A Graceful Lent

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not a girl who does moderation very easily. I love a regime, a program, a plan to follow because that’s what helps me to have any semblance of discipline in my life. (For the most recent evidence of this see my last post on my new week resolutions, which I have to say are going pretty well so far.)

And so Lent is a gift to me. A substantial chunk of time to get my teeth into a helpful routine of some sort. Yes I like to cut something out most years (crisps be gone!) but I also like to take something on, a daily practice that has some physical and/or spiritual benefit.

This year I’ve decided to say grace. Every day before every single meal. For some of you this is a regular occurrence anyway and so may not seem out of the ordinary, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we said grace and so it never became an ingrained part of my life. Many times before I’ve thought about how I would like to start having that moment of thanksgiving at every meal time, but it has always remained a nice idea, done once or twice but never enough to become habit.

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But this isn’t simply about saying a short prayer. There is a much deeper spiritual, and I hope physical, benefit behind this plan. Giving up a food that is bad for you for Lent is, for many of us, just a way to do a mini diet for a while. I have often found a replacement food to help ease my way through so that it hasn’t felt very costly at all. Food is a habitual comfort to me and I think to many others. I eat mindlessly, out of boredom, not paying attention to what I’m putting in my mouth and what it cost the planet and her people for it to reach my hand in the first place, not concerned about whether or not this food is really beneficial for my body which has been fearfully and wonderfully made. I want to be truly mindful of each bite, thankful for the flavours and textures, grateful for the energy and benefit it will supply for me, and humbled by how easily available it was to me because of how very blessed I am. I want to be more thankful not just for the food in front of me, but for the great chain of people who brought it to my door. I want to pray more meaningfully for those who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, and for the work of those who serve them.

So for the next six and a half weeks that’s what I’m going to do. A Lent full of grace.

But just to make a little bit interesting, and hopefully to keep it very intentional throughout the entire time, I’m going to use a different grace every day. At first I thought about writing my own each time but after about three seconds realised that this was the path to madness – and certain failure. And so, as well as writing a few of my own, I’m going to try and gather graces from other people and places and post one each day on both my Instagram feed and on the Facebook page for the blog. If you have a prayer that you said before eating when you were younger, a current favourite, or any that you know of from around the world, do please share them with me – I have a lot of days to fill!

And if you should happen to find this helpful then please do join me and use these prayers each day. Apart from today’s which will come a little later this afternoon, I will aim to post the daily grace first thing in the morning so that I, and anyone else who cares to, can use it throughout the entire day.

Whatever you choose to do (or not) this Lent, I hope that it is a time of meaning and joy.

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My new week resolutions

It’s that time of year again. Making plans, setting goals, deciding who and how we’re going to be for the year ahead.

But not me.

You see if 2017 has taught me anything it’s that a year is a long and very unpredictable time and even the best laid plans can go awry in a moment you didn’t see coming. And so I begin 2018 in quite a different frame of mind than where I was twelve months ago. Yes there are still plans, hopes and dreams, but they are being held lightly and with more than a touch of trepidation. Trying to make year-long resolutions right now seems beyond me.

So I’m going instead for a week of resolutions, but will structure them in such a way that they can be repeated next week, and the one after. Or perhaps after I’ve forgotten them for a month I’ll do another week at the end of February, and then again in June. There are five of them, one for each week day – because trying to structure stuff in to a weekend just doesn’t work for me. If any of these inspire you, feel free to join in. If I manage any kind of consistency I may share a few of them as they happen on social media, so do play along.

Motivation Monday: I will set one main goal for the week. It might be significant or very mundane, but it will be the singular thing that I want to have achieved by the end of the following seven days.

Tell someone Tuesday: I will tell someone I think they are great. I will speak out encouragement, compliments or gratitude to a specific person.

Wisdom Wednesday: I will take a note of something I have learned this week, a nugget someone shared, something I read which struck a chord. I might even put it in a pretty picture and post it on Instagram.

Thankful Thursday: I will make a list of everything I’m thankful for this day.

Fancy Friday: There are too many things tucked away and saved for best, for occasions that never really come around – and I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to wear those high heels, spray on my best perfume and thank Crunchie it’s Friday! If I’m honest, this is the one I have most chance of continuing and the one I’m hoping others might join me in. So break out the best china, light the pretty candle, pop the champagne, whatever is lurking in a cupboard waiting for its special moment to shine, why not give it a Fancy Friday outing?

So there you have it, my grand plan for this next five days, and perhaps beyond.

And this Motivation Monday, what is my goal? To actually have done each of these five things by the time I get to Friday.

Start small and build from there.

Happy New Year!

The Boy on the Bridge

I wrote this post for my friend Esther, who started a blog in order to do a living advent calendar this year, with a focus on stories of love and hope. You can check out the rest of the posts here – and I’d really recommend that you do.

Lonely Man

I hate to be late. Be it for the cinema or an important flight, I will always err on the side of caution and arrive in plenty of time. It’s what helps me to feel calm and in control of life. My husband, on the other hand, has a more relaxed approach to time keeping. This has been a cause of much angst to me over the years we have been married, always trying to discern when I need to learn to go with the flow and when to chivvy him along.

And so it came to pass that on a cold dark Christmas Eve some years ago, Adrian and I were driving to the late night service at our church. We were approaching the village along an unlit country road when Adrian turned to me and said, “Did you see that guy?”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“There was a young guy back there, standing alone on the bridge. That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? To be alone at 11.40pm on Christmas Eve overlooking the railway line.”

I agreed that it was. By this stage we were driving into the village and ready to be parked and in church just in time for the start of the service. And then he spoke the words I knew were coming.

“I think we should go back.”

Once Adrian has seen something that isn’t right he can’t let it lie. His heart for the vulnerable is one of the things I love most about him – but there are many moments when it challenges every selfish bone in my body. For a second (or maybe two or three) I did battle with my inner timekeeper who was getting her knickers in a twist about being late for church. And then, following the voice of my husband, came the quiet whisper in my spirit.

I turned the car around.

We drove back to the bridge and Adrian went to speak to the guy and I stayed in the car and prayed. Five minutes later Adrian came back. The boy had been having a rough time at home and just needed some space. He assured us he wasn’t about to do anything drastic and politely declined the offer to join us at church. Later that night, before going to sleep, we prayed for him. We didn’t even know his name but we prayed that he would know peace and entrusted him to God. We never saw him again.

In some ways this is a non story. Not very much happened and we don’t know the outcome. Did we make a difference that night? Who knows? But I know it made a difference to me.

Too often I can be caught up in my own world and too full of my own concerns to see what’s important, even when it’s right in front of me. I don’t think I’m alone in this, especially at this time of year. Our already busy lives can become choked with lists and appointments and our view of the world becomes cluttered with the tinsel and trappings of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and all of the bustle it brings – but sometimes those things obscure what’s really at the heart of it.

Each time I ignore that person on the margins because to include them would be too awkward; every time I decide that to stop and help would be too inconvenient right now; when the things on my list take priority over the people around me, then I am missing the very essence of Christmas.

The Christ child whom we celebrate became a man who welcomed the outsider, stopped for the needy and broken ones and celebrated that which was overlooked by the masses. The greatest way for me to honour him at this time of year is not by singing carols about him, but by actually living like him.

And so my prayer for myself this Christmas, and for each person reading this, is that in amongst the presents and the parties, the cakes and the carols, the lights and the laughter, that we would listen for the whisper of his spirit when he tells us to stop and look for what is unseen.

And then turn the car around.

Simple September

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Generally speaking I find that January is a terrible time to start anything afresh, apart from a new diary. It’s cold and gloomy, with little on the horizon, and as a result most of the attempts I’ve made at resolutions over the years have lasted approximately ten days. September seems a much better month in which to embrace change. Sitting at the end of summer and at the doorway to autumn it is the perfect transitional space, a palette cleanser between the summer holidays and the cosy comforts of the final few months of the year. And so I am having a Simple September, clearing out the clutter from my body, mind and spirit and making space for my soul to breathe. I think one of the reasons the Christmas season has become such an indulgent time in our culture is that we are already starting from a place of plenty and then using it as an excuse to add layer upon layer of more until we quickly arrive at excess. What if I reined things in a little now, lived more simply, exercised more restraint – would how I live normally start to feel like a treat, a celebration?

There are many of my appetites which can, when indulged on a daily basis, get out of control. Social media is one example. I have come to realise that it is like silt in my soul, slowly and silently filling in every gap of time and space, clogging up my mind and spirit, creating clutter and noise. I need my attention to be fixed only on the One who holds my true identity, for His voice to be the one which speaks most clearly into my world, and for my attention to be drawn more towards what really matters. Most of our lives are already full of things clamouring for our attention, so when we choose to add more voices to the crowd is it any wonder that we sometimes struggle to quieten ourselves and be truly still?

And so throughout this coming month I shall, among other things, be fasting from all social media. Even as I type this my fingers are beginning to twitch nervously and my mind is creating a list of all the reasons why this is a terrible idea – all of which only goes to prove how necessary it is. Maybe social media isn’t your thing and you’re rolling your eyes at how very pathetic that makes me sound – believe me, I feel the same. But is there something else which crowds out your life and from which you could do with taking a break? Does your body, mind or spirit need some de-cluttering? Does the idea of a Simple September, whatever that might mean for you, fill you with joyful anticipation, almost excitement? If so then can I encourage you to pay attention to whatever your spirit is nudging you towards, and urge you to take some action? We are our own soul keepers, charged with tending to their health and well-being, and sometimes that requires a time of decisive action.

This is mine. What might yours be?

My hope for this month is that I will read more, listen better, pay attention more closely. That there will be further changes I want to make because of what I learn. That come October, I won’t just dive back into everything I’ve missed and gorge myself like a starved glutton. That in the stillness and quiet I will allow my Maker to hit the reset button.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Contending for joy

Life is a little turbulent at the moment. Regular readers of this blog will know exactly what I’m talking about but if you need a little catch up you’ll find the details here. In the weeks since our plans turned upside down we have been exploring other ways to go to Jamaica. We cast a wide net of enquiries, talking to people we know, friends in Jamaica, anyone who had an auntie’s granny who might know someone on the island. We are praying that if God has a plan b that we will find it by faithfully pushing a lot of doors until the right one opens. We have a lot of possibilities still on the table but this morning another answer came back as a no. And it’s one that, in the quiet of my heart, I thought would be a strong contender.

And so once again I find myself sitting in disappointment, keeping company with frustration, finding tears my only means of praying.

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And once again I have to choose how to face this day.

A friend said to me recently, by way of encouragement, “I see you contending for joy, contending for hope in the midst of this.” Her choice of words grabbed my attention because at an earlier point of this process I found myself having to contend for peace and I learned a valuable lesson.

Peace, hope and joy don’t immediately strike me as things I should have to contend for. Surely these are all things that God would want to bestow upon me, like a beautiful comforting blanket to keep me cosy and comfortable. In times that are the most difficult, surely I shouldn’t have to make any effort to find the things I need most.

I do think that there are times when God gives us some of these things in supernatural abundance – but even then we have to ask for them. All of these things lie on the other side of a choice. When life doesn’t go my way I can default to bitterness and resentment, or I can choose to trust the one who knows the end from the beginning. When I am confused and uncertain about what lies ahead I can give in to fear or I can declare peace over my circumstances, again and again if I must, until that peace becomes my reality. When another day awaits of pedalling on, uphill and into the wind, I can complain and grumble all I like but it won’t make the time pass any quicker. Or I can choose to look around me, and see the beauty in that moment, find the simplest of joys and make that my delight.

It only struck me this morning, as I looked once again at Philippians 4, that the way not to be anxious about anything is by prayer and petition, and with thanksgiving, presenting our requests by God. We have to ask for the peace we need. And immediately afterwards Paul encourages us to fix our minds on what is true, lovely and admirable. I had always read those verses in isolation until today. But they are connected because they are all about what you choose. We can choose to be thankful in our prayers when we look for what is good.

None of this is to deny what is difficult. Sit with your sorrow and allow the tears to fall. If those are the only prayers you have then God will receive them as such. But then you have a choice. To stay in that moment and let those circumstances define your day.

Or look up. Ask for help.

Contend for peace. Contend for hope. Contend for joy.

 

A list of joy

In the midst of dark and uncertain times, and inspired by this lovely piece by Victoria Coren Mitchell in the Guardian, I have chosen to deliberately seek the joy and simple pleasures of life. Below are the delights, experiences and memories guaranteed to make me smile. What are yours?

Gathering up seashells like treasure.

Finishing a brilliantly satisfying book.

Early morning sunlight on frost.

The first daffodils of Spring.

The smell of the local biscuit factory as it fills the air with sweet delicious fragrance.

Star jumps off the sofa with my brother to the opening credits of Fame.

Dogs.

Autumn leaves.

Laughing hard with my oldest, dearest friends.

An empty laundry basket.

The bagpiper on Princes Street playing Thunderstruck by AC/DC.

Ice cream.


The fresh, unspoilt front page of a brand new notebook.

Victoria Wood. Doing anything.

A Muppets Christmas carol.

That first day in summer when you feel cavalier enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Watching Torvill and Dean win gold with Balero.

School nativity plays.

New shoes.

Old people holding hands.

A collective hug from all three of my nephews.

Rising on a carousel.

Colourful wild flowers in unexpected places.

Sandy toes and a sunburnt nose after a bank holiday on the beach.

An unexpected tax rebate.

Glorious sunsets.


 

Life in a holding pattern

When you fly into Heathrow airport, particularly on one of the first flights of the day, you will often hear an unscheduled message from the captain just before landing. Over the tannoy they will explain that things on the ground are very busy and so you’ve been asked to circle the skies above the airport until a space can be found for you to finish your journey. And so, having completed ninety five percent of your flight, you drift in a loop for a while, waiting for the powers that be to grant you permission to land and continue with your plans for the day.

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When that’s happened to me I’ve usually been on my way to a meeting, and so as time goes by I start to look at my watch, wondering how long the delay will be, if my plans will be knocked off course and how I’ll adjust as a result.

In recent years I’ve interviewed numerous participants who wish to go on overseas trips with the organisation I work for. One of the questions we ask them is ‘how do you respond when plans change at the last minute?’ Some of them have great examples whereas others struggle to think of a time when that’s happened to them in any significant way. It’s one of the questions I find myself wondering what I might say if it was asked of me.

Now I know.

Until a few days ago my husband and I were making plans to leave the country, to serve God in Jamaica for at least the next two years. When I say making plans, I mean we had rented out our house, moved in with my in laws and I was on the brink of handing in my notice. We were ninety five percent of the way there.

And now we’re not going.

Things within our sending organisation had changed in recent times which led us to some big conversations with them, and this is the result.

The last few days have been a jumble of emotions. There have been tears and there are questions. Oh so many questions – and no immediate answers. It feels like we are still circling the skies above where we thought we were going, scratching our heads and wondering if we’ll ever land there. Are we being turned back to where we’ve come from? Is there a destination or timeframe that we can’t yet see?

So here we are. Strapped into our seats but circling. Waiting for an update from the captain.

The list of things that I don’t know right now is significant. I feel disorientated and lost.

And so I will remind myself of what I do know.

God is good.

He will never leave us or forsake us.

He is before all things and in him all things hold together.

It’s a short list, but significant. It’s what we hold on to as we wait.

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