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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Raise a (gentle) ruckus

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I attended a protest rally recently.

I didn’t carry a placard, didn’t raise a clenched fist. I joined in with the chanting, but only in a very quiet voice. I felt a bit uncomfortable. That type of resistance just isn’t me. And then I felt guilty for not shouting louder. Did I not care enough?

But is that form of protest my only option? If I’m not a slogan-shouting, flag-waving freedom fighter, how do I best express my despair with the things that are awry in the world just now?

Last week I came across this lovely illustration by Mari Andrew and it reassured me.

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There are all kinds of ways to resist and many of them are gentle and full of grace. They may not be direct or vocal but they are subversive, wrapped in joy and beauty.

One of my favourite writers seems to agree.

On receiving an award at the recent gathering of the Writers Guild, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (creator of tv programme The West Wing) lamented the current state of play in American politics before asking the room:

“So what can we do? A lot, actually. Because the most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story.”

In other words, show your resistance in your art.

Be creative with your protest.

When the landscape around you is in rubble and ruins, plant colourful flowers that speak of hope and new life. When the news is full of violence and greed, share stories of peace and wild generosity. In the face of uncertainty, paint your truth. Stand toe to toe with despair and sing your splendid joyful song.

As I watched the people around me at the march, read their banners and listened to the chants and angry cries, from somewhere on the other side of the crowd came a very different sound.

Singing.

Gentle female voices raised together in a chorus.

Eventually those ladies marched past me. I couldn’t read their banner to see who they were but they looked like seasoned campaigners, women who had attended many rallies over many years to make their voices heard in the most beautiful way. Raising a gentle ruckus.

They made me feel at home. They reminded me that I don’t have to shout to be heard.

The writer Sally Lloyd Jones said,

“I see all of it [art] as redemptive. Sin has unravelled the fabric of the world and art is one of the ways that we re-weave, however we do it.”

There are large gaping holes being torn all over this wonderful world of ours and it’s up to you and me to pick up our chosen tool or instrument and begin the slow, delicate but deliberate process of pulling the frayed edges back together. I take great heart and encouragement from those leading the creative way. People like Sarah Corbett and her Craftivist Collective, cross-stitching their mini protest banners for London Fashion Week, or Shane Claiborne and his friends, turning guns into garden spades and musical instruments, or Mari Andrew sharing her art on Instagram and reminding people like me that there are many ways to make your voice heard.

And so I salute my fellow marchers, the flag-waving, slogan-shouting masses. I need you. The world needs you. And I will stand with you.

I may simply choose to raise a more gentle ruckus.

Be Like Brady

This week I heard two sporting experts share stories about those they’d been asked to teach.  The first was a man from the BBC who trained commentators. He made the observation that ex-sports stars were actually better at taking instruction than those already involved in broadcasting, as they were used to being coached and were looking for direction, rather than assuming that they knew it all and had nothing to learn. The broadcaster who’d asked the question, and clearly been looking for a different kind of answer, seemed just a little put out.

The second was a top basketball coach who’d been asked to come and speak to the New England Patriots, one of the most consistently excellent American football teams of recent years. He recalled how the Patriot’s quarter back, Tom Brady, a man of extraordinary talent and experience, a player at the very top of his game, came and sat in the front row with his notebook out and wrote down every word that the coach said.

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How do the best get even better? By being teachable.

Every day’s a school day, right? I’ve always liked to think so, always considered myself someone who enjoys learning and is happy to pick up little bits of trivia and information I didn’t know and pass them on to others.

But what if you’ve been in the same classroom for a very long time? Your willingness to be taught begins to wane. You’re bored. You’ve been through all this before. You know this stuff already. These newer, younger, fresher people don’t know what it’s like around here. We tried that already. It didn’t work.

Eurgh.

I really don’t like that kind of attitude. It sucks the potential out of a conversation really fast.

The problem is I think I’m in danger of becoming one of those people.

You see I’ve sat in a couple of spaces in my life for quite a while, and I’ve begun to notice moments where these unhelpful attitudes have become my default. I don’t think I make those kinds of comments out loud (except I cringe now wondering if I might have), but I’ve definitely had moments where they’ve been threaded throughout my attitude and demeanour. I’ve become the very opposite of Tom Brady – and no one likes a know-it-all.

No one is helped by the cynic rolling their eyes. No one thinks you’re big and clever just staring out of the window at the back of class. And none of that is going to make the situation any better for you.

So this week I’m moving to plan B – Be Like Brady.

Regardless of where I am or who is in front of me, my attitude will be one of sitting up front, notebook out with pen poised, ready for the things this person has to teach me.

Because every day’s only a school day if you’re ready to learn.

 

*Photo credit: Calum MacAvlay

 

I want to tell you a secret

Shh, come closer.

I haven’t written a blog post in four months. The observant among you will have spotted that already.

This isn’t down to a lack of inspiration nor any artistic crisis of temperament.

Rather I have had a Christmas deadline on another writing project and so every ounce of creative energy was spent on getting that completed and delivered. And now that it is done I am back and able to tell you about it.

Are you ready?

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I have written a story.

A beginning, middle and end.

And then I got it printed into a book to give to my nephews for Christmas.

The other part of the secret? I’ll just say this quietly.

I’m really proud of myself.

Oh not because it’s any kind of masterpiece. J.K Rowling can sleep soundly in her bed at night. Michael Morpurgo need not fear me snapping at his heals any time soon. The one copy that currently exists hasn’t even been proofread and is currently sporting several spelling mistakes.

No, the reason I am most pleased is because I got it DONE.

This was a self-imposed deadline and for me those are usually flexible affairs, all the more so if no one else knows they exist. But this was a story I wanted my nephews to hear, with lessons about kindness that I want them to learn, carry and practice throughout their lives. And once I was brave enough to crack open the lid just a little, to let some trusted friends see what was inside, their encouragement spurred me on to the finish. (Thank you Kirsty and Anna!)

But the main reason for me telling you about this now is not simply about explaining my absence from here, but rather because I feel galvanised at this annual time of setting goals and making resolutions because I now know that sometimes they actually happen. Sometimes you do finish what you start. Sometimes you can achieve what you thought was impossible. But for that to happen it takes three things – or at least it did for me.

Firstly it needs to become your priority. Whatever you want to achieve has to make its way much further up your list of things to do, and this means that other items on the list will have to take a lesser place. You can’t do everything and something’s got to give. For me, over the last few months, it’s been writing blog posts. I just didn’t have the creative energy to do both. At first I struggled with this but eventually made my peace with my priorities and cracked on with it.

Secondly you need encouragement. If you’re setting out to achieve something that feels daunting to you then you’re going to need some cheerleaders along the way. There may be times when you tire, moments when you doubt yourself and your ability to get across the line, days when you’re just fed up to the back teeth with the whole darned thing. Don’t stop. But make sure you’ve put a few people around you who will urge you on and keep you moving forward. They will be as much a part of you getting to the end as you are.

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And thirdly, accept the fact that whatever you’re aiming for won’t be perfect, but better to get it finished than never have it see the light of day. My personal guide in this process has been Elizabeth Gilbert and her brilliant book Big Magic. On more than one occasion I came to a key paragraph or two at just the right time, none more so than a section called Done Is Better Than Good, the final few lines of which are as follows:

Because the truth of the matter is, most people don’t finish things! Look around you, the evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting….and they stop.

So if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack right there.

You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.

 

These words gave me the permission to take my eyes off my doubts and fears, and instead refocus on my original motivation and get the work DONE.

So what next?

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2017 beckons.

365 days of possibility.

Plenty of time to achieve something if I set my mind to it.

If you set your mind to it.

There’s just one question – what shall we do?

 

 

A place at the table

My husband’s taste in music is considerably heavier, and he would tell you better, than mine. For this reason he has seen it as his mission throughout our marriage to broaden my musical palette, and as a result I am regularly required to participate in ad hoc rock quizzes. We’ll be driving along in the car and listening to the radio when a song will be played by an artist that is widely esteemed in great canon of rock music. Adrian will turn to me and, with a tone of child-like enthusiasm, ask me “Who’s this?”

Occasionally, after many years of musical re-education, I get it right immediately and he beams with pride. More often, however, I’ll say that I don’t know and in a tone that says I also don’t care that much. Unbowed by my lack of enthusiasm, Adrian will urge me to listen to the guitar sound, or listen to the vocals, willing me to recognise the band’s unique style.

Of course I have no such issues when I hear a song by a band I love. On my way home last week I heard the new Deacon Blue single on the radio. It wasn’t introduced before being played, but I didn’t need to be told who it was – there, very clearly, was Ricky Ross’s distinctive vocals, with Lorraine Mackintosh’s voice soaring in the background. Just at the point when I was pondering if it might be a new song by them as a duo, there came the Deacon Blue keyboard sound to seal the deal.

When we know something or someone well, we can recognise them in a moment, no matter how out of context they might be. When we know the voice of Jesus, the whispers of his Spirit, the call of the Kingdom of God, we can uncover them in all kinds of places.

Ken Gire is my all time favourite Christian author. His writing is so beautiful it makes me cry. If you haven’t discovered him, I urge you to go and find one of his books and enrich your life with his poetic genius. I was introduced to his writing nearly twenty years ago when I was given his book Windows of the Soul. In it, he talks about how God can speak to us in all manner of ways, including through the windows of stories, art, writing and movies. In his chapter about the latter he says,

Art, music and literature all come together in a movie, and when they all come together just right, something beautiful happens. A window opens, and you glimpse something in yourself that has been hidden from you for maybe all of your life. Or you glimpse something in someone else. Or, in a rare moment of transcendence, you glimpse something beyond.

And so it came to pass that I found myself crying in the cinema last weekend.

We had gone to see The BFG – not a film that immediately strikes you as a tear-jerker! For the first half I was mesmerised – it looks absolutely beautiful, Roald Dhal’s use of language is delicious and the portrayal of the giant by Mark Rylance is exquisite. And then about two thirds of the way through the story comes the part where Sophie and the giant need some help and, deciding to ask the Queen, make their way to Buckingham Palace. After explaining the issue to her majesty, she invites them both in for tea. Half way through the scene that follows I realised that I was crying – not just one solitary tear, but rivers of them. Given that I was enjoying the film in every way, I wondered what was going on, and as I asked myself that question, the window opened and revelation swept in.

I was watching a portrayal of kingdom hospitality.

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The giant, with all of his awkwardness, his size that shouldn’t fit, his lack of knowledge about the rules and niceties of the situation, was welcomed in and accommodated with such a lack of fuss and with such genuine kindness that it took my breath away. He was given a seat at the table, no matter what had to happen for that to be achieved, and he was honoured and respected regardless of his clumsiness or just plain different-ness. The Queen (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton), gave of her home, her resources and herself with an open-handed spirit that I saw as immediately beautiful and challenging.

 

I claim to be resident in a kingdom where the outsider is brought close, the excluded are ushered in and the down-trodden are given refuge. I claim to follow a King who came to the lowliest places so that, to once again quote Ken Gire, “out-of-place people would feel most welcome.” I found myself wondering how closely my life resembles that kingdom.

As I watched the film unfold I found myself asking what it would mean for me to truly open the doors of my life, my home, my heart. To set a place for those who might feel excluded. To bring in those who can so easily be left outside. Too often I allow people in only so far and then make it clear that I have no room or time for them to come closer. Or I accommodate them with such fuss that they have to know I’m doing them a favour, and so will move along promptly when their allocated time is up.

What if, instead, I threw open the doors, created space, lived each day with a spirit of welcome? What would it look like if each person I met knew that they had a place set for them around the table of my life, for a few moments or for as long as they needed to be there? I want my life to be a roaring fireplace of safety and warmth, rather than a mat that tells you to wipe the dirt from your feet before entering.

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What might it cost for me to become that person, that place? As I’ve been pondering this question this beautiful poem by Torri Horness has become my prayer:

If I have anything to do with it,

my very life will be a

shelter for every

weary wanderer.

It will feel like a

well worn sweater,

smell like

fresh-baked bread,

and it will sound like

the only thing we

become wayfarers only to hear:

here, you are wanted.

Welcome home.