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