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.