Calling number one, part two. A slightly more cynical look at joy ;)

Friday, 30 August 2013

This is a long one. I’m sorry guys. Anyone want to be my editor and ruthlessly cut parts of my posts out for me? I promise I won’t cry when you correct my sentences and cut away the ramble. *

* Much. I won’t cry much.

Sometimes it’s easy to be joyful.

(Check out the two-coaster action. Pre-emptive strike?)

I was chilling in the garden yesterday. Feet up, book in hand, glass of water next to me (complete with lemon and strawberry slices, and ice – luxury!), the tree gently waving in the breeze above me. Complete perfection and peace.

Just as I started to wind down, I noticed something in the corner of my eye. It looked a bit like a cloud of dust erupting from the ground. I sat up to look closer and recoiled in disgust.


I hate flying ants, it has to be said. One of my sister’s favourite memories of me when I was little was of little tiny red-haired me, on ‘flying ant day’, ferociously bouncing my basketball up and down the path outside our front door.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Killing them,’ I replied, calmly. ‘KILLING THEM ALL.’

And so I was. Squashing them determinedly with every bounce. And probably humming creepily under my breath in the manner of little girls from horror movies.

My reaction to things not going the way I planned is not instant serenity and inner peace. It is usually anger. And sometimes bad words under my breath. Yesterday, it was shrieking and running inside as hundreds of them erupted at once, and wondering why on earth God created such disgusting and strange creatures, and why He designed them to all grow wings and hatch simultaneously, making a horrible, squirming, glittering mass, only to have them die hours later.

This is obviously not really a problem. It was a tiny little glitch in my day that was soon forgotten when I became absorbed in my book on the sofa instead, tucked safely away from gross little creatures. But sometimes life throws you curveballs that range from frustrating to the utter breakdown and turnaround of your life. And what then? What do you do with worry and sorrow and grief, when the Bible commands you to be joyful?

Joy in the face of trials. It’s the last type of joy I’ve been thinking about, and the most difficult.

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the resting of your faith develops perseverance.’ – James 1:2

Does anyone else find that jaw-dropping? These early Christians were being persecuted. Stoned or beaten to death. They boldly declared their faith despite the obstacles, had trial after trial, and they still managed to find joy while it happened.

It’s the strength of the words that get me. ‘Consider it pure joy.’ Pure joy? In the midst of suffering?

All I know is that when I am worried, or stressed, or something is going on in my life to disturb the equilibrium, I am just about able to hang on to the notion that God can do something, that there will eventually be a lesson learnt from this. Is gritting my teeth and getting on with it the same as considering my circumstances to be ‘pure joy’? How do you get the balance right? How do you achieve joy when really you’re struggling to hold everything together?

Chris and I generally spend way too much time immersed in pop culture. The geekier the better, usually. A year or so before we got married, we were heavily into Millennium, a TV series created by Chris Carter. We actually found it pretty heavy going (kind of depressing and dark) and had to take breaks from it every now and then because it was too much, but they had the occasional silly episode. There was this one episode where some guy became involved in a weird cult of some kind (I think, anyway. It’s been a while), and he became unbelievably happy in a slightly deranged way, and every bit of bad luck that came to him was cause for celebration.

Anyway. This guy had the perfect opportunity to shoot one of our heroes, but as he went to do it, his gun went ‘click’ and nothing happened. Instead of screaming in frustration, he beamed broadly and said:

‘Alright! My gun jammed!’

Wow, that took a long time to explain. But we found it hilarious at the time and we quote it a lot. ‘Alright! My gun jammed!’ immediately brings to mind that blind, foolhardy, determined happiness in the face of something bad.

I see that in Christians sometimes. This determination to see the good in everything no matter what’s going on, and an almost prideful way of hiding their true feelings from everybody else. As long as everything is okay on the outside. As long as we keep going to church and everybody thinks we are okay and we keep telling ourselves we are happy, then it’s okay. Even if we’re praying for something and nothing is happening and it’s really wearing us down, as long as we keep pretending we’re happy at all costs, it’s okay.

Does that sound harsh? I hope it doesn't. I'm the same, sometimes. I block out the difficult bits of life rather than deal with them, I keep things to myself, I pretend everything’s fine-and-dandy when it isn't. And I'm not suggesting we go around wallowing in misery all the time. I just don't like to pretend it doesn't exist.

I know people that do this almost constantly, and you can tell the difference between someone who has joy and contentment in their heart, and someone that is putting a smile on and pretending that it’s okay. Years ago, I was unemployed, miserable, and desperate for a job. An opportunity came up in a Christian bookshop and I was going to apply for it. A well meaning family member said about this, with a big smile, ‘Oh, yes! This job is for you! We claim this job for you in the name of Jesus.’ So determined was she to see me in this job that I don’t think it occurred to her that God might have other plans for me (which He did).

She wanted the best for me, which I appreciate. In her mind, the best was this job. So she ‘claimed’ it. Did I get it? No. Did that knock my faith? Not really. I was balanced enough to see that maybe God had other ideas and that we’re only human and all that. But it did make me question the notion of ‘claiming’ things for ourselves when we don’t know for sure whether or not they belong to us, and the balance between claiming what God has promised for you, and letting Him take control of your life. And do you know what? We never spoke about the fact that I didn't get the job. An unanswered prayer swept under the carpet.

Do we talk enough as Christians about how hard life is sometimes? About how much we’re struggling? Is there a place for it? We are commanded to consider trials as pure joy. Are we expected, then, to put a smile on and pretend we’re happy? Or do we embrace pain – and the unity it can bring, the way that grief or stress can bring families and communities closer together – and feel that pain, without feeling we’re letting the side down? Do we allow enough understanding of that feeling of, despite circumstances being fine or blessed, things not being quite right? Do we allow enough room for people to be exhausted? Bored? Do we talk about it? Do we accept it as part of life and help each other through it?

I for one don’t want to live a fake life. One where people think I'm perfectly happy all the time and that God has taken care of all my problems and now I live on a cloud. Because that’s not true. Life with God can actually be really difficult.

The key difference for me is between the word ‘feel’ and ‘consider’. In James, it doesn't say ‘Feel pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds’. It says ‘consider it’.

Maybe there’s a reason for that word. ‘Consider’. Maybe – in answer to my earlier question – teeth-gritting and hoping that one day something good will come of this trial, is considered ‘considering’. Maybe that’s enough.

Or maybe joy is something different. Maybe joy comes from determination as well as feeling. Maybe it is cultivated in us, over time. Maybe it’s something ancient and deep that goes beyond our understanding, that is something to do with God’s work in us.

One last thing. Two days ago I was about to get in the bath and stood in front of the mirror just before I got in. Two thoughts came into my head, and they were very clear. One was ‘I am about to have this baby.’ (‘About’ could mean anything. It could mean three or four weeks yet. But my body just looked different to me. I felt so sure of it). The other was, ‘I am beautiful right now’.

I rarely think that about myself, believe me. I wasn't looking like model material at the time. I was all sweaty, my hair had curled up weird, I was aware of how deep and raw my stretch marks looked. I just believed it about myself, and it wasn't the kind of ‘I'm glowing, my skin looks great’ beauty. It was something deeper, somehow older, bigger than my own superficial expectations of what I want to look like. The deep and inner beauty that comes from being blessed by God, by carrying a life. I still felt this layer of criticism about myself, but it somehow faded a little in that moment, making way for a kind of grittier, stronger, truer beauty instead.

Does that make sense? In my hippy way, I guess I'm saying that I think some things go deeper than emotions. Some words mean more than just feelings. Words like ‘peace’ and ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’ go much deeper than fleeting emotions. They mean something more permanent. They are old words.

So in that case, maybe it’s easier to understand how the early disciples could be beaten and tortured and still maintain that joy (Easier to understand – not necessarily easier to bear myself). Because they knew what that word really meant. They knew it had something to do with God and His plans for them. They knew the bigger picture.

Maybe I’ll write about this again sometime. Maybe I’ll look into it deeper. For today, though, I think I’ve exhausted my brain. Congratulations if you’ve read this far J

Calling number one. A joyful post about joy!

Friday, 23 August 2013

'I just want to celebrate
Another day of living.
I just want to celebrate
Another day of

This is a song that we have discovered in our house. It's become one of those songs that belong to us now without us having to decide on it, an extra track on a very long playlist of our relationship so far. Chris sings it a lot as he potters around, and if it comes on in the car we'll both sing along to it. Sometimes I'll make myself sing it in the mornings when I'm drying my hair or something just to perk things up. The only rule of singing it aloud is that you kind of have to bellow the last word*, no matter how quietly you're singing the first bit. 'LIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!'

*Or you at least have to do one of those whisper-shouts. You know, when you're trying to shout something but you're in circumstances where you have to whisper so you get a kind of cross between the two? Like an old man rasping for breath. Or Lord Voldemort. You know what I mean, don't you?

It's just a nice song. Nice words to start your day to, to celebrate another day. Of LIIIIIFE!

Did you know that celebrating life is something we are commanded to do?

Check it*:

* I promise never to say or type that again.

All those references to joy in the Bible. They nearly take up a whole page in my concordance. (Actually they do, pretty much, because they’re followed by the words ‘Joyful, Joyous, Jubilant and Jubilee’ which are pretty much on the same wavelength). Three of those ‘joy’ references are:

‘The Lord is my strength and my shield, my heart trusts in Him and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to Him in song.’ – Psalm 28:7

‘So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith, and overflowing with thankfulness.’ – Col 2:6-7

And this, my favourite passage of the moment:

‘Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’ 1 Thess 5:16

Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy. It’s everywhere. It’s God’s will for me. Give thanks in all circumstances. Be joyful always.

For me there right now I can think of three types of joy:

1)      Joy in the little things. This is, for me, what the first part of the year really taught me – and a huge part of that came from reading Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts (I’ve mentioned it in previous posts – it’s a good book). In fact, to quote it:

‘I am a hunter of beauty and I move slow and I keep the eyes wide, every fiber of every muscle sensing all wonder and this is the thrill of the hunt and I could be an expert on the life full, the beauty meat that lurks in every moment.’
            It’s finding joy and beauty in the midst of the ordinary. It’s generally appreciating life. Noticing the small things and being thankful for them. I could list a thousand things that I’m thankful for, but I won’t now, because I know you all know what I mean by it. It can be anything. Things and people and moments you love.

2)      Joy at my salvation, and in the grand scheme of things. When I first became a Christian … when that first defining moment happened when I realised that something (or Someone) else was at play other than me … I was a mess. Externally, all was well, but internally – sheesh. I was emotionally torn down and it would take a long, long time to build back up again (Maybe one day I’ll tell that story on this blog).

When I think back now to the girl I was, I want to cry with thankfulness. Not just the radical change in circumstances (because now, things are pretty cushty – lovely husband, nice house, baby on the way, financially stable). But the internal change – the change in my heart and my mind and spirit – wow. I can confidently say I am a completely different person now than I was back then, and that journey of healing and discovery has been immense. I look back (not too often – every now and then) and I remember how I felt then and how I feel now and I thank God for all that He has done.

The third type of joy will be explored in the next post … in which you can expect me to be a little less crazily upbeat and a little more cynical ;)

a call to ...?

Friday, 9 August 2013

I've been rethinking recently what it means to be a Christian, and how this should affect my every day life, and how the things of God get pushed aside for ... you know, life stuff. When things really boring things like car repairs and tax returns and hospital appointments start to clog up your brain space, pushing out everything you know in the long-term are more important. Or when things that aren't boring but also aren't important get in the way. When you know you should be reading the news but you're Googling something pointless instead. Or when I'm supposed to be writing a blog but I end up staring at Pinterest and mentally assembling my dream home (Look! Look at that vase that I've never seen before but suddenly desire with all my heart! That would go really well in the French windows of my imaginary house. It would match the expensive curtains I pinned yesterday that I also suddenly need).

'Calling' is something that baffled me when I first became a Christian. Immersed into the world of Christian literature, I immediately felt that discovering my new faith first hand was not enough. I needed A Calling. A Mission. Something that God had given me specifically to do, a task for me to complete while I was on this earth, something that He had specifically lined up for me. I worried endlessly about this and would pray about it a lot, hoping that He would outline the exact structure of this grand plan, word-for-word, so I could write it down and follow it like a map for the rest of my life, because I didn't trust myself to know what to do without someone smacking me upside the head with it.

God is more subtle than that, of course, and I learnt that (eventually). I do believe that God gives people specific words and messages, specific places to go and people to speak to and things to do. Of course I believe that. What I don't believe (or at least, no longer believe) is that every Christian will be called to go off on a grand and epic 'ring-into-Mordor'-esque* quest around the world. Some Christians will be, and I love hearing their stories and being inspired by them. They fire me up in a dull moment, they encourage me to step up and do better.

Others, however, are simply called to serve God and others right where they are. Right in the middle of whatever dull drudgery life has to offer here and now.

Sometimes the 'grand plan' is just the opposite. It's not grand. It's not structured. It's not broken down into specific life moments. It's a lifetime of learning to be less 'human' and more humble. It's a lifelong lesson, repeated again and again and again, about how to rely on God, how to put other people before yourself, how to Live Right.

Sometimes the 'grand plan' is the endless washing and folding of babygros (it's already started. I've got them drying upstairs on the airer and I'm wondering where on earth they all came from). It's filling up the car with petrol. It's sitting in the dentist's waiting for an appointment. It's going to Sainsbury's to get milk and bread because you're ran out and are somehow shocked by this even though yesterday you commented on how it's getting low and you weren't going to have enough for cereal. It's begrudgingly slapping your alarm in the mornings to shut it up, knowing you're going to be out of the house for thirteen hours and you'd better get up. It's listening to someone on the phone, not being able to offer any advice, just saying 'Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmhmm. I know. Mmmm. Yeah, I know. But she - yes. I know. I know. Yeah.'

Sometimes the 'grand plan' is being knocked off your feet when you were just feeling stable. It's the phone call that you never wanted to get, or the loss of a job that you desperately needed, and facing the mounting horror of having to be on benefits again. It's checking your bank balance and wondering where it all went. It can be difficult decisions that you can't make without causing problems either way. It can be owning up to mistakes and having to swallow your pride. It can be pain and emergency trips to the hospital and sobbing into pillows and the confusing, tangled hurt that we cause each other.

Sometimes the 'grand plan' is joy. Little pockets of it. Moments of peace, of staring at the tree outside your window and looking down at your belly and seeing a little foot suddenly stick out (weird but delightful). It's getting off a plane with that anticipation that comes from discovering a new place. It's sinking your teeth into dinner cooked lovingly by someone else when you're exhausted. It's friends that organise and arrange surprises for you and family that let you off the hook when you're snappy and tired. It's having 'in-jokes' with people that don't make sense and aren't funny to anyone else. It's a kiss that lingers for a bit longer than normal when you least expect it. It's singing a bit louder in worship. It's grace and blessing and joy.

Life with God, for me, is not separate from Life. God underpins everything. He attaches all the parts of my life like a string pulling everything together. His love - and purpose for me - are like a heartbeat underneath everything I do and everywhere I go. He doesn't pin me down to a structure, doesn't take away my free will, and doesn't abandon me when I make mistakes. He just remains. Still and steady, ready to walk with me, to weave the next part of the journey.

With that in mind, the next few posts are going to be about different things that I feel I - and every Christian - are called to do. Not just because they're Good Deeds, or because they're written in the Bible, or because other Christians have told me. It's a mixture of those things, and an undeniable pull at the heart that I feel when something keeps cropping up that should be important.

I hope you enjoy them. I guess this is part one of a four-part post. Maternity leave = prime writing time! :)

*I'm not sure how well that sentence was structured. Do you have to have a '-' before an 'esque'? I shouldn't be allowed to write, should I?!

resting and preparing

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Being on maternity leave is weird. It's like having my first summer holiday since school, but with this kind of nervous anticipation that at any moment, I could potentially be rushing off to hospital. It's weird, too, because I've never actually looked forward to feeling pain before, yet whenever I feel a twinge (which is probably just the weight of my baby pressing down on me) a mad part of me hopes it will get worse because that means that baby might be coming. Chris could probably give you a detailed report of how I'm feeling at any given moment because I give him a running commentary: tired, uncomfortable lower back pain, slight twinge on my right side ...

I'm also starting to fully understand why they call it 'nesting'. I literally am like a mother hen or something. When I'm supposed to be resting, I'll suddenly catch sight of the garden and then I'll be outside wiping down the chairs because they've got cobwebs on them. Or we'll be watching the TV and I'll disappear and Chris will find me twenty minutes later hanging up and putting away our clothes because the thought of them sitting up there in a pile is enraging me.

My favourite thing to do is just to look at baby's clothes. I can't get enough of them - even though I've washed and ironed them, I still have this made urge to get them out and smell them and cuddle them and then put them back in the drawers again, neatly arranged by size.

Is this normal?

However, I am enjoying the fact that I get to just rest for a little while, and I make sure I sit down and do nothing (in between the frantic bursts of cleaning and prodding baby to see whether she's turned the right way or not). I've watched a zillion episodes of Friends. I've read two books so far and finished one that I'd been reading for a while.

I've had lots of what I call 'God-time' too. I find solitude - true solitude, that is, without listening to, watching, or reading anything to keep my brain occupied - really difficult. Whenever I try to do it my mind wanders or I start pottering around. I tell myself it's because my brain isn't wired that way; that a mixture of how God designed me and modern technology that keeps my thoughts flitting constantly from one thing to the next. Today I pulled the blind right up in our bedroom and just gazed out at the tree moving in the wind and I laid on my pillows and thought: do you know what, this is actually pretty nice. I can sit here and think things through until there's nothing left and then just be.

Looking at this photo now makes me want to leap up and clean my windows.

Maybe 'switching off' is something that can be learned after all.

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