Smiling into the fire

“She has been through hell, so believe me when I say,
fear her when she looks into a fire and smiles.”
E. Corona.

I watched Wonder Woman last night. I loved the funny secretary, the ragtag bunch of friends, the historical setting, the community of Amazonian warrior women. I loved the male characters who were secure and weren’t threatened by Wonder Woman’s leadership or abilities but, on the whole, just let her get on with things.

But most of all, I loved Wonder Woman herself. I loved the non-sexual depiction of a strong, female character. I loved watching her throw off the restraints of what society deemed appropriate so that she was free to carry out her mission. I loved watching her get thrown to the ground only to get back up again, stronger. I loved watching her silence everyone who told her it was impossible by going out and doing the very thing they said she couldn’t do. I loved watching her fix her gaze and stride purposely through no-man’s land and the firestorm of bullets and explosions, determined to help others and fulfil her destiny.

*****

According to the bible, there is a time for everything. There’s a time for peace, but there’s also a time for war. There’s a time to embrace, but also a time to refrain from embracing. There’s a time to be silent, but there’s also a time to stand up and speak out.

The time comes when you have to draw a line in the sand and say no more. Sometimes that happens within us. It’s that refusal to be complicit with the lie that we’re not good enough, that we can’t do it, that our culture or society deems us and our dreams inappropriate, that it’s time to give up.

Sometimes the fight is outside in the world. It’s the willingness to stand up against injustice. It’s the refusal to believe that increased use of food banks is inevitable; that people’s worth is determined by the amount of wealth they create, their gender or their skin colour. It’s the perseverance to keep fighting against poverty, violence and war.

*****

A few months ago, in my home city of Birmingham, a far right organisation called the English Defence League organised a demonstration. One of the group began to racially abuse a woman in a hijab, when Saffiyah Khan stepped up and drew her line in the sand. She fixed her steely gaze on that firestorm and smiled, because she knew a secret. Just by standing there, she had already won.

Photo Credit: Joe Giddens, Press Association

Butterfly Soup

Now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13


Betsy butterfly pic 2

Apparently, when caterpillars begin their transformation into butterflies, they don’t just snuggle up in their chrysalis and grow some wings. Most of what they are dissolves into a kind of mushy pulp, so that their DNA can rearrange itself into something completely different.

Becoming butterfly soup is not such a comfortable feeling. All the old, familiar ways of being have to disintegrate before something new can be formed. It’s hard emotional work when the narrative arc of your life is unravelling and the core of who you are is in flux.

But here’s the question I’ve been living with:

Where is your cocoon?

What is it that surrounds you and holds you together and keeps you safe during this process of deconstruction?

The answer comes in a half-remembered song lyric:

All I know, all I know, love will save the day.

Love is the cocoon spun tightly round us when our world is disintegrating. It’s the safety net that gives us permission to feel our feelings through all the turmoil of change. It’s the shelter that gives us somewhere to rest when we’re falling apart.

We create these spaces for each other when we’re consistent and trustworthy; when we show up for the big occasions and the daily grind; when we listen to each other, honouring our different stories.

Love becomes our refuge. It is a tent spread over us, a sanctuary where we may wait together in hope that eventually, something beautiful will emerge.

 

Photo Credit: Betsy McIntyre

When you’re feeling a bit grubby

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Have you ever noticed how grubby some things can get in the summer?

Shoes, feet, soul.

The close of the school year has them all feeling a bit frayed round the edges, a bit scuffed up and battered, a bit past their best.

I’ve imagined that God hates all this dirtiness and disarray. I’ve thought of him as a perfectionist that likes me better if I’m scrubbed up, sweet-smelling and clean. I assume that in the messy moments he distances himself so he doesn’t have to put up with me while I’m not at my best.

But this week I remembered those precious words, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not bad attitudes or frayed tempers; not thoughtless words or mean thoughts; not battered souls or doubtful hearts.

And I remembered the story of Jesus humbling himself  to tend to his disciples’ dirty feet.

When everything is in a mess, he doesn’t leave but gets down there in the dirt with us. He takes those vulnerable, strange, often aching parts of us, that get so grubby in some seasons, and tenderly washes them clean with his own two hands.

 

Surviving the waves

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

When you’re swimming in huge waves, the best thing is to dive straight into them. You take a deep breath and make the conscious choice to go under the water, trusting you will find your way back up again. If you don’t, the current will pull you under anyway, dragging you along the seabed until it spits you out, battered, bruised and breathless on the shoreline.

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There seems to be wave after wave to negotiate sometimes. Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Towers. Poverty, injustice, grief, loss, heartbreak, disappointment. How can we face such a deluge without drowning?

Maybe it starts with being honest and telling the truth about our own stories and the story of our society, even the hard parts. It’s so tempting to present only the best, most faith-filled versions of ourselves. It’s so easy to jump straight to an automatic ‘just-trust-God’ response. It seems so much more sanitary for everyone if we numb our pain instead of expressing it.

But the Bible is full of lament and we do ourselves and our communities a damaging injustice if we refuse to allow people to feel their feelings in the name of staying strong, or having faith.

Even so, there are no easy options. Choosing to make yourself vulnerable can be terrifying. Other people’s anguish is a weighty thing to carry. Challenging years of systemic neglect and injustice is painstaking, difficult work. But every wave of the terrible brings with it the possibility of the beautiful. Relationships are formed and deepened; communities are knit together more closely; generosity swallows up scarcity whole. Tidal waves of suffering and compassion rush in together, inseparable as the salt from the sea.

Perhaps this is what it means to be baptised.
Perhaps this is the way to redemption.

 

Picture Credit: Wave, Craig Bennett 

There is always enough

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28

Not enough. It’s the cry of our times. It’s our dominant narrative, our underlying assumption, our bottom line. There’s not enough money, not enough time, not enough resources, not enough power, not enough recognition, not enough love. Not enough of anything. The hope that one day we’ll finally be satisfied always seems just out of arm’s reach. So we carry on running round the proverbial hamster wheel, exhausted and going nowhere.

It causes us to live in a state of fear and anxiety, always worried that we won’t have enough, do enough, be enough. We become paralysed, unable to reach out beyond ourselves. If there’s not enough for us, how can we be expected to give to others?

I see it in our government, the way we run our schools, our businesses, our health and social care; I see it in our response to the poor, the vulnerable, the refugee.

I see it in myself, in the way I sometimes hold onto things with clenched fists, anxious that if I share there won’t be enough left for me. I see it in the times I feel uncomfortable making room for others out of fear that the space I occupy will be diminished.

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The good news, though, is that another way is possible. In the stories of the Bible, we are invited to reimagine the world, not as a place of scarcity, but as a place of generosity and abundance, a place where everyone can thrive.

For Christians, God’s overwhelming generosity is centred in Jesus. The accounts of his life provide story after story whispering to us of another kingdom – a place where there is healing, acceptance, provision, inclusion, forgiveness. And in his death and resurrection he pays off the debt we could never pay ourselves – he dies our death so we can live his life.

The question is how do we live in such a story, when the world of ‘not enough’ seems so much more believable? How do we imagine anything better is possible when the work is piling up and the money is running out and we are constantly exhausted? How do we believe in the generosity of God when the world seems actively designed to benefit the rich while the poor and the vulnerable suffer? It is no easy task.

I want to suggest that we might begin with three small, subversive acts.

The first is gratitude.

Being thankful is such a powerful way of rebelling against the kingdom of ‘not enough.’ It reminds us to be content with what we already have rather than continuously grasping and grabbing for more. It takes the focus from lack to provision in one small word: thank you.

The second is remembering.

We have to keep retelling our stories, allowing them to reshape our thinking, our attitudes and our actions. That’s why the faithful church is much more than an exclusive social club. It is called to be an inclusive and generous community that reminds people over and over again who they really are and how much they are really loved, without condition.

The third is rest.

In Mark’s gospel, there’s an interesting moment where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees for healing someone on the Sabbath, when he’s supposed to be resting from work. But when we are truly in a place of rest, we find we have the capacity to look outside ourselves and towards the needs of our neighbours. In the words of theologian, Walter Brueggemann, we ‘have enough energy to dream and hope. [And] from dreams and hopes come such neighbourly miracles as good health care, good schools, good houses, good care for the earth and disarmament.’ (Journey to the Common Good, p. 35). Because of God’s generosity, we are finally able to live in ways which allow the world and all who are in it to flourish.

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Photo credit: Wheat Fields 2 by Yazeed

When you’re on the edge

The Way We Help Each Other Hold On

Isn’t it strange how the beautiful and the terrible can be so intimately intertwined?

A person can be so hopeless, so full of despair and anguish that jumping from a bridge seems like the best option. Yet a group of strangers decide, no, not today. Today we will hold onto you. Today we will wrap ropes and bag straps and our arms around you and hold on tight until you are safe.

They held onto that man for two hours.

/ / /

Haven’t we all felt like we’re on the edge at some point? Life can hand us such a heavy load. Disappointment and grief. Heartache and loss. The tragic fate of a nation and the blood and tears of a city. Children who will grow up motherless and Mothers who lose babies over the side of a boat. Each thing another brick to add to the pile we are already carrying. The weight of it threatening to tip us over.

Yet in the midst of it all, we keep finding cords to wrap around each other. We make phone calls and send messages. We make time and give space. We ask sincerely, listen carefully, pray wisely. We bring flowers, ice cream, wine, trashy magazines. We say no, not today. Today is not your day to fall off the edge. You are not alone. I’m hanging out with you and holding onto you. I’m staying here until you feel safe again, even if it takes a long time.

These are the places we find Jesus. In the beautiful-terrible. In the middle of all the mess and chaos, arms round our neck, looking us in the eye, wrapping kindness around us. And those days we can’t seem to find him? Perhaps he’s the one down on his knees, in the dirt and the ashes, holding us tight so we don’t fall.

The Power of a Small Ritual

My state of mind is mostly scattered and distracted. A million thoughts shooting off in a million different directions, all travelling at the speed of light. I’m fragmented, disconnected and exhausted from living inside my own head.

I cannot seem to be still for long enough to regain my equilibrium.

I need an action that grounds me. I need to do something physical that creates a space in which I can stop for a minute and breathe.

So I light a candle as a small act of defiance against the chaos.

betsy candles

The moment begins as the match is struck. A sudden crackle and flare in the darkness.

Jesus Christ, light of the world.

The flame catches the wick and the steady glow of candlelight begins to change the atmosphere. It softens sharp edges and dims distractions. Both my breathing and the time seem somehow slowed.

In Celtic Christianity, centring prayer is used as a practice to quiet the mind. A single word, which represents a person’s intention to draw close to God and be open to the divine, is chosen as a focus. If a person becomes aware of other thoughts, the word is simply returned to, like a North Star for the soul.

In a similar way, the single flame of a candle becomes a call to simplicity and concentration. It provides a focus point and an anchor. It creates a sacred space for a weary soul.

The moment is over when the candle is extinguished. An ordinary moment has been reframed, mind quieted, heart calmed, soul stilled.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Betsy McIntyre, http://www.luckypennyphoto.com

There’s No Place Like Home

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe, from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Living abroad for a season brought my concept of home into sharp focus. It was an exciting adventure in many ways and it was often fun to be the British girl with the cute accent. But sometimes being away got tiring. I wanted to be in a place where the stuff of daily life, like going to post office or doctors, made sense to me. I longed for people who already knew my culture, my history and my stories. I missed my family. I wanted to go home.

Isn’t it like that for all of us sometimes? You don’t have to live in another country to feel like an outsider, or that you don’t really belong. Moments of crisis, in particular, seem to bring to the surface all the ways that we feel lost, misunderstood and out of place.

In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd finds some striking parallels between our longing for home and the story of Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s moment of crisis occurs when she decides to run away from home and gets caught up in a tornado that whisks her away from her family. Through all the chaos and turmoil of the whirlwind, Dorothy arrives

…in a place that presented her with parts of herself: with a Scarecrow who had lost his brain and needed to learn to think for himself, a Tin Woodman who had lost his heart and needed to learn to feel his own feelings, and a Lion, who had lost his courage and needed to find the inner mettle to be himself. (p.92)

For people of faith, finding our way home along the Yellow Brick Road means rediscovering our identity in the God who loves us high and wide and deep and long. God is not threatened by our questions, doubts and wonderings. He’s not afraid of people who wrestle with ideas and think for themselves, instead of accepting the status quo.

In the security of a relationship where we’re free to ask questions, we begin to realise that we are also free to feel our own feelings. We don’t have to stay numb through fear of what will happen if we say how we really are. We sit by the roadside and grieve, lament and wail, if (when) that is the appropriate response to our lives and our world. Emmanuel, God with us, comes to sit down beside us in the dust and the ashes, the mud and the tears. He stays with us. And stays and stays and stays. God with us.

Throughout the process, we start to recognise that God with us is also God in us. We begin to glimpse what it means to have been created in His image. He names us and defines us. We are fully known and fully accepted, just as we are, free to be our full, glorious selves.

In the end, Dorothy learns that the choice to go home has been hers all along. She can return any time she wants to, under the power of her own two feet and some ruby slippers.

 

Jesus told a similar story about a son who was lost and realised, in his moment of crisis, that he could go home, too. He set out to walk his own Yellow Brick Road only to be met, while he was still a long way off, by the sight of his Father running towards him, heart and arms stretched wide with compassion, acceptance and love.

Like Dorothy and the lost son, we are all on the journey back home, while at the same time beginning to understand that, in the already-but-not-yet of God’s kingdom, home has been ours all along.

 

 

On Leaving Home

I’m packing up and moving house again this summer. My time in one home is coming to an end and I’m not quite sure where the next one will be yet. I don’t do ‘not knowing’ very well. It makes me edgy and unsettled.

Plus, moving always seems to require endless sorting and decision-making. What do I need to keep? What shall I throw away? How can I rework things to fit into a new space? Who will help me carry boxes? Am I destined to spend my entire life hauling my stuff in and out of my parents’ garage?

It’s exhausting and overwhelming just to think about it. I’m like Sam in the 90s TV show, Quantum Leap, ‘each time hoping the next leap will be the leap home.’

Of course, you don’t have to move house to feel like you’re leaving home. Life has its way of tipping us out of the nest when things that were once comfortable and familiar no longer seem to exist. A situation changes, your perspective shifts, or maybe you’re just done with pretending. Either way, you can’t stay where you are, but who knows where you will end up?

Transitions are mostly awkward and uncomfortable. It’s messy and chaotic and sometimes painful to pack up and leave. It can be extremely daunting to set off down an unclear path to reach an unknown destination, even if it’s your own choice to go.

But I’m taking comfort from Tolkein, who knew about epic journeys and understood that ‘not all those who wander are lost.’

Just because the path is unknown, doesn’t that mean that we are.  Our Shepherd is good, he knows us, and his grace will lead us home.

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Creative Commons Gipfelweg by Waldemar Merger is licensed under CC by 2.0

Knitting in the dark

If I say surely the “darkness will hide me,
and the light become night around me”
even the darkness will not be dark to you…

Psalm 139:11-12

Although the nights are getting lighter, I keep finding my thoughts drawn back to the dark. Darkness can be such a compelling metaphor. We associate it with grief, or depression, or blindness. We don’t appreciate being kept in the dark. Whether out in the world or inside ourselves, dark places can be disorienting and distressing.

But here’s the thing: darkness can also be oddly comforting.

Imagine that moment when you’ve come to the end of a long day. You sink into bed and finally switch off the light. The sudden pitch-black offers a sweet relief. There is no more work to be done today, only sleep.

New life always begins in darkness, too. Seeds in soil, caterpillars in cocoons, babies in wombs, Jonah in the whale, Jesus in the tomb. All might be hidden in the confusion of the unseen and unknown, but all is not lost. There is always more going on inside us that is yet to be revealed.

Perhaps in our night-time seasons, we can find ourselves a place to rest, knowing that for all the ways we can’t see him, Jesus can still see us and is knitting us back together in the dark.

string of hearts
Creative Commons String of Hearts by Wordless Memoirs is licensed under CC by 2.0