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?!