A strange week or stranger years?

We have reached that weird in between week, when no one really knows what to do, what day it is or what food we are supposed to be eating.

In the UK, the TV channel Dave summed it up like this

“Welcome to the most confusing week of the year! What day is it? No one cares. Should you have a proper meal? No, there are bits left that need eating. When do the bins go out? No one in the country knows. Let’s figure it out next year.”

If I am honest, that’s pretty much how I have felt for the past two years or so. Living in some sort of post apoplectic daze, unsure what is going on around me.

Work life has been all consuming, leaving little time to navigate the important parts of life – like family and friends. There is no point at all in earning more money because one is working more if there is no time to enjoy its benefits with those that you love. 

I recognise that for some, my experience is different from theirs. Some will have lost jobs or been unable to work. Others will have navigated the tricky working from home option.

As we tried to figure out how to survive in a world that had changed radically and continued to do so just as we thought we had understood the rules it was difficult to then understand someone else’s perspective. Each of us had a unique view. Each of us believed that ours was the only view.

Even as restrictions eased, I dare say that we are all emerging in different ways. All of us will have been changed to one degree or another. Some of us will take longer to emerge than others. I know that for me, work, although not quite so busy still takes up the majority of my time. Working every other weekend (in one way or another) means time at home is precious. Staff shortages due to illness and others leaving to pursue different paths have put additional pressures on work. Qualified staff don’t grow on trees unfortunately so it can take months to get someone to a level that is useful. 

While the world is worried about Omicron, the fact is that this is just another variant of a horrible virus. There will be others. Some will be worse, some milder – all will need someone in a laboratory to test for it.

I seem to remember way back at the beginning of the pandemic, that many were taking stock, revaluating their priorities, considering what was important to them. All of us promised that this was going to be long term, that the change we made were going to be permanent. Whether this was eating more healthily, exercising more, or connecting with those that matter more frequently, we were sure that this was a chance to reset and that it was going to stick.

Restrictions eased and people seemed to forget what they had so recently promised themselves. When you don’t have to queue for hours at the supermarket to find empty shelves, healthy eating isn’t such a priority. When it is possible for you to leave the house and visit the seaside, phoning that friend or relative who can’t get out because they are still on the vulnerable list seems to have taken a back seat. 

I know that I for one have struggled to find the impetuous to keep going, to keep trying to connect. Frequently, it was that I felt that I needed to protect my mind. I was (and sometimes still am) quite close to breaking. The demands placed on me can seem overwhelming, so connecting with others who feel similarly would simply be too much. At times like that, I need to withdraw, to collect my thoughts and feelings and be alone. 

I am pleased to say that in recognising this about me, these times are becoming further apart. Simply getting out of the hospital at lunch time for a walk helps enormously. The appearance of a health scare a month or so back has resulted in more exercise and a significantly better diet. This has added to the wellbeing that I feel.

In many of my previous posts there has been a big punch at the end, a point to make, something to encourage. I’m not sure that there is one this time. This is more of an observation and a rant about how I feel at the moment. If I were to offer any encouragement at all it would be that getting outside helps. You don’t have to go far, but the change of scenery really is as good as a holiday.

Finally, (as this has not been the most uplifting of posts) someone once said “this too will pass – it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”

Fathers day

Looking through Facebook today has been a bittersweet experience. I guess that was to be expected. On a day that celebrates fathers, it was only natural that I felt the loss of not having mine around to honour in person.

What surprised me, was that in seeing friends honouring their fathers, and husbands was the emotion of happiness that I also felt.

I found myself genuinely glad that these men were being celebrated. Of course, I felt a little sad that I will never get the chance to tell my dad how truly wonderful he was, but for the majority of my friends I know the influence that their fathers have had on their lives, and I am thrilled that they are taking the opportunity to tell them.

We men often feel a tremendous burden. We work hard to provide, but often at the expense of family time. When we do have time away from work, tiredness often takes its toll on things. At the same time we are seeking to allow our kids to be everything they can be. It can be tough, but we keep going because love keeps us going. 

I am truly blessed to have had awesome examples of what a good father was, both in my own father and my grandfather. It feels like such a glib expression, but if I can find a way to be half the man that they were I will feel satisfied.

I honestly believe that a large part of the reason that they were the men they were was because they knew a Father that was the epitome of good.

I have been encouraged today by seeing so many fathers who have also set good examples to their children because of the relationship they have with the same good Father. Men who have given their all to follow Him, and in being an example to their children have also been an example to me. Men who when I spend time with them, I feel like I have spent some time in the very presence of Jesus.

My dad is doing just that today. I want to honour him, and the many others who have unknowingly shone a light and inspired me to be a better man, and hopefully a better father.  

Broken jars

Two years. Twenty four months.

Depending on what it refers to, that can be a really long or a really short amount of time.

On one hand, it feels like much longer than that since Dad died.

On the other, it feels like yesterday.

There haven’t been many days since then that I haven’t  thought about him.

Often more than once.

Sometime its just a passing thought, other times I close my eyes and relive and remember every moment of the last 3 days we had with him.

I saw a picture the other day which really resonated with me.

It showed a number of jars. In the top row, the jars were all the same size, and the black balls inside (which represented grief) got progressively smaller.

The idea was that over time, the grief you feel fo the loss of someone gets smaller and smaller.

The second row showed the black balls all staying the same size, but the jars grew in size. This represented the grief staying the same, but your capacity to deal with it as you grow as a person over time increases.

People are often keen to assure you that you will ‘get over’ grief. They have the very best of intentions, but I’ve found that the reality is far more like the second row of jars than the first.

In my experience, I would take the analogy a little further. It is a little too simplistic. There is no doubt the grief stays the same size. Over time, the jars grow and the influence that the grief has on you lessens.

The thing is that sometimes things happen to break the jar. Sometimes it happens when you expect it (dates like birthdays, death dates and fathers day). Other times the break comes right out of left field. It could be a song that does it. It might be a TV programme.

Either way, the glass breaks and the grief is exposed.

It takes time to remake the protection. Each time, the jar is bigger, the glass just a little thicker in an effort to protect the grief and hold it inside.

In spite of the the upheaval of the last year, where getting from one day to the next has been something of a struggle, perhaps it is no great surprise that there have been more jars broken that may be ‘normal’.

Tiredness is a major factor in finding cracks that often become catastrophic breaks.

The truth is that the pandemic has resulted in far more people having glass jars filled with balls of greif in their lives. Many of us are tired as a result of our worlds being turned upside down over the last year. Jars will break at a moments notice.

We need to find ways to support those who are feeling exposed. To stand by them and allow them to remake the jar that is going to protect them.

Assure them that it is OK to feel grief. Allow them to mourn. Accept that time will pass, but its the jars that get bigger, not the contents.

I find that allowing myself to cry a little (sometimes a lot) helps. I also love to read things that others have written about Dad. It can feel like you are the only one experiencing the loss. It helps (even though it is painful) to read how much others loved and appreciated him.

Today, my jar is broken. But I will find another, with thicker walls, to hold on to the way I feel a little longer – at least until Fathers day.

There’s a stone in my shoe

A couple of days ago I noticed that I had a stone in my shoe. (pictured above). The thing is that I didn’t notice it when I first put my shoe on. Of course, it was there, just in a place that tucked it away, hidden in a place, probably towards the edge where it could sit without causing me any discomfort. 

As I moved throughout the morning, this small stone worked its way under the sole of my foot. I wouldn’t say it was uncomfortable, but noticeable. Rather than taking the time to sit down, remove the shoe and tip out the stone, I continued to walk, doing that strange dance that one does, trying to shake the stone to the edge again where it wouldn’t irritate me anymore. 

This had limited success – the stone would indeed move, but was soon back under my foot, irritating me.

The only way to permanently sort the problem was to stop and remove it completely.

Each time I do that, I remember how blessed I am that I don’t suffer from leprosy. I can hear you think, whoa, that escalated quickly. How did we get from stones in the shoe, to leprosy? The thing is that one of the symptoms of leprosy is loss of feeling, especially in the extremities like hands and feet. I you can’t feel a stone in your shoe, it is highly unlikely that you will ever stop to remove it. If you don’t, eventually that tiny stone will cause an abrasion, which can easily become infected which also won’t be felt or treated. Left alone, this will obviously lead to major problems.

All of the above made me think about sin.

Sin has a habit of sitting there unnoticed for a while, only raising its head every now and again. It isn’t something you do all the time, just when your guard is down. Perhaps when you are tired or stressed or maybe even quite comfortable and think you have it all together. At the beginning, it is quite easy to shake it off, push it to one side and get on with life. The problem is that if it isn’t dealt with properly when it is first noticed, it will return. Have you ever noticed that once you become aware of a stone in your shoe the time, even when you do manage to shake it out of harm’s way for a bit, the frequency at which you notice it increases as time goes on?  So too with sin – it will be there briefly at first, but undealt with returns more and more frequently.

The problem is that if we don’t take time to deal with sin at its root, and completely remove it through repentance and through crying out to God for forgiveness we will find that we begin to lose any feeling of remorse, guilt or shame for the sin. We begin to act like we have spiritual leprosy – no feeling at all towards the thing that is putting distance between us and the Father. Sin that continues when we get to this stage will quickly lead to serious problems, all of which we will not notice until it is too late. Once we begin to suffer like this, the healing process will be prolonged and painful. We may even lose things that are dear to us along the way.

It was once said, that if we give the devil and inch, he will take an inch. That is all he needs to begin to work into our lives, taking initially insignificant control, and slowly causing damage.

How do we remove the small stones of sin from our lives? 

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8)

Drawing near to God can feel tricky, especially when we know there is sin in our lives. We might feel that there is simply too big a gulf between us and the Father – the truth is that even if it feels like miles and miles, we have travelled away from Him, it only takes one step to come back. We can convince ourselves that the tiny stone is actually an entire beach of pebbles. We don’t know which to deal with first. 

The thing I found with the stone in my shoe is that the thing that was irritating my foot, that had begun to become a bigger issue as the irritation continued, was in fact very, very small. I’m not suggesting for a second that individual sins are insignificant, just that it is important to recognise that left unchecked it will only get bigger. Our heads have a habit of inflating the size of a problem so that we don’t deal with them. As with any health problem whether physical, emotional or spiritual, early intervention is the key.

Don’t leave it until the damage needs major treatment. Stop the first time you notice it. Deal with it then.

Processing thoughts

I’ve been looking back on some of my old blogs. This is partly so I don’t repeat myself, and partly because I recently gained a follower who has read quite a few of my older posts and commented on them.  (I have no idea who how this person found me as they aren’t to my knowledge part of my online ‘friend’ group) It still amazes me that what began as a project for me to get some of the things in my head on ‘paper’ whether anyone read them or not is now attracting people all over the world to read what I write. Some of them even want to read more.  Before you think I am getting ahead of myself, I actually only have 30 followers. One of them is me (so I could work out what it meant to follow my blog) and one is my dad – and I’m pretty sure he isn’t reading them at the moment.

The thing is, having looked back over the past 3 ½ years or so, there are two subjects that have had the most views, the most response. The first is a post I wrote about Coronavirus. I had read a lot of things online, and wanted to put on record what it was like for someone working in a laboratory, testing hundreds of samples a day, with no let up and no real prospect of it all coming to an end.

The other subject that has proved ‘popular’ is my journey of grief. Losing someone you love is never easy, losing three of them in the space of 2 ½ years is incredibly painful. I don’t say that for more sympathy – it’s just how it is. For years before I have been vocal about the fact that during a crisis is not the time to decide what or whom you believe. It is true that during a crisis you may find out what you really do believe, but it is no time to go looking for the answers.  The past few years have challenged me again and again to draw on my faith. Each time I have found it to be up to the challenge. When people ask how I cope in any given situation, it isn’t because I am a strong person. I’m not. I find it incredibly difficult to hold things together by myself. The truth is I have an incredibly strong God who has promised never to leave me or forsake me. Whatever I do, whatever I say – He has been beside me to offer support, and when things got simply too much to bear, He picked me up and carried me until I had healed enough to walk again.

That’s not to say I haven’t cried. I have expressed emotion when I needed to. For decades I felt that this would be a sign of weakness. Stiff upper lip and all that, but more recently I have learned that it is far more important to be true to myself. To admit when I need help. To be me.

I read a quote recently which got me thinking about being brave, and holding emotions inside.

Jesus knew Lazarus would rise again. Still, He wept.

Because embracing pain is not negating faith. It’s actually being part of the likeness of God.

So have hope, but don’t deny your emotions. Pay attention to them. Feel what you feel.

And enjoy the coming resurrection.” Carlos A Rodrguez

Bill Johnson once famously said that “Faith doesn’t deny a problems existence, it denies it a place of influence.” 

My sister recently wrote about a song by Mercy Me that had caused her to examine what she did believe and what she wanted to be able to say honestly to God. The song is called Even if (I’ll post a link at the end of this blog). The song recognises that there is no doubt that God cares. It acknowledges that God is able to do anything and everything to change things. But it also accepts that because we don’t see everything that God sees, there are some instances (depending on what you are going through at any given time that may feel more like most instances) He doesn’t appear to step in to change things – despite persistent and faithful prayer. 

The song goes on to say that in spite off all that God can and could do, if for some reason He chooses not to – I will still praise Him. (You may remember that Daniel and his friends said much the same thing when faced with a den of hungry lions)

It is far easier to make the decision to say that when not faced with lions. It isn’t impossible, just much easier.

I’d like to end this post with another quote which I heard recently. I hope you are as encouraged and comforted by it – as I was when I heard it.

God is – and all is well.

Don’t miss this

She was staring out the window of that SUV, 

Complainin’ saying ‘I cant wait to turn 18’

She said “I’ll make my own money, and I’ll make my own rules”

Mama put the car in park our there in front of the school

Then she kissed her head and said ‘I was just like you’

You’re gonna miss this

You’re gonna want this back

You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast

These are some good times

So take a good look around

You may not know it now 

But you’re gonna miss this.”

This is the first verse and chorus from the song by Trace Adkins. The song goes on to describe a young woman walking through life constantly planning for the next step. Each step of her journey she found no satisfaction. She wanted more. The life she had was not enough.

If I’m honest I can probably recognise myself in the song. Perhaps not all the time, but certainly at points in life I have seen some as mere steppingstones to something that I believed at the time to be better and more fulfilling.

Looking back it becomes clear that the thing I was so confident would make things better really didn’t. Different yes – but rarely better. Each new thing holds its own challenges, new hurdles to overcome.

I am reminded of the rich young fool that Jesus talks about in Luke 12. He got to the point that he was unable to store what he had and pulled down his barns to build bigger and better ones. He was sure that in storing all that he had securely would make life easier, he could sit back, relax and ‘make merry.’ That decision was the last one that he took, as God called time on his plans.

Please be clear, I am not suggesting we don’t do things that will improve our situation. I don’t think if the rich man had simply built a bigger barn, and continued to work, providing for his family and society he would have found himself face to face with God to give an account of himself. It’s not taking the step that causes problems, its whether we are truly satisfied with what the hand that we have been given at any point. Are we willing to be content? To wait? To worship during the pain and longing?

I’ve come to realise in the past few years that not living with contentment in the situation robs me of peace. Wishing that things were different hasn’t changed the fact that I am no longer able to spend time with mum and dad. Although I enjoyed a good relationship with them, there was often something that prevented spending as much time as I now wish I had spent with them. Had I not been trying so hard to satisfy so many different people and desires, perhaps I would have had time for those that I now can’t share time with. 

I suppose what I’m saying is that it is really important to live for today.

Remember the past (I’ve written about that before – check www.slavenolonger.co.uk , “create the future, don’t guard the past ”for more) but don’t live there. 

Plan for tomorrow. Dream big for the future – God has plans for you there that far exceed yours.

But please, please please live in today. Enjoy those you love. Make time for them. Take lots of pictures. There will come a time when you wish that the last one you have was more up to date.

Lockdown is hard

Facebook tells me that two years ago yesterday I broke my ankle. At the time it was inconvenient but the circumstances that caused it were quite amusing. I’ve always said that exercise is bad for your health. I’ve proved that at least twice now.

Why then did I find it so difficult to read it?  Why has it been playing on my mind all day today? 

The truth is that as a result of the break, I wasn’t able to drive. I therefore wasn’t able to take my daughter to school.  That meant I had to get a lift to work, and find an alternative way to do the school run. The person who stepped up without considering the inconvenience was my dad.  He picked both of us up each day and dropped us off. Whatever the weather. No matter what he had planned for the day.

It was only a few short months after that he died. Less than two years. I thought I had dealt with it. 

Turns out I haven’t. 

I’ve been sad today. I’ve realised a lot of things. Things that have always been there, but for one reason or another haven’t been fully dealt with. You probably know me to be a smile and carry-on sort of a person.  I seem to take most things in my stride. But the truth is that this is often a mask, a persona that I use to cope with life. I spend a lot of time thinking about things. Even more over thinking things.

What I don’t do is spend a lot of time talking about things – especially feelings. Part of the reason for that is that I struggle to open up to people. Psychologists would probably tell you that because I was brought up in a country not of my birth, I have adopted what became a third culture. Not fully Scottish, not fully Papua New Guinean, but a mixture of the two. Add in the Australian and American influences and my brain didn’t really know where home was. I convinced myself that wherever I was I would call home. That has worked well for years. The problem is that my head has struggled to identify with any one culture as a result. I hold lots of things inside – because I don’t have the tools to explain them. And then I think some more. 

I “know” a lot of people. If honest, there are only a handful that I would call close friends. (sorry if that surprises you). There are even fewer that really know me, and that I can open up completely to.

Lockdown has meant that catching up with even that few has been challenging. I feel that I’m either at work or getting ready to go to work. Spare time (what is that I hear you say) is at a premium, and energy to actually do productive things almost non-existent.  Even if I had the mental energy to meet up – it’s against the law. (unless we exercise – and as I’ve already said, that can be bad for your health.)

Talking does help. We men are invariably bad at it anyway. Much more in lockdown. It is almost impossible to open up and share significantly on a Zoom call. What I’ve realised though (a long walk, good music helped) is that when I actually verbalise the issue, it suddenly gets smaller. It’s as if as it leaves my mouth it gets further away and less impressive. The space that it has taken up in my head is free – and life seems significantly more manageable. I’m still not very good at actually opening up to people, but writing has helped me to ‘verbalise’.

I still miss my dad. Memories of him still make me sad. I wrote the first draft of this yesterday – and felt a little better having done it. (believe me you didn’t want to read that version) It gave me the strength to re-word it. I feel more positive than I did.

Lockdown is hard – but maybe, if we can learn to  really talk to people, we can find a way to unlock the padlock, and stay free in these difficult times.

In God we Trust?

2020 felt like it lasted forever. Days felt like weeks, weeks like months. “Stay home, make space, protect the NHS” All meant to ensure that life could get back to ‘normal’. Back to the way life used to be.

There is no doubt that there are elements of ‘normal’ that will be celebrated when they are possible again. I wouldn’t say that I go around hugging every person I see, but I long to hug friends again. I can’t wait until I can simply sit and have a coffee with someone without feeling that I need to get my mask back on quickly. Perhaps even to have someone visit and sit on the sofa for an hour or two and just chew the fat.

I was watching a video earlier and it struck me that perhaps there are some things that we should leave behind in the depths of 2020. 

I’m sure you will be able to think of things that you used to do religiously that now you are prevented from doing them, there is a certain release, and ultimately a calm that has developed.

God is able to turn any situation to good. That isn’t to say that God sends storms into our life just to show us how amazing He is. He isn’t like that. The question is, are we able to trust that He will do that? Are we willing to wait until He makes it good again? 

Is it possible that during this time He is giving us a bit of a shake? Challenging us to examine whether we are trusting Him, or trusting in our ‘normality’ and ‘familiarity’ to get us through the day? Is our trust truly in His ability or do we only turn to Him when there is a storm to navigate? 

Abraham and Sarah waited decades for a son. Joseph was sold into slavery then thrown in prison before God raised him up. The Israelites spent 400 years in Egypt before the Exodus. God appeared to be silent for 400 years before sending Jesus.

Waiting seems to be ‘normal’ in the Kingdom. 

We have waited a year. 

It feels like forever. It has been too long for some. 

I believe it is time to take a careful look at where our trust is. 

Are we looking to the promise (God will make it good) or to the Promiser (God is Good)? 

What’s under your feet?

If the lockdown that has been imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has done anything it has made me exercise. (that, and a watch that reminds me to move, stand and exercise and ‘rewards’ me for doing so) 

I always feel better after a brisk walk, but it is never my first choice (that would be sitting on the sofa with my feet up). 

Today we tried something a little different. We downloaded an App, and tried geocaching for the first time. We searched for small tins and boxes hidden throughout the valley near where we live. Once found, we ‘logged’ our finds, and hid them again for others to find.

Doing this in winter holds the challenge of lots of mud, which, especially on a hill is really quite slippery. One can never be sure if the next step will be the one that results in a fall. Where you plant your feet has to be considered carefully. Even the correct footwear doesn’t seem to guarantee that you will navigate the path without a fall. Today I was wearing boot with good tread, but that was quickly filled with sticky mud. It was like walking on an ice rink in bare feet.

The past 12 months has felt pretty similar to walking on mud with no grip. Each week has brought new challenges, with new levels of restrictions and new opinions as to the implications of those. Just when we got to a point on the journey where the mud wasn’t so bad, where there felt like there was a little bit of respite, we were told that just ahead there was more mud, even deeper and more slippery than that which we had already tentatively navigated.

The seasons will change though. Spring will come (perhaps the odd shower) followed by summer where we hope the ground will dry out and make journeys easier. 

I suppose the point I am trying to make is that how easy it is to make headway, to ensure that we don’t fall and get messed up, depends very much on what is underfoot.  

For far too many people, life has been turned upside down by Covid-19. Whether simply because movement has been restricted or feeling the loss of a loved one, it will be some time before anything resembling normal will be possible. I believe that even though we have all experienced changed, some have been able to cope more than others. Those of us with a faith in a God can lean on the sure and certain knowledge that He is able to keep us from falling.

Psalm 40 tells us that when we wait for the Lord, He will turn to us and hear us. When we are walking through boggy ground, crying out to God to help us is OK. We aren’t expected to do it all by ourselves. He is able to pick us up and set our feet upon solid rock. He can and will give us a path through things may be difficult to get through. 

Knowing what is under our feet can bring a confidence and peace that others don’t have. 

Chances are they will ask you how. Be sure that you tell them.

The right order

A friend posted part of a verse from John 15:5 a few days ago. It says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.”

I am sure that will be familiar to many of us. 

Those who have read the bible a lot will know that it is possible to read the same verse several times, and then suddenly find that there is a different angle to it, a facet that you haven’t noticed before. Sometimes it is something you’ve seen before, and it is the Holy Spirit giving you a nudge, letting you know that it’s time to look again, to reconsider and to adjust our thinking.

I suppose like many of us, I spend a lot of time thinking about Coronavirus. The virus that we were told would be beaten by the middle of last year, has persisted and is fighting back. Hospitals are busier than ever, and restrictions on movement and contact with other humans have been curbed to levels which threaten the mental health of many. It is unsurprising that it has become an all-consuming thought for large number of people.

“How are we going to beat it?”  “What are the rules today?”  “How can I push them to the limit?” “Why aren’t the government doing more?”  “Why are the government trying to control me?” 

All understandable questions. These are unprecedented times we are living in.

What I realised, at least for me, was I perhaps had begun to apply the verse at the beginning of this post round the wrong way.

When I try and control things, when I try to figure it all out myself what I find myself doing is assuming I am the vine, and He is simply an add on, something that I will feed when I take care of all the other things going on.

What I have also discovered is that doing things this way never works out for the best. (I did already know this, it’s just that as a human I tend to forget sometimes) It turns out God knows what He is doing. He hasn’t put things in place to control us, but because He loves us, and really does want the best for us.

Allowing Him to be the Vine, to nourish us, to comfort us, to give us wisdom in tough situations, to simply be God will allow us to become everything He has planned for us. 

It’s OK to ask the questions. It is OK to look for the answers.

But let’s allow God to be God.

It’s His job and He really is very good at it.