Saturday, 31 October 2020

Saturday 31 October

 I am one of those types perceived, at this time of the year, as a kill-joy by followers of popular culture. Since I have written elsewhere about my antipathy to the American-style celebration of Halloween, there’s no need to repeat that here. Much as it bears repeating, it seems.

I should clarify, though, that while I see popular interpretations of Allhallowtide as emanating from a disturbing cultural tendency to minimise evil, I appreciate the value of the traditional Christian festival - which combines Allhallowtide, All Saints and the Feast of Souls - to honour the dead. And this year, it has me thinking about our ancestors, the ones who have gone before us.

I don’t know much about my ancestors, honestly. My parents have never really talked much about the history of their families. On the Irish side, that may simply be that inbred disquiet about opening the door to the ‘skeletons in the cupboard,’ and on the English side, who knows. For whatever reason, I have very little family history on which to build a picture of the past.

The little I do know of the past couple of generations reveals a rich landscape of creatives. As I bring to mind siblings, cousins, parents, uncles and aunts, I can count musicians, poets, nuns, those who do beautiful work in wood and clay, photographers, actors, painters, writers … mystics and makers of all kinds. If, as Dostoevsky said, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ then I feel I am encircled by quite the gang of unassuming world-changers.

So while my known family history feels a little ‘thin' to me, I think of this small crowd as the ones who have gone ahead of me, the ones who point the way. They are part of what the writer of the book of Hebrews calls the ‘cloud of witnesses’ - the pioneers who blaze a trail, the veterans who cheer me on.

In Hebrews we read that the effect of these great witnesses, who encircle us like clouds, is to cause us to throw off the things that entangle us, that weigh us down. Seeing their lives helps us to run our own race with perseverance. Knowing the story of those who are ahead of us enables us to resist weariness, it helps us not to lose heart when things are tough on our part of the path.

And things are a bit tough right now, aren’t they? And don’t we need the encouragement of those who’ve been in a tough spot before, and somehow weathered the storm? If they have done so with a certain amount of grace - if they have allowed the pressing effect of war, or heartbreak, or ill-health to express itself in song, and sculpture, and symphony - then don't we find ourselves encouraged to dig deep, to draw up treasures from the well of despair?

All this ancestor appreciation brings me to the other side of the coin, as it were. It brings me to the question posed by Robert Macfarlane in his book, Underland. ‘What kind of ancestors will we be?’ he asks. In this season of seismic shift - shifts of culture, of economies, of worldview, and of the natural world - this seems to be one of the most fitting questions to be asking.

When my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren discuss among themselves the people that we were, what will stand out to them, I wonder? Which elements of the way I live my life will seem to them worth holding onto? Is there anything about my choices that will encourage them to resist unhealthy entanglements? Anything that will motivate them to throw off the things that weigh them down? Will stories from my life offer them fuel, as they run their own race with perseverance? Will I have blazed trails that they can follow, or passed on any lessons that cause them to take heart on their own journeys?

Let’s assume there is something from my life that is worth handing down. I realise that is a big assumption. It presupposes that there are values that I live out in my era and my cultural context that are applicable in some way across time and culture. Perhaps there might be something about my choices that, even unwittingly, presages what is to come in some way. And that offers insight, somehow, for those in the future that find themselves slap bang in the middle of a reality of which we have barely an inkling.

Having made all those pretty hefty assumptions, then, how will these ancestral gems be communicated to those that follow? Think about it: how have you learned from those who have gone before? It seems to me that the most compelling tribal treasures are communicated through story and song, through painting and poems. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky was getting at. 

As I imagine myself in the role of ancestor, what tale of beauty or bravery am I weaving with my life? What design of courage do my colours paint? Is it possible that I might create something here that offers hope for a world reconciled to love once more?

If this sounds fanciful or romanticised to you, I have perhaps failed to ground it in the grit of ordinary life, where all true stories unfold. Here in 2020, as we see the unravelling of previously eminent cultures, what words do I use to describe what I see? How do I construct a container for family life that is resilient and purposeful? As the world is shaken by a global pandemic, what habits create an unshakeable foundation for my life? What investments am I making in the life of my family, community or co-workers that will outlast my own energies? And is there anything of enduring beauty that I am making, to be discovered and sifted through when I am gone?

What kind of an ancestor am I? I realise I have scribed here more questions than answers. Questions seem fitting, though, for this perspective on history. True answers will come only from those yet to be, from those who come after us who look back on our lives. When, years from now, they celebrate this October weekend of Allhallowtide, All Saints and the Feast of Souls, what reflections will come to their minds about those of us who have gone before?

Friday, 4 September 2020

Friday 4 September

I've just had a run. The dogs are fed and settling down to recover and to 'guard' the driveway. With Tim and Keziah away and Manu sleeping late, the rest of the house is quiet. As I strip off my running kit and step under the water, I am already relishing the thought of fresh clothes and morning coffee. I let the stream of water run over my neck and shoulders and reach for the shampoo.

I find an empty space. My hand waves around searching in vain for the bottle, and I peer through the jets in disbelief. Seconds later, my mind flashes back to the previous evening and the long shower Manu took to wash her hair. 'Darn those girls,' I mutter to myself, as I step dripping out of the shower and stomp naked along the tiled hallway to the girls' bathroom. Grabbing the poached bottle, I traipse back through my own puddles until I am under the water once more.

[Photo by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash]

As I muttered to myself under the shower that morning, I felt stopped in my tracks. I heard that kind of quiet whisper that reminds us of something more true than our own offence, or lack of generosity. I was rehearsing those stock phrases that go something like, 'motherhood ... nothing of my own ... so presumptuous ... no respect ...' and mentally lining up the words I'd say later to my daughter. Then beneath my own inner monologue, I heard another voice.

Just a few days before, I had come across a question in a book I was reading. 'How do you pray?' the author asked. 'And what does this say about your relationship with God?'

At first I thought it was a bit of a basic question. (You can be sure that whenever we think that we are beyond a question like this, there is something we are missing.) And then my mind went back to childhood, to those times when we would make requests for Christmas presents. Mum and Dad did their best to furnish five kids with the gifts they wanted, but money was tight. So often, the Christmas gift in my mind was very different to the less expensive version that was wrapped and waiting under the tree on Christmas morning. As I reflected on this, I realised that so often I approach God guardedly. I bring my heart's desires but I modify my expectations. 

It's as if I say, 'here's what I really want. But I know that it would be really presumptuous to expect that, so I'll take whatever you can throw my way.' 

Given that my relationship with God is about much more than me making requests and waiting for the wrapped gift to materialise, I hadn't paused to take stock of this dynamic. Yet for sure this element of my prayer life revealed something about how I perceive my relationship with God.

Back to the shower ...

'How beautiful,' I heard the whisper say, 'That your daughter knows that whatever you have is hers. How lovely that she presumes on your generous heart to bless her. If only you approached me that way.'

And you know, it's true. There is nothing in God's heart that hears our desires, dreams, needs or longings and responds, 'So presumptuous ... no respect ... who does she think she is?' No! Rather, there is a gladness of heart to have us draw out of God's abundance, a willingness to provide what is needed, a fulfilment in being our source.

Still ... it's nice to be asked, you know?!

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Saturday 29 August

My darling girl, I want to tell you something that is easy to forget in the ordinariness of tampons and paracetamol, of hot water bottles and concern about whether to wear your white shorts today.

Your body is expressing something of you that is so very much like God. Deep within the cells of your being is the capacity to bring to birth something new, indeed to participate in the growing of a new reality that will, like you, bear the very stamp and reflection of God. And when you - yes, you! - participate in the bringing forth of this new thing, when you give a name to that newness, the God of the universe will welcome that image-bearing creation and call it by the name you gave.

[Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash]

I write as if this were about your physical make-up but be sure to remember, this is true of all that you might bring to birth through your life. We are stepping into the territory of the divine here, my love. Every month, you will be reminded that within you is a place of creation, a place in which new life can be formed. You will remember that new life is not some romantic notion, but comes with struggle and often some suffering. And yet, this creative capacity within you mirrors God herself.

From the womb of the morning, God brings forth each fresh day. Every day offers us the potential for something new, the possibility to generate goodness. We participate in giving that goodness form and name, and we offer it to the world. Sometimes our day opens up a space for a thing to grow large for days, or months, or years to come. Sometimes the newness is simply a sweet gift for the moment.

The day unfurls with the awakening sun and slips away with the moon’s rising. The tide empties itself on the sand and draws back again into the deep. You too are part of this beautiful rhythm of waking and sleeping, beginnings and endings, knowing emptiness and returning to be filled. Your body will remind you that you are part of a great whole, an expansive web of being that breathes with the very breath of God.

[Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash]

Oh, that you might learn to embrace the knowing of your body, whose every cell is imprinted with a sense of time, a way of becoming, a pace and pattern that is designed for goodness. Every system of your being is looped together in great swirls of interconnecting life, reflecting the integration and mutual support of all that has been made.

The world will tempt you to distort or diminish your femaleness. To make it something that can be seen only as a support to or adornment for maleness. This confusion between seeking to be less than yourself, while simultaneously more than they say you are, will become exhausting.

Instead, my love, come to rest in the truth of your own beauty. Embark on this journey of womanhood knowing that your entire being reflects something of God that can only be seen through the female. More than being one who merely receives what is given or implanted, you are one who uniquely participates in, generates and gives form to the future. Understand yourself to be a place of creation and birth, a place of fierce protectiveness and ferocious tenacity. A place of growing, nurturing, and releasing. You are filled with the life of God.

Fall into the embrace of nature’s holding, my darling. Find yourself held by the supportive net that is the rhythm and flow of the created world. Know yourself to be part of its goodness, and part of its journey towards redemption. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Tuesday 25 August

 It's been a month. And when I say that, yes, I do mean a month without writing on here. And I also mean, Sjoe, it's been a month.

Do you ever have that feeling that, in order to be present to your own life, you just have to hunker down? Sometimes it seems to me that life requires a sort of gathering in, a quietness and focus that creates a deeper, stiller place on the inside. I guess this month required that kind of holding.

This month marked our 7 year anniversary of living in Spain, and with that milestone we are sensing ourselves coming to the end of something, and to the beginning of something new. Of course, this month our eldest daughter was preparing to move to the UK to study for 4 years. As we celebrate and send her out, I find myself thinking of all that the last 7 years have meant in her life. 

She arrived here as a fresh-faced pre-teen, about to turn 12. Just as she was starting high school, she took the courageous decision to plunge into language immersion by attending school in Spanish. My brave and beautifully sensitive girl! That decision saw us embark on quite the rocky journey, along which she navigated through three different schooling contexts, and through the complexities of teen friendships.

It wasn't easy for her, and it sure as hell wasn't easy to know how to support her as a parent. It was hard not to feel responsible for moving her here, you know? As we come to this place of closure and new beginnings, I see the grit and grace that's being worked into her life and wonder at the ways the struggle might still offer her its gifts.

Just as this 7 year season is gathered into a place of closure for our daughter, we also sense some sort of completion of the season in our own lives. It's natural, I'm sure, for our inter-connected lives to mirror one another in certain ways. And it also speaks to me of the orderliness of things, that can seem so unpredictable and chaotic at times. There's a rightness, I sense, to all this shifting.

While prepping Keziah to launch out, then, Tim and I have been traversing a rather intense and very intentional time of discernment. It has been a time to ask ourselves, what do we want the next season to look like? I am sure the times in which we are all living have bumped many of us towards such questions! Given that Tim celebrated a milestone birthday at around the same time as local lockdown, it is unsurprising to be reimagining our place here in Spain and the ways our particular gifts and dreams might play out in the next season.

During this time, I have been incredibly grateful for the support of a Spiritual Director who is new to me. Based in South Africa, she is trained (and trains others) in the Ignatian tradition and has offered such an intentional way of moving through this time of transition. I will write more about the process on my website, as I feels sure this signposting of the discernment process would be helpful to many of you.

There's a sweetness and a vulnerability, isn't there, in leaving the security of the shore we know and setting out into something new. We sense the goodness of the invitation to move forward, and yet we are anxious to know that we are heeding the directions correctly, following the signposts accurately. We are conscious of the others who will be impacted by our decisions, and concerned to pay careful attention to the whisper of the Spirit, as well as to our own hearts.

So all that has been going on. And in the meantime, I have been giving time and attention to a writing project that is close to my heart. Any writers out there will be aware that the road towards a final publication is not always straightforward. There have been good and difficult challenges to my own writerly thoughts, which all requires processing. And as you know, life happens in the complex context of our own personal journeys towards wholeness, which can mean there's a lot to hold sometimes, right? 

But hold it we can, if we are just willing to embrace what is real about ourselves, in this moment. Sometimes that demands a month without blogging. So be it - it's all good.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Sunday 26 July

It’s an odd business, writing. Some days I sit down to write and I can’t find words. Other days, they just pour onto the page as easily as coffee streaming out of the espresso-maker spout.

The other day, I sat at my computer feeling a bit bleak and uninspired. Within an hour I had posted a blog entry full of words that felt like me, only at a bit of distance. A friend commented to say, ‘Your writing gets better and better!’ Other times, I work on a piece for ages and what emerges seems to move nobody but me.

Writers talk about ‘finding your voice.’ By this they mean that tone, or particular way of sounding to the reader, that is inimitably you. Writers’ voices can be a bit like masks. We try them on for size or style, judging how long we will keep them by the way others respond. Do they like funny? Or smart? Or informal? Or quirky? But in the end we have to find our true voice, the one that isn’t crafted for the reaction it will get, but for the truth it expresses.

[Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash]

As a child, I moved with my family from the south of England to the north (and later, back again). By that age, I had already developed an accent that identified me as a southerner. To the kids at school, this southern voice meant ‘snob’ and their taunts reminded me that I was different, that I didn’t speak as one of them. I might have tried to adopt their accent but by then it was too late, I was already pegged as an interloper.

Perhaps this stood me in good stead later in life, when I moved away from the UK. When I have learned other languages, my accent gives me away as a non-native speaker. People are not always sure where I am from, they just know that I am not from ‘here.’ And when I am with American friends we are all speaking the same language, more or less, but I am constantly reminded that my voice is not like theirs.

My voice, spoken or written, tells something of who I am and where I have been. It gets different reactions from those listening, depending on their own story. Similarly, I might read an author and find her words offer an affirming space to explore the ever expanding reality of God. Another interprets her word as new age mysticism and goddess worship, a little like saying, ’This accent is off, this voice does not belong.’

While a writer wants her words to find their way to the reader, her job is not to alter her voice to make it more acceptable. Even as I write this, I am aware that our cultural epoch is one in which it is difficult to be true to one’s own voice. In this playground, the wrong voice gets you labelled not as a snob, but as a bigot.

So we writers keep on trying to find our voice and, once found, to keep it. To stay true to an expression of ourselves that conveys something of our unique makeup and message, while also writing in a way that can be received.

In the Bible (still the bestselling book - or anthology of books, poems and letters - of all time)  Jesus is called ‘The Word.’ It’s sort of like saying that when we get lost listening to all the other voices - the voices that tell us what they think scripture says, and how we should therefore understand it - we can go back to Jesus. Jesus is the true ‘writer’s voice’ of God. So when the ‘accent’ of the bible throws us off course, or confuses us as we try to get to know God and God’s ways, we can go back to the life of Jesus.

How did Jesus live? How did he speak? How did he interact? How did he treat people who were different from him? How can we imagine him behaving towards the things that are important to us, in a way that would be absolutely in keeping with the way he lived his life? When we go back to Jesus, we find a consistency of being that reveals to us the being of God.

[Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash]

What this means, then, is that if someone tries to tell you something about God (or about the Christian life, church life, or religious life) that is not consistent with the voice and person of Jesus, it is likely that his or her own ‘voice’ is distorting the true voice of Jesus. This is a tricky process in our lives as followers of Jesus, and learners of The Way. Even when we try our hardest and believe ourselves to be unbiased readers, we all have our own cultural lenses through which we read and interpret the bible and other books about faith. The best we can do is to keep returning to the Word, Jesus himself.

So if you, like me, find yourself longing to hear a clarity of voice in the cacophony of other voices, I recommend these two books.

Trent Sheppard (2017) Jesus Journey: Shattering the Stained Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God

Tom Wright (2011) Simply Jesus: who he was and why it matters.

These authors will point you back to Jesus himself, and help you to tune in to his voice. They’ll remind you to go back to those scriptures that are filled with Jesus’ own questions, stories, comments and prayers. And even though we have to read a translation of what he originally said, something true of God is still communicated when we focus on Jesus’ voice.

Try it. Let me know what you discover.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Tuesday 21 July

I have started a monthly email, offering updates, resources and special opportunities to subscribers. Last month, I included an audio recording of a guided meditation ... did you hear it?

If I am to make this monthly offering worth your while, what would you like it to include? In the area of spiritual formation and growing as a follower of Jesus - in every area of life - what would hit the spot for you right now?

And if you'd like to sign up, you can subscribe right here.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Monday 20 July

How was your weekend? After a week of feeling flat, I loved having friends over for lunch on Sunday. These are moments when the extroverted side of me shows its face and I am reminded that, for all the crazyness of this season, when I see people everything seems brighter.

(It is possible that not all people would qualify for that statement. Anyhow ... moving on!)

There's nothing I love more than good conversation over an extended meal-time. It offers the opportunity for connection and laughter, and can be just what we need to remind us who we are and that we belong. Meal-times can be a place of rehearsing what it means to be the people of God, even as we describe to one another those glimpses of God's good kingdom we've been privileged to recently witness.

But conversations like this don't just happen, it takes some intentionality. Countless meal-times can be taken up in correcting children's behaviour, complaining, or in the back-and-forth pinball of information and running commentary.

Yesterday we simply asked one another what had been the highs and lows of our last couple of weeks. It was good to hear from those who are slower to draw attention to themselves, as well as those who are quick to converse. And it was good to create space for the kids to participate when they were significantly outnumbered by adults.

Maybe you are looking for intentional questions to ask around your meal table? Or perhaps, like me, you long for a way to have deeper conversations with those you see regularly? Here are 10 questions I came up with that I think might help:

1. Describe someone in your childhood who played a positive significant role in your life (a parent, other adult, mentor). What did you learn from them?

2. Tell us about a close friend. What do you enjoy about this friendship and what makes this person important to you?

3. How do you most like to recharge? Describe a perfect weekend away, or short vacation.

4. What is something difficult in your life that you have watched God redeem? How do you experience this now?

5. When you were a child, what did you hope for in your life?  Which of those hopes have been realised, which remain hopes for you, and which have lost their appeal?!

6. Describe an area of your life in which you are experiencing growth or stretching in this season. What makes this easy or difficult?

7. What kind of situations make you feel most uncomfortable? Why is that?

8. Describe 3 significant 'turning points' in your walk with Jesus. What were you learning at those times?

9. What is something you would do if you were not afraid?

10. Describe something in your life that you would love to do over. What would you change and why?

And if you exhaust those questions (good for you!) then I came across this post that also looks full of good questions.

Finally, I would LOVE to hear about significant conversations you have shared around your meal table. What makes those moments precious to you? And what are some ways you like to be intentional in creating meaningful moments with friends and family?