The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I came relatively late in life to Robert Frost’s famous poem. If you don’t know it – go now, and read it. It will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten my words.

I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. Which roads to take, and which to ignore. I hear stories of fear and curiosity; of regret and gratitude; of anxiety and excitement.

And for every road we take, we turn our backs on ten, a hundred, a thousand more. A thousand roads not taken. The snickets and cul-de-sacs of life that we will never explore and that will remain untrodden. Perhaps more weighty than the question of “Which way?” is: “How do I deal with the knowledge of the roads not taken?” 

That is, how do I manage the overwhelming sense of Missing Out (I’m currently reading a fascinating book of the same title) on the options I don’t choose? The potential I never realise? The opportunities I allow to slip away, unseized?

I have wrestled with a decision recently. I was tortured, for a while, about which road to take. It seemed as if one road would lead to joy, and life, and fulfilment, and the other to despair and exhaustion and disillusionment. The problem was, I didn’t know which road would lead where. It felt as if choosing one road would close off ten more. I was paralysed with indecision. Even though I’ve written about this before, even though I hold firmly to the notion that there are no bad decisions, I fell into a rut.

I didn’t know what was the ‘right’ thing to do.

And this might make me seem crazy, but eventually, with Robert Frost in mind, I wrote to myself. This is usually my ‘fall back’ option when prayer and reflection and meditation fail me. When I’m getting deeper into fog with no clarity. In these moments, writing becomes an act of untangling: a gentle separating of the threads that have wrapped themselves around my soul. And somewhere, there is usually a still, small voice of divine sense.

So this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to tell you what you should do, or who you should be. The paths are yours to take. You choose one before another and they all lead to joyful surprise and sorrow-filled desolation. Whichever way you go, there will be tight, dark corners and glorious summits – and you will navigate through, step by sometimes painful step, because there is always another step on. I will be with you but I will never force you.

These decisions are not mine to make – but yours. I will give you good, wise people and a capacity to seek out their wisdom. But rarely will I shovel it into your consciousness. You must seek it out: lament it, search for it, find it, and treasure it. And you will. Find it.

But the wisdom is not in the decisions; the roads you take. The wisdom is in how you walk them. No matter what roads you take, you also choose how to travel them. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. That choice is a gift that is yours alone. But choose with confidence and freedom, and know that the road you take shuts off no doors and few opportunities.

And when you do choose a road, walk it wisely.

The wisdom is not in the roads you take, but in how you choose to walk them.

To this point, I have thought of choice as being an exercise of my freedom. But perhaps those of us caught up in the cultural metanarrative of ‘progression’ (that is, we believe that as a race, we need to advance, to progress, to flourish, to succeed, to prosper…) are actually slaves to indecision. We believe a myth that only the ‘right’ decisions will allow us the greatest prosperity (as if prosperity is all we have to hope for…!)

So maybe the decisions – the roads we choose – don’t matter. Maybe what matters is how we live out the decisions we make. We could take one road, or another, and yet on both roads we could make choices that bring life or joy to ourselves and others – or we could make choices that sap us of strength and energy.

So, going forward, I am resolved not to worry too much, with dear Robert, about the roads not taken. There will always be missed opportunities and more potential than can ever be realised. What I will worry more about is how I travel the roads I take:

Will I be a good companion?
Will I seek out those lost on the way, and walk with them?
Will I try and light up the darker corners of the paths I take?
Will I walk wisely, and rest often?

And perhaps, when we become more conscious of how we walk the roads we take, instead of which roads we take, perhaps then we don’t miss out on all that much after all.

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Go and share your bread: Austerity, Abundance, and the Kingdom of God

The following is adapted from a sermon that will preached at Holy Cross, Timperley, on Sunday 29th July 2018 (Trinity 9).


austerity
ɒˈstɛrɪti,ɔːˈstɛrɪti/
noun
noun: austerity; plural noun: austerities
  1. 1.
    sternness or severity of manner or attitude.
    “he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”
    • plainness and simplicity in appearance.
      “the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”
    • a feature of an austere way of life.
      “his uncle’s austerities had undermined his health”
  2. 2.
    difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.
    “the country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

Austerity has become one of our defining narratives. Stories – life – based on the assumption that “There is not enough to go round”. We’re told that we must tighten our belts, adapt to scarcity, get used to hardship, and guard the resources we still have.

Thank God, I’m not a politician or an economist, but a theologian. Because I believe that austerity is not the way of God, nor is it the way to enable a society to thrive. Short term hardship for long term benefits doesn’t wash when the short term becomes the long term, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger. But I’m not here to preach economics.

Austerity is not the way of God, and yet it is the starting point for Jesus’ followers in John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Philip and Andrew are anxious, and we can hear the cogs whirring:

Get the people home. It’s nearly dark and there’s no food. Send them away to fend for themselves. There is not enough to go round. We have to come up with a different plan: we could invest six month’s wages in this crowd and it would be money down the drain.

But Jesus knows a way better than anxious austerity. Anxiety is never a good state of mind to be in. Anxious leaders create anxious followers, and anxious people suppress creativity, increase irritability and achieve little.

And so Jesus shows these anxious guys a different solution to the impossible. Not austerity, but abundance. Not scarcity, but generosity. Not fear, but trust.

What are we to make of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Some of us think it was a divine supernatural act. Others of us acknowledge that God can work miraculously through the most ordinary of acts, such as a shared lunch. But this miracle was not divine conjouring trick, nor an exercise in sharing.

This miracle was about God and about what God wants for God’s people. Jesus showed that crowd, as the Gospel writers show us, the lavish, endless, inclusive, compassionate abundance of God: in God’s Kingdom there is always enough.

God’s abundant goodness. A God of love who has enough for all. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians: a love of incomprehensible, endless depth and height and breadth. A love so all encompassing, so abundant, that we will never fully grasp it.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The narrative of austerity has no place in God’s kingdom, because austerity is rooted in fear and suspicion of the other. Austerity is not about love, but control, or simple, catastrophic indifference. These are not the ways of God.

What about us?

We don’t have endless resources. We have limited time, energy, health, money – as frail humans, even our capacity to love and to have faith is limited. Some of us are giving all that we can. Perhaps some of us might, at some point and through the grace of God, feel moved to offer more.

But as people of limited resources, how do we model and live out the abundant love of Christ?

Perhaps it is enough, at first, for us to know God’s love for us. Perhaps it is enough only to grow deeper into this love. To own it and experience it and share it: to claim it for ourselves and for those around us. To see God’s love for the darkest, most rotten parts of ourselves; for those we love and those we despise and those we are indifferent to. To know a love of endless abundance. Perhaps the whole of life is about coming to dwell more deeply within that knowledge. Perhaps on the deepest level, that is all God asks of us.

And yet, as we go more deeply into love, as we come to dwell within it, we are always changed. Perhaps we discover a corner of our heart that is more austere than we knew. Perhaps we discover a hardness within ourselves: an unresponsiveness and a frantic, anxious clinging on to a finite resource that, in the end, will never bring us joy. Perhaps, as we know God more deeply, so we become open to the question: “Are my resources really as limited as I believed?” Perhaps we find that we do have more to offer, and we come to know a deepening of our generosity.

And as we ask that question, perhaps we also discover a depth of abundance within ourselves that is without limit and full to brimming. Maybe we discover gifts to be handed away endlessly: Love, tolerance, kindness, compassion, understanding of the other, trust, faith: perhaps beyond our time and our material resources and hardness of heart, we do have quite a lot to offer by way of abundance.

Imagine a world where each of us modelled abundant kindness. Endless tolerance. Endless compassion. Endless forgiveness. Endless understanding. I don’t think that such a world would be a world of austerity. I think that world would be God’s world.

As we hear this story of bread broken, shared and left over, our eyes are drawn to the table before us. It is only in our own breaking of bread and pouring of wine, as we celebrate Holy Communion, that we find the fulfilment of this story. Here, week on week, we enact the abundant, self-giving, inclusive, immeasurable love of God.

As I preside at the Eucharist, I always try (and sometimes fail!) to ensure that there is more than enough bread, and more than enough wine. The theological significance of having some leftover shouldn’t be lost on us after reminding ourselves of this miracle of abundance. In the Kingdom of God there is always more than enough.

And it is no use partaking in this sacrament, week on week, if we remain unchanged by this abundance. We cannot change the ways of others. We cannot alter the stinginess and miserliness of the world around us. But we can change ourselves. My hope and prayer for each of us here who feast on the abundance of heaven, is that we do not leave this place unchanged, but that we renew our resolve to give everything that we have, and everything that we are, for the good of the people of this world.

And so go out today, back into this austere, weary world full of people who are under so much strain; go from here and share your bread. Model kindness, compassion and love as if there is no other currency by which to live. Because in the Kingdom of God, kindness, compassion, and love need no guarding, no rationing, and no hierarchy. They are for all and they are endless. As people of God, will we hear the call to grow into abundant love, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by that abundance?

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Give yourself a break: A reflection for Advent

Advent begins this week, and all around are the dawning signs of Christmas. Lights and trees go up, cards are written and greetings sent, presents are wrapped and parties are planned. 

I used to think it was important to resist this creep of Christmas for as long as possible, reserving Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration to come. But I reached Christmas Day feeling a little like I had missed the party.

There is a paradox. The Church prepares to celebrate the arrival of God in the most fragile of wrappings, while around us the world unwraps that gift before the big day. Some of us worry that the timing is all wrong. 

But the gift is still the same. 

If our pious preparation causes us to resist the celebrations around us, we miss out on some of the joy. Is this any better than being seduced by the frenzied consumerism of Christmas that is equally as likely to lead us to miss the point? 

The reflection below is an attempt to encourage you – and me – to welcome the best of both. To prepare once again to receive God, and to create space and stillness in the coming weeks for that. But also to embrace the celebrations that are beginning around us as they happen – however premature we feel they are – as the world receives its greatest gift: the one who once a year warms our hearts and joins us in one voice of Christmas song.

This Advent – give yourself a break.

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Give yourself a break:
Permission to pause
And carve out a space
Where you alone can rest
And rediscover small voices
Hushed by the frenzied pace of life.

Give yourself a break:
Just one moment in a day
To waste time away, and
Notice
Your stillness working to make straight
The tangled paths to your heart.

Give yourself a break:
Time to soak in pools of reassurance, as
Sacred Anticipation
Meets
Joyous Festivity
And the long-awaited celebration swells around you
In flushed faces and shimmering trees.

Give yourself a break:
And hear the ancient promises
As Redemption’s stories are reimagined and retold
Through gifts exchanged and carols sung
And your emptiness is filled
With the hope and joy of a promised child, who
For just a moment,
Becomes the centre of our gaze.

Barnabas: A meditation on encouragement

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


Speak words that bring strength, encouragement and comfort
(adapted from 1 Corinthians 14:3)

Child of strength
(I know you don’t feel it)
You have more steel than you know
And the disturbance within you is only a sign that
You are changing, journeying, living.
Do not be afraid of turmoil:
Have you forgotten your strength?
20160513_133842

Child of encouragement
Courage was planted
As a seed deep inside your heart
Long before you met Fear’s sweet seduction.
You cannot lose your courage
Any more than you can lose your heart
Though, as with your heart, it may wither with neglect.
Whose kind words watered the tender shoots of your courage?
Whose generous gaze shone sun on your emerging petals?
tulip

Child of comfort
Always be ready to console.
Be the arms that held you tight
As you wipe away tears of another’s broken heart.
Watch with eyes that notice:
Whose head is bowed?
Whose shoulders droop?
Who smiles shakily through misery’s fog?
Offer them this gift:
The best that they cannot see in their self.
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A clockwork check-up

We have a clockwork baby mobile. It has a dial that turns and coils a spring. At the release of a switch, controlled by cogs, the spring slowly uncoils itself and turns the mobile.

Sometimes, the mechanism gets stuck. The dial will no longer wind, but the cogs won’t turn and the switch will not release the spring.

If the mobile is unscrewed, the coiled spring bursts from the mechanism as it releases its tension, and the mobile spins frantically out of control until it dissipates the energy that it has held captive.

Our souls are a little bit like clockwork.

Things happen. We are wound up, and our complex mechanism of cogs: our emotions, social graces, spirituality, common sense, rest and relationships, deal with the energy that is generated. Under normal circumstances, we are able to release our tension appropriately, creatively, beautifully.

But sometimes, our mechanism is a bit battered. Over time, as we cycle through coiling and uncoiling our springs, we get out of sync with ourselves. The mechanism jams. The switch fails. Our spring gets tighter and tighter with no way of releasing the tension. Eventually, the energy has to go somewhere.

Perhaps we implode.
Perhaps we explode.
Perhaps we seize up completely.

Repairing a jammed clockwork mechanism is a simple task, but it takes a bit of time and care, and you need the right tools.

20160414_111528Can you give your own clockwork mechanism a check-up?
What winds you up?
What helps you to release tension healthily?
Are you feeling tightly wound at present?
What tools do you need to dismantle your own mechanism, release the tension, and reset the spring?

Unexpected blessings in the bagging area

A quick trip to the supermarket at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. You rush around grabbing the few bits you need, your mind full of a half-recalled shopping list. Your eyes are blind to those around you until the moment they loiter a moment too long at the shelf you want to browse. You tut at the parent whose child is lying face down in the aisle, screaming and kicking. You stamp impatiently at the self-checkout while the gentleman ahead of you scans his items. Carefully, patiently, slowly. Then you whizz through, beep-whirr-ding, and you’re away. You slalom through children and trolleys and charity collection points, and then get stuck at the door behind an elderly lady who is leaning painfully on her trolley, shuffling on. Finally a gap opens, and out you go. Jump in the car, and you’re off.

These days my three year old insists on accompanying me whenever I pop into the supermarket. It’s a pain, to be honest. It slows me down. We can’t slalom and weave. We can’t push past obstacles and squeeze through gaps. We can’t scoot around someone and zoom ahead: his legs don’t work that quickly. I spend most of my time and energy trying to protect him from the trolleys and shoppers to whom he is invisible.

But it is also a great blessing. It gives me time to see things, to hear things, to take notice.

I submit to the discipline of standing behind someone in an aisle and waiting my turn to pick a tin from the shelf. As I wait, I treasure the feeling of my boy’s little hand in mine. And I notice the trolley of the person I am standing behind. It is full of ready meals for one, crowned by a bulging paper bag from the pharmacy.

As we queue at the self checkout, I can chat to my boy about any old nonsense. And I notice the man in front, emptying his wallet of coppers and silvers to pay for four cans of the cheapest own-brand lager. He’ll go home and drink that alone: sat in his coat with the curtains closed and the heating off.

Leaving the store, I watch my boy mimicking my steps, full of life. I resign myself to walking slowly behind the lady who leans on her trolley for dear life. And I notice her ankles. Swollen, and angry, and ulcerated.

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Shops may bring out the worst of us: our intolerance, our selfishness, our impatience.
I am ashamed at how little I notice of others, until I open my eyes.
I am appalled at my own pushing and shoving.
I am embarrassed by my snap judgements and my impatience.

If shops are the temples of our time, then we go there to worship a god who cares little about the slowest, the weakest, the poorest, the smelliest, the loneliest, the nosiest.

Our temper is short and our steps are quick.
Our eyes are closed and our hearts are cold.

As gathering places, shops offer little to those who are seeking community, kindness, and understanding. Our basic need of these things gives rise to the deepest cries of our hearts. We try and find solace in the things we buy as we push and shove through the shop, but the desperate truth is that nothing we spend money on can fill the gaping care-shaped hole in our spirit.

But shops also offer us some of our greatest opportunities to show kindness, tolerance and understanding. A friendly smile for the young mum or dad whose toddler has had enough. A helping hand for the frail gentleman struggling with his bag of tins. An extra bag in the foodbank collection. A few words of encouragement for the member of staff monitoring the malfunctioning self-checkout.

It is shops that bring us together with those who cause us discomfort or inconvenience. If we are the ones who can walk away from the smell, the poverty, the noise, the disturbance, then perhaps it is within our gift to do a much greater thing. What would it cost us to dip into our reserves of patience, grit our teeth, flex our (underused) tolerance muscles, and simply notice, and understand?

We can’t escape from everything that offends, annoys, irritates, or disturbs. Nor should we have any right to do so. This is about looking after one another. Seeing beyond our own comfort and reaching out to others with a shared humanity.

I am still learning and still trying. But I hope that my shopping habits will bring out the best in me, so that those around me in the aisles might flourish, even for a fleeting moment.

“Ducks only”

There was an excellent piece of journalism in the Guardian just over a year ago about the travesty that is defensive architecture: the spikes and bollards and uncomfortable bus stop benches that are supposed to prevent “anti-social” behaviour.

What about defensive signage? That is, the signs around us that are designed to instruct, protect, control and inform. Some of these are good and necessary. Without road signs, for example, driving would be chaotic and perhaps dangerous.

But signs create a certain atmosphere, however unconscious we are of them. As a family we visited an attraction last week that was littered with instructive or prohibitive signs:

No entry for visitors
Disabled parking and drop off only
Private
This area is closed
No access to gardens
No entry (CCTV in operation)
No parking
No
No
NO

(The final three may have been exaggerated)

None of the signs were wrong in themselves. Some were helpful. But the cumulative effect was to create an atmosphere in which we were not cherished guests, but punters to be controlled and definitely not trusted. The atmosphere felt unwelcoming and tense: not very hospitable. A little eavesdropping on conversations between staff suggested they felt the tension too, with a panicky instruction to clear pots off a table quickly (in an otherwise half-empty restaurant) before a supervisor reappeared and saw it was dirty. The signs, and this conversation, reflected a place managed by a desire to control, and encourage ‘good’ behaviour and conformity. We’re not particularly unruly, but we didn’t really feel comfortable and at home here.

If the signs we display affect the atmosphere around us, they must also affect our behaviour and our emotions. On holiday last year in Anglesey, these signs didn’t make me feel especially welcome, as an alien in town:


If I was resident there, how would these signs make me feel? Suspicious, perhaps, of strangers who were not quick to leave? We seem to be increasingly suspicious, perhaps frightened, of those who are unknown and unexpected.

Do we display these signs because we are frightened?
Or
Are we frightened because we display these signs?

This sign, displayed last year on our local playground, with its imperative “do not”, suggested we weren’t in a place of games and fun, but perhaps standing on the edge of a live volcanic crater, or next to live electrical wires:

CQ8BGMuWwAAXtwR

I think the problem was actually that the playground surface was in need of repair. The one thing that this sign did was ensure a steady stream of daredevil kids vaulted the fence to play somewhere with such good advertising displayed!

Signs are important. But are we aware of how their tone can create a particular atmosphere, and engender particular feelings or behaviour? Who wouldn’t be put into a slightly better mood by this sign – informative and instructive, but fun – at Martin Mere?

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And so I’m left reflecting…

What signs do we see around us, in our neighbourhoods, and in people we know?
How do they make us feel?

What signs do we display?
On our homes, our clothes, and through our words and our body language?
What messages do they communicate?
Are these messages the ones we’d like to communicate?

Are there things we’d like to tell the world that we could begin to say through the signs we display?

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?

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?

Bellini_maria1

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.