Keep safe. Be kind. Enjoy
[NOTE: This piece was written by Abi, our daughter, on the first anniversary of her Grandma, my Mum, passed away.] It took me years before I learnt that the beautiful pieces of art around the house were painted by my grandma. She was an artist, an aspect of her I don’t remember much of. And I’ve recently been thinking about my belief in the Great Artist. My grandma could create masterpieces from nothing, in the same way that The Great Artist created everything in existence from nothing…including us. Human beings are art work. My grandma was artwork.
I feel sad today that she could make such incredible art, art that has and will outlive her, art that has a place in my home, art that speaks. Yet she never saw herself as artwork, as a masterpiece. And she never saw others this way either.
Of course human beings are art. How can we not be? Our prayers are spells, our words are poetry, and our smiles are a fresh flick of the paintbrush, and our bodies are the frames we’re in. Our expressions, our frowns, our tears, our exclamations – even our clothing, our mannerisms, and our choices- are all communicating art. Our joy, pain, accomplishments, pain, conflicts, failures, disappointments, hope…do we not use these to create paintings and patchworks and sculptures all the time? We are complex and evolving and abstract. But isn’t that art? The painting in my grandma’s dining room that is vibrant and feels like spring, is just as much art as the broken ships on the shore that now hangs in my living room. The yellows in the first painting are not more ‘art’ than the blacks and greys of the latter. Of course, some people will prefer one painting over another- preference is part of art I suppose. The latter painting speaks to my soul far more than the spring painting.
Even on our darkest days, we are art. Living pieces of art.
I wonder if my grandma would, have lived differently if she knew was a masterpiece, if she knew she was art. I wonder how she would have been if she knew that every single part of her was a work of art and that she was communicating with other living pieces of art. I hope it would have helped her to pray honestly and sincerely, authentically from her heart – not worrying about what or who God wanted her to be and feel, or what others wanted to see; that it would have allowed her to be a masterpiece. Her joy would be understood by her as art, her depression would be understood as art. Instead she saw some things of her masterpiece as needing to be painted into the forefront and shown off, and other pieces as mistakes on the canvas that needed to be painted over or covered.
I wonder if it would have empowered her to be kinder to others – to see the art in others that she encountered, lived with and loved. I can only wish that she would have seen the art in people, regardless of the colours used for their frame, and the accent in which they shared their poetry. I can only wish that she wouldn’t have spent her life advising others on the sort of art that they ‘should’ be, but she would have learnt to appreciate the art they were in those moments, always evolving, always changing, totally abstract, but sometimes with beautiful clarity. When I wander around art galleries, there’s frankly a lot of paintings and sculptures that are wasted on me. I don’t understand them. I’m not sure I understand the language of their spells or the meaning of their poetry. I can look at a painting and wonder why that colour was used or that part thrown into the forefront. My lack of understanding doesn’t diminish the fact that it is art. And so, this goes for people too. Our lack of understanding of others doesn’t make them any less a masterpiece.
The thing that pains me the most when I remember my grandma is that of my first image in her last weeks at the hospital: old and frail, tired, lonely and terrified. I remember her telling me that God wasn’t ready for her yet, and she wasn’t going to die yet, and I kindly smiled and said, “Grandma, God is always ready for you, and you don’t need to worry about that. If it is God’s timing, then it is God’s timing and there’s not much you can do about that.” Gosh Grandma, don’t fight with The Great Artist. Don’t you see, that even in death, He is making art? He is making things new and making things beautiful. I can remember my sister sitting with her reading the Psalms, and others playing her hymns in her last days to bring her peace. And I mostly remember trying my hardest to love her and look after her and alleviate her fears – to see her art, her painful, terrified, exhausted art, and meet it with my own art: kindness and love and peace. When we see people as art, it allows us to stop for a moment and consider how we should reflect and respond to the art being presented to us. I didn’t present some of my other spells and poems and expressions of art for my grandma on those days in the hospital – my own grief and anxiety and pain for her. I shared that art with others, in the carpark outside.
My comfort today, a year on since she died in the hospital and not in her home, is that she is entirely and authentically a masterpiece, existing amongst art and able to see and celebrate art that her eyes wouldn’t allow her to see while she was with us: in a variety of frames, praying a huge host of spells and speaking poetry in accents and languages that will no longer make her feel uncomfortable.
15.44. It was bitterly cold this morning when I ventured out for a walk. But the sun was out and the wind had dropped. The beach was crowded with runners – crazy people! But I was alone with my thoughts and with My Papa and that is always more than enough for me.
We talked about doing life together, about the importance of friendships, relationships, collaborating together. I honoured The Divine Dance, The Divine Romance, the fact that Papa, Mama and Aslan dance around me and sing over me. I found myself, yet again, drawn into the heart of The Mysterious and Glorious Three-in-One, the reality that is diminished by the stone cold, hard and dead doctrine of The Trinity. It felt like they loved all over me, kissing and licking me to a place where I was undone and wrecked.
And then I saw that which is obvious, that which is probably the most doctrinally correct I have been in ages. The blindingly obvious can only be seen by those who have eyes to see. For whatever reason, the reality of eternity has gone undetected and unnoticed by those that won’t see. And “no one is blinder than he who won’t see!”
I have always lived my life within the very restrictive confines of my life lived here on earth – my seventy-years or however many God deems I am worthy of. In practice, I have lived my life believing that my life ends the day I stop breathing. After that there is nothing, despite my holding to a Christian worldview.
And then I read “Cross Roads” by William P Young! My conversation with Papa, Mama and Aslan this morning, flowed out of that reading. Now I see! As much as I can! My life does not end when I leave this world. In fact, the few years I have lived and will live are just the introduction to eternity. And one thing is powerfully clear to me. Whatever reality is, disrobed of the robes and finery of the Christian theology, it is, intrinsically about LOVE. It is about friendship, relationship, collaboration; the most perfect and sublime intimacy. In the first place, this is an eternal reality, outside of time and space, an intimacy that has existed within the Godhead – Papa, Mama and Aslan and now shared with me. Yes! I am invited, for all of eternity to become a part of this Glorious Three-in-One and share in the love that exists between them. And time cannot contain such a power. It has to be an eternal thing. And this is what I was designed and created for. This is my reason for being, and will always be.
And the passing from this life, into the unspoken glory of eternity, will make this complete rather than partial. I am lost for words, because it is the most sublime thing. “Thank you, Papa.”
Meanwhile, in the here and now, this is designed to be my modus operandi. Life is about friendship, about collaboration, about LOVE. If it is less than this, it is nothing. Work, Church, family, recreation, parenting, spending money, wasting time – without the power of friendship, of loving The Next One, they mean nothing. They are a lot of noise, without substance.
So whatever The Great Adventure holds for me in the future, one element is not up for discussion and debate. LOVE conquers all. It has to. I can make plans, and do “ministry” – whatever that is – but if it is not relational, and if it is not driven and oozing with love, it is a complete and utter waste of time. A salutary lesson. A defining encounter with My Great Papa this morning. “Thank you.”
Winter as a child was fun! Living on a farm had advantages, we would often get snowed in for days at a time, which meant no school.
Winter as an adult is not quite so much fun. Living on the south coast we hardly get any snow and when we do it is invariably gone within twenty-four hours.
I don’t mind the cold, but I do mind the bare trees, the decomposing leaves, the rain.
Until this year. It is as if the whole year has been winter. A cancer scare, mum passing away, saying goodbye to our last foster placement in difficult circumstances, writing the car off. Depression and now, this week, shingles! And all that in a year when a deadly virus has visited every nation, and wreaked havoc in our communities and our economies. Hours alone, no hugs – not even with our children, rising anxieties about the virus, about the financial fallout, wondering how long it will be. Surely a whole year of winter, the winter of the soul? I wasn’t sure I liked winter at all. Until recently.
Winter – a time of quiet, of hibernation, of bareness. Everything hidden. And therein lies the secret. In nature, everything seems to die, but in reality everything is growing where it can’t be seen, putting roots down deeper, getting ready for the emergence of spring, and the new life that erupts to our senses. In the winter of the soul, the same is true.
Two prolonged lockdowns have been, for me, a time of quiet, of hibernation, of bareness. Everything has been hidden. Much has died – the pain of loss, of failure and disappointment; the legacy of rigid, stiff religious beliefs that were drilled into me as a child. Now gone. The blindness that refuses to see the wonder of the universe and the work of My Great Papa in ALL things. Gone. My stubborn hanging on to forms of lifestyle, relationships, church, etc. Vanishing before my eyes.
And emotional and psychological roots pushing deeper into the richness of My God, who knows me as I am and still loves me, as I am and not as I should be, because I will never be as I should be. When the spring of the soul appears, slowly, imperceptibly, new life will appear, enriched by the soil that my roots have grabbed hold of. And my nakedness will be covered by vibrant leaves and blossom and flowers will brighten the day, and fruit will emerge to satisfy the hungry heart. New life – new lifestyle, new beliefs, new eyes to see the beauty and glory of My Great Papa in all things. And maybe new church – shaped and formed by the relentless, outrageous waters of The Love that ebb and flow through the very fibre of the universe.
The “normal” that follows winter is never the same two years in a row. “Normal” is fresh and vibrant and untouched. Because there is no such thing as normal in this life, not anymore. Especially after 2020, The Year of the Pandemic. That has, hopefully, changed us – people, communities and nations – forever, and for the better.
Nestled deep in the British countryside is The Repair Shop, where a team of Britain’s most skilled and caring craftspeople rescue and resurrect items their owners thought were beyond saving. Together they transform priceless pieces of family history and bring loved, but broken treasures, and the memories they hold back to life. [Taken from the show’s website.]
There is a plethora of UK television programmes from a genre that has to do with antiques, usually owned by the public, who have no idea of the value that the pieces hold, except in sentimental value. When it was first launched on BBC1, late afternoon, I sighed. “Not another programme for old people! Really?” I chose to ignore the advancing years of my own life; I may not be old, but I am now sixty-one, and the aches and pain of that age remind me often that I am getting old, although I have no intention of behaving old… except for the frequent nap in the afternoon. It is necessary, combating my insomnia, caused by too many babies who didn’t like sleep. I digress.
I quickly got hooked, until today it is one of my favourite things on TV, even though it leaves me in tears far too often.
The Repair Shop reminds me of My Great Papa, the God of the Christian faith, who is often pictured as a potter, crafting pottery into something beautiful. The intention to detail as the master craftsmen repair items that I would probably have dumped; the joy they clearly get in working with such care to restore items back to something very close to their original glory; the patience it requires – nobody ever gives up, loses their cool or shows an ounce of frustration. And the pleasure shown by the craftsmen when the “customer” returns for their beloved old thing. The blanket is removed and the look on the owners face is always a picture. And the other craftsmen watch from their benches and join in the pleasure and joy, as though they have been part of the restoration – could that be a glimpse into the mystery that we call The Trinity, but have no idea what that means?
But The Repair Shop also shows what “church” should be and should look like. The world is full of broken people – sometimes simply from the wear and tear of life, but sadly often the result of neglect and abuse – people who need to be repaired and restored. If My Great Papa is the Master Craftsman, then surely church, whatever that looks like and is or isn’t, should be, at times, a repair shop? Sadly, for too many, and I am one, the church has become the place where much of the damage that we carry is inflicted, rather than where the damage is repaired.
The programme shows a group of people, all experts in their own field, but novices when it comes to what might be required at any time. They love their work – you can see the sheer pleasure they get doing the repair and the utter joy when the work is completed. Tired church has stopped enjoying those moments, probably we are no longer artisans in the role we play. And for too long, we have been fed the lie that pleasure and joy are emotions that Christians should not feel.
It is not unusual for one of the team to request the help of another to complete a job. The one drops everything to help the other, knowing that the one requesting will be the one who gets the credit. Oh, for church to be a community where there is no competition! And when the joy of unveiling the finished work erupts, the other craftsmen stop work at the bench to enjoy the moment. Church should always enjoy the success and completion of another.
And ultimately, “church” should be a place, a community, a family where the broken lives of both church and world can be repaired and restored, often to a greater glory and beauty than they had before. And while we celebrate their healing, My Great Papa smiles and sometimes chuckles at the great thing that has just been achieved.
I suspect there are conversations around the world, in churches of all shapes and sizes, about what church is going to be and look like, post-COVID19 and the lockdown. I don’t have answers, except to express the hope that church will become family, community – a place and a people where the broken and exhausted and lost can feel safe and loved; a place where somebody will draw alongside another, take their hand, and walk at least part of their journey of faith with them; a place where people, who are healed and restored, but still carry the scars, can administer the healing love of My Great Papa; an environment where the achievements and successes can be celebrated with others rather than competed against. And I could go on, but I suspect you get the drift.
The Repair Shop – a veiled image of heaven on earth? I hope so.
Psalms 91.1: He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I am writing this at the start of the third week of the COVID19 lockdown here in the UK. For most of us, we are confined to quarters, only allowed out of our homes for essential purposes. And for most of us, we are struggling, finding it hard to socially distance and slow down. I hope this helps:
As I walked out the door, down the path and through the gate, I spoke to the God of the Christian faith, who was yet to become My Great Papa: “What the hell are you doing this time?” Words spoken with more than a hint of pain, of anger and venom. I had just been abandoned, rejected and shut down by somebody I had trusted, because I should have been able to trust them.
The walk home that day was difficult. Emotions were running high, ebbing and flowing faster than usual, my mind spinning so fast I was quickly losing all sense of balance and equilibrium. And words refused to form, my inability to speak protecting me from expressing the poison of my heart and mind.
That day is forever etched, even seared in my memory as one of the key turning points of my life. I withdrew, especially from church which was now no longer safe, but a minefield littered with explosives; but also from friends, people I had trusted before, but now not sure that I could. I started to walk most days, even in the rain. In fact, the autumnal showers, the clouds, the almost naked trees, the cold wind seemed to suit my mood. The same route as I do today, thirteen years on.
These walks became one of my very few safe places. Nothing to prove, nothing to justify or explain; no performance to act out, no right or wrong, no expectations or demands. Just me, floundering around in my own pain and darkness. And in the darkness slowly discovering the hand that was outstretched, not forced but offered. And slowly but surely, over the years and still today, the discovery that the God of the Christian faith, had not instigated the pain, but was certainly creating a work of art, a thing of beauty and grace… Me!
Four months later, I found myself on the hills of Northumbria, still in pain, desperately trying to force my God into taking away the pain and banishing the darkness. And on that bitterly cold, but bright day, stood beside a pile of cow manure, overlooking the rolling hills, I discovered that the God of the Christian faith was actually and simply is, My Great Papa!
Twelve years have passed; I am more healed than I thought possible, and more loved by My Great Papa than I deserved or imagined. I still walk most days in The Secret Place. It is a daily form of discipline, a withdrawal, a seclusion, a kind of retirement, into a place of rest and safety. It is a place forbidden to others, a place of exclusive connection between me and the God I am now obsessed with. He is My Secret Place.
And so to 2020. We have had many other challenges over the years, situations where pain, darkness, fear and doubt attempt to batter down the door into my inner world. As each threat passes, I realise that it has become easier to shed the pain and feel my way through the thick fog, and then to move on, learning the lessons, understanding myself better, and still up for the journey that unveils before me.
When the government announced the rules of lockdown, the introvert within leapt for joy! Now my walk is compulsory – it is my daily dose of exercise, but it is so much more than that. I still wake at 04.00, the legacy of fostering little ones whose ability to sleep was seriously affected by their start in life. I am out of the house at around 05.00. On a bad day I might bump into five other insomniacs, out walking their dog, running, or feeding foxes! Usually it is two or three. My phone is silent. And in those early hours, I go into The Secret Place, isolate myself and rest in the company of My Great Papa. I am learning new depths of silence, solitude, withdrawal, seclusion and rest.
And there I am safe; not just from COVID19 or even the fear of this wretched virus. But safe, sheltering in the shadow of My Great Papa. Sometimes, shadows are good. As I recovered from the pain and darkness, I spent a lot of time in the shadows, protecting myself from further hurt. Now I spend time in The Shadow of My Great Papa. It is a great place to hide, to rest, to restore, to recharge my batteries; ready to emerge into the world in which I now find myself and ready to make a difference by being Papa to The Next One.
This lockdown is strange, something nothing could prepare us for. But it is also an opportunity, whatever your faith or religion, values or belief systems. It is a time to slow down, to withdraw into silence, stillness and rest; it is a time to reflect and meditate – all those things we have all neglected over the years and will, most likely, neglect in the future. Lockdown = The Secret Place. If my story is anything to go by, I promise you it will change you forever, especially if there you discover the ultimate beauty and love of My Great Papa.
I saw the cold, inflexible dryness of correct doctrine… now I see a God who will not be restricted by what I believe. I cannot believe that I settled for cold and dry for so long, when the warm rivers of relentless love have always been there.
I saw the barrenness of religious duty and habits… now I see the idea of intimate relationship breaking out. My daily walk in The Secret Place has brought to life the garden of my heart, a place where my Papa and I can share hearts, dreams and visions. And I see the crazy world that we find ourselves in today as a call for the church to hibernate and rediscover The Secret Place.
I saw the edges of the broken glass of division, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, manifest in the church over centuries… now I see the incredible gentleness, love and joy of the kindness of my God being manifest, not only in his family, but in our nation trapped and imprisoned by the lockdown of Coronavirus.
I have seen over the years, in me and others, a harshness and unkindness that inflicts wounds and leaves scars… in the last few days, I have seen the kindness of a nation, honouring the NHS staff for all they are doing, the quiet “thank you” to nurses, bin men, supermarket staff, and so many other things.
I have seen and felt in the last few days the pain and hurt that we can inflict on each other… Today I see and feel the unbelievable healing of so many, who love and support when others are hurting.
“No one, no one is blinder, than he who will not see.” (U2)
I can see clearly today, where before I would have fumbled around in the dark. And it is not so hard for me to see what my Papa is doing as the world goes into lockdown. I can see a church pushed into The Secret Place, to rediscover what it means to be loved and then to love. I can see an outpouring of kindness, bubbling up to become, a torrent of love and gentleness and compassion… a church and a nation forever changed.
I’m a bit slow. It had been about two years, maybe three or four times a year; phrases like, “Shall we become foster carers?” “We could do fostering.” Only this time the thought stuck and the penny dropped: “You’re serious, aren’t you? I thought you were joking!”
And so began the exploration. I needed time. I walked. My usual walk along the beach, trying to make sense of the idea, trying to think through the implications, and trying to find where God was in all of this.
I have conversations with God. He is kind, invariably giving me a sense of his heart and purposes for me, but this was different. I remember clearly the day that I spoke with him and plunged myself into something so much deeper than the fostering. “But it’s not important enough for me!” As soon the words and the exclamation mark came out of my mouth I knew I was in trouble. “Really? Let me show you.”
And so I started a journey of discovering why fostering was God’s agenda for us as a couple and a family. From May through to August, He pursued me – newspaper articles, documentaries, films, music, books, conversations, all designed to open my eyes to why fostering was so important to God and, therefore to me. We went on holiday in August, and every day God woke me at 05.00 and showed me over and over why it made perfect sense for us to become foster carers. There were many tears as I grappled with the challenge. Now, don’t get too excited – I’m not a great sleeper and a regular “cryer” so neither were unusual, but this was different. God was on my case.
For many years previously, my passion had been the Father Heart of God. My own journey had led me into a revelation and an understanding of the power of knowing God as my Papa. And so I got to the point of asking myself the question… or was Holy Spirit whispering? “What greater way can you find to share the Father Heart of God than being a foster carer?” And the reality is I couldn’t. However hard I tried.
And so in December 2013 we were approved to be short-term foster-carers for our local authority. And in January 2014, the first two little ones arrived and we were crashing into a world of pain and darkness that I had never touched before. It is now August 2019. As I write at silly ‘o’ clock, our final placement, seven weeks old, is asleep in her pram. She is placement number 11, baby number 9. Three have returned home to birth parents, and we still see one occasionally; the first two are in long-term care; five have been adopted, with that being the plan for number 11. We still see the five who have been adopted. We are treated as family, and the unfolding of their stories continues to amaze us and fill us with awe at the grace and kindness of our God.
Being a foster carer is, without doubt, the hardest job I have ever done. But then it is so much more than a job. And it is, without doubt, the most rewarding thing I have ever done. To see little lives plucked from the darkness and the pain of their challenging starts, and see God heal them up as we try to love them with all that we have, has been such a privilege and a joy. To see adoptive parents take these little ones from our care and make themselves a family leaves me speechless and in tears most of the time.
And then I have to agree: being a foster-carer has been one of the most important things I have ever done. And it has changed me for ever.
I have always been speechless… well, most of the time. As long as I can remember I have had a stutter; or is it a stammer? Or maybe both?
I quickly learned that participation in lessons at school were an invitation to be mocked and bullied, so as far as I could I stayed quiet…
My childhood at home didn’t really help either. There were occasions, just a few, when I would be teased and laughed at by my own parents. Added to which, we were brought up in a religious environment, where the ultimate position was something along the lines of, “This is what we believe; we expect you to believe the same.” Not dissimilar to, “Because I said so!”
As a young adult I made my own faith decisions. The church youth group was big, healthy and a lot of fun. I discovered that I could make people laugh and that people were prepared to be patient with me and listen to me. For the first time ever, my opinion mattered and counted for something.
As time passed, I learnt how to speak in public. It started with very short epilogues and then leading the youth group discussion, and then finally preaching on Sunday mornings. Friends were very kind, encouraging me into church leadership, which I loved… and needed. And then trouble. The thrill of being heard, of being influential, of being in the know went to my head. I became difficult even to the point of arrogance. I fell out with several church leaders over the years until I was shoved onto The Dark Path.
Bullied, threatened, abandoned and ignored.
Only this time I was content to not have a voice. It was my voice that got me into so much trouble, so I learnt to accept not having one. I hid, in the shadows, at home, in the safety of my family and those very close friends who stood by me and supported me.
While on my Dark Path, I had some counselling. My counsellor was a top bloke and very wise. I remember it clearly, the day he asked me to listen to a Josh Groban song. Not my favourite sound, but a song that talked about not being heard, not being listened to, except by The One, My Papa, The God of my story and journey.
My time on The Dark Path became a catalyst for walking, the same route along the beach, day after day, and while walking I learned that I never have to be speechless again, because there is The One. I would pour my heart out to him, day after day, week after week, and now year after year. To start with he listened and he still does. But gradually, over time, things changed, and I became more interested in what he had to say; and then content to just enjoy being aware of him.
More recently, I have been reading and thinking about the mystery that God is, and has to be. If there is a God, then by definition, he has an “otherness” about him. The understanding of him, and the challenges of life that throw up apparent contradictions and opposites and incompatibles, has brought me to a point in my journey and story where I am coming to live with the tension of being known by, and knowing, somebody who is outside time and space, and yet lives within the limitations of time and space. The result? Speechless!
Because there are not enough words to explain the God that I call Papa; because my vocabulary is too limited to describe the outrageous and endless love that he has drowned me in; because I never thought I could love him as much as I do while accepting that I will never love him as much as he deserves.
Only now I am content and satisfied to be quiet and silent and still. Speechless before the mystery and intimacy of My Papa.
“Come to the River, all who are thirsty.” We Are The River! We are your refreshment, your restoration, your rest, your cleansing! Not… Nothing or Nobody Else! Just Us!
I stand on the river bed, a bed of pebbles and stones and dried wood. The plants of the river are long dead. I am not alone. As I look there are others, standing. What for?
I am waiting for The River to return. A river that once trickled, sometimes, flowed and very occasionally raged like white water. The River I had in mind dried up long ago. It refreshed, renewed, restored then, but has now dried up. It is as if a drought has come and stayed.
As I look in the cloudless sky with no sign of the rain I long for, I begin to see. Like a laser beam piercing my mind and my heart, I start to understand. The River was the wrong river. It was never going to stay, for it was made of man made things, things that pretended to be The River while not being the river – religious rules, regulations, expectations, demands; valid spiritual practices that become routine, duty, habit devoid of life, of water.
And then out of nowhere, large, cold drops of rain appear. Slowly and deliberately the rain increases into a deluge. And between my toes and around my feet, The River forms and flows. My tired feet and legs are suddenly shocked into refreshment and vigour.
And I realise that this is The River! The River! What is The River? Who is The River? It is YHWH! My God! Papa, Mama and Yeshua The Christ! The Mysterious three-in-one! They are The River! My River! My Source of all that is good and fresh and real!