When your fear is bigger than your faith

“…the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

It was such a beautiful morning.  Although it is Winter and quite cold, the sky was a brilliant expanse of blue and the sunshine enhanced the colours of the garden. The grass was greener, the lingering Autumn leaves flashing their hues of reds, yellows and oranges making the view even more vibrant.

Down in the valley, though, everyone was still under the cover of cloud. Heading off the mountain, I drove down into, and then below the low-lying cloud to a day with no sunshine; to a day of misty, drizzly grey that seemed to drain all colour and joy away. What a difference a little perspective makes.

I was reflecting on the different perceptions we can have as I looked out the car window a while back. I took a photo of the cloud as it seemed to speak to me of how we could look at what is going on in our world. What struck me was the darkness of the cloud – it drew my eye toward it. But then, even as I watched, I saw the streaks of sun pushing out to the sides. It reminded me of those cartoons, where one character is trying to squash and hide another, but bits keep popping out the sides and between the fingers. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot hide something bigger than himself.

In a time when we seem to hear bad news only to be replaced by more bad news, when the negativity seems to come at us from all angles, it is easy to live like the view in the valley is reality, or like myself, focussed on the darkness of the cloud. Both these images reminded me of the well-worn quote: “It’s always sunny at 40000 feet.

On social media many people seem to thrive, or at least continually focus on how bad things are. Even many Christians seem to live under the cloud of fear of what is going to happen next. Much of what is reported is often misreported, false or exaggerated, but even so, no matter how big or how dark the clouds of bad news get, we don’t have to focus on them. There is still another Truth. We can remember that the sun is still shining above, that God is still sovereign.

"...perfect love drives out fear..."

We have a choice and it is one that we need to make every day, sometimes moment by moment. Are we going to focus on the negativity, the difficulties, the scary stuff, or do we choose to focus on God, the One who is bigger than it all, is trustworthy, faithful and true?  

What do you do when your fear gets bigger than your faith? How do you connect with perfect Love (1 John 4:8) to cast out your fears? I’d love you to share your favourite tool for beating fear here.

Just give me the formula!

Years ago, in another lifetime, I was a maths teacher. What can I say? I like the order of numbers, the known outcome - there is an answer that is right. Maths can be comforting in its safety of black and white. 

One of the struggles my students had with me (and I with them!) was that they would say to me, "Just tell me how to do it, just give me the answer." They too wanted the safety and simplicity of the known and predictable. What I wanted for them was to understand the process, the underlying methodology and reasoning, because when they grasped  that, I knew they could apply it to other problems and scenarios. Hopefully they could recognise problems that were similar and extend what they already knew and understood into new problems and new scenarios.

Wanting a simple answer is not just confined to the classroom, though. Perhaps it is a quintessential part of being human. I am reminded of Arthur Dent in the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" series asking for the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (and finding it is 42!), or the Israelites at Sinai telling Moses, "Just tell us what to do so God won't smite us, and we will do it, but having a relationship with God where we need to listen to Him is just too scary for us." (Exodus 20:19)

There was a desire for a formulated way of living, without having to get involved in the mess and uncertainty of relationship.

I think we tend to transpose this way of thinking into our own lives when we hit tough times, when we come across a problem: "God, just tell me the answer, tell me what steps to take to produce the outcome I want". 

I was confronted by my own desire for this more recently. In discussing something going on in my life, a friend suggested a message she had found really helpful that came with a process which, in turn seemed  to promise a secured outcome. I dutifully watched the teaching, went through the process and waited for the outcome. Which didn't happen - at least not as I was hoping! 

Reflecting on this and seeking God in the midst of this, I realised, again, that while process can be helpful and good, there are many times in life and relationships when the cookie cutter method will not produce cookie cutter results. But why?

Part of the problem is that although my issue, my difficulty may have all the hallmarks of being the same as yours, when people are involved there will always be differences. We are different. Our experiences are different. Our journey and what we need to learn for it and from it are different. We may be heading for the same thing (being closer to God), but we also may be coming from entirely different directions, complete with different landscapes and challenges. One size will never fit all.

There is a part of our make up, though, that continues to chase after the tried and true method. It is why advertising is so powerful and effective: "Got this problem? Our product is the answer and we can prove it - look at all these people." 

We do it in church as well: "Got this problem? Just read your Bible more/pray more/journal more/be part of a home group/go to this conference/read this book/hear this speaker/follow that teaching. All of these things have their place and may be helpful. But the problem comes when we choose process over relationship. We tell God we want a guaranteed outcome with minimum effort or pain. But in relationship, free will (our own or others') can trip up the best laid plans.

And even using a cookie cutter my cookies rarely look exactly the same, and definitely don't look like yours, so why should I expect that with the rest of life?

So I come back again and I choose relationship, with all its mess and unpredictability, over process. I will allow God to be God. I will have faith in His great wisdom, His vision, His understanding and knowledge of what is best. I will take the path that is my own, rather than the tried and not always universally true path of others. I will wait and hold on, even though there are no guarantees I see today, and even though today, again, it all looks wrong. I will again lean not on my own understanding, I will submit to Him and I will trust Him to make my path level.

"Trust in Adonai with all your heart; and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him; and He will level your paths."

(Prov 3:5,6 Complete Jewish Bible)

What is the bird in my hand really worth?

When I was a kid, we went through a phase of playing treasure hunts. Depending on our mood, one of us would either make a map, or bury clues along the way with the next set of directions.

They didn't always work out perfectly - our steps were all different sizes. Sometimes we needed more than a little help from the creator. One time my younger brother made me one that had little "treasures" at every stop! Generally the treasure was simply one of our toys, often buried in a small metal box - the 'treasure chest'; but the journey of discovery and the excitement of what might be in store was most of the fun.

Treasures were on my mind recently. It started on the trip to the beach for a weekend away, where I found myself sharing the story above with my husband. When treasure came up again in a totally unrelated discussion, it got me thinking about why treasure might be important at this time.

Walking along the beach, I reflected that each of us treasures different things. Watching surfers, I could imagine the draw of finding the perfect wave, of catching the next ride. And then there were the many rock pools. I have always had an attraction to the treasures I might find in them, whether it be a crab, a fish, sea anemones or simply a pretty garden of seaweed and beautiful shells.

One of our discussions as we walked ventured into wild country. We dreamed a little of what we might do, what changes we might make in our lives - one of those times where we thought about what life might look like if anything goes.

It got me thinking further about what I treasure. What am I prepared to let go of?

Is there a treasure out there that I might miss without letting go of the one in my hand?

Am I holding on too tightly to belief in the old adage that what I have, the proverbial bird, is worth more than what could be? And when is it time to let go so we can possibly get hold of something else?

It reminded me of Jesus' parable (Matt 13:44-6) of the person who found a treasure in a field, and went and sold everything he had to buy the field. And then there is the accompanying story of the pearl of great price - again, the person sold everything to get hold of this pearl.

I have always struggled at a level with both these stories. What if the man got the field only to discover that the previous owner had removed the treasure before he took possession? And isn't buying that pearl a bit like putting all your eggs in one basket? Would you really give up everything for a pearl?

But maybe that is the point. 

Jesus was comparing these situations to the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a risk. When you give up all you have for something, there are rarely guarantees. I like to think that I would follow Jesus' trail wherever it leads, but at the moment I find myself wanting to know more. I have been a little surprised by my reticence toward one option; the sense of loss this idea leaves me with caught me off guard. Am I ready to let go of that much? As I find myself wanting to see a little more of the 'treasure' I might get if I let go of the treasure in my hand, I see that another trust upgrade is required.

And perhaps it also has something to do with challenging that 'good old' belief system of being content and grateful for all you already have, to not to be constantly wanting more. But perhaps what Paul said in his oft-quoted verse about being determined to be content in whatever circumstances is less about staying in one place (physically, emotionally or spiritually) and more about a state of mind in constantly changing scenery. Perhaps it is less about finding my little niche in the world and building a nest to be comfortable in, and more about taking and finding the comfort and peace of the Kingdom wherever I find myself.

Is this really how the dream ends?

Our Good Friday celebration was an interactive "Stations of the Cross" experience. It was challenging, meaningful and at times deeply moving. At Station #11, we were encouraged to reflect on what Jesus' disciples must have felt as they watched Him die, as they laid Him in the tomb. This poem by Cheryl Laurie was shared to help:

You think this is what’s best for us?
They humiliated you on a cross.
And we’re humiliated too, because we put our trust in you.
No wonder Peter denied you.
Maybe it wasn’t out of fear, but out of sheer, bloody rage
that this is how the dream ended.
How can you think this is what’s best for us?
We put everything we had into you.
Our trust.

Our belief that you were the one who could save us.
You offered us a taste of welcome,
a hint of grace,
a touch of freedom.
For a moment we glimpsed a new world,
and you promised an eternity of that.
And we trusted you.
We’re left wondering which is worse
– that it ended like this
or that you knew it would end like this
and you took us with you anyway.

Of course, we know that the disciples mourning turned to joy a few days later. The story didn't end there. I can't help but wonder, though, if this poem doesn't resonate deeper with many of us. It certainly did with me.

There is a level at which we can struggle in this walk with Jesus. Sure, we have had an encounter with Him at some point. Maybe there are a number of points at which we have encountered Him in a deeply meaningful and personal way, where He has touched our hearts and transformed us, turned our lives upside down, to the place where we think we will never be the same again, where we sing for joy, where we leap and dance in our freedom.

However now, right now we walk in a place where it feels as though the sun will never shine, where we feel like the breakthrough will never come, where we can feel like death has won the victory, and we have nothing left; that we put all we had into this walk, into this relationship with God, but somehow, at some point, He has let us down. He hasn't come through with 'the goods' as we were expecting, that we would like. He hasn't done what we thought He should. And it hurts. 

It might be with our marriage, our kids, our workplace or career. It may be our health, or the health of a loved one. We have put all our hope in Him being our breakthrough, and it hasn't happened. We feel the dream has died and we are left like a child holding the empty string of our popped balloon, feeling dismal and disappointed.

Where are you now, God?

So what do we do with these feelings?

For many of us, we hold onto hope. Maybe it is only really public hope - we put on our "Sunday-go-to-meetin'" faces, giving the expected appearance of a "good Christian", but at home, we take it out on the cat, the dog or anyone else available. Or we hold it all inside, quietly dying; day by day our soul shrivelling and drying up.

For others, we do the opposite. Our hurt and betrayal are so complete that we display them for all the world to see. We either reject the notion of God altogether, or we paint Him as a tyrant  or megalomaniac, out to cause us maximum pain, or just plain powerless and useless, like the Wizard of Oz.

There is no easy answer for this space. However, on Saturday I experienced a parallel in the physical as we went mountain climbing.

The route we took up to Sugarloaf Peak in the Cathedral Ranges was the harder one, with many a rock climb. At several points, we had to squeeze through the crevice between two rocks while climbing near vertical rock faces, without ropes or other climbing equipment. The one in the photo was such an example to me of the difficulties and despair we feel in some of our circumstances. As I looked up where we needed to get to, all I could see were huge boulders, sheer rock face and difficulty, with a pin point of light at the end. I presumed we could get up there, because others had been before us. Whether I could do it...well, let's just say I was hoping determination would get me nine tenths of the way. The other tenth I wasn't so sure about and did my best to ignore. 

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Looking up at the way ahead, I could not see at all how I was going to get up there, where the footholds would be, or what position I would need to be in. There was no obvious way up. I just had to guess that when I got to that next bit, I would be able to see, or I would work it out. And at some points, it took me a few tries to get into a position where I could actually lift myself, so I could inch my way forward. There were times that I wasn't sure I could keep going; that I would make it through, but I knew it would be at least as difficult going back, and if we went back, I would miss getting to the summit.

Even when we got through that massive crevice, there were still more almost impossible climbs up vertical walls and another crack between two rocks where we had to lever off both walls again, with few foot and hand holds.

But when we got to the top!

The sense of accomplishment, coupled with the 360 degree view was almost overwhelming. I just wanted to stay there. I could completely relate to the disciples, when they were on that mountain with Jesus and they wanted to set up camp there - although perhaps they were just like me amd secretly concerned whether they had the energy and strength to go back down! 

The point of this story is that we can look at our situations and not see a way ahead. We can feel as though that pinpoint of light (or hope) is too small, or is non-existent. We can wonder if we have the strength or stamina to get through it, to make the journey, or if we even want to.

What kept me going this day? Well, I did have a trusty companion with me, who gave me the occasional hand or leg up as well as verbal encouragement. I was not alone. I also knew that many others had gone before me and had survived, had made it to the top. Some of them I had even heard up ahead, and some, as we came to the last climb, were up the top cheering us on. Knowing that these walks are open to the public, I had faith in our parks management not to allow people to go ways that were too dangerous or impossible.

I think these are valid points for us as we face trials and struggles not of our choosing (or that we'd rather not be facing). We need others with us who can give us a hand sometimes. We need to come out of isolation on our journey and find others to share it. We also need to look to the stories of those who have gone before us, who have had similar experiences, and maybe even learn a little from their experience. And we need to trust that when we get there, we will find the next step, the next position to enable us to keep moving forward, to trust that God will provide a way, even when all we can see ahead are boulders, blockages and darkness. When we find ourselves in that dark and impossible place it helps to stop and remember: 

it may look like Friday, but Sunday will surely come! Just hold on and take the next step forward. And I will stand with you in hope, faith and a little experience that what we get to see at the end is worth it all.

 

 

I want to sleep like a baby...

Driving home up the hill the other night, I caught a whiff. One of those infinitesimal whiffs that leave you wondering if you actually smelled anything or not. But it was enough to take me back in time.

For many, this smell is considered unpleasant, and it must be said that it is pungent. However, for me the faintest smell of cow manure, mixed with hot, sweaty cow, mud and milk, took me back to my earliest years. And the feelings that were stimulated were of peace, comfort and freedom. I was immediately taken to a time when life was simpler, when there were few responsibilities or expectations from others. 

This experience tied in with one of those gentle nudges I have been getting from God in a number of ways. It was the reminder that being part of the Kingdom of God requires us to be childlike.

“...unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
— Matt 18:3 (NIV)

The Amplified version says: "unless you repent [that is, change your inner self—your old way of thinking, live changed lives] and become like children [trusting, humble, and forgiving], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven".

As I have thought about what it means to be childlike over the years, I often return to the idea of freedom from responsibility; the space where I can just stop and not have to do all those things I see others as expecting from me. Its a hard place to find at times when we have "adulted" for so long that we have really forgotten how to lay down all our burdens. We have long since embraced the belief that if we don't do it, no one will, or that it won't be done properly. 

Sometimes, I have to ask myself the question, "So what"? "What will happen if it is not done?" Many things I see as being vital are really not. 

And then there is that four-lettered word that keeps cropping up: REST.

We so long for it, but are generally so bad at it. Maybe that is why we are so wistful, even emotional when we look at a baby sleeping. How much we would like to sleep like that baby, without a care in the world, in complete confidence that Someone else will take care of us, Someone else will always be there. But do we really believe it?

The problem we really have with rest is trust.

To rest, I need to trust that everything will be ok if I am not rushing around sorting it.

When I make myself the answer, when I am what is required, two things happen. One is that I take way more responsibility than I was designed for, which is pretty exhausting in itself. The other is that I deny God. I deny His ability to sort it without me and I deny Him the opportunity to do it for me.

It is tough. I know. I wonder, though, if one of our biggest reasons for taking responsibility for so much is that we have been disappointed so many times in the past, either by other people or by God. And it is not that they have let us down in their promises necessarily, but in our expectations. 

Earlier this year, I went through one of those times where I was feeling a little distance between God and myself. As I asked Him about this, He showed me that I had been building a few expectations of Him around His promises and my timing. When things didn't turn out according to my expectations, I had become disappointed in Him. 

Underlying these feelings and behaviours is the belief that I know best, that I can see clearly and that God should do things my way and in my timing. As soon as it is said, or recognised, we generally realise the folly of this. It is only in living from the place of complete trust in God's goodness and faithfulness that we can rest properly and then we get to sleep like a baby.

 

 

How many apples in your seed?

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This summer, lobelias have miraculously appeared in my garden. Their pretty blue and white faces greeted me by my backdoor over a period of days until I finally recognised the irregularity of their existence there. I hadn't planted any for at least ten years.

Obviously, these plants did not grow out of thin air. The previous plants left their seeds behind. But why did they decided to grow right now? The weeds have not had a problem growing in the intervening years - why didn't the lobelias grow?

Two things stood out with the potential to suddenly spark new life from these old seeds. 

The first was that my husband replaced the retaining wall last year. Soil was shifted around, turned upside down. There was disturbance in the environment of the seeds.

The second was that we have had an unusually wet summer - more water to make it more suitable for these flowers to grow.

As is common for me, I felt God reveal something, to even give me a promise through what I see in my garden. It has a few parts.

The first is that we can feel as though we sow seed and sow seed and rarely, if ever, see much fruit or result from our efforts at times. I felt Him showing me that even when seeds we sow don't immediately produce a harvest, they are not wasted, that they can sit dormant in the 'soil' for many years until the conditions change - maybe someone's world is turned upside down; maybe there is a deluge - and then, suddenly, the seed grows and produces beautiful flowers.

Secondly, we are not the ones who can make the seed grow. The season needs to be right, the timing and situation need to be in the right order. We don't always know what this looks like, nor what will bring it about. 

Finally, I didn't need to do anything to bring about this growth. I may get to sow seed, or even water it, but it is God who makes it grow (1 Cor 3:6).

All of this tied into a sense that has been growing in me over the last months. It started in Spring with a promise of greater fruitfulness; that the season of working hard for little fruit was over. We are starting to see that happen in the ministries I am involved with (and further afield), along with another promise - that it will not seem like work at all, but fun! Do you want to play too?

"This is my prayer in the harvest
When favor and providence flow
I know I'm filled to be emptied again
The seed I've received I will sow"

("Desert Song", Hillsong United)

Take a big breath, we're going deeper

When I was a kid, we had the joy of a backyard swimming pool. After learning to dive, my next favourite activity was seeing how far I could get underwater. However, I quickly realised that if I was too close to the surface I would pop up out of the water, limiting the distance I went. I could get much further by diving deeper, even though it was scary being too deep when you really needed to breathe!

Fast forward to more recent times...

One of my favourite songs of late has been Oceans (Where feet may fail), by Hillsong United. Singing this recently, though, I was confronted by the limitations I had put on what I would like this deeper to look like.

In many ways, my experience and faith have grown deeper. Doors of opportunity have opened and 2016 had many moments of joy and excitement; the blessing of being part of ministry to others where we saw God powerfully changing lives, bringing much healing and freedom. It looks as though this will keep expanding in 2017. (Hence my lack of presence here!)

However, in our personal life at home, there are a number of fronts where it seems that the breakthrough will never come. Some things just don't seem to want to shift. We keep hoping, keep seeing signs, and then...nothing.

As I have been seeking out what I need to be doing in this space and what the way forward is, I have been challenged anew by Father God. 

A friend had written that at the beginning of the year, she likes to seek God for a word that might be significant for the year to come. I thought that this would be an interesting activity, and as I wondered what word might come up for me, the word "Resilience" popped into my mind. 

I knew it was from God, as it was not something I had been thinking. And besides, I really didn't have a particularly happy response to it. After all, resilience has high association with difficulty and struggle, with hardship. I feel like we have been going through this in a few aspects for a number of years, and, quite frankly, something like fruitfulness or acceleration would have been more to my liking - can't we move on from resilience yet?

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As I have reflected further, as usual more has been revealed. Looking up the dictionary and word origin, resilience comes from Latin meaning "to spring back" or "rebound". The picture I have with that is the idea of bouncing on a trampoline - even as you fall back on a trampoline, you can use it to bounce higher, to go further. I sense that this is what God is challenging me with: rather than just holding on, or remaining upright, to use those situations that come up in life to press back into Him, so He can 'bounce' me out further.

Which brings me back to the challenge from "Oceans". Even as I talked with God about those things in our life that are not moving at the speed I would like, He explained to me that my disappointed hope was because I was placing parameters around events that were not His. I was setting time frames and outcomes that I wanted, that didn't quite match up with what He had in mind. Hence my disappointment and weariness. 

So, as I sang those words, "Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, where my faith will be made stronger", I felt a gentle nudge.

"What if going deeper is not all about 'exciting, life-changing stuff', but just about normal, everyday life, even the harder aspects of life? What if that is the deeper I want to take you?"

Gulp. Not the direction I was looking for. 

But I do have a sneaking suspicion, that as with all the paths Father God takes us down, it is one that is important, necessary for my growth and development, and perhaps even survival. Resilience, the ability to bounce forward, in tough situations enables us to continue to move ahead even in the worst scenario. Just like my ability to travel underwater without taking a breath increased with practice, maybe He is calling me to practice greater resilience in life.

In further reading*, I came across two pointers for the way ahead. The first was the idea that if God asks me to do more than I can (or feel I can), when I feel like I am at the end of my strength, He steps in. The example was used of Ezekiel (from Ez 1-2). When Ezekiel was confronted with the glory of the Lord, he found himself face down on the ground. He had no strength to rise. In the midst of this, God told him to stand on his feet. He had no ability to do this, but at the same time, the Spirit came and lifted him to his feet. I am to have confidence in His enabling, His grace me to get through.

The second pointer is closely aligned. The idea is that we are often so focussed on the final outcome we would like that we miss the seed that is being planted and growing. We are so hungry to see the whole result at once (and yes, sometimes that does happen!), that anything less is a disappointment. Instead of being grateful for seeing the beginning of the process of change, we complain or get bitter about what is not.

If I had set my goal in the pool as three laps underwater from the start and given up because I didn't even make one, I would never have gone any further. By celebrating the little signs of growth or change, I gained confidence and was energised to keep doing more.

How much more would we be encouraged if we focussed on the growth and change that is happening, rather than our failures and struggles?  

Staying safe and comfortable won't stretch me to grow, won't increase my ability. Re-framing my understanding of the struggles into growth means I change my attitude to what is going on. Going deeper into Father God can be scary if I am trying to hold on to me and my wants. I have to let go of my desire to breath on my own, if I want to get closer to Him. The goal and pleasure is that the deeper I am found in Him, the safer I am, the stronger I get and the further I can go. Time to take a big breath and dive in!

* Experience the Impossible, by Bill Johnson - I highly recommend it!

 

Relentless Pursuit

"Relentless Pursuit"

These were the words I found coming out of my mouth during a marathon four hour coffee catch up the other week (that didn't feel anywhere near that long!).

The discussion was about aspects of both our lives, and also encompassed someone passing who was encouraged by the snippets she heard of our conversation. As she shared the way God had broken into her life, had pursued her, I was encouraged with the affirmation that what He did for her, what He has done for me, what He has done for my friend, He can and will do for our loved ones and others, whether they seek Him or not.

The theme of Father God's pursuit of us has been recurring for me more recently and it continues to cry out for further reflection. It has been presented to me in song, in sermon and in what I have been reading on a number of fronts. 

However,it can be so easy for us to think our relationship with God is all about us, about our efforts. WE must spend more time praying, more time worshipping, more time reading the Word. WE must pursue God. And despite best efforts and beliefs otherwise, so many messages we hear from pulpits and every other media can reinforce this: If you want to be closer to God, then you need to do this; you should do that; you must do the other. And it's exhausting!

How much more restful would it be if we realised that so many of our problems in our relationship with God are not about what we should do more of, but what we should stop doing?

If we stopped believing that we are unacceptable to God, or unworthy of His love, how would that look?

If we stopped believing that we are responsible for making ourselves more Christlike to be acceptable to God, and recognised that Jesus has come to dwell in us through His Spirit, that His indwelling is the only mark of acceptability we need, what would be different in us?

If we stopped holding onto all the "Christian sanctioned" false humilities of thinking less of ourselves and minimalising our importance, gifts and dreams, where could we go?

If we stopped trying to hide all our imperfections, sin and brokenness from God, and faced Him with them, what new freedoms would we find?

I am so painfully aware of my own tendency to fall back into that pattern of thinking that I must be the relentless one, that I must chase God with all my being to not miss out, to catch up to where He is at, to where I "should" be. Instead, it is time to stop; time to rest; and time to remember that it is He who pursued me from the start and that it is He who continues to pursue me today. 

The Deafening Roar of Silence

I am an extrovert. Take away human contact for too long and I quickly cease to function well. My energy and creativity drop and the most mundane tasks become difficult. 

However, in more recent years I have also come to value time alone; time with peace and quiet. 

Fortunately, I live somewhere I get plenty of that, even though noise and people are never far away. But there are those times when I just love to decrease the sensory input. At those times, even music can be an intrusion.

Of course, not everyone is like this. I know many who rarely enjoy a really quiet environment. There are those who, to my amazement, love to have the tv or radio running in the background from morning to night. The idea of not having noise is isolating at best, for them.

For me, though, heading up to the mountains this week for a day of cross-country skiing was one of those welcome time outs. As we left the resort and headed up the trail, all noise of people, vehicles and generators drifted away behind us. Although there were the occasional other skiers, they quickly disappeared and we were on our own again. Eventually, we became aware that the only sound apart from ourselves was the thump and crash of ice and snow falling off the trees.

At one point, we stopped for a snack and a bit of a rest and just listened to the silence. Complete and utter silence. Not even the sound of birds. You don't realise how noisy life is until you are in a space where there is absolute silence. It was beautiful. I longed to just stay there, and if it weren't for the cold and the need to ski back to the car park, I could have quite easily set up camp and remained indefinitely.

As we stood and quietened even our breathing, listening to the sound of silence, the sound of nothing, I became aware of noise that wasn't noise. The words that came to mind were 'the thunder and roar of God'. I am not sure how to really describe it, whether it was just the awareness of His majesty in the beauty of His creation, or the fact that as all other distractions were stripped away, His sovereignty was somehow obvious - we were in the presence of royalty. It was like the majestic music from a movie, or even the reverberating sound check in the cinema. And yet, physically it was silent. It was one of those moments where I would have liked to build a little memorial, like the piles of rocks the Israelites left at places of encounter with God. Like a sign, "God was here".

We had been discussing the whole creation idea earlier in the day, what it was like for God to create from nothing, to dream up the ideas, the seeds of what it would all look like. My husband shared the thought that creation was an expression of God, it is a reflection of who He is, but more than that, He is within and through it. He permeates creation. He is the life blood that pulsates through it all. Perhaps this was part of the thunder and roar. Hearing His heartbeat in His creation. 

Sometimes we can hate the silence because of what we cannot silence - the voices of despair, of pain, of loneliness, of hunger, of anger or bitterness that scream out at us if we don't have enough other distractions. We can fill up our lives with other stuff so we don't have to deal with that which is too hard. Perhaps we don't even realise we are doing it, until silence comes crashing in on us. And for some, silence is to be feared, because we don't want to face that which dwells within. 

And yet, I want to promise, to give a commitment that what we fear, what we dislike so much can be exactly what we need. Like Elijah hiding in the cave (see 1 Kings 19:11-14), in pain and despair, longing for God to speak, make it all right - first there was mighty, loud wind; then an earthquake, then fire, before the gentleness and stillness of God came upon him. He wanted God to act strongly, to be loud and present and forceful, and yet God came in silence, in stillness, because this is what Elijah actually needed.

So it is with us. While we want to keep running from the 'demons' that chase us down, that haunt us, we stay exhausted; we are never free, never rested. We remain trapped in the lie that these things have power over us; that living in fear is the only safe way to live. It is only as we stop and wait on God, that His stillness, peace and gentleness can start to infiltrate us with His answers, His rest for us, and His freedom. It is in this place that we start to find what really defines us - is it Him or the world, Him or our circumstances? It is only when we cease striving to deafen the silence, we discover the space to find the One who truly defines us.

Is God Good?

Another mass shooting in the US, more bombings in Syria, floods, storms and earthquakes. Seeing the news makes it easy to wonder what God is up to. Where is He? Does He even care?

And lurking under these questions is another question; one that we hardly dare admit: 

Is God really good?

I know some who struggle with the idea of God’s existence and this is one of their biggest issues. If God is good, why does He allow so much bad stuff? Why doesn’t He step in and fix it? We might have our stock answers about free will, or even that He might ask us that question: what are we prepared to do about it? But underneath, if we are really honest, God's goodness is a question many of us struggle with. If all this horrible stuff is going on in my life and my world, can God really be good?

It’s not a new question, though. It actually goes right back into the Garden, right back in our humanity. The serpent responds to Eve with a direct attack on God's goodness - God is withholding something good from you. It is a tension we have been grappling with ever since, every time we feel our lives are not quite how we would like them. "God, you could do better for me. If you were really good, my circumstances would be different." We might not give voice to these thoughts and feelings, but they often dwell somewhere deep inside us.

It is vital we settle the answer to this question in our own heart. It is a foundational aspect of our faith, and if I doubt the answer, I will constantly battle with it and constantly lose that battle. If I do not have a deep conviction of God’s goodness, my circumstances and what I see around me will continually trip me up in my faith. If I doubt God’s goodness at any level, this is where I will put more faith in what I see in the natural than in God. Put another way, when I believe with all my being that God is good, I have a different perspective on what is going on around me.

I recently read a blog about the Israelites having to walk around the walls of Jericho 14 times before the walls did anything, (When the Walls Don't Seem to Move, by Allison Bown). The walls didn’t start to crumble or shake or do even sway in the breeze until the final lap was done. Allison suggests that the battle many of those people were fighting on those seven days of walking was actually in their hearts and minds. Did they really trust God? He had told them what to do, but would He come through? They were investing a great deal into this – time, faith, energy, their reputations! What if it didn’t work? 

I started to see some of my circumstances through the eyes of this marching around the walls. The promise is there, has been given, has been reinforced a number of times, but there are not even any cracks beginning to show. Nothing seems to move. In fact, some of those walls seem to be getting bigger, getting stronger. Do I keep marching, or do I try something different? Maybe I heard wrong? Maybe I should be using a cannon while I walk, or a sledgehammer, or some dynamite, or, or…maybe I just give up and go home because it is all too hard.
And so I come back to this question:

Is God good?

Because if He is, if His word lives up to His promise, then it is a game changer. If I can really trust Him to come through, to cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him, (Rom 8:28), then I don’t need to look at the exterior, to what outward appearances would seem to say. I can have confidence that He will work His good purposes and plans to fruition. I just need to continue to do what He asks me.

In the face of difficulties, in the face of catastrophe, disaster, horrific circumstances, we each have to settle this question for ourselves. 

Is God good? 

If I am not 100% sure, if there is any part of me that struggles to hold on to that belief, then I have some work to do. There is a place that needs healing in me, there is a place I am still allowing fear to reside, a place where I believe what fear says rather than God. I have to break up my partnership with fear. I have to end the deal I have believing everything fear would say to me, and renew my partnership with God. I have to allow Him and His Word to soak into those fear-filled spaces. After all, perfect love casts out all fear. And there, in that place, where His love floods over and through me again, I am able to say with all my strength and conviction:

YES. GOD IS GOOD!

 

Faulty Lenses

Photo: (C) Ruth Embery

As I sat to have some quiet space with God, the first thing that came to my attention was a tall gum tree in the middle distance of my view. As I asked Father God what He wanted to say to me, I felt the question come back: What do you notice about this tree, what do you see?

Unpacking the implications and message contained in what I observed, I felt that God was showing me about myself. I found myself struggling to accept some of the aspects of it. However, a past conversation with God came to mind. It was a time He gently told me that I was not how I thought others saw me, but in truth, I was how He saw me, which was quite different.

Looking at the tree with clear eyes, I can see it how it really is: growing straight, strong and true, very healthy. However, if I was to put on a pair of ‘funny’ lenses, that were distorted in certain ways, the tree could appear bent, wobbly or even upside down. Although it may look like as though this was an accurate representation, it would be false.

The point is. if we view ourselves through the lenses of the world, through the way we receive messages from those around us, we are at risk of having a deformed view of who we are. Those lenses can distort our view of ourselves. Unfortunately, we tend to believe those messages as reality, as the truth.

To see ourselves truly, from God’s perspective we have to be willing to give Him the lenses the world has given us. Then we are ready to see without the distortion. This is not always easy. We can feel as though we are “thinking more of ourselves than we ought”. But this way of thinking also keeps us trapped and small.

I physically enacted out giving God my distorted lenses, and as I did, I saw them break up in His hands, turn to dust and dissolve. I then asked Him to tell me the truth of how He saw me and He gave me a number of words that I can embrace.

This was not something just for me, though. It is an activity open to any who choose. Are you ready to give up your distorted lenses so you can see yourself clearly through the eyes of your loving Father God?

Prodigal Generosity

 "Don't be miserly, give them a proper watering!"

This was what I felt God was saying to me as I eked out a dribble of water on each plant I was trying to salvage recently. 

We were going through a hot dry spell, and although it was officially Autumn, someone forgot to tell Summer; the weather was set to be the longest hot dry spell we had had in months. 

Living on rain water as we do, it meant we were running to the end of our reserves. Although we are better off than millions of others in the world, as we can afford to buy water and can easily get it trucked in, it still grates on me a little. We don't live in a particularly dry area and I would like to be able to just use what we are given.

In all this, the garden was starting to look pretty sad. While I tend to be a pretty tough gardener - you don't survive in my garden if you need too much watering - there were plants I just didn't want to lose, so I had been watering a little more regularly.

I am aware that my minimalist watering can be quite ineffective. In some areas of our garden, the water just runs off the top; the soil is so dry that it takes a lot more water to get the water to soak in. As I reflected on these observations, the gentle nudge came from God, telling me to stop being stingy and water them properly, to stop worrying about the expense of buying water to refresh my garden. It just seemed so wasteful and extravagant to me - the plants are just for pleasure, just to look good. They can't be that important, can they?

And then we had a day that was really hot. It got to 40 degrees (C) on my way home. I stopped at the supermarket, and there were a few promising looking clouds around, but nothing that significant. The weather report had said there was a chance of some rain around the hills in the evening, and I had asked God if we could have some of that please, because my garden really needed it. 

I wasn't in the supermarket long, but when I came out, it was raining quite heavily. It felt so good, even though it was still very hot, and there was that wonderful smell that comes with rain after a hot dry spell, along with the sense of the soul being watered as much as the land. 

As I drove the fifteen minutes to home, up into the hills, the temperature dropped from 40 down to 32, then by the time I got to the end of the suburbs, it was down to 23. The rain was heavy enough to start to run off the road. I was only about 5 kilometres from home. Surely we were getting some of this. My daughter rang to find out when I would be home and told me that it was all blue skies and hot and home. No sign of any rain.

I felt pretty disappointed. We did eventually get a few smatterings, but barely enough to register, let alone revive my garden. What was going on? What was God trying to say to me in this? Why didn't He answer my prayer the way I wanted?

So I had a chat with Him. Why did we miss out? I know it is not the end of the world, it is not that big a deal, but it is easy for Him to give abundantly where He pleases. 

And suddenly it got a little more challenging.

I was reminded of a few things. One was a verse: "Give and it will be given to you...For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:38). Along with this was the oft recited story of the person walking in the desert, nearly dead of thirst, who finally came across an old pump. At the pump was a jug of water and a note. It said that you had to use the water that was there to prime the pump, and then it would produce as much sweet, fresh water as you wanted. There was also a reminder to leave a jug of water for the next person. One moral to this story is that you have to relinquish what you have in your hand sometimes before you can get what you really need, but it is a step of faith.

The third was the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1Kings 17). There was a severe drought, and she had enough food left for her and her son to have their last meal.  Elijah challenged her to share, with a promise that God would provide for her until the rains came again. Very like the pump story: are you prepared to give away what you have on the promise alone of more?

Jesus observed and commended the widow who gave two small coins in the temple, stating that her giving was worth more than those who give from their abundance. While she gave from a position of poverty, not a position of plenty, she gave from a position of faith that her needs would be supplied, even as she gave the little she had.

I have been learning that God's generosity goes way beyond the sensible or rational, way beyond what I think I deserve or is enough. He gives and keeps on giving, even when we don't show gratitude or appreciation, even when we squander what is given. When we look at the example of the father toward the son who wasted his inheritance in the story of the Prodigal Son, we see a picture of Father God who pours out His abundance regardless of our response.

He is prodigal in His generosity.

If I am to reflect Him, His glory and goodness, I need to be generous in the same way.

The question is, when I don't feel like I have much, do I hold back, waiting until I have plenty before I give generously (whether that be money, food, goods, or time!), or do I give in trust that God is generous, that He will continue to give me more as I need? Do I trust in what I have already been provided with, or do I trust in the further provision, in the Provider? Am I holding on so tightly to what I have that don't have spare hands to receive the next installment?

Am I as generous with my little as I am with my abundance?

What's Your Next Season?

There are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.

So goes the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Not wanting to upstage him at all, though, I would like to add a third certainty: Change. Change is just as inevitable. The way we respond to change, however, is as unique as each of us.

My husband and I are going through one of those changes in life right now. As we move toward becoming "empty-nesters", the next generation of our family is arriving. Our niece had her first baby last October (so now I have graduated from being an ordinary, run-of-the-mill aunt to being a great-aunt!), and we became grandparents in January, with a second grandchild on the way in August. It is a new season in our lives, and one we are happy to see.

But what happens when we approach changes we are not so sure about? What happens when we are comfortable where we are, and we don't want things to change? How do we deal with changes we just don't want?

 

Sitting out on our deck recently, I noticed that a few leaves on the trees were starting to exchange their vibrant summer green for their autumn glory. It got me thinking: how do the leaves know it is getting time to change? The weather didn't seem any cooler or wetter. And what makes some leaves change earlier and others wait?

As I reflected on this, I realised that it was a good picture of how we humans can respond to the changing seasons of life.

Some people are ahead of the game. They can see change is coming, and they get ready straight away, embracing it with gusto. While others are still settling in after the previous shift, they are already looking ahead, already preparing for and getting excited about what is coming.

For others, they wait a little longer, wait until they are sure the change is coming. Like the leaves realising the temperature is dropping, the days are significantly shorter, we can wait until the previous season is definitely over before we are ready for the next. Sometimes we see the trend, also. We see the increasing numbers of others ready for change, and we join them, moving with them, not wanting to be left behind.

Then there are those who just want things to stay the way they are. We can be like those leaves that just hang on and hang on, all through winter, stubbornly refusing to let go of the tree even though they are well and truly past their prime, brown and dried up, but refusing to drop. We can be just as stubborn, holding on to the past when that season has well and truly finished and we should be well in to the next.

Jesus talked a bit about recognising seasons in some of His final messages, (see Luke 21, for example). In the middle of describing some of the signs of the times, He reminds us not to be afraid, (v.9), but to be alert, ready for what is next (v.34-6). The bridal party in Matthew 25 is another great example of our need to be prepared for what is imminent, to be looking ahead.

Dealing with change has been a real struggle for me at times. Either living in denial of my need to change, or having unrealistic beliefs about my ability to change things back to how they were kept me stuck at a number of points in my life, even contributing to depression at one point.

Over the journey of transformation that God has led me on, I have realised that burying my head or running away is counter productive. I have learnt that it is much less painful and far quicker to embrace change, to push past the struggle; to meet the difficulty head on in those times where change is not my choice. I have learnt that although change can be uncomfortable, if I allow myself to move and even be changed with it, the benefits generally far outweigh any discomfort.

Although we can get very comfortable in the season we are in, and wish we could stay there forever, just like the leaf on the branch, refusing to fall, we end up out of place and alone. The weather has changed around us, and we find it is no longer as comfortable as it once was. One way or another, we will get shifted on by what it coming next. It is up to us whether we jump or get pushed. 

What changes are on the horizon for you? Are you  ready to allow your true colours to come through as you launch off your branch into the next season?

Be careful what you wish for...

If you could be transported back in time to be with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing what He was about to go through, and you could pray with Him, what do you think you might pray?

Would you pray for His release, for His escape, for His safety or for His life to be spared? 

During our Good Friday service, two very different prayers got me thinking.

In praying for our world, we also prayed for a cessation of the violent acts, for God to intervene and prevent those thinking of further terrorism from implementing what was planned. 

As we reflected on Jesus' last hours, and His prayer in the Garden, I thought about the fact that we so often pray for what we would like to see, rather than God's purpose and will coming to fruition. If the disciples had had any real inkling of what Jesus was about to undergo, I wonder whether they would have been praying that God would prevent it, that God would change the outcome. What would have happened if they had? Would Jesus have died? Would the Christian faith as we know it exist today?

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He included the words

"Your will be done".

It is so difficult for us to see what this might look like, because we would like it to look like a 'good' outcome for us here, right now. We would like to see our will be done. And this generally means, my comfort, the comfort of my loved ones, a lack of difficulty for any of us immediately. Our prayers often boil down to "Please God, make everything nice again, for me and mine, and please do it now!" 

The problem is, if God answers those prayers, are we actually missing out on greater blessings? Are we actually missing out on what God wanted to show us, to teach us, to grow in us by taking the 'easy way'? 

Most of us know about the dangerous prayer of asking for patience: you generally get even more opportunities to practice! How many more circumstances and situations does God place before us to move us into better, more helpful, more Christlike behaviours and opportunities to demonstrate His love? And how often do we ask to be excused from those opportunities?

The problem is, we rarely know, much less understand the long term ramifications of so much we long for. Even though we might ask to be relieved from having  to go through difficulties, how do we know that our present trials are not preparing us to cope with other future challenges, not to mention the impact our experience has on other circumstances around us? The threads are all interwoven, and each impacts the other.

Personally, I have been learning a deeper way to pray for sometime now. Much of it involves the difficult task of listening, the difficult task of laying down my will, my desire, my wants, my comfort, and waiting on God to hear what He wants to do in me and through me. It is not easy. It takes time, and it takes honesty and transparency with God.

Often I find it is more helpful to be honest about my feelings and what I want before I start to seek His way. I have to get that out of the way, otherwise self keeps popping its head up again, distracting me, causing me to respond out of my emotions again. When I pull out my stuff, my emotional response first and look at it with God, through His eyes, it becomes easier to lay it down and release it to Him. Then I am (more) ready to go His way, to see His way.

Jesus' prayer in the Garden was like this: "God, I really don't want to go through this, I am really struggling", and maybe even "I'm so scared", but never-the-less, "not My will, but Your's be done".

Underlying all our struggles with prayer is a question of trust. Do we pray because we think God needs some help working out the best way forward for us and His world, or do we pray because we want to partner with Him in what He is already doing really well without our help?

On the road again...(or Lessons from the road Part 2)

"Whatever you do, don't run into the screen door!"

These were my father's famous last words as he released me to ride alone. He was teaching me to ride a bike in our yard, and as I wobbled and peddled and hoped I wouldn't fall off, I rode straight into the screen door of the french window. 

This story has had a great workout in my family over the years, usually at my expense. I was about six or seven and my dad was helping me get my balance riding around in our garden. Knowing what I know now, there are a few things I would probably have done differently if I were my dad, one of them being the words he used. 

Through driving lessons and more recently, motorbike riding lessons,  I have repeatedly been told that we tend to go in the direction we look. That's how you get out of a skid - look where you want to go, and your brain will respond accordingly. So if someone mentions something like a screen door, you are likely to look at it, and hence, head straight for it!

However, when it comes to riding on a motorbike, I am struggling to put this into practice. Even though I have been riding pillion on the motorbike for some years now, cornering is still something of an issue. (Confession: I get scared.) As we lean into the corner, I often do battle with the fear that the bike is either going to tip or slide out, especially if there is any gravel about or it is a particularly tight curve. It is not a healthy or helpful way to ride!

In dealing with this problem as a rider now, I have been given similar tips by numerous people - obviously I am not alone in my fear! One of the main pointers is to look ahead to where you want to go. Don't look at the curve or look directly at the road you are on, but look up, look ahead. The other is to breathe out as you go around the corner, which perhaps helps you to relax.

Aside from the more irrational fears, there are many other aspects of the road that are far more dangerous for riders than those inside vehicles. Simple oily patches, gravel or potholes on the road can mean serious injury or even potential death if not dealt with appropriately. Riding in fear of all these, though, can be just as dangerous. 

Contrary to what seems natural, however, looking up, looking ahead at the direction we are going, we will find that we naturally avoid most hazards. Our brain is quite good at directing us if we don't over-think it. I am reminded of a time I was walking on a beach  covered in pebbles. I suddenly realised that without even thinking about it, or watching where I was walking (barefooted), I was choosing a path on the sand automatically avoiding stepping on the pebbles. Our brains are quite amazing at keeping us out of danger if we allow them to do their thing!

 

These principles can be applied far more widely than simply riding a bike, though. We can easily spend many aspects of our lives in fear. If we choose to focus on all the bad things that could happen, there is a never ending list. Just like when riding, if we focus on that pothole, that gravel on the side of the road, that screen door, we will, in all likelihood, end up in it.

We will head where we focus our attention.

 Just as true is the fact that what we think about, what we dwell on, will become the way we think. A favourite quote from a friend, is "don't think about pink elephants". What's the first thing that comes to mind?

We have to purposefully change our thinking. Paul puts it brilliantly in Philippians 4:5-8 "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation...present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things...And the God of peace will be with you."

If we want to change our thinking, we have to practice thinking differently!

 And of course, we can tie ourselves in knots trying to change, as well, beating ourselves up with thoughts like "I have to stop thinking like this", which leads to the other helpful tip.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

Just breathe and relax. After all, most things are not as bad as we tend to think, and even if they are, all our stress and worry is not going to improve anything.

If we are walking in faith, we can stop everything and focus on simply breathing, on purely be-ing. Relaxing is the place of rest that is promised by God so regularly. When we live from this place of resting in Him, which is really about trusting Him, He becomes our focal point. Then we will find ourselves naturally changing direction, automatically avoiding those obstacles which endeavour to trip or waylay us. Over time, chances are we won't even notice them anymore!

On the road...(Or Lessons from the road - Part 1)

I went on a trip back in time a few weeks ago.

Heading off to pick up the motorbike my husband had bought me was like going down memory lane as we travelled some 350km out west, to the other side of the rural city I spent most of my childhood in.  I have rarely been there in the ensuing thirty-something years since we moved away, but on the occasions I have, the memories come flooding back at every landmark, town and hamlet.

We decided to make a bit of a road trip out of the journey, leaving early so we could take it easy. It was nice not to have to rush, not to have to be anywhere by a certain time. Our day was largely unplanned, stopping morning tea when we felt like it in a lovely old rural town, complete with the Saturday market. By lunchtime we had made it to my home town. As we sat outside the main street bakery in the summer sun, eating our pies, I felt waves of nostalgia for days gone by.

Reflecting on my feelings, I realised that we had left there at a point where I was gaining greater independence and freedom, which I didn't have to the same level in the place we moved. There was a part of me that still felt I had missed something because of the move. However, there was also the problem that although many things were just the same as I remembered, so much was different.

My heart was yearning to go back to that simpler place in that simpler time, but it is no longer there and neither am I.

 

The desire to go back in time has been a temptation for me at a number of significant points in my life, particularly in the pain of divorce. Thinking about what life might have been like if things had been different, if I had made a different decision, if I had been more emotionally healthy, the "if only..." scenarios can seem like an escape from dealing with the difficulties of the current situation. I have realised, though, that these thoughts don't actually help at all. They keep me stuck and can simply lead to bitterness and disappointment colouring all that comes after.

I can't live there.

The past is gone and it is unalterable, just as the person I was back then no longer exists. And besides, I still have more past to create, I still have a road to travel. If I try to do that looking backwards, I will either come to a grinding halt or I will crash. Consider Lot's wife. Looking back inappropriately brought her to a permanent standstill!

However,  looking back at the past with nostalgia is not our only problem.

Looking back on the journey of our lives in any capacity can be a dangerous occupation.

Reflecting on the past with the rose-coloured glasses of time can be wishing for something that really never existed. We forget the less than perfect bits. When we reflect and feel, "I wish it was like the 'old days", or "life was better back then", we can also diminish our enjoyment of the present.

On the other hand, we can dismiss the past in its entirety, deciding that because there were bad bits, none of it has any value. Doing this, we lose a significant part of who we are and can become a little rootless. It makes it easier to disconnect from any part of life we find unpleasant, leaving a shallowness in our relationships.

Recollections are important at some level, though. God was pretty adamant about it with the Israelites, urging them to remember all the lessons, good and bad, from their past with Him. It helped them remember who He was (and is) for them through tough times, and was to keep them from straying back into past errors. 

Celebrating and being grateful for the good times, for the positive experiences and input, and learning from mistakes - our own as well as those of others - is an important part of the fullness of life. It can keep us grounded.

Embrace the past. Make peace, however you can, whatever it takes, with those aspects you'd rather forget. They are part of what makes you who you are - make them count for something good! Give thanks for every opportunity for growing and learning, whatever form they came in. I promise you, it will change your perspective on the worst experiences. Share the joy and sadness with others.

But remember to come back to living the present you have been given, looking forward to future joys and challenges, so when they are done with they too can become part of the ever-changing scenery of a life well traveled.

Just a Flat Tyre?

When I got my driver's licence and bought my first car, my father was adamant that I needed to be able to change a tyre. His only daughter wasn't going to be 'one of those' helpless females! Besides, we lived in a rural area, and being before the advent of the mobile phone, he didn't want me stranded for lack of knowledge. Lack of strength was a whole other kettle of fish, but I could usually get those pesky wheel nuts undone by standing/bouncing on the wheel brace. These days I drive a 4x4, so I don't even think about changing the tyre - I can't even lift the spare out!

 All that said, in nearly thirty years of driving, it has been a reasonably rare occurrence.

Until recently.

 In the last three months, I have had three punctures. Apart from the exceptional frequency, it was unusual because I had never heard of, let alone experienced the cause of these flats before. Two of them were caused by sticks! I was really surprised the first time, almost to the point of disbelief, although our local tyre repair assured me it was quite common (which it proved to be for us!). The other was caused by a quite small, seemingly normal piece of stone with a particularly pointy end. Not your usual suspects given their prevalence.

Driving home from the repair shop after the third one, I was wondering about this sudden pattern, and was reminded of one of my husband’s favourite sayings:

“It’s just a flat tyre.”

It’s his way of putting things into perspective. As much as a flat tyre is an irritation, annoyance or inconvenience, it is rarely a major problem, unless you haven’t bothered to make sure the last one is fixed and you’re already running on your spare!

However, even as I remembered this, the words, “yes, but three in three months is a little bit much!” came into my mind. As I thought of the other things going on in our life at the moment, many of which we try to keep in the perspective of simply being a “speed bump” or “flat tyre”, the frequency and continuing nature of these is starting to get wearing. Just when we have felt we are coming out of one incident, another comes out of the blue to take its place.

It is tiring (no pun intended!), to say the least. And with that tiredness, hopelessness and despair also come creeping.

It leads me to the question of what my faith looks like when the waiting for promises to be fulfilled seems to take too long, when the circumstances continue to look like no, or even “wrong way, go back”. How do I hold on to my faith, how do I keep hoping, flat tyre after flat tyre after flat tyre?

But by very definition, isn’t that what faith and hope are all about? As Paul says, “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Rom 8:24) Underlying this question of faith, perhaps the real question is whether God is faithful. Can I really place my hope and trust in Him?

Naturally, we all know the ‘correct’ answer.

Of course God is faithful and trustworthy!

But that is before we were waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

And the problem with waiting is that we usually don’t really know how long is enough. Like the proverbial piece of string – how long is it? Until we get to the end, we won’t know. Like my call to the insurance company today, forty-five minutes waiting in the queue, then another thirty on hold. You start out hoping it will be shorter than they say, and you keep waiting because hopefully it will be in the next minute, or the next, or the next. And if I get off now, I will have to start all over again. So you wait, hoping the phone won’t go flat, too.

We are right in our first answer to the question, though. God is faithful. He has proven Himself time and again, in history, in the lives of our friends and families, in our own lives. But this is new. This we don’t know. This time (again), we are not sure if we can wait that long, that our battery won’t go flat in the waiting, or that we actually have a spare tyre.

Which reminds me of the story Jesus told about the bridesmaids, where half of them had extra oil in case they had to wait longer than expected. The other half ran out, and while they were off getting some more, they missed the bridegroom’s arrival.

There have been various interpretations of what the oil represents, from the Holy Spirit to simply about always being ready. For me, the idea of the “oil of joy for mourning” springs to mind, which could be linked to the joy of the Spirit as well.

Joy seems to be a good antidote in the place of waiting. It is the antithesis to hopelessness and despair. While it is not something we can always elicit in ourselves, especially in those places we are struggling, it is one of the fruits of living in the Spirit. However, joy cannot coexist with hopelessness and despair. We have to make a choice which of these we would like to carry in our places of waiting, in our places of flat tyres.

As for me, I choose to lay down (evict, reject, cast off) hopelessness and despair, and to pick up joy!

Come Holy Spirit, fill me afresh!

New Year's "Realsolutions"?

Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year?

If so, how are they doing?

Personally, I gave up New Year’s resolutions years ago. I have never had much success and really do believe that if I want to make a change, one day is as good as another. Besides, New Year’s resolutions are notorious for being broken anyway, mostly within days of the first of January.

The question is, though, why do we fail so dismally in our resolve to change?

Is it because most New Year’s resolutions are made under the influence of a little too much New Year’s Eve spirit? Or is it because we are only half-hearted? Even when we are determined that “this year is going to be different”, our best intentions seemed to be so easily sabotaged.

Perhaps our problem is not so much the things we want to change.

Perhaps it is more about what we don’t want to change.

Take weight loss for example. I do want to lose a couple of kilograms, but I don’t want to cut out chocolate and I don’t really want to exercise. There is a part of me that believes that I can induce the result I want without changing anything else too much.

Jesus told a story about mending old clothes. He said that you wouldn’t tear a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. It makes sense. However, I think this is often what we do when we want to change. We look at what we want to be different and try to stick the new bit on top of all the old, hoping it will patch up our 'deficiencies'.

It is the same with most changes we would like to make. It might be in our relationships; it might be in our workplace, or our church. We want a different outcome, but we don’t want to change the way we do things. We are generally comfortable with where they are at.

Our spiritual wellbeing is just another area we tend to treat the same way. I have had so many conversations about the desire to be closer to God, and yet, time with God seems to be the first thing to get squeezed out of our busy schedules. We want things to be different, but are we prepared to let go of something else to make the change?

Much of it comes back to reassessing our priorities. What we think are our priorities (those things we give 'intellectual assent' to – “yes, this is highly important to me”) don’t always end up taking priority. We allow other things to push in; to take precedence.

 

A major source of confusion for most of us centres around determining what is urgent and what is important. Many of the things that are in our face and urgent, pushing us to do them NOW, are often (mostly?) actually not important at all. How many times do we stop in the middle of something we are doing to answer the telephone? The ringing gives us the sense of urgency, but how many times is it not even about anything of interest, let alone importance? There are so many things in our lives that are really not that important, but we let them take precedence because of the irritation factor of the “squeaky wheel”.

If we are serious about discerning what is really important to us, we have to be really real about what we spend our time doing. Taking the challenge of writing down (literally) everything we do in a week, and how much time we spend doing it may be very confronting. We may not like to acknowledge how much time we spend doing stuff that we say isn’t a priority or important to us. Of course, asking why we do it may also reveal some other “stuff” we don’t want to admit to, but it might also free up time to do those things we really want to.

And maybe that’s as good a starting place as any for a New Year.

“No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.’” (Jesus, from Luke 5:36-9)

 

Forget About the Burning Bush - How About a Lime Tree?

If I told you that God spoke to me through my lime tree, you would probably think I am a little crazy. But He did...and maybe I am!

Late last Autumn, we transplanted our citrus trees. They had been in a garden bed, but were really too big for it. A short time later, though, we had some unseasonably warm, dry weather with a strong north wind (hot here in the southern hemisphere). The poor lime tree took a battering, almost blown out of the ground. The leaves took on a permanent curl southward and over the months of winter, cold and damp as they were, the leaves began to drop off. 

Now, call me strange and weird ('cos, I reckon it is,too!), but I prayed for my lime. I didn't want to lose it. 

Besides, it had worked before. Previously, my kaffir lime had been in a pot. One summer when we'd been away for a couple of weeks, the one at home to take care of things failed to water it.

When I got home, it had all the appearances of being dead. Dry, brown leaves were curled on the stems or lay on the ground around. I prayed for that tree as well: I watered it, spoke life into it and waited, and did it all again, with a lot of the waiting...And...it came good!  (You might think that it was the watering that helped, and you might be right, but I also believe that God is the Life Force, so I give Him credit anyway.)

So, with that success in mind, I prayed for my Tahitian lime. And watered it. And spoke life into it. And waited. And waited the whole of winter, and then through spring. And it got worse. The leaves started to drop off. There were one or two leaves still green and looking ok, which gave me hope, but not much else...

...Until one day in spring, when nearly all the leaves had fallen off, I went to examine my tree again and I saw some bumps that looked like they could be new growth. But still I wasn't sure. So I waited some more. Then there were some pretty definite looking buds. Over some more time, they became definite beginnings of flowers. Still I wasn't sure, because some things flower just before they die - well I think I read that somewhere anyway.

However, over time, more bumps appeared and this time they turned into teensy tiny leaves, first in the places that had kept one or two leaves, and then gradually all over. Now it is starting to look really promising. It is literally covered with new leaves and many flowers popping out. If it continues this way, we should have a bumper crop of limes this year.

So what does this have to do with God speaking to me from my lime tree?

Well, this morning as I was enjoying the sunshine, I looked at the lime again, feeling the hope of all that burgeoning new life rub off onto the rest of my life. As I did, I felt God talking to me. Not in an audible voice, no. But straight into my heart. In that way that something shifts, something tangible seems to happen.

I felt Him encouraging me that sometimes when we pray, things don't immediately get better. Sometimes when we pray, we feel like things are only getting worse.

The situation looks as dead as my lime did.

This has definitely been my experience over a number of issues this year.

However, I felt that the lime tree was a promise to me, like a precursor. I felt God was saying that even in those places that look dead, or look like they just won’t improve (or may be can't get worse!), He is going to bring new life; that just when we think it is over, time to give up, He is going to suddenly show up and bring life where only death seemed to abound.

Like with Lazarus when all hope was gone: “he's been in the grave four days”; “he'll stink”! “Yep, but this is to show the glory of God”, says Jesus.

The words "unless a seed falls into the ground…" keep resonating in my mind. And how does that end? Well, the seed dies, but something new arises with maybe tenfold, maybe one hundredfold fruit returned.

Anyone for limes?

(And thanks to my lovely daughter for the great photo she took for me!)

"I'm all out of love"

There are times in some relationships and circumstances we can feel so drained it seems we have no more love to give.

I have experienced this a number of times. More recently, though, instead of wanting to give up, I have reflected on my own need of an upgrade in my relationship with God.

Returning to the metaphor of the River of Life, I am reminded that water is freshest if it is flowing. What we receive from God is not meant to be bottled up inside us, but passed on as a blessing to others. If we try to hold it to ourselves, if we dam up the flow, we cease to experience its freshness. It becomes stagnant and stale.

The best way for us to continue to have a fresh touch from God is to continue to pass the blessings on to others. However, we also must remain connected to the Source. This leads to a question:

If we remain connected in our relationship with God, the Source of all love, can we really get to a place where we have run dry?

Further insight into the importance of love came as I helped my mother clean out her old house this past week.  As a rental, there were quite strict instructions on how the property was to be left to retrieve the bond. One of the instructions she particularly struggled with was that each blade of the Venetian blinds was to be cleaned individually. She felt it was overkill. To be blatantly honest though, it was necessary. The even bigger challenge in this was that there were eight floor to ceiling windows of micro-Venetians. Somehow, this job ended up with my name on it!

About two and a half windows in, I was really battling with the task. The weather was not helping at some thirty degrees (C) outside. There was a point where I could feel myself ready to snap, not just figuratively, but the actual blinds! I contemplated going and buying some new ones for a micro-second. And then I mentally "girded up my loins" and decided that I was not going to be beaten by some blinds; I was not going to give in to my weakness. I could finish the job! It was just a matter of discipline and pacing myself. 

Deciding to connect with God in this space, I asked Him how I could use the time positively. I then saw that in performing this task I had the opportunity to bless the new occupants of the house, both in a physical sense as well as spiritually. The energy I was exerting could invest a blessing toward them. 

I also realised that this task was also about character. I saw that my own character had developed. In the past I would have given up, or at least have complained and gotten angry or annoyed with either my mother or the property manager. 

And somewhere in the middle of all this, the connection with the giving of love appeared. The dots joined and I saw a bigger picture:

Love must be the foundation of all we do. 

Not that this is a new thought, but because we can often get into a functional mode with the things we do. We do them because we must; because it is our role; because we are paid to; because we want to use our gifts. In the middle of all this, a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13 came to mind: "If I [write with eloquence and words of great persuasion], but [write] without love, I am but a clanging gong". You can put your own slant on it.

The important point is that when our actions are founded on love, when we connect with God's heart of love for others in our relationships with them, then we also connect with His power. We land at "Love never fails". Unpacking what that looks like we could say that love never fails meet its objective: to touch; to heal; to empower; to turn up...if we are willing to allow it.   

Some relationships are really tough, though. Some people seem they will never change - they cannot see the need, or just seem to lack the will or capacity. Others don't seem to appreciate what is being given and the personal cost. In these scenarios, it can be very tempting to say, "Enough! I have given enough of my time and energy here, and I have nothing left to give!"

While I will not deny that it is important to set boundaries and give ourselves space in these scenarios, we also need to recognise that

the Source of our love has endless supply.

There is never a drought; provision is never limited. If we find ourselves running out, it is most likely because we have not taken time to be replenished.

There are two aspects to note here . One is about self-care, something those in roles caring for others, or having strong empathy often struggle with. Other people's needs always seem more important. The second is related. 

If we have not learnt to set those boundaries, to put structures around us to ensure our own needs for rest and replenishment are met, we will burn out, we will run out of love, and it is only a very short time before running on empty means we shut down.

When we feel we are all out of love, there are two check points. The first is to make sure of our motivations: do I do this because it fulfils a need in me, or do I genuinely care for the other person? The second check is to ensure our own connection with the Source is secure and flowing well.