Thoughts from the pit

I had such a strong vision of how our family was going to be. Thirteen years ago when I said, “I do”, I thought we would have a tribe of happy children, gathered peacefully around the table. With Christmas coming, my vision turns to games played around the fire, stories shared with food, children listening as we whisper the reason for the lights and presents, the joy that we have a Saviour.

I know now that this was an ideal, even in ordinary families. The peace is disrupted by sin, selfishness, illness, and tiredness. Those moments of peace and joy, when they come, are precious.

I think the past ten years have been God slowly prying my fingers loose from my vision. I cling on tightly, because this is what we have been taught to want. Peace, happiness, gently glowing fairy lights and thankful faces.

I think God has a different vision. And now that we have accepted that our oldest son actually has some pretty deep issues, I’ve been working through a process of mourning my vision, and learning to accept and live in what God, in his wisdom, has given instead.

God’s vision is one of self-sacrifice, where we learn to make space for other peoples’ difficulties and differences. It hurts. It means that maybe our family worship times have to be short, snappy, fun, rather than slow, deep and thoughtful. But you know what, that’s where my husband excels. So maybe God’s vision is also one where I learn to let go of control a bit more.

God’s vision is one of forgiveness, where we walk the hard road of saying, “You hurt me, but I’ll accept the pain of that rather than break our relationship”. We are walking with him in this, following the footsteps of Jesus.

God’s vision is one of love, where we show kindness when we are reviled, patience when faced with ingratitude, and persistent generosity when our efforts go unrecognised. We could not learn these things so well if life was always easy, if our children were always obedient and thankful.

If I have learned one thing in this life it is that the harder road is always the better one, though it may hurt. The best things of God are those won through pain, through trial. Just as the best views are found at the top of a rugged mountain path, the greatest love is found through sacrifice.

God knew this. It’s why he allowed sin into the world. It’s why he sent his Son to live here, instead of remaining in perfect peace and joy in heaven. It’s why he allowed us to crucify his deeply loved Son, so that the whole Trinity could enter our brokenness and love to the fullest measure.

God seeks to draw us up into his higher life, his life of sacrificial love, his life of forgiveness and mercy. Will I still fight him? Or will I embrace the opportunities he has given me to experience deeper love, deeper forgiveness, deeper grace?

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Doubt and Silence

I am in an ugly season, of doubt and silence.

I am weary to my core, and have nothing left to give but the relentless days keep coming. The sun keeps rising. Children need dressing and feeding, and leave me no space to turn inwards, or even upwards.

My husband has a back injury that has recurred five times in the past two years. Each time he suffers terrible pain for weeks. He can’t sleep, and he recedes (understandably) into a cave out of my reach. We drift through the days, which become fuller for me, as the help I depend on from him has to stop.

My body is weary. My stomach is playing up, causing nights of pain and nausea, but I must get up in the morning to care for the toddler and get the older two to school, because my husband can’t do those things right now. I ache for breathing space; I feel my lungs are compressed by the days and hours and the pressure of carrying children and housework and husband and church.

My prayers are desperate, like the chirping of a helpless chick. Wordless, most of the time, a bewildered wail. Help. Help.

It feels as though the help does not come. I feel alone.

I have been through times of grief, times of struggle before. I have watched others struggle through bereavement, illness, and just hard days. We can be so tempted to come to sufferers with words, layering up clichés of supposed hope, which often injure and deepen the sorrow.

God works all things for good. This may be true, but in great grief we just can’t see it.

God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Yes, but I’m not experiencing God’s power right now.

Sometimes we just want someone to sit with us, to grieve with us. To sit in silence.

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.

Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. 

Lamentations 3:25-28

Perhaps, when God’s silence is most profound, this is what he is doing. For we know he knows our grief. We know he tasted sorrow and loneliness and pain to the dregs. We saw him weep in Gethsemane. Alone.

Perhaps his silence is that of companionship, where the pain is beyond words. Perhaps the tears are rolling down his cheeks in sympathy. Perhaps he is sitting right there all along, in silence.

Behind the emetophobia

Emetophobia is a fear of vomiting (or someone else vomiting).

I have suffered from it for as long as I can remember. I have encountered many who also suffer from it. A big part of it is shame, and a sense that you are somehow pathetic for not being able to just get on with being sick and then move on, like the rest of the population.

I have had therapy which helped me to overcome some of the fear. But I would still rather almost anything happen to me than catch a sickness bug.

I fear being sick more than anything else. (For some emetophobes the fear is broader – others vomiting near them, watching a vomiting scene on TV, even hearing or seeing the word written).

If you are like me, and fear being sick, it is quite possible that you share another trait with me – being a highly sensitive person.

An HSP has a brain which processes stimuli at a far deeper level than the average person. In real terms this means that experiences will be more intense, whether physical or emotional.

I believe this is why vomiting is something I avoid at all costs. Every single sense is stimulated unpleasantly: taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch. For the HSP it is an absolute bombardment of misery, and utterly out of their control.

No one likes being sick. Most people avoid it if possible. But for the HSP it is overwhelming.

Realising that this is part of who I am has helped. This is not going to go away, and that is discouraging. But the reason I hate it so much is not because I am weaker than everyone else, or just pathetic. It’s not because I did something wrong earlier in my life. It’s not because I suffered a traumatic experience. It’s just because of who I am.

And being highly sensitive, for me, has a massive upside. I am also incredibly sensitive to the many pleasant sensations that this world affords. I feel uplifted just by walking past a garden of beautiful flowers, or a peaceful river. I experience deep joy in watching my children play or holding my husband’s hand. And spiritual joys perhaps are easier to come by … one of the problems that seems to be exhibited by western Christians is a lack of wonder at the character of God. Yet I rarely struggle to find those emotions – perhaps they are closer to the surface than for the average person.2014-06-23 20.53.14

So although sickness is traumatic and awful, it really only lasts a few moments. It is far outweighed by the joys and pleasures that are just as intense and far more lasting. I just need to remember to focus on those, instead of fearing the worst all the time.

Why is life so hard?

“I had such a hard day yesterday. I felt exhausted and out of sorts. In the end I let the older two watch TV and had a bath while the little one played on the floor!”

“I’ve finally started to feel better after the flu, instead of utterly drained by the end of the day.”

Two comments I’ve heard from two friends in the past. And my inner response each time: “But that’s how I feel almost every day!”

I’ve been aware for a long time that I don’t seem able to cope with as much of life as many of my friends. I have put it down to various things … insomnia, post-natal depression, Crohn’s disease.

But I think I have finally found the real reason. I can’t put into words the sense of illumination that I experienced upon discovering the term ‘highly sensitive person‘.

I dislike the term intensely. It brings to mind shrinking violets, hot-house orchids, and people who fuss incessantly because everything isn’t ‘just so’.

But as I read through the list of characteristics, stumbled upon during an innocuous internet search, I could feel my inner self screaming with excitement: This is me!!

I have always reacted more intensely to pain and unpleasant sensations, crying more easily, and tiring more easily than many of my friends. I think deeply and intensely about everything, from which coffee to choose at the cafe, to why I am here and the meaning of suffering.

As I have thought through the implications of this trait, I can see how it has affected every area of my life, from infancy when my poor mother had to put my shoes on six times until there were absolutely no wrinkles in my socks, to my depression in my early twenties, to my current struggles as a mother of three.

I have always felt that unpleasant sense of being somehow less than other people, and perhaps this is because only 15-25% of the population would identify as highly sensitive, and among those there would be a spectrum. I suspect I am on the more extreme end, as I identified with every single trait, many of them strongly.

I think for people who are not very sensitive (which is about 40% of the population according to the research done by Aron), it would be very difficult to understand those who are. And I don’t think the chosen label helps very much with that. All it means is that my brain processes stimuli far more intensely, which means, practically, I will feel sensations and emotions more intensely.

The trait has been likened to autism (though it is not connected), in that the highly sensitive person will struggle to filter out things that the average person can. So an average person can filter out the extraneous noises in a room, while a highly sensitive person will have a harder time doing that.

What does it mean in real terms?

When I was a child, being hit on the head by a stray football in the yard would shake me up for a long time, even as a teenager. I would watch other kids laugh it off and carry on playing, while for me the pain throbbed, and I would be bombarded by emotions: shame and humiliation, especially as tears welled up in my eyes and I experienced fear that others were going to notice and laugh; an overwhelming urge to run away and hide somewhere quiet until my heart stopped pounding and the pain subsided; as well as a profound sense of shock. Netball was a tortuous experience. My instinct was always to duck rather than catch the ball, leading to mockery and disdain from my fellows and even, sometimes, the teachers.

I remember adults expressing extreme irritation and impatience towards me, as I began crying yet again, or failed to throw myself into whichever experience they had decided would be good for me, including running through freezing hail, mud and rain, flinging myself with abandon over a hard and heavy pole, and practicing throwing and catching a hard missile that threatened to slam into the side of my head at any moment.

I can see how, if you are less sensitive, a child who cries easily, startles easily, and is cautious must seem a bit pathetic and fragile.

I feel an intense pity for my child-self, and for any child who is trying to grow up in such an intense world, and a world so intent on admiring and exalting those who are bold and confident.

I’m hoping to write a series of blog entries about this, exploring how it has affected different areas of my life, starting with my emetophobia, in the hope that it will help others affected by the same trait, and also that it will help me process my life and find new reasons for joy in it.

Because although it is easy to see this trait as a negative thing (and believe me, I often wish I could be ‘normal’ and cope more easily with ordinary life), it has a wonderful flip-side. Although unpleasant experiences are felt more intensely and can lead to a life of avoidance, the highly sensitive person will also experience the highs and joys more intensely. They are quicker to appreciate beauty in nature, art and human expression. Sweetness is sweeter, joy is deeper, and pleasure more intense for the highly sensitive person. 49 Bute Park

I have often felt different for this reason too – my heart soars at the sight of mountains, oceans, sky, trees, flowers, babies. (Of course, this is not to say that the ordinarily sensitive cannot experience such joy also, just that it may be easier for the HSP to access these pleasures).

So although this trait comes with a hefty dose of negative, I wouldn’t exchange it. The joys are too great for that.

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)

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.

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