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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.