Dry ground

When the soil is dry, plants are driven to push their roots deeper and deeper to find water. It makes them stronger in the end, though the long summer may be hard to endure.

08 St Fagans Garden

A dry spell in our garden has just ended. Rain is falling, sinking into earth and pattering on leaves.

In the next dry spell, their roots will be that much closer to water.

I am in a spiritually dry spell. After a winter spent at an oasis of God’s nearness, I am feeling lost and a bit bewildered. God’s arms seemed to encircle me, his presence seemed so near, and now I pray and I feel I am speaking to an empty room. My heart is heavy, and it is hard to lift it high to God.

But our feelings are no measure of our circumstance.

The truth is, I am firmly planted in the love of God. His nearness is as certain as the ground beneath my feet. I must learn to trust in the certainty of his promise, of his character, instead of how I feel.

I put roots down, seeking water, seeking spiritual life. I return again to old texts that have encouraged me before, seeking the silver trickles that once refreshed me. I seek new sources of life, thirsting for the living water that does not run dry.

Christians have written often of the strangeness of these times. Why does God withhold the rain, the sense of his presence? Why do we have to endure dry ground?

In our emotion-reliant culture, it is more important than ever that followers of Jesus have deep roots, strong foundations. We have a rockbed of truth that never moves, and we must take our stand firmly on that, not on feelings.

God is faithful, when I am not. God is good, all the time. God is loving, in a way we can barely understand.

These truths must be the source of my life, my strength, not how I feel about them.

And is it possible that I have been seeking nearness with God, merely to enjoy the heady emotions that follow? Surely God himself should be my heart’s desire, whether he chooses to bless me or not.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

(Psalm 73:25)

Lent and chocolate

Lent has begun.

I know because my Facebook feed and my inbox are both studded with ideas on how to keep Lent this year.

Do a kind deed every day. Give up sugar.

Call me a cynic but I’m feeling frustrated.

Lent has been relaunched recently in the Protestant church. I actually love the idea, and have really enjoyed using it over the last few years to prepare my heart and mind for Easter.

But I can’t help feeling that the general approach to lent is a bit wide of the mark.

Lent is not found in the Bible anywhere. Nor is Easter or Christmas for that matter. I love these celebrations, and find them key anchors for my faith through the year, times when I particularly focus my thoughts and prayers on Jesus and his immense love for us. Yet the Protestant in me always remembers that these things are man made, and while they may be beneficial they are not mandatory. Let them serve our faith, not enslave us.

08-0412My second, and bigger bugbear, is the question of how we keep Lent.

Traditionally it was a period of fasting, when rich foods were rejected, and Christians took time to consider their mortality, and the cost of their sins. It was a time to remember the sufferings of Christ, and join him in them by giving up luxuries and spending additional time in prayer.

Perhaps the problem is that the Western church has let go of fasting as a habit, and doesn’t really understand what it means.

For a long time I thought of fasting as pretty much raising my voice in prayer. Holy shouting. It was like me saying, “God, look how much I care about this. Now you have to listen to me.”

I was wrong. Fasting is not a spiritual loudhailer, a holy lever to put added pressure on God to act. God will act in his own time and in his own way. Our prayers are means to his ends.

So what is fasting for then?

Fasting is for us. It is a servant. When we fast, we are meant to give up things that distract us from pursuing God. Historically, preparing food was time consuming. It would take up most of the housewife’s time, to grind grain, sift flour, knead bread, set it to rise, and then bake it. To take a day off from preparing food would free up a great deal of time for her to kneel and meet with God.

Fasting reminds us of our dependence on God. I’ve tried once or twice to go a day without food, and by 10 a.m. I’m regretting my decision. I’m hungry, I’m irritable, and craving something, anything to take away the hunger.

I’ve often been baffled by the story of the temptation of Jesus, and how he survived for forty days in wilderness. A similar story exists about Elijah, who travelled for miles at a great pace, for forty days. God’s Spirit sustained him. And Jesus tells Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone”.

Our lives are a gift from God. He can sustain us without food, if it pleases him. Food, in the end, is a signpost of our real need, our true hunger. Am I hungry for God in the way that I am hungry for food? If I miss my morning prayer time, do I feel it? Do I miss God when I go hours or days without prayer?

Fasting encourages us to ask these questions.

 

I am considering how I will prepare for Easter this year. I love Lent. I love the period of forty days to prepare my soul to celebrate it’s liberation.

But I will not give up chocolate. This seems to completely miss the point of lent, of fasting. Giving up chocolate is a pretty self-centred thing to do. It almost always springs from a desire to cut calories and conform myself to the idols of this age. The whole purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off ourselves and fix them more firmly on Jesus. It is to give something up, something necessary, something precious, to free up space in my life for Jesus.

Maybe I will give up social media. Or TV. Or one of the multitudinous outlets for entertainment that clutter up our lives.

How will my soul be by Easter if I spent an hour with God instead of watching TV every night?

How will my soul feel by Easter if I spent my morning lie-in reading the Gospel of John and praying, instead of sleeping?

One final point, which I completely attribute to Edith Schaeffer. However you spent lent, whatever you choose to fast, do not let it be a slave. Edith writes in her book, ‘The Life of Prayer’, that when they held a fast day in L’Abri, she always ensured there was a light meal laid out in the dining hall so that those who were distracted by hunger could be refreshed and then return to prayer. The point is not to starve ourselves abstractly, but to give up the distraction of preparing food and eating to give the time more fully to Jesus. This is pointless if all we can think about is burgers. Better to eat simply, perhaps just on toast or soup, and pray with a clear head, than to complete a religious exercise only to give yourself mental brownie points.

Whatever you do this Lent, whether you keep it at all, I pray that your soul will feast on Jesus, and be refreshed.

I came across that viral picture of Drake, today, the little boy battling cancer in the USA.

My heart skipped a beat.

I wanted to leave the image, return to my cosy comfort-zone. I made myself look back. I made myself honour his bravery and his suffering by reading his story.

Such images, such stories, break through comfortable Christianity. They force me to confront the reality of the world. Such stories rescue us from easy answers to the big questions, the questions that have stumped philosophers through the ages. There can be no neat answer to such an appalling tragedy.

If I’m honest, such an image makes my faith skip a beat.

My belief system is thrown into context. What does a poor carpenter from a forgotten corner of the world have to do with Drake? With the suffering in Yemen? With anyone broken and sad and in pain and having lost everything?

It seems unbelievable suddenly. Does God really care? Is there even a God, if such things are allowed to be?

I think through the alternatives: there is no God. Then there is no question. Suffering is not a problem, it just is. Cancer has no higher meaning. It is just part of this cycle of living and dying that will continue ad infinitum. If you are lucky enough to have avoided bad genes or contagion then enjoy yourself and spare a thought for those whose lives are soaked in suffering. This is all they have.

Other religions … with other gods sometimes suffering is repayment. I must have done something terrible to deserve this. I must redeem myself by doing better. What a terrible burden to bear.

With God … I am not sure God provides an answer to suffering. I suspect because no answer would satisfy. Who is going to listen and then go, “Oh sure, ok; I understand. That’s why my little boy can’t eat and is having to take poison daily. I see now, it’s ok.”

Everything in us resists suffering. We know, deep inside, that this is not meant to be.

I prayed for Drake. I prayed for his mother. I didn’t know what to pray – I have never had to watch my sons suffer so much. It’s unimaginable. I suddenly realised that God knows. He watched his son, his only son, be beaten and bruised. He watched him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

 

So as I prayed for Drake’s mother I realised, God can comfort her. He knows. He knows what she is going through, to watch helpless while her son suffers. And Jesus knows what Drake is going through. He knows what it feels to be in pain, to want it to stop, to think you cannot go on, but to keep on breathing anyway.

His arms are open wide, so that if Drake’s medication fails he can step into those welcoming arms and be free from pain and suffering. His arms are wide open, so that if Drake’s medication works, that little boy can run to him for comfort and help on the days when it’s unbearable, and know that one day he can be strong and live for the one who did die.

This is something offered by no other religion, a God, transcendent and holy, yet who knows pain. Who has walked my road, and walks it with me. Who has drunk the cup of suffering to its dregs.

This doesn’t answer the philosophical question, I know that. But it offers something I find nowhere else. Suffering alone is probably the worst thing imaginable. Jesus suffered alone, so that he could stand by me when I suffer.

To love, honour and cherish

My younger sister is getting married tomorrow. It has been a very busy few months, planning and preparing, on top of juggling three children.

It has also been a time when I have reflected on my own marriage, which was eleven years old a month ago. I have remembered standing at the threshold of the church, ready to step into a new life, brimming with expectation and hope.

Eleven years older and wiser, I ache for the wide eyed girl with her long hair and pre-baby body. Had we known how painful these years would be, how much we would hurt each other, how spiritually excruciating it is to cast two rough-cut sinners onto the shore and let the waves of life knock them together … perhaps we would not have taken those vows.

I read an online article a month ago, titled, “Stop telling us marriage is hard”. It was on a Christian website, and I sympathised with the writer. It must be terribly defeating to be engaged and newly married, and have all us older, weather-beaten couples throw cold water on your dewy-eyed romance. But I suspect that the writer was young, and fairly new to this marriage game. Because everything they wrote to affirm marriage (how it is designed to bring joy and togetherness, blessing and unity) though absolutely true, and certainly to be affirmed … comes at a cost, of which they seemed to be blissfully unaware (as I was, as a new bride).

For unity in marriage comes at the price of humility. As long as I am decrying the speck in my husband’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own, I am tearing down my marriage with my own two hands. And unless both partners come to realise their own sinfulness the marriage is destined for some rocky times. So either your marriage is difficult, or you have to face up to your own weaknesses. Either way is painful.

Blessing in marriage comes at the price of self-sacrifice. Again, the choice that lies before us as a husband or wife is to continue in our selfish, pre-marital ways, make life miserable for our partner, and potentially doom the marriage; or to lay our lives down in submission and service. To screw the lid back on the toothpaste because you know how much it irritates your partner. To clean up the kitchen even though it’s nine o’clock and all you want to do is lay your tired body down on the sofa for an hour and watch TV, because you know your partner finds it stressful to come down to a messy kitchen in the morning. To get up at 3 a.m. to see to a crying child, and spare your partner again and again.

Joy in marriage comes at the price of forgiveness. Because you are sinners. Because you are weak and human and you will fail each other, big time, at some point in your marriage. It might not be porn, or an affair, or an addiction (though it may well be). But it might be dissatisfaction, or laziness, or selfishness in spending, or a failure to cherish and love the other person. We can hold on to bitterness or we can let ourselves and our silly pride go, and forgive, and choose love, again and again if necessary.

Happiness in marriage comes at the price of faithfulness. Life will throw you curve balls. Sometimes just living is enough, especially with small children. There will be times when your sex life dwindles. Times when you feel like house mates rather than husband and wife. There will be times when life changes add stress to an already hectic life as you move house, have babies, change jobs. There will be times of crisis and long-term illness. In all these times we can allow our hearts and minds to wander, or we can remain faithful, holding onto the promises we made, perhaps many years ago now. We can live in the image of the God who made us, who remains at all times. But sometimes it will hurt.

So here is what I would say to that girl, standing at the door of the church as the guitar struck up, searching for her beloved at the front of the church … hold on tightly to your Saviour, it’s going to be a rough ride. But if you hold on through the years, if you wait, and pray, and love faithfully, you will find something far more precious than a happy marriage, though that is possible. You will find your rough edges smoothing out, your corners that scrape and poke your husband slowly rounding, and beneath that miserable surface … you may just find the diamond of faith and love gleaming in the darkness.

I have been posting a few photos on my facebook page recently. We’ve been doing some fun stuff as the boys are off school, and I like to post cheerful shots of the children. It cheers others up, and it cheers me up too, especially looking back over old pictures.

But it bothered me a bit today. If anyone looked at my facebook page they would have no real idea of how my day went. It was a day of crushing anxiety, unhappiness, and frustration. A day when nothing when the way I desired.

It was my daughter’s first birthday. And I feel that anxiety has robbed me of so much joy today. I have done a special first birthday celebration for each of my children, but I was so anxious this week that I couldn’t face cooking for the whole family as I’ve done before. I planned to make a cake, but had to compromise with a Victoria sponge with ready-made icing because I was too exhausted and stressed to make the cake I have made for each of my children in the past.

Then my husband was late home so we ate tea without him and rushed through the birthday cake to get to bedtime. The boys were annoying most of the day and I ended up losing my temper with them at tea time.

Husband had to rush out to unlock the church for prayer meeting and despite being exhausted I was left to put the older child to bed who kicked up a fuss about everything and then coughed until 9 p.m. requiring medicine and gentleness when all I felt like doing was screaming.

I feel dissatisfied with myself, above all, for allowing my feelings to take over and drag the whole day down; and for how I took it out on the children.

So not a very special day.

 

I’m sitting here trying to piece the day together and find some solace, some peace, some shred of joy. My daughter’s face as she tried chocolate for the first time (a treat we have always saved for their first birthdays). And her excitement when we brought out the cake. “Mmmm!” she said, trying to grab the wafer flowers that decorated the top. She clapped when we sang happy birthday. She loved the wooden bead necklace I bought her. She enjoyed the slide in the park.

I have fresh lilies in a vase which are filling the house with fragrance.

My sons played together in the park without fighting for a full fifteen minutes.

I have a comfortable sofa to sit on. A safe, warm house, a glass of clean water that flowed from a tap. I will lie in a soft bed tonight, and not be afraid of gunfire or famine or disease. I am using a laptop, I have a mobile phone at my side, and more modern conveniences than I can count on two hands.

I am loved by God himself. And while some days it might not feel like it, it is still true. His love is not like my love; rather it is constant, utterly self-giving. It holds nothing back.

And he wants to make me like him. He is slowly chipping away at the flint that surrounds my heart, and is breathing life into the corners, making it beat so that my words are softer, my feelings richer and deeper, my compassion stronger.

He is giving me a love that is strong, that does what is best for the other person even when it costs and hurts.

He is teaching me joy in the hard days.

If your day was like mine – we all get them – breathe in deeply for a moment and pause to look for the blessings that are buried in it, like diamonds in the dark. Give thanks. And hold on – this is not eternity but merely shadows, and God is making you Real so that you can bear the full light of his gaze.

We went to a lovely wedding today. Admittedly, I spent most of it trying to prevent BabyGirl from bumping herself, screeching over the vows, and breaking my necklace (she’s every inch the nine month old) but it was still wonderful to be present when two people commit to love for a lifetime.

The year we got married there were another six couples from our group of university friends who also tied the knot, and we were present for most of them. That was eleven summers ago. Then, weddings filled me with hope and anticipation. Now … I don’t know. I am so excited for the couple getting married. It’s a wonderful time. But it’s also awesome in the traditional sense of the word. A lifetime is no small commitment.

I think now, knowing something of what it takes to make a marriage work, I feel a sense of fear as well. Marriage is no light undertaking, and I tremble a little for the newlyweds in their innocence.

We recently heard that one of our university friends, who got married maybe eight weeks before us, have separated. It was sad and unsettling, and made me appreciate more deeply the courage and determination it takes to be faithful for ten, twenty, thirty years and more.

It made me consider what makes a marriage work. How can any couple, entering into marriage, be sure of still being together at death, whether that is five or fifty years away?

Some would say it’s luck. You meet the right person. You both happen to stay in love.

I don’t think so. Looking at my own marriage, and being fully candid, there have been many times when each of us have wanted to walk away. Neither of us are perfect. Far from it. And when lack of sleep, difficult children, and sin are all stirred together, marriage can become a battle ground.

So how have we lasted almost eleven years? And how do I have confidence of lasting another eleven and longer?

23 PembrokeFirstly, at one level, there are no guarantees. I cannot control my husband. I have no guarantee that in ten years time he will have been faithful, or that we will still be married. So my deepest confidence must always be in my Saviour and God, who has promised absolute fidelity and never breaks a promise. If he is my joy and my hope, then even marital breakdown will not destroy me.

But, secondly, there are a few things that I think make a marriage ‘work’.

My husband and I are committed to the marriage as well as to each other. Before we made our vows we were committed to a lifelong relationship. It is important that divorce is not a possibility. If even the thought of leaving is allowed, then it will almost inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and then acting on it. When there are hard days (and we have known many), that commitment has kept us together when the easy option is to walk.

Marriage is a covenant, but most people of my generation treat it like a contract. What’s the difference? A covenant has no conditions attached. When I made my vows they were not dependent on my husband keeping his. Nor were his dependent on me keeping mine. With a contract, if one party breaks their promise the other is free to walk away. Not so with marriage. If my husband fails to love, honour and cherish me, my vow to love, honour and respect him still stands. This ensures that when one is struggling the other will work at the relationship. At different times we have each broken our vows to one another, but we forgive, and learn, and try to change.

Marriage is ultimately a picture, designed to help us understand Christ’s relationship with his church. Aiming for this keeps us from being self-centred about our marriage. Marriage is not, firstly, about my happiness or my husband’s happiness. It is about reflecting something of God into this broken world. It is wonderful when a marriage brings happiness, and it is meant to be a place of blessing and joy, but even bad marriages can bring glory to God if the husband and/or wife are committed to love and fidelity, as Christ is committed to his Church.

I think these are the three things that have made our marriage ‘work’ so far. It is far from perfect and I am not holding us up by any means as an example for people to follow. I have already said that we have each failed to keep our vows, and have each wanted to leave at different times. Adding a third child has put a new level of strain onto the ropes of our relationship, and some days I find myself clinging on by prayer alone. I know my husband feels the same. But knowing that this is about more than just him and me, knowing that our commitment resonates in eternity, and knowing that God is for us and with us in this brings perseverance, and levels of joy that would otherwise be unknown. For I find that each time we come through a difficult path, our relationship is deeper and stronger than before. If we had given up we would not have known that deeper love. We would have lost out on joy.

 

Running Joy

I must start with a disclaimer. I don’t run. I am bad at it. I imagine I look like a string puppet from behind. Apparently my feet don’t pace evenly but randomly, like a penguin. Or so my loving husband tells me.

However, in my days of yore I took part in cross country races. (I always came last. Long-legged boys from older classes would leap past me, gazelle-like, splattering me with mud as I picked my way around the bogs, trying to avoid wet feet.) Follow the path at your feet

I like the idea of running; but I’m just not good at it. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy other sports instead like badminton and the school run.

So why am I writing about running?

I know this blog is about joy but bear with me for a few paragraphs. I’m kind of in a boggy place right now, in terms of joy and spiritual life. I suppose it reminded me of those old cross country runs, slogging along wet gravel paths, trying to find the least slippery way through the mud, that feeling of not enough air, of pushing your legs to take one more step. One more step. One more step.

I haven’t slept through the night for nine months now. BabyGirl sleeps. But I lie awake, trying not to think about irony, or how I’m going to survive the next day, and how much damage I’m doing to my children my being grumpy and exhausted all the time.

It’s a slog. Reading the Bible is painful. Praying just ends up in a vague mess of tears and pleas for help which so often seem to go unanswered.

And it struck me that when the Apostle Paul described life as a race, he meant a marathon, not a sprint. There are times when your frozen legs feel like lead, the wind is in your face, hail is stinging your cheeks and other runners are passing you. It feels like you’re not going to make it. You’re wondering why you entered this race in the first place.

I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m angry with myself for letting my short temper and impatience get the better of me again and again. I’m frustrated that I cannot hold onto God more firmly, or make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in me, or let the life of Jesus into my home through me.

Where is my joy? I’ll be honest … right now, it’s a damp little flicker that seems to be failing against the dark.

I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m being open about it. This blog is about joy, but I always wanted it to be clear that there is joy for the hard days as well as the days when the sun shines and running is all downhill. In fact, there is joy especially for those days.

There is joy in knowing I’m flexing spiritual muscles, even though it hurts. I’m learning to give myself up for my children, to be more humble, more sacrificial, more like my wonderful Jesus. It’s tiny baby steps. But it’s progress.

There is joy in knowing that I’m loved even here, even now. Even when I’ve nagged the husband, and berated the kids, and lost my temper, and told God that he isn’t being fair, stamped my spiritual feet and told him that he’s asking too much. (To which he softly replies, “Too much?” And holds out his wounded hands).

There is joy in kneeling at the cross and reminding myself of the forgiveness that is mine. The grace that is poured on me to start again tomorrow as if today never happened.

And soon the sun will be out, and the path will be dry at my feet, and that finish line will be visible on the horizon.15 View from Garden