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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Joy and Sadness

Two things have impacted me quite profoundly in the past month: the first, somewhat ashamedly, is Pixar’s Inside Out; the second is Brene Brown’s thinking about vulnerability. Hamish and I watched Inside Out together a few weeks ago.

I bawled.

Not just those little corner-of-the-eye-tears that can be hastily mopped up, but shoulder-shaking sobs reminiscent of those induced by the first five minutes of Up.

I could blame being pregnant and hormonal (and did), but I genuinely think that Disney’s portrayal of Joy and Sadness touches on something pretty deep within the human condition.

In the film, Sadness’s character is ostracised by the other emotions (Joy, Disgust, Anger and Fear) in Headquarters (the brain of 11 year old Riley). No one can quite see the point in her existence. All she does is make things, well, sad, tainting everything she touches with her blue aura of depression. At one point, Joy even draws a chalk circle and shoves Sadness inside it in a desperate attempt to stop her from contaminating Riley’s memories.

The film takes Joy and Sadness on a journey together through the murky recesses of Riley’s brain until – finally – Joy starts to understand that Sadness has a function. Tears are not inherently bad. Crying is not simply something to be swept under the carpet. Some of our profoundest, and most beautiful, experiences in life are possible only because we experience painful emotion. 

This is not something that I like to admit.

I don’t like being sad. I hate crying. Especially in front of other people. And, most of the time, I wish I could just hide my sadness in a corner (or a chalk circle) and ignore it completely. We don’t want to engage with things that are hard and painful or complicated so – for the most part – we don’t. We do what Joy does to Sadness in Inside Out: ignore, avoid and try to get a handle on it. 
A couple of years ago, I was really struggling with being sad. I can’t quite explain where the sadness came from, but I was just quite sad. It was difficult to talk to other people about because I didn’t really feel like I had a legitimate reason for being sad. Nothing particularly awful or tragic had happened. I just felt down. Life felt grey and slightly pointless and even though the things that I knew to be true were still true (God loved me; Hamish loved me; my friends and family loved me), I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps they weren’t. I didn’t know how to explain it and was ashamed to try with most people because I feared their judgement or – worse – their helplessness. I didn’t want to superimpose my sadness onto other people in case they felt like they had to try and do something about it, and then felt bad when they couldn’t.

I have deleted and re-written that last paragraph several times because it isn’t something I have admitted to many people and, if I’m honest, I didn’t really have any intention of admitting publicly on a blog. But that, I think, is precisely the point: we don’t know how to talk about sadness. We don’t know what to do with not being ok, and with other people not being ok, so we don’t do anything. Ignore. Avoid. Get a handle on it. That is our strategy.

Which brings me to Brene. A friend recommended one of her TED talks a long long time ago, but I had forgotten about it, and then, last week, my friend Izzy lent me her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. I consumed it in about three days. I can’t do the book justice now, and am hesitant to reduce Brown’s research too much through summarising, but what resonated most with me was Brown’s insistence that when we try to avoid (or numb – her word) the painful emotions of life, we limit our capacity to really feel life’s beautiful emotions. 
She writes, “The most powerful emotions that we experience have very sharp points, like the tip of a thorn. When they prick us, they cause discomfort and even pain…for many of us our first response to vulnerability and pain of these sharp points is to not lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but to make it go away. We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief.” (The Gifts of Imperfect, p.70)
All of us have our own “numbing” strategies: the more obvious addictions of alcohol, drugs and food; and the more subtle ones of work, Facebook, perfectionism, and busyness. We use these strategies to cope with pain, with sadness, with thorny feelings that we aren’t sure what to do with. But, and this is the part of Brown’s research that surprised her, when we do this, when we take the edge off our sadness, we dull our capacity to experience joy: “There is no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light…joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage with a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.” (pp.72-73)
I think this is true.

I don’t quite understand why it is true or why we react this way, but I think it is. I recognise in myself the fear of being joyful (which I know sounds paradoxical). Sometimes I am afraid to allow myself to be truly happy. I am afraid to give in to the joy and beauty and wonder of a moment because – in doing so – I acknowledge that the moment might pass, that joy might be lost, that it is transient and unpredictable. Denial becomes a bizarre process of self-protection: to not be joyful is less costly than being joyful and having that joy snatched away. 

In Inside Out, Joy cannot tolerate Sadness. She is terrified of allowing sadness to infiltrate what could otherwise be happy. We do the same thing but, in doing so, we allow our fear of what might be lost to prevent us from ever truly enjoying the thing in the first place: “We’re afraid to lose what we love the most, and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think that not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less.” (p.82)

Again, I know that I do this. I put a dampener on joy. I cut it off lest it get out of hand and something else cut it off instead. Withholding from myself the full experience of how good and joyful something actually is is my own peculiar self-preservation. It protects me from the potential vulnerability of someone else poking fun at my joy, at my joy being popped and ending up in a heap on the floor.

It is also not very fun.

As ever, I don’t write these things with answers or dogma or solutions. I try and write them with honesty. I want 2016 to be a joyful year, a year in which I cultivate and practice joy and allow myself to feel it. A year in which I am grateful and thankful and celebrate and dare to enjoy the goodness of moments even though they will fade, or perhaps precisely because they will. This does not mean that 2016 will be a year without sadness or hurt, but it is a year in which I want to resolve to allow myself to be joyful: to dance around the living room even though I look silly, to laugh too loudly in places where I shouldn’t, to drink in the moments of our daughter growing up in awe and wonder without fearing about her future, to live, as Brown suggests, wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


It is difficult to write about death without being morbid. Or complacent. I do not wish to be either of those things. Death is a painful reality for all of us. Especially at Christmas. This is a time when we remember those who used to be with us, when we look back at old photos of Christmas dinner tables that looked very different, when we grieve for those that we miss.

This is good and right. My friend Inge died at Christmas time, and advent is tinged by the sadness of her passing. This time of year reminds me that she isn't here. And that I miss her. Sometimes that missing is a light and beautiful nostalgia; at other times it is the heavy pain of loss. I feel like I might drown in it.

Jesus understood grief. He wept. (John 11:35) When Jesus' friend Lazarus dies, he does not shrug off his death as though it does not matter. Even though he knows that he will raise Lazarus from the grave, he weeps alongside Mary and Martha as they mourn for their brother. He is moved by the sight of their pain and their grief, and he stoops down into the dust so that he can share in it with them. Our God is not unaffected by our pain. He is with us in the midst of it. As we hurt in this hurting world, we are confident that God hurts with us.

But Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. There is not just empathy in this story. There is power. There is a hope that transcends death and goes beyond the grave. Death is not the end.

Last week, Hamish reminded me of 1 Peter 3:15, "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." My instinctive response to this verse, to a querying of my own hope, is to focus on the hope that I have for this life: hope that no one is beyond the remit of God's grace, hope that transformation is possible in the hardest of hearts, hope that lives can be healed and made whole in the here and now, that God will break into the darkness and bring his beautiful light.

And I do hope for these things. I do hope to see God's goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:14), to see God's kingdom come on earth, to catch glimpses of the new creation now.

But last week, my friend's Dad also died. I did not know him well. I had only met him once, at her wedding. His death has challenged my understanding of hope. It has not lessened the hope that I have for this life, but it has reminded me that, ultimately, what Jesus promises us is hope for the next.

As I read Philippians 1 with my god daughter last week, we came to Paul's assertion that 'to live is Christ, to die is gain.' It is easy to gloss over this verse. It has become somewhat sentimentalised, converted into an iconic tattoo that looks good when your sleeves are rolled up but - perhaps - doesn't really mean anything. To Paul, it meant everything. There is nether morbidity nor complacency in his view of death. He does not want to die. He prays that, if it happens, he would be given the courage to face it without being ashamed, and yet he is utterly convinced that death is gain. To die means being with Jesus and that is a whole lot better than his current circumstance hauled up in a prison.

Perhaps these words are easier to write in a prison cell than in the midst of my life. Heaven does sound preferable to chains and misery (although, interestingly, Paul determines that he will live rather than die such is his concern for those whom he has started to tell about Jesus) but, what about me? Do I view heaven as better than what I have at the moment? Better than the joy of an imminent new life; better than friends and family and laughter and the sound of birds singing at dawn; better than watching the sun sink slowly in a haze of pinks; better than the taste of slow-cooked roast lamb; better than the feeling of falling asleep in safety and comfort beside the one that you love.

To live is Christ. To die is gain. His love is better than life. (Psalm 63:3)

For us in the West there is more challenge here than comfort. For our persecuted brothers and sisters suffering under tyranny in Iraq, it is surely the reverse. For those that know the reality of incredible pain and grief, immense pressure and horror, death is gain. To be with Jesus is, as it was for Paul, better. 

I do not know what to do with these words this morning. 

In moments of doubt, of which there are many, I question whether I actually believe in heaven at all. Whether I actually believe in an eternity with Jesus that surpasses any earthly experience, an eternity that would make any sacrifice or suffering or loss for the sake of Christ worth it. Do I actually believe in the bodily resurrection of those who have followed Him? That, in the twinkling of an eye, we are changed, we do meet him, and each other, caught up in the glory of his presence? 

And then I think of Inge. And I think of her dancing. I think of her body free from pain and healed of every trace of cancer. I think of her as a young woman, even though I never knew her then, with arms outstretched in praise, laughing, giddy with the joy of abandon and surrender. And somehow, this is enough. My weak faith is cemented by the certainty she had - even if I cannot claim it fully for myself - that the hope that we have is hope of resurrection. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Are you listening?

Are you listening?
Excuse me.
I. Said.
Are. You. Listening?

The sharp sound of teacher’s disapproval
The did you hear what I just said?
Quit your daydreaming
Your misty eyed glaze
Your what if what next where to anywhere but here
And listen.

A different voice


Are you listening?

The voice calls my name

Insistent but not invasive
Easily mistaken for something else
Crowded out by Starbucks’ Christmas Carols
The buzz of busy thoughts
To dos and have dones and whoops I forgot
The voice fades
Slips away
Hidden once more
But still there



Are you listening?

Not a demand -
a request
Can you spare a minute?
Can I trouble you for a moment of your time?
Can you just… stop?
Be still.
Be still. And Know.
Know that I am here.
Know that I am.
I am the One who knows your name.
And you know my voice.

Are you listening?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A Stress Remedy

The meaning of Advent has been somewhat lost: hidden under piles of to do lists, Christmas decorations, brightly coloured adverts demanding that we yield to their tempting offers and a rather large dollop of stress as we consider how exactly Aunt Mabel is going to avoid making a slurred and offensive comment across the turkey under the influence of too much Sherry.

Advent is a season of preparation, but it's not entirely clear what we are preparing for. There is a somewhat daunting pressure for this December 25th to surpass the extravagance of last year: for better presents, crispier roast potatoes and happier family members. We struggle against the tide of consumerism and, despite our best efforts, succumb to buying presents that aren't really needed. Then berate ourselves for doing so.

I hate that I give in to festive stress.

A phrase that has been bothering me for a few weeks is "make room." There was "no room available" (Luke 2.7) for Jesus when he arrived. He came to us but we were too busy, too warped by our own needs and preconceptions, to notice him, too preoccupied to receive him as the precious and beautiful gift that God intended him to be. (John 1.10 - 11). I don't want to be too busy this Advent. I don't want to miss all the beautiful gifts that God has given because I am panic present shopping.

And so, this year, we gathered our little Sunday lunch community together to "make room" for others this Advent. We sat and prayed and planned, a subversive collective trying to wage war against consumerism. Wide-eyed and giggling, we determined to so some serious baking: to secretly present a little bag of edible goodies on the doorstep of someone in our community each day of Advent, to show the love of God through gingerbread made with sticky fingers and tags smothered in PVA glue and glitter. To surprise our friends with a reminder that they are loved and special and that we want to "make room" for them amidst our own busy lives.

Today is Day One. I'm pretty excited to wait for the stories to start piling in; for surprised statuses on Facebook as people celebrate being celebrated and, for a moment, forget about their to do lists.

As a remedy for festive stress, I can highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


Emotions are an odd thing. They sneak up on your unawares. An unexpected incident on a TV programme reduces you to a blubbering wreak; a minor misjudgement by a fellow driver leaves you spitting feathers and muttering expletives Mutley style under your breath. A couple of weeks ago, I burst into tears all over my slightly bemused husband because I’d forgotten to book an antenatal class and thus concluded that I was going to be a terrible mother. It’s not logical, but it’s certainly how we seem to function. Or at least how I seem to function.

And my immediate response is to withdraw. When circumstances are hard and the pressures of life overwhelm me, I want to run away. I want to seek an easier alternative. Perhaps if we have two cars instead of one then life will be easier. If Hamish had a different job then we could spend more time together. If I swapped community work for a nice little job in a private school then I wouldn’t be such a colossal stress head. There is probably some truth in all of these things but I think I am learning that to exchange one thing for another in the hope that life will be better; to ache for a new season because this one is hard is sometimes my way of ignoring the actual issue. Chesterton’s wry word, when asked what was wrong with the world, return to me: “I am.”

My friend likened it to the following picture: if something is cracked and you put pressure on it, the cracks will – of course – get bigger. But, if you remove the pressure the cracks won’t go away. You can pretend that they are not there, gloss over them with a change of situation, but unless you address the root cause of the cracks they aren’t going anywhere. Kind of like subsidence in a house. You can pretend the ground isn’t unstable by building a beautiful mansion smack bang on top of it but, the truth will out: the house will fall down. Eventually.

There is a profundity in Jesus’ simple story of the wise and foolish builders. (Matthew 7:24-27) Both builders face the same problem: there is a massive, great big whopping storm. The first builder, the one who builds on the rock, isn’t safe because there isn’t a storm; he’s safe because he took time to address his foundations. I’m sure the second builder blamed the storm for his house falling down, but the storm wasn’t really the issue. His building style was. I’m sure he blusteringly protested that it wasn’t really his fault: how could he predict a flood? How was he to know that it would be supremely windy that day? Is any house really expected to withstand that kind of pressure? But Jesus is, as ever, uncompromising: the house fell down because of mistakes made long before the storm even made an appearance.

I feel those same red-faced protestations rise up in me: the reason why I snapped at Hamish was because I’d had a hard day; the reason why I’m stressed is because there are difficult things happening and they are stressing me out; it wasn’t really my fault that I got so irrationally annoyed by someone else’s poor driving because, well, they should learn how to drive properly shouldn’t they?

Cracks. Cracks cracking into bigger cracks. Cracks splintering out of control. Cracks that suddenly, without warning, become visible on the surface.

I did a bible study last week with one of my god daughters. I love reading the bible with her. I love it because she’s so practical, because, for her, there really is no point in reading God’s word unless she responds to it and unless it makes a difference. We read the start of Philippians together. After about three sentences, I was convinced that this had been a bad idea. It’s a beautiful letter, but it’s complicated. There are lots of long words and hard concepts and, as we read, I was distracted by thinking about how to simplify the message, how to make it accessible; I was so busy thinking of all the possible things that might make comprehending the passage tricky that I missed the blindingly obvious thing about Paul’s letter: he is stupendously, ridiculously, happy. Leah got it straight away: he’s pretty happy, isn’t he? He’s in prison but he’s happy. Well, yes. Yes, he is. And it is – now that you come to mention it - completely mad. His circumstances do not exactly strike you as being joyful; after all he is penning the words whilst chained up to a prison guard. And yet, he is thankful (1:3), joyful (1:4), confident (1:6), optimistic (1:12). He interprets his situation in a way which, to most of us, seems utterly bizarre.

If ever a crack was going to show its ugly face, it would, surely, be at this moment. But there is not a crack in sight. I do not say that because I think that Paul was super human. I’m sure that, at times, he was desperate, hurting, weeping, confused and angry like the rest of us. But he’d paid some pretty serious attention to his issues, to his foundation, and now, in the most extreme and awful of circumstances he acts with love and grace. He praises God for his chains. This man is able to sing songs in the darkest places. (Acts 16:25)

Oh, how I crave to be like this. But to do so means taking a look at those cracks. The small ones. The tiny little fault lines that I like to pretend don’t exist. It means recognising that, if I am angry, then that anger is not only a response to my circumstance. That anger has been lurking unaddressed. That anger is to do with a poorly built foundation. The smallest provocation, the first indication of storm clouds, will reveal it for what it is.

What, then, is the remedy? Paul says that he has learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. (Philippians 3:12) That the only way to deal with your cracks is to make sure that you know the master-builder, to know that Jesus is with you and is in you, to depend on his strength in your weakness, on his calm in your storm, his peace in your anger. I do not think this is something that happens automatically. I think it is something that you have to practice. We can call on Jesus’ name in a desperate moment and plead with him to help us to respond in a proper and godly way (thank goodness). But if our actions are to become increasingly like his regardless of the pressure of our circumstance then we need to get into the habit of hanging out in his presence, of recognising, acknowledging (Hosea 6:3) that he is present in us (Colossian 1:27), and that his presence makes all the difference.

It is not the storm that causes the house to fall; it is the way that the man has prepared for it. It will not be pain or suffering or situation that causes us to crack – for we cannot be spared from those things (1 Thessalonians 3:3) – it will be whether or not we truly know the one who stands with us in the midst of them. Whether or not we have trained ourselves (1 Timothy 4:8) to remember that He is present. Whether or not we have laid down a solid foundation.

They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit. 
(Jeremiah 17:8)

The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail. 
(Isaiah 58:11)

Tuesday, 27 October 2015


Jesus can be rather blunt. We might consider some of the techniques he uses to challenge his disciples somewhat inappropriate if he wasn't the one using them: "Are you so dull? (Mark 7:18) "Are you still so dull?" (Matthew 15:16) These are hardly words of encouragement; this is exasperation.

One day last week, I was driving down a road that I have driven down a thousand times when I was suddenly overcome by the sheer beauty of the world outside my car. That sounds a little melodramatic but, for a few seconds, I was completely flummoxed by the radiance of nature, by the fire of autumn trees, the brilliance of blue sky, the golden glow of a low sun. A sense I had forgotten I possessed was awakened. For a few moments, a veil was lifted and creation was what it is always is: a canvas displaying the glory of God. (Psalm 19:1) How is it that I usually miss this? Am I so dull? 

For I think this is what Jesus is getting at: his anger is not that of a teacher infuriated by a student's innocent mistake, but by the inability of his disciples to spot the blindingly obvious. The word translated as dull on both the occasions that Jesus uses it is asynetos. It doesn't simply mean foolish or stupid or without understanding - although it carries hints of all these things - but, more properly, it describes a person's failure to structure information in a meaningful way and therefore reach the necessary conclusions. 

And so, Nic, on an average day, walks around and sees the skies and the leaves and the colours and the stars and the glaringly brilliant beauty of creation and doesn't think to praise God for it; doesn't think to offer up gratitude and thanksgiving to the one who created it in the first place. I have all the information needed and yet, somehow, I don't structure it meaningfully; instead the moments pass me by: I arrive at the shop and get distracted by what I've forgotten to put on my shopping list; I start thinking about something insignificant and petty and unimportant and... the moment has passed. Dullness.

And the worse thing about this state of dullness - lay aside for a second the potential arguments about whether nature does or does not prove the existence of God - is that it is void of joy. It misses the opportunity to celebrate, the opportunity to drink in life and savour its sweetness. It substitutes the thrill of childlike wonder for the stern, busyness of adulthood: "We get so preoccupied with ourselves, the words we speak, the plans and projects we conceive that we become immune to the glory of creation...we never think and blink about the bounty of God's creation. We grow complacent...we miss the experience of awe, reverence and wonder." (Brennan Manning, the Ragamuffin Gospel)

I don't want to miss out.

And this, again, is where I think Jesus' exasperation comes from: he doesn't want us to miss out either. He doesn't want us to walk through life blinkered to the reality of a world that was meant to display his beauty; he doesn't want us to shut our ears to the whisper of his voice and ignore invitation to walk alongside him. There is pleading in his rebuke: don't be dull. Wake up. Open your eyes. See the world differently. Experience wonder.

As I prayed for the young people that we took away to Fort Rocky, a Youth for Christ event, this past weekend, I was reminded of my experience in the car, of the lifting of that veil and the boundless joy of seeing the fingerprints of the Creator in the marvel of creation. My longing for our young people is that they would know that same joy, that, somehow, their senses would be awakened to the possibility of God's love for them, to his tangible presence in their lives.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul entreats his readers to be those who are awake: "You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober." (1 Thess 5:5-6) The reference to sobriety is interesting. I don't think it means boring. This is not a call to be sombre and lifeless; it is the opposite: a plea to be fully alert, to not have our senses deadened. The issue with drunkenness is that it dulls us; we are dulled to the goodness and the nearness of God when we don't know what we are doing. Hence, the cry to get drunk on the Spirit instead (Ephesians 5:18). Get drunk on what will keep you wide awake; not what will make you sleepy.

Paul uses similar language as he writes to the Ephesians: your minds used to be darkened. Your senses used to be asleep. You had lost spiritual sensitivity and thus couldn't see God's nearness. (Ephesians 4:18-19) But now you are awake! Don't fall asleep again. Don't become numb. Don't stop noticing the beauty of this world. Don't stop expressing a childlike awe at the God who would speak to us through his creation and want to share its wonders with us.

This is not so much a rebuke for others as a prayer for myself. I do not want to walk through this world and miss out. I do not want to be deprived of joy because I have failed to thank God for all the goodness that is so beautifully on display. (Romans 1:20-21) And so, wake up, sleepy head. And let the light of Christ shine. (Ephesians 5:14)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


I have developed a slight obsession with Eldridge's "Beautiful Outlaw." I think because there is something beautiful - and uncomfortable - about realising that perhaps I have spent much of my Christian life stripping Jesus of his personality and that now it is time to reclaim it. To allow Jesus to be wonderfully, compellingly, and, at times, frustratingly, himself.

One of the characteristics that Eldridge most admires about Jesus is his uncompromising honesty. Jesus is honest in a way that very few people ever allow themselves to be. His honesty is shockingly disruptive. Jesus clearly never learned the nice middle class habit of saying nothing if you can't say anything nice. He frequently says things that aren't very nice. And yet, if Jesus is God, and God is love, then even in these moments of brutal honesty, Jesus is loving. As he critiques the disciples, expresses his exasperation with the Pharisees, rebukes the religious and weeps over the state of Jerusalem he is acting in love. He loves humanity so much that he will not allow us to carry on in delusion and self-deception. He will tell us straight. Even if this straight-talking will turn people away from him. (John 6:60; Matthew 19:22)

Jesus lovingly ministers truth to people. Truth is the only remedy for the human condition and he applies it with precision. (John 8:32) He says what needs to be said - especially when no one else is willing to say it. This is a dangerous habit. And almost certainly why I don't indulge in it too often. I am terrified of being honest with people. I don't mean that I deliberately lie. It's just that - most of the time - it's a lot easier to avoid the topic that really needs to be discussed, to gloss over any potential conflict by pretending I haven't noticed just how outrageously one of my friends is acting, and to talk about the inane and meaningless things of life instead.

"Most people go through their entire lives without anyone, ever, speaking honest, loving, direct words into the most damaging issues of their loves...we chitchat. We spend our days at a level of conversation as substantial as smoke. We dance around one another like birds in a mating ritual, bobbing, ducking, puffing out our chests...why aren't we more honest with each other? Because it will cost us." (Beautiful Outlaw, p.70)

I long to be more honest. Not to hurt people, but to love them. To love them deeper and more genuinely because I want them to know what is really true. To be willing to say hard things in love even if it costs me. 

I am trying to let Jesus teach me to be like this. The only problem with embracing honesty is that it also means letting Jesus be honest with me. This wasn't really part of the bargain. On Friday, I met with my dear friend Elaine. She is one who loves me enough to be honest with me, to tell me straight and show me where I have got it wrong. I love her for this. Even if that isn't always obvious at the time of us talking. We talked about many things, particularly my anger towards someone who I felt was acting selfishly. As the words tumbled out, becoming more and more like a rant, and less and less like an appropriate expression of something I was struggling with, I knew it wasn't the right way to behave. I knew that I had crossed a line from confiding to bitching, from sharing a struggle to blatantly condemning someone else's actions. 

It was time for some honesty, the heart of Jesus on display in Elaine's words: you need to forgive. You're not being loving. You are judging someone when, in fact, you are behaving in the same way. You are being selfish, and stubborn and refusing to acknowledge your messed-up-ness. 

I definitely didn't want to hear any of that.

I didn't want that particular dishing out of honesty thank you very much.

And yet, and yet, oh how I needed it. How I long to be better. To be transformed into his likeness, to be one who loves without cynicism, without judgement or criticism. Who loves unconditionally no matter how unlovely the object of that love. For surely I too am unlovely. Jesus, who sees the very heart of me sees all of my unloveliness on display, and then, in love, he tells me about it. In love, he sends his Spirit to nudge and prompt and nag and gently suggest that perhaps this is not how a daughter of the King should behave. Perhaps this is not what is best.

Much Christian imagery paints pictures of a potter's gentle hands; of flames dancing merrily in a kiln; of sweetly scented soap that washes us clean. But this potter knows how to be rough when he needs to be; the heat of the refiner's fire will burn and hurt and scald to get rid of the dross; and it is the harsh bristles of a brush and a launderer's powerful soap that scraps us clean. The truth will set us free but it will not do so without causing some pain in the process.

Oh Jesus, let me accept your honesty. Let me be wise not a fool.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


September is a funny season. Particularly for those of us whose lives are governed by the academic year and by school terms. It the season of post-holiday blues, the sudden return to normality after a break that is rudely accompanied – more often than not - by a whole barrage of questions about what exactly we’re meant to be doing, and how we’re meant to do it.

Hamish and I returned from a week in the Alps late on Saturday evening: a beautiful week soaking in God’s good creation, eating far too many French pastries and walking for miles and miles in the hills and valleys. The return to normality was swift and painful on Sunday morning when we walked into our church. I love our church family. I love the messiness and the noise and the chaos of a church that is full of children, the honesty and frankness of people who don't try to cover up what's really going on. But on Sunday morning I couldn’t cope with it. I couldn’t cope with the need and the noise, with the clamouring for attention, the urgency of people’s requests for help, the brokenness and pain of the lives of people I love deeply. 

My (shamefully) immediate reaction was I don’t like anyone here. I don’t know how to disciple them. I don’t know how to love them, or share the good news of Jesus with them. There are too many. The need is too great. All I want to do is run away. 

I didn’t run away – although I was tempted. Instead, I proceeded to be very grumpy and rude to my husband and cross at everyone and everything.

Whilst we were on holiday, I read John Eldridge’s Beautiful Outlaw, a series of short reflections about the personality of Jesus. Eldridge writes beautifully about many facets of Jesus’ character but what remained with me was the insistence about Jesus’ humanity: Jesus is not God pretending to be human. He is fully human. He takes on all that it is to be flesh and blood and walk about exposed to the mess of planet earth and its people. 

I think that this means that Jesus fully understands the feeling that I had on Sunday morning. In his experiencing of that emotion Jesus, unlike me, does not sin. He does not give in to frustration and despair. He does not become suddenly irrational and irritable with those who love him. But he does know what it is to be overwhelmed. He knows what it is to need to run away. And he does.

Several times in the gospel, Jesus is seen to deliberately withdraw. Without fuss and without kicking and screaming (again unlike me) he extracts himself from the crowds and slips away to spend time with his Father. Eldridge draws particular attention to Jesus’ reaction to the death of his cousin John:

“When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed those who were ill.” (Matthew 14:13-14)

Jesus knows when he needs time with God the Father. He knows when he is at the end of himself. He knows that, in his fragile humanity, he does not have the resources to keep going without being refreshed and by the One who keeps him going. In this particular incident, Jesus only manages to snatch a few minutes. He has planned to head by boat to a place to be alone but, by the time he reaches the shore, the solitary place is populated by a hungry and desperate crowd. His withdrawal lasts only for the crossing of the lake but it is enough to mean that he can view this crowd with compassion. He can heal them and meet their needs.

There is a lesson here for me that, in over a decade of following Jesus, I still struggle to learn: my response to need and urgency, to busyness and an ever-expanding to do list, must be to withdraw. If Jesus, Son of God, Creator King of the universe, could only do what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19), and could only satisfy the needs of those who came to him in the power of the Spirit, then I must follow in his footsteps.

September is always a season of too much to do, too much to think about, too many people to try and catch up with and love and listen to. And yet, the example of our King is clear: withdraw. Remind yourself of your inability. Remind yourself of your weakness. Embrace the truth that you can do nothing without Him - and He doesn’t want you to. Our King craves our dependence on him. He urges us to withdraw.

Sunday, 19 July 2015


The church doesn't talk about giving very well. Around about the time of the treasurer's financial report, most churches host an optimistically entitled "Giving Sunday": on said Sunday a fresh call is made for the congregation to reach deep into their pockets or, more commonly these days, write a gift-aided direct debit, reassured that God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7) I am probably more cynical than most, but such Sundays often leave me cringing, hoping that these isn't someone new to the church who thinks that all these Christian people do is pester them to pay up.

And yet, we are called to be generous. Christians should be the most generous people on the planet; we are those who know how much we have been given and so we should willingly give. (Matthew 10:8) And some of the Christians I know are like this: they are ridiculously, stupendously generous. With their time and their money, their houses, their resources, their fridges. Everything. But I don't think this is the norm. I know that in my own walk with Jesus I fluctuate between seasons where am able to hold my stuff lightly, and seasons where I grasp onto everything with clenched fists. I like to think of myself as being generous but I put stipulations on that generosity. I am generous when it suits me. I am generous when I deem someone else worthy of my generosity. I am generous because it makes me feel good and stops that nagging feeling that this isn't quite what church is supposed to look like. In our individualised and privatised culture, we Jesus people are no longer a people who hold all things in common (Acts 2:44), not claiming anything as our own (Acts 4:32).

Perhaps to aspire to such a thing is to idolise the early church, to look back with rose-tinted glasses on something which was actually pretty messy. I have often heard the critique that such a way of life is just not practical any more. It would not be a very responsible thing to give to anybody, and everybody, who asked; it would be a very generous one:

"Virtually every Christian public ethic justifying behaviour that runs counter to the example and teaching of Jesus does it on the ground of responsibility.. In many cases, the critics admit that following Jesus would mean something quite different from what they are proposing. But Jesus’ example is deemed irrelevant or irresponsible. If an action is not responsible, then, these critics imply one must of course not do it. If sharing money is not responsible, then Christians should behave economically according to society’s standards. If being non-violent is not always responsible, then Christians should defends themselves with violent power or take up arms whenever the government calls. The best rejoinder to such arguments is, Responsible to whom? Is Christians’ primary responsibility to the dominant society or to the government or cultural expectations? Or is Christians’ primary responsibility to God and to the distinctive mission for which God calls and forms a missionary people?” (Darrell Guder, Missional Church)

Guder's critique is rather painful and I need to say at this point that I don't have this right. Hamish and I wrestle endlessly with finances and with what we should do with our money. We know that we are rich and have been hugely blessed by God by both the provision of our families and by Hamish's career. We are those who have plenty. And I do not think that to have plenty is necessarily a problem (although Jesus would contest that statement - Luke 14:33, Matthew 19:23) What you do with your plenty is. When he advises the Corinthian church about giving, Paul says that we will have times of plenty and times of scarcity; the whole point is to spread the plenty around when you happen to have it so that no one is in need:

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need,so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality."(2 Corinthians 8:13-15)

And so, are we spreading our plenty? Are we generous with what we have? Do we supply the needs of those who have less? Do we recognise that, in the kingdom, all money is God's (1 Corinthians 4:7) and we are called simply to steward what we are in possession of?

As I read Corinthians this morning, I was struck by Paul's argument about generosity. He does say that God loves a cheerful giver (and I am sure that God does) but he also gives us instruction about how it is that we might be cheerful in our giving. It is all very well to be reminded that we should smile when we cough up our pennies, but it is quite another thing to be liberated to give joyfully. And so, three thoughts from 2 Corinthians that I'm chewing over to help me me learn to give cheerfully:

Firstly, there is the issue of blessing. Paul is adamant: "God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things and at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion." (2 Corinthians 9:8, 11) You can't get more emphatic than that. All things. All times. All you need. Every way. Every occasion. It is quite hard to find a loophole in such language. If we want to know the abundant, radical generosity of God than we need to be willing to put ourselves in positions where we need him. Independence, strategic planning and aspirations of self-sufficiency may well be responsible, but they are not necessarily biblical. We miss the opportunity to know the abounding and enriching provision of our heavenly Father if we always spend our money on ourselves making sure that we have everything that we need. And I know that in my own life this is true. The times when Hamish and I have seen God provide in the most extraordinary ways have been when we have taken risks with our money and given away more than we felt comfortable doing. When we have been generous, God have never left us lacking.

Again, I need to reiterate that I do not have this right. I am not naturally generous. I often deliberately avoid opportunities to give because I am anxious about our financial situation. And yet, part of me knows that to live like that is to miss out. I don't want to miss out on what it is to be dependant on God because I am frightened of the consequences of being too generous. For Paul there is no such thing as too much generosity. God is able to bless us abundantly. I do not know why I still find that so hard to believe even when I have seen it time and time again. We have seen God provide us with the money for our mortgage. We have seen God provide us with a free car that was better than our old car. And yet, I am still afraid. I am fearful that perhaps God won't show up if I take a risk. I need to heed the words of Canon Andrew White, working in a perilously difficult and fragile situation in Baghdad: "Don't take care; take risks."

Secondly, Paul says that through our generosity God is given the thanks that he deserves: "Through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God" (2 Corinthians 9:11) When we lose our generous hearts, God is denied the gratitude and thankfulness that is due to his name. It is in our generosity that we create opportunity for others to thank God for what he has given. God allows us to partner with him in showing the world what he is like. When we give, we are enabled to point towards the unfailing goodness and grace of our Father and say, "Not I, but the Lord! God has given to me extravagantly and so I have given to you extravagantly; let us praise him together for his extravagance!" To me, this is a greater motivation than simply being told that God likes it when I give. When I give, something extraordinary happens: through my giving people recognise that God is the ultimate giver. 

Finally, there is the matter of obedience: "Others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel" (2 Corinthians 9:13) God's word commands me to be generous. Will I do what the word says?

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do." (James 1:22-25)

I listened to a Mike Bickle sermon yesterday morning, which reminded me that obedience is optional. God will allow us to be disobedient. God will allow us to read something in the Bible and then pay no attention to it whatsoever, but to do so is to miss the opportunity to be changed. Transformation happens when we are obedient. It is not a passive process. It happens when we choose to trust what God says and to act on it. The question then is not simply will I do what the word says, but will I not do what the word says and thus miss out on knowing more of God and experiencing more of his transforming power at work in my life? Obedience is costly. Disobedience is also costly.

My Corinthian pondering has not automatically made me a cheerful giver. It has given me more of an aspiration to be one, more of an aspiration to stop being cynical and begrudging and to seek opportunity to give because in doing so the extravagant generosity of the Father is shared by the one who gives and by the one who receives.

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.
(St Ignatius of Loyola)

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Be with me

It has taken a very long time for me to get my head around the idea of being pregnant. 

I do not think I am even remotely close to being there yet, but I am certainly closer than I was. In my head, pregnancy was equated with a kind of fear of missing out. That is a ridiculous, and horrible, thing to say. Especially in light of many of my friends who long to have a child and cannot. It is an awful thing to think that the gift of a tiny baby would be an inconvenience, but I am trying to be honest, and that is, for a long time, what I thought. I feared that having a baby would be a stop to all kinds of things. No more adventures. No more spontaneity. No more selfishness in being able to decide when and how I do things. If I was going to have a baby then it was going to be entirely on my terms. When I was ready. When I wanted.

I am unbelievably selfish. 

A couple of weeks after I found out I was pregnant, my friends Xanna and Chris came to stay with their beautiful baby, Zephaniah. On the Saturday morning, I got up to look after Zeph so his exhausted parents could have a lie in, and I sat and watched him play and sleep and be. As I looked at him, I prayed that God would prepare my heart to be a Mum. That I would slow down, and stop and be quietened by the gift that He had chosen to give to me.  None of those things come particularly easily to my character. I am not a very slowed down person. Nor am I a very quiet person. Nor do I like to be restricted by someone else's schedule. And yet, as I watched Zeph, I knew that God was asking me to trust him about who I needed to be in order to be a mother. 

As Zeph slept, I read Henry Nouwen, Adam: God's Beloved. Nouwen describes the impact of living in a community of people with severe disabilities, and, in particular, his friendship with a young man called Adam, who he was charged with looking after. Adam could not walk or talk, and initially Nouwen tells of his frustration in not knowing what it meant to even be with this man. What did it mean to have a friendship with someone who couldn't communicate in any of the usual ways? And yet, over months of routine, of washing, and changing, and eating, and sitting, Nouwen started to understand what Adam was trying to say to him:

"Adam was communicating with me, and he was consistent in reminding me that he wanted and needed me to be with him unhurriedly and gently. He was clearly asking me if I was willing to follow his rhythm and adapt my ways to his needs. I found myself beginning to understand a new language, Adam's language." 

As I read these words, listening to Zeph's quiet snuffles and breaths, I sensed something of what God was trying to communicate with me. Adam's need was for Henri to be with him. To simply be present and to so be present that it didn't feel like he secretly wanted to be elsewhere. How many times am I guilty of such behaviour? Guilty of half-listening, half-being present in the midst of a conversation but actually being elsewhere; of rushing a meeting with someone, or mumbling a quick hello in the street because I have somewhere else, a more important somewhere else, that I think I need to be. I do not see this in Jesus. I do see intentionality. I do see deliberateness in knowing where he is going and what His Father is asking of him. But I do not see hurriedness. I do not see a refusal to genuinely engage with people because other people and places are deemed to be more worthy of his time. This is what the disciples expect from him, but time and time again Jesus is the one who stops simply so that he can be with a particular person for a particular moment. And when he is with them you get the impression that, in that moment, there is no one else. In that moment, Jesus exists to love that unique individual, be they an old lady suffering from a chronic illness, a blind beggar cast aside by society, a child seeking to sit on his lap. Jesus knew how to stop. (Matthew 20:32). He calls his followers to do the same. 

John Ortberg recounts a conversation with a wise friend of his who he was asking for some spiritual advice. After describing the somewhat hectic and rushed patterns and rhythms of his life, his friend said, "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." Ortberg describes wanting some kind of other golden nugget of wisdom but his friend simply repeated the same advice again: "There is nothing else. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." 

Ruthlessly eliminate hurry. 

Be with me. 

As his relationship with Adam grew, Nouwen realised that Adam was a gift to him much more than he was a gift to Adam: "His life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation." 

Thus, as I sat and looked at Zeph and thought about the tiny gift wrapped in weakness growing inside me, I started to pray:

Father, I want to receive the gift of our baby, given for my transformation, given that I will know you and encounter you more deeply because I am forced to simply be rather than do, given that I will learn to be selfless, given that I will learn to love and be loved. 

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Our poverties touching each other

A peculiar title for this post. The phrase is coined from Henri Nouwen's book "Adam: God's beloved" which tells the story of Nouwen's time at the L'Arche community, Daybreak, caring for a young man called Adam Arnett. Nouwen's tale is one of what it means to love, and be loved by, someone with a disability, someone who might be labelled by society as burdensome and useless. It is a beautiful, and painful, read; a challenge to us in our determination to be independent and self-sufficient, to ignore our own weaknesses, and to busy ourselves with doing so that we need not focus on what it means to be.

Nouwen writes with brutal honesty about his own transformation as he lived with and loved Adam, and about how, being confronted with Adam's total vulnerability forced him to face up to his own weakness, his own need to be loved, to be accepted for being himself rather than for anything he could do or offer or give.

As I read this morning, I was reminded of an encounter that took place many years ago with a young woman called Judith, Annie to her friends. The evening we first met Annie was one of those hot lazy summer evenings that follow long sunny Cambridge days. Students were still lounging on the grass of Jesus Green and the smell of just bought bargain barbeques drifted across to where we were sitting on the pavilion. As had become our routine, we were feasting on cheese and ham sandwiches and slurping hot (very sugary) tea with some of the homeless people we had got to know. Annie was a new addition.

Annie was incredibly funny, quick to laugh. Her sense of humour dangerously dry. She seemed to immediately erase that awkwardness of talking to someone who isn’t quite the same as you. She was wearing those strange Nike trainers that look like camel’s hooves and we had a long conversation about how cool it was that they were pink before discussing at length potential outfits for a fancy dress party she was going to. After debating the pros and cons of bumble bee stripes we settled on a rabbit: Annie Rabbit.

As we chatted, our friend Ben came bounding across the grass and flopped down beside us. He had just been to fetch a packet of strepsils for Annie, and some sun cream for her somewhat burnt companions. Annie, continuing the animal theme of the evening, instantly re-dubbed him as “The Gazelle”. Many months later it was with these words, stuttered out in confusion, that she greeted Hamish and I as we visited her in hospital. 

We were tentative. Unsure of what to say. Stumbling over words that we couldn't quite find to explain why we had come and how we had found out she was in hospital. As ever, it was Annie who dispelled the awkwardness. Despite her obvious pain, a pain that was etched into her worn out face, Annie remained beautifully alive. Her body was a mess: she could hardly walk on swollen legs; her stomach was distended, yet she looked so small and so thin; the dye was nearly gone from her limp hair but it remained defiantly tied back in a ponytail with a sparkling butterfly clasp. That clasp was a reminder of the woman we had met, but it was not the only one:  she knew all the names of the staff, and all the patients on the ward and, in the same way that she had with us on that first day, had overcome their barriers with laughter. She was even plotting an elaborate Halloween ward round delivering midnight goodies to the children’s beds and scaring them with a makeshift costume of a green wig made from hospital pyjamas! She was quite remarkable.

Nouwen writes that Adam, by his life, his need, his presence, invited him to "receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given [to Nouwen] for his transformation." Adam's life was a gift to Nouwen through which he would be changed, through which the roles of carer and cared for would be reversed and Adam would become his guide, his teacher, his friend. Annie's life was a gift to me in the same way. 

As I sat by Annie's bed, God started to teach me that same lesson: the lesson of learning to trust the still, small voice of the Father which whispers, "You, yes you, are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased." As Adam was God's gift to Nouwen to teach him that beautiful truth, so Annie was a precious gift to me. She, perhaps more than anyone else in my life, taught me that God loves me when I'm not doing anything, that God is not impressed by the standards of the world, by our aspirations and plans, our riches and our fame. He is our Father. 
I visited her in hospital on her own one day. Without Hamish, I was fearful. Worried of not knowing what to say, stopping in the corridor to gather my thoughts. I was afraid of getting it wrong. I was also scared because I knew that Annie was sick. Really sick. I knew that her body was broken and fragile, her face darkly discoloured by bruises and jaundice. I knew that she might not live much longer. Feeling awkward and foolish, I sat beside her bed. Annie's liver was failing. Her jeans were soaked with a liquidy pus that wept from her legs and the material clung painfully to her legs. She asked me to help her change and I did, not knowing where to look, and frightened by the brokenness of her young body. That day, Annie was tired. Worm out by her sickness and, I think, by life. I brushed her hair for her and she curled up on the hospital bed. Within minutes, she was sound asleep. She was tiny, drowned by sterilised sheets. I sat still for a long time and watched her. 

In that moment I knew, irrevocably, that I loved her. I was surprised by the depth and suddenness of the emotion as it came. I did not love Annie because of anything she could do for me - in that moment she could do nothing - I loved her for herself, for her presence, for the gift of her company, for the fact that she had allowed me into her life and her story. I loved her because she was Annie. And in that moment, God spoke to me. That is how I love you, he said. I love you like you love Annie. Not because you can do anything for me, not because you need to give anything to me, or prove yourself, or earn my love but because I am God and you are Nic and you are my beloved.

Beside that hospital bed, my poverty, my brokenness, my need to be loved, met Annie's. We were the same, equally loved by our creator, equally poor in ourselves, equally rich in the bestowal of his abundant grace. Nouwen writes that being friends with Adam changed him; it forced him to encounter his own poorness of spirit, his own frailty: "It was as if the planks that had covered my emotional abyss had been taken away and I was left looking into a canyon full of wild animals waiting to devour me. I found myself overwhelmed by intense feelings of abandonment, rejection, neediness, dependence, despair...I was going into the deep human struggle to believe in my belovedness even when I had nothing to be proud of." 

Annie died a few months later. 

We knocked on the door of the flat she shared with her partner, Paul, to be told that we had better come up. We went to her funeral and sat with our friends to grieve together. My life and Annie's only intersected for a couple of years; we met perhaps a dozen times but that moment beside her bed changed me. She did not know it, but in being my friend, in sharing her story, in letting me see her at her most vulnerable, in laughing together, in crying together, Annie gave me an incredible gift: she gave the gift of herself and it was, like Adam's gift to Henri, a gift of transformation. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

In the ditch

About this time last year, I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine whose wife had given birth to twins 15 weeks early. Jack and Emily were born on 28th February 2014 weighing in at just over a pound each. At that time, my friend and his wife had been living in intensive care for over two months still not really knowing whether their children would live. It was awful. I had no idea what to say over the phone. No words could possibly be adequate.

I was reminded of this incident yesterday by two things: the first was something posted on Facebook showing a series of cards that have been specifically designed to give to people upon the news of their cancer diagnosis. My favourite is the one that says: "There is no good card for this. (I'm so sorry)" As I looked at the cards, I thought to myself that us Christians have a lot to learn about what to say and when to say it. Sometimes it is impossible to find the words and yet we still strive to say something, anything, rather than sit there in a horribly silent void. Even though that horribly silent void is probably preferable to a glib assertion that we are praying. 
The second was a conversation over dinner with my beautiful friend, Jax, who has been struggling with a chronic degenerative back problem for many years. Her back has not been healed. Despite the prayers and the crying out to God and the anguish, it has not been healed. Nor does it show any sign of miraculously being healed any time soon. 

I do not say these things to be sensationalist, or offensive or because of a lack of faith. I believe that both myself and Jax have the faith for God to fully heal her back, just as Chad and Steph had the faith for God to intervene into the lives of their twins. But, what do we make of the sharp, painful pause before the healing? What do we do with the in the meantime moment? What do we do as we sit in the ditch and sob and prayer remains unanswered? When there really is nothing to be said or done, when no words can comfort, and no action can suffice. 

As I spoke to my friend over the phone, I asked him how he was. A stupid question but I didn't know what else to say. He said many profound and humble things that left me with a lump in my throat and a sense of the incredible littleness and meanness of so many of my own complaints. The thing that he said that I will always remember is that he would rather be in the ditch with Jesus than without him. That somehow, in the midst of all that was happening, it was the simple knowledge of a Jesus who sat down in the ditch with him and wept alongside him that made it bearable. Jesus, the man of sorrows, the one who is familiar with pain sat in the quietness and the stillness and the mess of the ditch with my friend. 

I recounted this conversation to Jax last night as we chatted. There is such beautiful simplicity in what Chad said: that the answer is not praying (although, of course, we pray and we pray and we pray); the answer is not in attempting to fix what is broken, to make sense of what is broken, or explain how it got broke in the first place; the answer is that Jesus is. Jesus is here. Emmanuel. God with us.

At a seminar at college last weekend, Adrian Chatfield shared about a translation of the bible that struggled to cope with God's name as 'I AM.' He asked us what we would call the God who names himself 'I AM' in culture that didn't understand philosophical reasoning, a culture without a category for thinking in that way. In this particular language that he referred to the translation of 'I AM' was 'I am the God who is really really here.' 

We believe in a God who is the ever present one. We believe that Jesus took on all that it meant to be human. That he suffered alongside us and that there is no painful experience that is beyond his understanding. He chose to embrace all of our frailty fully knowing how much that would hurt and what it would look like to die rejected and abandoned, bloody and ashamed. 

I love this ♥ (I would like to volunteer to hug you until it feels better. This may take awhile. I'll bring snacks.)Perhaps, before we stumble to find clumsy words to say, we need to remind ourselves of the One who is really really here. The solution is not that we pray and Jesus fixes; the solution is that Jesus is here in the mess and the muddle and the hurt and the pain. He sits with us in the ditch. We need to learn to do that for one another. To sit beside our dear friends in the ditch, without words, and be those who are really really there, even if we don't know what to say. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Fully well

I have had something or other wrong with my bowels for many years. Initially, after returning from Malawi in 2005, I convinced myself that I had some kind of strange, exotic parasite that just needed to be zapped by modern medicine. Ten years later and no such parasite has materialised. My bowels have continued to niggle on and off, sometimes worse, sometimes better, but always noticeably not quite right. Most of the time, dysfunctional bowels are an embarrassment rather than a physical pain but having a digestive system that doesn’t do what it’s meant to do is pretty emotionally wearing and can often leave me feeling tired, grumpy and frustrated. The past three years, in particular, have been hard: visits to the doctor, referrals to various consultants at the hospital, endlessly having to explain and re-explain symptoms, tests, tablets, exclusion diets – and all to no real avail. And then there is the faith side of things: what to do with belief in a good God of healing when you don’t get healed; how to keep allowing people to pray for you when you stop really believing that it’s going to work; how to keep trusting in a God of both love and power when you are suffering and struggling and nothing seems to change.

I don’t have any answers.

It’s important to state that at the beginning because I know how frustrating it is when people try to give answers. It’s downright annoying. Sometimes all the well-wishing and love and good motivation in the world makes you want to hit people in the face. Sometimes when people optimistically look at you and suggest praying you have to bite back the cynicism that is itching to escape, swallow down the bitter comments busily composing themselves and begrudgingly agree to appease the other person’s naïveté.

I hate that about myself.

I hate that I have become bitter and cross and frustrated by the faith of others.

And in the midst of it all, I am trying to wrestle with what to think of God, how to talk to God, how to love Him and trust Him and believe that he is who he says he is.

A few months ago, I wanted to give up altogether. It was a daily battle of trying to hold on to all the seemingly conflicting parts of God’s character and each time my prayer for healing went unanswered, the doubts expanded, the bitterness soured.  A ritual recitation of what I knew to be true: God is love. God is powerful. God is love. God is powerful. God is love. God is powerful. But if he loves me then why isn’t he sorting this out. But if he’s so powerful then why can’t he fix it. Maybe he doesn’t love me. Maybe I’m being punished. Maybe it is my fault. Maybe he’s impotent. Maybe he’s not powerful at all. Maybe God doesn’t really heal today anymore. He can’t. That was a thing of the past but it doesn’t happen now.

And, of course, once you start thinking like that prayer becomes pretty much impossible. Failure to hold on to the truth of God’s love birthed a steadily growing fear of him in my heart. I was too scared to pray to him, to try and talk to him, lest he was angry, vengeful, ready to laugh at me for my belief that I mattered to him. And failure to hold on to God’s power to heal birthed doubts that started to gnaw away at me: what’s the point in praying? Prayer was a futile exercise that wasn’t going to achieve anything. The skies were empty. Or, if not empty, then occupied by a distant God who didn’t really care very much.

The writer of the Hebrews says this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 6:3) Somewhere along the line I had managed to sever the two halves of that verse from each other. I still had God. I still had faith but it wasn’t in the good God who rewards those who keep looking to him. It was in some slightly twisted version of God, God off kilter, God out of joint, God who either could do nothing to help me or didn’t love me.

And the continual prayers for healing weren’t helping. God doesn’t will sickness. God doesn’t want you to be ill. You need to have more faith. We just need to pray. In the name of Jesus I pronounce you well. I declare that your sickness is gone.

But it wasn’t. And I was losing grip on any frame work that could help me make sense of God and sickness.

At that point, I stumbled against Brother Lawrence. Hamish and I were on retreat in the Peak District and I had taken two books with me: The Practice of the Presence of God by Lawrence and The Pursuit of God by A.W.Tozer. Clearly God knew what he was doing in the choice: both books had been on my book shelf for months waiting to be read and I’d reluctantly grabbed them both last minute as I’d forgotten to buy anything else to take with me.

The last section of Lawrence’s book includes several letters exchanged between him and a sick friend. He writes this:

“I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains; but I pray God earnestly that He would give you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases. Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastened to the cross: He will loose you when He thinks fit. Happy those who suffer with Him: accustom yourself to suffer in that manner, and seek from Him the strength to endure as much, and as long, as He shall judge to be necessary for you. The men of the world do not comprehend these truths, nor is it to be wondered at, since they suffer like what they are, and not like Christians: they consider sickness as a pain to nature, and not as a favour from God; and seeing it only in that light, they find nothing in it but grief and distress. But those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, as the effects of His mercy, and the means which He employs for their salvation, commonly find in it great sweetness and sensible consolation.”

I do not offer his words as a universal answer to suffering. I do not suggest that they can be applied to any and every situation where a prayer has gone unanswered but, for me, in that moment of stumbling upon them, God provided a new paradigm inside which I could operate: it was possible to think of sickness differently. Not as punishment or spiritual attack but as a gift, a favour, something given by the one who knows what He is doing and always acts for our good.

Even as I type these words I am aware of a reaction that they will cause. I am also aware that, on most days, I do not view physical suffering and discomfort as a gift. And yet, the bible does say that suffering has a purpose. In God’s kingdom, suffering is not pointless, or random, or erratic. There is an intentionality about what God will allow his people to go through. Paul is given the thorn in the flesh and God will not remove it. (2 Corinthians 12). That does not, cannot, mean that God does not love Paul. Nor can it mean that God is powerless to help Paul. Something happens to Paul in the midst of his suffering that could not happen without him suffering.

do not understand this. But I can see something of it in my own life, and whereas I cannot continue this endless battle of doubting God’s love and his power, I can, at least in part, see how my struggle could be for my good. In one of his chapters, Tozer prays, “Thou be exalted over my comforts. Though it mean the loss of bodily comforts and the carrying of heavy crosses I shall keep my vow this day before thee.” As I prayed these words, I felt the Lord speak that he would have me fully well. Fully well. Not just physically well. He would have for me total shalom, total wellness. Not just a cure for IBS. He would have all my heart and all my mind and all my soul made well.

On a good day, I believe that my struggle with IBS is part of this. Physical struggle is only a fraction of what is really going on. Something bigger and greater that I can imagine is happening: God is refining my faith. God is making me the woman that he would have me be; God is making me one who will lean on him without question (Song of Songs 8:5), one who will not be swayed by circumstance (Philippians 4:11-13), one whose love for him is not dependant on whether he is answering my prayer or not, one who loves him deeply and honestly in the midst of hurt and confusion. One like Peter who, despite messing it up and getting it wrong and never fully understanding, can say again and again and again, Lord, you know that I love you, and mean every word every time.

At the start of his letter, James writes, “Brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.” (James 1:3-4) This is a completely ridiculous thing to say. When you are suffering, even if it is as bad as it can possibly get and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, even when all the world tells you that you are a fool to believe, you are to think of what is happening as something completely and utterly joyful. Not just a little bit of fake plastic smile to cover the reality, but real, deep down, bubbling up, unadulterated joy. How can that be true? How can it be possible to view pain with joy?

This is what Jesus did. For the joy, the charan, set before Him, he endured. He endured the cross because he knew what was coming next. James tells us that we are to do the same: we are to view trials with joy because we know, as Jesus knew, that there is a greater end result. There is something more important happening than what is seen to be happening. James says that trials are what teach us to persevere. We cannot learn perseverance any other way. And we need to learn to persevere because only once perseverance has finished all the work that it needs to do – on our character and foibles, on our tendency to wallow and self-pity, on our suddenness to doubt and look at the waves, and forget who Jesus really is – will we be complete. And, oh God, how I want to be complete. I want to be mature. I want to have a faith that is strong and sure and immovable. The word that James uses for complete here is holokleroi. It’s a bit of a strange word. Holo means whole. Kleroi means a lot, as in the kind of lot that you would cast. Thus, the combination of the two is a kind of divinely allotted wholeness. To be complete is to have all that God has assigned to you entirely as it should be. God would have us complete in every apportioned part. Mind. Body. Heart. Soul. He would have us fully well.  I believe that it will take suffering to get us there. There is no other way.

Much the same thing is said by Peter in his first epistle: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trails. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith –of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7) In the Greek, a dokimion is a trial or test that is used to determine what is genuine, much as someone might test a coin to see if it is real or counterfeit. Thus faith that is proven to be genuine is faith that is approved, faith that has been tried and tested, faith that passes the test needed to prove that it is what it says it is. This is the kind of faith that God would have for his people. Our faith is more precious than treasure to Him. God places such a worth on our faith that he will do whatever is needed to ensure that it can stand up. God’s love for us is such that he will settle for nothing less than the very best faith for us. Complete faith. Genuine faith. Faith that can only be proved through suffering.

I do not think that there is another way.

That is not to say that I do not pray for healing for my bowels. It is not to say that I do not long for my body to be well and for whatever is wrong to be righted. It is not to say that I do not plead with God to remove the suffering, that I do not rant and rage and cry and get frustrated and start to doubt and despair.

But how I long to be mature. How I long to be complete. How I long to be one whose faith is proven to be genuine. And, perhaps, this is God’s way to do it. Perhaps it is the only way to do it.

He would have me fully well.