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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Public Isolation

I’d forgotten how isolating suffering can be.

It feels like the worst thing, to be walking about with an invisible weight resting on your chest, so heavy you can hardly breathe, and no one notices.

To feel as if you are screaming and sobbing inside, and no one can hear you.

To feel as if the weight of life is just so heavy that you can hardly take another step, and no one wants to help you.

And smiling hurts. It hurts because it feels so fake, so false, to be pretending you are fine, when you feel as though your life is crumbling in your hands.

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So you try. You pick one or two people and stammer out that things have been really difficult for a long time, and now it feels as if no area of your life is really functioning and you don’t know what to do. But because you’re nervous and don’t want to be a burden you laugh and try to make it seem less of a problem than it is, so the real issue isn’t fully expressed.

And because people are busy and overwhelmed themselves they don’t usually take the time to really delve deeper and ask what the problems are, and to imagine what it must feel like. I’ve been there myself, had a conversation with someone, walked away, and only later has it struck me just how difficult their life must be because of some seemingly small thing they shared.

Or sometimes, because people are busy and overwhelmed themselves, a look of cornered panic crosses their face unawares, and you realise that they don’t want another problem to be burdened with, another need to meet, another struggler to carry, they are just keeping their own head above water and that’s enough.

So you feel like no one really understands.

And sometimes, what really, really hurts, is that you get more kindness from someone who doesn’t even know Jesus than those who do, and are supposed to know better.

I’m going to come back and explain why things have been so hard, and why I have’t touched this blog for months now. Right now that task is a bit beyond me … there are so many issues I don’t even know where to begin.

As always I’m looking for something to take away from this experience, even this depression and hurt.

I think sometimes God pulls us aside and takes away every person we are depending on. This feels like unkindness, but it’s not. Because he wants to be everything to us, knowing that only then we will find peace and strength. People will always let us down. They were never designed to carry the full weight of our need, let alone in this broken world where sin so readily destroys. Only God can fill the eternity gaping in our souls, and he longs to do it. So he makes us feel that need by pulling away every false prop.

So if you are feeling alone too, lean into him. Cry the messy kind of sobbing and tell him that you need him. Let him bind up your wounds. You know, sometimes that hurts too. Oil on raw skin stings. But later it soothes and heals.

And then be the person you long to meet in your darkest hour, the one who pulls up a chair and listens, who isn’t afraid to ask the probing questions, the ones that draw out the pain. Yes, even when you are hurting yourself. Offer kindness instead of politeness, love instead of reserve. Sometimes God sends us pain so we learn how to help the many others in this world who are crying out for love, and truly have no one to turn to.

 

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.

 

A Study in Fear

Well, it’s hardly the most propitious start to the year but Son#2 spent most of yesterday with his head in the sick bucket, and I have spent today bleaching everything in sight, trying to prevent the rest of us from going down with what I can only assume is my great nemesis, the Norovirus.

I want to testify to the great and tender mercy of God. He remembers that we are dust, and has sent many kindnesses our way during this trial.

But he has been challenging me. Stretching me.

Today 60 years have passed since Jim Elliot and his companions were killed by the Huaorani they were trying to reach with the gospel. Such a willingness to surrender everything to Jesus by a young man with a wife and small daughter makes me ashamed of my petty fear of a day of discomfort.

I know the theory. I know that it is only one day, and that if I catch the norovirus it is only for good, even if I can’t see the good.

But all my feelings are in rebellion and I have spent the day like Jacob, wrestling with the God I think I know. He is good. He is merciful. But he is also wiser and greater than me, and can see further, to the ends of eternity and back. This is comfort.

But it is also terrifying. It puts someone other than me in control, and even believing that he is good and loving … I am fighting with myself, fighting to reach that place of surrender where I can let go, empty my hands and take whatever God sends with thankfulness and trust.

This fear goes deep. Its roots run right into my soul, where I cling tightly to the sense that I have some power, some control over my circumstances. But the only thing that God wishes me to control is myself.

It was very helpful to me to realise that Jesus’ command is not, ‘Do not feel afraid’, but ‘Do not be afraid’. He experienced the depths of fear in Gethsemane. He knows that gripping terror which turns the bones to water and makes every heartbeat last forever. He knows the urge to run, the hissing instinct of self-preservation. He felt fear at its strongest.

But he did not run. He did not allow fear to control him; rather he mastered it and walked calmly away with the soldiers to be tortured and killed.

I am fighting with my demons today. I feel profoundly afraid, but, with God’s help I will not be afraid. I will comfort my sick son when I want to run. I will wrestle until the truth that God loves me, and will send only good, comforts my soul. I will try to follow my Lord, and master my fear.

Fear cages me. Sometimes I like my cage. It makes me feel safe. I willingly open the door and step inside, thinking that the cage will keep me from harm. But in fact it traps me.

Faith melts the bars of iron and throws my horizons wide. Because anything is possible with this God. Moving mountains. Walking on water. Even coping with Norovirus.

I’m still alive …

I’ve been rather quiet lately … the stork paid our home a visit four months ago, and our new BabyGirl has kept me very busy!

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Motherhood

The arrival of a baby into a family is an occasion of both overwhelming joy and stress at the same time. My emotions have run into peaks of love and delight and valleys of despair and anxiety these past months. I have understood the meaning of God as my rock as I have so desperately needed a constant, a level surface under my feet. Emotions are like breakers, threatening to sweep me away.

In times of stress it is so easy to cling to the old lie – “things will be better when …”

I place my hope in a change in circumstances, looking forward to easier days. But this is a false hope. Easier circumstances would relieve some pressure, but our calling in this life is not to seek ease or mere happiness. We are on a quest for joy, and the Bible assures us that joy is found in service and sacrifice, and in knowing Jesus better, not in comfort or ease.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Mark 10:43-45

Prayer has been particularly hard as hormones and sleep deprivation turn my brain to cotton wool. I have found great peace in simply offering my day to the Lord at its start, determining to serve him, my husband and children, trusting him to provide the strength.

My default is to panic when I have a poor night’s sleep. My automatic thought is, “I won’t cope tomorrow”. And of course it is harder to cope with two rowdy, challenging boys and a new baby with less sleep. However, the discipline of pausing that thought and reminding myself that my loving Father has provided me with the right amount of sleep, and that he will provide me with the grace to cope, has brought great peace and blessing.

It is a discipline, though, and many days I fail.

What are you struggling with at the moment? Are you waiting for comfort and ease? May I encourage you instead to look to Jesus for your strength and joy, and to determine to trust him to provide for you what you need for today, to do the work he has given you to do.

Motherhood … a privilege?

There is a trend at the moment to be really ‘honest’ as a parent. What this means is, we talk about how hard and horrible it is to be a parent and how annoying children can be, and call it being candid or brave.

There is a tendancy to view children as an interruption, their demanding baby stage as something ‘to be got through’, and we make every effort to minimise the disruption children bring to adult life by using nurseries, nannies, and doing everything we can to get our babies to sleep so that we can go back to ‘normal life’ as quickly as possible.

'Helping'
‘Helping’

While I find it helpful sometimes to talk with other parents and realise that I am not the only one who struggles with my temper, whose kids won’t put their shoes on when asked and interrupt conversations … I feel we are looking at only one side of the coin.

I talked to my mum about this the other day. She had a really good career in the civil service before I came along. She was gradually being promoted up the ranks, and when she fell pregnant actually had the higher wage out of my parents. In modern terms, it made no sense for her to give up work and stay home.

But that’s what she did. She gave up her career, a comfortable wage, and her independence, and stayed at home full time. I asked her if she ever regretted it, or missed working. I expected some wistfulness perhaps, or some words about being glad to give it up because she knew it was the right thing.

“Not at all,” she said. “I loved being at home.”

That’s all very well, a modern mum might argue. If someone loves being at home then great, that’s lovely for her and for her children. But not for me – I need to work, I need more than just caring for children.

But my mum didn’t stop there. She explained why she loved giving up a good career and staying at home full time with disobedient, frustrating kids (and believe me, I could be frustrating – I refused to go to sleep alone until I was well over three, and I would not wear wrinkled socks – my shoes had to be taken off and on until there were no wrinkles at all).

“Being a mother is an honour,” she exclaimed with passion. “These children have been entrusted to you. It’s a great blessing to be there to raise them and teach them.”

Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me in almost seven years of parenting. People have said how hard it is, how demanding, how it sucks the life out of you and leaves you with stretch-marks, bags under your eyes, and nothing resembling a life.

No one ever called it an honour. A privilege. A blessing.

My mum did a great deal that day to restore my sense of mission in motherhood. Before I had kids I wanted to be a good parent. I saw children as a blessing. But somehow over the years, the lack of sleep and our children’s resistance to love and discipline, not to mention the negative comments in the media and from other people, all ground me down until I wearily resigned myself to another fifteen years or so of not doing the things I loved, and perhaps working at a low-grade job for a few hours a week so that we could afford to pay for a holiday abroad, or university fees.

Amazing what a few words can do. I fully acknowledge that motherhood can feel like drudgery. It is hard work. It demands more than I feel I can give most days.

But I remind myself that I am honoured to bring new life into this world. I feel that more than ever right now as my little girl moves within me. Yes, pregnancy comes with pain and nausea and discomfort but also incredible blessing. I get to give life to someone. To three Someones, with souls and personality and potential to bring great joy into this world.

I remind myself that I am privileged to be one of the most significant people in the life of three human beings. It is my words that will guide my children to success or failure, to good character or weakness. It is my hands that will teach them kindness and love. It is my arms that will embrace them, my belief that will inspire them, my faith that will encourage them.

I remind myself that children are a blessing. They are a gift, not a right. There are thousands of women who would give anything to be woken tonight by the cries of a newborn, but who will sleep soundly because their womb remains empty, or because their baby never came home.

The needs and demands of my children, their mess, their disorganisation, their interruptions – these are blessings too. They have taught me more love and patience than I would ever have otherwise learned. I am so far from perfect but my children have also taught me about forgiveness. I can scream at them in the morning because they have not put their shoes on despite being asked seven times … yet at three o’ clock my son runs out to hug me as if I was the best person in the whole world.

And to him, for now, I am. To him I am the most beautiful woman, the best cook, the best mummy in the world. I’ll take that award.

46 Bute Park Zach took this

So although I think it is helpful to acknowledge that motherhood is hard (in fact, soul-achingly painful at times) … let’s also remember that we are honoured, privileged, blessed. Yes, immense self-sacrifice is involved, but that is our gift to give. Our love, our advice, our support will make a world of difference to the next generation. Let us rise to the challenge and not be afraid.

Here is love

Our culture has many false assumptions about love.

Very often what we mean by ‘love’ is warm feelings towards another person.

Being ‘in love’ means that a person makes us feel excited, happy, tingly, aroused.

Both these definitions are very self-centred. They focus on Me and My Feelings.

 * * * *

Love in the Bible is an action. To quote Massive Attack, ‘love, love is a verb, love is a doing word’.

To quote a slightly more famous person,

‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

This means that love, real love, involves sacrifice. It involves putting Me and My Feelings aside, and putting the interests of others ahead of my own.

It also means that those we do this for are our friends, not those we especially like, or enjoy the company of most.

 * * * * *

More astoundingly, it means that the Person who said this considers us friends, because he laid down his life for us.

This is the essence of Easter. Jesus did not consider his own comfort, his own happiness, even his own life to be more important than our need. He did not rationalise, or draw a line in the sand, ‘this far and no further’. His love is radical, the right kind of extremism.

He held back nothing.

 * * * * *

We are meant to be moved by this. We are meant to consider his strength, his determination, his courage, his selflessness … and worship.

 * * * * *

We are also meant to reflect on ourselves. How often do I love like this? Even my own husband? Even my own children?

How often am I drawing lines in the sand, hoarding my reserves, trying desperately to cling onto my own life and happiness and comfort, instead of pouring it all out for the good and happiness of others?

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.

But whoever gives their life for me will find it.

(Luke 9:24)