Choose life

One of the greatest teachers I ever had was a lady called Mrs McGuinness who taught me English Literature. She was the person who gave me a love of books and stories like no one had ever done before. If it wasn’t for her I may never have taken English at A-level or indeed for my degree, and perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting writing this now!

But she also told us something else that has remained fixed in my mind. At first it doesn’t seem very profound, but this morning it’s come back to me with a freshness that I so needed to hear.

The school I attended was a grammar school in Northern Ireland, and so once you got to A-levels there was an academic expectation built in to everything that happened. It was understood that you would/should go to university and so the focus in sixth form was constantly around study and exams and achievement. At the time it didn’t feel like unusual pressure because it was just how things were. All teachers ever spoke to you about was your revision timetable and past papers. Inevitably there were more than a few moments when we’d all get very stressed about this great moment of history that was coming our way, this fork in the road where our whole future hinged entirely on how many hours of study I put in that night.

It was during one of these frantic end-of-lesson discussions with Mrs. McGuinness that she said something that no other teacher had ever dared to suggest. She said that studying wasn’t the be all and end all. That regardless of what happened in our exams the sun would still set and rise again tomorrow. And that you really couldn’t study every hour that God gave you – at some point you had to pause and walk away from the books and do something that made you happy, however simple.

It was like a breath of fresh air had just blown into the room.

At the time it felt like permission to relieve the tension and expectation of the academic atmosphere, but over time I’ve come to realise that she gave us a huge life lesson, one which I need to remind myself of every now and then.

Because pressures and expectations don’t go away when you’ve finished studying. Throughout your life there will be wave after wave of them, coming from all directions – parents, peers, bosses, church, culture, not to mention your own voice telling you what you really should be doing. We so often get ourselves to the point where we tie ourselves in knots of stress and exhaustion because we are on the treadmill of fulfilling expectations.

Stop.

Right now just stop for a moment, and ask yourself this question. What would give me life right now? What is the thing that my soul craves? Where will I find peace, even for fifteen minutes?

Now go and do that thing.

But I can’t because there are all these things I have to do, I have a list the length of my arm, I’m spinning all these plates and I just can’t stop.

Oh but you can.

Guess what?

A plate might fall. Let it.

You might disappoint some people. They’ll live.

Your list will still be there later, or tomorrow – or next week.

But here’s what you’ll gain: Life!

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And peace and joy and rest.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says “He who takes time to sharpen his sword does not rob his employer.” For you to be the best version of you for the world around you, for you to give of your best to your family, your work, your friends – you need to choose what gives you life, at least once in a while.

When the psalmist talks about the Lord leading us beside quiet waters and restoring our souls, it’s tempting to think that the only thing this looks like is sitting quietly in a room with our Bibles open. But I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Because He made you and knows what makes you tick. He knows what will drain you and what will restore you. And he will meet you in a salsa class as well as in a church service. He can restore you through a trip to the cinema as well as a retreat centre. He can refresh you as you play your guitar, or paint or garden.

He knows what gives you life and He’ll meet you in that place.

But first you have to be willing to set aside the lists and the expectations, to leave things undone and to make time and space to get there.

Pay Attention

Just before the turn of the year I wrote about how I was asking God to speak into this year ahead and if there was anything he wanted to say to me as I entered 2016. Among a couple of other things, the words I received were Pay Attention! And in true God-style, he then set about backing up that message in other places in my life.

Shortly after the New Year began, I read this quote by Lysa TerKeurst which stopped me in my tracks:

“We want big direction signs from God – God just wants us to pay attention.”

For the last few years, my husband and I have had some fairly major, ongoing prayer requests concerning big future life stuff and difficult circumstances. What I’ve come to realise is, when you’re in that place of having huge imposing situations dominate your prayer life, and your eyes are always on the horizon of what you’re praying to come into being, you can so easily take your eyes off today and what God would have you do in the now.

The truth is, I don’t know if I have tomorrow, let alone next week or next year. None of us do. We have been gifted today, crammed full of moments when God wants to speak to us, use us, show us things about himself, ourselves and the wonderful world around us. But if our eyes are always gazing into the distance, our prayers always asking about the things that are not yet, we miss the opportunities that God has set before us each and every day.

God had clearly already been trying to get my attention about this even before I had this revelation in December. A few weeks ago I found a piece of paper that I had tucked away in a Bible or a diary, as a prompt and reminder to myself for each day. Can you guess what it said?

“Father show me your priorities for what I should do today. Spirit prompt me to leave things undone so that I can pay attention to the things you want me to do.”

So it seems that I am someone who regularly takes their eye off the ball and needs many reminders about the same message before it really starts to sink in! In fact only this morning, I read these words from the gospel of Matthew in the Message translation:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Message received (pardon the pun).

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It makes me wonder about how much I might have missed. How many times have I been so focussed on things I cannot change that I’ve missed the thing right in front of me where I could have made a difference? How many times has God tried to say to me, “That thing you’re praying about for three months times, I’ve got it covered – but there’s something I’d like you to do today.” How many times have I been so busy talking to God about the concerns of my heart that I haven’t kept quiet long enough to hear the concerns of his?

 

For someone who is a future-thinker, day-dreamer and a bit of an internal processor, my mind can so easily be anywhere but the here and now. But the here and now is where God has placed me. In this home, this community, this workplace and surrounded by these family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues. He has given me today, rich in Kingdom potential and possibility, if I choose to pay attention and see it.

There are still big prayer requests in my life, and of course I’m going to keep talking to God about them, but I’m more determined than ever to trust him with tomorrow so that I can pay attention to today.

The sun will come out.

In the midst of a long Scottish winter you’d be forgiven for believing that the sun had ceased to exist. You can go for days, weeks even, without seeing a chink of sky, let alone the sun. My husband describes it as living under a Tupperware box.

I was sitting this week with a friend in her office, and we looked out over the city and bemoaned the short, dark days, the grim, grey sky and how long there was to go until spring. A fellow worker came into the room, looked out the window and declared that sun was about to come out. Oh how we laughed. And laughed and laughed. We continued our conversation and fifteen minutes later, lo and behold, there was a bright light squeezing through the clouds. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the sun came all the way out, but he did his best to gleam through the clouds for a few minutes, to remind us that all is not lost. He’s still there, giving us enough light and heat to live by through the winter. There are more dark days to come but in a few months time we’ll begin to see him again. (Although not too regularly, because we live in Scotland, and he clearly has important business elsewhere.)

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Holding on to hope when everything around seems grey is a very hard thing to do.

Over the Christmas period I was struck by the stories of Simeon and Anna, who encountered Jesus when he was presented in the Temple. They had been waiting to meet him for a long time. A very long time

A Messiah had been promised. God had spoken many times through the prophets.

And then silence.

Four hundred years of silence.

How many lost hope in that time? Declared that God had forgotten them? Life was too hard and the Almighty too distant.

But God was still there, still whispering to his people, “Hope is coming. Hold on!”

Simeon listened to that whisper and believed. When all around was grey and silent he held on to hope, and acted upon it.

Anna had been married a short seven years before she lost her husband and became a widow. She knew the darkness of grief and loss, the ache of loneliness. But she lifted her eyes to heaven, held on to the promise of hope, living for the day when she would see it come to life. Year after year of praying and waiting, worshiping and watching.

And then he came.

Hope was born.

Everything changed. The world need never look so bleak again. There would forever and always be the promise of better.

For those of us who believe, we have the assurance that no sky of grey is ever without that chink of hope, no day too long or dark that his redeeming presence cannot bring comfort, and no path so uncertain that his lamp cannot lead us home. We can learn from the example of Anna, waiting in hope and faith through the years of grief and silence, trusting in the promises of Scripture.

But this gift is not for us to cherish alone. There are those around us trapped in the grey.

Sometimes people need to be told, the sun is going to come out, there is a God who loves and cares for you. And when they laugh at the seeming nonsense of that statement, because they cannot see or comprehend a God who loves them, we are to be the ones who pull back the clouds so they can feel His warmth.

A friend of mine once talked about what the Good News of the gospel actually looked like to people. Ultimately we share the good news of Jesus and the everlasting hope that He brings. But to an overwhelmed single Mum with two small children, perhaps good news comes first as an offer of babysitting. To an isolated and lonely older person, maybe good news looks like company before it looks like anything else. To the person being bullied, good news looks like a champion, a defender. And to the outcast it looks like a welcome, a place to belong.

Hope is here. We know it and celebrate it, hold on to it and are strengthened by it, bask in its warmth and turn our faces towards it.

And then we share it.

Christmas Cleanse

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I am in the middle of a serious post-Christmas cleanse. I’m not talking about any kind of detox, I mean ridding the house of all the wonderful, rich and tasty Christmas food ahead of the obligatory fresh start that is looming.

And by cleanse, I mean eat.

Be gone creamy stilton and brie (on the top of a digestive with a smattering of plum chutney). Away with you festive beverages, washing down some lovely artisan bread and seasonally flavoured dipping sauce. No more of you and your delicious ice cream Messrs Ben and Jerry!

Much like a marathon runner carb loading before a big race, I am feeding myself up, giving me just that little more weight to lose with the new regime – because in for a penny, in for a pound (or two), right? And so I am taking the opportunity afforded by Storm Frank to stay at home and commit myself to this cause like a pro. Two straight days of feasting – all for a good cause.

But it’s not only health and fitness that I am considering. (Despite what you’ve just read, I am truly considering this!) Last year I was struck by something a friend said when she spoke of asking God for a word or phrase as she went into each New Year. A few months ago another friend told me about how she and her husband prayerfully reconsidered all of their commitments afresh at the start of each year, and asked God where he wanted them to focus their time and energy in the twelve months that lay ahead.

And so rather than making any kind of new year resolutions, I am trying to take this time at the turn of the year, to both reflect on what God has done for me, in me, through me (and in spite of me) over the past twelve months, and to ask what he wants to say to me as I head into 2016. Are there things he wants me to let go of or lay down? Are there places in my life where he wants to stretch me or have me reach further? Is there an area he’s asking me to step into – a burgeoning friendship, an idea whose time has come, a new place to serve? Or is there a part of my life that needs some attention and this is the time to start working on it?

As I ponder and pray over these things I’ll write down what comes to mind and try to keep track of them through the year. Some areas in our lives need a degree of accountability if we are to change, and so I have indeed signed up to a proper health regime, handing over my cold hard cash for some guidance and people to journey with. This isn’t the obligatory January diet, but rather something I feel that God has been nudging me about for quite a while and this is the time to make a start. It fits in to the overarching challenge that I feel God has put on my heart for this year. I’ll maybe tell you a bit more about it another time – we’ll see how I go!

What about you? Is this something you already do? If so then I’d love to hear what that looks like in your life. Or perhaps this is the first time you’ve thought about this and would like to give it a go. This isn’t about getting everything in place by midnight, but rather taking the next few days to ask God what he has to say to you, things he might want to teach you, areas where he’d like to stretch you, if you’ll let him. If you need some inspiration to get you going, Anne Voskamp has a beautiful printable sheet with twelve areas to work through (along with some beautiful thoughts on this topic). For me that was a bit too much and I’ve stuck with one main theme applied to a few areas of my life, but perhaps it’ll spark some divine inspiration for you.

As you reflect on 2015 I hope that you can see God alongside you in both the triumphs and challenges, and as you ask him about the year to come I pray he’ll whisper gently, encouraging you, moulding and shaping you, guiding and directing you to become more of the person he created you to be.

Happy New Year!

Away in a Manger

This is a reflection that I have written for Tearfund Scotland’s resource Safe Refuge at Christmas . It includes some beautiful films, prayer ideas and ways to give to the Middle East Appeal.

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A mother’s instinct, the same throughout the centuries – to protect her child.

To give him the best that she can.

How did Mary feel, laying her precious one in the rough wood of a cattle manger?

No extended family for comfort, support or advice.

“No room here. Nor here. You’ll have to move on. Try over there.”

As she gazed at her son sleeping in the hay, did she whisper an apology to him; that she had hoped for something different?

When Joseph told her of his dream, and urged her to gather the child and come quickly, what fears filled her heart?

The stars in the bright sky shone as they fled across borders into foreign lands, looking over their shoulders, wondering when they would see home again.

This Son of God, born into the most humble of circumstances.

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A father’s instinct, the same throughout the centuries – to protect his child.

To give him the best he can.

How did Abdullah Kurdi feel, watching his young sons sleep in war torn Damascus?

As they fled to Turkey with no extended family for comfort, support or advice.

Trying to find a way to support his family.

“No room here. Nor here. You’ll have to move on. Try over there.”

As he gazed at little Aylan, sleeping in a makeshift bed, did he whisper an apology to him; that he had hoped for something different?

When he told his wife to gather the children and together they boarded a boat for Greece, what fears filled his heart?

The stars in the bright sky shone as they tried to flee across borders and oceans, looking over their shoulders, wondering when they would see home again. Hoping they might reach land again.

These children of God, born into the most humble and difficult of circumstances.

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You had nowhere to lay your head Lord, and neither did they.

Neither do so many.

Be near them, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay close by them.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and grant that we might do the same.

 

Safe Refuge at Christmas

Giving Thanks

The UK has been influenced by many stateside trends and habits over the years and, although Thanksgiving hasn’t been one of them (for obvious reasons),due to our increased mobility around the globe and modern technology I seem to be surrounded by Thanksgiving more than ever this year. Whether it’s American friends on social media, those from this country who hold the US dear to their hearts and have adopted the practice, or authors and bloggers sharing their plans and thoughts on the holiday, my newsfeed has been awash with all things Thanksgiving.

I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful, and am an advocate of the benefits of gratitude. From keeping a thanksgiving journal to posting #100happydays on Instagram, I have found the deliberate practice of giving thanks to be one of the most uplifting things I can do.

The wonderful thing about gratitude is that the more you do it, the more you find to be grateful for. It’s as though you’ve learned to look for hidden treasure and once you recognise what real treasure is, you find it everywhere. The embrace of a loved one, a sunlit field of corn on an autumn morning, the innocent joy of child skipping down the road, a listening ear over a warm cup of tea.

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When we lived for a time in Jamaica one of the things that I loved most was the response that many Christian friends gave when we asked how they were.

“Giving thanks”, came the reply.

How wonderful.

That someone would summarize their entire wellbeing as an attitude of thanksgiving.

What would it mean for me to live a life ‘giving thanks’?

How would it change my perspective if, rather than grumble about what was not, I was grateful for what was? If I found ways to give thanks for the simple things, instead of yearning for the more that is just out of reach?

As I wake in the morning, what if I began the day giving thanks for the breath in my body, the warmth of the shower, the clothes on my back and the work to which I put my hand?

As my stomach rumbles in the approach to lunch, instead of wolfing down my food to stop the hunger, what if I was truly thankful for the sustenance, savouring each mouthful and enjoying the company of those who shared my table? A simple everyday lunch time could be transformed into a feast of flavours and friendship.

And what if I was to verbalise my gratitude more often, rather than just think it to myself?  Would it have an impact not just on my state of wellbeing, but on those around me? If people knew how thankful I was for their presence in my life, for their wisdom, their service, for making me smile, would they be encouraged to do those things more often and for others?

One of my favourite quotes is this one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

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Each and every day is crammed full of things to be thankful for, if only we have the eyes to see them.

I want to seek them out.

To set out in the morning as an adventurer looking for that day’s treasure, coming home laden with loot from the things I’ve found. To share the joys and wonders so that others might be thankful too.

And so I begin today.

On this day of Thanksgiving I will set my alarm for every hour – a reminder to step back from my keyboard and look around. To speak words of gratitude, to those in front of me and to my Father above me. To see what I so often overlook. To find what is forgotten on every other day.

And tomorrow?

Well maybe the alarm won’t go every hour, but I think I’ll keep it for one hour of every day.

A way to begin practising what it means to live, not just a day, but a life ‘giving thanks’.

 

Speak Life

The charity that I work for has recently said goodbye to the Chief Executive who we’ve had for the last ten years. At his final staff conference during the summer, several senior members of staff paid tribute to him and something that one of them said really challenged me.

He talked of how Matthew would respond to any negative talk with the question, “How would things be different if you said that in a way that brought life?”

Ouch.

I immediately recognise times when I have responded too quickly, been overly critical, judgemental, sarcastic or simply discouraging. I remember the times when I have back-tracked, apologised or felt great regret over words that I have spoken, knowing that they have brought anything but life.

007Proverbs 15 v 4 says, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

I know that I have crushed more than a few spirits in my time, through my careless words or ill-chosen sentiments. And I can recall what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those responses from others.

The thing that I find interesting about Matthew’s challenge however, is the suggestion that we can say all manner of things that need to be said, can speak honestly and tell the truth in difficult circumstances, but still do it in a way that allows people to flourish rather than fade. This isn’t about us all simply saying nice things to each other while thinking something entirely different, nor is it about being hypocritical. It’s an opportunity for me to bring out the best in someone with what I say, a chance for them to see things from a wider perspective, not just come around to my point of view. It’s about me taking a few moments (or even longer) before I speak and asking God how he would have me respond – taking that time to stand in the other person’s shoes and ask myself, “If I was about to hear this, how would I want it to be said?”

As a native of Northern Ireland living in Scotland, I think this is something we Celts particularly need to hear. We love a bit of banter, but it often takes the form of putting someone down. We may well claim that it’s all in jest, but it begins to form a wider culture around how we speak to people, and about them, which has more than a tinge of negativity about it.

Negativity doesn’t bring life. Instead it breeds disillusionment, discouragement, fear and self-doubt. Rather than spurring someone on to better, it makes them shrink back, second guess or even stop. It makes everyone just that bit smaller.

What if, instead, we spoke words that brought life?

Rather than disagreeing with disdain, we instead offered a different approach? As opposed to shouting someone down for the things we don’t like, we spoke only of what we appreciated in them? Rather than tearing down a person’s plans, we contributed to build something stronger and better?

I wonder what ideas are out there that have never seen the light of day because someone was put down as they began to offer it? What answers have been left unspoken because a negative environment closed down all possibility of them being breathed into life? What creativity has remained untapped because someone was told that they couldn’t, shouldn’t step forward?

The world needs every good idea it can get hold of. The people with those ideas will probably have a dozen terrible plans before then come up with the answer that works. What if they’ve become so disheartened by the response to their first twelve suggestions that they never reach the magic number 13? What if they’ve been made to feel foolish for opening their mouths? Or worse, in our Celtic eyes, become a little too precocious in their plans and schemes and so need bringing down a peg or two? Perhaps, having been brought down, they don’t climb back up. The world doesn’t ever see them shine.

Either way, we all lose.

Today, let’s find a way to harness the best of people and what they offer. Let’s disagree with grace and understanding .

Can we open our minds to hear and entertain opinions we don’t think we’ll like? Can we seek out the nugget of possibility in what’s shared and fan it into the flame of potential?

Today, can we listen and then speak in a way that brings life?

(**Thank you Matthew, for the challenge!)