Nature’s Cathedral

In the silent face of rock, baked red by burning centuries
there’s a stillness that I long to fill my soul, to fill my soul…

No human ever made a cathedral such as this,
a gentle wind to soothe my heart,
and the vastness to still my rushing thoughts…

Oh, I want to be a friend of silence,
to know my place in eternity,
to be ‘something beautiful for God’

(from my song: Nature’s Cathedral, 1998. Quote in final line by Mother Theresa)

Last weekend, my family finally made the trek out to Bourke.  It’s weird, that place has been ‘calling me’ for a couple of years now… just this nagging sense that I need to get back out there, I didn’t know why.  I still don’t really know, except that maybe there came some sense of completion, of closure, and especially of thanksgiving for all that has come from that particular beginning.

When I was 17, I moved from Sydney to the ‘back of Bourke’, to join Cornerstone Community as a first year student.  It was, needless to say, quite an incredible change of landscape.  I had been spoilt, growing up in Sydney, to have been able to look out of our back door onto a bush reserve which led to the Georges River.  We spent many childhood hours ‘out in the bush’;  and I always loved the view out of our top verandah, especially the silhouettes of our two tall cordyline trees against the sunset.  For a Sydney childhood, I now realise how blessed we were to have that ready access to natural beauty.

Bourke was another world, completely.  A painter’s pallet had overflowed into glowing red dirt, grey-green gidgee leaves, black-and-white spotted gum trunks, blindingly blue skies.  Rain became an ‘event’, with a poignant scent, squelchy mud, flooded table drains reflecting the view, and even a real flood, once.  A wide, slow river would hold me in its lazy, soothing flow.  Sunsets and sunrises exploded into my senses.  The whole sky seemed ten times as large: a vivid and glorious dome stretched over an almost perfectly flat 360 degrees of landscape.  Night skies were overwhelmingly beautiful, and often drew me out to walk in the dark on red dust tracks or along the Wanaaring Road.  I was blessed to have a job driving a tractor from 3 till 8am for several months.  This meant not only that I got to see the spectacular starry skies and the daily spectacle of gradual dawn followed by riotous sunrise; but also I was occasional spectator to a shy golden moon edging up over the horizon and into the sky.  If ever I had been (and I had indeed been) in any doubt as to whether the earth was some grand cosmic accident, or the magnificent artistry of an intricate creator, this quandary was over for me.

However, it was a surprise to discover that the landscape could also be a Comforter.  I’ve often said that the outback landscape was “big enough for all my questions”.  I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know that somehow the peace and stillness of a vast, open, beautiful space breathes into my innermost places.  The (relative) silence and isolation is an invitation to stop, to wait, to just be still.  Or else to sing, to pray out loud, to weep, to ask why, to wrestle through things.  Anthony Bloom writes about how ‘the silence becomes a presence, and the presence is God’.  And somehow for me, being out there in the beauty is always like stepping into a greater reality – as if, just like the psalmist wrote, the very heavens are declaring the glory of God and their voice is going out… and going in to me.

I look back and realise that God placed me in those semi-arid zones, those places of stark beauty and solitude, for the times in my life when I was in most need of them, times of close loss and grieving.  Where else could I feel held by the “vast, encircling space”, and stilled by the whisper of a breeze?  Where else could I drive out into the desert, and lie on my car bonnet under the comfort of a night sky, and cry out for God to teach me how to receive love?  Where else could I sit on soft red riverbed, and see my life in a twisted old river gum, being sustained through the drought?

Recently, I read the story of “Granny Brand” (the mother of Paul Brand, the famous leprosy doctor).  She was an incredible woman, in so many ways, but I thank her most for reminding my heart of its need for beauty.  Granny would – even in her 90’s – ‘drop everything’ to at least drink in, if not actually stop and paint, the beautiful places she was in.  Having spent the last 9 and a half years raising young children, that capacity in me to see – to really notice and exult in – beauty has been somewhat clouded over by the demands involved in that stage of life.  Granny Brand woke me up again, reminded me of that old friend, the landscape, such a formative part of my spiritual life.

So, here I sit, on a Monday morning, on the highest hill nearby.  A picnic bench under a tin roof, the breeze, a circle of low mountains and hills, a patchwork of farmland, trees and roads, and even a soaring hawk for company.  It’s so good to be back, to be making time to feed my soul with God’s living word.  We call it “general revelation” (as opposed to the Bible’s “special revelation”).  It is our setting, our backdrop, the arms that embrace our daily life, the stage on which we live.  Such a gracious, patient ‘mother’ for us to grow up in – providing us with much more than we need to live, enduring the worst of human madness, greed and selfishness, yet still clearly exhibiting the fingerprints of the Creator.  Such a humble servant, easily ignored, but always calling us beyond her own awesome beauty, to the One who is our hearts’ true home.

(Link to Audio of Living Desert song)

 

Clarity

There’s a brilliance when morning sun
hits growing things,
leaves and blossoms back-lit to radiance
and always the dew a-sparkling.

And the chill in the air
enhances that sense of expectancy,
refreshing and invigorating,
chasing the weariness away.

Birds rejoice in the freshness:
roosters heralding, wrens sweetly flitting,
while a dozen other morning songs
are heartily being shared.

“Morning by morning you awaken my ear
to listen as one being taught”.
How these cool, shining times of clarity
overflow grace into the day.             (Canowindra, Nov 1, 2013)

In late October I sensed God whispering to me about mornings. In our household, with 2 out of 3 young kids going to school, mornings have tended to be chaotic, stressful and occasionally ugly. The past 9 years of babies & young ones mean that sleep in the mornings has been highly treasured, sucked to the last possible drop!

But now that most nights are uninterrupted, I sensed God reminding me that there are better things than sleep, and inviting me to start the day with Him. I said, “Sure, but you’ll have to wake me! I can’t use an alarm or I’ll wake the whole family, and then there will be no time to focus before the kids are up and about.”

That was Sunday. The next morning, for the first time in 9 and a half years, I woke instantly at about 6:20 am, with the words “Morning by morning you awaken my ear to listen as one being taught” in my head. They were vaguely familiar words, but I didn’t know where they were from. The same thing happened the next morning, and the next, and each weekday morning (God and I had a friendly discussion about weekends..) for the next four weeks straight…

Sometime between 6:15 and 6:40, I would be suddenly awake, with the same words in my head. I would sneak out to the kitchen, boil the kettle, gather my books, and (as I was prompted the first morning) head out into the back garden to read, write, pray and focus. Then I would walk down the garden path and pull a few weeds, then head into the house in time for us all to start getting ready for a school day.  And it was soon very evident that there were new inner resources for the morning: peace, calm, hope, lightness, energy and generally some of God’s wisdom to ponder as well.

Before you think this is some holier-than-thou, “you need to have a quiet time every morning” message; let me say that I am amazed that this has been able to happen!  Let me remind you that all I have contributed to this change is willingness, and don’t forget that this is the first time in many years that I have managed to have consistency in this area of life. So, I’m just sharing it out of gratitude for what God has managed to bring about in my life, and by overflow, in our family.

The other thing that amazed me was when I googled that statement. I’m sure I’d memorised it at some stage in the distant past, but by this time I hadn’t been sure if it was even from the Bible.

The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.                      Isaiah 50:4

What a great motivator to wake up to listen to Him: to know the word that sustains the weary… Not only is my own life supported and enriched, but it can then overflow into words of life, encouragement, hope and sustenance for those other weary ones around me.

Why some people get excited about Christmas… every day

(I wanted to write an article for the local papers about why I think Jesus’ coming is worth celebrating.  Only 400 of these words are supposed to be in the paper :). I’m still trying to whittle away at it!)

At this stage of December it can be hard to feel excited about Christmas. You’ve endured advertising, supermarkets, shops… (and accompanying muzak)! You’ve squeezed in a dozen extra events: end of year concerts, school awards, carol nights, Christmas drinks… You’re anticipating the joy and/or stress of a family gathering or two: the logistics, and the relationships. And for many, there’s the strain of trying to make money stretch in too many directions; maybe even buying presents you can’t afford for people you’d rather not give to! A Merry Christmas, indeed!

It takes a determined effort not to lose sight of what we’re meant to be celebrating. Our culture pumps out particular messages about Christmas – most with a price tag attached. This year, a simple idea has helped our family. It happens each night, after we open the advent calendar, and read some of the Christmas story. We’re taking turns at writing something we appreciate about Jesus on a bright paper shape, and attaching it to our Christmas tree. (Of course, the youngest draws a picture and writes her name when it’s her turn.)

I’m guessing you might be steeling yourself for the religious tirade that has to be tolerated at these special holidays! Please rest assured: I’m as allergic to religious tirades as anyone, because I don’t think goodness, truth and hope can be communicated, or discovered, that way. My own spiritual journey needed about a decade of deeply struggling through questions, wounds, and the confusion that can come from our culture. Cynicism was a posture that came easily… as life showed me that I wasn’t in control, pain was inevitable, & the world – and (a much later recognition) I, myself – was never able to be what I had hoped.

But what if there is another response to our disappointed hopes and ideals than cynicism (&/or escapism?) What if those ideals, dreams and hopes actually have a source, a purpose and a fulfillment?

I keep hearing the old carol:
          The hopes and fears of all the years
          are met in thee tonight…
…in Bethlehem: in the coming of Emmanuel (God with us). For me, these aren’t just nice words, they are the answer to my longings; because Jesus does embody my hopes, and speaks to the fears (and cynicism) of the years. Not only that, but if you read the accounts of his life, he is fascinating, passionate, fearless, loving (beyond imagining), complex and creative. He lives what he teaches, and gives his followers what they need to live it too – in deep friendship with Him. This is why Christians celebrate Christmas, because we believe it was God showing us the whole picture of who He is (Heb 1:1-3).

Each year I spend a few months reading slowly through at least one of the four accounts of Jesus’ life (the first four books of the New Testament). I try to read it as if I’ve never read it before, never heard a story in Scripture or Sunday School, never heard anyone’s ideas about it. I’m looking intently to see who Jesus is. What is important to him? What is he passionate about? Who does he love (& who loves him)? What makes him angry? What things raise more questions for me?

I’ve been doing this for about 20 years, and I’m still not bored with it. In fact, I keep finding more evidence that Jesus is worthy of my time and all my energies. When I see how he responds to hurting people, when I see his fury with exploitation and greed, when I hear his radical teaching on love, forgiveness, humility, integrity, sacrifice, peace and joy… all of this stuff stirs up the deepest longings of my life. When I see ordinary, weak people in history, and today, genuinely encountering Jesus, coming clean with him, and surrendering their will to him… I get amazed at how what Jesus taught and achieved can actually be lived.

On Q&A last month, Peter Hitchens said that the belief that Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead was the most dangerous idea we could ever encounter. Why? Because…
…it turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which
there is justice and there is hope; and therefore we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. (If we reject it, it alters us all as well…)

So, when I celebrate Christmas, this is the sort of reality that I’m trying to keep at the front. And what a reality it is, what an antidote to cynicism, what a reason to celebrate… every day!

I.C.U.

Sometimes the best we can do is consciously rest ourselves in the grace & love of God. Life gets so tightly bound up – complications, communications, responsibilities, losses, uncertainties… The adrenalin rises, there are tingles in the stomach, there are questions too big for answers… and the only choice you have is which way to look.

Today as I was praying for a friend, I sort of spoke my way into the picture of a high-dependency ward, and it made us both laugh at the thought of hooking ourselves up to all the leads and monitors, and placing ourselves in the intensive care of God! But some days that’s exactly what I need (maybe every day!) – to acknowledge very openly that I will not make it through on my own, that I need to be so vitally connected with my Father that to let go or break free will set off alarms and warning lights! I need the ‘drip’ connected, flowing His truth, His life, His peace, His enabling deep into my veins. I need the soul rest that comes from stopping, from turning my attention fully to His nature, His word of truth. Is it too much information to imagine a tube draining out the sin, the self-reliance, the emptiness that comes free, when we’re finally receiving from the Spirit the clarity we’ve needed?

We are all pretty messy, and our lives and interactions do wound and drain us. People we love face pain, disappointment, and distress – and we share their burdens. Worse still, there’s the heartbreak of watching lives slowly fall apart, especially young lives that you’ve loved and cared for, like an agonizingly slow train wreck.

Sometimes we just need to come face to face with the naked truth – that this world is not our home, that we are frail and broken, that our human efforts can also be pretty frail and broken, and that really, the only place to rest our souls is in the recognition that only Jesus does embody all that we love and long for. And thank goodness for that – that there IS an intensive care ward; that we are not just falling down onto some god-forsaken back street beside the open sewer of humanity’s lostness, with nothing but despair & helplessness for company!! Those beautiful ideals we cherish, those hopes that get dashed and disillusioned along the way, those precious notions of justice, compassion, goodness and truth that we strive (and sometimes fail) to live and share – they do all have a source AND a fulfilment, in Jesus. Not only does He give our longings a place to rest, but He picks us up and calls us into His Kingdom life.  He invites us to – in some miraculous way – actually embody what He is doing to bring restoration and healing to His precious ones, to be His instruments of mercy in the broken world.

The God of all comfort 2

This song was written for Deb, Murray, Rayne, Jack & Lander Aldridge, when we were all mourning the sudden death of Kiya.

It is based on some very precious passages of scripture for me (see post: The God of All Comfort, 29th Oct 2013).  I love the way it sounds joyful & is a song of praise to the Father, in the context of deep sorrow and devastating loss.  That seems very appropriate for the Aldridges, who have reflected these very things in the way they have grieved.
I’m looking forward to hearing the real version sometime, that I recorded a while back with Dave Gleeson’s heavenly violin counter-melodies.

God of all comfort – demo (click on this to hear the song)

The God of all comfort

29th of October is always a significant day for me.  This day, 24 yrs ago, my dad died, quite suddenly, of a heart attack; and life changed forever.

Considering my usual vagueness, I have lots of specific, vivid memories of that day…   Reading in bed on a Sunday morning; hearing mum call out to me; jumping up to phone a close doctor friend.  Standing in the room with dad lying on the bed taking huge struggling breaths.  Mum on the phone talking to siblings, calling an ambulance.  Feeling utterly helpless as his noisy breaths grew further apart; thinking I should know what to do.  Watching the colour drain away from his face.

Seeing our friend, then the ambulance guy (also someone we knew) try mouth to mouth, CPR; hearing them plead with him to “Come on, mate!”.  Staring through the window, a stretcher wheeling him into the back of an ambulance.

Friends & family arriving, in ones and twos, shocked by the announcement at the end of the church service we didn’t get to.  My siblings and their spouses arriving; a dear friend of dad’s taking me under his arm & promising to watch out for me (which he has done very faithfully); beautiful people bringing meals, and later even cleaning our toilets, among many other helpful things!

And I remember our family, the next morning, sitting at the table and pulling out our daily bible reading booklet, and almost gasping at the relevance of what we read:               Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God…(2 Cor 1).

I don’t remember much of the bizarre week that followed the clarity of those 24 hours (I was doing HSC exams, along with everything else).  But I so clearly remember that bible reading.  The “God of all Comfort” has eventually woven Himself into the core of my faith – though only through years of struggle.   At the time, I was unable to conceive of the dimensions of the comfort and compassion I would need.  I didn’t know the depths to which the loss and shock had traveled in my psyche.  I had no idea of the strength of the protest which beat its fists against this momentous event, and against the God who was supposed to be in charge and to be good.  I couldn’t predict other griefs that would twist together with this one, and eventually grind me to some sort of a halt… finally unable to block out the hidden pain and fury with my will and power alone. I couldn’t imagine that a time would come when the clean sadness of loss would come free of all the choking power of unbelief, mistrust, anger, control, misunderstanding and self-protection  (I’m sure this list could be added to…).

Nor had I any understanding of the lengths to which God would go to unravel all of those tightly knotted cords that tangled through my soul.  What seemed at the time to be a cruel and chaotic merry-go-round that whipped me back again and again to the same places of frustration and confusion, of wounds and avoidance… now appears as gentle but determined efforts to invite me to participate in my own journey of healing and growth. And there were always the whispers of hope and help: vast red plains and vivid night skies that seemed big enough for all my questions; wise and kind companions who prayed and listened and asked and cared; my own songs that urged me to grasp their meaning; slow-growing clarity in my understandings and expectations about life, God and myself.

Today I sat with some teenage girls I’ve been getting to know, who’ve experienced more pain in their years than I could imagine.  I listened to some of what they’ve been facing lately, and sensed their feelings of helplessness and despair.  I was glad to be able to see them on this special day, to share with them a little of my story, and something of the healing and change that God has eventually brought about.  For one thing, I knew my dad would love to know that I was sharing the kindness and love of Jesus with these precious girls – that sort of thing was the passion of his life.  Further, it was yet another tangible proof of God’s faithfulness to those incredibly helpful words, all those years ago:   that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

When we have travelled our own paths of heartache, we are more able to share the pain of hurting ones. When we’ve discovered our utter brokenness and need for God on every level of life, we will be willing to sit with the broken and the needy.  We no longer need to be able to fix things, have all the answers, or know what to do.  When we’ve received the deep comfort of the Father of Compassion, we know that only He can tenderly sift through all the shattered pieces, and patiently bring to life a new creation: yet another witness to the reality of the God of all Comfort.

 

 

 

The good gifts!

A recent demo recording: So many good gifts

I was reading a passage in The Return of the Prodigal Son (Henri Nouwen) aloud to Chris several years ago, and something in it was so impacting & profound that I was moved to tears as I read it. The section of his reflection on the prodigal son story was: The Father Celebrates. He explained that for some of us, all the pain & injustice we see in the world becomes central in our thinking; but that the Father celebrates every small event of faith, goodness & redemption. He said we need to learn to ‘steal’ (ie. notice, treasure, hold onto) all the joy that is there in life; recognising that it is just as real as the sadness & pain, although the darkness often shouts much louder.

This idea has been quite revolutionary in my whole way of living, and has dragged me out of the depths many times. The song’s lyrics encapsulate these thoughts, though I must say the style of the song was not quite what I was expecting (kooky banjo & Henri Nouwen seem like very unlikely bedfellows!).

(NB: You need to click on the blue song title above to hear the song)

a new song: LIFTED

LIFTED
(Click on the blue word “LIFTED” to hear the song).

I was thinking about a couple of friends in Canowindra who have suffered dehabilitating health problems – which have taken away from them parts of who they were, but have brought new strengths & beauties to the fore.  For me, any area of weakness or inability has become a gift – because I can’t delude myself about my own powers in this area… I go straight to the Father who can do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…”.

making space to listen…

It’s been a pretty amazing day. A friend we’ve known for a few years now came around this arvo, a changed man! I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, as he poured out some of the big things he’d been going through, and how he was realising that he needed God in his life (among several other great realisations). His whole demeanour was different – humble, open, freer than we’d ever seen, talking about God in a real way (which was surprising enough!!).

It’s just another clear reminder to Chris and I that God is deeply involved in His world, bringing people towards Himself, rescuing them from the holes they’ve dug for themselves, and healing the deep wounds this world has dished out. This is what He is always doing.

We’ve been thinking a lot about prayer this year – reading Norman Grubb’s book: Rees Howells, Intercessor, has been quite influential in this. I think I’ve asked God to grow my prayer life every New Years for about the last 10 years or more. I think this year I might be beginning to see the answer to this particular prayer…

Maybe it’s because he’s finally got it through my thick head how much I need Him, how utterly incapable I am (in my own strength) of changing another person (or even myself…). Maybe I just needed lots of experiences of relative fruitlessness, so that I would finally think differently about my own adequacy… Not just “I should pray”, but “If i don’t pray, I’m a fool!”.

It’s not that I never prayed, don’t get me wrong… I have prayed over the years for people I’ve been involved with, for people I’m leading, for my kids & my husband. In all of this, God has been faithful. But something is different now. Now, I’m loving trying to learn to pray… I’m seeing how fruitful life can be when we make a priority of wrestling in prayer for people’s lives; and especially making time & space to listen to God about who to pray for & what to pray for them…

We are rank beginners in all this, but very happy to be starting on this adventure. We are getting amazed at how God is answering our prayers for people & situations. Maybe a big factor in this is the fact that we are setting aside time each week to listen to Him, and wait on Him, asking for His leading in our prayers. So He can show us what He is up to – and He’s so gracious that He invites us in on it, by putting it on our hearts to pray for! Is that how it works??? I don’t really know, but I do feel like I’m on the journey to learn.

We Cornerstoners are pretty great at running around doing things. We pour out our hearts & souls & strength to care for others, teach them, lead them, & help them grow. I’ve been doing this for lots of years now.

I just wonder if God is whispering to our movement (and to plenty of others in His kingdom), reminding us that we need to keep learning to live out what we teach about life in the Spirit – about what it really means to let Him be in the driver’s seat. A sheep dog on the loose can have a lot of fun in a paddock, running itself ragged – I just heard today about a friend’s pet sheepdog who busies himself all day, rounding up their pet chooks! But how different is it when the farmer is there, calling out the orders?! Suddenly there’s a very clear ‘method in the madness’, the frantic scurrying turns into direct dashes effecting excellent results in the paddock, as the dog becomes the outworking of the farmer’s intention.

I want to work smarter, not harder. I want to get a whole lot better at listening to my master, so that my action can actually be the outworking of His intention. I want to be sharing my life with the vine, bearing much fruit. I don’t want to be so busy running around doing what I think needs to be doing, that I’m unable to hear the call of the One who can actually bring life & love & healing to those around me.

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