Saturday, 31 October 2020

Saturday 31 October

 I am one of those types perceived, at this time of the year, as a kill-joy by followers of popular culture. Since I have written elsewhere about my antipathy to the American-style celebration of Halloween, there’s no need to repeat that here. Much as it bears repeating, it seems.

I should clarify, though, that while I see popular interpretations of Allhallowtide as emanating from a disturbing cultural tendency to minimise evil, I appreciate the value of the traditional Christian festival - which combines Allhallowtide, All Saints and the Feast of Souls - to honour the dead. And this year, it has me thinking about our ancestors, the ones who have gone before us.

I don’t know much about my ancestors, honestly. My parents have never really talked much about the history of their families. On the Irish side, that may simply be that inbred disquiet about opening the door to the ‘skeletons in the cupboard,’ and on the English side, who knows. For whatever reason, I have very little family history on which to build a picture of the past.

The little I do know of the past couple of generations reveals a rich landscape of creatives. As I bring to mind siblings, cousins, parents, uncles and aunts, I can count musicians, poets, nuns, those who do beautiful work in wood and clay, photographers, actors, painters, writers … mystics and makers of all kinds. If, as Dostoevsky said, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ then I feel I am encircled by quite the gang of unassuming world-changers.

So while my known family history feels a little ‘thin' to me, I think of this small crowd as the ones who have gone ahead of me, the ones who point the way. They are part of what the writer of the book of Hebrews calls the ‘cloud of witnesses’ - the pioneers who blaze a trail, the veterans who cheer me on.

In Hebrews we read that the effect of these great witnesses, who encircle us like clouds, is to cause us to throw off the things that entangle us, that weigh us down. Seeing their lives helps us to run our own race with perseverance. Knowing the story of those who are ahead of us enables us to resist weariness, it helps us not to lose heart when things are tough on our part of the path.

And things are a bit tough right now, aren’t they? And don’t we need the encouragement of those who’ve been in a tough spot before, and somehow weathered the storm? If they have done so with a certain amount of grace - if they have allowed the pressing effect of war, or heartbreak, or ill-health to express itself in song, and sculpture, and symphony - then don't we find ourselves encouraged to dig deep, to draw up treasures from the well of despair?

All this ancestor appreciation brings me to the other side of the coin, as it were. It brings me to the question posed by Robert Macfarlane in his book, Underland. ‘What kind of ancestors will we be?’ he asks. In this season of seismic shift - shifts of culture, of economies, of worldview, and of the natural world - this seems to be one of the most fitting questions to be asking.

When my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren discuss among themselves the people that we were, what will stand out to them, I wonder? Which elements of the way I live my life will seem to them worth holding onto? Is there anything about my choices that will encourage them to resist unhealthy entanglements? Anything that will motivate them to throw off the things that weigh them down? Will stories from my life offer them fuel, as they run their own race with perseverance? Will I have blazed trails that they can follow, or passed on any lessons that cause them to take heart on their own journeys?

Let’s assume there is something from my life that is worth handing down. I realise that is a big assumption. It presupposes that there are values that I live out in my era and my cultural context that are applicable in some way across time and culture. Perhaps there might be something about my choices that, even unwittingly, presages what is to come in some way. And that offers insight, somehow, for those in the future that find themselves slap bang in the middle of a reality of which we have barely an inkling.

Having made all those pretty hefty assumptions, then, how will these ancestral gems be communicated to those that follow? Think about it: how have you learned from those who have gone before? It seems to me that the most compelling tribal treasures are communicated through story and song, through painting and poems. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky was getting at. 

As I imagine myself in the role of ancestor, what tale of beauty or bravery am I weaving with my life? What design of courage do my colours paint? Is it possible that I might create something here that offers hope for a world reconciled to love once more?

If this sounds fanciful or romanticised to you, I have perhaps failed to ground it in the grit of ordinary life, where all true stories unfold. Here in 2020, as we see the unravelling of previously eminent cultures, what words do I use to describe what I see? How do I construct a container for family life that is resilient and purposeful? As the world is shaken by a global pandemic, what habits create an unshakeable foundation for my life? What investments am I making in the life of my family, community or co-workers that will outlast my own energies? And is there anything of enduring beauty that I am making, to be discovered and sifted through when I am gone?

What kind of an ancestor am I? I realise I have scribed here more questions than answers. Questions seem fitting, though, for this perspective on history. True answers will come only from those yet to be, from those who come after us who look back on our lives. When, years from now, they celebrate this October weekend of Allhallowtide, All Saints and the Feast of Souls, what reflections will come to their minds about those of us who have gone before?

Friday, 4 September 2020

Friday 4 September

I've just had a run. The dogs are fed and settling down to recover and to 'guard' the driveway. With Tim and Keziah away and Manu sleeping late, the rest of the house is quiet. As I strip off my running kit and step under the water, I am already relishing the thought of fresh clothes and morning coffee. I let the stream of water run over my neck and shoulders and reach for the shampoo.

I find an empty space. My hand waves around searching in vain for the bottle, and I peer through the jets in disbelief. Seconds later, my mind flashes back to the previous evening and the long shower Manu took to wash her hair. 'Darn those girls,' I mutter to myself, as I step dripping out of the shower and stomp naked along the tiled hallway to the girls' bathroom. Grabbing the poached bottle, I traipse back through my own puddles until I am under the water once more.

[Photo by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash]

As I muttered to myself under the shower that morning, I felt stopped in my tracks. I heard that kind of quiet whisper that reminds us of something more true than our own offence, or lack of generosity. I was rehearsing those stock phrases that go something like, 'motherhood ... nothing of my own ... so presumptuous ... no respect ...' and mentally lining up the words I'd say later to my daughter. Then beneath my own inner monologue, I heard another voice.

Just a few days before, I had come across a question in a book I was reading. 'How do you pray?' the author asked. 'And what does this say about your relationship with God?'

At first I thought it was a bit of a basic question. (You can be sure that whenever we think that we are beyond a question like this, there is something we are missing.) And then my mind went back to childhood, to those times when we would make requests for Christmas presents. Mum and Dad did their best to furnish five kids with the gifts they wanted, but money was tight. So often, the Christmas gift in my mind was very different to the less expensive version that was wrapped and waiting under the tree on Christmas morning. As I reflected on this, I realised that so often I approach God guardedly. I bring my heart's desires but I modify my expectations. 

It's as if I say, 'here's what I really want. But I know that it would be really presumptuous to expect that, so I'll take whatever you can throw my way.' 

Given that my relationship with God is about much more than me making requests and waiting for the wrapped gift to materialise, I hadn't paused to take stock of this dynamic. Yet for sure this element of my prayer life revealed something about how I perceive my relationship with God.

Back to the shower ...

'How beautiful,' I heard the whisper say, 'That your daughter knows that whatever you have is hers. How lovely that she presumes on your generous heart to bless her. If only you approached me that way.'

And you know, it's true. There is nothing in God's heart that hears our desires, dreams, needs or longings and responds, 'So presumptuous ... no respect ... who does she think she is?' No! Rather, there is a gladness of heart to have us draw out of God's abundance, a willingness to provide what is needed, a fulfilment in being our source.

Still ... it's nice to be asked, you know?!

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Saturday 29 August

My darling girl, I want to tell you something that is easy to forget in the ordinariness of tampons and paracetamol, of hot water bottles and concern about whether to wear your white shorts today.

Your body is expressing something of you that is so very much like God. Deep within the cells of your being is the capacity to bring to birth something new, indeed to participate in the growing of a new reality that will, like you, bear the very stamp and reflection of God. And when you - yes, you! - participate in the bringing forth of this new thing, when you give a name to that newness, the God of the universe will welcome that image-bearing creation and call it by the name you gave.

[Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash]

I write as if this were about your physical make-up but be sure to remember, this is true of all that you might bring to birth through your life. We are stepping into the territory of the divine here, my love. Every month, you will be reminded that within you is a place of creation, a place in which new life can be formed. You will remember that new life is not some romantic notion, but comes with struggle and often some suffering. And yet, this creative capacity within you mirrors God herself.

From the womb of the morning, God brings forth each fresh day. Every day offers us the potential for something new, the possibility to generate goodness. We participate in giving that goodness form and name, and we offer it to the world. Sometimes our day opens up a space for a thing to grow large for days, or months, or years to come. Sometimes the newness is simply a sweet gift for the moment.

The day unfurls with the awakening sun and slips away with the moon’s rising. The tide empties itself on the sand and draws back again into the deep. You too are part of this beautiful rhythm of waking and sleeping, beginnings and endings, knowing emptiness and returning to be filled. Your body will remind you that you are part of a great whole, an expansive web of being that breathes with the very breath of God.

[Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash]

Oh, that you might learn to embrace the knowing of your body, whose every cell is imprinted with a sense of time, a way of becoming, a pace and pattern that is designed for goodness. Every system of your being is looped together in great swirls of interconnecting life, reflecting the integration and mutual support of all that has been made.

The world will tempt you to distort or diminish your femaleness. To make it something that can be seen only as a support to or adornment for maleness. This confusion between seeking to be less than yourself, while simultaneously more than they say you are, will become exhausting.

Instead, my love, come to rest in the truth of your own beauty. Embark on this journey of womanhood knowing that your entire being reflects something of God that can only be seen through the female. More than being one who merely receives what is given or implanted, you are one who uniquely participates in, generates and gives form to the future. Understand yourself to be a place of creation and birth, a place of fierce protectiveness and ferocious tenacity. A place of growing, nurturing, and releasing. You are filled with the life of God.

Fall into the embrace of nature’s holding, my darling. Find yourself held by the supportive net that is the rhythm and flow of the created world. Know yourself to be part of its goodness, and part of its journey towards redemption. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Tuesday 25 August

 It's been a month. And when I say that, yes, I do mean a month without writing on here. And I also mean, Sjoe, it's been a month.

Do you ever have that feeling that, in order to be present to your own life, you just have to hunker down? Sometimes it seems to me that life requires a sort of gathering in, a quietness and focus that creates a deeper, stiller place on the inside. I guess this month required that kind of holding.

This month marked our 7 year anniversary of living in Spain, and with that milestone we are sensing ourselves coming to the end of something, and to the beginning of something new. Of course, this month our eldest daughter was preparing to move to the UK to study for 4 years. As we celebrate and send her out, I find myself thinking of all that the last 7 years have meant in her life. 

She arrived here as a fresh-faced pre-teen, about to turn 12. Just as she was starting high school, she took the courageous decision to plunge into language immersion by attending school in Spanish. My brave and beautifully sensitive girl! That decision saw us embark on quite the rocky journey, along which she navigated through three different schooling contexts, and through the complexities of teen friendships.

It wasn't easy for her, and it sure as hell wasn't easy to know how to support her as a parent. It was hard not to feel responsible for moving her here, you know? As we come to this place of closure and new beginnings, I see the grit and grace that's being worked into her life and wonder at the ways the struggle might still offer her its gifts.

Just as this 7 year season is gathered into a place of closure for our daughter, we also sense some sort of completion of the season in our own lives. It's natural, I'm sure, for our inter-connected lives to mirror one another in certain ways. And it also speaks to me of the orderliness of things, that can seem so unpredictable and chaotic at times. There's a rightness, I sense, to all this shifting.

While prepping Keziah to launch out, then, Tim and I have been traversing a rather intense and very intentional time of discernment. It has been a time to ask ourselves, what do we want the next season to look like? I am sure the times in which we are all living have bumped many of us towards such questions! Given that Tim celebrated a milestone birthday at around the same time as local lockdown, it is unsurprising to be reimagining our place here in Spain and the ways our particular gifts and dreams might play out in the next season.

During this time, I have been incredibly grateful for the support of a Spiritual Director who is new to me. Based in South Africa, she is trained (and trains others) in the Ignatian tradition and has offered such an intentional way of moving through this time of transition. I will write more about the process on my website, as I feels sure this signposting of the discernment process would be helpful to many of you.

There's a sweetness and a vulnerability, isn't there, in leaving the security of the shore we know and setting out into something new. We sense the goodness of the invitation to move forward, and yet we are anxious to know that we are heeding the directions correctly, following the signposts accurately. We are conscious of the others who will be impacted by our decisions, and concerned to pay careful attention to the whisper of the Spirit, as well as to our own hearts.

So all that has been going on. And in the meantime, I have been giving time and attention to a writing project that is close to my heart. Any writers out there will be aware that the road towards a final publication is not always straightforward. There have been good and difficult challenges to my own writerly thoughts, which all requires processing. And as you know, life happens in the complex context of our own personal journeys towards wholeness, which can mean there's a lot to hold sometimes, right? 

But hold it we can, if we are just willing to embrace what is real about ourselves, in this moment. Sometimes that demands a month without blogging. So be it - it's all good.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Sunday 26 July

It’s an odd business, writing. Some days I sit down to write and I can’t find words. Other days, they just pour onto the page as easily as coffee streaming out of the espresso-maker spout.

The other day, I sat at my computer feeling a bit bleak and uninspired. Within an hour I had posted a blog entry full of words that felt like me, only at a bit of distance. A friend commented to say, ‘Your writing gets better and better!’ Other times, I work on a piece for ages and what emerges seems to move nobody but me.

Writers talk about ‘finding your voice.’ By this they mean that tone, or particular way of sounding to the reader, that is inimitably you. Writers’ voices can be a bit like masks. We try them on for size or style, judging how long we will keep them by the way others respond. Do they like funny? Or smart? Or informal? Or quirky? But in the end we have to find our true voice, the one that isn’t crafted for the reaction it will get, but for the truth it expresses.

[Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash]

As a child, I moved with my family from the south of England to the north (and later, back again). By that age, I had already developed an accent that identified me as a southerner. To the kids at school, this southern voice meant ‘snob’ and their taunts reminded me that I was different, that I didn’t speak as one of them. I might have tried to adopt their accent but by then it was too late, I was already pegged as an interloper.

Perhaps this stood me in good stead later in life, when I moved away from the UK. When I have learned other languages, my accent gives me away as a non-native speaker. People are not always sure where I am from, they just know that I am not from ‘here.’ And when I am with American friends we are all speaking the same language, more or less, but I am constantly reminded that my voice is not like theirs.

My voice, spoken or written, tells something of who I am and where I have been. It gets different reactions from those listening, depending on their own story. Similarly, I might read an author and find her words offer an affirming space to explore the ever expanding reality of God. Another interprets her word as new age mysticism and goddess worship, a little like saying, ’This accent is off, this voice does not belong.’

While a writer wants her words to find their way to the reader, her job is not to alter her voice to make it more acceptable. Even as I write this, I am aware that our cultural epoch is one in which it is difficult to be true to one’s own voice. In this playground, the wrong voice gets you labelled not as a snob, but as a bigot.

So we writers keep on trying to find our voice and, once found, to keep it. To stay true to an expression of ourselves that conveys something of our unique makeup and message, while also writing in a way that can be received.

In the Bible (still the bestselling book - or anthology of books, poems and letters - of all time)  Jesus is called ‘The Word.’ It’s sort of like saying that when we get lost listening to all the other voices - the voices that tell us what they think scripture says, and how we should therefore understand it - we can go back to Jesus. Jesus is the true ‘writer’s voice’ of God. So when the ‘accent’ of the bible throws us off course, or confuses us as we try to get to know God and God’s ways, we can go back to the life of Jesus.

How did Jesus live? How did he speak? How did he interact? How did he treat people who were different from him? How can we imagine him behaving towards the things that are important to us, in a way that would be absolutely in keeping with the way he lived his life? When we go back to Jesus, we find a consistency of being that reveals to us the being of God.

[Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash]

What this means, then, is that if someone tries to tell you something about God (or about the Christian life, church life, or religious life) that is not consistent with the voice and person of Jesus, it is likely that his or her own ‘voice’ is distorting the true voice of Jesus. This is a tricky process in our lives as followers of Jesus, and learners of The Way. Even when we try our hardest and believe ourselves to be unbiased readers, we all have our own cultural lenses through which we read and interpret the bible and other books about faith. The best we can do is to keep returning to the Word, Jesus himself.

So if you, like me, find yourself longing to hear a clarity of voice in the cacophony of other voices, I recommend these two books.

Trent Sheppard (2017) Jesus Journey: Shattering the Stained Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God

Tom Wright (2011) Simply Jesus: who he was and why it matters.

These authors will point you back to Jesus himself, and help you to tune in to his voice. They’ll remind you to go back to those scriptures that are filled with Jesus’ own questions, stories, comments and prayers. And even though we have to read a translation of what he originally said, something true of God is still communicated when we focus on Jesus’ voice.

Try it. Let me know what you discover.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Tuesday 21 July

I have started a monthly email, offering updates, resources and special opportunities to subscribers. Last month, I included an audio recording of a guided meditation ... did you hear it?

If I am to make this monthly offering worth your while, what would you like it to include? In the area of spiritual formation and growing as a follower of Jesus - in every area of life - what would hit the spot for you right now?

And if you'd like to sign up, you can subscribe right here.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Monday 20 July

How was your weekend? After a week of feeling flat, I loved having friends over for lunch on Sunday. These are moments when the extroverted side of me shows its face and I am reminded that, for all the crazyness of this season, when I see people everything seems brighter.

(It is possible that not all people would qualify for that statement. Anyhow ... moving on!)

There's nothing I love more than good conversation over an extended meal-time. It offers the opportunity for connection and laughter, and can be just what we need to remind us who we are and that we belong. Meal-times can be a place of rehearsing what it means to be the people of God, even as we describe to one another those glimpses of God's good kingdom we've been privileged to recently witness.

But conversations like this don't just happen, it takes some intentionality. Countless meal-times can be taken up in correcting children's behaviour, complaining, or in the back-and-forth pinball of information and running commentary.

Yesterday we simply asked one another what had been the highs and lows of our last couple of weeks. It was good to hear from those who are slower to draw attention to themselves, as well as those who are quick to converse. And it was good to create space for the kids to participate when they were significantly outnumbered by adults.

Maybe you are looking for intentional questions to ask around your meal table? Or perhaps, like me, you long for a way to have deeper conversations with those you see regularly? Here are 10 questions I came up with that I think might help:

1. Describe someone in your childhood who played a positive significant role in your life (a parent, other adult, mentor). What did you learn from them?

2. Tell us about a close friend. What do you enjoy about this friendship and what makes this person important to you?

3. How do you most like to recharge? Describe a perfect weekend away, or short vacation.

4. What is something difficult in your life that you have watched God redeem? How do you experience this now?

5. When you were a child, what did you hope for in your life?  Which of those hopes have been realised, which remain hopes for you, and which have lost their appeal?!

6. Describe an area of your life in which you are experiencing growth or stretching in this season. What makes this easy or difficult?

7. What kind of situations make you feel most uncomfortable? Why is that?

8. Describe 3 significant 'turning points' in your walk with Jesus. What were you learning at those times?

9. What is something you would do if you were not afraid?

10. Describe something in your life that you would love to do over. What would you change and why?

And if you exhaust those questions (good for you!) then I came across this post that also looks full of good questions.

Finally, I would LOVE to hear about significant conversations you have shared around your meal table. What makes those moments precious to you? And what are some ways you like to be intentional in creating meaningful moments with friends and family?

Friday, 17 July 2020

Friday 17 July

[Photo from Dimitar Kazakov on Unsplash]

This week, I have spoken to a couple of people who described a good part of their experience of the last months as ‘feeling flat.’ I guess we can all identify those moments or seasons when we don’t feel much of anything … nothing much to complain about, no depths of despair, but no great highs of joy either. Aside from the emotional flatness, physically we might feel lacking in ‘umph’ or energy, socially we may be a bit withdrawn, and perhaps we also find our thinking or decision-making lacks its usual sharpness. 

That pretty much describes my week. I got home from an intense weekend, my mind had been busy with possibilities and processing future plans, and I just sort of … flopped. 

Of course, when we feel flat we can wonder at all the things that might be wrong. Am I depressed? Am I heading down the wrong track? Is there something wrong in my marriage? With my work? Have I moved away from God? Yet  while any of those things may be true, it could simply be that our bodies, minds and emotions need a break. Perhaps the intensity of our circumstances - which could just as easily be positive intensity as negative - has left us a bit flooded and our system needs to reset.

These are the days when it seems tempting to stay under the covers until noon, to ignore all our phone calls, or to binge-watch junk TV shows. And there’s no rule against these sorts of coping strategies, only they don’t actually make you feel any better. Truth is, we tend to do these things because the flatness makes us a wee bit anxious. Rather than just be with the discomfort of this feeling, we want to avoid it or numb it just a bit. We’re worried about what may come to light if we simply let it be.

So what should we do when we feel this way? 

I don’t know about you, but when I feel flat I need the safe container of my usual rhythms. Maybe just a touch ‘lighter.’ So, I need to move my body and I might choose to walk the dogs rather than go for a run. I need to read and reflect, and I may choose a devotional that’s a bit less demanding, or perhaps engage in a more structured journalling exercise that I don’t have to think too hard about. And it might sound silly, but when I feel like this it helps me to avoid video in my online conversations and stick to audio. I guess there’s a need for everything to be lighter than normal.

This reminds me of one of the workout programs I have done, in which the trainer coaches her crew to ‘lighten up but don’t quit.’ It’s okay to switch out our weights, to choose something that feels manageable for right now, without needing to come to the complete standstill of hiding under the duvet and eating ice cream for three days straight. It’s so much harder to get going again if we stop dead in our tracks. But it’s quite right to ‘live light’ for a little while.

These are some of the practices that help me in these moments:

  • To get outside, to be in nature. Beauty is restorative.
  • To pull away from social media and remember what is most real in my life. 
  • To focus on one or two simple and light practices that I can do TODAY and then again tomorrow. 
  • To breathe or meditate, to ground myself in this moment. 
  • To practice gratitude. 
  • To be around people who know how to show soul hospitality - allowing me to be me without trying to fix, counsel, or judge. 

What is your ‘safe container?’ What are the rhythms of your life that nurture you, that you can fall back on when you feel flat? How can you make those rhythms light and manageable when needed?

Monday, 6 July 2020

Monday 6 July

The only thing I know for sure is that I don't know much for sure. You feel me?

I come to this flaccid conclusion by virtue of having lived a few years. And the longer I live, the more I realise that I might be right about a few things. But then again, I might be wrong about a whole lot.

Never fear, dear reader. I am not having a crisis of faith. Not that there is anything wrong with doubt and questions ... they can be the very thing that is needed to move you into a deeper and richer place. But no, I have weathered a few storms and am very, very grateful to find myself on solid ground. That is, God is good and Jesus is the rock (if this throws you into a tizzy, feel free to chat).

As for the other stuff, so much of it is point of view.

[Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash]

I was helping to facilitate a team debrief today. And there's nothing like having a group of people in the room together, all talking about an experience they have in common, to realise that no two people see things in exactly the same way. You can talk about it until you are blue in the face, and still one person sees purple and the other sees green. Do you want to fall out about the precise hue of this colour or that one? Or do you want to open your eyes and try your best to take in the purplish strain of that greenish turquoise that they see so clearly?

Don't even get me started on culture. It turns out that the correct ways of doing things that - consciously or subconsciously - I was brought up to observe, are not universal. While it is second nature to me to keep the noise down so that I don't disturb my neighbours, that is simply not a value here in Spain. Sharing the music is sharing the joy! And when I arrive or leave a party without greeting each and every person, for some people that would be downright rude while for me I am simply not wanting to make a fuss, grab the limelight, or disturb the hubbub of the group.

When it comes to character, I have to face the rather terrifying reality that I am as likely as the next person to have blind spots. That's the thing ... we are blind to our own spots! Isn't it astonishing how easy we find it to see those faults in other people to which they are oblivious? And you can bet your Aunt Nelly's inherited collection of silver teapots that they can see your blind spots just as easily. I know ... it sucks. What this means is not only can I not be certain of what I think I know, but I can be absolutely sure that I don't know what I don't know (yet). Did you get that?

Where does this leave us then? In a no-man's land of uncertainty and relative truth? Well, possibly, but that is not my intention. I think it leaves us adopting the posture of a learner. Not just as a child, not just as a young adult, not just when we are new to a culture or to a role, but forever. How would it be for us to engage in situations, conversations and relationships with a deep conviction that we have something to learn?

  • There is something this person sees that I have never seen.
  • There is something this culture values that I haven't learned to appreciate.
  • There is something in this situation that I haven't thought of yet.
  • There is a way of doing things here that is new to me.
  • There is something to see in me that is uncomfortable and yet so important for me to see.
  • There is an adventure to be had here that I hadn't known to anticipate.
  • There could be a better way to do this that I haven't learned until now.
The world seems to be in a strange space right now. We are in great need of a sure and steady rock on which to stand, and at the same time we are suffocating for the lack of breathing space in public discourse. Honestly, it makes me want to withdraw from the conversation when the dialogue is so strident, so dogmatic; when everyone is so convinced of their own goddamned rightness. 

How would it be for us to try, just for a while, to be learners? How awful would it be, really, to admit that maybe we don't know all that there is to know? And maybe, just maybe, we might be wrong about a few things? Or if not wrong, then could there also be another way of looking at things? What do we risk by stepping away from our old certainties in order to take in what lies just beyond our view? Could there be a larger vision, or a broader horizon that awaits us? 

Could it be that the world does not need more leaders who can persuade others of their own, strongly held point of view? Maybe the world needs more leaders who are willing to learn and to listen, who can ask a good question and then be quiet. Maybe we need fewer experts and more disciples? 

I wonder.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Wednesday 1 July

I love this quote, and I don't think it applies only to spiritual directors. I love the idea that we can go through life - into any circumstances, or with any people - with our antenna up, actively seeking out signs of God with us.

I love the curiosity this implies, the sense of not having an answer that's all tied up, but of being on an adventure of discovery. How would this approach alter the way we engage in conversations and relationships, I wonder? Is it possible that it might lighten the burdens of responsibility we carry, to have 'the answer' or to 'do things right?'

Today, we hosted the family that used to live in the house we rent. They are leaving Spain and are in a process of saying farewell to the significant people and places of the last 9 years. In amongst the coffee mugs and the muffin crumbs, it felt sweet to listen out for the whisper of God at work in their lives and the lives of their kids.

Today, we also celebrated the birthday of a friend, a wind-swept bunch of us seeking shade on a sun-baked beach. I find myself wanting to be around these people, to have more time to dig for the divine treasures to be found in relationships and in the unfolding process of sharing life.

Today, there were moments of kids being overwhelmed, moments of peaceful walking with the dogs, moments of connection with the wider family and workaday moments of emails, training questions and planning. How would it be for me to engage each of these scenarios with a desire to discover the ways God is making his presence felt in it all?

 You know the really great thing about this posture of a detective? It's that we are bound to discover something good - most likely, something much more good than we had hoped or imagined. So, here's to listening close ... here's to be detectives of divinity. Who's with me?!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Sunday 28 June

I was chatting with someone the other day, when she described herself as not being skinny. ‘I’ll never be skinny,’ she said. And then she added, ‘I know that’s what you’re all about, being skinny.’ It took me by surprise, not because she said it with any critical undertones, she didn’t. But because of that word: skinny.

[Photo by Ivan Dodig on Unsplash]

It’s actually true that this is part of my story. At one point in my life, I was ALL about being skinny. I would run my hands over my body, searching for any telltale padding that would be evidence I was failing. I distinctly remember taking a photo of myself in a swimsuit, and then marking with a black marker on the printed image the curves of my thighs that needed to be eradicated. I stoked my self-loathing with determination to eat less and exercise more, seeking to bury under this furnace the true pain of my soul.

You see, the integration of my being had been dismantled early on in life. While I don’t know enough to say categorically that this happens to all of us, it does seem pretty much true across the board. Whether it’s being told that big boys don’t cry, or being touched inappropriately, or being forced to do things our bodies intuitively told us to be scared of, we come to think of our bodies as separate from and mere containers for the rest of who we are. Speaking for myself, from a young age I had learned to think of my body as something that would betray me, that made me vulnerable. It was a battle I tried to win both by making myself very small, and by fuelling the type of anger that creates a force field of self protection.

This is a road that leads inexorably to disintegration. Out of touch with pain, it becomes impossible to feel joy. Unable to feel at one with oneself, it hard to foster intimacy with anyone else.

My journey of formation - this lifelong process of becoming in which each of us is engaged - has been one of moving towards integration; of learning what it means that every dimension of my humanity is intricately connected with every other part. My spiritual state, I have come to realise, is not separate from my physical self. My body is not simply a container for my emotions, my intellect and my personality.

This was not something I learned in church, growing up. Our family was always active in our local evangelical fellowship, which meant going to church for prayer meetings and youth group during the week, and often going twice on a Sunday. We learned some great truths about what God is like and how we are to live as his people. And we also learned some wonky things that were not so helpful, either by what was said, or by what was left unsaid. In all the years I was surviving the school day on an apple and a carton of no-fat yogurt, all the years I was making myself sick when I felt I had eaten too much, all the years I was trying to figure out the confusing tension between being attractive to and vulnerable at the hands of men, never once did I hear a sermon that mentioned the body. Not once.

There’s no judgement here, I don’t think this is unusual. Our ways of thinking have been so impacted by Platonic thinking, and the philosophical thought that followed. In a nutshell, Plato (whose objective was to describe a systematic understanding of the soul) argued that the highest part of the human being was reason, followed by two further dimensions of spirit and base appetite. It was reason, Plato believed, that gave us a likeness to the divine. Neoplatonism took Plato’s thinking even further and argued that since non-physical God was all good and the source of light, then matter was darkness and the source  of all evil. According to this way of thinking, a person’s goal should be to deny the material part of herself since it must be what separates humanity from God.

It’s a long and convoluted story, but essentially Christian thought grew in the petri dish of a culture that separated the physical part of the human from the non-physical part, calling the physical part bad and the non-physical part good. We are still in the process of working out this massive heresy. The healing will take some time.

[Photo by Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz on Unsplash]

In my own process of learning and growing, I have become convinced that every dimension of our beings is inextricably interwoven with every other part. This means that what I believe - my tacit as well as my intellectual beliefs - is worked out in how I think about myself, about God, and about the world around me. It also means that the way I live in my body is far from being incidental to or divorced from my faith. In fact, if I am being saved from a way of being in the world that leads away from life and goodness, and into one that leads towards comprehensive flourishing, then that should have implications for how I live in my body - how I eat, how I move, how I am in the world as a physical, flesh and blood person.

I have to confess that I still have moments when I long for skinniness more than I long for health. I still have judgemental thoughts against my body and am tempted to see it as an object to be whipped into shape, rather than as a true expression of who I am. Nevertheless, I am on a journey of learning how to pause, to listen, and to wonder … to listen to what my body is telling me about how I am really doing, and to wonder how I can live more deeply into the invitation to work out my salvation in my flesh and bone.

How about you? What message does your body speak about what is most true of you? In what way does the way you live in your body give expression to the non-physical parts of you? How are your professions of faith and your embodied humanity at odds or in sync with one another?

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Thursday 25 June

It's more than 100 days since we went into a State of Alarm here in Spain. And for the last 3 months, there has been a stillness over the valley that's spread like a carpet below our home. When I’ve been waking in the morning and looking out from my balcony in the clear air, I have been aware of birdsong and peace. When I have walked the dogs in the woodland near our home, it has been still and quiet. The days may have been busy, with various online connections and work-related assignments, but the stillness has felt like a big inhale and exhale, a deep breath at the start and end of each day.

Over the last couple of weeks, Spain has been returning to its usual rhythmic hum. This week, international borders have opened and, although I haven’t been too aware of it yet, soon the valley will fill with the sound of planes landing and taking off at the airport. The roads, for a while so quiet with just the occasional vehicle passing, are back to the normal buzz as people race in and out of Malaga and along the coastal highway.

Now, when I walk the dogs as I did this morning, we hear the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of vehicles passing, one after the other along the road that marks the bottom boundary of the hill we skirt around. The sound disturbs my thoughts and makes it difficult for the dogs to hear me when I call.

Distractions reassert themselves, are you finding that too? It’s all good, this return to work and the ability to move around more freely. Yet it is undeniably true that I miss the quiet, the opportunity to breathe.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview with John Eldredge (by the way, if you haven’t yet tried his ‘One Minute Pause’ app do check it out, it’s great). In the interview he said that we live in a sort of madness. Our western culture, he said, imposes on us a way of life that is crippling in its pace, its level of distraction, and its demands. Our bodies and minds, let alone our emotions and our spirits, were not designed to do well when pushed and pulled in these kinds of ways.

What does this mean for us? Was our 3 months in home confinement time enough to reset? Did it give us sufficient opportunity to consider the way we want to live, and to make choices about how we might put that into practice? Have we been able to adopt any new rhythms or practices that we can confidently take with us into this great ‘return’ to whatever normal is for us now?

It takes time to build a life, to be intentional about how to construct our days. It takes time to bump out of the rut of old patterns and to establish new ways of being in the world. Perhaps, like me, you realise that the new things you have been trying - maybe a little more time reflecting, or a daily walk - still feel a little fragile in the face of the daily grind. It could be that these new habits need a bit more time and effort before they become solid, and that right now you find yourself easily knocked back into the rut of distracted living.

How would it be for us to resist the relentless draw to be busy, the pressure to fill our free time with the stuffing of entertainment, connectivity and consumerism? Is there any residual goodness from home confinement that you want to keep hold of? Perhaps it is not so important to reply to an email as soon as it pings for our attention? Could we leave our phones on charge elsewhere in the house and thus create a margin of peace around waking and bedtime, to allow us to be with ourselves before we have to be with the world? What practice of reflection, or meditation, or creativity might we incorporate into our daily lives as an act of rebellion against the media invasions that foster a sort of madness in our minds?

The environment may be still no longer, but I want to fight for my own inner stillness. How about you?


Monday, 22 June 2020

Monday 22 June

I find myself facing a bit of a dilemma.

[Photo by Josiah Gardner on Unsplash]

Do I write about the weekend of outdoor fun we had? Only there are some people who are sensitive to us having a little too much fun (true story) and we ourselves are cautious about giving the wrong impression of our hard-working lives to those who pay our salaries. And then I'd have to argue for fun and adventure being a reasonable part of any believer's life, not just missionaries, since our lives are, after all, intended as a message that declares Good News.

Humm, that one's a little problematic.

Maybe, then, I should write about Father's Day? That ought to be a safe bet and gives me yet another opportunity to brag on my very braggable husband. A bit awkward though, since I might find myself in memoir mode, writing about fathers of previous generations. As any writer of memoir will tell you, expect trouble if you start telling your side of a family's complex and many-layered tale. Especially if they're all still alive ... and can read.

Gosh, not such a good idea, that one.

Right, well then, I could write about my day. And the meeting I was part of in which three fifths of the participants spoke for 90% of the time. And yes, they did all happen to have penises while the other two fifths did not. But oh, people start to get really quite uncomfortable when one raises such anecdotal observations about these topics that are so open to personal interpretation. I'm sure they meant no harm, and perhaps I was hormonal today?

Communication really can be ever so tricky, can't it? So, perhaps I shall just leave it there.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Saturday 20 June

In the prayer poem known as Psalm 31, we read this:

Be strong, and let your heart take courage
All you who wait for the Lord. 

During this pandemic, I think we have all felt what it is to wait for something. The kind of waiting that offers no indication of how long it will last. The kind of waiting against which it is useless to fight, the kind we are powerless to control. Perhaps we have felt what it is to wait in a place of enforced inactivity, when we feel the pressing from every side and yet can do nothing to manoeuvre ourselves further along. 

Some of us have experienced waiting in a place of fear, anxiety or dread. Others of us have waited with impatience, railing against the circumstances. Some of us have felt resignation, the step-sister of surrender that leaves us weary or defeated rather than filled with hopeful resolve. Still others have refused to acknowledge the discomfort of waiting, preferring instead to drown out the feelings that irritate and trigger our places of brokenness, with entertainment, an unending series of online connections, and Amazon purchases.

However you have responded to the waiting, I feel you. Waiting with no definite end-date has to be one of the most destabilising experiences we know. We wait for a health diagnosis, hoping mutely for a positive outcome. We wait to get a new job, cycling countless times through hopeful determination and disappointment. We wait for our estranged daughter to pick up the phone. We wait for a financial breakthrough. We wait to get unstuck in a relationship or in circumstances that are not of our choosing. We wait to meet our soul mate, or for the person we admire to return our affections.

[Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash]

Waiting is so often unchosen. Think of Abram and Sara waiting for a child. Or Joseph waiting to see if his dreams would be fulfilled. Consider the Israelites waiting for their release from Egypt. And think of Anna and Simeon waiting expectantly at the Temple for a sign of the Messiah.

We wait. Indeed, as believers our individual stories unfold in the context of a Great Waiting: for the purposes of God to reach their fulfilment, for his sons and daughters to be revealed, and for everything to be caught up in Christ's reconciliation of all things to the Father. We wait with all the same emotions we experience in smaller ways over lesser waitings - sometimes with anxiety, with impatience, with resignation, often with weariness and every so often with clarity of vision and hopeful resolve.

And as we wait, we are changed. All waiting has the potential to achieve a wonderful, redemptive change in us. We are deepened through waiting. We come to see that we are not the captains of our own ships, rather that God is ever moving towards us with a heart of committed compassion and goodness. Waiting brings to the surface all the doubts and questions lurking in our minds and hearts. And waiting refuses, on the whole, to offer answers to these questions. Rather waiting, if we are willing to move more deeply into it, can become a place in which we come up against the bedrock of our deepest knowing and, in the end, find ourselves held fast. Eventually, we become like a weaned child with its mother (Psalm 131), finally ceasing our restless striving and coming to a place of rest.

What is the nature of your own, very personal waiting? In what ways is God at work in you, during the bewildering place of waiting? What is becoming more real to you, as you wait? Who or what offers you life and light in the darkest moments of unremitting waiting? 

All you who wait for the Lord, let your heart take courage. 
When in your waiting you feel ashamed and alone, take courage.
When others fail to understand you, take courage.
When your slowness through this passage of suffering seems to surprise people,
When you feel you have to justify yourself, take courage.
When people avoid you, avoid the places of deep loss and grieving in you, take courage.
When you wonder if you will stay here forever, take courage.
When you wonder if you've done something wrong, in order to find yourself here, 
yet you've replayed every decision and can see only that you did the best you knew how, take courage.
When you feel like a fool for having believed that life would be different from this, take courage.
When you're tempted to simply resign yourself to this disappointing or dreadful reality, take courage.
When all sense of hopeful vision has deserted you, take courage.
When the waiting sees to go on forever, take courage.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Thursday 18 June

A few days ago, I mentioned some of the transition processes going on in our house currently. Today, I am thinking about significant transitions that are taking place around us, in the networks of relationship that are closest to where we live.

[Photo by Timo Stern on Unsplash]

Within the space of a month, three sets of people that have been part of 'the expat scene' here will be returning to the States. (Yes, somewhat surprisingly, of the non-Spanish people that we've met since moving here a large proportion are American.) Two families and a single woman will be leaving the country, each having lived here for several years. There are at least three other households that come to mind where the conversation is about the possibility of moving on (they do say that transition begins the moment you start thinking about it). And even if we haven't interacted a lot socially, I'm sure the shift of dynamic will be felt as friendships flex and make room for a different matrix of connections.

I reflect on this simply by way of noticing the very transitory nature of non-native communities like ours. For the past 22 years, we have worked with an organisation that is characterised much more by mobility than by stability. Of course, there are benefits to mobility. The aim of the game is to invest in the people of a particular place, to complete whatever ministry purpose you have for being there, and then to move. For some people, mobility is even more of an emphasis, as their role is to travel to run seminars or workshops, regularly serving in places where they are not living.

This can be a very flexible, responsive way of working. It creates the opportunity to respond to immediate needs in different parts of the world. While this breeds people who are very adaptable to different cultures and contexts, it means that our longest standing relationships are with other mobile people whom we've met on teams and projects around the world. It doesn't make for a sense of being known in the place where we actually live, and it's a completely different calling than the vocation of stability, of rootedness, of belonging and community-building.

I feel I must make a disclaimer here. We lived for almost 10 years in South Africa and we travelled a lot while we there. Nevertheless, we felt very rooted and the relationships we made during those years are still some of our most treasured and current. We have lived for 7 years in Spain, travelled far less, and we still feel like a piece of tumbleweed being blown across the landscape. All that to say, it is not necessarily the length of time in a place that breeds a sense of stability.

How do we navigate a call to mobility in such a way that we cultivate places of stability in our lives?

I'll offer 5 thoughts to get us started:

  1. Make friends with people who are rooted in the place where you live, who have history there. Their sense of stability will infect you with a feeling of relational longevity and connection to the geography. While this has been difficult for us to achieve in this season, I still hold to this value and hope.
  2. Create intentional rhythms with a stable group, whether that is a regular weekend pizza night, or Sabbath meals to close off the working week. Consider other seasonal celebrations and develop a groove with a few friends. These patterns of connection nurture stability in us.
  3. Be intentional about moments of arrival and departure, so that welcomes and farewells become meaningful moments and not just another airport run. It's easy for us to become so desensitised to all the comings and goings - ours and others - that we don't give ourselves time to adjust. We can establish some simple 're-attach' or 'release' routines to help ground us in this place.
  4. Plant things. I know that sounds kind of simplistic but, truly, watching a garden grow year on year gives a sense of stability like nothing else. We planted a cherry tree that is now beginning to thicken out and look mature, and it causes us to feel invested in this place and its ongoing flourishing.
  5. Identify those favourite places that bring you a sense of wellbeing and to which you return time after time. Whether a beauty spot you discovered on a hike, or a coffee shop that has a vibe you love, these can become sacred spaces for us. They connect us to this place and give us a sense of stability and belonging.

What's your story? Do feel more drawn to being mobile or to being stable? Where do your experiences of one or the other feel ill-fitting? For what is your heart longing, as you consider your next season?

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Wednesday 17 June

It's taken a while, but after almost a lifetime of supporting our daughter through her experience of compulsory education, it has finally sunk in that it's over. And more amazing, she is choosing to return to education but this time on her own terms.

By way of explanation, I have to go back to the beginning. When Keziah was less than a year old, my husband and I launched a new ministry, together with another friend. It meant a fair amount of travel throughout the African continent, and often Keziah came with us. Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia … these were all places she visited with us before she was old enough to go to school.

In Uganda in 2009

When we were not travelling, we initially used our house for office space. Keziah would sit at the desk alongside us, content to be wherever we were. And then we took an office away from home, and our small team began to grow. Tim and I had to figure out how to put our value for co-parenting into action, and began a tag-teaming partnership that would become pretty slick over the years. When people asked us how Keziah - and later Manu - coped with parents who both worked and travelled for ministry, we would point out that our kids actually had way more parental contact than the kid whose dad commutes to the city, works long hours and travels for business. Our flexible situation has meant that there’s always one of us available for school events, homework help, evening meals, sick days and holidays. I’m grateful for that.

Anyway, when Keziah was about 3 we thought it would be a good idea to have two mornings each week when we could both work, undistracted, at the office. We found a small, family-feeling creche where we thought she’d be happy. She wasn’t. After a couple of weeks, the staff let us know that it would be better if we waited a while, she didn’t seem ready to be separated from us. And although we waited, I’m not sure she was ever ready. As it turns out, this bright, creative child simply never found her groove when it came to attending school.

Keziah and her friend, with their head-teacher

I have many memories of leaving her crying at school. Teachers told me it was better to leave quickly, that she would recover more easily if our goodbyes weren’t long and drawn out, but rather snappy, even perfunctory. I would get to the car and either cry myself, or put music on so loudly it would drown out my feeling of letting her down. What can you do, as a parent, when your kid hates school? I never wanted to home-school, although we did end up trying it for a year out of desperation. Let’s just say, it wasn’t really the nirvana we all wanted it to be.

It’s true that Keziah had her fair share of challenges when it came to schooling. There was the time she went into Spanish school for a year, to learn the language. Which was her choice and really great for about 6 weeks, until she started feeling pressured to be more capable in Spanish than she actually felt. Then there was the time she refused to date a guy who had, up until that point, been a good friend to her. Suddenly, a few kids labelled her because, at the age of fourteen, she wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship. Some kids can shrug their shoulders and find a way to cope, and some just can’t. Somewhere along the line, while I vacillated between coaching, cajoling and being mad, either with her or with the system, I think Keziah decided she hated school. She saw it as an unjust system imposed on her against her will, and from then on it was pretty hard to stay the course.

Over the last couple of years, it seems school-related stress became worse, if that were possible. Tears, rants, running away, and worse: we had it all. I did my best to reach out for some support locally, but we were pretty much navigating it on our own. We had a few friends living in different parts of the world, not all of whom even knew one another, who became our lifeline for prayer. We could at least let a few people know when we had really awful days, and it meant a lot to hear some sane words of support spoken when feelings of despair were running high.

Even though at times I have doubted whether we would get Keziah through her final exams, at times I have still found myself suggesting paths forward that are at odds with this performance anxiety. I don’t know, call it parental denial I guess. Otherwise known as my need for her to achieve success in some conventional way (Enneagram 3 all the way). She’s always been so good at music, so I thought perhaps she could pursue that. Can you imagine the extent to which that would have set her up for stress?

As it turns out, with support and room for manoeuvre a kid can find her way. Keziah has come to a level of self-awareness that is rare in most adults. Sure, there have been many times in the recent season of decision-making when she hasn’t known what she wants for her life - who knows that at 18? - but she has known what she doesn’t want. As it turns out, she's pretty well-practiced at that side of things. She knew she didn’t want to be put in a box, and she has been looking for ways to pursue the things she loves without sacrificing her sense of who she is.

We’re at a good point in the story now: during lockdown Keziah has secured a place to study medical herbalism in Devon. She can live with family which, since she has lived outside the UK for all but 2 of her years, feels important and grounding. It all seems to sync with her interests in Veganism and sustainable health, the crunchy alternative side to who she is. Who knows how it will work out and whether she’ll love the course as much as she hopes, but this mother’s heart is breathing a little easier these days. 

You know, we can feel so responsible, as though we have to make the good stuff happen in the lives of our kids. Truly though, with room to discover their own sense of becoming, they can find the ability within themselves to say 'yes' and 'no' in the best kind of way. That, after all, is one mark of a good life - knowing to say 'yes' and 'no' to the right things. Somehow Keziah learned to speak loudly enough that even this hard-of-hearing mother could hear.