Sunday, 11 August 2019

Negative Space

Dear friends of South Africa

Eight years after leaving your shores, I wonder if I owe you an apology. I’m not sure I ever thanked you enough for the way you welcomed us into your space, for the way you made room for us. The thing is, I knew enough to recognise the sweetness of great friendships, the affirmation of open invitations into people’s hearts and homes, but at that point in my life I didn’t realise how rare are those gifts.

I do remember riding my moped over Boyes Drive one bright morning, looking out onto the seascape to my right and, just as aware of the fynbos covered hillside to my left, telling myself to savour this moment. Deep inside I knew that this wonderful synergy of knowing and being known, of beauty and grit, of colour and contrasts, wouldn’t last forever. And it didn’t - it was ours for a few short years, a gift that I couldn’t completely fantom until it came to an end.

So, thank you for sharing your friendship so easily. Thanks for being inclusive, for always being willing to add another steak to the braai, to pour another glass of wine, to pull up another chair to the table. I’m grateful that even when we were the ‘extras’ we were made to feel like we belonged. I have particular memories in my mind, of standing around the fire with people we’d just met, or being invited to share a neighbour’s pool, or weekend home. This generosity of spirit is rare and beautiful, and it changed us.

It changed our expectations and, right now, I’m not sure if that was a good thing. But I’m holding onto the hope that it will be good, some time soon.

Thank you that you never allowed our foreignness to be a reason to exclude us. You never asked us how long we were staying, in order to gauge whether it was worth your while to seek our friendship. You willingly translated for us the subtle complexities of life in your brave and beautiful nation - as far you understood them yourselves - and never made us feel disqualified from participating in the unspoken rules of engagement.

And thank you for reciprocating the friendship we sought to offer you. I realise now that this is the secret ingredient of all successful relationships, that both parties must share a desire to engage and be willing to put effort into the connection. Thank you for the text messages on weekend mornings, letting us know in a low-key way that if we wanted to join you for a hike, or a picnic, or a coffee, then we could. Thanks for the amazing camping trips, and the evening visits to theatre or music events. Thanks for making us feel that you wanted to be with us; that’s pretty damned precious. 

Your friendship was a great affirmation of who we were, made us feel that we were more than we were, somehow. We spent a decade with you and now, incredibly, it is almost a decade later. I can honestly say that, elsewhere, we have yet to find anything like the generous, spacious gifts of connection you so willingly shared. Do I feel diminished? Yes. Does the echo of your faith in me still sound in my soul? For sure. 

If the past eight years feel like a liminal space to me, then it is a transition to something deeper, and if not more full then certainly more filled with longing. Thank you for being part of the formation of desire in me - desire for connection, for soul hospitality, for belonging. If, for a time, I have inhabited the negative space spoken of in art and photography - the empty space surrounding an object - then it has worked to bring into sharper focus the gifts of friendship, to define the place of community in our lives, and to mark out the true value of connection.

It’s true that you cause me to know what I miss. You also cause me to know what I want. And for this, I thank you.

Sunday, 10 March 2019


I’m thinking about my friend, she’s walking the Camino over the next few weeks. She’s approaching 60 and has a lifetime of adventure, risk-taking and getting-out-there that makes this opportunity to hike daily through Lent alluring and exciting. All that living out of back-packs, sleeping in strange beds, and meeting new people should be like falling off a log for her.

Then she finally paid attention to some pain she’d been having in her knee, and the scan showed a tear in the meniscus. Ah, sweet reality; this could scupper expectations. Her initial reaction was unsurprising, after these years of activity and soldiering on. This news would not be permitted to impact on the plans she’d laid: she’d said she’d walk the Camino, a certain number of kilometres each day, and walk it she would!

It’s not often that we are like swiftly turning kayaks when it comes to our expectations and plans. More like great ships of the ocean that take time to shift orientation, inch by grudgingly given inch.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about ageing - the way we frame it and the way we engage it. Had my friend been on this hiking adventure decades ago, in her twenties say, she may have suffered a few blisters, the odd aching muscle from hours of shouldering a back-pack, but youthful strength and capacity could be depended on. In this sense, ageing can feel like a diminishment, a reduction of what was previously possible. Physical limitations might mean that she walks fewer kilometres each day than she planned, or even that she is unable to complete the entire route. 

The Camino is about more than checking off the kays, though. It is world famous as being a pilgrimage, an opportunity to traverse challenge and setback, to reorientate one’s inner being in some way, and to journey to sacred places within oneself. 

In this sense, I wonder if the hiker in her twenties is at a bit of a disadvantage. Physical strength causes us to be self-reliant. Yes, the trail is long and yet it feels well within our capacities. Yes, we might bemoan the odd blister and rejoice in the experience of camaraderie and endurance, and yet our learning can only go as deep as the depths we are ready for in this stage of our lives. While all experiences teach us, and all reflection is good, our stage of development limits our ability to engage this inner growth. Quite simply, as in any good game, we have to pass through all the stages; we don’t get to skip them. 

When we embark on these journeys at a more mature age, then, are we not in fact enlarged by the experience of years and therefore able to go deeper into this invitation to reflection? Learning to reflect on our limitations, and our reactions to them, can become a treasure trove of gifts. Limitations - and our struggles to acknowledge and embrace them - invite us to accept the reality that we are not the masters of our own fate. We have dreams that are larger than our capacity to fulfil them. We have ego that resists unwanted identities that we are forced into at moments of limitation. To become ‘the slow one’ when we have always been fast, or ‘the one who gave up’ when we have always pushed through, or ‘the one who cried’ when we have prided ourselves on being upbeat or stoic. 

These moments, unsought-for as they are, can become the very things that crack us open to new ways of being. To become new in some area of my life, I have to first recognise that the old way is not serving me so well anymore. And so often, it is only when I face my own limitations - physical, emotional spiritual, relational - that I am willing to admit to this truth.

There is such grace in having navigated several stages of life’s journey, and learned a few things along the way. As we find ourselves approaching some new difficulty, we might say “Ah, I think I’ve been somewhere like this before.” We know that we will come through whatever it is, and that we will be enlarged in some way.

May you have grace to face your limitations with a reflective heart. May your years be honoured for the ways they have enlarged your soul. May you offer the world around you something deeper and sweeter as you continue to hike along life’s trails.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Spring Shake-Out

I am sitting on my bed with darkness still shrouding the valley beyond the window. Yet I am aware that the air outside is filled with the chirruping and whistling of all kinds of birds as the waken to a new day. I found that I have the option on my phone to choose this sound as my alarm; it’s so much more gentle to wake up to the sound of birds than to some ghastly claxon!

The cheeriness of the birds outside my window tells me that spring is well underway here in southern Spain. I like the way I am becoming familiar with the incremental steps that move us towards warmer weather here. First, of course, is the almond blossom, that joyous herald of new things. The earliest blossoms to bloom, these delicate white flowers are hard to miss once they get going and now they cover the countryside in a way that yells springtime! 

Then we begin to see a slice of sunshine across the far side of our balcony. All through the winter, the balcony remains in shadow, the angle of the sun never permitting it to create even a small puddle of warmth and light. We miss the way the sunshine can light up this space, with its perfect view across the valley, its comfy chair and basket of books. And then, after many months, we spot it: the sun is back! It has become strong enough to make its mark again on our personal balcony sundial, which tells us that spring has arrived.

There are others things I am aware of in this season. We leave the windows open more often. We had the last fire in the grate without noticing we wouldn’t need it again for many months. I’m close to exchanging my now too-warm slippers for the flip-flops I’ll live in throughout warmer seasons. We’re filled with the urge to clean the patio, to clear the garden of weeds, to make space for ourselves outside. All across our residential area, families are painting and pruning, renovating and renewing in this warm window of time between too cold and too hot.

It’s hard to miss this feeling of new life. It’s like there’s this great sky-written invitation to shake out the shadows of the winter months and dance with fresh air freedom. Does my spirit feel it too? The old way of things is giving way to new life, do I feel it? There’s a shaking out, a breathing deep, a desire for action, to straighten things out so that we can inhabit this new life with all the joy of those singing birds.

May the blossoms bud on your branches. May the light of the sun slice through the shadowy places in your life. May a new song find its way to your lips and may a fresh wind enliven your heart. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Words matter

For the second time in a month, last Sunday I stood in church with my two daughters while we sang about being sons of God. It could be that this happens more often in Spanish, a language that doesn’t easily permit us to fudge it when it comes to gender. Still, it got me thinking.

Now, I know we all make excuses for the masculine-oriented way our language for the spiritual life has come about. We talk about what was culturally appropriate in the days scripture was written, so that actually it is so much better that I’ve been made a son than if I were a daughter because that is more honouring. You’ve heard that one? Or we talk about translation and the limitations of language, and the fact that we just have to pick a gender and stick with it, so there’s nothing wrong with using the male pronoun, or talking about ‘mankind.’ It’s not personal, it’s just practical.

And yet, here I am, standing with my two daughters and asking them to get excited about the fact that they are sons. Do you see my deep concern here?

I want them to know that God is for them, that he is inviting them ever more deeply into this wonderful life of relational connection, where they will learn how to be fully themselves in the context of trinitarian love; where within their community they will learn what it is to make their unique contribution to the world, as they learn to walk with and be empowered by the Spirit of God. Am I, then, to present this wonderful life in God as being predominantly masculine in nature, oriented towards those who are male, who are sons? Is this the invitation God himself offers them?

Hear me when I say this: I will never, for all eternity, be a son of God. I will always and forever be a daughter of God, forever female. I will love and glorify him in myriad ways and my femaleness is not incidental to that; I will take my place as a co-heir with Jesus, ruling and reigning with him as part of his Church. And I will be female. 

And Father, Son and Spirit are heartily pleased with this. It is good. Not only that but it is the only possible thing that could be good.

I grew up in church. I’m not here to write about male leadership or male eldership, or how the Church functions in all her geographical or denominational guises. We are stumbling towards the light, and we still have some very dark corners. But I do think that along with functions in the Church, we would do well to seriously consider the way we put language to our faith. It’s not because I want all this to ‘sound fair’ or to ‘be inclusive.’ It is because we are failing to communicate anything close to a true picture of the gospel of Jesus when we tell half the population that they are sons of God.

Mothers, daughters, wives, women, friends: this good news of the kingdom is for you. It is about you being caught up into the fullness of God, who is reflected in both male and female and is so much more than either one alone. There is nothing less brilliant about your light because it is female in nature. This is not something we need to fight for, or protest about, or go overboard in seeking to redress the imbalance. It simply is truth: the heart of God conceived female as part of the expression of the divine. And within that love and wholeness, you will be living out of your strong and beautiful femaleness forever. 

Now, who can write a song about that?

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Relationship Advice over WhatsApp

Marriage gets a bad rap these days. Most people don't expect monogamous relationships to last a couple of decades, let alone a lifetime. Call me old-fashioned, but I am still convinced that marriage can be the place of our greatest growth and joy, if we can get over the way it confronts us with the things about ourselves we'd rather avoid ... and often try to avoid by focusing on what our partner needs to change!

Last night a lovely friend texted me over WhatsApp. She's been dating the guy who seems like he might become her husband, and she asked for my thoughts on building long-term, healthy relationships. At first I baulked at the idea of communicating anything useful in short text messages, but somehow I came up with 10 coherent thoughts. These are far from comprehensive - after all, that's why there are endless books on the market offering relationship advice and making their authors the big bucks - I completely glossed over communication and listening skills, personality differences, family-of-origin stuff and forgiveness, for example. But hey, for what it's worth, read on for my 10 off-the-top-of-my-head tips after 25 years of learning on the job (which, as with parenting, is all any of us can do when it comes to marriage).

1. Learn to share your spiritual journey together by asking good open questions about what you are each processing with God.
2. Learn to discern your decisions together with God.
3. Articulate your shared values and allow them to shape your priorities.
4. Have fun together! Having shared activities that remind you why you love spending time together is invaluable.
5. Encourage one another to have your own friends and your own pastimes. Separate time allows you to enjoy the elasticity of the bond, giving one another space and enjoying the return to closeness.
6. Celebrate whenever you can: milestones, achievements, anniversaries, small steps forward.
7. Remember that even from the early days together you are establishing what will become the foundation stones of your relationship. Be intentional.
8. Be one another’s greatest champions: learn to get a real kick out of the other one doing well.
9. Recognise that you are both on a journey of personal formation and that Holy Spirit will likely use elements of your relationship to get your attention and to invite you to change. Learn to see those ‘rubbing points’ as a sign that something right is happening, not something wrong. Support one another in the process of change, which is the most important thing happening at any one time.
10. Be intentional about developing a rhythm of work, rest and play that syncs with one another. Schedule downtime, holidays, and busy seasons together as far as possible. Learn to put boundaries around connectivity so that you’re not always available to everyone else and therefore less available to one another.

Ok so I came up with those off the bat. What did I miss that you would consider crucial?