Category Archives: God

New Cycles of Grace

There is that familiar verse Let the little children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom from heaven belongs to people like these – Jesus said it to well-meaning but misguided religious types who were preventing children from getting close to him to receive good things (Matthew 19:14, NET). What would you have done? Would you keep children away from Santa? Would you act like the cardinals in Rome this week? Can you identify with that child?

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From our earliest memories we build up a picture of our personal identity which it is often hard to shake off, even when we can see errors. We believe lies we tell ourselves about our image, worth, capabilities or dreams.

For many of us, despite good intentions from those who raised us, growing up in an achievement-oriented culture has meant a fixation on significance through merit alone. This simplistic model does not work – what about those who can never pass the merit tests? What about those too young?

My counsellor showed me a great diagram this week. It is taken from the clinical psychologist and learned theologian Dr Frank Lake’s work. She showed it to me because, like many people, I have been going around the circle in a destructive direction. The way I have been living has been anti-clockwise: a cycle of works.

cycle of works

1. I strive to achieve things, in order that:

2. I will feel significance in the world, which provides some:

3. Strength to keep going (in my own identity), so that:

4. I can feel accepted, until that feeling goes, and I return to 1 again, a little more dejected and a little more defeated.

It is not sustainable, not healthy for me or others around me and not a fair understanding of how my life matters. Instead, she showed me how to look at the diagram clockwise.

1. I am accepted – by God. Just as I am. No questions asked.

2. This acceptance strengthens me to find ways to sustain myself – time alone, journalling, creatively, with others or whatever suits me best.

3. Through being accepted and sustained, I discover I do have significance in whatever I find myself doing.

4. This leads to achieving things (big or small) out of response, rather than out of duty. Achievement fuelled by God’s limitless love and shocking grace. Achievement not to show off or brag, but to be truly alive. Achievement which blesses others first out of love (not duty) and which feeds the cycle so that there is continued awareness of God’s acceptance, his sustaining, my significance. Exciting, promising, daunting. Part of the big trust adventure we are finding ourselves on as a family.

Cycle of Grace

I walked home starting to think this all through, realising that it matters that I show my children that they are first and foremost accepted. As it happened I was passing a bookshop and called in, where I came across a brilliant book: Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman.

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How encouraging to read the thoughts of a person so like me, who recognises the patterns of hiding behind works and good behaviour – and then discovers the audacity of living in God’s grace and what that really looks like worked out. Just the thing I’d been working on. So freeing. Such a relief. I don’t have to prove anything, achieve for anybody, produce anything for all the wrong reasons, failing at so many steps along the way and hoping that not many people notice. I can be truly me, trusting God for the significance he places in me and taking his beautiful guiding rather than stipulating the directions myself. I can enjoy the good things he has for me. I can learn to let go of striving, instead living for others for all the right reasons and becoming energised to do it well if I’m doing what he’s called me to.

For all sorts of reasons I have a battered self-image and felt for many years I needed to find my worth in making others’ lives better. It doesn’t work. I can never achieve enough to satisfy myself, and so the grind of guilt and anxiety eventually pushed me into burnout.

From here on, I want to lean on God’s understanding rather than my own. To be transformed by the renewing of my mind. To step out of the boat – and keep walking. He’s never let me down, and like a child drawn to something remarkable, I don’t want anything to get in my way.

As God keeps reminding me,

Great things are going to happen.

I can’t wait.

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7 years on

Today marks the seventh anniversary of dad’s heart attack. A heart attack which would have killed him if he had not had mum nearby. Or if he had lived in a different time, or a different place. In his own words ‘every day since then has been a gift. God has been good.’

Today is a gift. Each day I get to tickle my children, feed my guinea pigs, joke with my dad or learn from my mum is a gift. Each day I get to wake up next to my amazing husband is a gift. Each day I find something to smile about is a gift.

Dad’s health is good, but it is not perfect. Life is good; a good gift. I want to thank God for this precious gift.

And God has been healing me over this time too: there are new things on the horizon. A book. A relocation. New opportunities. Learning to let go of some aspects of the past, enjoy the gift of the present and trust deeply for all that the future will bring. Perhaps I will start a new blog. I’m not hurrying any decisions though. There is too much going on preparing for selling and moving and I am learning to work within my limits. I will always treasure my mum and my dad, and be grateful for all that God has done for me through them. But I am also learning to use the treasure he has given me to serve him wherever he calls us as a family, and whatever he creates through us, be it open or hidden.

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For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21

Bosnian Scrapbook

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I was in Bosnia in 1995. Many of the images I saw burnt into my teenage memory. Some of them are not on film because I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of people with missing limbs or shells of buildings where folk were still living or 16-year old lads drinking the night away in advance of being called up, their hair prematurely greying in the loud, warm summer evenings.

Stari Most, the old bridge connecting the Croats and Muslims in Mostar had been felled and a rickety footbridge was hanging in its place. Elsewhere British army engineers had erected a functional bailey bridge high over the azure waters of the Neretva. Broken bridges everywhere were symbols of broken ties and hasty solutions.

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One of the camps I was involved in running was for Muslim boys who couldn’t get permission to come to our coastal camps in Croatia. We took them deeper into the hills, in convoys of white vans and buses which looked like lines of UNHCR vehicles, to a place called Drežnica where they could run, swim and play football.

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On the way, we passed a bridge we couldn’t cross. It had been bombed as it linked Sarajevo with Mostar. The supply of arms was limited to trekking around the hairpin pass, taking pack animals with bullets and guns to the capital between minefields and through green hills scratched with grey. The delays were significant on the unmade road with steep sides.

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The camps in Drežnica were wonderful, thirsty and sporty and meant relying on our resources. Piling into a broken school when the rain came. Giving out half-loaves to greedy boys with a slice of warm cheese and a large runny tomato. Learning – very quickly – the words for danger! mines on the bridge – get off the bridge! which still come back to me. The only original bridge I’d seen in the country, and it had mines on it. How utterly cruel. We were kept safe. But the image joined the growing collection in my mind.

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I was reminded of these Bosnian bridges very recently. I had been chatting to a friend and thinking about how I like controlling all kinds of details in my life and that perhaps there were new things on the horizon. Having been ill has given me a new perspective on a few areas, including blessing, trust, direction and purpose.

I was thinking about how I like to go the long way around, like the unmade track to Drežnica, to get somewhere which I could have got with a lot less stress and hassle if I had only trusted that the bridge there was safe and strong and direct. I had revisited that road a few years afterwards and found that the bridge on the road to Sarajevo had been mended and the journey was considerably easier and shorter. There was no danger.

In my life I prefer to assess thoroughly and exhaustively. I plan. I research. I study. I find myself on that unmade road time and time again.

And God has been saying Trust Me with everything. There is nothing you cannot trust me with. Over and over again. The bridge of trust cuts out so much worry and stress. It is direct. It is safe. It is fast. It involves submission.

This year I wrote at the beginning of my diary in capital letters

2013:
THIS IS THE YEAR
GOD IS GOING TO DO SOMETHING
REALLY GREAT IN MATTHEW’S LIFE.

Yes. Along with a nagging feeling that I was going to be ill and not enjoy it or the changes it involved (which came on months later), I had a burning feeling that God was going to do something significant for my husband. Something that meant I would have to learn to stop being a control freak, Something that might even involve becoming a trust freak. To love my husband so much that his dreams and desires would be more important than I had ever allowed them to be. His desire to flex his career wings. His dream of moving onwards and upwards. His passion for us as a family. His interests.

For some time we have talked of relocating. It has not been a clever time. Until, until. I presented my willingness to submit to Matthew’s needs and be up for relocating and he lit up. He could see the logic in looking into this now. Joe is not yet at school and we could make arrangements in good time. Lily has a wonderful teacher this year but as time goes on will benefit from more challenges. I want to be able to access theological libraries on a frequent basis, for a book I am writing. We want to cycle. We are at an age and a financial position to be able to do this, before we get too much older. We would be nearer many people and not too distant from those we love here. So we are progressing along a path of trust and discovering God’s hand at work in details we could not have imagined or hoped for. The view is extraordinary. The journey is less dangerous and slow than we’d expected. The bridge is safe. There is nothing we cannot trust God with. I am finding renewed strength in taking each step one at a time – it is far easier than controlling it all myself and far more exciting.

We love where we live now. We love our friends. We would not choose to move out of any sense of running away. We also feel compelled to take steps towards this new opportunity and unwrap the gifts God has for us and any way in which he wants to use us in a new place. I cannot get that image out of my mind.

I Need Thee

Something entirely different

micahI like this for more than one reason.

See also the blog it comes from: http://theologygrams.wordpress.com/

And the blog I picked it up from: http://rachelheldevans.com/ (I recently read Rachel’s book on living – rather facetiously – as a biblical woman for a year and it had me in fits).

Micah 6:8, should it not come to mind immediately (!) is:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Avash avash

SONY DSCTirana by night

Treat this as your postcard from Albania. Especially if you haven’t had one from us. It’s a sunset view from Mount Dajti looking west over Tirana to the sea.

(Returning to the city involves travelling in a full and rather small swinging cable-car for 15 minutes in near darkness.)

I was reminded on this excellent website (a friend of a friend’s), that there are techniques in cognitive behavioural therapy which help in breaking cycles of bad thinking. I find travel does wonders for breaking cycles of anything to be honest. Who needs laws about car seats and seat belts? Why can’t bacteria multiply more slowly if they can’t speak English? Who knew you could park four deep on a roundabout? And does it really matter when you have two families in a one family car? The roads are mostly finished, right?

In fact, the philosophy in Albania – a trip we’d planned months ago – works perfectly if you are not trained to NVQ level 5 in UK Health and Safety Nonsense and generations of British Proper Ways To Do Things. The local expression is avash avash, which means slowly, slowly. It is perfectly ok to ask another driver on the other side of the road for directions if you are lost, even though you’ll both have to stop. It is fine to cross the road when the green man indicates your right of way, even when the traffic is still coming, as they will probably stop for you. Slowly, slowly. Keep plodding; you’ll get there.

We had made plans to visit two sets of friends. Primarily we went to visit friends I made during my Masters at another time in another capital and who we last saw at our wedding nearly ten years ago when Mikea was three and was our page boy.

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…then and now…

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Since then Gjystina and Fredi have had daughters, and we were delighted to meet the beautiful Prishila and Reona, and were amazed at the family’s grasp of English, hospitality despite difficult personal circumstances and utter trust in God for provision and purpose. The family took us to some wonderful places which were within my coping range. In temperatures hitting 40 degrees they also adapted and allowed for our children by finding cooler spots with play areas, museums and fun activities. We saw beautiful beaches and mountains, castles and vistas. We were challenged by their church plant, moved to help with their building relocation, shocked at the burdens they are carrying and delighted to find God working in our lives as well as theirs as I stepped out of my comfort zone in clear and direct answers to prayer and was able to begin ministering to others in my own small way.

There were miles of furniture shops, hundreds of red and black Albanian flags and pizza outlets on every corner. The swimming pools were glorious (Lily’s favourite part) and the byrek crisp and tasty. Everywhere people wanted to touch the children’s hair, to clasp their faces and to remark in internationally recognisable tones how beautiful they thought Lily and Joe to be. Not wanting to disagree we made internationally recognisable agreeing noises and smiled a lot.

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The second family we were visiting were a university friend Rob and his Albanian wife Mira and their lovely baby daughter Emily. Rob was part of a team I once organised to help do some building work on a Hope Centre in northern Croatia, and his love of the Balkans and the people of Albania has led him to integrate so well into local culture and be respected there for his work.

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So we really didn’t want to miss out on meeting up with these two remarkable families, especially as they are people who bless those around them, rather than draining them. We wanted to bless them with tea-bags, encouragement, books and opportunity. Despite challenges we found safety in letting go and learning the slowly, slowly mentality. In making decisions late, in not worrying about waiting and in finding the humour. God truly has been good to us this week.

I am not out of the woods. The cycle got a great jolt from this most unusual week, but I am having to work to fight negative patterns and am not ‘fully operational’ so am integrating gently into the world back home. We have others to see and more to do in these next weeks before Lily goes back to school, but I know how I’m going to tackle it.

Slowly, slowly.

Depression Toolkit #25: Broken praise

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“Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,

and Grace my fears relieved…”

Singing these words at a wedding on Sunday opened up something new in my heart. Yes, Grace relieves my fears – yes, with all the healing power of abundance and purpose. But Grace also places that fear – the realisation of inadequacy. The limits. The faults. The need.

My need has been raw and exposed in recent weeks and my heart has feared too many things. But all I really need to fear is the gap between my smallness and God’s greatness. Grace fills that gap. And the response – the human part of the divine conversation – is Praise.

Praise when low costs more – and I am certain it is all the more precious to God for that, who continues to deserve all our praise in any circumstance. If we are not in the habit of praising we find no desire to do so, and yet in the good times – new life for example – we crave the opportunity to express joy and celebrate and be thankful. Thankful? To be thankful requires an object for thanking. Praise is something we just know how to do as humans. We all have objects of praise.

I praise God, and am learning to praise him in the low times. Broken praise, yes. Out of tune with the world, almost certainly. But: beating to his heartbeat, the best I can. And the frog in the rain? Perhaps I want to look away from God’s greatness and focus on me. To cower in the storm beneath something of my own design. This solution can only be temporary. I am more waterproof than I may realise, so maybe I need to chuck out the umbrella, dance in the storm and face that Grace again. To revel in it, get wet and croak out my praise-offering the best I know how.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.

Psalm 40:1-3

…the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair…

Isaiah 61:3