As a christian writer, the temptation when disaster hits, is to get to the illustration.
I want to be able to write not only “hard and clear about what hurts” as Hemingway so powerfully suggests, but I also want to write about the redemption of that hurt. I want to be able to write the beginning, the middle and the end – making sure that the end has a message, that it shows that the pain endured had some meaning. Ideally, I’d like to be summed up neatly with three points (with a bonus for including alliteration!)
However, as the coronavirus has raged through the world, leaving lives and livelihoods destroyed, we cannot rush the redemption.
There are wounds to be tended, losses to grieve and rubble to be sorted through before we get to that point.
Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent is living with loss in these strange days. But our grief is not just for ourselves: but for those losing loved ones without the chance for goodbyes, those enduring illnesses alone, those shielded but separated from the world.
We are writing from the middle of the story; we don’t know when it will end or what that ending will look like – all we have is the hope that “this too shall pass”.
And in this hinterland, we are living in a Holy Saturday, not knowing when Easter will dawn, but living with the realities of darkness.
The challenge for today, is described beautifully by Beth Allen Slevecove in her book Broken Hallelujahs.
“How can I honour the reality of brokenness without losing the memory and hope of wholeness?”
Honouring brokenness is important, but done without holding the memory of God’s redemption and the hope of seeing wholeness leaves us languishing in grief without a way forward.
It is when we honour our brokenness alongside holding our hope in Jesus, that we are able to enter into lament.
And this is the time.
This is the time for grieving
For raging against the dying of the light
This is the time for tears
Which cleanse our souls and bring release
This is the time for anger
At the injustice pulled into sharp focus
This is the time for honesty
An end to false smiles and ‘I’m fine’
This is the time for reorientation
For hearts fixed high
And knees bent low
This is the time for lamenting
For the thousand little losses
And the hearts broken open
This is the time
Not to rush redemption
We all may consider that we know what it is to sacrifice something of worth. Those of us with children and vulnerable family members make sacrifices each day, including sacrificing sleep and giving up time to ourselves to meet their care needs. During Lent we may decide to sacrifice our love of chocolate or crisps, or commit ourselves to a new activity that we feel will improve our minds. Young people in education sacrifice their usual social activities to study hard for the exams that will lead them into adult life and the career of which they dream. Many people sacrifice significant portions of their own earnings to support charities or members of their wider family living far away or in impoverished circumstances.
But perhaps we are not as used to sacrifice as we like to think. The concept of sacrifice in today’s world of instant gratification, with many of us fortunate enough to have easy access to basic needs such as food and drink, as well as material possessions, gym memberships and regular holidays abroad, is not something we truly think about on a daily basis.
In these troubling and uncertain times we are being asked to sacrifice in a way most of us have never had to contemplate. Forgoing the pleasures of eating out and spending time with friends. Isolating ourselves from others to protect them and ourselves from potential infection. And hardest of all, keeping away from beloved family members and friends who are most vulnerable to the silent enemy we are facing in Covid-19.
As Christians we are familiar with the greatest sacrifice of all – Jesus taking our sins on His holy shoulders to death, then rising again to give us the opportunity of a life free from the burden of our own failings and the promise of eternal life with Him.
There are many other examples of sacrifice in the Bible; one of my favourites is the story of Ruth. This wonderful young woman had sacrificed much in her young life. She married into Naomi’s family sacrificing the life she lived with her own. She moved to another country with Naomi after her father-in-law died, only to lose her own husband in that strange new land. And when Naomi decided to return to her home country and offered to release Ruth from any obligation to go with her, Ruth sacrificed that opportunity and chose to remain with her mother-in-law. She travelled with her back to a land where she may not have been welcomed, to a life of uncertainty and little prospect of another marriage to secure her future, because she loved Naomi. And because she loved Naomi’s God.
Can we be more like Ruth in these unprecedented times? Not just by adhering to the government recommendations that are limiting our usual activities, but by going that little bit farther. Maybe we could we give away some of our hoard of toilet rolls and hand soap and pasta to those in greater need than us? Or perhaps we could drop a note in to a neighbour and offer to get some shopping for them? Or simply spend some time chatting on the phone to someone who is self-isolating?
Who knows what lessons we will learn from this unwanted experience?
Whatever we do, and however we are affected, we can only be enriched from remaining in contact with each other by whatever alternative means we can, being creative in protecting our mental and physical health and most especially, by keeping hold of the one who sacrificed His all for us – and who will continue to journey with us through this strange new land we find ourselves in.
Karen works in HR, currently with the NHS and has been involved in variety of roles within church. She also happens to be Rachael’s Mum!
Usually these days I find myself reading books in fits and starts, frequently having to re-read the pages as I’m snatching moments when my own baby (well – racing toddler is more apt) is asleep.
As it happens however, I read this in just over a day as I was stuck in bed unwell and unable to do much else but read.
Anne eloquently echoed many of my own feelings about motherhood, especially the tensions between calling and working out what that looks like as a stay at home mum.
I found the stories of other mums really helped to shape the book – proving once again that there is no “right” way to do things – that motherhood looks as different as we all do! The only criticism I would possibly level is that there was little recognition, or inclusion of a story from a Mum who’s doing it alone, whether through family breakdown, being widowed or solo adoption – but perhaps that’s another book.
The interweaving of Anne’s own experience with her biblical reflections produced some really valuable wisdom. I loved her thoughts on 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 which reads:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
“Baby Change does not equal persecution, but it can make you feel perplexed, out of your depth, weak, crushed and alone…Our feelings do not limit [God’s] power.”
This served as a potent reminder for all of us, whether parents or not that God reigns, that as tough as things are (and they are feeling pretty tough this year, aren’t they?) God is stronger than anything and everything we face (although we should continue to do our part).
I’d really recommend this book for Mums in their first few years of parenting – I’ve got a 15 month old and found it a valuable read.
There are many ‘at least(s)’ flying around.
‘At least you don’t live alone’
‘At least you don’t have a pre-existing condition’
‘At least you still get paid’
Of course, all these may be true. Some of us are more privileged than others, that can be recognised without minimising struggle.
Because whether you’re self-isolating, social distancing, have a pre-existing condition, are trying to navigate wedding planning or wondering how to get a refund for the trip you’ve saved for that you don’t get to go on – it’s okay to feel disappointed, to feel sad over what might have been.
Gratitude can’t be forced onto someone – it’s an attitude of the heart orientated to the giver and sustainer of life.
Perhaps when we allow ourselves to feel the disappointment, we can move to a place of gratitude.
This too shall pass, and as the snowdrops break through the seemingly barren winter ground, let us allow God to work in us through this season, trusting that life, hope, hope and creativity will emerge.
In the uncertainty and fear,
The panic and the path ahead unclear.
Breathe in for seven,
Breathe out for eleven.
It’s okay to be unsure and frightened.
Philippians 4.6 used to be my least favourite verse, it felt patronising, heaped shame upon pain.
But then I learned that anxiety isn’t a sin, it’s a way to keep us safe. This verse isn’t telling our bodies not the respond to danger, but telling our minds to rest in the midst of the panic. The JB Philips translation puts it like this:
“Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.”
It’s not a call to shame, but a reminder that all our fear and pain can be brought to Christ. Christ whose sweat was tinged with blood (an anxiety reaction), Christ who endured the worst so we may have hope. Our situations may not change – but let us breathe in the peace of God, the assurance of His mercy and care.
God’s peace is not incompatible with common sense – it’s at the heart of it.
Trust in the Lord and follow public health advice.
Take necessary precautions for yourself, the vulnerable and those you love.
Allow the unfailing peace of God to hold you and your fear. Let your worries turn to prayers and know that they are heard.
It’s one of those phrases that I’ve heard countless times – usually around this time of year – “rend your heart”.
But what does that really mean to rend your heart?
The word rend literally means to “tear something into pieces”, to “separate into parts with violence”. This is not gently pulling away from something – it’s not me peeling myself away from my sleeping son to rest him in his cot – it’s pushing something as far away from myself as possible, making sure every connection is broken.
Joel 2 is a call for God’s people to return to Him in repentance – not to just make a show of repentance for the eyes of the world by tearing their clothes – but to realise the gravity of their sin in a way which breaks their hearts wide open – allowing God to fill the broken places.
Returning to God is not about coming to Him cowed by shame – it’s returning to the God who is grace, compassion and love.
As we are marked with the ashes today, we are reminded of our sin. The reality of our broken world, our broken relationships, our broken hearts.
We are also reminded to look forward however, to what God does with broken things and broken people.
This is not a season to be rushed – we must wait awhile in the dust, recognising the pain we cause, the pain we are in – but it’s never a hopeless pain.
Lent is a season of lament – and hope is found, as ever – not in the things we can do to fix ourselves or the world around us – but in our God who fills our broken places with Himself.
The rending can be painful, but the glory comes in what God does in those broken places. The Japanese call is kintsugi – where broken spaces are filled with gold and made all the more beautiful in those broken places.
For now, though, we wait for the filling and sit among the broken pieces waiting for God to show His glory.
I love this blessing from Jan Richardson from her book “Circle of Grace”*, take a moment today to pray and reflect.
Rend Your Heart
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering,
for trusting the breaking,
for tracing the rupture
that will return you
to the One who waits,
who works within
to make your heart
Whether or not you’ve ever watched anything that the late Caroline Flack presented, it’s unlikely that you won’t have heard that over the weekend, Caroline died by suicide.
News of her death has filled column inches, clickbait articles and provoked debate around everything from the existence of shows such as “Love Island”, to press intrusion, the worth of mental health awareness and the need for more kindness.
Every ninety minutes someone dies by suicide. Every other hour a life is lost which leaves unimaginable pain, unanswerable questions and grief in its wake.
But in the course of everyday life, very few of us consider this, we are simply getting through our own days, so when suicide pushes itself so forcefully back into the public consciousness, we are astounded yet again by the scale and the pain of it.
The loss of someone so prominent on TV screens up and down the country brings the tragedy of suicide into our own living rooms. We are forced to conceive of that which is inconceivable. It raises age old questions:
“How could they do it?”
As Kay Redfield Jamieson, a psychiatrist and author writes in her book Night Falls Fast:
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of a life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.”
For those of us who have experienced suicidal thoughts; considered, however briefly, taking our own lives there is a sharp edge to these questions. A sharp edge to the passing judgements of strangers online which declare that suicide is “selfish” or “stupid”, because it is a very real reminder that some have been unable to stay in the world.
Suicide cannot be considered in those terms; it is unspeakable for so many, both because of the pain it leaves with those whose lives are claimed, and for those who have lived in spite of a pull toward an abrupt ending.
Suicide is not selfish, because for the most part, the people who die by suicide believe themselves to be relieving others of a great burden. Caroline herself wrote on Instagram in the months before her death that she feared “being a burden”, it can be an impossibly high barrier to reach across to ask for help.
It is not stupid; because it is often seen as the only course of action for those who have reached past their tether.
Suicide is a tragedy. Over the past thirteen years as I’ve both battled with suicidality, studied it and written about it, tragedy is the only word that even begins to do justice to the enormity and pain of it – for those who lose their lives, those who lose their loved ones and those who live through it.
For the christian, there are more questions. Is it the unforgivable sin? Can they be saved?
And all I can do is to look to scripture, and to lean on the character of the God I have known and trusted for almost twenty-five years. The only unforgivable sin recorded in the Bible is that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which is nothing to do with suicide, and the idea that those who take their own lives being unable to enter glory because of their inability to repent renders the gospel of grace obsolete. Not one of us dies having confessed and repented every sin!
But more than this; we see how God responds to those who consider suicide in the Bible and we are presented with a picture of care and grace, help and hope.
There are a number of completed suicides and considered suicides in the Bible; from King Saul falling on his sword, to Elijah begging for death on Mount Horeb, from Judas’ death to the desperate philippian jailer. In these accounts, there is no moral judgement made. There is prohibition of taking life, yes, in many places in the Bible; but the responses the scriptures record to those considering suicide speak volumes to me.
Elijah is ministered to with food, drink and rest.
The philippian jailer is drawn from harming himself – to hearing the gospel and being baptised.
These passages do not encourage suicide, but they do widen the angle of our viewing to see that when people are desperate they can be ministered to and helped. There is hope.
So that is what I think we need to do, to widen our angle of viewing to consider not just what things look like at face value, to minister to the hurting and hold out hope for those whose view is blurred by tears, until they can hope for themselves once more, drawing from the infinite kindness of our God.
As someone still early on in the journey of motherhood and my own multi-hyphenated job title, I was intrigued to read Jules Middleton’s reflections on life as a “ministry mum” ordained with the Church of England and leading a church on the south coast.
“Breaking the Mould” is part memoir, part navigation guide for the weird and wonderful world of being a parent in a ministry context – however that looks.
Jules writes with warmth and humour, without dodging the sometimes difficult realities of parenthood and life as a minister. Although the initial premise of the book seems quite niche, I found so much wisdom and information in it that I think would be valuable to any parent whether or not you work in full time christian ministry.
I particularly valued the nuggets of biblical reflection and wisdom interweaved throughout; Jules’ reflections on the (in)famous passage of Jeremiah 29, so often pasted onto posters and fridge magnets was refreshing and encouraging. She writes:
“The word for God for the exiles is to embrace where God had put them…to essentially bloom where they are planted – to embrace where they are put; to settle, to build, to forge ties and pray for the area.”
In my own hinterland as stay at home Mum/author/speaker/charity founder, the book was one which inspired me to work in and with what I have at the moment in terms of time and circumstance. I was reminded once again that God doesn’t wait to call us and use us when it’s most convenient (in fact, He usually does the opposite), but that’s what allows us to keep relying on His grace and timing.
Jules’ thinking around the Sabbath rest were also hugely helpful; it’s something I’ve struggled with, to carve out time for a Sabbath when you don’t actually get a day off from parenthood! Again, the reflections in the book don’t ignore the difficult reality, cliched answers are avoided and intensely practical suggestions for recognising the deep spirituality in everyday life are worth their weight in gold.
Whether you’re a stay at home Mum, work full time, study full time or a mixture all of your own, I highly recommend “Breaking the Mould” – especially if you’re relatively new to the wonderful world of the ministry mum life.
You can buy Breaking the Mould from your local Christian bookshop or on Amazon.*
Before you become a Mum, you’re told lots of things:
“Don’t rock the baby to sleep – it’s a rod for your own back”
“Never let your baby use a dummy”
“Breastfeeding is the most natural thing ever – it’s a breeze!”
“You’ll never sleep again”
But no matter how much advice (helpful or otherwise), no matter how many books you read or how many children you’re around, you can’t really prepare yourself for it. (That’s another thing you hear, isn’t it!?)
One of the best pieces of advice I was given, was to be honest about the reality of motherhood – the dizzying highs and the desperate lows and it’s advice echoed in Annie’s book. She writes:
“When we choose vulnerability, connection can happen i the messiness of everyday life.”
So, inspired by this and taking my own advice, here are my honest confessions about motherhood, a year in.
- Personally I’m finding parenting a toddler harder than having a newborn. (This one depends completely on your child – some breeze through babyhood, others are beset with colic and constipation – my son was what some might call an “easy baby”, but the same cannot be said for toddlerdom.)
- There have been times when I’ve missed my old life, particularly the freedom I had to work when I wanted and take every opportunity going.
- Making sure I take a book wherever I go is great for those car naps I don’t want to waste!
- I fall too easily into the trap of the “who’s more tired game?”
- Teething is a sure sign of the Fall and I’ve sometimes counted the minutes until I can administer the next dose of Calpol.
- Sometimes I regret making my son give up his dummy at six months old.
- On difficult days, nap times are my favourite time of the day.
- I quite enjoy daytime TV as company as a backdrop to pottering and parenting.
- I love going to work.
- Being a Mum is the most ridiculous, difficult, hope-filled, despair-making, contradictory, frustrating, heart breaking and joyful thing I’ve ever done.
I also heartily encourage you to head over to Annie’s blog Honest Conversation – it’s great.