Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Enough for me

--------The foot of the cross--------

Enough for me this place, still strange to me and me a stranger
Enough to see this small patch of rough wood
The rest towering too tall, too lofty looming for me to grasp

Enough for me the gift of this mysterious tree
A space carved out for me beneath and within it
A bowl hollowed hallowed and now smoothed endless in capacity

Enough for me to know myself somehow carried there
Received and held there
Despite myself, uncomprehending and unsure

Enough for me to rest here, sleep here
Soul-stilled and quiet waiting
Weaned with, and weaned within

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Dead woman, dead woman, come alive!

So I’m playing when it happens...

Out in the spring sunshine with my girl, flat on my back on the warm trampoline after bounce-running together in a circle while singing A Thousand Years, throwing in our very own dance move actions on various words!

I don’t often play. I’m not very good at it (I’ve told myself for almost eight years). Sure: I can read bedtime stories with expression; I can go for happy walks hand in hand; I can bake with her; we can talk and talk about everything; I can watch her play. But playing myself has never been my forte.

This may sound strange, but it feels like such an effort to me. A physical effort, yes, because it usually involves crawling around on the floor, or jumping, running, dancing... moving, basically! But it’s more the mental and emotional effort that I resist expending – the effort that it takes to leave behind my o-so-serious adult world with its concerns and agendas and schedules, and just... play.

I do try... I have tried regularly for the eight years of her joy-filled, playful life. And I HAVE played – because I love her, and because I’ve felt guilty, and because I’ve wanted to be better at it. But there is always so much TRYING, so much EFFORT involved. And, however hard I TRY, it often just makes me feel tired and grumpy, and that’s not much fun for either of us.

How sad – to find it such a struggle to play.

But it goes far deeper than childrearing, this struggle.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the many different ways that I, perversely, resist the Life I profess to long for. I never really noticed this before so even seeing this strange pattern feels, though painful at times, like a gift and a sign of change on the horizon. I see now that so many of the things I do are subtly or not so subtly saying “No” to Life – to pleasure, joy, excitement, love, gratitude and delight. And because my gift of a girl is so jam-packed full of all these things, I notice my “No” most often with her, whether it’s the seemingly constant, verbalised “No” to the constant excited requests, or just my internal “No” – my fearful, or perhaps shame-filled, resistance to Life in all its Fullness.

Actually noticing this internal resistance has made me want to run into each day shouting “Yes!” to Life. And it’s made me want to play more... and laugh more... and love more... and create more:

“Art involves one in a recovery of childhood... The fear of pleasure is a deeply held political issue, and the creative person is out in front insisting that ecstasy and pleasure are what life is about--but everyone's pleasure, not one's own private pleasure.” (Matthew Fox)

I can feel it – my fear of pleasure – but I cannot comprehend it. Do I fear its power, and what it might mean or where it might take me if I follow it? Do I fear the pain and disappointment that cannot be avoided if one dives into life head first, wildly abandoned? Or is it that I feel undeserving of, or unfit for, true, deep joy? Or, in some unfathomable way, does the pointless, unproductive, childish nature of joy and play and pleasure offend my misguided ego?

If so, I want to offend my ego. It’s time to PLAY!!

So here I find myself playing outside with Amélie, being told to lie flat on my back as if dead in the centre of the trampoline, eyes closed, so that we can play ‘Dead Man’, a game I have never heard of. Thankfully, she seems to have noticed I am a woman and so changes the words that she chants as she bounces around me:

“Dead woman, dead woman, come alive!”

I lie stock still, taken aback by the profoundly prophetic nature of the words being spoken over me in play.

There are so many ways in which I have been dead, lifeless and barren; asleep, unresponsive. And these words – “out of the mouth of babes” – have the smell of the Spirit about them; they are words whispered to my very soul and words I’ve heard echoes of already in recent weeks, as I live and write and pray.

So I play dead, and I try to open my ears and heart to these words as wide as I can, and to say “Yes!” to this call:

“Dead woman, dead woman, come alive!”

And after the count to five and the final command to “Come alive,” I rise to my feet as instructed, eyes still closed, and feel around blindly for her, following her giggles and the bend of the trampoline under her feet. This, too, I know to be true: though I am blind and uncomprehending and wildly searching for the way forward into life, I have been CALLED; and Fullness of Life is beckoning me, close at hand, right at my fingertips, sometimes just out of reach but waiting, longing to be caught.

I can learn to say an unequivocal “Yes!” to Life, because Life says an unequivocal “Yes!” to me.

My blind groping meets a warm body and generates another squeal.

And then I catch her, and we cling to each other laughing and fall down in a happy heap.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

How long is a gift?

Not just one rose – a whole BUNCH of gorgeous yellow roses graces my kitchen table in a tall, slim glass vase today! They are sisters, it seems, with this unexpectedly hot and glorious spring sun shining in through the windows. Their beauty and perfection restore my soul, and their colours bring joy: Golden petals atop lively green stems, green through glass, glass on black slate, slate upon unvarnished wood. And as a gift from my love, and adorning a kitchen made sparkling for me by the joint cleaning efforts of my two beloved ones together, they shine extra brightly. They are simple beauty and vibrant colour, and they are love and togetherness expressed in action.

It’s amazing to me that, when my heart is open, such simple things can fill me up so deeply and wholly. Any empty days, any bottomless pits, recede into the distant past, and I know my cup to be overflowing.

But for how long? Till the kitchen loses its sparkle? Till the flowers wilt? Or perhaps sooner – simply till my heart hits a low point, a bare place, and demands to be lifted and filled again?

I remember those Harvard students who arrived so grateful and excited for the privilege of studying in the hallowed halls, but whose gratitude was quickly lost in the stress and strain, the deadlines, dramas and dilemmas. The question struck me then, on hearing Shawn Achor’s story, and hits me again on seeing my roses:

How long is a gift a gift? How long does it last? How long can any significant privilege or simple pleasure bring joy and open the heart to love?

As long as it is remembered and treasured as a gift? As long as the gratitude lasts?

If that is true, imagine the possibility of a soul staying full forever on one gift, forever held with gratitude!

True, for those with eyes to see, each day brings new gifts, and we can notice and count each new one and be filled afresh each time. But when does the search for NEW gifts become dissatisfaction with the OLD ones? And if I am always NEEDING the new and fresh to be filled, won’t I always remain a leaky bucket?

For this I certainly am: full one moment and drained empty the next.

But I want to CONTAIN it – the joy and love and mercy – and treasure it and pour it out like precious perfume; rather than leaking it and losing it and throwing it away. And surely it is this attitude of treasuring that is the key – not the nature or age of the gift received or given, savoured or recalled.

In fact, it’s not even really about the gifts themselves at all, but the heart open to the Grace that flows through the gifts and that is their source. It’s the state of the eyes of my heart that make the difference. “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light,” said Jesus (Matthew 6).

I long for these eyes – eyes healed by Grace, eyes open to the true Treasure. For where my treasure is (and, yes, amazingly, it’s right there in the same passage – the same message!) there will my heart be also... There will my heart be full to overflowing, whether the roses flourish or fade.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Keep Calm and Count On!

Good news! I think I'm overcoming my ambivalence towards gratitude!

This amazing video talk (also embedded at the very end of this post) about the nature of happiness, and the way that we have the equation all the wrong way round, helped a lot. Sometimes I need the message in poetry, as Ann Voskamp does so brilliantly; and then sometimes - as my friend Abigail said - "Give it to me straight forward and to the point." Shawn Achor does THIS brilliantly, and with the same practical outcome as Ann: writing down 3 things you're grateful for every day actually changes you (Shawn: your brain; Ann: your heart; both: your outlook; both true!). It's worth 12 minutes of your time for sure. I mean, it got Jeremy into gratitude-listing (with the One Thousand Gifts app on his iphone!) when poetry would never have cut it! :-)

I'm also seeing that it is often just cleverly disguised pride that makes me think writing down what I'm thankful for is too simplistic
to be important for me to focus on, and too simple to make any difference in my life. In fact, I see more and more that such a simple act is the most worthy and appropriate of all for a life aiming to become more Christ-like and therefore, as he called us to be, more childlike. As I wrote last week:
"And so I present my own blank page to God, finally deigning to handwrite my simple, childlike gratitude and bathe in God’s mercy-rain right here and now (I am the just and the unjust) rather than waiting for another day, the perfect day, the perfect way, the perfect words. I am counting the ways he loves."

To simply write down my three (or more) gifts each day supports my desire to see God right where I am, in the here and now, in the ordinary and mundane.

And the Joy Dare for March turns out not to be the contrived or romanticised way of looking for God's gifts that I have at times feared it would become, but actually a way to help me 'scan' (a Shawn Achor term!) for gifts I wouldn't instantly, naturally see. To look out for '3 gifts round', for example, makes me more attentive, and opens my eyes to things I really am grateful for - both big and small - but might not have noticed without prompting. Why don't you try it too?!

So, below, I will continue cataloguing my 'One Thousand Gifts'. Feel free to read on if you want to, but really I'm writing them down for me, and for God. But whatever you do, and whatever's going on for you right now, here's some sane advice:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Things fall apart

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (Yeats)

Do all of us not feel this, live this, at times?

Things fall apart. People fall apart. Communities fall apart. Our minds and hearts fall apart; our families and relationships and jobs and marriages and hopes and dreams fall apart.

One moment all is spinning nicely; we feel ‘together’; everything fits and works and makes sense.

The next, everything seems to spin suddenly and noiselessly out of control, as if one of the solar system’s planets has somehow gone out of orbit, causing a ripple effect of chaos and destruction.

But even when things don’t fall apart, how often do we live in dread that they are and will? Sometimes I can almost see the white knuckles around me as we all hang on for dear life on this ride called life, trying desperately to keep ourselves together, our worlds together, our loved ones together. As if we are the glue and if we don’t do what we do – or not do what we don’t do! – then everything will instantly collapse. And I’m not talking here about those things that life and love require that we simply get up and keep doing every day; I’m talking about all the extra ways we contort, twist ourselves out of shape, and take on burdens and responsibilities that are not ours to carry, driven by this nameless fear of imminent disaster.

I still vividly remember one of these personal moments of spin and swirl many moons ago. It wasn’t that my life was actually falling apart. In fact, externally, things seemed to be coming together, falling into place. But internally all was spin, and I felt as if this swirl was going to break out of my insides any moment and explode into my world.

I had to get out, get away, find some peace.

I took a walk down the quiet country lane that led away from the house where I was living. The rough grey tarmac wound gently ahead of me between high, dense Devon hedgerows; and behind the hedges great, ancient trees soared, stretching their branches into a canopy above the one lane road. Disturbed by only the occasional car, I could walk right down the centre of it on the sparse green sprinkling of moss and grass that wheels never touched. The silence was pierced only by the sounds of hedgerow birds and distant traffic; and glimpsed through the branches overhead, clouds swept by in their endless cycle.

The world spun on. In its spinning, it was holding together.

And it was holding together without my help.

Into my mind spun the one thought that could save me from all of my internal spin and swirl:

“In him all things hold together.”

And, right there and then, I knew this to be profoundly true. I couldn’t see it, but at that moment I could sense its truth with every fibre of my being. This holding together, this cohesion, was realer than the road beneath my feet, the hedgerows, trees, clouds, birds; realer than my own swirling thoughts and emotions. And these, too, he was holding together – infinitely tender and infinitely strong.

As a friend and I discussed this week, scientists know that molecules are held together by something, but they still don’t know what it is. I love that. And whatever they discover and whatever they name it, for me this mysterious cohesive force of love is Christ, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” who is before all things, and for and through whom all things were created. “In him all things hold together." (Colossians 1)

He is the glue. Not me. Not you.

We can’t be the glue for ourselves or for each other. Though, when we truly realise this, the miracle is that we can be Christ for each other, embodying his ‘holding together’ for each other with love and care that are trusting and releasing, rather than fearful and controlling.

But, how to realise? How to remember?

Sometimes we simply need to get out of our little enclosed worlds – out into this wide, whirling, water-marked world – and open our eyes to ‘see’ and sense and know how true and firm and loving his holding is.

And sometimes we need to let go of a few of the planets we are trying to juggle, let them fall, let some solar systems seemingly spin out of control when we loosen our grip... and watch and wait. We desperately need to get free of the powerful illusion that we are the centre, or we will never see and experience what is true and real: In him all things hold together.

Sometimes, we have to allow things to fall apart in order to discover that the centre CAN and WILL hold, and that the centre is not us.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Finding the keys that unlock mercy

So what does it PRACTICALLY look like for me to “take the plunge and dive deep into the bottomless, audacious, un-earnable, freely given, life-transforming mercy of God” that I wrote about yesterday? I asked you all if you had any secrets to 'diving deeper' to share, and then decided I really should try to notice and catalogue my own! So here are some of the rusty keys, personal to me, that have unlocked mercy for me in these last precious 24 hours:

Key One: Noticing that part of me would be quite content to write nice words about mercy and feed off them rather than actually doing the hard work of putting them into practice: to feed off the pleasure of ideas and pictures and poetry, the acknowledgment of others, the appearance of maturity and wisdom and insight that such words suggest. But this is baby food and I am hungry for more.

Key Two: Noticing both the moments of grace that I had enjoyed yesterday – especially when I suddenly had eyes to SEE the incredible beauty and aliveness and gift of my daughter, and gained a heart to wonder at this, at her – and also the moments of unmercy I have shown as I snapped at her, demanded too much, criticized; or as I responded with irritation or simply indifference to others. Noticing both of these helps me see that there IS “a river that makes glad the city of God”, there IS a flow and ‘wondrous loop’ that I can choose to remain in, or choose to step outside of.

Key Three: Asking for forgiveness quickly yesterday when I noticed that I had spoken a harsh word, and marvelling at the way this softens me, softens her, softens the atmosphere we live and breathe. So often hurt pride and resentment and shame stop me from doing this, but when I resist this I resist mercy - the mercy I need so desperately.

Key Four: Letting my heart break that so many of the moments of grace pass me by as I choose unmercy instead, and allowing myself to (uncharacteristically) weep by my sweet girl’s sleeping body last night, begging God to help me love her more truly, deeply, consistently, mercifully. And this is a prayer I know he hears and runs towards me to answer, for he is its author and perfecter.

Key Five: Taking time this morning to ACTUALLY write down the gifts of God to me over the last days, not just read about other people’s gratefulness or tell myself I am on a gratitude journey because I’ve thought about it and written about it and listed a few of my ‘one thousand gifts’ a few days ago. And – what do you know?! – heartfelt gratitude and joy welled up fresh inside me just from this simple act. When I stop to NOTICE the gifts, I find out I am full to overflowing, cup running over, rather than the empty I often feel.

Key Six: Choosing to act out of the fullness God promises me – and Jesus seems to assume is mine when he makes all his unreasonable demands! – by not allowing the ‘emptiness’ of others around me to empty me, but instead to choose to see fullness and live fullness regardless of what others are experiencing; then to reach out to give to them from within this fullness.

Key Seven: Doing the little things I could, as I took joy to create a chicken pot pie for our supper, to ‘go the extra mile’ and create a table of meeting that was beautiful and love-filled for us to eat at as a family, with grandparents added to our small three for this week. Good food, good drink, pretty napkins, candles, nature’s treasures scattered around... these simple things felt like sacraments to me as I prepared them and laid them out, and I knew mercy was soaking my heart and grace was soaking the atmosphere.

And, as this meal began, I asked Amelie to choose and read a grace from the little book that I began to compile many moons ago for our family meals, and that has largely gathered dust. She asked me if I would PLEASE, finally, handwrite the sung grace “Johnny Appleseed” in there next to her yellowing illustration, instead of waiting to print it out as I have been meaning to do for over three years! So I sat down and did it; it took me one minute. And the page that had been blank and years-long waiting – waiting for perfection, for the perfect moment – was swiftly filled with simple words of childlike gratitude that are bathed in the mercy that God rains on 'the just and the unjust alike':

"The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed, the Lord is good to me. Johnny Appleseed... Amen!"

And so – with all these simple, rusty, but powerful keys – I present my own blank page to God, finally deigning to handwrite my simple, childlike gratitude and bathe in God’s mercy-rain right here and now (I am the just and the unjust) rather than waiting for another day, the perfect day, the perfect way, the perfect words. I am counting the ways he loves. The Lord is good to me.


holy experience

No need for you to read on unless you want to read the next of those 'one thousand gifts' I am cataloguing! :-)

Joy Dare: 3 gifts worn:

7 - A piece of handmade jewelery on a new acquaintance that speaks of skill and gift

8 - A beautiful, brightly coloured shirt on a sad friend

9- My snuggly red robe!

3 gifts hard to give thanks for:

10 - The gospel singing from downstairs in the retreat centre when I longed for silence

11 - So busy with so many wonderful people that I didn't manage to get outside all weekend!

12 - The people who made and served our meals - my judgment about what I perceived as their fussiness could have buried gratitude for their presence and service

3 gifts found:

13 - 'Treasures' in the SSU pantry that I didn't need to go and buy

14 - A game for Amelie to play with Granny and Grandpa

15 - Organic fair-trade coffee on a 50% off special to refuel the students of Park Hall! ;-)

A gift bent, a gift broken, a gift beautiful:

16 - Bent me, asking for forgiveness from Amelie; a bent gift is the joy of making it right and receiving mercy

17 - Amelie's purple beret minus bobble and growing a fraying hole gave her Granny the chance to darn and show her love

18 - Every time I actually stop long enough to SEE her, my daughter is Beauty itself for me - her wild, dark hair, her new sunlight-yellow top, her peach-soft skin, her lit-up eyes

3 gifts in the kitchen

19 - A hug with Amelie that lasted until she was OK again

20 - Ian and Jacqui faithfully doing the dishes so that the sink and countertop are always clear

21 - Evening light catching me by surprise as I cooked supper, and reminding me to pour love and grace into my preparations