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.”

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Fulness of Life is for your body too

I was raised to believe that Jesus offers us Life. And since I was a kid, I have been trying to figure out a bit of what that might mean. Jesus actually told people that he came to give ‘life in all its fulness’ which seems like a pretty big deal.
Some people read angels and harps into this. But for me, I want my vision of the fulness of life Jesus said he came to bring to include my physical self in the here and now. I mean, what does heaven on earth looks like for embodied beings? Us—with our hearts pumping blood, our muscles carrying our weighty skeleton, and the breath in our lungs reminding us that we are alive!

The inner work I do to become more fully the person I was meant to be must somehow affect the way I live in my body. Don’t you think? And vice versa—shouldn’t the work I do to take care of my physical self have an affect on who I am on the inside? I think Dallas Willard, guru of the mysteries and mechanics of personal and spiritual development, said something to this effect—that spiritual formation should be in evidence in the way I live in my body, or else we might question whether it is happening at all (*gulp*).

So, what if you have a lot of good intentions but your life makes it difficult to get into any sort of rhythm? What if you’re as familiar with airports as you are with the neighbourhood you call home? You compute time zones without looking them up on Google and you don’t maintain a gym membership because you’re away so much it’s hardly worth it?

It has to be possible - surely - for people who are super effective in the parts of their lives that cause them to be invited to speak all over the world, to take care of their bodies too. Or does a lot of work-related travel disqualify us from this ‘fulness of life’ thing? (If it does, you might want to think about a change of career. Just saying.)

My hubby and I have been in missions most of our lives. Even before joining YWAM about 19 years ago (sharp inhale of breath on typing that: HOW long?!!) we travelled quite a bit. And travel can mean all sorts of things. It can mean a change of climate; going from cool weather to muggy heat is never easy. Travel can mean being at the mercy of other people’s schedules, especially if you’re at a conference, or you’re a speaker being brought in for particular sessions. It can mean not having much private space, and all sorts of restrictions because of culture, making it difficult for women to exercise in public, for example.

Since keeping fit has always been a value for us, over the years we’ve found a few ways to stick to our routine wherever in the world we happen to be. Now, I’m aware that you don’t need anyone giving you one more thing to do. But taking care of your health does you good, it creates space where ‘fulness of life’ can be a physical experience as well as a spiritual one. And that’s got to be good news, right?

Here’s what’s worked for us.
  1. You can run or walk anytime and (almost) anywhere.
I know, I know, I will never convince everyone to become a runner! But running or walking are the most versatile forms of exercise, you just need to remember to pack suitable shoes. When it comes to travelling, running and walking offer two great bonuses: Firstly, you get to orientate yourself to the neighbourhood where you are staying, often discovering hidden corners you would never otherwise see. And secondly, you get alone time to reflect and think clearly about your day, which can be in short supply on many trips. Alternatively, you get to connect with other runners—and there are always some out there.

But if you can’t run or walk, there are still options …

2. Pack a skipping (or jump) rope.
A skipping rope packs up super small so is perfect for travelling. And you can use it in a minimal amount of space, like a balcony or small patio. Skipping is fantastic as a cardio workout and you can keep things interesting by planning a few different intervals, alternating hard and easy, for example. If you find it easier, you can download an App like Interval Trainer and set it to beep at you at predetermined intervals! Add some good music and away you go.

And if your ceiling is too low for jumping rope, there’s always …

3. Stream an online workout.
Rather than pay for a gym membership that gets interrupted each time I travel, for some time I have opted for an online subscription. Signing up for BeachBody On Demand is like having a workout version of Netflix at your fingertips. Whether I want to do a yoga-style stretch, a quick blast of interval training, or something longer, I can stream any number of fantastic, trainer-led workouts to my laptop or phone. I really love this, mostly because I don’t have to think about what to do—it’s all right there.

And if you are in a place with poor Internet, you can try …

4. A simple workout App.
The simplest workout App I have come across is the 7 minute workout challenge (7MWC). The great thing about this is that you don’t need any equipment (except maybe a chair, and hopefully you have one of those) and you can use it offline. You can go through the 7 minute routine as many times as you like, obviously. But even 7 minutes is better than nothing if you have a day of meetings ahead of you.

If you feel at the mercy of your travel schedule (or your kids’ schedule, or your work schedule) these are a couple of ideas for getting some movement into your day. Because, whatever your commitments and wherever you are in the world, fulness of life is for your body too!

Monday, 11 September 2017


I’ve thought a lot about home since getting back to Spain at the end of July. There’s so much about South Africa that became home to us. The smell of the salt and the kelp as it rolled in over the beach; the view of the craggy hillside from Ou Kaapse Weg; the wind as it buffeted and bullied us from one place to another. And this physical feeling of home was all tied up with the rootedness of relationships, with feeling that space was made for us, for who we really are; the feeling that we are seen and received. 

And then there’s the memories. Every day of our visit it felt like a memory of some sort was waiting to poke its head out of the backdrop and into the foreground of my mind. The climbing and treasure hunt birthday party we held for Keziah just over there; the ordinariness of standing in the middle of Pick & Pay; walking past the train station in Kalk Bay, or driving over Boyes Drive towards our old house. Each memory was like a sort of safety line that anchored us to this experience of home.

I guess there was a sort of homecoming in returning to Spain. Our physical home is a place of order and beauty that I love to return to, a place of retreat as well as a place we have sought to gather community. It is a place with a growing stock of memories - of my sister being here, of bringing our puppy home, of Christmas carols and summer paella parties. 

There is still this faint edge of anxiety, though, when I venture beyond these walls. I rally myself to speak Spanish, to find my way in unfamiliar streets, to make peace with being 'on the back foot,' a couple of steps behind everyone else in understanding the world around me. Does a place only become home when you feel at ease at the helm of your own life?

This tension between feeling at home and braving the world outside of home makes me think of Keziah. This is her overriding experience of school, that she has to live in a world in which she does not feel she belongs; an experience that requires more energy and resolve than is comfortable. I am trying to teach her that this is the nature of our lives here on earth; the Kingdom is already here and yet not in its fulness. We are required to feel ‘not at home’ while we wait for the full experience of homecoming.

Perhaps this is why - when we were preparing to move to Spain and I was praying wordless prayers that God would provide for us a home I could love - He asked me to let Him be my home. At the time, I wasn’t sure I knew what that meant. What would it look like for me to find my place of retreat in God? For me to be most comfortable and at ease in His presence? For me to return to Him to restore my energy for a fresh excursion into the waiting world? What would it feel like to find in Father, Son and Holy Spirit my richest experience of relationship and community, of belonging and rootedness? 

I didn’t know. I considered this invitation as a sort of metaphor for making God Number 1 in my life. I didn’t really think of it as an invitation into a lived experience; it was a truth that was beyond knowing for me, at that time.

I think I am easing towards it now. I find myself imagining the felt presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with me and surrounding me - and not just me, but us - in a way that is my home. The place I launch from into the world, the place I return to with a deep knowing of being received. I wonder if, rather than memories, I can find habits that will be my safety lines, my anchor point in a reality that is felt but not seen. And can I be at home with others here, sharing moments of connection and reminder that go beyond what might be considered normal?

I breathe in deeply, and my senses remember the smell of the salt and the kelp on the air rolling off the ocean. From one continent to another, home has come with me and is carried within.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Run your own Race

It’s a mistake I’ve made more than once. The energy and adrenaline of the start of the race get me all riled up and I head out at a pace that isn’t sustainable. It’s a mistake that really catches up with you later on, when your legs are heavy and your chest is heaving and you’ve still got a few kays to go before the end but there really isn’t much more in the tank.

“Run your own race!” is the message every rookie needs to hear. Don’t get caught up with what other people are doing, don’t compare yourself to the person to your left or your right, but trust your training, know yourself, and follow what you know to do.

This morning I came across this blog and it was a very timely reminder to me that, in running as in life, I am to run my own race.

I’ll confess that it’s been a bumpy ride the last few weeks. I’m emotionally weary after endless tearful conversations with our daughter about school-related anxiety, and interminable debates with my husband about what to do about it. One day, we’d be certain that it was right to take a strong line, to encourage her to go back to school and face the music. The next, after a visit to a counsellor-friend or another interrupted, nightmare-filled sleep, we’d feel it was right to find another way. Should academic concerns trump psychological ones, or vice versa? There didn’t seem to be a ‘right’ answer and trying to figure it out was giving me a perpetual headache.

Once she was finally brave enough to reveal some concrete details about what was actually going on at school, we came off the fence. Given the situation, it really seemed the right choice - for this child, at this point - to find an alternative schooling solution. We’ve been relieved to discover an online school option, run from the UK and following the British curriculum, that meets her need.

And even as I write that, I recognise my urge to justify the decision, to make you understand that I am not a flakey parent blown this way and that by the whims of my emotional child; that I am strong and intelligent and that I, the parent, am calling the shots, dammit!

I had coffee this morning with a good friend who also happens to be a very experienced secondary school teacher. I shared with her how this decision came about and she commiserated with me that parenting doesn’t come with a ‘how to’ manual. And yet, in the telling, I still felt this inner doubt: what if I’ve just allowed myself to be tugged around by a child's emotions like a puppet on a string? Surely other people would have been stronger, sent her back to school, ignored the tears and the tantrums?

One thing that has helped me over these weeks is the idea of taking the long-range view. I think this is a bit like thinking of the end of the race when you’re at the beginning—carefully considering how you’ll feel about your pace on setting off when you’re at kilometre 8, or 19 or 36. When I think of myself at the age of 60, sitting down for coffee with my then adult daughter and reflecting on this part of the race, will I regret making the decision to lighten her load, to give her room to mature slowly, to let academics take a different form for the sake of overall well-being?

I don’t think so. But here’s the thing: this is my race, our race. It doesn’t help me to look at other families, to compare with other kids (even her sister) or to stick with some narrow idea of success, or even of education. 

So this is me, lifting my head to take in the far horizon. And then, deliberately choosing not to eye the speedster overtaking on my right hand side, I look just far enough ahead to see the ground I have to cover next. I breathe deep, trusting that I will settle into the right pace for this part of the race and knowing that it is a race the requires endurance and grit.

I will run my own race. See you at the finish.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Does it matter that I have a body?

You know that feeling, when you can feel a piece of grit or a little stone inside your shoe? As much as you try to ignore it and keep walking, that thing keeps bothering you until you stop and give it the attention it requires.

So, I have this little stone in my shoe and it is begging for attention.

One of the things that has long intrigued me is the number of amazing people I know--genuine heroes of faith, people with stories about proving God in ways that cause my jaw to drop, whose lives are truly inspiring--who struggle to take care of their bodies. 

My mind goes to the hundreds of friends and colleagues who are at this moment gathering in Costa Rica for a biennial conference. The theme of the conference is ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven.’  I would so love to be there—there’ll be a lot of inspiring talks and tonnes of stimulating conversations. And I wonder when the conversation will turn to what heaven on earth looks like for embodied beings? Us—with our hearts pumping blood, our muscles carrying our weighty skeleton, and the breath in our lungs reminding us that we are alive!

Just to be clear, I am not foolish enough to imagine that being a Jesus follower makes us exempt from physical limitations. I am certainly not saying that being people of the Kingdom should make of us all lean, mean, muscle machines. But somehow I want my vision of the fulness of life Jesus said he came to bring to include my physical self, in a way that fits my limitations and my capacities.

I believe that somehow the inner work I do to more fully become the person I was meant to be, affects the way I live in my body. And vice versa—that the work I do to take care of my physical self has an affect on who I am on the inside. I think Dallas Willard, guru of the mechanics of personal and spiritual development, said something to that effect—that spiritual formation should be in evidence in the way I am in my body, or else we might question whether it is happening at all (of course, I can’t find the exact quote).

So, this little piece of grit in my shoe is taking me on a journey of discovery. And, like all great adventures, the first step is to become aware that a journey is possible. Like receiving an invitation to a party and RSVPing, 'Yes, sure I'll come!' I'm heading down the road and I hope that you'll come along for a stretch.

To join the conversation, find me on Facebook to join my 'Living Whole' Facebook group, or post a comment below. In the coming weeks we will be exchanging thoughts about how our physical selves affect and are affected by the rest of who we are. Hope to see you there!