in lichen than they usually do. I have been reliably informed that there are two snowdrops out in the garden already and it's a sign that Spring is on it's way - but you can't see them from the kitchen window and I can't be bothered to put on a few more layers to go out and have a look. Spring seems a long way away. 

Grump grump grump. 

I've said that the children can do whatever it is they do on their gadgets; some mindless game that causes hilarity and squabbling in pretty much equal measure. I know I should be playing games with them or doing a jigsaw or baking or designing a family mural for the stairwell or finding a cure for world poverty or something, but I haven't the energy. I just need five minutes. Or more. Five years, maybe. 

I've got a cup of coffee here but it went cold while I was adjudicating in the lengthy argument about the blue felt tip pen. I put it in the microwave a moment ago only to find already in there was a coffee from earlier and for some reason I burst into tears. 

Lord, you know what? There are times when I don't want to be with my children. 

There. I've said it. 

I feel very guilty that I said it and even guiltier that I think it from time to time. It's supposed to be different from that, isn't it? I'm supposed to be delighted with them twenty-four hours a day and constantly thinking up new ways to celebrate our family-ness. I don't think I'm very good at that. Sometimes it all gets to me and I want to run away and hide and not come out again. And then I feel guilty for not revelling in the undoubtedly precious gift of my girls. If I'm honest this happens quite a lot. Is there something wrong with me? 

You know that I love them. You know how much I love them. You know my strengths and weaknesses and you'll know that my current state of being is down to a mixture of lack of sleep, a cold, the time of year, hormones and good old self indulgent bad mood. 

I can't do anything about the first four and I don't want to do anything about the last one. It would take too much effort to be cheerful right now. 

I don't suppose it's any co-incidence that I haven't been talking with you much for a while. I find that when I stick close to you, hanging onto you, following in the footsteps like the page following King Wenceslas, then I feel better. Safer. More secure. But maybe gradually I've dropped back until the snow covered the footprints, and then for a bit I tried to find them so I could catch up, and then I stopped trying because it got too hard and so I sat down in the snow and felt sorry for myself. 

So I'm a bit adrift. Help me. I don't think I'm doing so well at anything today. At being a mummy, at being me. At being your child. 

I'm going to see if I can find those snowdrops. 

***

Brr. Cold out there. But there are indeed, just as Mum said, two little snowdrops that are just in bud. They'll flower in the next few days. A little bit of hope in this miserable, colourless season. A little bit of purity and beauty creeping up on us out of the mud and dead plants and fallen leaves of the season left behind. A bit of the future; a bit of promise. 

That's what I'm needing today. A bit of something positive. A little bit of peace.

I feel like a child today. I feel like howling and stamping and saying, 'But what about me? What about what I want?' but I'm a grown up and I'm not allowed to any more. And I probably should have feelings like that under control by now, but they bubble up to the surface sometimes and it's all I can do to sort of squash them so that people don't know how juvenile I can be. How selfish. 

I don't want to be like that. 

Thankyou for letting me get this off my chest. I do feel a bit lighter since I had a moan. 

I'm going to hang onto those little snowdrops. I'm going to go and see them again tomorrow. I shall watch as they unfurl into that tiny intricate little bit of early Spring. I hope that the snow doesn't come and cover them up. I hope that the crocuses and daffodils aren't far behind. I hope that the sun comes out soon.

Lord, I don't know if you ever just got out of bed the wrong side but thank you that you understand the whole range of human emotions and you don't condemn us for experiencing any of them. 

Thankyou that there's always another chance. Thankyou that even when I wallow in self pity for no real good reason you always care enough to help me up and brush me down. Thankyou for forgiving me and loving me all over again. 

I'm going to go and see if the girls will make room for me on the sofa. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Things you already knew

Church, Sunday morning. A simple message. 

As he preached, the Rector actually said, 'The most powerful, life-changing revelations are sometimes the things that you already knew.'

Yep. Exactly what He said. 

This is it:  Life is actually simple. 

Not that he actually said that; the sermon was about knowing God - knowing of Him vs knowing Him in person; in relationship. It was at that moment, however, when a long-known truth distilled in my head and dripped down into a different place of knowing.

I stared at him, and missed the next few minutes of what he was saying, which was a pity, because it was good stuff. 

Life is much simpler than I have been making it. Once again, for the I-don't-know-how-many-th time, I have allowed things to become much more complicated than they need be.

Later, we sang 'All I Once Held Dear', a vintage song of Graham Kendrick's, which has the lines:

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you, there is no greater thing
You're my all, you're the best
You're my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord...*

I realised that it's true. Simple as it might be, the rest is trivia. 

Now, I know that there are many questions in life that need answering, and many decisions and lots of living to do; it's not possible (sadly) to live in a state of suspended animation gazing at a stained glass window with your mind far away marvelling at the wonder of God. You can't do it for very long before someone tugs at your leg asking if they can have a biscuit, or it's time to go home and make gravy, or get up to go to work, or to deliver a daughter to swimming practice. Life trundles on no matter where your head is, and so life must be accommodated. 

But - this last week, or weeks, I have been all over the place. It's been a horrible start to the year and I am beyond tired. I'm emotionally stressed and unable to see how things will turn out, which is always a recipe for anxiety in my book. Things that I thought I'd dealt with have returned to stick their hooks in me: issues around people pleasing, worrying what people think of me and my decisions, resentment that I want to get things done but life doesn't permit me to do them; uncertainty on parenting issues and fear of what might go wrong next. All this stuff has made the last few weeks as un-peace-full as it could be, and my word for this year is PEACE.

It still needs sorting out. Nothing has changed, and yet I got a glimpse this morning of something that is true. 

Life is simple. There is only one thing that is important, and that is my relationship with Jesus. 

Knowing you, Jesus; knowing you. There is no greater thing.

And guess what's been conspicuous in its absence, these last few weeks? You guessed, time spent with Him.  Edged out by tiredness, tears, confusion, social media - anything really. I have been known to climb into bed, sink into the pillows, remember that I could do with writing in my journal and rationalise that I'm already lying down and I can't sit up again. God, take that. 

As I took my place in church on Sunday I reflected that it felt a bit strange; I was out of touch. My spiritual home didn't feel much like my home. Last week I was so tired I took the opportunity to stay in my PJs all Sunday morning and the one before we'd been to a mammoth two-day swimming meet which meant leaving the house at 7am and not returning until 7pm each night, so no church then either. And, if I'm honest, very little thought given to spiritual matters in the interim.

So the next verse sort of sums it up, this penny-dropped moment of revelation. The thing that I've known and yet came awake and startled me this morning:

Now my heart's desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours

I know from experience that the hard parts of life, the difficult decisions, the truly nasty days when everything goes wrong - the hard choices; they are all better if Jesus is right next to me. The bad stuff is still there, and if it does knock me over, He is right there helping me up. He doesn't stop it all coming my way but He is there in the middle of it with me. 

If I am found in Him, then I am safe. 

Jesus has never left me. He's been there before, and He is still there now. It's just that I've let a lot of rubbish pile up so that I can no longer see Him. It's not even my job to dig a tunnel through the accumulation of stuff; all it takes is the realisation that I've lost sight of Him, and a faint call on His name. 

So, Lord, I'm calling. My heart's desire is to know you more. To concentrate on that; to stay by your side and learn the things you would have me learn. To allow you to shape me into the person you want me to be. To take the opportunities you give me and to learn to hear you in the chaos of everything and everyone around me. To be more concerned about what you think of me than anyone else. To be faithful.  

I was praying the other day (one of the few occasions, lately) and in a child-like, slightly petulant manner, I asked God for something for me. Not a picture for someone else, but for me, please. Immediately I saw a digger. A JCB-type earth mover. It was breaking up the ground for foundations to be laid.  Smooth ground before, a terrible mess afterwards. And then the words, 'For a new foundation.' 

I think I understand. It feels like the ground is breaking up at the moment. 

I'm not doing so well. It's all a bit too much, so I've decided to make things simpler; to try to focus on what really matters. To build a foundation for something new; or maybe rather to allow a new foundation to be built, since I can't do it myself.  A strong, steady, sure foundation that can take the weight of whatever needs to be placed upon it. I'm hoping it's a foundation of peace. 

Knowing you, Jesus. Knowing you. 

Be my foundation, Lord Jesus. 





*Graham Kendrick 'All I Once Held Dear'


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