This too shall pass

This too shall pass is one of the proverbs I hold dear. I came to know it and love it after the birth of my second child. By then I had enough experience of parenting a newborn to know that the pain, the exhaustion and the anxiety of those first few weeks were fleeting, and would soon be gone.

And so here is a reflection, borne of my own experience of the tough times. If it’s helpful, I offer it humbly for your own meditation. If not, I hope you will find similar comfort in different words.

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This too shall pass.

THIS
Acknowledge the reality of what’s happening.
It is tough. Painful. Perhaps unbearable.
Name the feelings that it arouses.
Own them. Dwell within them.
Don’t suppress your emotions.
Don’t ignore how you feel.
Listen to your soul.
Talk about it, even to yourself.
Journal it.
Pray it.
If it’s awful, say that aloud.
Don’t try to flee from this moment.

TOO
You have been here before.
You have dealt with similar emotions.
Similar awfulness.
Past experience has equipped you to cope with this.
You may not feel you can deal with this, but you can.
This place may not be as new as it feels.
Build on what you learned last time you were here.
Stretch your resilience to new depths.
Like you did last time.

SHALL
The present moment is not everything.
Your current feelings are not the sum of you.
Detach and observe.
Don’t get swamped by that cloud of despair.
The future still has gifts to give you.
The future calls you to offer gifts for others.
Stay in the present, but keep an eye on all that is to come.
Promise and hope will follow after.
Events evolve, feelings change.
It won’t be the same by next week. Next month. Next year.
Not may. Not won’t. But shall.

PASS
This will leave you be, eventually.
Time will move on.
New developments will come.
You will find ways to adapt and survive and grow.
Circumstances will alter.
New strength will find you.
It might get tougher.
It might not.
You will change.
As clouds pass over the mountain tops, so this will pass over you.

This too shall pass.

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Our sin is too small

Sin
(/’sɪn/)

It’s not really a fashionable word. Archaic, damning, uncomfortable. The preserve of the religious or the old fashioned. A word we usually try and avoid.

Lent forces us to confront sin, knowingly or not.

As we enter a season of self-denial or renewed discipline, we may be setting aside things that we think might be associated with sin. Food, bad habits, unkind attitudes, silly distractions.

Perhaps when we think of sin, we think of something like the seven deadly sins:
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.

 We think of sin as action or inaction that damages others, spoils creation, and hurts ourselves.

But if this is all we think of when we think of sin, then our sin is much too small.

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Am I a sinful person? The question is a painful one to ask.

Most of us, on some level, feel woefully inadequate and painfully aware of our failings. We carry around the guilt of memories of times we have allowed the darker side of our nature to overcome us. And we carry around shame about the times we have felt not good enough, or simply not enough. Each of us will see brokenness in our lives.

Sin is about more than what we do, or don’t do.
Sin is about losing sight of our true self.
Sin is about forgetting the identity that God has given us.
Sin is about holding back part of our self from God.
Sin is about falling short of everything that we could do, and everything we could be.

To turn from sin is to become more fully ourselves.
To turn from sin is to embrace the darkest, most broken part of our self.
To turn from sin is to accept the part of our self that we hide away: the part of us that longs for wholeness, healing and acceptance.

This turning away from who we are not, and realising more fully our true identity, is what we see in those people who meet Jesus. Mary, his mother; the disciples; the men suffering from leprosy, paralysis and deformity in Luke 5 and 6; the woman who was haemorrhaging; Mary, Martha and Lazarus; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman who anoints Jesus; the woman caught in adultery; the thief on the cross: All come to a fuller understanding of their identity and purpose after an encounter (or several) with Christ.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Deut 6:4-5

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Lev 19:18

In our self examination, how often do we consider whether we love ourselves?
We may feel that to do so is to be selfish or conceited.

But perhaps the first step to dealing with the brokenness in our lives is to learn to love our very self.

Perhaps we cannot fully love God and love others, until we first learn to accept the parts of our self that we detest.

Turning from sin is about becoming more the person that we are meant to be. This means tackling some difficult truths and travelling some dark paths.

I love the prayer of confession below because it sums up, for me, what sin and repentance are about. We are not naughty children, tempted by uncontrollable impulses and guilty of breaking the rules. Sin is more complex, more damaging, and yet infinitely more redeemable than this.

We long to be free and accepted and whole.
We are painfully aware that we screw things up.
We carry guilt and shame as tumours on our souls.
We are so overwhelmed at times by our own darkness and brokenness, that we feel we cannot go on.

But God is good, and he is calling us to name our darkness, to embrace our brokenness, and to accept the transformation of his love and forgiveness.

O God, Giver of Life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love,
you are able to accept in us what we cannot even acknowledge;
you are able to name in us what we cannot bear to speak of;
you are able to hold in your memory
what we have tried to forget;
you are able to hold out to us
the glory that we cannot conceive of.
Reconcile us through You
to all that we have rejected in our selves,
that we may find no part of your creation
to be alien or strange to us,
and that we ourselves may be made whole.
Through Jesus Christ, our lover and our friend.
Amen.
Janet Morley

God forgives you.
Will you forgive yourself?

Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?

Are you enjoying your baby? #timetotalk

Are you enjoying your baby?

How often do new mums hear that questions asked?
How often do we smile, through a lump in the throat and blinking away tears, and whimper “yes”, when we really mean “no”?

This week in the Church calendar we celebrated Candlemas: the moment when Mary took Jesus to the temple, 40 days after his birth, for her purification. And tomorrow is Time to Talk day, when we are encouraged to talk about mental health issues and end the stigma that surrounds them.

New mums know something about mental health. Mary would have been no different.

Forty days post-birth is significant: forty days is just shy of six weeks, and six weeks is the magic number.

At six weeks a mum’s body should be healing well after the trauma of birth.
She will see a doctor to be checked over and told she’s doing well.
She will start to feel reassured that her baby is gaining weight.
The baby might be starting to sleep for longer than an hour or two.
Feeding should be getting easier.
The baby has probably started to smile.
The shock of birth is wearing off, and life might be returning to normal.
And by six weeks a new mum is probably feeling more confident and less hormonal.

But sometimes, some of this stuff doesn’t happen. First time round and it wasn’t like this for us.

Our baby didn’t sleep unless we were holding him.
His screaming meant we had to sleep in shifts, and 3 hours of broken sleep was a good night.
He wasn’t gaining weight like he should have been.
Feeding was definitely not going well.
I was carrying the terrifying burden of caring for such a vulnerable and tiny person.
We were crumbling under the pressure.

By ten weeks things had improved, but it took me longer to recover from the emotional strain and the exhaustion.

I wonder how it was for Mary as she arrived at the temple six weeks after giving birth?
Was her baby sleeping well?
Was he thriving and gaining weight?
Were Mary’s nipples cracked and sore, or had breastfeeding been easy?
Had she healed well after the birth?
Was she riddled with anxiety, or playing it cool?
Was she obsessed with protecting this fragile baby with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?

Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple is deeply moving. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about how this young girl felt as she took on the task of caring for this baby. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword? Luke says she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her?

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Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?

Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother. Revisiting the Candlemas narrative seems to be a good place to think about motherhood and mental health. The dangerous cocktail of major life change, anxiety and sleeplessness is enough to damage the mental health of any previously well person. It’s not easy to admit to struggling after having a baby. It’s almost impossible to say that you’re not “enjoying your baby”, because all your energy is going into just coping.

I hope that Mary had time to enjoy her baby. It wasn’t going to get easier for her, and there is endless comfort to be found in Mary’s story for any struggling mum. For the rest of us, it usually does get better. Or, at least, we become experts at dealing with our children at the stage they are in. New stages will always bring new challenges… and new opportunities for growth.

Graham Kendrick’s Thorns in the Straw is not an easy listen, but for me, it captures Mary’s bravery and commitment to her calling. If you click on the link you can watch Graham perform the song.

Since the day the angel came
It seemed that everything had changed
The only certain thing
Was the child that moved within
On the road that would not end
Winding down to Bethlehem
So far away from home.

Just a blanket on the floor
Of a vacant cattle-stall
But there the child was born
She held him in her arms
And as she laid him down to sleep
She wondered – will it always be
So bitter and so sweet.

And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky. 

Then the words of ancient seers
Tumbled down the centuries:
A virgin shall conceive,
God with us, Prince of Peace
Man of Sorrows – strangest name
Oh Joseph there it comes again
So bitter yet so sweet.

And as she watched him through the years
Her joy was mingled with her tears
And she’d feel it all again
The glory, and the shame
And when the miracles began
She wondered, who is this man
And where will this all end?

‘Til against a darkening sky
The son she loved was lifted high
And with his dying breath
She heard him say ‘Father forgive’
And to the criminal beside
“Today-with me in Paradise”
So bitter yet so sweet.