Saturday, 24 December 2016

Seen from a Scene




I sleep fitfully, aware of you close by, so new, so needy, so I wake quickly to the sound.

A kind of humming, gaining in volume, a resounding harmony of resonance. It pulls at my soul, something deep within, a knowledge I didn’t know of. 

And then the light. First a chink of light, snaking down the mud-packed wall, a crack in the fabric which makes no sense in the dead of night. I glance around; you are sleeping quietly, making little muffled sounds and furling and unfurling tiny fists. A rush pounds through me. Beside you, my husband slumbers, his hand on your makeshift cradle.

The fissure of light bursts into a rift, rending our shelter apart; we are open to the world. Outside, I know it is silent, dark, so cold it bites at my fingers; but through the crevasse I see something more.
Something otherworldly.

A cavernous space, like a palace, lit with a thousand lights glowing with an impossible brightness. In one corner a tree stands tall and strange, nothing like the olive trees of my surroundings. Something perhaps more like a cypress tree, strewn with more light and objects richer than I have ever seen; silver and gold glinting through inexplicable radiance. Under the tree lie objects I can only guess at, shapes and colours I cannot comprehend, shining ribbons twirling around them.

The humming is louder, echoing through the space and captivating me. I am bruised and battered; exhausted and drained, but you are perfect and peace flows over me as I watch.

Wooden doors fly open and an eruption of noise and colour gusts through the place as a hundred or more children crowd in, their garments so strange, some with only a little familiar head-coverings with patterns I cannot understand. Some all in white with a remarkable glittering material tied round their waists and heads, strangely beautiful. Some jumping and screeching. One comes close to me and you, peers right through the fissure, his gaze curious and serious all at once. He points a finger. ‘Jesus.’ He smiles so widely his face must crack, and bounds away, and my heart warms. He is talking of you.

Later, they sing, and I know they are singing of you and of me. Their tongue is strange but somehow I can comprehend each word. I shiver as I hear the words. Smile, too. Tonight wasn’t very silent, or really very calm. I remember the desperation, stumbling through the locked-up town, the cold and the pain gripping me like iron, finding a place far from bright. But it was holy. Holiness pervaded it like a great wave crashing over me, drowning me in perfect love.

They sing of more than your birth, though. They sing of the dawn of redeeming grace and my heart hammers in my chest. They sing of adoring you, of falling down to worship you, and I am warmed. Then they sing of nails and spears, piercing you through, and I am broken. They sing of glad tidings, of a wondrous gift, of joy to the world, and I am honoured beyond my wildest dreams. In this dream of mine, this rend in my time, they are worshipping you, dear one, the Son of God.

Later, they make a scene near the tree, and it is oddly resonant of where I sit with you safe close by. The little ones clad in white stand with arms held high, shimmering material cascading down, a little girl holding something like a baby in her arms, a blue shawl draped over her head.

Later still, the children are gone and more people stream through the doors, this time faces lit up with candlelight and beautiful voices streaming in harmony through the space, flowing over me. In a quiet moment, a woman approaches you and me and kneels. I notice her face is etched with pain, her brows drawn together, her lips pulled tight. She brings her hands together and whispers. ‘Dear Jesus, how can I celebrate this season when you took him? Why did you take him?’

She weeps.

There’s a whisper through the silence, and the woman looks up, gazing around her.

Immanuel.’

The woman brings her hands to her face, and I watch as tears leak from between her gnarled fingers.

‘God with us.’

The woman stands, and another woman is alongside her, bringing her into a warm embrace.

‘God with us.’

I watch as they light a candle together and place it on a stand near to you and me. And then more and more come, gazing upon you, crying out to you, washed in your peace as you sleep, the Light in the darkness, the babe so small, but the all in all, the Creator among them. Among us. I watch as they light candles and close their eyes, and listen to the whisper all around the space, echoing through the fissure and through eternity.

‘Immanuel.’

I watch the pain of a broken world, the suffering that I will know too much of, and the peace beyond understanding that floods the place before me and the place I am in. I hold in my heart the truth: In two thousand years, your redeeming grace will still be surging over broken lives, still be cascading over cold hearts, still be rebuilding and restoring and transforming, just as it always has and always will.  Ashes turned into beauty, sorrow into joy.

God with us.

The crack is beginning to heal up, the beautiful scene before me dissipating and waning until all I see is a mud-packed wall. Beside me, you sleep, your tiny mouth puckered, dark downy hair swept over your smooth brow, and I wonder at the miracle. 

The miracle of Immanuel.


Monday, 1 August 2016

A Walk Through Sacred





On the last but one night at New Wine 2016, I took a walk through the camp.

A normal stroll, an everyday thing. An achievement for me, certainly, but it turned out to be so much more, because the ordinary hurtled me headlong into the sacred.

It was a balmy evening, the last rays of sunshine bathing the showground in a gentle light, the only sign of a huge deluge a few hours before a few puddles where welly-clad toddlers jumped with joy. I walked past Stomping Ground where a crowd of 8-11 year olds were doing the Cha-Cha Slide, playing arcade games and getting their nails done. I walked on past Boulder Gang and Rock Solid to the Youth corner.

I felt old.

Vibe was very loud and Flava full of gangs of happy kids, and outside were crowds of teens doing that preening thing at one another. My daughter was highly embarassed by my very presence, so I walked on, recalling how earlier, me and a friend had been thrown out of Thirst ('we don't do adults here') and were quite relieved, really. They didn't have any chairs and it was a bit smelly.

I stopped for a second to breathe in the air, the atmosphere full of joy and shouts of laughter, of hope. That's the word. Hope soaked the place, and I began to reflect that this might be something of what the Kingdom is like.

I walked past the Tearfund tent where a late night singer-songwriter strummed his guitar, his plaintive tones echoing out into the night. I watched as folk in the cafe relaxed to the music, and more crowds spilled out onto the pavement outside, chatting and drinking and laughing and singing. Smiling at me as I strolled past, taking it all in.

Then there was Hungry, where people were still utterly lost in worship, abandoned and glowing as they did what they are created for. This is the quieter venue and the sound was beautiful, violins singing on the breeze and husky vocals carrying the hope onwards.

In the food court opposite, long tables were packed with people enjoying a hot donut or a tray of chips. I wondered what the food sellers thought of this bunch of crazy Christians. I wonder if they saw anything different. If they saw Jesus at all. I hope so. I think so.

I ambled through to the Impact venue which was still rocking big time, the young band giving it their all with their techo-drums and beat-boxer, lights streaking though the tent and out into the night in rainbow colours, touching every corner and every heart. The more energetic worshippers among us were pounding the boards in there and the hope was tangible. The freedom more intense than can be described.

On past the Marketplace where dozens of organisations represented their tireless work for the poor, the persecuted, the vulnerable, and where art and creativity in many forms were celebrated. At the centre of it all the Flame International cafe buzzed with more laughter and even more hope.

Walking through past the now quiet Groundbreakers, the sounds of the Arena drifted up the avenue; the place where a little earlier I'd encountered God in profound intimacy. Now the Late Night Live band blasted out 80s covers in style and I jigged a (little) bit.

The sounds of a night alive with joy faded as I carried on and came to the Open Doors refugee camp, where people were gathered in the falling dusk with candles and prayers, interceding for refugees worldwide. Something in the juxtaposition of the fun and laughter with this tender and heartbreaking scene brought me to tears, reminding me of how God's Kingdom will be a place where there is no more pain, no more mourning, no more tears. Where there is joy and life and laughter and peace, for all eternity. The glimpses of how this would look were paired with the bittersweet beauty of God's people in prayer for those who are in the most desperate of circumstances.

Come soon, Lord.

As I walked on past the camp and into the more residential area of the showground, I passed the Pebbles marquee and stopped for a moment, my mind racing backwards to when my children were little. Toddling through Gems, running free and joy-filled through Pebbles then pelting into Groundbreakers, their little hearts so full of all they learned, their legs tired from jumping and playing and dancing. I reflected on how blessed we were to have New Wine as a home for so long now. This is the first year they are both out of the kids' stuff and into the youth, and I was a little bit sad, but more than a little bit happy, too. And to see the girl go and work on the Pebbles team, giving something back, was the most amazing thing. She's now New Wine team-hooked forever.

So then I walked through this mini-city of tents and caravans, pockets of laughter lighting up the night, and thought again of God's Kingdom, of how everyone is here together to worship, to be united, and that is only the smallest glimpse of what it will one day be. I wonder if there will be so much mud?

I walked through the hope-soaked sacred that night, and it changed me, again.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bridges, not barriers.


I'm feeling desperately sad.

Not just because of the referendum result, though that's part of it, but because of how it is polarising people in the UK (and beyond) even more than before. On social media, I'm observing fights break out between folks I love, ugly words, unpleasant judgments.

If #Bremain had won, there would doubtless be the same polarisation. I don't claim to have the answer. But the process has left me in little doubt that there is a rising tide of xenophobia in this country. Not everyone who voted leave, not anywhere near, but watching some of the news broadcasts from around the nation has opened my eyes.

Some of the comments I noted:

'I voted leave because no white kids can get in at my local school, it's all taken over by the immigrants.'
'I voted leave because our country is full up.'
'I voted leave because I want to get England how it was before all the immigrants moved in and spoiled it.'
'I voted leave because it will sort out all those Muslims.'
'I voted leave because they take benefits from us and I can't get a doctor's appointment because of them.' (whoever 'they' are.)
'I voted leave because they take all our houses and we're left with the worst ones.'

It went on and on in this vein.

The statments about leaving because of sovereignty and democracy I had much more time for, but in general I felt that we were stronger for being part of something bigger, for working together with other countries. I also felt that EU directives on worker's rights, the environment and human rights were important factors I felt it would be problematic to possibly lose. There's the miniscule worry for me that I simply don't trust our government as it is to 'take back control', but that's not the only reason I voted Remain.

I have no idea what the future will look like. There are dire predictions of the economy going down the pan, of the pound in free fall, of job losses and cuts harder than we ever knew before (if we thought Tory austerity was severe, we might be looking back on those cuts with fondness for former times.) I don't know if any of this will be reality.

What I do know is that we are at a crossroads, now. We can rally all we like at the vote; the prevalence of the older population voting Leave, the fact that it was actually only 38% of the electorate who voted Leave at all, the many rumours circulating of Brexiters who wished they could take their vote back because they believed Nige and BoJo about that £350 million thing. But I don't think a petition for another referendum will do anything, ultimately, because in the end, this was democratic, and the Leave side won. Therefore, what we must do is work together to step into the future, whatver it may be. To stop backbiting, namecalling, hate tweets and everything else that only further polarises. In the end, we are all human beings together. The great majority of us - whatever 'side' - want what is best for everyone. We may think some are misguided, they may think we are, but we don't have the right to spew hatred. No one does.

This doesn't mean that I can't say what I think, but that I think that personal attacks (some I saw today: 'I thought better of you, I thought you had more sense than that, I'm de-friending you) are never a helpful thing. Never good.

So how can we go forward? We just bumble along, I suppose, like we always do. And we support one another. I know of someone who has already been made redundant due to the referendum, and of many who are worried for their jobs. How can we help?

I like what the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have said in their statement about the referendum:

As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

This is what I want to see. This is why I am worried about all those statements I posted above. I would love to see a society where we all welcome one another as fellow humans, loved and precious, uniquely formed in God's image. I hope that this can turn to something good, to something generous and forward-looking.

I kind of fear that it won't.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas: It's for the sorted, right?



Here I am; another Christmas, another infection. Actually, the last two Christmasses have been good, infection free, and I've been free to join in with all that seems to make Christmas - carol singing, present buying and wrapping, Christmas meals out, Christmas food. I've been in on that this year too, well, up to two days ago, when my lungs decided they weren't going to play ball. Since then, I've lain in bed or on the sofa, again observing Christmas but not being a part.

But I should know by now how stupid that is. Of course I am a part. Being sick does not make you a spare part, or not a part at all, of the celebration of the greatest gift that was ever given. The adverts would have us believe that Christmas is all about being so very sorted, so very unbroken. The beautiful family sits with more beautiful family and friends around the tastefully decorated table, real tree in the corner dripping with expensive and tasteful decorations (all colour co-ordinated, of course.) The baby giggles, the children play nicely together, everyone pulls crackers and oohs and aaahs at the exciting contents. The food is perfect; everything timed to be ready together, everything presented nicely. Everyone glows with good health and beauty, everyone loves each other, everyone is jolly and fulfilled and the epitome of what Christmas is all about.

Facebook can be even worse, for the sick and the sad. So many photos of happy families, joyous in their lives together, the appearance of all that is good. Christmassy family trips out, meals together, baking together. The sick mum looks on and despairs, her children sat again in front of screens instead of frolicking in the fields or making mince pies good enough for Mary Berry. Pictures of cosy, warm homes, perfectly decorated by someone strong enough, in body and spirit. (I am just as guilty as posting this version of our lives, at times.) Then there are round robins. You know, where all the achievements are listed and nothing bad happens. Hermione gained 14 A*s and learned to play the harp to grade 8 standard on top of mastering ballet and photography. You know the sort. (Thankfully, most of the ones we receive are real, and I love reading them.)

Is this what Christmas is?

It's not, is it? Because Christmas is for the broken. It's for those who haven't got it together, those who haven't got a perfect table to sit round with a perfect family, those who have no family at all, those who are confined to a sick bed, those who have lost someone they love, those who have divorced, those who are struggling with anxiety, those in crippling debt. Christmas is so much for the broken people, and God came down among us in a broken scenario. A stable, not a restful, peaceful place of Christmas card fantasy but a cold, unwelcoming, dirty, smelly setting for the son of God. God chose to come in brokenness, born to an unwed young mum, born in scandal and disgust. No perfect table and hot food for the bewildered, tired couple, no crackers to pull or family sat around in peace and harmony. A few mucky shepherds turned up, trailing their bleating sheep. How was that a perfect Christmas?

Yet that's exactly what it was. The most perfect Christmas. The one which meant everything. That Christmas meant freedom for many, hope for the world. It meant that God was among us. Immanuel.

You tore the night apart
And ripped the silent skies in half
Your glory breaking through the dark

And here our worlds collide
Divinity in man confined
This great design drawn out for me


(from 'King of Heaven' by Hillsong United)

I want to remember that Christmas isn't for the sorted, for those who have arrived. As I sit, frustrated by my body's treacherous unreliability at a time I want to feel strong, I think of that vulnerable baby and remember how God chose to come in vulnerability, in pain and darknesss, and think about how God is here in our darkness. If Christmas seems far from something you enjoy because of life being difficult, for whatever reason, remember what Christmas really is. A celebration of the Christ child, a celebration of God's passionate love for us. In the midst of my pain, this light breaks through and infuses me with hope, with joy that God did this, for me. For you.

May you be at peace this Christmas, wherever you are in life, whether you feel like that perfect family on TV, or whether you are so broken you cannot begin to imagine celebration. May you be infused with the peace beyond all understanding that comes from knowing God's saving plan for you. May you know the hope of the Christ child, held out over the wreckage of wrapping paper and squabbles, filling the emptiness and creeping through the shadows, pervading the gloom and exploding in glorious light.

(And may I get over having to cancel seeing Star Wars yesterday, obviously.)

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent Shadows


It's Advent Sunday, and I started the day grumpy. I've been poorly for the past month and the antibiotics are taking their toll while not winning over the infection. Yet. They will. So we decide to get some of the advent stuff out and do home church, which is so lovely as it's been a while since I got to church, but I then take my grumpiness out on the Adventurous pair and feel rubbish. When every movement hurts, takes the breath out of you and is just this huge great struggle it can be so difficult to just be nice, be calm, be the loving mum they need. I'm sorry, dear ones, you were so gracious at my grumpiness and did what you were asked with concern and love. I am blessed with you.

But then Adventure Bloke sorted this little home church for Advent Sunday and it just took me to a different place, a place beyond me and my gripes and my pain and fed up-ness. We talked as a family about what Advent means (no, not just for chocolate, important though that is, obviously.) About how it means anticipating the coming of Emmanuel - God with us, about waiting for light to break through into the darkness. There seems so much darkness at the moment, in all the far places of the world, so much of people's inhumanity to others, so much pain. It's hard to look around and see where the light is, where is that breaking through? It feels as if we live in a time of perpetual advent, perpetual anticipation, and of course, we do. We live in desperate waiting for the fulfilling of God's promise, of Jesus coming back and of all being made new, made right, with no more suffering, no more crying, no more pain. But while we are waiting - while we are in the now and the not yet, we can glimpse things from the not yet and soar with hope as we remember the promises, remember that God is trustworthy. God spoke through the prophets, as we remember this Advent Sunday, and God's promises were fulfilled in Jesus. We can live in the hope, rather than the fear, the chinks of light rather than the cloaking darkness. I long for the day when that light is all consuming, like sun on our skin, almost too much to bear, but for now, I'll live through the shadows and the pain they bring, and when the light penetrates, soak it in and live in it.

My pain won't go away. I breathe in, breathe out, and it's there, snaking its way up my body, consuming me, at times prompting tears. I don't know why. I don't know why it won't go, but I remain convinced that God is in here, in the midst, which is exactly what Advent is all about. It's about Jesus getting in the mess with us - no staying away for the Son of God, no looking down from afar, but instead experiencing our humanity in full, suffering included, so very much included.

I'd encourage you today to live with the shadows while glimpsing those rays of light, breaking through like sunshine after a storm. Hold on to them, in the knowledge that one day they will dispel the darkness - that one day, 'the dawn from on high will break upon us,' that we will one day be free of the pain that binds so tightly. And that the freedom we can experience in the here and now can be so very deep. Keep on walking, dear ones.

And do forgive my grumps when I see you. :-)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Unproductive

I've been frequenting various author/writing blogs lately in my novel-writing mission, but have found that I feel fairly depressed after browsing too many of them. Now this could merely be due to the fact that they actually procrastinate the very thing they advocate, ie actual, real Writing. Or, it could be something more, something whch seems to strike at the heart of me.

These blogs are exhausting. All written by successful people with twenty zillion followers and thousands of perfect widgets proclaiming their great accomplishments; top ten bloggers ever, fifty books published, their perfect life of writing. Then, across their headers, there's more evidence of their triumphs in this brutal market - their international speaking schedule, their competition wins, their Goodreads page along with endorsements from Famous Folk. They've arrived.

And they tell us that we must do similar, if we want to succeed in any way with our writing. We must spend every waking minute gathering and coddling our millions of Twitter fans, and if we have under five thousand then we might as well give up, because our book just won't sell. Not only that, but we must build platforms on Google Plus, Instagram, Goodreads, Youtube, Facebook and everywhere else it is possible to build a social media presence. And then there's our blog. It must be good. It must be professional, and it must show evidence of our faithful followers.


My heart shrinks a little inside when I read these, because I know this is just beyond me, beyond my capabilities, physically. When it comes to social media self-promotion, I am Unproductive. It seems to me that society requires so much productivity of a person in order to be successful - or in order to be in any way deserving of anything at all, possibly. Those in society who are seen as Unproductive are banded together and shoved to one side; the Undeserving. When it comes to matters such as welfare, sections of the media like to play up the unproductivity of the undeserving - they have not tried, thus it is their fault, thus they are undeserving. Why should we help such people?

Sadly, this tends to enclose many people who are sick and disabled, and to society's eyes may be unproductive. Somehow, society have twisted things here so we see the most needy, the most sick as deserving and somehow heroic, but the long term sick, especially those with fluctuating conditions, are often seen as the opposite to this. They just don't try hard enough. Remember all the stuff going around about the Paralympians - they're disabled but they have tried. They are Deserving. But you haven't. Why not?

The truth is, being long term sick is completely exhausting in a way that is hard to explain. It's not like tiredness, more like a constant flu like feeling, taking over your life. That's why when I look at the requirements it seems it is needed to be an author, I want to close my laptop and wipe the lot. I can't do this, because my body isn't strong enough. Sitting at a computer all day blogging and tweeting may not seem a huge burden, but to someone with long term sickness I can promise that it is a burden much too far. On a bad day, I cannot open my computer. On a less bad day, I can read a bit of Facebook. On a slightly better day I can manage the odd blog post or some work on my books. On my best days I can do a lot more of this, and sometimes catch glimpses into what life might look like if it could always be like this. But because my condition is annoyingly fluctuating, I cannot be consistent. I cannot give this kind of commitment to something. Does that mean it's impossible for me to do this? I'm also grateful for the fluctuating nature of it, because it means I get time off, or at least down time where I feel well. Ish. It's good.

People who are long term ill are not undeserving. In general, they are just beyond shattered. They are trying to live day to day, trying their best to get through, to accomplish the smallest of tasks, and to cope. To then be faced with the media casting these kind of aspersions on them could be the straw that breaks the camel's back for them. I plead with our government, with our media to remember everyone has a story, everyone has humanity. Everyone is valued, not for what they do, but who they are. I'd include those who are seen as undeserving but aren't necessarily physically ill in this. They have a story. They are people. I believe they are made in God's image, and I believe in grace, not only rewarding the deserving. I'd love to see a world where grace shone through. Another subject for another time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I may as well keep chasing the book thing. It's a bit Rejection City round here though, so I may just sit and mope instead.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Belief and Suffering

Today I'm guest posting over at Mummy From The Heart, my lovely friend Mich's blog, on why I'm still a Christian despite the suffering I see all around me and experience in my life. Thanks Mich for the opportunity. :)


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