An Introvert’s Christian Conference Experience

Being-Introverted-Happier-Alone-With-Your-Own-Thoughts-In-Comic-By-HappyJar-Tom-Fonder

Picture by Tom Fonder

The picture sums up the feeling far better than my words can. I love it – it so perfectly captures it. When I look through the panels of the picture I can really feel that claustrophobic sense of noise pressing in, everyone saying something. It’s a feeling of eating without chewing – swallowing huge chunks of thoughts, and feeling uncomfortably full. It creates a loudness inside my head as well as outside – as I get more tired I can filter out less and less until it feels as if I’m carrying the crowds wherever I go.

By the time I felt ready to go for that familiar walk alone, it felt like labour. Not in terms of pain but in terms of it has to happen now, the process has begun and I have to respond to it. I expected to speak out all the conflicting loudness in my head and ask God to unravel it and show me each strand. I don’t know why I’m so quick to forget he doesn’t work that way at all. He puts the whole ball of strands safely in his pocket for me. And then he just walks around with me as I absorb the growing silence as we go deeper and deeper into the woods. The silence feels like an inside and outside balm for my whole body. It’s hard to describe except that it’s the smile on the person’s face in the last panel.

The thought of Jesus walking with me, also silent, my messy ball safely in his pocket, is lovely. He gives me the gift of love and acceptance in such an astoundingly simple way. We pause and watch midges dancing in a shaft of sunlight. They look like tiny fairies at a sunlit ball. We look at them for ages. God made that in the depths of a forest for no practical purpose (other than the midges’ own enjoyment of their party) and here I was able to stand and enjoy it. I love my artist God with his random wanton acts of beauty.

I went deeper and deeper into the woods until I actually climbed inside the umbrella of the branches of a tree. I was completely, blissfully hidden and alone. Except of course for the squirrel who ran along the branch right next to my face as I’d been still for so long, he probably thought I was part of the tree. And the tiny beetle that crawled across my page. And all the other creatures unseen by me on the inside of this tree in the depths of a wood where probably nobody else had been.

The solitude and silence makes me feel like the green battery bar slowly filling up on my iPhone when I plug it in. I am tempted to stay here until Sunday afternoon when the conference is over.

Jesus offers me my ball of strands back but I don’t want it any more. I can’t remember what it was for.

Prayer for my Godson

Yesterday two of my favourite people, Peach and Kevin, had a thanksgiving service for my Godson Ethan, pictured below being cute. If you follow the Peach link, you can see a description of the service.

IMG_1941Very sadly, I wasn’t able to go as I was too ill. :-( My responsibility in the service was to publicly promise to help Peach and Kevin to bring Ethan up, and to stand up and pray for him from my heart, with clear instructions not to say what I thought I should say, but to say what I actually felt. Since I couldn’t be there, I wrote out what I wanted to say to God about Ethan. I had woken up in the night while on holiday a few weeks ago with it all flooding my head so I made it into something coherent and emailed it across. The lovely Roz read them in my place. Here is what she read:

Father, thank you so much for the amazing gift of Ethan Cunningham. Thank you for the special privilege and responsibility that you’ve given Peach and Kevin in being his mum and dad, and thank you for their openness in letting people like me be a part of that family too. Please help me and his godfamily to respond seriously to that today, and for the rest of his life. 

 
Father, I think that being a parent is probably one of the most difficult things a person will ever have to do, so you’ve given Peach and Kevin a hard job. I pray that they will rely on you heavily in the many times that they will and do feel weak in that task and that you will always be the first one they turn to for help. Give them an ever growing capacity to love him boundlessly, extravagantly and unconditionally and let that be the foundation of every decision they make for him, every touch and every word they speak to him. 
 
Thank you so much for all the ways that you’ve prepared Peach and Kevin over the years to be parents now. Thank you for all the beautiful things you’ve shown Peach about being a woman made and loved by you. I pray that you would use both the pain and the beauty of that to help Ethan to grow up to be a man who loves and respects women as equals. Protect his heart from a world that seeks to teach him lies about women through the images and attitudes that are increasingly available to young people. Give Peach and Kevin wisdom about how to navigate the unknown territory of bringing up a young man in a rapidly changing world. 
 
Thank you for what you’ve taught Kevin too about masculinity through being a husband. Please use too the gifts and the struggles that come through that to help him to show Ethan what it means to be a godly man, in a world where he will hear all kinds of rubbish about what men should be. Thank you for the example that Kevin is in loving Jesus, in vulnerability, in wisdom, and in loving his wife sacrificially. Help Ethan to understand that it’s those things that will make him a man. Help his parents to point him to Jesus as his example. 
 
I pray too that through Peach and Kevin’s example, Ethan will be a boy and a man who will be naturally curious, empathic and loving towards people who are different to him. Let him never learn the easy lesson of fence building to keep people out, but instead be someone who is able to make peace and find the common ground. Make him a welcomer Lord. 
 
I suppose I feel it’s inevitable that Ethan will be a Christian because his mum and dad make it so attractive to follow Jesus, I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t. But just in case Father, I pray that you will guide his heart towards you every day and that he will always be yours. I pray particularly that he will be a Christian who is soaked in grace. Drenched in it. Let him not have a goldfish mind that forgets every 3 minutes and goes back to beating himself up. Let him see grace as as elementary as breathing. Help him to remind his mum and godmum whenever they forget, and use him and his ease with grace to make it so attractive to follow Jesus, that the people who come across him can’t imagine why they shouldn’t too. 
 
Thank you so much for the gift that Ethan is to all of his family, in which I include myself. 
 
Amen

 

After the Retreat

It occurred to me that there may be one or two people who had read my previous blog post who might be wondering what happened to me on the retreat. Some of it is very personal so I won’t share it here, but here’s what happened in the gentle little adventure from which I returned several weeks ago now…

The days leading up to it were incredibly dark and scary for me. It felt as if I was being led into some horrible place where all of my worst thoughts about God and myself were being collected together, and that there was no way back, only straight towards them. Dramatic, I know, but I am a very exciting and dramatic person, as you know.

When I arrived at the retreat centre I burst into tears and begged Housemate to either stay there with me or take me straight home again. She hugged me and laughed nervously (which is what she tends to do when I behave like a hysterical psycho), told me I was going to be OK, and left me. I cried a bit more and then fell asleep until it was time for dinner.

Later, I came up to my room and arranged two chairs so that I might imagine Jesus in the other one. It had been so long since I’d prayed, I figured I’d need some kind of visual help to remind me there was someone there listening. I tried to pray but it was as if I had been gagged. More than that though, God was not there. I didn’t want him there; I was terrified of him. I didn’t want him close enough to take anything away from me. I cried some more. In my tears, after a long time, I managed to say ‘God, I’m so tired’. I meant not just now, but after all those years and all the fighting and sadness. I felt a voice reply tenderly: ‘No wonder’ and a sense of arms around me and immediately I pushed it away. Getting close is dangerous. That’s how hearts get broken and things get taken away. It was 7:30pm and I went to bed, exhausted. I heard a voice somewhere in my head say ‘Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest’. I put it down to my imagination and slept for twelve and a half hours.

The next day, Good Friday, I had breakfast with a friendly South African couple. They asked why I was there and I told them I hadn’t been able to pray for a long time and I wanted to see if I could address that. They advised me to start with what came easily: one verse, a worship song; start with Jesus. This seemed good advice.

I went over for morning prayers in the chapel. I listened to the stuff about Jesus dying and felt numb. They blew out the candles, turned out the lights, turned on some annoying Christian music and told us to stay as long as we wished. I wanted to stay to see if I could pray there. Most people left straight away. One other person remained and I wanted her to go in case I cried again. She stayed, resolutely and noisily breathing through her nose. I prayed ‘Lord, please can she bugger off?’. The woman got up and left. I felt slightly encouraged. I addressed the problem of the horrible music and put on some sensible looking hymns instead. I listened to around 7 in a row, trying to feel something. Then a song came on I had never heard. I could tell by the chord sequences and the non-congregation-friendly (but very, very beautiful) melody, that it was an old one. It is called O Love That Will Not Let Me Go, and was being performed by Martyn Joseph with just an acoustic guitar. He sounded heart-broken. And the words were my prayer, though I wasn’t able to say them myself:

1.       O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

 

2.       O light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

 

3.       O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

 

4.       O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

 

I went back to my room and downloaded the nearest version I could find (it’s this one here if you’d like to hear it) and listened to it over and over again. My soul was weary, and my torch was flickering. In particular, the lines ‘I cannot close my heart to thee’ and ‘I dare not ask to fly from thee’, felt like everything I was able to say at that point. I longed to move forward and towards him, but all I could manage was to say I could not, dare not, move away.

I tried again to pray. I tried writing, walking, talking out loud, waiting. I couldn’t get past that feeling that God was muffled and distant, and of me being too leaden to move and approach him. I read the whole of Mark’s gospel. Jesus seemed everso grumpy and impatient with his disciples to me. I started to read a book about Jesus. I tried to write out some of the things I want wanted to wrestle with God over. I felt very tired very quickly. I went to bed, deeply discouraged and surer than ever that God was either absent or unkind.

I woke up the next morning with a very heavy heart at the thought of another whole day with nothing on the agenda except failing to pray all day long. In desperation, I arranged to have a one to one chat with the lady warden of the retreat centre after breakfast. She had strikingly kind eyes. I tend to think it’s only terrible writers who attribute emotion to people’s eyes, but hers really were. So much so that I trusted her, even though she was a stranger and a Christian: a combination that usually guarantees distrust in me. She was also named Storm. What an improbably cool name for an apparently ordinary lady in a cardigan and pearl necklace.

I met with Storm, and of course, I began to cry immediately before we’d even begun. I told her I was here because I couldn’t pray, and that I couldn’t pray because I didn’t like God and didn’t trust him. She asked me to tell her about the god I didn’t like by starting at the beginning.

I told her a lot of my story and she told me a lot of truths about God in response. She asked me what I’d learned about Jesus in Mark’s gospel and laughed when I said he was grumpy – she said that showed he was fully human. She asked what else. I said I could see he was Lord. And I wanted him to be Lord: I wanted to live in a world where all of this chaos is looked over and looked after by someone. Someone powerful and someone who cares. The alternative is terrifying and I don’t want to entertain it.

Anyway, she said a lot of other things too. She listened to me in an unhurried way, she got angry about the right things and sad at the right points, and pointed me again and again to the authentic, living Jesus.

And I went for a walk and I sat on a log and I prayed. Not for a long time, and not about any of the angry things I had thought I was going to pray about.

But that’s because I was praying for probably the first time, to a different god. The one I saw in Jesus and not the punitive, greedy, spiteful god of my own making. The other things belonged to a different time and a different relationship.

I read some more, cried a little more, and slept a lot more. Then it was Easter morning. I had a cooked breakfast, went to the local church where they read out profound truths by rote and sang Alleluia like a yawn. And then I sat down again to talk to Storm. I told her I wanted to start again, like a baby, because that’s what I probably am spiritually. I wanted to learn what my own unique relationship with Jesus looked like. I wanted to learn about Jesus with fresh eyes. She told me that that’s when I would really grow, when my faith was really my own. I prayed and committed myself to God as if for the first time, but this time with hope for a new life. A new birth. A genuine trust in a gentle God. A God who loves me, individually, uniquely and unconditionally. A God who is kind. All new things for me really. The beginning of a new adventure.

Heart Surgery

One of the first messages I received as a new evangelical Christian is that we should read our bibles and we ought to pray, and that this should be a daily discipline. In some circles this is so fundamental that it is offered as the panacea to all ills. If you are depressed/lonely/ill/poor/doubting/single/barren etc. the root cause of your problem is that you are not spending enough time reading your Bible and praying.

I agree that these things help in all circumstances (they certainly can’t do any harm) but that’s not the same thing as it being a solution. The Bible is not actually magic: it contains eternally divine wisdom but that’s not the same thing as some kind of cosmic tool box that will fix whatever is ailing. Prayer is powerful and can change things where nothing else can but that doesn’t make God into a genii who will grant our every wish.

Reading the Bible and praying every day is also not an indisputable seal of salvation. The thief on the cross had no known legacy of scripture study to his name and apparently only uttered one prayer in his life. But it was a crucial prayer: a prayer that identified Jesus as Lord. Is Jesus your Lord? Then brother, sister, you will be with him in paradise, no matter how patchy your quiet times have been.

Having established that daily Bible reading and prayer are not the be all and end all of the Christian life (because of course, all readers are universally persuaded by everything I write), I want to say that I do think it’s extremely important, but that I struggle with it massively, and that struggle has increased the longer I have been a Christian.

When I first declared Jesus as Lord in 1998, I ate up the Bible, wrote out all of my prayers in a special little book, and did this every day. Very quickly I went into part-time and then full-time ministry, where praying and Bible reading were part of my job, so I was paid to do it. That made it easy to maintain a daily habit. Praying was simple because I was full of hope, and because I spent all my time with Christians so I saw answered prayer all the time. My personal ministry was a tough one that saw little fruit, but I was surrounded by others who were a living reminder that prayers did get heard. The Bible was easy because I was being trained in how to handle it well and because I was surrounded by people whose interpretations of it were uniform, and so it was easy to see others with different interpretations as just wrong.

Cut to around 2010 when the bottom fell out of my world when two massive personal issues meant that my black and white thinking was challenged beyond repair and nothing looked the same again. I see it now as a kind of spiritual breakdown, and to date, I am still trying to claw my way out of it and work out how to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense.

One particular fall out has been that I now find personal prayer and Bible reading incredibly difficult. Each time I open the Bible I find more questions than answers and the questions build bigger and bigger walls between me and God. My faith and hope have been eroded as I wrestle with the aching whys of unanswered prayer, and I struggle to get far enough past this to get to anything other than anger, frustration and cynicism. The upshot of this is that quiet times for me these days are rare, and when they do happen, they feel like wading through treacle.

But I know how important it is to meet personally with God. I know that allowing this distance and these walls to build up is only making the issue worse, but it’s a hill I just can’t seem to climb.

So what’s the solution? Is it a resolution? Is it trying harder to be disciplined? Is it accountability? Absolutely not. That would be like trying to cure an alcoholic by hiding the key to the liquor cabinet. I have spent several years working with people with addictions and I have learned over and over again that practical solutions are only short-term solutions. With the addicts, and with me, this is a deep, heart issue, and requires deep, heart action. I am never going to want to meet with God until I’ve dealt with the things that happened in 2010 with him and allowed him to heal them. I’ve got to approach him with my raw heart and with my walls down. My hope is that then I will really meet with my authentic Father rather than a version of him passed as Sound and Acceptable filtered through what other people have said about what I ought to think and feel about him. My hope is that he will meet with his authentic daughter rather than a distant, closed and inhibited person afraid of getting so hurt that she doesn’t recognise her own world any more again.

I have booked to go away for four days culminating in Easter Sunday with the intention of making this terrifying approach towards God. To me, it feels as urgent and dangerous as heart surgery.

Please pray for me.

OddBabble

How’s Your Flat?

 

Eiffel Tower

There are all kinds of significant human relationships. Did you know that?

There are spouses and partners, and there are children and grandchildren. Tick. Yes, you knew that.

But did you know that they are not the only human relationships that people can have?

I ask, because some people I meet seem to forget this and I find it really odd. Recently I was at a gathering of Christians, some of whom I’ve known for years and are like family, and others who were new acquaintances. All of the people under 50 there were either pregnant or had a small child with them, apart from me. I observed the way that various people were greeted. Naturally, the children and the soon-to-be-born were asked about, as well as the absent spouses, and then maybe one or two questions about work when that dries up. There’s nothing strange about that; it’s completely natural to ask about the most important thing about a person’s life: the people in it that they love.

So, it comes to my turn. I don’t have a spouse or children. Usually people ask first about work which is natural: it takes up most of my time and it’s something that’s important to me. But what baffles me is that when I’ve spent a bit of time talking about that, the next question is always ‘How’s your flat?’ Really? That’s the next most important thing in my life that you need updating on? How am I even supposed to answer that? It’s a building, it doesn’t change its mood or activities. It’s the same as it was the last time you saw me due to its nature of being an inanimate space. I compared notes with other single friends and they reported similar things: flats and cars are asked after, but not people.

For me the situation is even more confusing in that I don’t even live in my flat any more. I rent it out and use it as a work space. I now live in a house with a person. A very significant person since I live with her and love her and see her every single day. Why not ask about her? Is she irrelevant just because I’m not related or married to her? Or how about my other close friends who I love and think about and spend time with? Or my nieces or my godson?

I wonder what this says about our definitions of community and family. I wonder too, if this is a peculiarly Christian thing, and if that’s because Christians have a more narrow definition of family than the wider world does. I can’t remember a non-Christian friend ever asking me how my flat is.

I don’t have a traditional family, but that doesn’t mean that my most significant relationships have to only be with objects. I see my house-mate as my family – I consider her my next of kin, even if the law doesn’t. She is not my ‘other half’, but she is no less important in my life. I consider my godson to be like a nephew – he is at least as important to me as my blood related nieces. I consider his parents to be sister and brother, as I do the couple who live up the road from me. When I die, a friend who lives in Newcastle who I only physically see a few times a year, will get some of whatever money I might have (if she hasn’t kicked the bucket first) because she is family to me and I want her taken care of.

As someone looking in from the outside, I see Christians worshipping at the altar of marriage and family. I understand why – marriage and commitment are really, really important and need to be defended in a society that is crumbling. Children are wonderful and bringing them up in loving environments is good for all of us. It’s right that Christians can and should model doing this well.

But what do we do with those of us who, by choice or by circumstance, do not fit that relational mould? We make our own families. Not in opposition to the norm but in extension to it. That’s a good thing. It’s a wise thing. It’s a healthy thing. It’s a thing that can enrich and enhance families by extending them, if they allow themselves to be open to extension. I wish that it was viewed as such more often by those within their family bubbles.

OddBabbles: Has to find some kind of elaborate excuse for the fact she is just not that good at actually talking to people.

Farewell Should & Ought

ImageFrom the 21st of December, I will no longer be working therapeutically with children and nor will I be studying for a course to equip me to do that. This is partly because I hate it, but also because I hate it. 

I have actually hated it since I started doing it, but have always hoped that I would stop hating it with a bit more experience, or a bit more study, or a better work context, a better supervisor or some other nebulous change that I hadn’t yet thought of. 

When I first started working with children it caused me such acute anxiety and stress that I stopped menstruating for a while. I have met some of the most incompetent, unethical, unprofessional and unpleasant people in my life (defamed in my last post) and yet continued in those contexts. I have worked for free when I had every right to be paid and paid well. 

Now, I am so well read in the field I feel I could confidently teach it, have clocked up over 750 hours of varied and advanced practice, I work in my dream environment with great support and professional freedom and I have an excellent supervisor. 

I still hate it.

So why did I spend three years of life continuing to do something that in many contexts and in many ways made me unhappy?

Because I was convinced that I should

I am still convinced that therapy for children is an important thing to do because it’s good for society: it helps to heal the kinds of things that can later develop into anti social or self harming behaviour, before they become entrenched and much harder to change. It’s a Good Thing To Do, but there’s more to it than that. 

Shoulds and oughts have been very powerful directors in my life and I have allowed them to be uncompromising taskmasters. Should taught me that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing begrudgingly. Ought counselled me that the only worthy pastime is the pastime that comes least naturally. If it’s hard, then it’s good. If it’s difficult, you know you’re on the right track. Should said that if it comes easily and I dare to enjoy it, then it must be too easy, so anyone could do it. Move onto something challenging: that’s good for you. 

Well, bollocks to should, and bugger off ought. 

You may remember me thinking I had learned this lesson here when I realised that God likes it when we do the things he designed us to do. I’m quite a slow learner. 

So where do these errant shoulds come from? Freud would say something about me having an over active super ego. For those readers not fluent in Freud, that’s the part (according to his theory of the mind) that acts as the conscience and disciplinarian, criticising and prohibiting me, in direct opposition to my childish id, which wants to satisfy my every immediate whim and appetite. 

If that’s so, then what does my distorted version of God look like? He’s a grumpy old man who is never satisfied. If I meet a target, he raises the bar. He applauds my misery and sneers when I’m happy, letting me know that he’s big and strong enough to snatch it away when he feels like it. I’m trying gradually to learn and believe that he’s not like that. I’m starting by noticing my automatic shoulds and oughts and testing them for over-inflation. I will listen to them when they serve a useful purpose like keeping me within the normal rules of society (sometimes I really should keep my clothes on, or resist punching that stranger in the face for looking too smug) or preventing me from being completely selfish (sometimes I really ought to let the others have at least one of the chocolate biscuits on the plate, however much I want to EAT ALL THE BISCUITS) but I will shout obscenities at my shoulds and oughts when they try to convince me that something is more inherently worthy by virtue of the fact that I don’t want to do it. 

It feels scary to walk away from something that I invested so much money, time, hard work, passion, sweat, tears adrenaline and cortisol to. But it also feels wonderfully, wonderfully liberating and an absolute massive relief. 

OddBabble: Also finally gave up trying to finish the Lord of the Rings, because life is too short to try to care about orcs and elves. 

Choosing to Lose

The Tree of Life had polarised reviews. I liked it when I watched it last week because it was about something that I’d been thinking a lot about.

Towards the start of the film, the mother of the family says this:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things”

In the story, the mother tries to teach her sons the way of grace, which in this story is kind of nice but weak. It’s the right thing to do but you kind of allow yourself to get walked all over too. The father in the story tries to teach his sons the way of nature. He learned the hard way that life doesn’t make winners out of nice people. If you want to succeed, you have to play the game by selfish rules or you’ll never get anywhere. He wants his sons to succeed – he doesn’t want them to fail like he did.

The dichotomy between these two views of life resonated with me as I’ve been caught between them the last few weeks. I was working with an organisation that I discovered to be working dishonestly, unethically and possibly illegally. I did what I felt was the right thing and I blew the whistle on them. I wanted to be rewarded for doing the right thing by seeing justice done. Instead, the organisation manipulated and lied even more, so that I looked like the one who had done wrong. I am furious about this. I am livid. It’s not fair but there is nothing I can do about it. Doing right got me nowhere and cost me a great deal financially and emotionally. I am forced to watch while those that do wrong prosper and retain an ill-gained good reputation.

The father in the Tree of Life has a compelling view of the world because it fits with reality. The stories we are told as children lead us to believe that the goodies win and the baddies lose. T’aint true. It’s tempting to follow the way of nature. I would like to succeed. I would like to play according to rules that lead me to win, whatever those rules are.

But I won’t.

I remember these words from Mother Theresa:

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

And I remember these words from the Bible:

“Be still before the LORD & wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Psalm 37:7

And these:

The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”  But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” Mark 15:3-5

I am not comparing myself to Jesus! But I am making the point that injustice is to be expected. Sometimes doing right won’t be rewarded with good. Often, doing wrong is rewarded richly, and waved under our very noses.

But doing right is still right. I needed to write this post because I needed to preach it to myself. I want to throw bricks through windows and shout at people and post them my poo in a parcel. But I do believe that the way of grace is a better way than the way of nature, even if it means I don’t win. God got himself killed for thinking that way, the loser. I want to be on his team because in the final analysis, it’s between me and him anyway.

OddBabble: Always got picked last for PE.

He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted

Something amazing happened to me at church today. I hope I can put it into words. It requires a bit of a longish back story, so bear with me. I will start with the beginning of my day this morning.

Usually at church I am at the front playing an instrument of some kind. But today we had some people from All Nations College over to run the whole service, so I was one of the congregation. My heart was heavy knowing this because my experience is that when I am not having to concentrate on playing an instrument well, I think more about the words of songs and that often means I become upset and tearful. I dislike this partly because it makes me feel painfully conspicuous but also because they are invariably not tears of joy about the beauty of the Lord, but tears of sadness and heartache. As you read on, you will understand why I was so bloody miserable.

So, anticipating that this was fairly likely, I struggled to get out of bed and arrived about 10 minutes late. The only available seat I could see when I arrived was one next to someone who I think is thoroughly wonderful, so I was quite pleased. I sat down just in time for the kids’ slot.

The service this morning was about the first half of Isaiah 61, which contains the verse “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour”. The girl had given each of us a leaf on which to write the name of someone we wanted to ask for God to make into an oak of righteousness. She said that an oak of righteousness is someone who is full of joy and love for God. Someone who is used by him. I tried to think of someone’s name but I could only think of my own. I was not full of those things. I wanted to be, but I’ve always felt I was doing something wrong or missing something. I felt decidedly un-oak-like, and a familiar sinking heart.

Then someone turned to me and said “I would like to put you on my leaf”. I couldn’t tell if he was just saying that as a way of avoiding small talk, or if he was joking or if he really meant it, so I took it cooly and said thank you. But inside I wondered “Did God just hear that heavy-hearted prayer and answer it straight away?” No, that sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. Swallow it down, look straight ahead. Don’t get emotional and embarrass everyone. He probably didn’t mean it anyway.

Then the sermon began. It was on the following passage:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour.

The speaker reminded us that this was the passage that Jesus read out in the synagogue in Luke 4 where he follows it by saying “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” A heart stopping moment in scripture and history. It tells us that Jesus fulfills this prophecy. But Jesus also says in John 14:12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” So Jesus passes on the baton to his people too. We are to carry on his kingdom work, and even do “greater things.” So Isaiah 61 is our ministry. It’s even my ministry.

A couple of weeks ago another preacher was talking about us being called to make disciples. He seemed to be saying that making disciples meant doing evangelism and teaching people about the Bible. This had been one of those weeks where I hadn’t been playing an instrument and instead got tearful and unhappy. Because you see, I USED to do those things. I used to work in ‘Christian ministry’. I felt really sure and secure that I was doing ‘God’s work’. Now, I’m not sure. I’m doing what I want to do. I’m doing something that makes me feel alive and something I feel good at but it’s not ‘making disciples’. I’m not telling my clients about Jesus. I’m not teaching them the Bible. Am I only doing God’s work and God’s will when I’m doing those things, or when I’m doing other ‘spiritual’ things like praying for clients, but not the actual nut and bolt work of counselling? I didn’t feel like this could be right. But I’ve had this horrible feeling since finishing Christian work that I’ve just been following my own path in spite of God. Not with him or for him. He must be so disappointed.

Then in that same church service we sung a song about making sacrifices for Jesus and I got even more unhappy. You see I USED to do that. When I first became a Christian I made big sacrifices that made me so unhappy I wished I was dead. And everywhere I went Christians applauded me and told me how wonderful it was that I loved Jesus so much that I would do that. And so I used to sing those songs about sacrifice feeling sure and secure that I was doing God’s will. But I also had begun to believe something really wrong because of the situation that I was ‘born’ into as a Christian. I thought that because people seemed so pleased that I was making sacrifices, then it must be a really good thing that I was so unhappy. It must please God for me to be so unhappy. Being so unhappy that you wish you were dead must be authentic Christianity. So I didn’t just make the original sacrifice (which I still believe was right) but I also sacrificed anything that had the whiff of happiness in it. I threw the baby of joy out with the bath water of appropriate sacrifice. I have been doing that my whole Christian life.

So I got upset in that recent church service because I’m not unhappy any more. I don’t wish I was dead. So, my skewed logic tells me, I must not be a real Christian any more. God must be so disappointed with me. I can’t sing those songs with any authenticity any more because I’ve discovered a way of living (still according to sound doctrine you understand) that doesn’t make me feel like my heart has been ripped out.

I was sad because I wasn’t unhappy enough.

Cut back to today’s sermon. The ministry being described in Isaiah 61 is a little broader than “tell people about Jesus and then do one to ones with them”. It includes things that I actually do. I help broken hearted people. I comfort those who mourn and grieve. Maybe… No. Could it be? Could it possibly be true that God called me to do that? That he made and equipped me for it? That it pleases him for me to do that? That this could be called God’s work for me? She mentioned that God prepares us for the ministry that he has for us. Our life stories tell the tales that he wants us to tell. I remembered earlier in the week a friend texting me to encourage me that I was doing good and fruitful work with clients and that I was being a good friend to her. She said that she believed it was because I knew what it was to be broken hearted that meant I was able to help others effectively (or words to that effect). It seemed to fit with what the speaker was saying. Could it be that God is and has been using me for his purposes by doing what I love and is not angry with me because I haven’t converted anyone…?

Then the next song was announced. It was one of those sacrificey songs that I used to like. It was about giving everything to Jesus.

And suddenly, I saw that idea in a totally new way for the very first time. 

I had always thought that giving everything to Jesus meant giving him anything good you had or felt until you were so unhappy that you wanted to die. Because that is what I thought made Christians applaud you, so that is what I thought made God pleased. And so I have felt that I must be displeasing him by daring to stay in a job that makes me happy, or in friendships that make me glad to be alive. I keep expecting him to rip them from my hands because I will no longer give them to him willingly. But maybe there’s another way you can give everything to Jesus.

Maybe you can use every good thing he gives you, for him to use for his will. 

Maybe that doesn’t mean you have to give good things up. Instead you can recognise them as good things and thank him for them. Rejoice in them. Use them for him. Give it all, for him. But still keep them.

It sounds so obvious now.

At the end of the sermon the speaker prayed that we would see the scriptures. Not that we’d see the words on the page. Not that we’d understand what she’d explained, but that we’d see what’s really true. And God answered her prayers. I feel like my eyes have finally been opened to who God is and who I am in him. He is not an angry bully who wants me to be miserable and who hates it when I’m happy because I’m not sacrificing enough. He is a Father who designed me with giftings that he wants me to use for his kingdom, for his glory AND for my delight. He gives me good things because he is kind and generous and not because he wants to test whether I’m loyal enough to deny myself. No wonder I’ve been such a bitter, angry and unhappy Christian – I’ve been trying to love and worship such a horrible god! He must really love me to keep hold of me all this time…

And he’s shown me that I’m loved in my church. The thoroughly wonderful woman who I was sitting with came to find me outside when I left to cry privately. She just stood with me until I was able to say why, and then said that she understood, and that it was in fact true that God is not horrible. And then she stood with me while I had to wait in the coffee room after church because she knows how difficult I find that. And then two more friends did the same, for ages. And no-one made fun of me for finding it difficult to stand in a room on my own where people are having coffees, they just understood it and helped me with it.

And the man said he wanted to put my name on his leaf.

And when I have told friends that this is what God showed me today, they told me they have wanted me to understand this for a really long time, but I never seemed to get it.

Well, now I do. And it’s changed everything.

OddBabble: She’s a slow learner. But she gets there in the end.

Why I Might Punch the Next Christian Who Sends Me An Invitation to Sign a Petition Against Gay Marriage

I have received 8 emails to date inviting me to sign this petition, many from people I have not heard from in years. I cannot remember a time when so many Christians I know have been so united and so active about something. This makes me want to weep.

Is this really the most gospel-furthering, Christ-honouring, lost-loving thing we can think of to do with our energy? It’s not that I need educating about the reasons why people feel the way that they do about it – I’m fully aware of that, and this post is not about the rightness or wrongness of it. It’s about the proportion of energy that is going into it. It’s the fact that it is so very high on the agenda, it’s almost as if two gay people getting married would cause all the Bibles in the world to spontaneously combust and the entire church to dissolve.

I am saddened that it wasn’t Christians who forwarded the petition to try to prevent the passing of a law in Uganda which would lead to the death penalty for practicing homosexual people there. Is it really more important that gay people should be prevented from being married, than preventing them from being killed?

I am saddened that I have not received 8 emails from Christians about any other matter of injustice or opportunity to show love, compassion or mercy. I recently saw results of a survey conducted to find out gay people’s perception of Christians. Part of the survey involved giving them various words which they could tick if they associated them with various Christian categories. 5.8% of the respondents ticked the word ‘loving’ in response to the Evangelical box, compared to 84.6% ticking the word ‘homophobic’. There is something seriously wrong if less than 6% of a certain demographic sees Christians (who are supposed to be ambassadors for the personification of love), as demonstrating that.

I wonder what these Christians who sent me these emails think will be achieved if they prevent this law from being passed. Do they think it will stop gay people being gay? Do they think that gay people in partnerships will stop being in partnerships? Do they think that it’s possible to legislate for morality? That people who do not believe in Jesus make decisions based on whether or not things are lawful as opposed to whether or not they submit to the teachings of a God they do not believe in? Do they think that gay people are more likely to become Christians if they are discriminated against by law?

I wish that the media caricature of evangelicals was not so accurate. I wish that the caricature was of a group of people who are famous for doing radical counter-cultural things to help the marginalised, the poor, the struggling, the addicted and the weak in society. I wish evangelicals were famous as people who give second chances to people who have been given up on by everyone else. I wish the word evangelical was synonymous with words like peace, justice and love.

I started to imagine what it would be like if the latter was the norm and it was multiplied into every Christian community everywhere. There would be an evangelical stereotype: they are those people who meet needs; they are those people who love without judging; they are those people who make a positive difference in communities; they are those people who, when someone starts to say that they met a person who changed their life, the listener already knows it’s going to be a Christian they’re talking about.

This is not reality though. The real evangelical stereotype? They are the people who shout about abortion and homosexuality; they are the people who fight over things and split further and further into more and more pedantic factions. They spend all their energy pointing fingers, building barriers and painting pictures of themselves as right and everyone else as wrong. They are the people who protest about books they have never read or musicals they have never seen because they are offended by their content, while campaigning for freedom of speech so that they can continue to share the most offensive message there is: that people need a saviour.

OddBabble: Is aware that punching people is not very Christlike, but is also aware that her fist is smaller than that of her 6 year old niece, so is not too bothered.

In Defence of Lament

I have come to accept that I am one of life’s lamenters.

I have been thinking that maybe one of the outworkings of us being a body of Christ with many and varied parts and functions is that some of us are broadly called and inclined to rejoice and some are called and inclined to lament.

I used to spend a  lot of energy berating myself for being a lamenter, and this was in large part because it was seen by some others as being not very godly and not very Christian. Christians are joyful you see. Smile. Jesus loves you.

But my joy has often looked like this song. In fact when I first heard it, it made me go all funny because it was one of those rare and wonderful moments where you see yourself reflected in someone or something else, and you realise you are not the only one.

I was told once by someone that it was OK to be a lamenter for a while, but at some point you need to get past that and get to the joy bit. But that doesn’t make any sense to me because I feel I am one of those called to lament, and so the ‘joy bit’ just looks a little different. It’s not a cause to feel sorry for me – it’s not a lesser joy, it’s a different one.

I conclude that I am a lamenter partly because I have had things in my life which have given me cause to lament, but mostly because I have always been drawn to other lamenters. I love morbid films, sad books, miserable music and cynical people. I have chosen a career which leads me to spend my waking hours listening to people cry and I consider myself privileged to hear personal tragedies which are otherwise hidden and secret. I do this not out of a misplaced sense of martyrdom or duty, but because doing it makes me feel really alive and as if I am being who I was designed to be, which actually at times feels close to euphoric. I’ve never felt like that doing anything else. I often come home from work thinking how perverse this is – that I should get such life-giving satisfaction, essentially out of other people’s misery. But it’s not the fact that my clients are unhappy that gives me that feeling, it’s the knowledge that I have been a balm for them. That I’ve given comfort, relief, a deep, human connection, a containment. The knowledge that those things are really rare and precious gifts, and that I’m really good at giving them. It’s like being a kind of macabre Father Christmas every day of the year.

At the moment I am lamenting with a few friends. Even though they are not my own griefs (it’s not my friend, my babies, my husband, my illness) that have caused me to cry – I still grieve, and I mean genuinely grieve, with actual real, salty tears. It strikes me that there is something about this that is really wonderful. Not the things that have caused the grief – they are unfathomably awful and I wish with all of my heart that they had not happened and were not happening. But there is something wonderful in the fact that these griefs can be shared in a very real way. I don’t understand how it works, but something amazing happens when sorrow is shared because it somehow really is taken on by the hearer. In a very real way, burdens actually are shared. We feel better. What kind of weird alchemy makes that happen? I don’t understand it but I love the fact that it’s a reality. I love the fact that I can be a friend who doesn’t just watch pain happen to people who I love – I can be a friend who can square my own shoulder beneath the burden, even if it’s just one little corner of it, and carry it too.

And it strikes me too that just like the happy, infectious, joyful Christians, I too am made in the image of God.God is a lamenter. A great deal more of the Bible is about lament than it is about the smiley kind of joy. And if God was grinning all the time and not lamenting some of the time when he looked at this messed up world of ours, I would find it hard to worship him.

So I am embracing my role in the body of Christ and in the wider world. It’s an important and needed role, and I love it.

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Proverbs 25:20

 

OddBabble: Is grateful that being a lamenter does not stop her from being frickin’ hilarious most of the damn time.