Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Fitness and Fatalism in your Forties

We’ve just had a wonderful week with Tim’s parents, who joined us for Christmas from the UK. Over a meal-time we got talking about all the places we’ve been together, the celebrations we’ve shared, the countries we’ve enjoyed exploring. An amusing memory came back to me then … that of being bought a new watch by Tim’s dad. It had one of those metal link straps and two or three links had to be removed by the jeweller because it was too big. Mike insisted that I keep the extra links ‘for when you’re fatter.’

I was in my early twenties and it sounded ridiculous (and scary) to me that I would ever be fatter. But evidently it seemed perfectly normal to everyone else to expect that after kids and as the years rolled by, I would take on extra kilos.

So today I find myself thinking about all the things people told me would be inevitable in life. You know the sort of thing: it’s inevitable to go into debt at university; it’s inevitable to struggle to lose weight after pregnancy; it’s inevitable that your husband will lust after other women; it’s inevitable to exercise less when you’re raising a family.

This all sounds just so fatalistic, don’t you think?

Alright, some things are inevitable. We cannot slow the march of time and, yes, we do develop wrinkles and most of us need to start wearing glasses at some point. There is no shame in getting older, neither should there be. But there is something in me that rises up against the fatalism we are fed over ageing.

When we left South Africa, I was just shy of my 40th birthday. I don’t recommend a big transition at that time of life, quite honestly! It’s true that I did pick up extra kilos - a combination of a change of lifestyle (and weather!), feeling a tad despondent, and different food. But here’s the thing: I began to believe the lie of fatalism that says that because I was in my forties, it was normal to get heavier. 

As soon as we get hooked by this fatalism, we excuse ourselves from having to do anything about it. And, of course, if we think we can disregard nutrition and pay no attention to portion sizes without suffering any ill-effects, we are sadly deluded. The human body works like a machine and the input-output balance is basic to how we’re made. Nobody said we wouldn’t have to do anything different from the crowd in order to be different from the crowd! 

So anyway, old habits die hard and my first train of thought went along the tracks of ‘I’ll just have to hardly eat for the rest of my life!’ That didn’t seem very sustainable, however. Then I (briefly) considered the prospect of running ultra distances into my eighties; surely that would keep the kilos off! I was inspired by reading about athletes way older than me - a story about an 81 year old nun-triathlete was going around on Facebook - so I thought there must be at least some potential for avoiding the apparently inevitable lack of fitness of one’s latter years.

To cut the longer story short, I then discovered Beachbody fitness programs. Yes, I was already running and already doing some home workouts. But there is nothing like exercising with top trainers, who encourage me to push myself and who also provide straightforward nutrition advice. And from my own home! (Feel free to contact me if you want more information about Beachbody.)

The biggest difference though? Every day I press play on my current workout, the message I hear is that change is hard but that change is possible. I hear that excess weight and reduced fitness are not inevitable by-products of getting older. I hear that my health is worth fighting for and worth investing in. I am reminded that how I live life in this body is how I live life in general.

And I am seeing changes - both visible and invisible. It’s great to feel toned and strong. It’s fantastic to have a positive mentality that will get these 45 year old legs up that mountain trail. It’s wonderful to push back against fatalism and to know that my choices really do matter. There is something so whole about applying what I believe about the rest of life-in-God to my physical wellbeing.

So, if you want to live your life healthy and strong, and you’d really like some support to do it, drop me a comment. For the past couple of months, I have been gathering a few friends in a group on Facebook and people in that group are seeing positive change: whether losing weight, or combating illness, or gaining a more life-giving rhythm, or re-establishing strength after a few years of a more sedentary lifestyle. And all of us - we have people in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties - are being reminded by one another daily that, with God’s help, we can choose to live healthful lives, whatever our season.

And there is nothing fatalistic about that!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The deepening effect of delay

It is perhaps inevitable at this time of year to be thinking a lot about waiting. Advent, with its emphasis on the coming of a Messiah, encourages us to rehearse the centuries of waiting that culminated in the coming of the Christ-child.

Just the other evening, we had a houseful of people together to rehearse the story, to remember the waiting. We sang carols and read scriptures and ate Christmas treats and entered once again into the story of how ages-old prophesies were fulfilled in Jesus.

The thing about this rehearsal is that we already know the end of the story. Even the youngest of the kids at our carol evening could have told you how the dreams, and the prophesies, the angelic visitations and the star all ended in a baby: the Son of God was conceived within Mary, he took on flesh, he was born to a regular down-at-heel family and then grew into the reality of what it meant to be this embodied God-man, doing extraordinary things within his ordinary life, and ultimately giving his life so that we could become the rescued ones.

Waiting when we don’t know the end of the story, now that is so very much harder.

I think of friends who are waiting for healing, or for the healing of loved ones. Others who are waiting for relationships to be reconciled. Waiting for debts to be paid. Waiting for court cases to be resolved. Waiting for businesses to grow. Waiting for hearts to be whole again. Waiting for prayers to be answered. Waiting …

I have been in a season of waiting for what seems like … oh, I don’t know, six years!! A big shift happened when we left South Africa and I began a master’s program in Spiritual Formation. It seemed as though the work I had been doing, even the way I had been living was changing. Into what, I wasn’t sure. The picture that came to mind was of a little boat leaving the safety of the shore to venture out across an expanse of unknown water. I felt for sure that the little boat would once again find its harbour. But would that be when we moved to Spain? When I graduated from my master’s degree? When I had staffed that same master’s program? When different individuals joined me to form a team?

I felt certain that the end of the waiting would be obvious. As self evident as a baby that is safely delivered from its in utero state to the waiting world. But no, it has not been obvious. It has not been sudden, or dramatic, or climactic. 

This waiting has been uncomfortable and uncertain. And yet, somehow, in the waiting there has been much that I would not have wanted to miss had things moved more quickly. I believe that God does important - even invaluable - things in our times of waiting. Waiting causes us to face ourselves. Our impatience, our fears, our desire for self determination. Or is it just me?

There is a sort of stripping away that happens as we wait. I have had such a strong sense that my own ‘success by goal-setting’ approach to life had to be set aside in order to step into the waiting and receive from it the gifts it had to offer. There is a gift to be received from lack of clarity, that is a sharpened sense of listening and attentiveness. There is a gift to be received from feeling unsuccessful and unaccomplished, which is to redefine success and accomplishment. There is a gift to be received from entering into a season where time seems slowed down, which is to become more practised in the art of being present.

The truth is that waiting can be a lonely time. The aloneness is quite possibly one of the most difficult things about waiting. If this is you, you could do worse than take time to consider Mary. Her experience of waiting was no doubt full of fear and uncertainty. She did not know the end of the story, she only knew - or thought she knew - that God had spoken to her. What she thought he had said was out-of-this-world; I wonder how many times she fought the rising bile in her throat, a reaction to the terror of wondering at the audacity or madness that had led her to actually believe what she thought she had heard. Did she experience the deep peace of sensing God with her through every moment of her 9 months of carrying Jesus? I doubt it, somehow. I reckon she had to face all the same twists and turns of faith and fear that we each navigate as we wait for God’s word to be fulfilled.

The thing I love about Mary’s story, the thing I hold onto, is that once she had said ‘yes’ to God something was begun within her that became inevitable. On the days she doubted, the baby within her continued to grow. Her doubts did nothing to arrest his development. She lived through days of doubt, just like we do, then awoke to a new day with fresh provision of faith (sleep is a wonderful gift). She just lived one day of that pregnancy after another until the baby was born. The miracle that God was accomplishing required her participation but was not dependent on her mood, or her faith. Some things are for God alone, and for this I am grateful.

So, if you are waiting - for an answer, a change, a resolution, a fulfilment - may you receive from the richness that waiting offers. May you be changed by the waiting in ways that deepen and enlarge you. And, ultimately, may you find a sweetness in the journey regardless of the destination.

Friday, 15 December 2017


I’m sitting in an echoey room, tiled and empty but for a series of utilitarian desks and chairs. The cacophony of high-pitched voices ebbs and flows as girls go in and out of the room, deciding whether to stay for English class or not.

The centre, set just off the road along from the souk, is more modern and well-maintained than I expected. Nevertheless, it is functional rather than homely and I wonder at how it feels for this to be the only home you know, for your bedroom to be shared with a dozen other girls, for there to be no mother or father figure to whom you can turn for comfort, or affirmation, or instruction.

We sit down and are joined by a group of girls whose number fluctuates throughout our 90 minutes together. Already I have given and received more bisous than I can count with these girls, hungry as they are for love and affection. And how could I not feel affection for them? Beautiful olive-skinned faces with eyes that range from dark brown to startling green, and all of them around the ages of my own two daughters.

The English class is more like a cross between a pub quiz and a karaoke night. Answers are shouted, everyone joining in with actions as instructed by the video we’re watching. And then we sing the theme tune from the Frozen movie - like, 15 times. The girls all seem pretty familiar with the English teacher and they have the lesson format down pat. I look around the circle, noticing the ones that are pensive and tentative, the ones that are combative; all of them craving attention, wanting to be special.

One girl stands quietly at the back. She’s older than most and there is a sadness about her eyes that draws my attention. Repeatedly she moves to the window and looks outside, returning to the group but remaining self-contained and separate. What’s going on with her, I wonder, all sorts of scenarios running through my mind and none of them pleasant.

When I make enquiries later, it turns out that at 17 years old Salma (not her real name) will soon have to leave the girls’ centre. She has outgrown the system that has cared for her, but she doesn’t have anywhere to go and no means to support herself.

At just 16, my own daughter is a full year younger than Salma and already I am preoccupied with what it means to launch a young woman into independent adulthood. Keziah makes some pocket money through various babysitting gigs, but she is far from aware of what it means to work full-time. I worry about the qualifications she will get and the route she’ll take through higher education to meaningful work. She helps a bit around the house, folding laundry or preparing meals, cleaning the kitchen or walking the dogs. But I can’t imagine her being ready to live in her own place, to handle plumbing problems or neighbourhood security issues. And when she is finally living and working independently, a few years from now, she’ll have caring parents on the end of the phone, willing to jump in the car and turn up on her doorstep to clean up spilt milk, or fit shelves, or whatever parents do in those situations.

Salma, on the other hand, has no parental support. Putting aside any dreams she may have had for her life, she has to find a way to make the €40 each month she’ll need for a room in a shared apartment. And then she’ll need to feed herself, find a bit of money for clothes or a visit to the doctor’s. The fear and aloneness is etched in her face: where will she go, what will she do?

Salma is just one of many, many girls orphaned or abandoned, married and then returned, on the cusp of adulthood and yet devoid of hope for the years that should be the most fruitful and fulfilling. The look in her eyes remains with me, and the way she clung to my arm as I said goodbye.

What would it mean in this context for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven? For Salma, looking out of the window there by the souk - what would Good News be for her? Because if the beauty, order and abundance of God’s Kingdom cannot be made available to her in her very real life, then what good is it to tell people that the Kingdom is coming?

This Advent we remember again that we are in a state of waiting. Waiting for the Redeemer to be made known, waiting for our tears to be wiped away. As we light candles and read aloud familiar scriptures, we rehearse again the story we are part of. We remind ourselves that God took on flesh and lived like one of us, like Salma.

As the Psalmist wrote, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face shine on us—so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”

Sunday, 10 December 2017

When 'this' is really about 'that'

One day just recently, I was driving through Morocco and feeling on top of the world. You know those moments when everything seems to be aligned? You feel like the right person, in the right place, at just the right time. You’re doing what you love, in a way that feels totally worthwhile; finally all the ways you’ve been learning and growing seem to culminate in some deeply meaningful ways. Life is good!

The next day, after a short phone conversation with my nearest and dearest, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. All the air had gone out of me, I was utterly deflated and felt like giving up, running away. Tears prickled behind my eyes and I couldn’t even imagine what had made me feel so on-top-of-the-world just hours before. How is it possible that a short conversation can have such a devastating effect? 

Have you ever wondered at the way a person’s facial expression or tone of voice, or sometimes the words they say, can sort of side-swipe you into anger, or depression, or fear?

I sat in a shaft of sunshine on the rooftop of the home where I was staying, drying my eyes and pulling myself together. As I picked my way through the minefield of my own emotions, triggers and history, I could see a little of why I had reacted so strongly to an otherwise benign conversation. I tentatively edged towards what was really going on inside - much of which had very little to do with what had been said or not said over the phone.

You see, Tim had unwittingly strayed into the ‘Private Property’ of my heart where unwelcome trespassers may get more than they bargained for!

Do you remember when it used to be normal to say the Lord’s Prayer in church, or at school assembly? In this past season, I have made it a daily habit to pray this prayer. And, although the devotional I read from has the words, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” I find another phrase deeply ingrained in me from schooldays:

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I’ve mostly said these words thinking only of committing an offence, or doing something wrong. But the most obvious or modern meaning of the word ‘trespass’ is to wander into an area where you are not permitted or wanted. It is an intrusion into a place that is private, or sacred, a place where people are not allowed to meddle or mess things up.

And the thing is, we all have those places in our lives that we have cordoned off for our own protection. Places where we don’t want people stomping around insensitively. Places where the landscape is too multi-layered, too complex, too nuanced to be easily disclosed.

Yet the reality of relationships is that people will trespass into our most sensitive areas - and we will do the same to them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally - and mostly the latter - people will hurt us by walking over places in our lives where we have been hurt before. Their words, or expressions, their tone of voice, or lack of words, or body language - anything could be the sharp-angled thing that pokes at a sore point. Suddenly we are feeling pain, or anger (that often masks pain), or fear that is out of proportion to whatever it was they did or said. 

We react in a way that tells us that there is unhealed pain somewhere that needs our attention. 

And however long in the tooth we are, however long we have been working through our early histories, however much healing we have already experienced, it is likely that there is a deeper level of restoration to which we are invited. If only we can avoid the distraction of whatever it was that just triggered our latest explosion and see through the sparks and flashes to what is really at stake.

Tim and I exchanged a few voice messages until we were able to look at our conversation and my reaction to it from the same vantage point. And somewhere deep within me that old prayer rose once again to my lips: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Let Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

Monday, 27 November 2017

Embodied Hope

I’m in a place of tension and it’s bothering me. On the surface, it’s a tension that’s been thrown up by social media. Status updates are by nature reductionist - in order to describe something that’s multi-faceted and integrated, we have to enumerate and disintegrate.  But then we’re left with something that hardly does justice to reality’s largeness. 

So anyway, I posted an update online about combining my two loves: spiritual growth in relationship with others, and health and fitness. And really they sound like two different things, but to me they are the same thing. It’s all about how we grow to be more fully human, and what it even means to be human, and what it means to follow Jesus and see his good reign worked out here on earth. And, well, you know, all of that good stuff.

I read this great quote by the guy who wrote Dwell (I think his name is Barry):”The Christian hope is an embodied hope. That means for us that Christian spirituality is not something experienced merely in the depths of our being, in the deep recesses of our souls. Christian spirituality is experienced in our bodies.” 

"Christian spirituality is experienced in our bodies."

And that’s where I want to go with all this. I want to understand more about what it means that I live towards God’s good future by engaging all of who I am - my mind, my emotions, my relationships, my choices, my habits, my community rituals, of course my spirit. And - since having a body is fundamental to what it means to be human - my body.

It feels like we have to emphasise the body part because it has been left to one side for so long. 

Like, in the context of being Christian at least, we don’t really know what to do about the fact that we have arms and legs, toe nails that need cutting, skin that wrinkles with age, feet that tap with impatience and apparently of their own volition. And genitals. Gosh, let’s not even go there! So we’ve made our spiritual life about all the other-worldly stuff, and assigned our bodies to the very real world in which we live.

I think that's why those who are not believers have so much more to say - good and bad - about being embodied. And I think it's why we have Christian leaders who are such an example in so many areas, yet have bodies that are crying out to be cared for. And I don’t mean by another packet of M&Ms.

But here’s the thing. When we emphasise the body to try to redress the balance, it’s so easy to lose the central focus. We elevate the body so easily. For sure, when it comes to change related to our bodies, we tend to leave God out of it almost entirely and rely on our will and self-discipline alone. (Except when injury or illness causes us to face our own mortality, perhaps. And then we cry out for God’s intervention because suddenly we are aware that what we thought we had control over doesn’t feel so certain anymore.)

I feel like it would be so easy for me to get carried away with the physical side of all this. Of course, I have always loved sport and physical activity. It feels like it’s hard-wired into who I am and I get energy by being active. I guess - I hope - I will always be that way ... one of those wrinkly old ladies who are still running marathons at 86 years old! You see, for me physical activity is also an opportunity for connecting relationally with others. Tim and I have always felt most connected when we run together, or hike a mountain. So it feels like an overflow of who I am to share that with others, to encourage them in their healthy habits and to champion them in the good nurturing of their bodies.

But I don’t want it to all be about that! I don’t want to become someone who talks about diets and weight-loss, exercise programs and nutritional supplements, and fails to keep all of this firmly rooted in the context of becoming more fully the people we’ve been created to be, allowing Holy Spirit to empower us to make good choices in our bodies. Not as the end goal but as an integral part of what it means to be God-filled people on earth.

I’m not at all saying that God’s intention is for us to become some kind of super-race. You know, taller and more chiseled than the average Joe. Able to lift burning cars off frightened toddlers, and all that. No! Physical limitations are also integral to our experience of being human but Bonhoeffer was onto something when he said that “man’s body is not his prison, his shell, his exterior, but man himself. His body belongs to his essential being. Man does not ‘have’ a body; he does not ‘have’ a soul; rather he ‘is’ body and soul.”

If I am my body and my body is me, I am going to think about it differently, right? 

There is a kind of self-love, or self-respect, that is the sign of someone who is living into their true identity. A sort of honouring of the body without elevating it. Is it even possible, through living reflectively and intentionally, to come to a place of such integration that we can learn to live that way and see it as part of our Christian spirituality? I don’t know. I hope so, I am searching for that ...

Where I care for my body as a way of acknowledging the gift that it is, and I do that by receiving the help of Holy Spirit so that I think and chose in relation to my body in ways that are good ... And I submit all that I will be for others, through my physical presence that day, to God ... And I consciously trust him for safety and wholeness, while recognising that physical vulnerability is part of the deal ... And I experience God’s presence and delight in his creation by growing in awareness and engaging all five physical senses in seeking him ... And when I slip into vanity and self-reliance, I’m sensitive to a bit of course-correction so that I can live in this body the humble way I was meant to.

Is it even possible, through living reflectively and intentionally, to come to a place of such integration that we learn to honour the body without elevating it, and see it as part of our Christian spirituality?

Call me an idealist. The odds sure are stacked against this dream. But I’m holding out for the integrating power of a kind of multi-faceted relational reality that includes not just my heart and my soul, but my mind and my body too. Pretty sure Facebook won't be able to handle it - but could you?!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Experience of Community

Yesterday, my nephew got married in New Zealand; my closest friends enjoyed beautiful Spring days in South Africa; precious co-workers held a retreat in the United States; my parents helped do some DIY at their church in the UK; and my husband left Tunisia to travel back to Spain via Paris.

Even as I was writing that first paragraph, I exchanged text messages with a Chinese friend in the US who is about to marry an Indian guy. Often, as I walk the dogs in the morning, I record voice messages on WhatsApp to send to friends in the Netherlands, or Morocco, or Switzerland, or Armenia, or Canada.

I can no longer imagine life without this network of relationships around the world. These are people I deeply care about, some of whom I have lived near for a particular season who now live far away from us, and yet I still ‘do life’ with them in some form.

Is it enough, though, this global community? 

The ironic but truer thing is that where I actually live - where my flesh-and-blood body really takes up space - the experience of community is a little thin. After more than 4 years living here, the most I can say is that there are encouraging signs of friendship here and there. Of course, language-learning makes it harder, as does cultural adaptation. The fact that I travel away for work pretty regularly probably hasn’t helped. Our season of life means that most people already have a well-established set of friendships and not much need for more. 

Community, though? No, I wouldn’t call it that.

Herein lies the tension, then. I can easily avoid the discomfort of digging into relationships here by spending my energy with the more remote friendships. I can find comfort on a bad day from a friend who lives in another country, on another continent. I've come to realise that community can be experienced by us in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, and that's good. But when it’s easier to turn to WhatsApp than face the reality that there are few people nearby to talk to - or not many who would think of asking how things are - that doesn't seem so healthy.

And when I don’t reach out, don’t ask for help, I diminish the likelihood of forming deeper connections. Because, whether we like it or not, relational bonds are forged most deeply in our times of need. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t easily ask for help. 

Independent, impatient, more often than not I would rather figure things out myself than invite others into the process. It’s not that I don’t think I need help, it’s just that I’ve learned that it’s often easier to do things for myself. 

Thank God for the times when I have had to learn to ask. For the 4x4 breaking down on a hill when Keziah was 6 weeks old, and Derick and Ilze coming out in the Landie to tow us home. For the early years of parenting when the tears would come, and Michelle would talk me off the ledge and feed me tea and rusks. For those challenging first years in ministry, when Guy and Tarn would pour us wine and make us feel normal again. For the time Tim was immobilised by a slipped disc, when Oloff and Karen allowed us to take over their home, and then Mel and Russell let us move into their place so that we could wait until he was well enough to get the flight home.

And countless other moments when deep connections were forged in life’s most challenging moments. Not just our challenges, but during times of hardship or heartache experienced by friends, when our hearts were drawn out in love for them in new or deeper ways. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE celebration! If all of friendship were celebrating, I would be happy. But there really does seem to be something about sharing the tough times.

When we invite people into our more difficult experiences we build steel into our friendships.

The season our family is now living in is … well, I don’t have a word for it: it’s a time of being pressed. Mostly we are pressed by an unusual quantity of low grade pressures that, added together, make for a hulluver ‘squeezing’ sensation! You know, the car has broken down half a dozen times in as many months, we had rats in the house that ate through the dishwasher cables and were highly resistant to being evicted. There was that whole thing with Keziah and deciding what to do about her school misery. Constant meetings for over a year discussing life and death issues regarding a co-worker are understandably draining. And financial concerns, there’s always that. Well, you know, it all sort of piles up and leaves us feeling a little war-weary.

I suppose what I am getting to is this: is it possible to see these times of pressure as an opportunity, an invitation? Could it be that this is the very time when the bonds of close friendship will be built? Am I able to find ways to invite others into my place of need, and reciprocate that friendship in ways that make them feel cared for too?

My neighbour came to use our tumble drier because she was overwhelmed by all the wet washing produced by the combination of two small boys and damp weather. I saw that as a real triumph in the relationship. 

I won’t say I am praying for her washing machine to break down, but I might just head over there now to borrow a cup of sugar …

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Falling-Apart will become the Pulled-Together

got home from a work trip on Saturday evening. After more than a fortnight sleeping on a problematic mattress, I was thrilled to be tucked up in my own bed, in my own room, accompanied by my own favourite brand of tea in my own mug.

The following morning I woke to a rather less idyllic reality. It seems that things really do happen in clusters. The kettle, the blender and the dishwasher are all broken. And beyond the kitchen, things are little better. The printer and the laptop both met their untimely demise at around the same time as the car began making a thunderous clonking noise before being admitted to the mechanic’s. 

It’s rather dispiriting, but things really do fall apart. And all at the same time, it seems.

So it got me thinking. There’s something about this falling-apart state of things that speaks of a bigger reality. We are made for a place of astonishing beauty, a place where relationships and situations are all in order, a place of flourishing and abundance on every level. Something within us yearns for this state of wholeness and well-being. And yet, the truth is that life isn’t like that much of the time. 

We exist in a place of tension between the wholeness we are made for and the dislocation we currently experience.

This is why we long for community and we even fleetingly get a taste of it. But we also experience the destructive force miscommunication and offence can exact on relationships. This is why we sense a strength and vitality in our physical bodies that makes us feel invincible. But we also fall down and get hurt, running into the brick wall of our physical limitations and impediments. This is why we pursue that feeling of being just the right person, in just the right job, at just the right time. But we also know the drudgery of clock-watching when we’re not working in our real vocation.

And this is why there are urban spaces that are ugly and soul-draining. And legal systems that are unjust and corrupt. And governments that are drowning in red-tape and back-handers. And schools that are boring and unsafe. And churches that are vision-less and dull. And sports that are drug-riddled and scandal-ridden. And technologies that are removed from their original positive purpose and used destructively by greedy power-mongers.

Things fall apart.

Yet, at the same time the overarching and unseen reality is that, through Jesus, God is reconciling all things to Himself (Colossians 1, 20). And we are invited to keep our eyes fixed on this greater truth: that everything - everything - is being, and will be, pulled together again into God. And that it will be good beyond any good we’ve ever known. And that we were made for that sort of world.

In my heart, I whisper this to the friend whose husband left her for another woman. To the one whose father is dying. To the one who lost his job. To the one who’s estranged from her daughter. To the one in debt and to the one in rehab. 

It was not meant to be like this. And if it was not meant to be like this, then this is not the end. There is more, much more, to come. Hold on!

Though it’s not the end of the world, it’s frustrating to sit among my broken things. Even a little overwhelming, I have to admit. Life is not working smoothly and easily, the way it should. Surrounded by defunct appliances I cannot afford to replace, in my more dramatic moments it feels like a graveyard of my ideals.

So I put a pan of water to boil on the gas ring of the stove and in a small and perhaps a silly way, I let this be my prayer: help us to hold on when things fall apart. May the tension we feel when things are not the way they should be remind us that a better world is coming.

All things will be pulled together again. And a new MacBook would be heavenly too.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

#metoo: part of the journey but not the whole trip

Over the past few days, the #metoo campaign has been trending on social media. And, like any campaign, it has drawn all kinds of responses and reactions from all kinds of people. So perhaps to add my own ten cents’ worth is superfluous to the conversation but, you see, as well as being a campaign this is personal. 

This is my story, my journey, my exile and my redemption.

Now, I am not defined by what has happened to me at the hands of men. While it has formed me in certain (negative) ways, I am not limited to those ways of being, or thinking, or choosing. This is where I come to the limits of the #metoo label. It’s great as a way to create a point of identification but not as a point of identity.

#metoo is not the only thing that is true about any of us.

While my story is unique to me, it is not dissimilar to that of many, many others … I was still in primary school when a neighbour’s teenaged son began to explore his sexual curiosity at my expense. This went on for many months and then stopped as suddenly as it had started. Needless to say, this experience informed my assumptions about what being a girl was all about—and a few years later, when a boy in my science class leaned across the desk to grab my breast, I knew enough to hit him hard and make it count. It was more confusing, however, to know how to respond when the man reaching for my breasts was an elder in the church who had offered to drop me home after the service. One learns a level of alertness to the possibility of threat, as I’m sure you know.

There is no point here in rating my experience by severity. God knows, people close to me have known worse. For all the friends, the mothers, the aunts, the sisters we draw a collective breath and tentatively seek to move away from the fear and the rage engendered by these experiences.

Because fear holds us captive.

As soon as I faced the reality that it was truly possible for me to conceive life - you know, all the right things were happening at all the right times - I knew one thing for sure: I did not want a baby. More specifically, I did not want to bring a little girl into the world and risk her ever having to say #metoo. Learning to hold that fear but not let it rule me - I now have two beautiful daughters - is part of my story of healing and redemption.

And rage, well rage is a torrent.

In all my relationships - most particularly my relationships with men, and my relationship with myself - rage was just below the surface waiting for the smallest poke, the slightest excuse to be unleashed. It was not without justification, obviously, but I had to face the reality of the damage rage can do to those relationships where I am most loved and most vulnerable. Rage makes intimacy impossible and learning to release that rage is also part of my story of healing.

Fear and rage could so easily have been what came to define me. If my own #metoo was not to form my identity, I had to find another reality; something more real and more true than what had happened, that could both hold and supersede what I had experienced.

I will never forget the day I heard a young woman sharing her story. She had been living in a nation where it was illegal to be a Christian. She knew the risks of being there and one day several policemen came to where she was living to arrest her. As she was forced onto the street towards the waiting car, her eyes took in this threatening wall of uniformed men. Any woman reading this can imagine where her mind went to in that moment - the possibility of sexual violence at the hands of these men was very real. And in that moment, as she faced the prospect of being held under guard and possibly imprisoned, this is what she thought. 

“If the thing I am most afraid of happens to me, I know God can heal me.” 

This was no easy platitude. It wasn’t that she wasn’t afraid; she wasn’t in denial as to the possible pain and suffering. But somehow she knew that whatever brokenness became hers, whatever awful or destructive experience she went through, God could bring her through the fragmentation of body and soul to wholeness again. Maybe not immediately, certainly not without tears, but she would be put together again.

She knew that if her worst fears were realised, it would not define her.

I remember when I first realised that God was able to touch the deepest part of my soul and bring healing there. After years of hiding my pain, of experiencing genuine hatred for my body, of knowing heart-stopping anger against men - and not just men but against a world whose axis is tipped towards men in ways that make justice seem impossible - after years of this, I experienced a real measure of healing. I was gob-smacked most especially because I never believed that anything - anything - could reach to that deep soul-level in ways that would restore what had been lost.

The journey from that place, it’s true, has been long and convoluted. It is a journey I am still on and one that at times, I admit, I have wondered whether will ever end. I am finding that the healing of our souls is not a quick fix, or a one-time thing. It’s both done and in the process of being done; it’s both present and future. There are many ingredients to our healing process, no doubt different ones in different proportions for each of us: trusted friendships, opportunities to share our stories, counselling, prayer, choosing forgiveness, learning, practice and lots of love. At least, it’s been that way for me.

So here’s the thing, you guys: this #metoo is my story, but it’s just a part of my story. The greater part of my story is the promise of being #wholeagain - and that is my identity. Yes, I was formed by what happened to me, but more than that, I am being re-formed because I am walking in and walking towards healing. 

#wholeagain is not a formula or a band-aid. 
It’s not a judgement or something to measure up to. 
It’s not a trite cliché or a glib catchphrase.  
#wholeagain is both a promise and an invitation. 
It’s a direction towards which we are moving, a posture, a leaning towards. 
#wholeagain is longing and a prayer. 
It is, as the old hymn says, strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

Now to see that trending on social media: that, my friends, would be revolutionary.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Half-Century Colours

Last weekend we had a special time with Tim’s family, celebrating the 50 years of his parents’ marriage. It felt like a sweet sort of miracle: nineteen people from three generations, all gathered to honour the road that’s been travelled and the place it’s brought us to today.

It’s tempting when reflecting on journeys to think most about the milestones. Tim had worked long and hard on collecting photographs into a beautiful album, and on the surface each photo marks a milestone of some sort. The wedding day where it all began, followed by smiling honeymoon shots under a Portuguese sun. Not long after that the first baby photos begin, a string of four peas in a pod at various stages of feeding, walking, playing and learning. These photos are way-markers from around the world, some hinting at childhoods in Singapore and Australia, others from the years in Nigeria, after crossing the Sahara when Tim and his siblings were young. Of course, there are weddings and the births of grandchildren, then baptisms and graduations. Milestones passed during 50 years of family life.

What struck me, though, wasn’t the sense of achievement that milestones indicate. It was the journey itself, the process of two people - and then several more - becoming who they are today. Two lives melding into one as each learned to give and receive, to support and to be supported. And the particular hue of the colours that reflect from one to the other can be seen today, bouncing off all the members of the family as when light shines through coloured glass making everything look a little orange, or pink, or blue.

There’s an open-handed generosity that has impacted the generations. Or at least, a non-attachment to the frills of 21st century living, to the idea that we have to own this or that in order to be successful. Not at all ascetic, it's nevertheless a way of thinking about success that is counter-cultural in a markedly good way.

Then there’s the justice-oriented way of seeing the world and the desire to stand up for what is right. Argumentative at worst, fiercely protective at best, this is a willingness to be known for one’s beliefs and values and to show up on behalf of the underdog, even at great personal risk. 

There’s a sort of earthy humility here too. It’s as if the dirt of this half-century old pathway itself is such that no one can think too highly of themselves. There’s an equality and solidarity that means that family gatherings are noise-filled affairs, since no one’s voice is less important than another’s. This way of journeying can mean the oldest apologising to the youngest and the wisest learning from the simplest. Of course, it can simply mean that no one really listens, but that’s true of most families!

And in spite of the absolute Englishness of this family in many ways - the public school tones; the endless cups of tea; the orderly clutter on the one hand, offset on the other by the attention to detail when it comes to important things like what can be composted, or how the long the coffee sits in the press before plunging - there is a sense of openness to the nations of the world and to all that they have to teach us. 

I would dare to say that the whole picture is coloured most noticeably by an orientation towards God’s good future, and a belief that - no matter how small and insignificant we feel - we can participate in bringing that future to the world around us, both near and far.

What seems most important though is that somehow, through the years of navigating both the bumpy parts of the road and the places of plain sailing, the people in this family have learned to get along. To put up with one another’s quirks and, on the whole, to enjoy one another. No one would say that the final picture couldn’t use a little touching up here and there, but the colours shining through the last 50 years are still vibrant.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Hyper-ventilating into my To Do List

As you might know, we’re still working to get that colleague released from captivity and sometimes I find myself thinking about him. Where is he? In what sort of place is he being held? How does he handle these days and months of blackout? His life, past and future on hold—no news from home, no ability to make any plans - only able to be in this day, this hour.

I wonder how I would manage in his place? I imagine myself in a closed cell. I imagine it is dark. The hours tick by interminably. What would I do in this state of perpetual waiting? I would have to move, exercise, find ways to make the time pass.

When I stop to think about it, that urge towards activity in the dark places of waiting, that’s me. It’s what I do. Fill the darkness with movement! Fill the waiting with motion!  The voice in my head says, “It doesn’t matter what you do, just keep moving. Whatever you do, don’t stop.” To stop, to be truly still, is to face the darkness, to enter into the waiting in a different sort of way. In a way that I am not ready for.

My reading today took me to the wise sayings of King Solomon - “It is the glory of God to conceal things.” Hidden, dark, covered, concealed: there is glory in that? It sounds the furthest thing from glorious to me. 

The last few years have, for me, been a journey of not knowing. Not knowing the future, not really being able to plan, knowing only that I am to wait and to allow something new to emerge. All my natural instinct towards activity has been stymied. Yes, I have kept busy; yes, there has been no shortage of things to do; yes, looking back there has been a sort of momentum. But the big picture, the overall plan, the ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘with whom’ has been withheld. 

Honestly, a kind of panic rises within me in this place of not knowing; I feel it in my chest and in my arms. I calm myself by taking deep breaths and writing lists of things to do. Goals and objectives that I can enumerate and check off; meaningless To Do items that give me a feeling of control, however tenuous. These lists, I think they serve the same purpose as the paper bag one breathes into when hyper-ventilating: I can calm myself, make myself believe that everything is okay. These lists help me feel the earth beneath my feet as something solid again, reliable. “Just keep moving,” they tell me. “The darkness will be light again.”

Every so often, on this journey into concealment, it all becomes a bit too much (classic British understatement for you, there!). Despondency sets in, even the urge towards motion is stilled. I don’t really want to see people, resisting the need to put a brave face on things, resisting having to hear all about their super, productive, fulfilling lives. This darker period in the overall journey is a repeated sequence, at least for me. It is a time of fretful tears, of struggle and resistance, and ultimately of surrender. Surrender makes it possible to once again embrace the darkness and the not knowing, to content myself once again with taking just the next step, the only one that is visible.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author writes, “Set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after Him.” This resting-yet-seeking seems to be the key place of tension in which we experience the glorious concealment of God. Can I find a way to rest in the darkness, to surrender to the passing hours, without giving in to desolation? Can I keep crying out, keep seeking for release, without succumbing to the deception that it is I, through my own activity, who will save myself?

King Solomon’s proverb concludes with the encouragement, “But the glory of kings is to search things out.” The idea of God’s glory being in concealment is a little beyond me. There is so much that is hidden, so much I do not - and probably never will - understand. Adrian’s illness, Russell’s death, good people running headlong into pain and trauma? No, making sense of these things is impossible for us. But I am willing to trust that something bright and beautiful - maybe even glorious - will be rescued from the wreckage of these collisions between the kingdom that is coming and the world that is.

What I can embrace far more easily is that there is glory in searching things out. There is something good about having questions. There is something beautiful about admitting that we do not know everything. Those blank lines waiting to be filled at the bottom of my To Do list, that hiccoughing sigh of surrender at the end of my desperate cry-fest? That is a place of glory, a place of goodness, a thing of beauty.

So I will rest in this darkness as long as I can. And when I can’t rest anymore, yet the darkness remains, I will allow my not-resting to be a sort of searching: trusting that the search itself is glorious.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Where the heck am I going? And other questions.

This morning my reading app directed me to the beginning of Psalm 119 and I turned to the page in The Message bible, because the thought of this particular psalm, with its ridiculous length (I mean, can you imagine people singing their way through all those words? They’d be there forever) just seemed to require a lighter sort of reading.

And the psalm surprised me, as Truth so often does. It speaks of being blessed when we stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. I remember speaking to my close friend about her husband’s illness and the unpredictability of the future, and she said she was learning to live just one day at a time. As much as we would like it, we don’t seem to get issued with a map for this road we’re on. It just gets revealed to us as we walk.

“Here’s the route for today, my girl. Keep going in that direction and all will be well.”

So apparently, as we stay on course, as we keep walking steadily, we are blessed. Although this sounds too simple, and perhaps it is since the road is often far from obvious. The psalmist says, ‘I’m a stranger in these parts; give me clear directions.’ 

As I type that I find a muffled snort escapes unbidden. (‘Ah, Doubt, there you are.’) Clear directions? Can I really expect clear directions? What sort of directions would be clear enough to navigate this part of the journey? I feel like such a stranger to these parts and I want to know stuff, I want things to be clear. Spell it out, is my heart’s cry. Don’t just point me in the right direction but give me step by step instructions, for heaven’s sake.

And then my mind turns to running and to the difference between running on roads and exploring trails. A road run is pretty straightforward; even if you take a few wrongs turns, you can often figure out the route back to some landmark or main street. Trails are a different thing altogether.

When I run a trail, much of the joy is in the sense of exploration, the idea that I have not been that particular way before. And each part of the trail is absorbing in its own way. I have to pay attention to the uneven ground so that I don’t trip and, even when the path is smooth, there is so much around me that absorbs my focus. Needless to say, there are moments when my body is tired and my attention moves inward; I count my breaths, I steady my heart rate. But much of the time, I am simply following the road as it is revealed to me.

Since moving to Spain, I often run trails with a group of women runners who are all part of a local club. A couple of them know the hills really well, and plus they have these fancy watches where they’ve downloaded route maps. I know that if I just go the way they tell me, I will be okay. If they tried explaining the whole thing to me at the outset, it would be too much; there’s no way I’d be able to keep all those directions in my head, in English let alone in Spanish. But with them running along with me, I get all my instructions in bite-sized pieces: ‘Up to the stream and turn left.’

“Keep going in that direction and all will be well.”

Back to the psalm. It says, “You’re blessed when you follow his directions … and you don’t go off on your own.” Yes, I think. This invitation to be on the way, to stick to the stretch of path you can see, is best considered in company. There is a security in being on the path together, with the Spirit of God - our Guide - just a half-step ahead.

There’s an old Irish blessing that goes (you’ll have to imagine the poetic lilt) “May the road rise to meet you.” That sounds a bit like the unfolding, the revealing of the path as we are on it. And the blessing ends with, “ And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

That’s my prayer for you, my friend, as much as it is for me. “Here’s the route for today, my girl.”