Breathtaking beauty in unsettling times

A mandarin duck

There are so many choices to make every day. So often I want to make the safe choice, to do less, to hide. It seems so tempting. There are times when this is what we need to do, in order to heal.

But I also think there are times when God calls us to go out, to make that change, to speak when it is unpopular, to take that next step.

I am reminded of Jesus saying to Peter out on the boat ‘come!’ So Peter got out of the boat, and walked on water, and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was frightened, and he began to sink, and he cried out ‘Lord, save me’. Immediately Jesus extended his hand to him and caught him.’ Matthew 14: 29-31a

It was night, and when Peter saw Jesus walk on water, he wanted to join him. When he was focused on Jesus he could do it, but when he doubted and got frightened he sank. Even then, Jesus caught him- immediately. What compassion and grace.

I had heard there were mandarin ducks in the area, and I thought I will never see any, it is not worth trying. Another part of me thought I will never know if I don’t try. And so I went out, and found this beautiful bird on the river! When I found the motivation to try, I found the very thing I sought.

Now I am not saying that every time we try, we will find what we are looking for. But I am saying that if we don’t try, we won’t find it. So sometimes like Peter, we need to have the courage to try, and we might just find the very thing we seek.

Gracious and patient God, You are so good to us, and You understand us when we feel negative and unmotivated, times when we give up trying. Lord Jesus, thankyou that You speak to us and remind is to come, and that good things are still possible, even moments of breathing beauty and kindness. In unsettling days, may Your holy spirit give us courage to get out of our boat, and to seek new adventures, and to continue to trust in Your good purposes. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Finding new paths.

Sloy dam!

It is amazing how often at the beginning of a new year, we feel compelled to give up bad habits and to embrace new more healthy ones. This week, I was able to try a bit of hill walking, on a beautiful winter day. It was glorious!

However it didn’t start like this. It started with the thought, should I really be doing this. Finding the car park to start off with was hard enough, never mind the right path. The signs were far from clear, and it was only watching the wee group of people ahead, that gave me a clue which was the right gate to go through to start off. It was just a bit disorientating.

After I came back however, I had chatted to other people, consulted a map, and got my bearings much better. Now it has become familiar territory, and much easier to contemplate doing again.

It reminded me that doing things for the first time, is often pretty scary. However well prepared we are, we have to interpret new information, process our enviroment and find our direction. It takes energy and courage.

For people who are traumatised or grieving, there are many things that we need to learn to do, to be self aware and to have confidence to explore- whether it is making a choice, going out with friends or moving house. There are decisions that need to be made, and often we need to have courage to take that first step.

In psalm 119 it says: ‘ Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path’. Knowing God’s Word helps us to honour Him in our decision making, and gives us a moral compass. His Holy spirit guides us as to what might harm us or bless us, and this helps us make the best decisions, even when they are scary or new. We give thanks that we are never alone, and that God guides us and helps us venture out on new paths.

Eternal Father, we often are anxious about going in new directions, and a bit worried how things might turn out. In all our ways may we acknowledge You, and may you make our paths straight. Lord Jesus when we are hurting, we often lack confidence or motivation to try something different. It can seem so daunting. Please calm our fears, and may your holy spirit guide our feet and give us courage to explore, and to find new paths that lead to beautiful vistas, wonder and blessing, Amen.

Letting go the toilet roll from the back of the car!

Not needed!

Pandemics do strange things to people. We adopt survival habits, which seem a good idea at the time, but don’t hold up so well longer term. In the first months of the pandemic, there was a complete panic in society that we were going to run out of toilet rolls, and so many shop shelves were empty. And so I used to keep a packet of toilets rolls in the back seat of the car, so if I met someone who didn’t have any, I could offer them a packet. It seemed like a good idea!

However 21 months later, I still have a packet of toilet paper in the back of the car. I know that I don’t need them, that in fact no one needs them, but it has been hard to let go. What if there is another shortage?

I think that we have all put strategies in place to help us deal with the pandemic, new patterns of living to seek to keep us and others safe, going out less often, doing our lateral flow tests etc. Many of these patterns are necessary and good.

However for some of our coping strategies, we need to adapt, and to let go. They are no longer relevant- hoarding our favourite food, ordering everything on line, deciding we don’t need to catch up with friends the same way. It feels a little as if we are trying to control things, to make things seem better, to try to erase our worries and anxieties.

I love the verses from Jesus in Matthew chapter 6:25 onwards: ‘therefore i tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is life not more than food, the body more than clothing. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns,and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?’

Do not worry, are words I think we all need to hear, especially as we go into a new year. Sometimes we get frazzled trying to sort things out, trying to envisage what might happen, and to try to prevent it. We so overthink.

God calls us just to trust Him, not to prepare for things that haven’t yet happened, to put our energy into worrying when we don’t know what the future will bring. Our heavenly Father knows us, He knows what we need, and He will provide for us, with grace and care. And so in this year ahead, may we lay aside unhealthy patterns and worries from the past, and find courage to go forward in freedom.

Gracious God, You give us freedom to choose how we respond to the dilemmas and enigmas of this life. Sometimes we have got stuck in old habits, negative patterns and worries. Lord Jesus, You came into this world to set us free, and to give us life in all its fullness. Holy spirit give us discernment to let go of unnecessary burdens and habits, and heal us, so we can live in freedom, and make wise choices in the present. As we enter into another year. May we trust You, for your eye is even on the sparrow, and so Your love and provision for us is even more wonderful. Thankyou Jesus, Amen.

The weather forecast said rain…..

But it was wrong!

This morning, the skies looked overcast and grey, and the weather forecast said it would rain. It didn’t look like a day for going out. However, I really felt like some fresh air, so putting on a big rainproof coat and boots, I ventured out, expecting the worst.

The thing was, as I started up a modest hill, all of a sudden the sun started to come out from between the clouds. The colours of the landscape around looked as if they were on fire, with yellows and oranges. And the deep indigo sky reflected in the water, and everything was gorgeous. It was such a clear and awesome view, made the more precious by being completely unexpected. It was a gift!

How often are we put off from doing something, because we are advised it is not a good idea, or it will be too hard, or it is just not possible. However listening to the negativity or advice of others is not always a good idea. It is worth listening to people’s insights, but we always need to ask the Holy spirit to guide us, and help us discern what to do. Sometimes it is worth venturing out, even when it looks like it might rain! There might be amazing experiences that we will miss if we stay in.

There is a weariness and cynicism around in the world, that can weigh us down, and make us question if it is worth bothering. But when we look to Jesus’ example, he persevered and kept on loving, even when he faced misunderstanding, opposition and even death. Through the cross, Love overcame all things.

I believe that it is important to keep venturing out, even when we do not know what we might face. In Romans 5, Paul writes about how suffering produces patient endurance, which brings character and hope. Even when things go wrong, God can help us learn things which might help another soul.

Galatians 6: 9 is also a timely reminder ‘ let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the right time, we will reap, if we do not give in.” A song from JJ Heller ‘Don’t give up too soon’ is a gentle reminder of this theme, and worth listening to.

There might be grey days, when we need to stay in and rest. There are days to go forward however, and to keep going, and not give up. For who knows what we will find, if we just keep taking the next step.

Eternal Father, You are the Creator of all things, and just being in Your Creation is such a blessing and inspiration, in all weathers. Lord Jesus, I confess sometimes I am easily put off, or discouraged from a new venture or project, because I am scared of all that might go wrong. Yet You set your face to Jerusalem, even though you faced opposition, as it was the only way to fulfil your purpose. Holy spirit, help us all to discern what to do, and when. Help us not give up too soon, but through prayer and encouragement, to persevere on our journey, Amen.

Grief creeping in round the edges.

Exhaustion and beauty together.

Christmas Day is now passed. It is a time of thanksgiving, for people that we have spent time with, gifts exchanged, worship in church – atmospheric and inspiring! So much to appreciate.

Despite my strenuous and best efforts, I still find it hard not to grieve as well. I think that I have lost three close relatives in three years, and there is something about the intensity of that, exacerbated by the restrictions of the pandemic, that just seem hard to overcome. I suspect I need to try less hard, and just let things be. It is exhausting trying to be content.

My parents in law, loved showing hospitality at Christmas. They would have the flat decorated, their table would look amazing, they loved to cook food, and for people to chat together. There were elegant candles and tiny shiny angels. They were truly convivial people, and they enjoyed creating a welcoming and lovely space.

There is a cliche about loss, that when some one dies, that there is an empty place at the table. For me, it feels so much bigger than that because the table itself has gone. There is a loss of the whole experience, which will never return.

I am so grateful for the patience of God. He lets me be sorrowful when I need to. When I am trying hard to be optimistic, He gives me space to acknowledge my grief. In Matthew chapter 5 verse 4 Jesus says ‘ blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted’. And in these days of mixed emotions, the presence of God is indeed a solace.

Eternal God, You are so patient and loving when we hurt. Sometimes we try to hard to heal, as it feels as if we should be better by now, that people don’t want to listen to our continued sadnesses. We exhaust ourselves trying to be upbeat, and grief creeps back in around the edges. Lord Jesus thank you that You love us as we are, that You are our Emmanuel, the God who is with us. Thankyou that You reach down to us, and enfold us in your love, and let us rest. Holy spirit we know You transform our souls, in your perfect timing. Meantime, help us just to wait, quietly, patiently, but with the hope that one day things will indeed be better, Amen.

Putting up the Christmas tree – special memories!

This is a photo from about 14 years ago. The memories are lovely, because everyone loved putting up the Christmas tree- as you can see! We put on Christmas music, found the decorations in the loft, brought everything downstairs and started. Many decorations were made by Andrew, or chosen on a special occasion. There was tinsel everywhere, and the result wasn’t always the neatest. As a family it was a fun activity to do together, with food and drink and even some dancing!

I so miss this. Today we bring the box down from the loft, and wonder who has time to untangle the lights, or get new ones. It has become a bit of a chore. There are so many fewer presents, as people are no longer here. It feels as if it has lost its sparkle.

If we have a Christmas with family all around, it is good to give thanks, and to enjoy all the people interactions, all the bustle and noise. If there are small children involved, then appreciate their wonder and even their tantrums!

Quieter Christmases are just different. There is more space to read, and walk and enjoy music. The Christmas tree eventually goes up, although there is a hint of sadness in its branches.

I remember the verse ‘ Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ 1 Thessalonians 5:18

There is something about giving thanks when it is busy, there are toys, and visits and laughter and chaos. Yet also giving thanks when Christmas involves fewer people, and less variety and voices. The challenge is to create new rituals and traditions, to form new communities and to find peace.

Gracious God, before Your face, generations rise and pass away. Thankyou for Christmas, and all the ways that we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into this world, the Babe of Bethlehem. We give thanks for the wonder and joy of children, and that they bring this dimension into the day. And we give thanks even when the place settings are empty, and a number of years have gone by. We remember with deep thanksgiving, and we treasure what we have. Holy spirit touch the lives of all for whom this Christmas is tough, and the loss of a loved one so raw. May we all find comfort, and in time courage to create new traditions, for the sake of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

Hallelujahs- finding perspective through praise!

Praise in the darker days.

‘O come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker’ Psalm 96:6

At the moment, it feels as if we are all going through every emotion- Christmas approaching, a new virus variant, so many stories of tragedy, local and international. These are such turbulent days.

I think at times it can all feel overwhelming. For people who have experienced trauma and bereavement, it can be even more unsettling, because there are so many triggers, and so many old wounds are reopened. What can we do, to rediscover our equilibrium when we feel troubled and off balance?

For me, I need to spend time with God, time with His Word, time in worship. This reminds me that God is still present, and that His goodness and mercy never fail. Worship reminds me of the bigger picture, helps me remember that I am a child of God and restores my perspective.

The psalms express something of that perspective, people being real, questioning and lamenting. Rereading this book of prayers and praise can help in days of dismay and weariness.

There are days however when it can be hard to concentrate, and so beautiful praise music can be ideal to find connection with God, and opportunities for worship.

On days when we hunger for God’s presence, music like ‘Nothing else’ by Cody Carnes, can remind us of the beauty and wonder of God’s presence. If we are experiencing a time of waiting and uncertainty ‘While I wait’ by Lincoln Brewster can transport is into the presence of God. If we are experiencing sorrow ‘ When the tears fall’ by Tom Hughs is so deeply moving. The song ‘ Broken Hallelujahs’ expresses that we can worship, even when we don’t understand and are hurting. We might not find all the answers, but we find a God who cares.

Sometimes we think that in order to pray or to praise God we need the right words, or we need a certain amount of faith. But Jesus calls us to come as we are, with faith even the size of a grain of mustard. He accepts our faltering words, and mumbling groans. And so we are thankful.

Merciful God, we know that we are created in Your image, to live in relation to You, to receive Your love, and to share it with others. Yet sometimes we get hurt, and are sorrowful and disillusioned, and we are in danger of retreating inside ourselves. Lord Jesus, You understand the pain of human existence, and You came to save us from our sins, to bring healing, to set us free. When we are struggling, may we ask Your Holy spirit to help us reconnect to You, to sing our Hallelujahs, even when they are just a whisper echoing down the corridors of eternity. Even when we are crawling, and on our knees, may we worship and trust, and somehow gain perspective, to know that we are heard and loved, for You are faithful. Enfold us in Your love, that we may find peace and strength, Amen.

‘A grief that feels like fear’

No words describe it…..

There is a new film out about C S Lewis ‘The most reluctant convert’. I would love to see it, and to find out more about C S Lewis’s life. CS Lewis was born in Belfast, fought in world war one, lectured at Oxford University, and was a friend of JRR Tolkien. He was a fascinating man, who went through a long period of his life as an atheist. However in 1929 he became a Christian. He wrote many books of insights about Christianity, as well as the famous Narnia series. He also wrote a philosophical book about ‘The problem of pain.’

Later in his life he married Joy Davidman Gresham, and sadly she developed cancer, and died in 1960. Lewis then wrote a slim book ‘ A grief observed’ about how it felt to lose someone. It is very intense, and I want to share a quotation from the beginning of the book:

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like bring mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps gard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another, and not to me.’

I find this quotation so deeply moving, such an accurate description of the physical sensations of grief, a mixture of detachment and fear. And he speaks of that restlessness, where you cannot settle or concentrate, you want company, but you don’t have the focus to listen properly. It is like living a vortex of contradictions, that are confusing and disorientating. You wonder if things will ever feel different.

In John chapter 11: verse35, it says ‘Jesus wept’. He wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, and was deeply moved by the grief and bewilderment of Mary and Martha. His was troubled at all that was taking place.

Jesus understands our grief, even when it is raw and unsightly, even when we are sobbing, eyes red and face blotchy. He doesn’t turn away, but sticks with us closer than a brother, holding us in the pain and questioning and emptiness. The presence of Jesus doesn’t solve all our problems, but His love quietens our soul, and helps us to heal and rest, and to carry us through sleepless nights of replaying memories and of lamentation. And so we keep trusting.

Eternal Father, You look upon us with mercy and grace, especially when we feel alone and struggling. We mourn over so many losses, some so very raw and others that recur from the past, catching us unawares. As we struggle with powerful and difficult emotions, Lord Jesus You come alongside us and weep with us. You sing over us, and quieten us with your love, bringing your healing lullaby of peace to our exhausted souls. Your Holy spirit helps us not to fear, and carries us through the darkest of nights, enabling us to rest. Thankyou Lord, Amen.

Overload- one thing too many!

Christmas is coming.

My goodness, I can’t believe that Christmas seems so close! Decorations are up in house windows, shops and streets. The lights are symbols of hope in dark days, and in many ways are welcome, however early it seems.

However I think there are mixed feelings for those who mourn, a desire to look forward with hope, alongside an awareness of the strain of missing a loved one, and feeling that no one else understands. You can be making plans, but some one us missing, the landscape feels different everything jarrs, if there is a Christmas card that never arrives, an empty chair, and a deep feeling of loss. Outwardly things might look very similar, but inside the feeling is different. People are often doing their best to help, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. So you try hard to go through the motions, whilst nursing a broken heart.

We know the comforting bible verses inside out – ‘ God is close to the broken hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ Psalm 34: 18 and sometimes it is ok to stop filling our time with being busy, to pause, to let the hurt bubble up, and to weep. It is honest, and that is often when we feel God the closest, when we tell Him of our pain.

When we try to push the pain down, and don’t acknowledge it, that’s when we go into overload. It means that we overreact to unforeseen frustrations, pressures at work, the unexpected bill, the driver who cuts out in front of us, the ill judged words of a friend. Sometimes it can just be one thing too many which sends us into a tailspin. We are trying so hard, it doesn’t take much to derail us.

If we are hurting this Christmas, for whatever reason, a broken relationship, ill health, disrupted plans, the loss of a loved one, it is ok to take time to be with God and to cry out to him. He notices our every tear, and brings us comfort and grace, reminding us that we are never alone, and that our cries are heard. If we are able to slow down, and talk to God about our sadnesses, He can minister to us, and this is when we find the strength and the peace we need.

Gracious God, You search and You know us, before even a word is on our tongue, You know what is on our hearts. Forgive us for the times we pretend everything is alright, as sometimes we deceive even ourselves. We get so overloaded and so frustrated, short tempered and upset. Lord Jesus, come alongside us, and speak Your Word of truth, the truth that sets us free. Help us to know it is ok to be real with You, and with trusted loved ones. Help us through the power of your holy spirit, to find safe places to lament and to be real, so that we can find that healing and centredness we yearn for. Grant peace to all who are anxious about facing Christmas by themselves, and may they find that Your love will encircle and strengthen them, Amen.

Remembrance!

Remembrance Sunday.

Each year we have the painful but very necessary opportunity to remember those who have given their life in conflict and war, those who have been injured or maimed, and to think of their families. It is so important that we do this, as it is too easy for us as a society to forget. We remember all wars, from the first world war in 1914-1918, till the present.

This year, many people are talking about how poignant it is especially for veterans who have fought in Afghanistan. After the sudden withdrawal of troops in August this year, the Taliban quickly swept back to power, and there are many people who are living in fear, women scared to go out, families without food. We think of the many who helped troops – interpreters and humanitarians, who are desperate to escape, fearful of reprisals, and worried for their safety, and of their relatives. It is tragic.

One journalist spoke to veteransfrom Afghanistan living in Canada, where they were talking about how painful it is to remember. There are so many unhealed traumatic memories causing flashbacks and nightmares, it is hard to re- engage. However we do so to remember those who gave their lives, and those who still live today. We are all privileged to do so, but it is so agonising and at times almost unbearable. So we choose to remember in different ways.

At Remembrance, I think of Colin, who was so proud to serve, and to try to make the world a better place. But the cost was so great, that it is is heartbreaking. At times it seems almost too distressing to contemplate.

When thinking of the pain of remembering, it reminds me of the last supper, where Jesus told his friends to remember him, by sharing bread- which was his body broken for them, and wine- his blood shed for them. He told the disciples that everytime they eat and drink, it was to remember him. The first time they did this after Jesus’ death and ascension must gave been so emotional, tearful, for their sense of his loss was so great. Yet it also brought them comfort, for through the sacrament, they experienced the nearness of His presence. And so we continue to remember today….

Remembering is painful, but we pray for all those affected by war, that somehow Remembrance Sunday might help. It hopefully reminds people that they are not alone, that what they did was worth something, that they have significance. We hope that in the silence, even in the moments where there are memories too deep to be expressed in words, that they might know the comfort of a God who cares. And also a feeling of solidarity with millions around the world.

Gracious God, You are the Eternal God, our Refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. In the midst of painful and sometimes excruciating memories, may we nestle in your arms. Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ, you call for justice and reconciliation, but at times we cannot forgive ourselves nevermind others. Please be with all those haunted by what they have seen and done, and bring your healing love, and your peace. For those living under threat today, may they find a place of sanctuary. Holy spirit be at work on this Remembrance Sunday, to help veterans know that they are seen, their pain acknowledged, and that somehow there is still a hope and a future for them. In Jesus’s name, Amen.