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.

 

 

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Pockets Full of Paper

Sunday morning: my husband raises his eyebrow at the scraps of paper on the kitchen worktop. Short sentences scrawled in inky black pen, crumpled into balls, soon to be stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.

My Permission Slips.

My new favourite practice.

‘Permission’ is my word for 2017.

I need to give myself permission, most days, just to be myself, to rest in my God-breathed worth.

I need to give myself permission to have these particular limits and gifts and needs, to have this particular way of being in the world.

I need to give myself permission to have the thoughts and feelings that I do, to let them exist.

This is work for me, it’s kind of a fight.

I don’t want to function from a place of shame, or envy, or pretense.  I know the cost of that.  It’s not worth it.

Yet these are my defaults – to withdraw with embarrassment, to look over my shoulder, to declare it all ‘fine’, everything’s fine.

Brené Brown says we need to reckon with emotion rather than off-load it, and I have learnt (from her) to use permission slips to do this.  She says, “writing down permission becomes a powerful intention to stay aware.”

So I pause now, sometimes, before going out the door, and I scribble these notes.

Permission to be excited!

Permission to be nervous. 

Permission to tell the truth. 

Permission to not know what to say.

It is a simple practice, stuffing my pockets full of paper, but it gives me peace, and it gives me courage.

I use it a lot for the things that make me nervous, and I use it a lot for church, but you could use it for anything.

‘Be Kind to Yourself’ by Andrew Peterson plays every day in our house at the end of our morning playlist.

“How does it end when the war that you’re in is just you against you against you?” 

I uncap my pen, rip a piece of paper.

Maybe that war can end here – with pockets full of paper and permission, black uni-ball scribbles and authenticity, walking out the door with courage and peace.

 


Thanks to Gemma for doing the lovely graphic for this post.

# One Word 365

It’s odd that we start on 1st January and try to come up with our teachable moments. I can’t predict what life will teach me this year.’

[Erin Loechner]

“I thought your mornings are all nice and gentle?!” my husband texts me at 7.58am, in response to a text from me, declaring my intention to commit murder.

Gentle mornings.

He’s funny.

*

‘Morning’ was my one word for 2016.

I have been choosing a word for the past few years now.  Instead of making a list of resolutions that you forget, or fail at, you choose just one word.  The tagline for #OneWord365 is “Go where it takes you.  Be who it makes you.”

The words I have picked to guide me over the past few years have been Morning, Rhythm, Body and Home.

I have always picked words to help me focus on an area that I’m struggling with a bit, words to help me live more intentionally, words that encourage some improvement in my attitude or my time-keeping, in my habits, in how I spend my days.  Which is good.

I have a page in my bullet journal where I had been doodling contenders for 2017, all of them related, all worthy, none of them quite right.

*

Our mornings are not All Nice And Gentle.  But they are better than they used to be.

Mornings had been defeating me, on several levels, and #OneWord365 helped me invest a bit more in the start of my days.  I get up in time to have an hour to myself, more often than I used to.  A morning playlist has changed the atmosphere of our school mornings, apart form the odd morning, when I want to commit murder.  I also Read Aloud at breakfast.  It’s nerdy, but it works.

The school door has sometimes been a difficult threshold for my eldest daughter (and I) so I have picked up Lisa-Jo Baker’s reminder to part in love, not relief as my school-run mantra.  I needed it this morning.

*

As with previous words for the year, I will probably always pay a little more attention to my mornings now, picking up any tips and wisdom that I come across.  The other day I heard someone say that the problem with the ‘morning voice’ (the one that pipes up at 3am when we get up to pee) is that it gets us when we’re not ready for it.  So true. So helpful, somehow, to have someone draw attention to it.

This year, though, I have been doodling through January, circling around words that weren’t quite right.  Having too many ideas, to be honest.

Then I listened to an episode of the Simple Show about goals and non-goals.  Erin Loechner likes to celebrate, and centre herself, around her non-goals in January.  She describes these as the things she has fought to love and accept about herself (like her introversion).  When other people are setting goals and trying new things, she reminds herself about the things in her life that are now a given.  When she finds herself looking over her shoulder and thinking she needs to try something that worked for someone else – if it doesn’t match the things she has fought hard to keep about herself – then she knows she doesn’t need to.

I said ‘YES’ to all of this in my kitchen and as I listened I found a word emerging for 2017:

Permission.

This word is more of a grounding, than a guide.

It’s about holding on to important things that I am so quick to drop.  It’s about being myself.  (Isn’t it always?).  It’s about listening to the still small voice instead of the fire and the wind.  It’s about non-goals.

I’ll write more about it soon.

 


 

I follow Tsh on Spotify and use her Schoolhouse playlist in the mornings.  She writes about how she uses music in her house here.

 

 

Blessing

It’s a freezing November morning and I am buckling my girls into their car-seats when the windows around us suddenly clear. I see my neighbour, washing-up bowl in his hands, sloshing warm water over our icy car. It feels like a kind of blessing on the 3 of us. It feels kind of embarrassing.

The windows clear so suddenly exposing us in all our early morning liveliness, squished into the back of my little car. It is not my most graceful pose, this back-seat-car-seat buckling.

His help feels a little undeserved. Our mornings are loud, he lives in the terrace house right next to us. I have no doubt he hears all the joy and rage and opinions that accompany our mornings. Maybe if I was a more patient mother I would deserve his help? But here he is, popping up in the middle of our clumsy antics, washing-up bowl in hand.

His help feels like the kindest thing in the world. I feel noticed and cared for and connected to my neighbour by this small act of kindness.

It can be hard to receive, hard to have our real life noticed, up-close.

I feel grateful and embarrassed all at once.  It’s a familiar feeling, in this season of life,  this letting myself be blessed.

Morning (small beginnings)

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The mornings are dark now and there is nowhere like a quiet kitchen lit up at this hour, when everyone else is sleeping.

There is nowhere like it yet, more often than not, I would trade my very soul to stay in bed. I whittle away this hour, ten minutes at a time, with every hit of the snooze button.  Always convinced it’s worth the trade off.

When I chose morning as my word for the year, maybe I imagined myself productive.  I thought I might have jobs done, essays written.

What I have, is a morning basket.  It has colouring pencils and colouring books.  It has my Common Book of Prayer.  It has my bullet journal.  Right now it has a Georgia O’Keeffe postcard that my friend Cherith gave me.  It has my heart bowl, which I set on the kitchen table beside the postcard.  Sometimes it has other books, or pictures, or quotes from my bedroom.

I have two problems with the morning.  One: I don’t want to get out of bed.  Two: when I do get out of bed, I want to do Everything.  It is easy (for me) to be lazy.  And it is easy (for me) to try to do too much, and to try to run on empty.  It is harder by far to just be awake and present to my life.

It is hard to just colour in.  It is hard to read liturgies before I read Facebook. It is hard to feed myself properly instead of quickly.  It is hard to Be Still, with my fists unclenched, like I believe in the holy spirit, like it’s the way to start my day, like it will make any difference.

It is hard to begin without feeling like we’re already behind, without panicking that already “it’s not enough”, without listening to ridiculous voices in our heads.

“Do not despise these small beginnings”, Zechariah 4:10 says, “for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”.

Those words are too long for a tattoo, but I need to etch them somewhere.

The mornings are dark now, and just being here in my quiet kitchen is a small beginning.  A cause to rejoice.

 

2016: That Morning Cuppa

‘The hour before the world gets to you is precious and sacred time.’

[Anne Lamott]

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It’s February and the waves are crashing right outside my window, right outside my three windows.  The house is quiet and the sea is loud.  Now and again a train passes over the narrow track.  The rugged beach is dotted with dog walkers in anoraks, an occasional horse.

I had my breakfast in the huge bay window downstairs – porridge with berries, chocolate brioche, Brené Brown, tea.  I had my breakfast while the rest of the house slept.  The sea was loud but it let me be.

*

On my first night at the writers’ retreat I had my supper, filled my hot water bottle and went to bed.  I thought about sitting up, by the cosy fire, with this interesting group of people, all here by the sea to write.  Where else would I meet them?

Fear of missing out thrummed its familiar beat.  A glass of wine and fireside conversation with interesting strangers sounds like a life I used to have.  Sounds like something motherhood should be making me crave.  Don’t I?

I do want those things.  But I want my morning more

*

I am here for 3 nights as a Christmas present.  My husband knows that in this season of life the greatest gift he can give me is Time (especially time with wild sea and a desk to write at).

downhill

I feel like Time & I have been locked in battle ever since I became a mum.  I write lists and confab with my husband, trying to figure out how to fit it all in.  I scratch things off the list or designate them a particular slot, I swap things around.  We try to prioritise.  Which things are obligatory?  Which things are necessary?  Which things are not?  We try to name the things we love, the things we want to make time for.  I write more lists and scratch more things off.  We try to work out how to give each other ‘time’.

Last year I chose Rhythm as my word for the year and  I noticed that I am addicted to the elusive ideal of ‘getting everything done first’, and it is filling my days with stress.  I keep chasing this daily rhythm where the rest comes at the end.  In some seasons, and contexts, this can be a healthy pattern, but not in motherhood.  I seem to have developed an “inner bookie” where I am constantly calculating the odds of a restful evening as I go through the day.  I  do more to try to boost the odds.  I count desperately on something rather uncertain – my girls having a smooth, on-time bedtime.  I put too much pressure on things I can’t control.   It’s exhausting and it doesn’t work, the payoff never comes.  The tattoo on my foot says “Be Still” but I seem to have scheduled even stillness – only when the house is still, only when the dishes are done.  So what I get, if I get it, is the left overs.  Whatever time is left, whatever energy is left.

There is a phrase that has been rattling round my head since I read it recently in ‘Simplicity Parenting’, it is about establishing islands of “being” in the torrent of constant doing.  The book says that to have moments of calm – creative or restful – is a form of deep sustenance for human beings of all ages.  I am trying to establish this for my girls, but I am trying to establish it for myself, too.  “Islands of being”, I mutter to myself like a crazy person, “islands of being!”.

Virginia Woolf said every woman needs a room of her own. I don’t have that… but I do have an hour of my own and it’s glorious.

[Glennon Doyle Melton]

As I continue to seek rhythm in 2016, my word for this year is ‘Morning.’  I want to choose this island of being, this hour of my own, at the start of the day, instead of frantically chasing it all day.  I know I’m a morning person, I don’t know why I stubbornly put so much stock in the evening.  I am also a person that needs a little solitude and I have realised that if I don’t choose it first thing, then I spend all day resenting how impossible it is to get.

So here’s to moments of calm.

Here’s to choosing the sustenance we need.

Here’s to precious, sacred time…

…and here’s to that morning cuppa.

 

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What about you? Any words for the year? Are mornings or evenings your sacred time?

Driving in the Snow


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In recent snowy winters, if I managed to drive my own self into work, I could count on the surprise of my colleagues and the repetition of the words: “I didn’t expect to see YOUR car in the car-park, Sharon.” Everyone knows I am a nervous driver at the best of times. And everyone knows my fondness for a “wee lift”.

Yet, strangely, as long as it’s not too icy, I like driving in the snow.

Driving in the snow feels like the whole entire world has SLOWED DOWN. We make room for each other. Everyone is cautious and deferential, gentle. We get to ease on to the motorway surrounded by space. I love that.

Driving in the snow I might get stuck, or feck things up, but so might everyone else.  And I am confident people would help me, without judgement.

I love January like I love driving in the snow. I love January with the same measure that I hate September.  In January it feels like the whole  entire world has slowed down. January isn’t so shiny, or bustley, or efficient.  I feel like there is space for me.  I feel like I can go at my own pace.

January’s cold and dull and long, which feels right for easing in to a new year.  We don’t have to hit the ground running with certainty and speed.  We get to be pensive in our jammies and hoodies and the new slipper boots we got for Christmas.  We get to be pensive in the half-light, burning down those candles we overstocked on for the festive season.  There’s no parties we should be at, nobody asking “Well, are you READY?”, every minute of the day.

It’s January and I don’t know what you feel, but I feel permission to take my foot off the accelerator.  I sense the truth that I’m not the only person in the world who struggles, who has to concentrate a bit too hard.

It’s January and I will get reflective and I will think about a word for the year, even though I am not known for ANY kind of  measurable success when it comes to my word for the year!  I will do it because here’s what I want as we ease into the new year; here’s what I want for our journeys, for our goals, for the lives we are trying to craft: I want us to know we might get stuck, or  feck things up, but so might everyone else.  And I want us to be confident of help, without judgement.

Who’s with me?