Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Success? Or Falling Towards a New Year

This is the time of year - with all its emptying and waiting - for looking back, for considering the months past, for taking the cycle of seasons as a whole instead of as a series of consecutive, but otherwise mostly unrelated events.

‘How was 2016 for you?’ we ask ourselves, in so many words.

For those so-inclined,this is a time for journalling, a time for sharing highlights from the year, or bemoaning the challenges it brought, the regrets we still hold. Tim and I like to slip away for a couple of days between Christmas and New Year, if for nothing more than to take a moment to feel some sense of readiness for the beginning of the next 12 month stretch (before it slams into us like a high speed train).

‘What do we want this next year to look like?’ we wonder. ‘What have we received from the past year that we’re taking with us?’

I wonder what makes a successful year, really? If the Christmas newsletters we receive are to be believed, it’s about achievements; some evidence of one’s desired inexorable rise through life. ‘New Heights Gained’ and ‘The View From the Top,’ some of them cheer with an unintended smugness. Or perhaps success can be measured in terms of seeds sown, seeds that we hope may bear fruit in some future year, in some future season.

Somehow, this year, my heart resists the drive to distill my experiences into that so-called nectar of success, discarding all that appears less flavoursome. It’s not that this year was terrible - there has been much that was good - but I sense the invitation to learn to embrace all its ragged edges, as much as its warm centre.

I am reminded of the post I read about being kind, showing courage, and falling forward after failure. I wonder if these might be more helpful measures for my year? 

To what extent have I taken opportunities to be kind this year? 

I think of those we have included in our family life, those for whom I went the second mile, those who left lighter or stronger because of something I did, or said. Yet I wonder how many times I missed the chance to be kind? How many times I turned away from others in self-protection, or fear? How many times I was too busy or distracted to notice others’ needs? I am learning to embrace all these expressions of who I am, the kind and the not-to-kind; the self who is present to others, and the one who is intolerant or oblivious. Even as the little seedlings of good in me bend towards the light, that which is in shadow is still part of me.

In what ways have I shown courage this year, I wonder? 

It would be nice to show-and-tell all my shiny pebbles of courage for your admiration, but the truth is that what might be courage for others may not be so for me. It has taken more courage for me to be honest about my need for relationship, than it took for me to climb the highest peak in North Africa. I have to dig deeper into my reserves of bravery to admit both my desire for and my resistance to intimacy, than to travel alone to faraway places, or to run solo in the hills. I hope this year I have dug a little deeper. What is certain is that there is more courage still to be found.

Have I failed this year? Of course. But in what ways have I failed well?

If all my sorries were signs of failing well, then perhaps I have indeed mostly fallen forward. Sorry to my kids when I reacted immaturely, though there were reasons for such reactions; sorry to my husband when I wished, with good cause, that he would be the sorry one; sorry to a team-mate for a misunderstanding that seemed so unnecessary. A heartfelt sorry - taking responsibility for my own junk - is always a fall forward. Then I think of those times when self-awareness mercifully tugged at the hem of the self-righteous judgement, or the self-protective withdrawal with which I shrouded myself. When I found the other-worldly resolve to lay aside these well-worn garments and step into relationships with a more naked honesty, it was failure turned on its head, and I’m grateful. Some of my failures have been things I longed for that never materialised. Then, to stand up for the purity and goodness of that longing, whilst holding lightly the thing itself; that can be a sort of forward-moving failure.

So, my friend. What does success mean to you? To what extent has your year been marked by kindness and courage?  When you have failed, what have you learned from your failing?

Are you ready to fall with me into 2017?

Friday, 23 December 2016

The discipline of Celebration

It’s the season of celebration: Christmas carols, concerts, school plays and festivities of all kinds. Smiling faces, light hearts, toasts to the year that is past and to the one ahead. And I’m all for it - I love a fun crowd, an excuse to pull together friends old and new, and especially a good reason to get dressed up.

There have been times in my life, though, when it has been easier to celebrate. When celebration has just flowed out of a season that was light, joy-filled, and bubbling with that sense of wellbeing that is the result, not of contrived formulae, but of a blending of life’s unique elements at just that particular moment in time. Those are times when celebration comes naturally, times we should relish for their precious and inimitable richness.

Life is not always like that. We know this, right?! And it doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong, or that we’ve made a mistake. There could be any number of reasons why we don’t feel like celebrating.

And that is exactly when we should.

You see, celebration can be natural and easy but, when it’s not, it can be a powerful choice, a discipline if you will, that produces the very sort of joy we wish we were feeling.

Years ago, when we were preparing to leave England to live in a remote part of Mozambique, we were given some advice by a seasoned missionary. It was the kind of advice that seemed innocuous, nice even, but which grew in significance the longer we had to reflect on it. He said the key to pioneering is to celebrate, and to celebrate often. Celebrate the small successes, celebrate when the successes are so small that no one else would notice them. Celebration is the digging of a well, the water of which becomes that sweet, life-giving elixir that adds joy to an otherwise tough season. 

Because pioneering is tough. Pioneering is that time in the life-cycle of a project when it seems that all you do is dig hard ground without ever knowing if it will be worthwhile. Pioneering is head-down, teeth-gritted, focus-on-the-goal-and-don’t-mind-the-pain. You don’t expect things to be easy when you’re pioneering, you anticipate setbacks, discomfort, sacrifice.

For a while, your courage and determination fuel your efforts in the face of hard times. Courage and determination can carry you quite some distance. But when courage fails you and determination wears thin, what do have then?

You have the option to cultivate joy.

So we celebrated putting the roof on the house we built out of wood and mud, and we celebrated hitting water in the new well. We celebrated new friendships, and we celebrated old friends coming to visit. We celebrated making headway in the language. And establishing rhythms that made us feel ‘normal.’ We celebrated getting away from our little backwater for a break, and we celebrated returning with a fresh sense of purpose.

It seems so counter-intuitive to think of celebration as a discipline and joy as something to cultivate. Surely if these things are worth having, they should flow naturally? Having kids has helped me get over this particular hang-up and set about celebrating whenever we get the chance, even when it feels hard.

This year has been a demanding one. We have faced significant challenges in our work (have you read that book, ‘Crucial Conversations?’ This could be the year that book was written for!). I have travelled quite a bit, which I’ve loved but it hasn’t helped me to feel connected to our local team. True holiday rest has been thin on the ground, which doesn’t contribute to relational closeness as a couple. And we have a teenager, for heaven’s sake; that its own kind of demanding! Close friends have faced really tough times, and we have a significant crisis still unfolding in our region. 

What better time than this to celebrate?! I know, weird huh?

When I step away from my resentment towards my husband and enter wholeheartedly into celebrating 23 years of marriage, I generate joy. 

When I lay aside the emotional outbursts of my teen and instead celebrate her, I generate joy. 

When I can hold the pain I feel for faraway friends and still celebrate with those that are nearby, I generate joy. 

When I can get around my own sense of disconnection with our team and choose to celebrate all that we have achieved together this year, I generate joy. 
When I can swallow all the stress of having a kid in a school system I don’t understand, in a language I am still learning, and celebrate getting to the end of another term with a happy child? You guessed it: I generate joy.

Is it hard? Sometimes, yes. Is it worth it? Every time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the bursting-out-of-the-seams, can’t-hold-it-in kind of celebration any time. Yes sir! But am I going to hang around, waiting for it to ‘happen to me?’ No. I’m going to practice celebrating when I don’t quite feel like it. I’m going to make my own joy and then use it as fuel for the journey.

What about you?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Don't Stop Now

I had a moment yesterday. You know, one of those moments when the thought crossed my mind, 'What if I just sat down here, in the middle of the fruit and vegetable aisle, and simply stopped everything? The grocery shopping, the parenting, the relationships, the caring; I'll just stop it all.' These are moments when life seems to be throwing everything it has at me. Stopping - quitting - can seem like an attractive option.

I remember when I first began running with Tim. Up until then I had always run on my own and never had to worry about keeping up with a companion. In fact, given that Tim and I had just started dating, I wasn't only worried about my pace but also about whether my laboured breathing,  sweaty brow and less-than-perky expression might completely put him off! For sure, in those early days it was a stretch for me to keep pace with him. And bearing in mind this was before the trend in run-walking, Tim was not in favour of me slowing to a plod. 'Just keep moving!' he would entreat me. 'Don't walk, let's jog slowly!' He knew that if I stopped, it would be all the more challenging to get moving again.

Of course, there are times when we need to stop; rest plays a crucial and often under-estimated role in life, as in fitness ...

... but I am learning that when life is tough, it is time to keep doing those things I learned to do when I felt strong.

When I am discouraged or lacking motivation, my habits save me from slowing to a standstill. I don't have to think about waking early to have a quiet moment of reflection, followed by a workout; I do it because it is normal for me. Whatever overindulgence may have happened the night before, I don't completely fall off the healthy-eating wagon because it is my habit to start the day with a fresh green smoothie. It might be a small thing, but my habits stop me from getting completely derailed. When motivation is low, I just do what I always do.

The last couple of weeks have been emotionally draining. My heart has been straining towards South Africa, where two close friends have been suffering horribly. One had an unusual and very serious health scare, another was violently assaulted.  A big part of me wanted to buy a plane ticket and drop everything to be by their sides. In England, a dear friend who has loved and supported us throughout our years in missions passed away suddenly. Connecting to his memorial service via Skype was better than nothing, but left me feeling far away and strangely empty. All of this has happened at a time when Tim and I are already unusually stretched, with a crisis in our region requiring considerable amounts of extra work and attention.

The emotional overload makes stopping - quitting - seem very desirable. Quite frankly, I have seriously considered burying myself under my duvet and not re-emerging until April at the earliest. I am pretty sure the kids could survive on toast for at least that long and, although they might forget to clip their toe nails, I doubt there would be any lasting damage.

At times like this, I need anchor points; lines that hold me steady until the turbulence passes. I read the Psalms. I walk in nature. I talk with friends. I hold my kids. I watch the sunrise. In my journal I list the things I am thankful for. I keep doing the things I learned to do when life was full of sunshine and ease. I keep doing them until they touch something deep inside me, until I can breathe easily again.

It takes work to create consistent habits. At the time, I think I am choosing these habits because they help me stay fit, or fight winter colds, or practice patience. I don't realise at first that when life gets tough, these habits might just save me. Hold me steady. Stop me from getting completely derailed.

What habits have become anchor points for you? To what extent has a time of turbulence made you aware of your need for good habits that hold you steady?

Friday, 2 December 2016

When Life makes us Lean

These last couple of weeks have held a lot of heartache for some people who are very precious to us. There are moments in life that are excruciating and for which all our best answers are trite. These are the times, they tell us, that we really learn to pray. If I find myself - my body as much as my heart - resisting this effort to bring comfort, then perhaps it is because I have too narrow an idea of what prayer is. My imagination inflates, like a balloon, and prayer takes on an appropriate perspective.

I’m Leaning

Leaning sideways
Pulling away from upright
Feeling unbalanced, destabilised.

I’m leaning away from sameness
Away from security, from what I know.

I’m leaning into You, into the sureness,
The certainty of who You are.

I lean.
And there You are.
I lean no further.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A Poem about Motherhood

Since my last post was about motherhood, I dug this out. It is one of a number of poems scribbled into journals, scrawled in half-legible handwriting and followed by To Do lists, doodles and incomplete thoughts. For all its lack of any careful 'crafting,' I love this poem for the way it takes me back to that wonder of saying yes to so much more than you could have ever imagined.

And for a special treat, I will post a photo taken when Keziah was a baby ;-)

It’s all New

I’m filled with newness, with the unknown,
With expectation, with hope 
And with fear.

It’s all new, this life that forms within me.
I said yes to something new, and now there’s no stopping it.
It’s taken on a life of its own.

And now this life that’s at once its own,
And also mine,
It’s here.

Life that’s beautiful and delicate,
Life that’s wailing and desperate,
It’s here.
And I hold it, yet it’s too much for my grip.

This life that grows towards the light,
Following an ancient path.

Life that’s everlasting.