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.”