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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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.

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.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

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I don’t know what kind of day Theodore Roosevelt was having when he said this, or who he might have been suffering in comparison to (who do you compare yourself to when you’re a president!), but he was bang on the money.

Eventually, after many years of allowing Jesus to gently show me how he sees me, I don’t cripple myself with comparison too often.

But the devil is a cunning character and he’ll keep his eye on your Achilles heel waiting for the moment you’ve left it undefended too long, then in he’ll sneak with his whispering lies and distortion.

Last weekend, while attending an event with my work, I came into contact with a couple of my peers who I immediately placed myself in comparison with. They were considerably bigger players in this weird Christian world that we swim in, and so the enemy came nipping at my heels with his snide accusations.

“What have you done in comparison to her? Look at what she’s achieved. You’re still coming in second best, as always.”

Even though I now recognise these lies for what they are, in a weak moment they can still take the legs out from underneath me. I spent the morning feeling insecure and uncertain of myself, and generally pretty rubbish.

Thank goodness for Jesus.

Once again he came and lifted my eyes, reminded me of who I am in him, and revealed to me afresh the things in my past that the enemy has taken and bent out of shape, until they resemble something they never really were. It takes my Saviour to sweep away the cobwebs and dirt that have gathered after years of falsehoods, to reveal the beauty and truth that lies beneath and to restore my sense of who I am.

Once I am back in the arms of Jesus, comparison is set aside and joy returns. I can worship because I am unique, fearfully and wonderfully made, just like my peers standing before me. I can rejoice once more in them and in the amazing ways in which God is using them for his Kingdom purposes. Rather than hold back in my vulnerability, I can step forward and cheer them on, standing safe and secure in my identity.

Comparison not only steals joy, but encouragement, positivity and warmth. Comparison diminishes me and you and places a roadblock between us – everyone loses. I see so clearly why the enemy uses it so often. It holds us back from stepping into the fullness of who we were created to be, and brings animosity where they could be harmony and unity.

My moment of comparison last weekend was unpleasant, but it served as a rich reminder of all that can be stolen away when we set ourselves against others. And it allowed Jesus to remind me that his words over me are my true identity, and as such I suffer in comparison to no one.

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.

Sometimes the darkness wins

I’m sorry if this offends you, makes you uncomfortable or leads you to believe that I have terrible theology – but I think it’s true.

We just don’t like to admit it or talk about it.

Please understand, I believe whole-heartedly in an almighty and good God, whose love and transformational power can reach into even the most desperate of circumstances and bring healing and hope where there has been pain and despair. There is no situation beyond the touch of Jesus. But we live in the now and not yet of his kingdom and so sometimes, for whatever reasons, our prayers are not answered, the healing does not come and darkness wins.

Yes I know that in the big picture we are on the side of victory, that our hope is in heaven and our loving Father can bring all kinds of redemption from the worst of circumstances – but in the moments of pain and confusion, sitting in the darkness of loss, grief and unanswered questions, what we need most is company rather than cliche.

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I recently prayed with someone who had walked through a season in the valley of the shadow of death. After we had finished her main comment was to thank us for not offering a nice Bible verse or supposedly comforting Christian platitude. I’ve been on the receiving end of those myself, and rather than bring comfort or peace, they have left me feeling like a child who’s been given a dismissive pat on the head rather than a warm, healing embrace.

The Bible tells us that we are to “weep with those who weep”, but how often do we actually do that? Allow ourselves to really enter into another’s pain, sit with them in the confusion and keep them company in the darkness? That’s costly and uncomfortable, and perhaps challenges our safe and tidy Christian worldview. We struggle for something to say and dislike the silence, the loose threads – and so rather than feel any of that discomfort we reach instead for our favourite ‘helpful’ verse, like tossing a rubber ring to one who is struggling to stay afloat in stormy seas, and then walk away thinking that our bit is done.

Of course there are times when we need good friends to remind us of Biblical truths that we have lost sight of in the midst of the storm, when we need others to help carry our faith for a time when life has worn us down and waves of despair threaten to overwhelm us. But in my experience, we only win the right to do that in deep relationship and after having sat alongside for a while in the dark.

And so I am ready to accept that we live in a broken, wounded world and, although Jesus has won the war, sometimes the darkness wins the battle. Jesus will bring his hope and transformation when the time is right – my role, when I encounter someone in that place, is to say nothing more than “I’m so sorry. Can I sit with you awhile?”

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.