Hungry

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I was hungry.

I was hungry, and I needed a biscuit.

I needed it through the sermon, through the final hymn, through the benediction.

It was a small need, but a fierce one.

I had a plan to make a subtle kind of beeline for the church hall to get my fix, casual but quick.  It was almost Coffee Time.  I would be ok.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  It keeps me from the place where I can feel God, somewhere inside.

There is a bridge between God and I and it is broken.

“How deep are the cracks?” asks my Spiritual Director.

“They are deep” I answer quietly.

She draws it on her whiteboard: the gap, the bridge, the deep, jagged cracks.  She draws me in the middle: earnest, lonely.

*

There was a comedy of errors at Coffee Time.  I was delayed getting through the doors.  My children needed to pee.  My children ran off.  People stopped me to talk.

When I finally reached the biscuit plate it was almost empty.  My girls grabbed KitKats, and I paused, for a fleeting moment, to help them unwrap. A fleeting moment during which someone lifted the plate from beside my fingers and offered it around the room – out of reach.

It was obvious to nobody but me that I was about to eat one of those biscuits.  That I needed to eat one of those biscuits.

I watched them disappear with a literal lump in my throat.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  There is a bridge.  There are cracks.

I have skills at avoiding those cracks, at pretending they’re not there.

I have ideas about filling those cracks!  I have Thoughts!

I am always disappointed.

*

There was a man who had been an invalid for 38 years and he lay by a pool.  He lay with the sick and the blind and the paralysed, hoping for healing when the waters were stirred.

There was a man and he had nobody to help him. By the time he gets to the pool, “somebody else is already in.”

*

No one in the Church Hall would have begrudged me a biscuit, in fact any one of them would have gone to the kitchen to find me one, if they knew how hungry I was. But there was no way I could think of to communicate this need without sounding petty, and selfish, and ridiculous.

I resented my daughters their KitKats.  I felt personally defeated several times when more biscuits appeared across the room, always gone before I could get one.

*

James K.A. Smith says that “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing” and yet we feel so embarrassed about our hunger and our thirst, like we are the only one with longing, like everyone else must already be full.

We see all these cracks in our knowing and our believing.  And we are embarrassed, or panicked, or paralysed.

“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks, and it seems like such a stupid question.

*

I was still hungry and I still needed a biscuit as I headed to the car and someone called my name.

I was a little angry at the blond girl in my arms, chocolate smudged on her satisfied face, when someone called my name.

I was not in the mood to talk to anyone when my minister called my name.

“Do you want some?” he asked, holding out the Toblerone he had used in the kids’ talk.

Did I WANT some? 

He had no idea.

*

I slid into the car beside my husband, stuffing my face with triangular Swiss chocolate, and mumbling something about Emerson having just saved my life.

I was thinking, then, only of my immediate hunger and the unexpected Toblerone in my hands.

Later, though, as we look at the wonky bridge on her whiteboard, I tell the story to my Spiritual Director and she loves it and she tells me I need to write about it.

*

“He picked up his bedroll and walked off,” John tells us.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all.  Jesus was.

The man’s hope must have flagged time after time.  38 years.  Somebody else always getting in first.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all, but it was certainly part of the story.

*

“Do you want to get well?” asks Jesus.

“Do you want some?” asks my minister.

And it changes the story – the one where everyone else got a biscuit, the one where somebody else always got in the pool first.

*

There are some cracks in my knowing and my believing that my thinking can’t fix.

But I hunger and I thirst.

And I have this picture, now, of God – calling my name, offering me food.

Exactly Like Him

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I had been thinking about his garden.  Even before he lost his swallow, before his final, peaceful days, I’d been thinking about his garden.

Maybe you knew that garden.  It was exciting, and a little daunting, as children to go through the gate into what seemed like a tropical jungle. There was colour and life everywhere, and more often than not Grandpa was hidden in the middle of it, tending to something.  It was not a garden you looked at, it was a garden you experienced.  It flourished.  I had been wondering how he did it.

*

When Grandpa died at the beginning of August, I thought of that garden. And I thought of garden metaphors.  I think we all did.

We thought of him tending and nurturing plants.  We thought of him tending and nurturing us, and other people, and his faith.  We thought of the things he planted.  We heard from people whose lives he’d touched.  We wondered how he did it.

‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies’, we reminded ourselves.

To think of life at work underneath the surface of what looks dead and desolate, brings enormous comfort.  Garden metaphors make sense to many of us in the face of loss.  And they make sense in the face of dementia.

Or they don’t.

*

Nothing ‘makes sense’ in the face of dementia.  You could become an expert on Lewy Body Dementia, like my my mum essentially did, and it still wouldn’t make sense.

When Grandpa lost his swallow, it seemed like old Boughton’s lament in Gilead that “Jesus never had to be old!”, was fitting.  What else could you say about years of steadily losing every piece of himself?

I want it to make sense. I am tempted to force an uplifting lesson out of it for a blog post, to smooth over the sharp edges of dementia with my words.

Or, I am tempted to write-it off, a dark chapter jammed between an inspiring life and a blessed eternity.

But something is making me sit with, instead of make sense of. Maybe it’s the Wendell Berry-effect. I have just finished ‘The Memory of Old Jack’, after all, where wise and gentle Mat Feltner draws up a chair and sits beside Old Jack a while “in death as he had sat with him in life”, where he refrains from exacting a tribute on his passive remains.
*

My 5-year-old wants to draw his face. It’s her first reaction when she hears about his death.

“Let’s draw a picture of him that looks exactly like him,” she says with Lola- esque emphasis.

Exactly like him.

My Auntie P and I shared a wee moment in Grandpa’s room the day before he died. We looked at the photos on his wall. With Nana on his wedding day: “So handsome”.  A portrait of the pair many decades later: “Still so handsome. So robust.”.

That second photo, to me, is Exactly Like Him. But not to my 5-year-old.

She is very clear about the face she wants to draw. She does not like the photographs that I like. She wants “a picture of him in the last home he lived in, looking like that.”

She only knew him very old. She only ever knew him with dementia. That’s Grandpa to her. That’s the face worth drawing, the face worth remembering. She will not let me air-brush.

*

We sing songs at his Thanksgiving service about Home.  All The Way My Saviour Leads Me.  There is a Hope.  The Lord’s My Shepherd.

I listen to them in my kitchen for weeks afterwards as I do my mulling over, my own laying to rest.

“For your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home.”

Beautiful.

Incredible.

I don’t know what to make of it, this vision of mercy and goodness pursuing him right through the dementia.  But I like it.  And I sing.

*

Dementia is harrowing and yet any tendency in me toward pity, any attempt to wrap up this final chapter of his life in exclusively brutal language, has always been stopped short when I have observed my daddy.

“We became the best of friends”, my dad said in his tribute.  He was talking about the relationship that formed between him and his father-in-law after Grandpa came to live with them, and then during his years in a near-by nursing home.

At one stage of his dementia Grandpa started referring to my dad as his brother.  Dad didn’t bat an eyelid.  He just started referring to him as his brother too.

Best Friends.  Brothers.

The most debilitating years of Grandpa’s life, yet the bond they formed was extraordinary.  It changed my life, a bit, to witness it.

I think of an article in the Guardian by Helen Dunmore about the novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ and its astonishing portrayal of dementia.  She writes: “The novel’s account of this illness and its terrible progress through a life is unsparing, but never cold or removed. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.”

My parents shared in the intimacy of Grandpa’s struggle and there aren’t really words to describe that.  I just need to sit in a chair and think about it.

*

As I sit, I have these favourite quotes I am sitting with.  They mean something to me, this month.  They come to mind as I think about this particular man.

They are all from the novel Gilead.  Maybe you will find them worth sitting with, too:

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

 

 

Belonging

‘I think we were made free to live like we belong to the household of God.’

[Lessons in Belonging – Erin S. Lane]

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There’s this episode of The Good Wife when Alisha is running for State’s Attorney and in an effort to damage control a previous admission that she’s an atheist, she is advised to describe herself as “struggling” in a TV interview.

“Struggling” – the word she could use.  The word we can all use.  I certainly do.

I say I struggle with faith. I say I struggle with church.

I can say those words, and people can hear them.  They thank me for my honesty.

But these words have been annoying me lately.  They feel a little like the “TV interview” version of my soul story.

I can be hyperaware of expectation, presumption and reaction when I give a version of my story in a blog post or at the pub, over coffee or to my minister.  Even though they are all kind audiences, I default to the lines that I think people can hear.

One of the things I am doing about this is to start to meet with a therapist for Spiritual Direction.  It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I feel like I need to actually explore “my struggles”, explore my wilderness and my rebellion.  I need to talk out the long version without fear.

Another thing that is helping me is the book Lessons in Belonging by Erin S. Lane.  It was one of those well-judged “saw this and thought of you” recommendations.

For a long time now I have cringed about my association with ‘the household of God’.  What does it even mean?!  So much room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation!  What if people misjudge my views, and my heart?  Every time I heard a “Christian” view that was not my own it seemed that my only choice was to distance myself further and further away.

But I have found myself, over the past year and a half, in church – welcomed, noticed, blessed – and I have experienced what, for me, is the push and pull of Christian Belonging.  I want to belong here.  I want to run for the hills.

I laugh out loud when Erin Lane describes the panic she felt with the sneaking realisation that she was on ‘a path’.  I know this feeling.  “I don’t want to be on a path”, she says, “I want to zigzag”.

This is me.  I want to zigzag – between my books and my podcasts and some small pockets of people.  I want to be in my own house or in the forest or on the other side of the world.  So I panic a little to find myself, week after week, in the same pew of a country Presbyterian church.

Lane says that by showing up at church like this my body begs a witness greater than its own two eyes can see. It says, “I cannot do this alone, even though I try.”

Doing it alone, for me, has not so much been a declaration of independence, as a protection mechanism against the messiness of belonging. Maybe I haven’t so much ‘struggled’ with church, as tried to avoid the struggle.

Avoidance often seems like wisdom to me – the wisdom of limiting who I listen to, what I read and who I spend time with; the wisdom of choosing stillness and quiet.  As an introvert this seems so important to me.  I safe guard my time, I seek out podcasts, books and articles that resonate with me, I spend time with soul chums.  I seek a rhythm that is healthy for me, and my family. I write about this kind of thing.

And yet, what I could end up with is a very narrow, crafted life, that indulges just one way of being.

Parker Palmer says: ‘As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world.’

My privacy can run deep.  It makes me want to close my front door and retreat from the struggles of faith and church, or at least from the struggle of articulating them.  It is a sure sign that I have lost my sense of comfort and at-homeness if I don’t trust you with more than the “TV interview” version of my life, if I presuppose that we won’t connect, or that you’ll tire of the real me.

My life, in recent years, has been concerned with how to spend time wisely.  And spiritually – I have been looking for comfort and rest.  I have been looking to feel known.  So THESE are the words from Lane’s book that I have underlined, written out, read and re-read:

‘This is the paradoxical mission of the church, to comfort and disrupt, to give rest and rile up, to make us feel known and make us feel small in the wake of what we cannot know.

Sabbath freedom is not the freedom to spend our time wisely.  Instead sabbath freedom is the freedom to live large. To live large on the sabbath day means choosing to live larger than our own rhythm. When so much of modern life is spent crafting our home, filling it with belongings and guarding it from interruption, going to church is a countercultural practice. Going to church teaches us how to craft a home in the world.’

This is what I am trying to be open to these days, instead of using the “I’m struggling” line as a door that I shut, or using the “introvert” line as permission to stay home. I turn up with my thin skin and my relentless thoughts, I turn up with the fear that I might not be able to be or do what people want. I let my guard down, a little. And like Erin Lane, I am learning to linger and I am learning to approach life’s unknowns (and the person beside me) with humility and curiosity.

This is how belonging happens. Not by waiting for permission or holding out for perfect conditions. Not by cherry-picking people just like us or nitpicking people who don’t get us. Belonging happens when we choose to give ourselves away, saying, “Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.”

[Erin S. Lane]

Faith in the Dark

“She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who could not make sense of things.”

[Lila, Marilynne Robinson]

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I stood at the kitchen window recently, washing up the breakfast dishes, listening to Martyn Joseph, looking out at a familiar (gloomy and mizzley) kind of Northern Irish morning.

And I felt so at home.

Literally, figuratively.

If my husband had been about his ears would have picked up at the gravelly tones of the Welsh man.  He goes on ‘pensive alert’ when he hears me listening to Martyn Joseph.  (What is she thinking about NOW?)

The rain is a strange kind of friend, he sings.  Lost my soul in the sound of the rain again.  My strange friend.

I stood at the kitchen window, feeling at home.  Pensive.  A little melancholy, even.  And I thought that THIS is what faith feels like to me now.  And I realised that maybe it always will.

*

There is a verse in Jeremiah that reads like this in the Message:

“The light you always took for granted will go out and the world will turn black.”

The light you always took for granted.

Doesn’t that line resonate deeply with any of us who grew up careless in our certain faith, whose favourite songs were about light, about letting it shine?

I once danced in a conga line around an Eastern European university campus singing “We are marching in the light of God.”  I know, now, that a novelty dance paired with a protest song (true meaning then lost on me) wasn’t an expression of true faith, or light.  But still, it’s easy to look back and say my faith then was strong, and my pensive, rainy-day faith is not.

*

A few years ago, when my children were at their tiniest and I couldn’t find a place for my tiredness and neediness at church on a Sunday morning, I found it on a Thursday night in a Belfast pub.

We got a last minute babysitter, drove through the November dark and rain, to slip in to a gig that was half over, just in time to hear Martyn Joseph sing “are you down to your last ray of hope?”.

And I thought how hard it could feel, when you slip in to the back row of church, but how good it felt, here.

I thought how, maybe, if those were always the opening lines we heard in church, then more of us would stay.

*

In Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Jeremiah he explains how in a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Jeremiah was in the middle of it all, writing it out.  He says:

“Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like.  In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace, biblical people more often than not come upon Jeremiah and receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.”

Today Addie Zierman’s book Night Driving releases, and people are writing out their stories of faith in the dark for her synchroblog.  I first stumbled across Addie Zierman one tired morning when my youngest was a newborn and her post, Come Weary, was simply the best thing I could have read. Then I discovered she was writing about cynicism like it mattered, that she was de-constructing Christian clichés and reclaiming a faith that had been oversimplified.  From then on I read everything she wrote. For me, reading Addie provides company, breathing space and a way forward in this faith journey.

Addie says that one of her least favourite things about Christian culture is how quickly we skip over the dark spaces of our stories to get to the redemption and beauty and light.  And so she is telling the truth about her own darkness (most often Depression) in her new book, and holding space for others in her synchroblog.

Darkness, for me, comes from not being able to make sense of things, it comes when I think I am ‘the only one’, it comes from the world outside our stained glass windows, and, some days, it just comes from the ‘tired thirities’.

Faith in the dark, though, is a hopeful phrase to me.  It sounds right. Stubborn.  Persisting anyway – scouring sponge in hand.  It’s not a faith that dances the conga, but it’s listening and looking, and it has found companions.

When I think of faith in the dark I think of those companions.  Jeremiah, MJ, Addie, my friend Rachel.  And if the hardest thing about seeing the light you always took for granted grow dim is that you feel you are somehow letting the team down, well then the best thing is that you become the companion when others find themselves in the dark.  I am not going to be leading any revivals, but I am the girl people text when they’ve fled to the church foyer choking back tears or shaking with anger, and I think I’ve learnt that’s important, too.

 

Now the clowns and clairvoyants are aiming at true
In the babble, the rabble, I’m still headed for you
Those masters of war never did go away
And though the bleak sky is burdened I’ll pray anyway
And though irony’s drained me I’ll now try sincere
Cause whoever it was that brought me here
Will have to take me home…

Martyn Joseph

 

 

 


 

PS! These are some of my favourite posts from Addie: More Than You Can Handle, God-Shaped Hole, Anywhere, Anything: On Worship and Hyperbole, Making Your Faith Your Own, An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics and The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts.

Making the Wild Things Straight

Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream.

[Matthew 1: 19-20 The Message]

Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him – whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend – be our companion

[Henri Nouwen]

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When Liv pukes in the car on her outing to the Christmas tree farm, we deal with it the way we always deal with mess. I am ready at the back door for them getting back, alerted by text. Cleaning supplies at the ready. She is stripped down on the door mat. Clothes straight into machine. Wipes straight into plastic bags. Chris cleans the car mats outside, I clean the child and by the time the washing machine is spinning and the mats are back in place and the sudded up child is watching Charlie and Lola, you wouldn’t know anyone had puked.

We think we are dealing with mess and vomit, but really we are dealing with machines and convenience materials and waste disposal. We pride ourselves on our efficiency. Eliminate the smell and the lumpy bits. Sanitise. Straighten up.

*

When we traipse round the muddy Santa trail in the dark we think we are earthy, outdoorsy kind of people. No shiny shopping centres for us! We return to the car caked in mud and smelling of camp fire. The girls are sticky from toasted marshmallows and spilt hot chocolate. But we deal with the mess the way we always deal with mess. Layers removed before they can touch car seats. Wipes used and bagged up. Welly boots straight into the box that’s ready in the boot.

*

For those of you who know Chris you can imagine what he is like trying to straighten a Christmas tree.

I watch him out the kitchen window pushing and prodding the branches, trying to make a wild thing straight.

*

I am attracted to words like ‘wild’ and ‘messy’, words like ‘discomfort’. I think I love them.  I gravitate towards other messy mums and to people who talk about their faith as messy, especially at Christmas.

Yet I often struggle to tolerate mess, wildness and discomfort.  I struggle with everything that is unresolved, even though the poets write so beautifully about it.

I want it bagged up, cleaned, or discarded.

*

When I watch Chris carefully bend those branches, watch him fully lost in ‘Operation Christmas Tree’ (how to acquire, transport and set up a Nordman Fir in your home with minimal mess and zero unanticipated moments), well, I wonder about Joseph, what kind of a man he was.  Was he a man like Chris… one who liked a plan and order, one who just, always, wanted to do the right thing? I imagine Chris having to deal with angels and an unexplained pregnancy. I can imagine they might have said about him, later, that he was a noble man… described him trying to deal with things quietly, trying to figure a way out.

*

I often find myself, in December, imagining the characters in my own life right into the nativity script.  I know my imagination doesn’t come close.

I often find myself, in December, saying I love the messiness of the Christmas story, the wildness, the humanity.

But, truthfully, isn’t it hard to tolerate?

When can we move on to the bit where everything is cleaned up, straightened or discarded, washing machine whirring comfortingly beside us?

I understand how some of our songs and traditions have sanitised Christmas.  I understand the urge to try to make the wild things straight.

*

I often find myself, in December, reflecting on the year with frustration at my messiness and humanity, at the things I haven’t manage to discard yet.  In January I pick a ‘word for a year’ and in December I have to make peace with how that’s worked out for me!  In December I want to apologise for the ways I’m still messy, for being so human as a wife and a mother and so on.

In December I come back to this crazy story and think of how we would all try to get out of it, how often I am trying to get out of it still.

But Henri Nouwen says that the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation is that we are not alone on our journey.  “God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy…  The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be... Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost.  Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.”

And so for everything that we cannot straighten, or tolerate or really admit to, there’s the great mystery of Christmas: we are not alone  on our journey.  I find myself here every December – messy, chagrined, comforted and consoled.

I didn’t know

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I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. It was just the sort of film I loved – cynical, funny, sad, strangely hopeful. I loved it for its call to lead more meaningful lives.  A call shared by Fight Club and Magnolia, also 1999 films, also beloved by me.

I was 19 and I didn’t know anything about having a house or a spouse or a career or children, but I certainly wasn’t going to let those things define, or trap, me.  I rolled my eyes at Carolyn Burnham and shook my tiny fist at the system.  I felt total disbelief at the things people cared about.  I didn’t know how hard it gets not to.

There’s that scene on the couch, the one where Lester and Carolyn almost share an intimate moment until she realises he is about to pour beer on the sofa.  “This isn’t life,” he rages, “it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.”

“IT’S JUST STUFF.” I loved that line.  That’s the one I talked about.  This is the life I ran from.  Carolyn – the uptight, highly-strung kind of woman that scared me.

16 years later I don’t have an expensive sofa, one that’s more important than sex.  But still, I didn’t know how one more spill of anything, anywhere could matter so much to me.  And I didn’t know what mundane concerns could prevent me from letting my husband seduce me.

I didn’t know I could have 2 spirited, hilarious children and find myself wondering how the **** to dilute that spirit? I didn’t know my sense of humour would fail.  I didn’t know I had it in me to feel bored and trapped and maybe a little angry.

I didn’t know.

*

My husband and I talk about some sharp-tongued, tightly-wound older women we have come across.  I think I get it now, I say.  I didn’t use to get it at all, but I think I get it now.

Imagine doing this day after day, year after year without friends who help you laugh, or writers who help you breathe, without a husband who is home much or other mums blogging truth into your kitchen.

Imagine having nobody, really, to cheer you on or change your perspective, to say “me too” or tell you it doesn’t matter.

Wouldn’t we all end up impossibly wound up by the end of it – snapping and stressing at seemingly innocuous behaviour and requests?

*

Before American Beauty there was Dead Poet’s Society.  There was Captain my Captain and standing on tables.  There were determined little idealists like me, pledging ourselves to Carpe Diem every day of our lives.

I thought, then, that the good stuff was all ‘standing on tables’ stuff.  I thought that was courage right there. I didn’t know that the good stuff is often mundane and boring and time and again.  I didn’t know that courage might look like tired chat with your husband, drying towel or iron in hand, trying to figure out how not to become sharp-tongued, tightly-wound women. (or men).

I didn’t know how long a Diem could be, or how spills and tantrums and mischief and neediness could thwart my ability to seize it.

I didn’t know how much I would need that Glennon Doyle Melton essay telling me to carpe the moments, not the whole diem.

*

I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. I was full of pseudo-profound opinions on the human condition, convinced I was a million miles away from Lester Burnham who was mad at the system, yet part of it.

I was 19 and I used to pray dramatic prayers, sometimes, apologising to God for trying to do things “in my own strength.”

I didn’t know how committed I would continue to be to my own strength, to the try-hard life, to running the well dry.

I didn’t know how much help I would continue to need as the decades turn.  I thought the meaningful, joyful life would be more intuitive.

*

Here’s what I do, what I have always done: I watch the people who live life the way I want to, the people whose sofas welcome, not oppress.  The whole-hearted, as Brené Brown would call them. The free.

I watch. I ask them questions. I pester them a bit.

I read their books and watch their TED talks and listen to their podcasts. I talk about it and write about it, and with a little less drama, I pray about it.

Eugene Peterson says he would want to be remembered in terms of the people he lived with.  Me too.  He also says we’re never past recovery.  Phew.

 

“Create in me a clean, clean heart.  Create in me a work of art.  Create in me a miracle.  Something real and something beautiful.”

[Rend Collective]

On chickens pushing shopping trolleys and flowers in dresses: Guest Post by Connie Hunter

I am honoured to share a guest post from Connie Hunter as part of this series exploring small things. The series is a collection of stories and voices paying attention to ‘small’, in our culture of ‘Big’. Connie writes from the hard place of unexpected loss.  You can read more of her words and thoughts on grief at her incredible blog Faith & Fortitude. Her writing will make you ache, think and even smile.

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When someone dies, there is a culturally accepted notion that certain events will be a real struggle for those left behind. It’s a no brainer. These times are significant for a reason, so it stands to reason that they be met with a certain amount of trepidation and a sense of bracing oneself.

So what do I know of this? My husband Craig died very suddenly in December 2014…he was just 30 years old. His unexpected departure would eventually be classified as Sudden Adult Death and our little family was turned upside down in an instant. I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time with our second child—we already had a 2 and a half year old daughter.

Suddenly, I was hurtled into a timeline of “firsts”: Christmas Day (a mere 5 days after he died), New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the birth of our son (!), our wedding anniversary, our daughter’s 3rd birthday, and so on. Today, 24th August, is his birthday. I still await my own 30th birthday, and the anniversary of his death.

I faced (and face) these days head-on, fully anticipating how difficult they will be. The gravity of these kind of days will always mean that my friends and family stand closely with me, anticipating the difficulties that may come. Very often their support is what carries me through those days.

And yet, while those days are very tricky…they’re not the moments that take your breath away, because the pain is anticipated. For that particular emotional sensation, we must look to the small things.

The seemingly insignificant moments that cannot be prepared for. You can’t arm yourself against these times, because by their very nature they are uneventful, not very important, ordinary.

The first time I signed a birthday card with just my own name after a decade of our names being side by side. A letter that comes through in the post addressed to “Ms” instead of “Mrs” (ouch), having to tick a box that declares your relationship status as “widowed”…these are all the firsts that I was so very unprepared for. No one warns you about these moments.

Even something simple like doing a food shop could render me utterly flummoxed, as I tried to reconstruct the eating habits of a decade…it turns out cooking for one is far more complicated and cumbersome than cooking for two (let’s not get into our picky eater daughter in this post). What used to be a delight, transformed into a chore. No one warns you about these moments.

Watching a tv series that you both enjoyed and realising that its plotline is fairly complex and requires a bit of chat-along (“Who is that guy again? Is that her dad? Do you think he’s bluffing?”)…turns out… another small thing that hit me hard. I would find myself texting friends saying “Please tell me you’re up to date with <insert tv show> because I need to talk about it!” No one warns you about these moments.

How silly they are, compared to weighty days like anniversaries and birthdays.

But they are the everyday reminders of the new world order. A new world order where everything sucks. Chinese Water Torture of the heart, because these things don’t stop. And they will keep on coming for the rest of my days.

I could spend my time living in fear of these “small” moments…sometimes they can have the power to propel my thoughts to quite dark places.

I tick “widowed” in a box and suddenly I am transported to how I’ll be lonely forever, how my children won’t have a father, how much I miss him, etc. How will we survive, practically, emotionally, spiritually? What do I need to do to make sure my kids are ok? How can I make this better?! Frenzied thinking…all inspired by a moment of beurecratic box-ticking. This was just supposed to be the simple task of filling out a form!

My daughter loves a particular story in The Jesus Storybook Bible – it’s called The Singer, an interpretation of The Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6, 9; and Luke 12. She calls it the chicken story because there are some pretty nifty illustrations of sparrows pushing shopping trolleys (forgive her lack of ornithological knowledge, she’s 3).

The heading of the actual Bible passage, and the jist of the story is “Do Not Worry”. Of all the tales in that Bible of hers, this is the story we must read over and over on her request. For her innocent little heart, it’s for the bird pictures and the absurdity of the part where it talks about flowers wearing dresses. But I like to think that The Spirit prompts her to request this story again and again because it’s the one her mummy needs to hear, on days where she is weary from all the small things heaping on her heart so heavily that she can’t bear to even read the Bible herself. To hear the Creator say “Do Not Worry…do not be afraid, I’ve got this”. I’ll not put that down to a coincidence.

And so when I feel like small things may drown me, God edifies other small things for me. A simple bedtime story is transformed into a powerful message of encouragement over all our lives from the Creator of the universe. “Do not worry…do not be afraid, I’ve got this.”

Perhaps the next time one of those small things threaten to take my heart captive, I will think of chickens (“chickens”) pushing shopping trolleys and flowers wearing coats and remember that God is Lord over all of these things. He cares about how I feel in those moments and he wants me to come to him, to seek first his kingdom. Easy, it will not be. But it’s an offer that I’ve been given, and I want to take it.

connieConnie Hunter is mum to two little ones, and graphic designer/branding consultant at Studio Stereo, the company she founded with her husband Craig in 2008. She is (unfortunately) a member of the very niche group of people widowed under 30, as Craig tragically died in December 2014. She blogs about her experiences and living with grief here.

[Read the series so far here]