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.

Nature’s Cathedral

Link

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 Nature’s Cathedral 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.