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.

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On taking a break

I’ve had a break from writing over the summer. It wasn’t intentional, I just ran out of steam. I started my blog just over a year ago, and at first I was going great guns, posting two or three times a month, then my strike rate slowed to twice a month and then to monthly. I last posted at the start of June and in the second week of July I became a little twitchy. The voices of should and have to started whispering in my ears, but I didn’t have anything to say. A week or so later they won out, and I sat down to try and write. I began several different pieces but didn’t get anywhere. Starting from a place of should is never going to produce your best work. Perhaps I did need to stop for a while.


Taking a break, whatever it’s  from, is a good time to evaluate. Remind yourself why you began in the first place. Is that still the case? Is there something that needs altered or realigned? What are your values, and is what you’re doing in symmetry with what you believe? Decide afresh what matters to you. Write it down and place it front and centre in your day, on your desk, your mirror, the bedside table. When I began this blog I saw it simply as a place to ponder, reflect and share whatever thoughts I had on any given subject. This time of reflection has allowed me to distil that breadth into a narrower field of vision, giving me a specific lens through which to view my writing topics.

Once there I felt in need of fresh inspiration. Instead of writing I have re-read some of my favourite books, found new authors to enjoy and listened to podcasts which have refreshed me and reinvigorated my creativity. I’ve given myself the permission to take time away to sit at the feet of others and drink in their genius.
And now it’s time to begin afresh. Tempting as it would be to simply admire the work of others, and listen to the voices constantly telling me someone else will always do it better so why bother trying, I choose to believe that there is room for each person’s creative input to this world, and so I will offer mine. There are enough people spreading hate and violence, negativity and darkness. We need more people to stand up for joy and peace, to celebrate beauty and hope, to find and share the quirks, colour and spiritual splendour of life. I pray that’s what you’ll find right here from now on.

Are you needing to stop doing something for a time? Embrace the break. Silence the voices of should and have to. Let yourself rest and be still.

Then ask yourself those key questions about why you started, who you are and what you value.

Find inspiration – read, listen, look, pray.

And finally, refreshed and reinvigorated, get going!

On the lookout

I spent some time this past week with my three young nephews. One of the things I love about hanging out with small people is their fresh take on the world. They see things for the first time and are excited to share them with you.

They see possibility in the ordinary.

You may see a plastic disposable salad bowl ready for recycling – they see a boat ready for the paddling pool. All it needs is a mast fashioned out of a twig and a sail made from this handy leaf and… voila! You see a ramshackle old ruin of a building, broken down and covered in foliage – they see a castle and a place full of adventures. You see a tree, they see a climbing frame, you see a bit of old wire fence, they see….well they aren’t quite sure yet, but it could be something!

They live their lives on the lookout, seeing possibility everywhere. They show us something new in the oh so familiar.

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I’m glad of their refreshing viewpoint. I need to be reminded, in my impressive grown up world of adulting every day, that I actually don’t know everything and even what has been familiar for years can be revealed to me in a new and powerful way.

I’ve been a Christian for around thirty years and in all that time my NIV Bible has been my trusty sidekick. I love the familiarity of certain passages, the language it uses and that I can find my way around easily. But all of that familiarity breeds, well not exactly contempt, but a certain comfort and complacency which means that I can scan over powerful and challenging words without taking any notice whatsoever. For this reason I decided to find a fresh pair of eyes and have been reading my way through the New Testament in The Message – and it has been a revelation.

I have found treasure in the most familiar places.

Sometimes just a new turn of phrase helps us to see something we’ve looked at all our lives in a fresh and wonderful way. Take, for example, the way in which Joseph of Arimathea is described in Mark 15.

He was one who lived expectantly, on the lookout for the kingdom of God.

That stopped me in my tracks. What an epitaph! Do I live expectantly? Am I on the lookout for the kingdom of God? Or do I spend my days giving my Creator a nod in the morning and then fail to see his hands at work all over my oh so familiar life?

I began to wonder what it would look like to live expectantly, and what I would see if I spent each day on the lookout for the kingdom? Would I perhaps see possibility in the ordinary? Would I find treasure in familiar places? Would you?

Perhaps that situation I have written off as impossible can be viewed from a new perspective. Maybe that relationship you thought was beyond repair becomes injected with fresh hope. The streets you walk along every day start tingling with potential. The Spirit starts nudging you closer to what has been overlooked for too long. He whispers to you of what the kingdom might look like here.

Come and see. Look under here. New shoots are growing. Will you water them, nurture them, plant them out into the light?

See this? The thing you discarded as useless, past its best? Here’s what I want to do with it. Will you give me your hands to make it happen?

Remember that person you met yesterday? Encourage them today. They need to hear kind words. It will transform their day and have far-reaching consequences you will never see.

The kingdom is here, hidden in plain sight. Can you see it?

Imagine what could happen if we each lived expectantly, what kingdom treasure would be uncovered if we looked for it each day?

I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’m excited to start looking.

The View from the Water

I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen into deep water, but I have.

It was about ten years ago and I was on holiday with my husband’s family, taking a boat along the Caledonian Canal. We were fortunate with the weather and so had enjoyed Scotland’s scenery at its best, gliding along tranquil waters, taking in the splendour of Loch Ness, sailing right along to Fort William before turning around and coming back to Inverness.

We were on the last leg of our journey and approaching a lock, pulling in to the pontoon to wait for the appropriate time to be allowed through. I stood on the deck, rope in hand, ready to hop off the boat and on to the solid wood below. Only I misjudged the distance and instead landed in the water. In my shock, I looked up to what now seemed was our most enormous boat coming in towards me!

Would it crush me? Where was the engine? I need to get out of the way.

Thankfully there was a gap under the pontoon for me to duck under and my husband and father-in-law soon appeared to haul me from the water and on to dry land.

It’s one of those stories we now tell as a family and have a good laugh about, and on reflection I probably wasn’t in that much danger at all, but at the time it was very frightening and I was shaken up from the experience.

The view from in the water was very different than on the boat.

waves

I was reflecting on this incident recently as I sang the worship song Oceans. I’ve always loved it and have sung it with great gusto, pledging to be led to places where my trust would be without borders and asking to go deeper than my feet could ever wander. As if that would all be accomplished without some cost.s

Most recently I have sung it with tears in my eyes.

We sang it last month at the Spring conference of the mission organisation with whom my husband and I are planning to go to Jamaica early next year. Our intention is to leave our jobs, home, friends and families and go for a minimum of two years to serve the church in Jamaica. Now, I appreciate that this doesn’t sound like much of a hardship! I know that there are much tougher assignments to be called to, but we’ve been here before and the view from in the water is a whole lot different than from on the boat.

We took a career break in 2009/10 and served God in Jamaica, and on our return life turned upside down. Unemployment, illness, strain on our marriage, all of which went on for a very long time. Our feet did fail, the oceans certainly were deep and rising and at times fear surrounded us like never before.

Keeping your eyes above the waves when the water is at your head is a very different experience. We did find God there in the mystery of it all, but not in the ways we expected. When what we wanted was bountiful provision and rescue, he instead gave manna, just enough of his grace to walk through each day. When we wanted pulled out of the water he instead gave us people who would come alongside us and keep us afloat when we became too tired to swim any longer. And in those moments when we weren’t sure we could even see him, he did not fail us. He was there.

waves 2

Looking back over the past six years, God had done things for us, through us and in us, which have made us stronger and brought us to a place I’m not sure we could have reached had it not been for walking out into those deep waters.

In the last little while we’ve enjoyed some peace and tranquillity, sailing along and starting to enjoy the view once more. It all looks pretty good from here.

But we’re being called out upon the waters again and, while I’m excited about that and believe that God is in it, He is the one calling us, it does mean stepping into the unknown where our feet may fail. I’d be lying if I said there aren’t moments of trepidation.

Eric Liddell, the great athlete and missionary to China, said “You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.”

How much faith am I willing to put into practice? Enough to keep me cosy on the deck? Just enough to get my toes wet? Or am I really willing to go where my trust will be without borders?

I’ve known God while standing on the boat, and I’ve known Him neck deep in water.

I’d rather be in the water.

 

Celebration Story

This time last week I was returning from America and had a five hour layover at Charlotte airport in North Carolina. After about ten minutes in the terminal it had become my favourite airport ever. Not only could you sit in white rocking chairs on a tree-lined avenue, but they had therapy dogs for you to pet. I was charmed. They had tapped into two of my bucket list desires – to own a rocking chair and a dog. (I know, reach for the stars, right? What can I tell you, I’m a simple girl with simple pleasures.) What had felt like an excruciatingly long time to spend in a relatively small airport suddenly became a great time to relax and watch the world go by.

As I sat rocking in my chair, eyes closed and imagining I was on a southern porch at sunset, another delight grabbed my attention. Someone was playing the piano. I looked around to see a baby grand diagonally across from where I was sitting, and a young man playing the most wonderful music. I love listening to people play the piano, especially those with real talent, and I was absolutely mesmerised. Almost immediately people began to stop in their tracks near the piano to watch and listen. After a few moments they would reach into their pockets, pull out a wallet and drop a dollar or two into the tips jar.

But as I watched more closely I realised that something else was going on.

This wasn’t simply an exchange of a little money for a pleasant moment of distraction. No, something much more profound and precious was changing hands. Almost without exception, each person, having dropped their money in the jar, turned away and was beaming. Their joy was evident even from the distance at which I was sitting.

The transaction was a moment of celebration. We had been invited, implored, to stop in the middle of our busy days and spend a few moments relishing music, creativity and joy. To pause and wonder at someone’s skill, and to encourage and thank them for enriching our lives, albeit for a brief moment.

How many times do we let those moments of celebration pass us by? How many days have there been where pure joy has crossed our paths and we have barely acknowledged it, let alone paused to celebrate? We are too busy rushing to where we need to be, preoccupied with what we think is important. Or even worse – we’re on our phones. Heads are buried in the nonsense notion of having our fingers on the pulse, all the while we miss the treasure that’s right in front of us.

I think we miss moments of celebration every day, and it’s time to stop.

It’s time to stop and recognise real talent. To say ‘how wonderful’, ‘keep going’, ‘you’ve made my day’.

It’s time to say thank you to one who has served you well, to acknowledge their efforts not only to them but to their managers.

It’s time to pause and pet the dog, but also to spark a conversation with the owner.

It’s time to stop and smell the roses. To comb the beach for shells. To admire the view.

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Children do it all the time but somehow, in our grown-up and important lives, we lose the ability to see what’s really important.

I think that most days will bring us at least one opportunity for celebration, if we take the time and adjust our focus to find it. What could be better? I want to start seeing each day as a potential gold mine of joy. Yes I will need to carefully sift through the distractions and the dross, determine what is masquerading as treasure but is really trash, and adjust my eyes so I can see the tiny sparks among the dust. But when I find them, hold them up and let them gleam in the light, it’ll be worth it.

Let’s celebrate and exchange real joy each and every moment it comes our way.

To do anything less would be an extravagant waste, don’t you think?

What if you fly?

Fly

Quote: Erin Hanson. Image from Pinterest.

Perhaps, like me, you have dreams deep in your heart that you keep tucked away in the secret box of your imagination. Every now and then you bring them out, hold them aloft to see how wonderful they look, shiny and bright with possibility. You entertain the thought of actually doing something with them, of them becoming a living, breathing reality. And for a short while you bask in the glow of how wonderful that would be.

And then the other voices come.

Don’t be ridiculous.

You could never do that.

Who do you think you are?

People like you don’t do things like this.

Someone else is doing this already.

And doing it better than you could.

Where will you find the time?

You’ll make a fool of yourself.

You’re too old.

You’re too young.

What will people think?

What if I fail?

And with that, all of the possibility suddenly seems tarnished by doubt and fear, the dream feels like foolish nonsense, and so you fold it back up and tuck it away once more, never to see the light of day.

But what if….

What if the dream that is in your heart is exactly what someone else needs?

What if you become the best version of yourself as you do it?

What if you inspire and lead others to do the same?

What if you fail?

Who cares?!

The issue of failure can be crippling and terrifying but I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a more frightening question.

What if I never tried?

Imagine getting to the end of your life and all of those dreams have stayed locked in the box without ever once having had the opportunity to spread their wings. How tragic would that be? How wasteful? Each one of us is packed full of creativity and possibility, but some of us only use the tiniest portion of what we’ve been given.

Let’s unleash it all!

Be prepared to be a glorious failure rather than scared and safe. I want to get to the end of my life with nothing left unfulfilled inside me. I’d rather crash and burn than never make it across the starting line.

Today, why not let one of those dreams see the light of day once more. Consider it afresh and let it sing to you of all that might be possible. Stare down the disapproving glare of doubt and pray for the courage to take that first step off the ledge.

Because, my darling, what if you fly?

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.