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
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.
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are on the move, and God seems to do much of His work in people through their journeys.
Abraham’s journey to Canaan.
The Israelites protracted journey to the Promised Land.
Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in the months before Jesus’ birth.
We can but imagine the maelstrom of emotions evoked during this journey; the uncertainty, the more than likely physical aches and pains of Mary, the anticipation, the worry perhaps – about having your first baby far from home?
I can remember, all too clearly, the relatively short journey to the nice clean and safe hospital to have my own son just a year ago, knowing my life would never be the same again, stepping into the unknown and trusting that my feet found some solid ground.
There’s something about journeys that disrupt us, perhaps it’s that they signal change (something I’m not a great fan of), and throughout history, God disrupts His people. He sends them to new places, on new adventures and asks us to take each step away from certainty and toward Him. Perhaps the reason He speaks so loudly to us on journeys is because we are already distracted from day to day life.
I remember studying Abram’s call during some of my first lectures at LST – how he had been called away from everything he’d known to enter a promise unseen – and I felt stirred by it, a similarity, even though my journey was only 30 miles down the motorway and nowhere near as drastic as Abram’s life-changing journey! But I had left behind the life I had known and stepping into something new where each step was one of faith.
It’s that journey that I remind myself of now, when I’m fearful of the next steps, or the next journey; because at the time it was the scariest thing I’d ever done and yet it was one of great joy.
We each go on countless journeys throughout our lives; some are inconsequential (such as the one my husband has gone on to get bin bags from co-op as I write), others are earth shattering and life changing, like the journey to Bethlehem or my own through university.
One of my favourite journeys recounted in scripture is one Jesus takes the morning of His resurrection, when he takes a walk with a man named Cleopas and his friend who are lamenting the loss of the one ‘they had hoped’ for and hoped in. It’s a sliver of a story which reminds us that the journey matters – that through Jesus – God walks with us on our journeys and reveals Himself in the tenderest of places, in the tenderest of ways. For it was not through lighting flash and growling thunder that Jesus revealed His identity on the journey, it was not even as he recounted His own story through the scriptures, but as He ate with them and broke their bread with His own scarred hands.
Advent retells Jesus’ journey to be with us, one not done in majestic fashion, but one that began in the womb of a teenager and ended on a sinner’s cross.
They journey of Advent is nearing its close for this year; soon the darkness of these weeks will be pierced by the unquenchable light of the God who came wrapped in a mother’s womb to save in the most unexpected of ways. Jesus’ journey to be with us is the greatest comfort in the darkness and ignited the flame of hope forevermore – it is what keeps me walking this strange journey of surrender and freedom.
Malcolm Guite’s beautiful poem O Emmanuel captures something of the mystery of Jesus’ journey to us as our hope.
“Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.”
When I decided to use the carmelite themes to reflect this advent, it was this word accepting that captivated and confused me in equal measure.
For me at least, it conjures the concept of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and at last, acceptance. It’s the pinnacle stage in this model; whereby someone can see some kind of resolution to the pain of grief.
It’s place as the second week of advent then, feels almost jarring.
And yet, as I delved into the ancient stories again, both the gospel narratives and the story of the carmelites, I began to see it a little differently, because the carmelites had been crusaders who’d gone to fight but ended up so transformed that they stayed to pray and build a community in the holy land.
It reminded me how often in the scriptures God shows up in the most unexpected ways, calling unexpected people to do unexpected things.
A virgin conceiving.
A barren woman falling pregnant whilst her husband falls silent.
When we agree to follow the way of Jesus, we agree to the unexpected.
And sometimes the unexpected way we are called to hurts.
It’s all too easy to miss the trouble woven through the nativity.
Luke 1:29 tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s greeting; Joseph and the shepherds are greeted with the words “do not be afraid.”
God does not hide from us that the walk ahead with Him is not easy.
As Timothy Keller writes in his book “Hidden Christmas”:
“The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns.”
Accepting the gospel truth and the invitation of God is not the easy – but God gifts us what we need to accept His invitation.
Perhaps Zechariah needed his silence to accept what lay ahead of him and Elizabeth.
I expect that both Mary and Elizabeth needed the time they shared together, to accept the extraordinary pregnancies and prepare them for the extraordinary lives their sons would lead.
Mary does not just accept the call grudgingly, however. She doesn’t say “All right then, if you must” – she sings a mighty song of praise.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”
Whatever we have to accept in the course of our christian lives; Mary offers us a dazzling response to echo which is not based on our own strength but on our glorious Saviour.