The Great Unraveller

We tie it all up so tightly,
the wrapping smooth and taut,
corners perfect,
string stretched and knotted.

We tie it all up so tightly
though it rattles if shaken –
and if truth be told
there’s one too many broken bits within.

We tie it all up so tightly,
trusting those knots to hold –
to discourage inquisitive fingers
or loving investigation.

We tie it all up so tightly,
even though we KNOW
that you are the great unraveller –
your determination endless.

You pick away at those ties,
one by one, so gently
caressing our deathgrip
till at last we open our fingers.

You pick away at that neat wrapping
to show us the gift of ourselves
– shaking out what needs to come free,
revealing the whole picture.

6/8/17 Cornerstone Women’s Retreat, Canowindra

Breath of God

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
a great breath of fresh air,
chasing out the stifling closeness,
waking me from the stupor of sameness,
tickling, teasing, refreshing, revitalising.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
blowing out the cobwebs, sweetening the air,
tempering my temper, opening the shutters,
throwing up the neatly raked pile
in a kaleidoscope of colour.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Almost unnoticed, then whipping up,
suddenly, surprisingly,
throwing the settled mindset awry,
landing perceptions in new places.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
inviting me out into the open air,
the big skies and the misty beauty,
cool air on my skin, whispering promise –
momentum, direction, filling my sails.

5/8/17 Cornerstone Women’s Retreat, Canowindra

The sheepdog story


Several years ago, we were having trouble with our adorable labrador, Hugo.

He was one of those gaze-lovingly-into-your-eyes, chunky-headed, completely loyal, change-your-life kind of dogs. The pet dog I’d always longed for…

When Hugo came into our family, we lived out on the beautiful Cornerstone property in Canowindra. I walked with him every day out on the farm, with a kid or two in a pram. No lead required… he just loped around and always stayed with us.

However, when we moved into town, Hugo didn’t cope at all with the confinement of living inside a fence, and only leaving on a leash. He started to make his own way out – and no matter what we tried, we couldn’t keep him in!

We were at our wits’ end, and one day I was telling a friend about it all, and she said she had an idea that might work. Her friends had had a sheepdog that kept escaping all the time, and they came up with an idea that changed everything. Every day, they put the dog into the yard with the chooks. The dog was completely happy, busily occupied all day with rounding up the chooks!

Somehow the vision of a sheepdog happily (and madly) chasing the chooks spoke deeply to me, right there and then! That was what I was doing… Just running around doing stuff, busying myself with a hundred things that were good to do, or seemed important.

How different is a sheepdog out with the farmer? The farmer gives a single command, and the dog speeds into action… direct dashes effecting excellent results in the paddock, as the dog becomes the outworking of the farmer’s intention. A lot of energy, but all used in the most efficient way, to achieve exactly what is needed.

I want to be like that sheepdog who knows and listens for the master’s voice. Trusting that God is already at work in His world, and learning to join in on what He is doing; rather than madly dashing around doing busy work. The more I learn to wait on Him, the more my prayers and actions are able to be guided by Him, the more I will be free to sense the burdens and the little promptings that the Spirit has for me. Instead of running around chasing the chooks, I want to be able to live in partnership with the One who truly knows and loves those around me, so that He can guide me into lasting and fruitful action.

A story: Made to Fly

In 2012, I was praying a lot in the night for a friend, who was struggling with a lot of fear and mistrust, and I couldn’t sleep. So I got up, felt prompted to grab a notebook and pen, and this story tumbled out – almost word for word as it follows here. I’d love to publish it with pictures one day, and sorry it’s a bit long for a blog post, but I just wanted to share it. There’s a song of mine that seems to go with it too, that I’ll put at the end.


The Kingdom of Sunaria was a place of deep delight. Magnificent winged creatures, the Sunarians revelled in the joy of their existence as they swooped and soared. Light played on all the hues of their thick feathered wings, their tanned faces alive and radiant as they smiled towards the sun. They knew their Maker relished their freedom – He had called them Sons and Daughters of the Light – and this is what they loved to be.

Thosseyo was born a Sunarian too, but one would be hard-pressed to associate him with the Children of the Light. His face was lined and shadowed, his eyes had a haunted look. At times, as he stood looking out to the open sky, a wistful expression would steal into his face. The sunshine played with him, daring him to dive into its brilliance; the breeze ruffled along his glorious back.

But always, Thosseyo would remain on the land.

His gaze would drift downward, down to the deceptive shimmer of the wide ocean, down to the waves crashing endlessly on the rocks far below. The ocean might sparkle and the whitecaps play; but what terrors were beneath that innocent surface? He had heard tales of sharp-toothed beasts, of stinging creatures, of unknown horrors in the vast depths. He had even known of one who had flown too close to the brilliant blue, and had never returned!

Once again Thosseyo’s eyes would dull over with fear, his face beginning to reveal his panicked thoughts. His feet propelled him back, back, away from the edge – away from the place of danger. His shoulders slumped, the wings lifeless as he slowly turned and trudged back down the hill to the dirty town below.

Dankwater was well named – there was no light and brilliance there. The sun’s rays were hard-pressed to penetrate through the thick-walled hovels that were clumped together in a mess of poverty. A foul stream ran down one side of the town, made worse by the trickle of refuse and rottenness that stole past the dishevelled dwellings.

The inhabitants of this town were hardened to the ugliness of their environment. They shaded their eyes with thick dark glass, wide hats keeping their faces in the gloom. Their broad shoulders were weighed down by great heavy cloaks, roughly woven and clasped tightly at the neck.

Thosseyo took up his cloak as he passed the last tree at the base of the hill. He humped it onto his back and winced as the clasp bit into his neck. The pain was almost relieving, as it mirrored just a fraction of the agony he felt within. Why on earth did he torture himself with this useless climb? Why did he continue to hope, when he knew there was nothing to be gained? The familiar churning in his gut returned as his thoughts tossed to and fro, like leaves tossed by the wind.

He walked past the ale house, repulsed by the sounds of revelry within. Faces he knew leered at the window as he passed. One woman called his name from the doorway, then laughed loudly as he slumped on down the path.

Thosseyo finally reached his own dwelling, and felt within his cloak for the heavy old key with which to enter. When he turned the handle, his shoulders stiffened as a heavy hand was laid on his back.
“Thosseyo! My friend! Where have you been?”. The tone of voice in no way matched the words. Thosseyo’s face took on an even more haunted look – the door was open now, and his companion was right with him at the entrance.

“Where do you go, every day, Thosseyo? Why do you slink out of the town, and leave your cloak at the dying tree?”

Thosseyo’s dread was palpable. His unwelcome guest had a great ability to ignore his mute discomfort – he regularly pushed his way into Thosseyo’s hovel and made himself quite at home. Today was no exception. Thosseyo wearily entered, and the shadowy figure followed, filling up the room with his gloomy presence.

The conversation that followed went along all-too-familiar lines: endless questioning of Thosseyo’s actions, and the motives behind them; and all of the underlying causes and effects, real or imagined. A tirade of warnings and fearful tales – every dangerous possibility explored and exposed. Scorn, accusations, threats… Even though Thosseyo experienced this volley of negativity daily, it never ceased to leave him ragged and worn, a sorry picture of despair.

When he was finally alone, Thosseyo could still hear the litany of lies and fears. His teeth were on edge, his brain wired, his panic threatening to spill over into madness. When finally he could no longer fight his weariness, Thosseyo’s dreams were haunted and disturbed.

However, the next day still found him nearing the cliff’s edge, the chilly wind pulling and pushing at his dejected wings. In spite of his misery, Thosseyo could not seem to let go of this desperate daily climb. Or perhaps there was something that could not let go of him – a longing that refused to die, a yearning for all that he had ever dreamed to be real. The questioning of his accursed intruder could not completely drown out his deeper questions. Why have wings – bleached and tatty though they may be – if not to fly? Why did he wake with tears on his face, not knowing where his dreams had taken him – except that it was home?

Suddenly, Thosseyo’s reverie was broken by a joyful call. He looked up to to see Olena and Kalay speeding toward him, gleefully waving. Their loud greetings were followed by warm arms grasping him close.
“Today, Thosseyo! Surely today you will turn your back on this slavery, and join us in the sky!” Kalay’s voice had no trace of accusation.
“Yes, Thosseyo”, Olena smiled, “You know you were made for this!”
“If only I could, my beautiful friends! If only I were like you, strong and able to lift myself off this heavy earth!”

This, also, was an all-too-familiar conversation. Thosseyo was sometimes overwhelmed by the extremities of his situation – blinding light to hellish darkness, all in the one day! (All in the one hour, even the one minute, within his own thoughts!). His longing to be free was like a bitter poison, mocking his useless and hopeless reality. The disappointment he lived in threatened his sanity, leaving him feeling weary and lost – like a paper-thin shell.

Kalay embraced him afresh. “No, my friend! We are not strong! It is not our power that lifts us up to the heights!
All we do is let go of our grasp on the earth, and surrender to the One who is in this wind! We were made to fly, and all we do is step off, and find ourselves carried, lifted by the wind’s own power and strength.
You think we are able to send ourselves here and there, as we will. But what we do is rest on the wind, and enjoy the surge of its breath taking us wherever it wants!”

A harsh voice rose up over the hill, from the direction of Dankwater. Thosseyo’s heart chilled – the words stole away any hope that had been there. The voice was coming closer…

Olena’s eyes filled with tears. “Come with us, my brother! He has no claim over you! He wants to keep you away from the light; but it was light you were made for! It is light that you long for!”

Fears screamed at Thosseyo! All the familiar worries and doubts clung to him like a thornbush and he knew he would be shredded to pieces if he tried to break away. He had failed so many times before; how could this attempt be any different?

His feet had NEVER once left the ground…

But Olena and Kalay were holding his hands, their beautiful wings shimmering in the sun’s rays. Thosseyo’s own wings still felt heavy and dank as they had always been. His old companion was at the top the hill now, yelling insults and dire warnings.

This was indeed a moment of clarity! A choice had to be made –with lasting consequence. Thosseyo could no longer cower in the no-man’s-land of self-doubt and longing.

The step he took almost finished him! Right on the cliff’s edge he could almost feel the spray and mist of the churning ocean crashing onto the jagged rocks. How could he be so deluded – 0h, this was a terribly foolhardy place to be and he would surely be dashed to pieces! But then a deeper voice whispered, “Even death would be better than this endless clinging to the edge!”

And that was all he needed. He stepped out…
…into the vast unknown
…into the yawning abyss of trusting,
… up, up, up into the glorious blue!

To listen to a song along these lines, click on the link below:
The Safest Place

The Good gifts (2) – The discipline of Celebration

I’ve had to learn a thing or two in my life, thus far,
one thing I know is that sadness grows, the more we see of life.
It’s like I need to train myself to see the shafts of light in the gloom,
but when I do a flood breaks through of sweet gratitude.
I’m not saying you turn your back on the griefs you face,
You mourn your losses but count each joy as a gift of grace.

So many good gifts, so many tastes of sweetness,
there’s a lot of darkness here, that’s why we need to treasure all the joy!

I wrote this song several years ago, after reading a life-changing passage in Henri Nouwen’s book, ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ (a beautiful read, by the way). I can still remember the tears streaming down my face as I tried to read aloud a section entitled “The Father Celebrates” to my husband, as we drove along.

Nouwen points out that in spite of all the sin, sadness and waste of the younger son’s betrayal, the Father still chose to celebrate all that could be celebrated when he returned. This is a surprising, but very dear truth revealed about God. The one who knows every speck of weakness and folly in us, every evidence of darkness and sin in the world, deliberately chooses to acknowledge and focus on the reality of the good that has happened, and to actively rejoice in it. This is not some Pollyanna-ish denial of reality – the Father acknowledges that his son had been dead, but was now alive, and so on. For some of us, all the pain and injustice we see in the world can become central (and overwhelming) in our thinking and outlook; but in contrast the Father chooses to celebrate every small event of faith, goodness and redemption.

That day, I realised that to celebrate goodness is to choose to recognise and applaud the reality of God’s kingdom – here in the midst of this evil age. Though the darkness shouts loudly, every ‘shaft of light in the gloom’ is just as real as the darkness. In fact you could say that it’s more real, because it is from God, and will last forever; whereas the evil, the failures and all the tears will one day be left behind (Rev 21:4)! Nouwen urges us to train ourselves to actively seek out the joys – he calls it stealing (ie. searching out to grasp hold of) all the joy that there is to be had in life. Could it actually be an act of spiritual defiance to notice and celebrate every shred of God’s goodness – as if to say, “I will not be overcome by the darkness in and around me, because it is a passing shadow compared to the glorious light that is here and real!”?

I believe the importance of this habit of celebrating, this spiritual discipline of active gratitude, cannot be underestimated. As neuroscience discovers more about the plasticity of the brain, I wonder if we’ll see that life habits like these could be forming neural pathways that are transformative to say the least. The idea of treasuring all the joy has been quite revolutionary in my whole way of living, and has dragged me out of the depths many times. The truth that every good gift comes from the Father of Lights (James 1:17) has the power to make even an ordinary day alive with gratitude. When I recognise the fact that everything that I have has been given by God (1 Cor 4:7), it allows me to live with a more open hand: a lighter hold on my possessions, abilities and whatever else I call mine. Looking for and celebrating what the Father is doing in my world (John 5:17) reminds me that His Kingdom is alive, and that I might even join in with what He is doing (calls to mind that saying, “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”).

The fact is, I don’t need practise in noticing the darkness, in feeling the pain and weight of the very real sorrows and wounds of this broken and enslaved world, or of my own heart. I am already expert in that! What I do need, and what is bringing great joy into my life, is a growing ability to trace the Father’s hand in the midst of it, and to lift my vision to be able to receive the gifts that He gives to comfort and bless, all along the way…
Sun on my back in the middle of winter, kissing a newborn’s cheek,
Beautiful coffee from my husband each day of the week,
Children laughing uncontrollably, tickling toddler’s tums,
Seeing their imaginations fully on the run!
Playing my banjo in the recliner, singing silly songs,
Eating, oh too much to say here, shame it puts weight on!
Sunsets, oceans, clouds and trees – I cannot get enough!
So many beautiful things I lo-o-o-o-ove! Oh!

So many good gifts, so many tastes of sweetness,
there’s a lot of darkness here, that’s why we need to treasure all the joy!

(Quotes from “So many good gifts”, c. Nerida Cuddy 2011)

Gift-Getting: more Christian than you think


It was Jesus himself who said: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive”.  At this time of year, we try (mostly unsuccessfully) to remember this; and especially to impress it on our children!

Then Christmas morning comes, young eyes are ablaze with excitement, brightly coloured paper is ripped open, and everyone in the room delights in the pure, unabashed joy of children receiving presents! My son in particular is most enjoyable to watch.  A young man of passion and enthusiasm, his grandparents LOVE watching him open presents – because of his extremely exuberant response!

It struck me the other day that a child’s delight in, and focus on, receiving presents was actually something we adults might need to emulate. It’s easy, especially for people wanting to be Christian, to have the idea that we are meant to be always pouring ourselves out for others: serving, helping, sacrificing and, in general, being good.  Of course, the main reason we have this kind of idea is because it is Jesus’ calling for people who want to follow in his footsteps.

However, there is a much less-understood idea that puts all of the giving in its proper place. Even in Jesus’ time, this idea was hard for people to grasp, especially for those who were known for their goodness and sacrifice. In one of the first recorded talks by Jesus, he says: ‘Blessed are the paupers in spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs’! One writer says the word means ‘reduced to being a beggar’. Rather than being someone who has it all together, always able to do the right thing, and give to everyone around them; the main posture of a Christian is to reach out your empty hands, aware of your need, aware that you don’t have what it takes in yourself. Another time, Jesus explains the idea by saying that we can only be His if we come like a little child: dependent, trusting, empty-handed until someone gives what we need. Only after receiving from him, do we have something to give.

So, maybe this Christmas, we might all learn a thing or two about spiritual life by watching the sheer longing, and joyful receiving, of the little people around us. It might help us learn to open our hearts and our hands to the great Giver, who didn’t hold back, but came in person – generously, joyfully, and whole-heartedly.

BUSY!!!

BUSY!
Well it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write a blogpost… this year has felt like a galloping, out-of-control beast and I’ve rarely felt like I’m in the saddle let alone holding the reigns! A far cry from the blissful “year for myself” I’d somehow imagined might happen when my youngest went to school. (The phrase “for myself” should probably have aroused immediate suspicion, anyway. Life generally saves us from having that kind of approach; and it definitely has in my case, with my husband having a building accident & head injury at the beginning of January which has left him with longer-than-expected term fatigue issues.)

So, for a number of reasons, I’ve found myself running pretty ragged by October, and this has in turn led me to see a few things more clearly than before.

A couple of friends have recently said, in the flow of conversation, that they thought I was too busy to be interested or involved in whatever we were talking about. It got me thinking. How/why do I give off that impression? In actual fact, because of my husband’s health, this year has actually had to be a lot less ‘busy’ in terms of hospitality, activities and going away than we have ever been. It’s been a year for “pulling in”, for knowing our limitations, and for saying “no” to quite a few things. So why have my friends had this impression? And why have I felt like I’ve been trying to ride a “galloping beast” most of the time?

It seems to me like ‘busy’ can be a state of mind, as much as a state of life. For me, I wonder if the feeling of carrying extra burdens this year, of having less headspace and emotional energy, and of never quite getting on top of household jobs, means that I tend to feel busier than I actually am. It’s more about the internal world than the actual things I need to do. Maybe this feeling of only just managing is what my friends are picking up on.

For our culture I wonder if busyness is actually becoming endemic. It seems like that anyway: so many people describe themselves as “busy” when you ask how they are doing, like they are not quite keeping up with everything they need to do. It’s like there is a plague of stress, and a whole country of people running around madly all the time! In some parts of our society, it is almost becoming like something of a virtue – a badge of honour! Those who are not too busy are obviously not pulling their weight; those who refuse to be workaholics are frowned on, and even openly criticised by those who can’t stand to see them taking time to be with their family, or gardening, or pursuing creative expression.

It’s a hard thing: there are jobs that need doing, there are people whose jobs or life circumstances are genuinely demanding and completely pre-occupying. It’s all very well to say, “We shouldn’t be so busy” when they just know they have to do what they do or there will be dire consequences.

However, I do feel like my eyes are being opened to certain habits in my own life that have definitely increased my feelings of stress and busyness. Recently I’ve decided that unless it’s absolutely needed (eg. finishing preparing a class for the next day, etc), that I will keep my laptop computer in my office, rather than dragging it all over the place, particularly to the loungeroom. I realised that my husband and I were actually working and/or problem solving right up to the moment when we went to bed. Even browsing through google-land or facebook often becomes a form of problem solving, just evaluating information, finding relevant answers to things, or judging what to look at or discard. No wonder people are feeling overwhelmed, if every waking moment requires their brain’s active involvement in intellectual and/or emotional quandaries. I feel like I’m saying to my laptop, and to the whole world of activity it represents: “Back in your box! I’m not going to be ruled by you”.

My husband and I used to take turns in giving each other a regular ‘Sabbath’ – it came around for us once a fortnight, when the other would take our 3 young kids out for about 4 hours, giving the other one blessed headspace and quiet! This habit gave me such strength and hope for the other 13 days of the fortnight, it was like I could handle just about anything, because I knew that rest and reflection and QUIET was coming!! Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, we are not doing this any more; and I am beginning to realise how much of a gift the idea of Sabbath has been for humans. Someone said it’s to remind us that we are not machines; and I think it also reminds us that productivity and hard work needs to be balanced by solitude, silence and also fun and celebration.
So, I’m starting to look at how I can regain “Sabbath” in life: if not a whole chunk of time by itself, at least in definite times and spaces through the week.

The word “No” is very difficult for some people to utter, and I am thankful that this year has helped me again to practise using it, because I’ve just had to. A friend once very helpfully taught me, “You have to choose your failures”. In other words I can’t do everything, and if I don’t say no to some of the lesser balls I’m juggling, I will end up dropping balls that should never have been dropped. Life is such a difficult test of our ability to weigh up, to choose, to refine and to confine ourselves too. In our culture, it’s almost excruciating – because we have so many options, so many good things on offer, so rich a world to freely explore on every level. We don’t want to turn our back on things that could be great, enjoyable or helpful; we don’t to miss out on anything.

I have a friend who provides a great place of peace for me, in terms of her friendship. She lives on a farm, she has small children, she is a ceramic artist. She is not a ‘busy’ person; she relishes a good cup of tea, she delights in her children and their interests, she even speaks quite slowly (and very kindly). A couple of years ago, she asked if I would like to come and learn to throw pots in her studio. What a blessing that has been! When you are trying to make a pot on a wheel, you have to “centre” the clay. The wheel spins, fast, and your hands raise and lower the lump of clay until it is just in the right position. When it is centred, it looks still somehow, in spite of the fact that it is spinning: there are no wobbles or parts out of place. Then you can begin to form the pot.

The thing that makes me laugh is that my pots often tend to reflect my state of mind. Once I went to the studio after lunch, and my friend told me mornings must be the better time for me – because by that time of day I was so tired and distracted that I just couldn’t focus to make a single thing work! But even on some mornings, I don’t centre properly, so my poor pot starts wobbling madly, or else it gets warped by uneven pressure, or it just completely crumples under my hand.

It’s such a great analogy for life!! We need to be centred. We need to have peace, clarity and focus inside in order to be able to know what we are meant to do, and then be able to do it. If we never have time or space to even know our own heart, let alone connect with our Maker, how can we form into the beautiful, useful, fully matured person we were intended to be?

I’m preaching to myself, you know :).

EXPERIENCE

There is a village high in the eastern mountains of Papua called Korupun. Flying into this village is like stepping into another world – especially two decades ago, when a friend and I were privileged to visit a long term missionary nurse called Jessie Williamson. When we arrived, the airstrip was surrounded by a large crowd of staring Kimyal people: dark-skinned, hair tightly curled, many wearing their traditional dress. We stepped off the tiny plane, and very soon afterwards we were running on impossibly thin tracks along mountain edges and through lush green grass, following about fifteen laughing barefoot children who were determined to show us a very special place near their village. Finally we arrived, and for the first time in our lives, we were actually able to stand behind the rushing torrent of a large waterfall! The feel of freezing water through our fingers, the crashing roar of the waterfall, the bright and shining smiles of the children, the smells of vegetation and oily skin, the unforgettable taste (a few days later) of lean mountain pork cooked in the ground… 21 years later, these memories are all as vivid as ever, and this whole experience still impacts my life in several ways.

Unless you go to a place like this, it’s very hard to really grasp the reality of it. You can read about it, hear others’ stories, see photos and movies, and apply your imagination. All of these things help a lot; but there’s nothing like actually being there, taking in the whole picture through your senses. The fact that I’d actually been there also made such a huge difference to my relationship with several students from Papua, whom I later came to teach. The level of understanding and empathy was much greater, because they knew that I did have at least some concept of where they were coming from, which was such a world away from here.

John explodes with the vividness and sensory nature of real life experience in his description of his knowledge of Jesus:
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands..(I John 1)
Peter, similarly underlines the fact that they “were made eye-witnesses of His majesty… This happened to us…” (2 Peter 1). He contrasts his real experience of Jesus with “cleverly invented fables“. In their accounts of Jesus’ life, both John and Luke underline that they are writing from eyewitness accounts (Lk 1:2, Jn 19:35); and many subsequent commentators have pointed out that their accounts read like real life, with all the details and ‘unnecessary’ information that only recollection of real experience includes. God obviously deeply values human experience, since His whole revelation of Himself took place in the context of human lives, culminating in the Incarnation: He Himself taking on a human body and a human life. And this continued on after He left – the ones who responded to Jesus’ invitation to live their lives in union with Him found their whole lives transformed, in a profound and experiential way.

It may seem strange to some people that I am highlighting the fact that Christianity is supposed to be something that is experienced! For many this goes without saying; however, I am aware of other strands of Christianity where the notion of an experiential approach to faith comes under suspicion. I know there are good reasons for this: excesses are easy to find in the Christian world, and so many wrong (or just plain weird) things have been done in the name of God or his Holy Spirit. However, the reactionary position leaves many Christians with a faith that is comprised primarily of intellectual belief and (hopefully) a corresponding lifestyle of obedience. The important area of trust in, and the underpinning experience of, God is often lacking. In fact, there have been Christians I’ve known personally who would actively warn against an experiential faith, or anything that would involve the emotional sphere of life. Many others have a great deal of suspicion and/or scepticism toward the same.

This is to their great loss, and to the loss of those watching on who don’t yet know Jesus. The thing that went on to transform the whole Roman Empire within a couple of centuries was the unmistakable, undeniable evidence that Jesus’ life and love and power was somehow continuing to be expressed through the lives of those who followed him. Their lives pulsated with a confidence, a courage, a love and an obviously spiritual power that they continually attributed to the Spirit of Jesus within them, not to their own resources. Phillips expresses it so well:
… The great difference between present-day Christianity and that of which we read in these letters is that to us it is primarily a performance, to them it was a real experience. We are apt to reduce the Christian religion to a code, or at best a rule of heart and life. To these men it is quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new quality of life altogether.
(Extract from LETTERS TO YOUNG CHURCHES, translator’s preface,p. 14.*)

Some strands of Christianity are, in effect, requiring their members to do the impossible: to be willing to obey – even to the point of laying down their lives perhaps, for someone they only relate to in an intellectual way. They are calling them to witness to others about God and what He can do, while discouraging them from experiencing what God might actually want to do in their own lives. I am amazed at the lengths good committed Christians will go to to live out their faith, even though they may not feel or know by experience the love and goodness of God, nor have they known His healing for the deep wounds and brokenness that may be lurking within.

Jesus Himself calls us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength. The mind alone is not enough to successfully keep us going, Jesus calls us to go to the frightening places: to allow Him to unearth our griefs, that we might mourn them with Him; to expose our fears, that we might bring them to Him; to bring to the surface all our deepest questions, doubts and false beliefs, that He might begin to bring His truth to our innermost parts. This can be quite a traumatic experience, I know, but this is the holistic way that real discipleship works, that Jesus works – when we let Him.

Moreover, many Christians have built such a lifestyle of silencing and suppressing that they are disconnected not only from their real feelings, but from who they are. In the name of obedience, they have misunderstood that God doesn’t want to just conform us on the outside, but to bring every part of who we are into the orbit of His love and leading. Christians need to know what they love to do, who they’ve been made to be, so they can be freed to express the individual gifts, passions and joys that God has woven into their souls, in a way that glorifies God**. It also often has the added bonus of being able to deepen their connections with people who don’t yet know Him.

You see, just like that highland village in Papua was a ‘world away’ from all that I had known up till that point; a life immersed in the Kingdom of God can be almost unimaginable to many. As Brueggemann puts it:
…nobody can change stories unless an alternative story is made richly available with great artistry, love and boldness.
That is the reason why it is so important for us to allow the life and love of God to permeate our whole experience of life: so that we are deeply and utterly connected to that ‘alternative story’. For example, there’s a huge difference in the impact of someone who says God is my strength, and someone who knows it by experience, because they’ve taken the risk of genuinely depending on Him in their life. As Brueggemann explains elsewhere,
…Theology is not simply a head-trip, theology is the [setting out] of another way to live in the world…***

And we as Christians are actually inviting people (‘with words, if necessary’) to “come over to that other world”, to see and touch and hold and feel the life and love of Jesus for themselves, just as we have.

 

* The prefaces to JB Phillips’ translations of the gospels, Acts and the NT letters are well worth the read. Although they were written some time ago now, Phillips’ insights and observations have been very relevant and helpful to me and to classes I have taught.
**There is so much more I could, and will, write about this topic, and especially HOW to experience God in a genuine and heartfelt way. My own experience somehow included a deep disconnect between my emotional life and my mind/will. This clip might give you some initial insights into some ways that I have been helped in this area, through my long involvement with Cornerstone Community. http://youtu.be/fHA9Z-Chpbs

*** Brueggemann thoughts are mostly from http://youtu.be/ZjbkHeqO8og – an answer to a question about evangelism

Big and Little

I did something highly unusual in the past week:  I started working through my ‘mending’ box!  Anyone who knows me will be quite shocked, as indeed I am (I must admit, I have tended to save up mending for my dear mum’s visits).  It was a very surprising experience.  I found articles of clothing that I’d forgotten we owned (which was exciting) – and couldn’t believe that with literally a few minutes of stitching, they could return to our wardrobes!  Some things took a little longer, a couple had to go to the rag bag.  But by the end of the second episode of Star Wars (I was trying to ‘value-add’ to a family movie-fest by mending on the side), I’d nearly worked my way through everything: much of which had been in the box for up to five years!  Something which I’d put off, thinking it was such a ‘big job’, was actually minimal.  And just a little bit of stitching had managed to bring about a ‘big’ result.

I wonder how many other things I confuse in this way.  Housework seems like such a daunting prospect sometimes; but throw an hour or a few at it, and things are usually improved.  Bringing up kids is an endless series of ‘little’ incidents and interactions – but in reality, it is my life’s work (at least for 25 years or so).  So many of the ‘little’ areas, such as my way of reacting to problems, the way I speak to them, and all the myriad little occurrences that require consistency and wisdom will – for better or worse – add up to major, lifelong repercussions in their characters (terrifying thought).  Conversely, some minor things that I tend to make a big fuss over would probably be better left alone.

I often wonder if our perceptions about big and little might be somewhat warped.  I feel like God has been hammering away at this area for a while now, questioning me about the judgments I automatically make – about what is ‘big’ and what is ‘little’: what is worthwhile, and what is a waste; what is important and what is insignificant.  Funnily enough, this little area has massive implications in the way we approach life and ministry!

Our culture generally tells us that Big is Best: big house, big car, big muscles, big bank account, big impact … think BIG!  (And then, think bigger!!)  The church culture has often caught on to this approach too – ‘mega-churches’, ‘international ministries’, big crowds, measurable success, tangible results, strategic thinking…  There can be an unconscious pressure to pursue ‘big’ dreams and to measure yourself or your ministry’s worth by these standards.

Meanwhile, God seems to have very different priorities.  While he obviously delights in the ‘big’ – mountains, blue whales, dinosaurs, galaxies – He seems to equally exult in the small – blue wrens, cacti, micro-organisms, human brain cells…  Pick a flower for example, and you notice that not only does it have exquisite veins running through each petal, but the centre is composed of rows of tiny little florets that are perfect in their detail.  Just about everything in His creation is like that – you look at it and realise that beyond the apparent simplicity there are staggeringly minute complexities.

In His story too, he seems to enjoy turning our perceptions of big and little on their heads.  Take Gideon’s army, for example.  He ventures out with 32,000 – by the time God has finished there are just 300 warriors left who, in the strength of God, overcome the armies of Midian (Judges 6-8).  He uses a young guy, David, to fell a ferocious and bullying giant.  He feeds a multitude with a small basket of bread and fish.  He confers great honour on a small widow giving the two smallest coins.  He speaks, not through the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the “still, small voice”.

A verse that came to me lately is from Zechariah: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” (4:10).  What a challenge to our habitual preference for big – for large scale success, for measurable results, for high impact! Why do we constantly ignore the fact that God seems to actually prefer to use the small, the hidden, the weak, and the insignificant to achieve his great purposes.

Why do you think this would be His way?

In the same chapter God clarifies that these things He was about to do would come about “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (v6).  Perhaps all our “big thinking” can be a path to spiritual blindness.  We crave might and power, we crave results and affirmation, we crave control and guarantees of success.  But God says these are not the way He will achieve His purposes.  Unlike us, God will not despise a ‘humble and contrite heart’; He lifts up the humble and His strength is made perfect in weakness.

Father please deliver me from the arrogance of my own false judgments – about what is valuable, who is worth investing in, and what is glorifying to you.  Deliver me from the blindness of the kind of ‘big thinking’ that puts the focus on results and achievements and returns.  Tune my ear to your still, small voice that I might follow your leading in my day, and see people and situations with your perspective and with your values.  Let me enjoy noticing every good gift from you, and letting my spirit be expanded by the intricacies and wonders of your creation.  In all of this, grow my understanding, my dependence and my vision – that I will trust not in might or power, but in your Spirit; that you might use my small acts of responsiveness as part of your great purposes in this world.

A little virtue that goes a long way…

When my husband and I were first starting to share life together, he mentioned more than once his desire that we ‘be kind to each other’. I have to admit that at the time, it didn’t seem very earth-shattering to me. I kind of nodded and moved on, without realising the incredible value of those apparently simple words. Kindness seems to be one of those virtues that is almost invisible, often failing to be recognised for the world changer that it is.

Sadly, you probably don’t have to ‘imagine’ a marriage or relationship where kindness is not practiced. I’m sure you’ve seen one, perhaps you have even lived in one, as a child or as a spouse. Sometimes people can even have a genuine love for each other, being committed and faithful and working for the same goals; and yet they are just not that kind to each other. They speak harshly, they criticise, they forget the small courtesies, they don’t look for the best in the other. In this context, simple kindnesses can play a very helpful role in bringing grace and giving room to grow. When I was younger, my sister (kindly) passed on some very important advice from my late father, regarding the choice of a life-partner: “Marry a kind man”.  How deeply grateful I am that I followed his advice!

In my relationship with my kids, I see how in spite of my fierce love for them, my commitment to them and my untiring efforts for their welfare – there can still be at times a lack of kindness in the way I speak to them, or in my attitude towards them. This lack of kindness saddens me; it rankles, it damages, I’m sure it could contribute to long term relational wear and tear. And then I wonder why there is strife and unkindness between the siblings! It’s like kindness is a precious oil, giving off a beautiful scent, lubricating relationships, freeing up the individuals to give freely and to work hopefully. When I actually choose to focus on the good in my kids (and the other kids in my orbit), when I speak graciously and encouragingly, when I deal with problems in a calm and consistent way, the impact of this kindness is easily observable!

Within a circle of friends or a community group, kindness strengthens, supports and gives room for healing. In times of grief, illness and injury, the kindness of those around me has been so influential and uplifting, even though it has often been very practical and humble. Meals cooked, walls painted, building projects finished, difficult tasks shared, even toilets cleaned and washing done! These simple acts of kindness have been like an ointment, or to use an old word, a balm – applied to the raw and hurting place, soothing there, and holding me through the helplessness and hurt. In more ordinary times, when life hums along with its routines and responsibilities, kindness comes like a spark, lifting the spirit, awakening gratitude, inspiring towards giving and sharing.

Within the wider context of a town or city, kindness is a great builder, a magic ingredient that can actually change the taste of life. It’s not for nothing that the idea of “practicing random acts of kindness”, or “paying it forward” has caught people’s imagination. I have actually watched simple kindness – words of encouragement, acts of generosity, even a mere smile – have a kind of mystical impact on a person’s life. This impact, by the way, flows in both directions: to the giver as well as the recipient. I’ve seen young people lifted to achieve wonderful things in life through the consistent kindness of someone who believes in them. I’ve seen kindness provide tangible hope to struggling people, that maybe life could be different, that despair and darkness is not all there is. It’s no overstatement to say that kindness can mean the difference between life and death for certain people on certain days.

There’s a final expression of kindness that can be the least valued of all, though it is possibly the most important, and that is the idea of kindness towards yourself. Many of us, for varied reasons, live under a hail of barking, harping, constant abuse – all within our own heads! We insult ourselves in ways that we would never insult another person, hammering our every mistake and fault with vile punishment and relentless vitriol. If we behaved that way towards other people, there would be drastic consequences, and yet we tolerate that kind of hatred and cruelty towards our own person. I’m not sure who it was that said that we needed to learn to be meek towards ourselves. I believe in this context, ‘kind’ could be a worthy synonym. What if you decided to take a break from cruel, cutting and abusive self-talk? I don’t mean that you never recognise your own mistakes or failings, but I do mean stopping the torrent of self-hating words that follows that recognition. Letting yourself ‘off the hook’, forgiving yourself, looking for the good, speaking graciously and encouragingly, as you would expect yourself to do for others. I know this is just one aspect of a complex situation; but I wonder how much difference it could make, to choose to be kind to yourself.

The Bible, in its famous description of love, puts kindness second in a long list of practical outworkings of love. It recognises the high value that simple kindness has in our lives; the lasting impact of that precious mix of generosity, friendliness, sensitivity, tenderness, warmth, empathy, care and concern. There’s a quote by George Elliot that has meant a lot to me over the years, that I think expresses beautifully one aspect of truly kind friendship:
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.
I find it interesting that kindness is described here as a ‘breath’. In this post, I’ve described kindness as oil, scent, flavour, ointment, grace… These are all small, subtle things, however they have quite an influence, as well as being conspicuous by their absence. And a world without kindness is harsh, cold and stark. However, in the midst of that world, just a breath of kindness can begin the change.