But Mary

“The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me
And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—”

[Magdalene – The Seven Devils, Marie Howe]

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I will cling to the Old Rugged Cross.  We sing it in church on Good Friday and I think of her.  Mary.  I think of her posture. I think of her longing.  I wonder what it looks like to cling to the cross, to cling to Jesus.  It looks like Mary, I imagine.

(“Do not cling to me,” Jesus says to her on Resurrection morning.  It makes me laugh out loud.)

Later my friend Libby and I talk more about Mary over cold pizza at my kitchen table.  We had both watched the beautiful and powerful Mary Magdalene film during the week and we had All The Thoughts, especially on Good Friday.  We talked about the things that resonated with us, challenged us, inspired.  I find it helpful to engage my imagination with scripture and I am grateful for how Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett engaged theirs as they wrote this film, as they wrote Mary Magdalene right under my skin.

I think of her all weekend.  I imagine her turning up in church with her wild hair, earnest and emotional, staring longer than is socially appropriate.

There is this bit in the film, before the crucifixion, where Mary just lies down on the side of the road in the dirt and the dust.  Haven’t we all been there, at some point, in our spiritual journey?

I read John 20 aloud in my kitchen when no one is about and I honour this woman that I have overlooked in the past.  This woman who came early, this woman who ran, this woman who stayed, this woman who wept, this woman who would not stop looking for his body.

“Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”

But Mary.

I read John 20 aloud in my kitchen and I honour the women I know who come early, who run, who stay, who weep, who persist – who are overlooked.

The film adaptation respectfully and helpfully imagines the deeper, wider story of this woman who is mentioned so briefly, yet significantly, in the Bible.  What is her story?  It helps us wonder.  I have soft spots for every single one of those disciples – denying Jesus, doubting, hiding in locked rooms.  But Mary courageous, vulnerable, showing up, bearing witness – “I have seen the Lord” – how did she end up there?  What was her story?

The poet Marie Howe talks about the dilemma that we all have of never really being known. “There’s something in that Mary Magdalene character”, she says, “and how she got embellished, and how it was read between the lines who she was.”

The film reads between the lines and it’s helpful.  It offers a story of a woman seen and known by Jesus – and if we can see ourselves reflected – perhaps that’s the most beautiful thing of all.

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Light Your Lamps

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I have some words written in my journal from an Advent Retreat I attended at the start of December.

Awake.

Ready for action.

Lamps Lit.

Watchful.

Work clothes.

They are not the words I was expecting.

Even my purple pen and black inky hearts can’t really make them look beautiful, although I try my best.

Wasn’t I here for a deep breath, for rest for my soul?  What am I doing in this beautiful space scribbling down words like action and work? Why do I feel excited, like I’m hearing something new?

*

I am the girl who got so tired of rally-cries, altar-calls and persuasive sermons  that she got ‘Be Still’ tattooed on her foot.

I am the girl who ended up very sensitive to many words, many phrases, many hymns and many, many parts of the Bible.

I took refuge away from them.  I took refuge for a time far away from church and I took refuge, sometimes, in the loo at church.

I still do, to be honest, but not so much.  I found a practice that helped me.

Addie Zierman calls it ‘Sermon Notes for Cynics’.  She writes:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.
In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this … and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

I have found this to be true.  I have gathered my own trigger-words, noted them, sat with them, wondered about them.  They sound different to me now.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of that preacher.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of the girl I once was.

Some words I picked up wrong, that’s all.  I made them try-hard and anxious and then simmered in anger at them later.

*

My husband is the type of man who, when his wife gets a tattoo that says ‘Be Still’, will get a black sharpie and script ‘Keep Going’ on his own foot in his best cursive, waiting nonchalantly beside her to be noticed.

It was funny.

It was also wiser, perhaps, than intended.

You can’t make a phrase like ‘Keep Going’  beautiful, I thought.  Not as a tattoo, not with a black sharpie or a purple pen or inky hearts.  It’s a word about strain and striving, isn’t it?

But we need both, of course – to be still, to keep going – I picked it up wrong, that’s all.

*

And so back to my chair in Pilgrim Cottage, to the Advent essay I am reading from Luke 12.

We are to have our work clothes on and our lamps lit.  We are to be awake and ready and watchful.

I am surprised that there is space inside me for these words, that I can’t wait to write them down and mull them over.  I do not imagine that I will carry them with me into January, that they will shape my phrase for the year.

I had heard this story all my life with panic.  I heard the rousing preacher.  I heard the over-zealous teenage girl.  The heading in the NIV for this passage is ‘Watchfulness’ but the heading in my mind was ‘Watch out!’.

But what about being watchful as an act of faithfulness, instead of panic? I am drawn to that.

I think about how I wake up every night in a sweat about half an hour after I first fall asleep.  There is something I have not done and someone is dead, or sick or missing or something is very wrong.  Until I realise it is not.  I was dreaming, that’s all.

Sometimes it feels like our high-alert switch is stuck and it is such a stressful way to parent or live but we cannot seem to help it.  I’d like to be watchful instead.  Ready.  Available.  Present.  Not waking up in a sweat.

*

‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ it says in Luke 9:26.

I heard this last April in church.  Addie hadn’t yet suggested her Sermon Notes for Cynics, and I still had few tools to deal with these words.  Words that made me feel tired and judged and boxed in and angry and ashamed.  My instinct, as always: to take refuge away from them.  But I didn’t.  I wrote them in my Bullet Journal (see, now, the particularly jagged handwriting? I was a little cross).  I hid in a corner at coffee time (which is progress from the loo) and when my friend Joan asked me how I was I said that my field was all wobbly and she said hers was too and we sat with it.

I am still sitting with those words, I realise now, as I am thinking about what it means to light your lamps and put your work clothes on.

Whose field did I think I was ploughing in? The field of the scaremonger preacher?

When I think of that field as the one that is mine to tend, doesn’t it become a beautiful thing?  The field of my calling and my gifting and my place in the world.  The plough that needs my temperament, my creativity, my good work, my effort.  And, honestly, when it comes to those things isn’t it hard to keep going?  Isn’t it a challenge? Don’t we need a warning that it’s going to be tough?

*

It’s 2018 and my phrase for the year is Light your Lamps.

You can strike a match and stay in your post out of fear, I know (I’m not sleeping, Lord.  I’ll never sleep!).  It can be a performance.  It can be a thing that will not last.

But I want to light mine with intention and expectation.

I find it hard to keep burning.

‘I have edited my own soul many times,’ Erin Loechner says, ‘and each time I’ve done so in the name of kindness.  Good intentions.  Passivity.’

I find it hard not to edit, not to diminish what I thought mattered, not to downplay the words I was starting to say.  I find it hard to keep burning.

Light your Lamps is a reminder.  Maybe it’s a quiet rebellion, too.

Can you be a slow, meandering kind of girl and also be ready, lamps lit, work clothes on, hand to the plough?  I am hoping you can.

I am not fit for the Kingdom of God, I think, but I am being made fit.  I need to be still.  I need to keep going.

 

 

Busy Bees and Hummingbirds

‘When we decided to write benedictions for our children, we simply wanted to help them find their anchor when they are inevitably tossed about.’

[Osheta Moore]

It’s half-term, and I have finally carved out some time to write benedictions for my girls – a practice I have been inspired to adopt by reading Osheta Moore.  She writes here about Back to School Benedictions (and here about an equally inspiring twist on the original idea).

In the first post she writes about her own love of benedictions – of having truth spoken over her as she leaves a gathering so that she leaves knowing she is loved and confident that she is not alone.  She and her husband wanted this for their children as they went back to school – ‘a confidence in their belovedness even when they’re not with us’ – and so they created a blessing for each of them.

It is Autumn now, of course, and long past writing anything for ‘Back to School’, but over the past months as Liv has returned to school and Imogen has started for the very first time, Osheta’s practice has stuck with me.  I, too, want to see my children as they are, bless them, and send them on their way in peace.

My girls are still very little so I picked animals as their ‘Benediction names’.

I thought of Imogen – all business and focus, the pride she takes already in a job well done.  Eugene Peterson says ‘work, by its very nature, is holy’, and I want to bless the worker in her as she grows up.  (It’s tricky, I know, this trait is often hijacked by our culture into something unhealthy).  I also want our home to be her safe place, her soft landing place.

I bless you to be a busy bee at school – hardworking and helpful.  I bless your attention to detail, your lovely classwork and homework. I bless you to be like Nehemiah – a determined builder and rebuilder, who can work well with others who are good at different things.   I bless our home to be a place of rest and cuddles for you.

I thought of Olivia – dreamy, creative, inquisitive – happier exploring forests than sitting at a desk.

I bless you to be a hummingbird at school – curious and free.  I bless you as you spread your wings, as you move toward and sample all the things that interest you.  I bless your quiet confidence.  I bless you to be like Daniel – kind and considerate to everyone – but sure of who you belong to and what you love. I bless your inner strength.  It can be hard, sometimes, to be a hummingbird at school, I bless your ability to sit still and concentrate when you have to.  I bless our schedule to make time for climbing trees.

I hope my girls will feel affirmation and freedom as I pray these blessings over them, I hope it will feel a bit like the ‘invisible string’ from the book we used to read Liv when she was wobbly in P1, something that keeps us connected throughout the school day.  She still struggles with thresholds, with letting go, so I will keep praying that she goes in peace, knowing she is loved, confident she is not alone.

It will be back to porridge next week, after the Halloween holidays and our mornings are fairly predictable.  There will be this tiny blond boss-lady, dressed in 3 minutes, bustling around our house.  There will be another girl hidden under a duvet with her nose in a book, she’d like to stay there, she’ll dig in.  In the middle of our ordinary, messy mornings, though, I hope I take the time to bless them – to be busy, to be dreamy – to carry their gifts into their classrooms and through their days.  And later on, I hope I’ll make space for the blessings of tree climbing and cuddles, of caring for these very different little girls, of believing that it matters.

 

 

I’m in the kitchen

I recently heard Rob Bell on a podcast describe the gentle yet profound way in which people’s words can fall as like a velvet hammer.  He talked about the best kind of wisdom that appears soft so you let down your guard and then it works its way in and you’re “just levelled.”

This has been my experience of meeting with a prayer guide over recent weeks.

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Last week my prayer guide casually referred to “the other Sharon”.

We were reflecting on John 1:35-42, on spending the day with Jesus.  At the end of the passage Andrew goes and gets his brother Simon and brings him to Jesus.

“Maybe you need to go get the other Sharon,” she said, “bring her to Jesus.”

The other Sharon.

It dawns on me slowly.

Then it strikes hard.

The other Sharon.  Well, of course.

The one who doesn’t feel seen by Jesus, the one who doesn’t spend the day, the one who has trouble with this path.

*

I take this nugget away and it seems so obvious, now she has said it.

It explains so much.

We are drawn like moths to a flame to something that is true, beautiful, simple, profound.  We find this way to look at Jesus, or ourselves.  We follow a nudge of the spirit,  we give something our Amen.  We pick a priority for our family, we lean towards a way of parenting.  We choose role-models, mentors, every day heroes.  We say yes.  We say no.  We open our hearts.

Don’t we?

Didn’t we?

We’re not sure.  We falter.  We’re not all in.

I don’t always pay her much attention, the other Sharon.  I think I know what I’m about.  I think I know better.

*

After the velvet hammer comment my prayer guide gave me Luke 10: 38 – 42.  Mary and Martha. (The 2 Sharons, I think).

I spend a week with those 5 verses.

*

I am Martha.  I welcome Jesus into my terrace house.  He sits in the Parker Knoll chair, beside the bookshelves, my sister at his feet.

I welcomed him in, opened the door, but I am distracted.  I am busy.  I am playing a loop of  ‘it must be nice for Mary‘ in my head.

Jesus says the words that I now have strung up in my kitchen, written in white chalk:

You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed.

It dawns slowly, it strikes hard.

*

I am Mary.

I sit by the Parker Knoll and listen.  I am drawn here.

But I hear the bustle around me and I feel judged.  Even before Martha says anything out loud I feel judged, compared, uncertain.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

I am surprised when Jesus says this.  I don’t expect this validation.

It’s beautiful, my prayer guides tells me.

Beautiful.

*

I am drawn to the feet of Jesus like a moth to a flame.

But then.

I suspect I am wrong.

I doubt my choice.

I take it away from my own self.

*

The truth is, I am open to seeing much of my bustle and productivity the way Jesus sees it – as worry and upset.  I am open to his message – that few things are needed.  I am open to his validation when I choose like Mary – it is better, it will not be taken away from me.

The truth is, I am open to these words and this message, but the other Sharon is not.

I have not internalised this voice of Jesus that I think I love so much.  I don’t hear it.

I have internalised the voice of Martha.  I hear – “aren’t you annoyed?”.  I hear – “Tell her to help me!”

*

I wonder what Martha’s preparations were, what had her so distracted.  I usually picture her in the kitchen, making dinner – because I am so often in the kitchen, making dinner.  It’s important to me.  I am drawn here too, actually.

I am Mary and I am Martha, and Jesus speaks kindly to me, whichever mode I’m in.

“God comes to me where I live and loves me where I am”, Brennan Manning says.

“If I am not where I am, God cannot meet me.  It’s as simple as that.”

I’m in the kitchen.

I’m remembering that few things are needed, that what I have chosen will not be taken away from me.  

I’m in the kitchen, listening to Jesus as I make bolognes.

 

 

 

 

4 O’Clock in the Afternoon

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

[John 1: 39]

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Every Monday evening I head to the foyer of the local parish in our small town, to meet with a prayer guide who is teaching me to pray with scripture; a prayer guide who is holding space for me, who has me on her heart.

The first passage she discerns for me is in John 1 and I smile to myself as I hear the familiar words, realising that my Catholic prayer guide has chosen the same passage my Presbyterian minister preached from the day before.

*

I find a quiet place daily, I light a candle, I read it slowly.  I have been given these 8 verses for a week.  John’s disciples follow Jesus.  I remember what we’ve been told – You may feel that nothing at all is happening and that you are wasting your time, you are not.

I notice the words and phrases that grab my attention and after a day or 2 I start to write them down.

“What do you want?”

Come.

They spent the day with him.

It was about 4 in the afternoon.

I start to put in my own name, as my guide suggested.  Jesus turns around and sees me. He asks me the question I don’t know how to answer, “What do you want?”. We spend the day together.

It isn’t urgent, I note in my journal.  There is no hurry.

Every day I sit with this passage.  Jesus turns around and sees me, asks me what I want, we spend the day together.

*

One day I don’t do it, it was my most stressful day, of course. There were no quiet places in this day, no candles.

There was a very noisy changing room, a very major public meltdown from my daughter, a situation I wasn’t sure how to handle.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. (That’s never a good time, Jesus).

*

When I reflect on the week with my prayer guide I tell her the ways this passage is rewriting my misconceptions about following Jesus.

No matter how many times I read it at my kitchen table, Jesus never once asked me to do anything or prove anything, or to hurry up in case I got hit by a bus.

Look, John says.  I start to follow Jesus.  He sees me.  He wants to know what I want.  (I didn’t know that mattered).

When I reflect with my prayer guide about my stressful day, my wobbly daughter, the lack of time – she tells me that’s where Jesus wants to meet me, to spend the day – in the changing room, in the tantrum, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

*

I think I need this, even more than quiet places and candles, I need this Jesus who spends the day, the whole messy thing.  He meets us at 4 o’clock.  4 o’clock! At witching hour for tired mothers everywhere – he sees us.

 

Ancient & Slow in a Culture of Quick Questions

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“Quick Question!”

We hear it at the entrance to the train station.  On the street corner.  In the shopping centre.  On our doorstep.

“Quick Question!”

They know we’re busy, so they’ll be quick!  They launch in.

Whose your broadband provider?  Your electricity provider?  Do you like cats? Do you know anyone who has had a heart attack? Did you know…?

I heard it today as I walked through Belfast on my way to see my Spiritual Director.  It was accompanied with an exuberant bounce, a hand waved in my face, “Hello Miss! Quick Question!”.  I smiled, shook my head, walked on.

I wonder about this Quick Question Strategy – this belief that if they promise us speed then we will make decisions about service providers and charities, that we will set up direct-debits standing beside lampposts.  I wonder about this notion that we can meet their quick questions with quick decisions.

I don’t think or decide or budget or tithe like that.  I smile, I walk on.

*

There are Jehovah Witnesses near the bus-stop.  They stand in their place, unobtrusively.  They hold their pamphlets out in this open, gentle kind of manner that I like.  I see them every month on my way to meet with my Spiritual Director – same spot, same body language.  Quietly, but persistently, holding out what they have to offer.

There are a group of men singing in front of the City Hall – modern, lively worship songs. People are craning their necks to look at them.  When my bus comes and drives past the men, I crane my neck myself.  They are dancing and clapping and bouncing up and down.

On the bus there is a Bible verse, a framed King James snippet, contact details if I want to find out more.

*

It took me over 6 months to find someone I could meet with for Spiritual Direction.  We schedule appointments.  I organise childcare.  I get on buses.  We meet in a room, down a corridor, with the door shut.

My soul does not like quick questions, it does not like street corners.  To be honest, it doesn’t really like exuberant enthusiasm and it doesn’t like pamphlets, however gently they are offered.  It likes a safe space with the door closed and a candle lit.  It likes gentle questions, it likes time to answer.

*

On the bus I smile at the irony of it all – all these people I walk past, all these words I bypass – on my way to a place that is quiet enough for God to speak.  I don’t dislike the certainty of the singers or the pamphlet holders or the verse providers.  I am looking for some certainty myself, yet I am finding it in a place where there is room to say I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I am finding what Parker Palmer says to be true, ‘The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.’

*

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

*

The soul is shy, Parker Palmer says, it’s like a wild animal.  ‘If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.’

I feel yelled at, in our culture, even from sincere sources.  I feel hurried, hustled, my attention fractured.  I see your offering and I cannot receive it.

*

In a room, down a corridor, that takes some effort to get to, I am learning to receive.

I am seeking God and someone is seeking God with me, and for me.

I choose this ancient, slow practice.  I listen for the still small voice.  Away from the lively activity, from the quick questions and the persistent pamphlets, I am paying attention here – to what surfaces in the quiet, to a God who is already at work.

 

 

Even the six-year-olds

Liv clambers into our bed as soon as she wakes, poking us with elbows and knees, wanting to know what they are doing in heaven today, to celebrate Good Friday?

She wants to know every single thing I don’t have an answer to.

It seems, these days, like Liv has taken those verses in Deutoronomy, the ones about teaching our children diligently, and turned them on their head.  My own uncertainty about what to do with God’s words in our home does not stop her.  She talks of them when she sits, when she walks by the way, when she lies down, when she rises.

*

Liv has an unflagging interest this year in Pilate.  (Asking what his name was again, trying to get her tongue around it, giggling a bit, Pontius Pilate).

She sits in her booster seat as we drive to Asda and asks her questions.

She is trying to work out his responsability, what he decided, what he really wanted, if he was good.

“I would have decided that Jesus should die”, she declares, “because it brought so much good, in the end.”

So she clambers into our bed this morning, it’s Friday, and she wants to celebrate, because she is certain this story is Good.

*

“Even the stones would cry out!” she told us, wide-eyed, a few Sundays ago.

Yes, I think, even the stones, and even the six-year-olds.