Light Your Lamps

3989_Light_behind_Door

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.

 

 

Advertisements

January

‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.’

[E. E. Cummings]

30226_Decisions_Ahead

It’s 1st January, the start of my favourite month.  I pause, this month, to centre myself around the things in my life that matter most.  It’s the start of a new year but it’s also the middle of my journey.  There are things I have learnt worth honouring, there are things I SELRES_6a71d133-cb6f-44f1-8610-a7629ff7a596SELRES_aead5fe8-c29f-4c01-8b87-28ffa067df14SELRES_24598c12-bb15-402d-b14f-6306d4353afaam doing worth continuing.  It’s 1st January and I can hear John O’DonohueSELRES_24598c12-bb15-402d-b14f-6306d4353afaSELRES_aead5fe8-c29f-4c01-8b87-28ffa067df14SELRES_6a71d133-cb6f-44f1-8610-a7629ff7a596 in that beautiful poem For the Interim Time: ‘As far as you can, hold your confidence.’

It’s 1st January and I am ready with my bullet journal and my coloured pens, I am ready for crisp white pages and new ideas, but I have learnt to pause, instead.  I have learnt that I need those words – hold your confidence – as my January motto.

It’s 1st January and I need to declutter my soul this month, and inside my head.  Choose what I have room for, what’s invited to stay.  Say yes and no to the right things.

I’m not at the starting gate of a brand new race tonight, finishing line in sight.  I’m on this long road – of marriage and parenting and faith and doing my own thing well – and I’d like it to be marked by faithfulness, I’d like to hold on.

My word for 2017 was ‘Permission’ and I carry it with me.  It’s 1st January and maybe, like me, you need it to be an intentional thing – permission to be yourself, permission to be on your long road, permission to take it seriously.

I have a phrase for 2018 forming in my head, but first I need to do some internal decluttering, reminding and honouring.

I wrote down this quote over Advent: ‘We who are here have been led in a special way to keep what is coming on our hearts and to shape ourselves according to it.’

I’m carrying that with me too.

June: Permission to Waste Time

permission4

‘Parents, can you waste time with your children?’

That question from Pope Francis often rattles round my mind.

‘It is one of the most important things that you can do each day’, he says.

It’s June and I need that question.  It’s busy.  Isn’t it busy?

It’s June and sometimes I can’t do it.  My answer is no.  I cannot waste time.  My husband is away and I am trying to wash up my children’s plates before they have finished their dinner.

‘Sharon, can you waste time with your children?’

No?

What a simple, yet profoundly revealing question.

It reminds me that parenthood isn’t about efficiency, it’s not about being one step ahead or feeling like I’m winning.

It’s June and I’m going to give myself permission to waste time with these stick-collectors, these astronauts, these “just one more chapter” little dreamers.  Permission to walk on walls and climb steps and dance in the doorway of the music shop.  Permission to step away from the sink – to be inefficient, but lovingly present.

It’s June, isn’t it busy?  Let’s waste time as a subversive, and healing, act of resistance.  It’s one of the most important things we can do today.

 

Ancient & Slow in a Culture of Quick Questions

53149_Morning_Coffee

“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.