Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

I was listening to a sermon illustration this morning, I think I was holding my breath and saying in my head, “Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.” And he didn’t.

Have you ever read those devotionals, the happy being single ones? There are a lot of single Christian ladies out there who have been conditioned to expect to be married and have children. Someone who was single piles on the wisdom of how to be happy and single in a church and then in at the end praises God that He led her to the perfect man and now she is happily married. The implication is that singleness is not a godly state to be in. To be truly fulfilled a woman needs to be married.

Or maybe you have read those devotionals, the content the being childless ones. Not everyone has all the bits necessary to have children, but, yet again Christian wives are conditioned to expect children and a quiver full. There’s more wisdom on how to deal with barrenness. Hannah gets a mention as does her prayer. Then after all the heartache, the writer ends by saying that just like Hannah, God gave her children.

The speaker this morning was preaching the next in a series of words based on Psalm 23. We have got to the bit about walking in the valley of the shadow of death. It’s not a leading up to death word that is saved for funerals, but a daily life word for when, not if, we go through difficult times. It may be sickness, unemployment or debt. Sometimes it’s not what you do but just where you find yourself. It happens to us all.

This man’s valley was in the area of pregnancy and childbirth. There was a time when his wife came out the bathroom waving a home pregnancy test. The line was thick and blue announcing the pregnancy. The first hospital scan took place. Things were not going well. The baby’s heartbeat was weak and slow. They were told to wait a couple of weeks, go back and see if things had changed.

The man and his wife and probably everyone in the church were praying. They were urgent, messy, passionate prayers. It’s this part of the narrative where I’m thinking, “Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.” I wanted them to have a happy ending. I wanted the story to come out well. More than that I wanted their story to be just like mine. There was a miscarriage. There was no happy ending. I can’t say I was glad there was a miscarriage. I’ve been there, done that, shed the tears and I wouldn’t want any woman to go through that.

I’m not sure what I would have felt if for all the urgent, messy and passionate prayers, the baby had a strong heartbeat and was delivered safely however many months later. It didn’t happen that way. There was a miscarriage and I thought, “I’m not the only one.”

The word spoke so powerfully to me. I had not accepted my miscarriage in any passive way. I was praying powerful, faith-full words. I was begging God to save my child and it didn’t happen. When I fell pregnant a second time, I tried not to think that I’d been down that path before when I began bleeding early into the pregnancy. It was, however, another miscarriage.

My pregnancies happened through fertility treatment. It didn’t help that many of the ladies in the church disapproved of the treatment. They wanted a proper miracle. They wanted Hannah. I’d seen what trying to be Hannah had done for other women, how hard it was on the emotions, and always that sense of failure that was not said but felt. I wasn’t a young wife. I didn’t have decades to wait. I didn’t want to give birth in my forties and have a child while claiming a pension. I believe that God gives medical know-how to doctors that Hannah did not have access to.

To know that someone else had walked through my dark valley and experienced my road – and had prayed just as hard as I did for a happy ending that never came – I felt understood. This man, I thought, can speak into my life because he has been where I have been. I didn’t begrudge the next pregnancy and the strong baby heartbeat that he experienced. Just knowing that he knew my path was enough. He knew my unhappy ending.

The other thing that came to mind, I think it was a forgiving of myself. I’d always held in the deepest parts of me, the places in me that I rarely explored, that it was my fault I’d miscarried. I questioned whether my prayers were passionate enough or whether I really had faith to see God act. Perhaps the whole fertility treatment was, as the women in the church insisted, not God’s plan.  Maybe I was Hannah and all I needed was patience.

I will say this, I never once felt, through that difficult journey, that God had abandoned me. I was always swift to come into His presence. I cried endless tears, but I never came to end of God’s comfort. I am not a person that thinks God is any less than God, if what I want doesn’t happen. God will answer my “why?” when I see Him.

I laid it all to rest. I never went on to have children, but I believe that God opened up another way for me to be creative. I began to write poetry.  It’s not God’s second best destiny for me, but the one He always planned for me to step into. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tree Blossom Banter

I mowed the back lawn the other day. The grass wasn’t entirely dry. Other parts of the UK might be soaking up the sunshine but that doesn’t always apply to the North of Scotland. It was the first cut of the year, so the grass wasn’t entirely short either. The council had just started emptying the garden bins. The blades of the mower weren’t entirely sharp. A storm wind had pulled the felt roofing off the shed so we might have been dealing with a bit of rust. There were things lurking in the long grass and as the mower hit the unknown, stones and branches and half a coconut shell that had once been a bird feeder swinging from the whirly gig, it didn’t sound entirely happy. but we pushed on.

There was a tractor in the field out back cutting grass. In the time it took the man to mow the whole field, I was still plugging away on my back lawn. If the pubs had been open, and the mower a person, I would have treated it to a pint or two.

You can understand then how I found myself on the sofa. I was hot and decided to forgo the half dozen rows of knitting I have trained myself to do if I’m sitting there. Wiping stinging sweat from my eyes I looked out of the window.

It was a breezy afternoon. The wind was tugging off the last of the blossom and spilling it over the lawn like confetti. Sometimes it feels like it takes the tree forever to erupt into blossom. It’s a cherry tree but doesn’t produce any cherries and each year I feel robbed. Each year there seems to be a few windy days just after the blossom has popped out and it is all too swiftly gone.

The tree has done with the blossom. It had done its job and the tree no longer needs the blossom. If I was a tree, I would delight in my blossom self and loving my pretty self that I would waste energy into holding on to my blossom. I would be battling the wind as it snatched the blossom out of my twig fingers.

Real trees know when to let go. They move out of the blossom stage and into another season of growth. All their energy is now spent on buds and leaves and soaking up sunshine. It’s as if the tree surrenders up those bits of itself that are no longer needed. Secret signals pass through the tree passing on t message that it’s time to let go. Something new is on its way. A new season of life.

I was listening to a message of surrendering on Sunday. There is so much that God wants to do with and through me. In order to be the best “me” that He can work with I need to do a lot of letting go. I have a life history that tells me “I’ve got this” when I haven’t. Everything I need to be the best “me” God has done.

If I was a tree and watching the buds punctuate the branch like fat commas that burst into leaves, I would say, “Wow!” Just as I like the pretty blossom me, I would like the leafy green me and as autumn arrived, I would be wasting energy again to hold on to my leaves as they bronze and rust. I would have another battle with the wind to stop it snatching them away. But real trees know when to let go. The old leaves have done their job and the tree moves into another season of life.

I need to learn from trees that there is a time for letting go, for surrendering the things that I am done with. There is a new adventure on its way, and I need to clear the decks. I cannot afford to be expending energy holding on to something that has done its job.

If I was a tree, I’m not sure whether I am blossoming, hatching buds, bursting leaves or browning them off ready for them to fall. I’m not sure whether there is a winter quietness on me of gathering and amassing energy for a new season. Maybe I’m all those things at once in different parts of my life. I pay careful attention to what Spirit says as He directs me life and I’m ready to respond.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Things That Slip in Under the Radar

Ages ago I bought a book on my kindle, “The Sound of Paper” by Julia Cameron. Julia and I had parted company not very far into the book when she asked me to make a doll of myself. I worried that someone might pinch the doll and start poking pins in it. I’d made a lot of enemies. Earlier this week there was an opportunity to join Julia at an online writing course about her morning pages - three pages of writing, stream of consciousness stuff that doesn’t need to make sense but usually has a gem or two when you look over what you’ve written. I didn’t sign up, but I did dig out the book and started back at the beginning doing the exercises.

For this particular excerise I was asked to write about myself as if I was a character in a book. Rather than say “I am sixty-two”, it was “She is sixty-two” and then go on to describe myself. It wasn’t about being creative and describing the me I would like to be. It was me as I am. I was supposed to allocate an hour to this task. It was not that I would run out of things to write about, but I had other things on the to-do list so I didn't write do the whole time.

I coped with all the physical stuff. “She wears glasses, but there’s no lens in the left side as she is waiting for a cataract operation for the right eye.” I mentioned the poor hearing and her not wearing her hearing aids as she ought to. I wrote about her diminishing height. She never quite made it to five feet, but now seems to be nowhere near.

I was supposed to include something about my character. If you really want to know yourself, just try writing yourself as a character in a book. Things slip in under the radar. They are the things that you don’t normally acknowledge. It’s not like the secret life of Walter Mitty. It’s just stuff.

“She’s lonely” I wrote. “She’s not particularly friendly. It may be that she thinks if people come too close and looked into her heart, they would see nothing because she is empty at her core.”

Where did that come from? It’s not a new thought. It just slipped under the radar. I’m not unfriendly by any means but I don’t make friends easily and I place too much of the work of maintaining that friendship on other person’s shoulders. I am hard work.

The “empty at her core” is an echo from a conversation I had with a church pastor many years ago. I was a recent importee from a strict church that did not pursue the gifts of the Spirit. The church I moved into was charismatic by nature. Much of the strictness was still in place. I hadn’t melted sufficiently to be at home.

I wasn’t unfriendly at the time, but I was locked-up-shy. Stick me on a stage with an audience and a party piece and I was pure extrovert and exhibitionist. Throw me into a room of school children and I could busk my way through just about any topic. Crowds did not faze me. Close conversations were a different order al together.

Normal conversations just didn’t happen. My brother once described me as “disturbingly quiet”. I don’t know why I was so quiet. On my first day at school some boy pinged an elastic band at me and it hit my glasses. Maybe at such a fragile age I learned that the world was a hostile place, so I kept a distance.

The church pastor suggested the worry stemmed from worrying that if people didn’t like me when they got to know me I had nowhere to go after that. I feared rejection. It was a self-protection strategy but one that did not fit into God’s Kingdom. It took me a long time to dismantle my shyness. Maybe it’s not dismantled at all and I just live with it and push it to the side.

“…she thinks if people come too close and look into her heart, they will see nothing because she is empty at her core.” You know when you are reading something that touches deeply – the tears flow.

“It’s not true,” God was swift to interrupt the writing exercise. “There is no empty core, not from where I’m looking. I see a reservoir of truth, knowledge and experience. I see a well-trodden path towards it. There has been a sharing of heart, time and time again and it never runs dry.”

I am glad that I have a God who interrupts, who will not allow me to hold in my heart something that is so not true.

("The Sound of Paper" by Julia Cameron)