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.

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.

Lonely Man

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.

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

Who knows my name?

I’d like to tell you about the most impressive person I’ve ever met.

His name is Chomno and he lives in Poipet, Cambodia. His story, if it was to be shared, would have Hollywood scriptwriters reaching for their pens.

They’d hear of how he lived through the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, escaping across the border into the refugee camps of Thailand. He met his wife there and, as they married, bombs rained on to the camp ruining the already simple celebration. When peace returned to his homeland they returned to the capital and began to rebuild their lives, but a trip to the border town of Poipet found him being called by God to give up everything and move there to set up a charity to serve the poor and destitute.

That’s precisely what he did, going with no great plan or financial backers, just obediently answering a call and looking to God to provide what was needed.

As I sat in the Cambodia Hope Organisation’s centre listening to Chomno’s story, after a day of seeing the extraordinary work that his organisation does, I knew that I was meeting with a hero of the faith. We joked with him about writing a book of his story, but the reality is that he’s too busy doing what he’s been called to do to worry about personal profile or who knows his name or what he’s done.

In the modern western world of constant updates, followers and selfies, it challenges me to ask ‘What if no one knew my name?’

What if the only person who saw who I was and what I do was Jesus. Would that be enough?

How often to I fall into the trap of looking for recognition in all of the wrong places? I find myself caring a little more than I should (or like to admit) about who saw/heard/read/liked what I have done.

FollowFor centuries, people have followed God’s call to serve him in the unknown or forgotten corners of the world, or the unseen and unglamorous communities of our cities. Most have gone in quiet and humble ways, counting the cost rather than the Twitter followers. The majority have never had biographies written about them, or had anyone hear of their work. No one except the only one whose opinion really counts.

Of course it’s great to be encouraged and cheered on, but what if the only chorus of praise was from heaven? What if the only ‘well done’ was from the Father? Would that be enough to keep me going? Would I keep faithfully serving at whatever I have been called to if the only eyes to see it were those of Jesus?

This week I am reminding myself to truly have that audience of one. To train my gaze away from the lure of worldly praise and focus instead on what pleases the one I get to call Abba.

The Masterpiece Within

ancient-carpenter-19515233Sometimes I think we forget the part of Jesus’ life that came before his ministry, the time he spent as a carpenter.  We know that it happened but, because it’s not the part that’s written down, we ignore it – it’s a minor footnote in his story. But it’s a part that intrigues me.

I love to see the work of artists and artisans. Watching people who can weave together intricate detail, original creativity and incredible skill to make something beautiful is something that fills me with wonder. It makes total sense to me that if Jesus was going to put in some time on earth before his ministry, it would be in a creative field. He who flung the stars into space, moulded each petal and picked out the colour palette for the oceans would surely have made some exquisite woodwork.

In our mass produced systems of today we forget that every item used in the world Jesus inhabited was handmade. Bespoke furniture would be the norm. Everything individually made to order. Time, care and attention to detail in every piece, made by a skilled craftsman. Come with me for a few moments into Jesus’ workshop. With an artist’s eye he looks at a piece of wood, rough and unevenly shaped and sees the masterpiece within. He runs his hand over a piece of timber and knows what it will take to chisel away the excess, carve out a beautiful shape and sand it to smooth perfection. He knows what type of wood is best for each different purpose. He has to hand a vast array of utensils and tools, each for a different part of the process and can use each one deftly to achieve just the right outcome and effect. After many hours of labour and patience, leaving no rough edge untended, he has his prize.

I believe that he sees me the same way.

And you.

He looks at our uneven temperament and the character traits that are bent out of shape. He sees the rough, knotted surfaces of our daily lives, the selfishness, pride and impatience, the judgement, laziness and lack of compassion, and rather than throw us on the scrap heap, he sets to work.

Because he can see the masterpiece within.

There are days I like to think I’m nearly there, that all I really need is some sanding down, smoothing out the final few bumps. I think that we’ve been working on this for a while now, Jesus and I, and I’m looking pretty good.

And then he reaches for the hammer and chisel and I know that there’s another lump to be knocked off, and it’s going to be painful and uncomfortable.

We go over the same area of stubborn resistance, working where I thought we were finished, to chip away once more at the parts that need attention. And it is indeed a process that humbles and chastens me.

But I let him work away because I trust myself to the master who can see what needs to be done. I am being fashioned into the shape that he wants me to be, regardless of how long it takes.

And as I sit in his workshop, I’m reminded that when I look at others and find myself considering all of their rough edges, their flaws and failings, that Jesus sees a masterpiece in them too.

We are all a work in progress – and the craftsman hasn’t set down his tools.