Traces & Shadows

So I am totally stealing this line of thought from other people but I am pretty sure they won’t mind –it is one of the bonuses of being surrounded by wise people on a daily basis.

Back in February I received a work email which was all about the traces we leave in people’s lives and the fact that “every contact leaves a trace”. It was encouraging us to think about what traces we leave in the lives of those we meet, bad and good. The email ended asking us to pray that God would help us leave traces of grace, traces of hope, traces of life, and traces of Jesus. That email spoke right to my heart, I loved what it was saying and it challenged me so much that it has stayed with me pretty strongly ever since.

Then in the last few days I have heard Psalm 91 read on two separate occasions.

“He who lives in the safe place of the Most High will be in the shadow of the All-powerful. I will say to the Lord “You are my safe and strong place, my God in whom I trust.”” Psalm 91 vs. 1 & 2

On the first occasion I listened as the person reading it gave his take on it and talked about how so often we cast shadows over people and people cast them over us but actually the only safe shadow to be under, the only shadow that matters, was the shadow of the almighty God. I loved that and again it reminded me of the email and the traces we leave in people’s lives. The idea that actually I have the power to leave shadows over people by my words and my actions or lack of them and that people have that same power over me, if I let them, which let’s be honest most of us do because we are human and we want affirmation, encouragement and acceptance.

It also reminded me of a vicar who used to say a lot that often we will never know during our lifetimes the impact we have had on people’s lives, for the good and the bad!

These ideas totally feed into my heart; they bring me alive and excite me. I think probably because I love people – I have a long list of favourite people (with a few firmly rooted in the top spots) – I love being with people, I love meeting new people, I love talking to people, I love doing life with people. When people talk about what your dreams and passions are I struggle to think beyond people and relationships.

I love the power and the challenge there is in the ideas of the traces and the shadows and how it feeds into every one of our relationships, whether they be the closest ones or passing.

I am sure we can all think of lots of people that have left positive traces, big and small, in our lives. There are the obvious ones – spouses, parents, siblings, children, family, friends, colleagues – I am so thankful that I have been blessed with all those relationships and that all of those people have invested so much into my journey. As much as I love those obvious impacts I love the smaller, more random interactions with strangers in shops, with waitresses or randoms on the street – I love the feeling I am left with when I have a conversation with someone I don’t know or when someone gives me a big smile, how it can make your day so much brighter. I have become much braver at saying things to strangers, at telling them they look good, or that their child is gorgeous or encouraging them if they look like they are struggling.

I have noticed that runners are generally very good at this – for the most part I am usually struggling to breath, a deep red colour and in no place to want to smile and engage but without fail I will pass a number of other runners who will give me a big smile and say hello. On Saturday morning I went out for a run and I passed a particularly perky runner who gave me the biggest smile, said hi and even gave me a wave – part of me wanted to laugh at her perkiness, in contrast to the fact I had just pulled myself out of bed, was no doubt looking pretty rough and was definitely not wanting to engage with any other human let alone a stranger but actually that little wave made me smile and made my heart smile and buoyed me up for the rest of my run.

I am also a big believer in telling people where they have impacted my life, where they have helped me or encouraged me or made me feel loved and special because I think it then becomes a two way thing – it gives them that encouragement and love right back. I think we need to get so much better at doing it. I remember after John died a friend saying if only we could have thanksgiving services for people whilst they are alive – now I am not sure I would go that far but I remember thinking, and again when my Dad died, I wonder what they would think if they could see all the people who had turned out to remember them, or hear all the stories and read the letters with people’s memories of them and the impact they had had on so many people’s lives.

One such letter will stay with me for the rest of my life – my Dad ran his own business and was incredibly committed to his clients. He loved work and he loved helping people through that work. After he died mum received a letter from one of his clients, who we had never heard of, telling a story of how on one occasion he had gone to Dad’s office to take some papers. His sibling had recently died and he was feeling pretty fragile and vulnerable, and had broken down in tears. Dad had taken him into his office, shut the door and let him cry and talk – this man was just saying how much that kindness had meant to him. Dad probably didn’t give much thought to it but that man had remembered the time and kindness Dad had shown him many years down the line.

So whilst I am not necessarily advocating thanksgiving services for the living I am most definitely an advocate of telling people that we love them and what we love about them, for thanking them for what they have done for us and who they are to us.

I love that our lives are so interwoven with the lives of those around us, that our stories are all so interlinked but with that brings a real responsibility and challenge. As much as I can remember so many of the positives of the words spoken over me or the amazing ways people have impacted me by their actions I also know so many of the negatives, of the shadows, both big and small. I remember the negative words about my character, the people who told me I could have grieved better or the criticisms of something I had worked hard over and the people who made it clear they didn’t want to talk to me or be my friend. Those shadows that make you doubt yourself and who you are and whether you are good enough. I also know I will have cast many of those shadows over others – some knowingly others without even realising. Some will be because I get angry or I have moments of pain, anxiety or insecurity and I speak out of those places of my hurt, others will be because I am tired, hungry or not thinking properly and others will be from a place of selfishness and laziness. I am truly sorry if you are reading this and I have ever cast a shadow over you.

I want to be so much better at leaving those traces that give hope and life, that speak of love, that tell people they are loved and accepted, that inspire and encourage, that leave people feeling better about themselves – that is one of my constant prayers that God changes me so I am better at that. I guess the shadows are a part of life but I want to cause them in other people’s lives less and less and when others cast them over my life I want to rest in the knowledge that the only shadow that I need to be in is that of my heavenly father and that that shadow brings with it healing, safety and love.

 

 

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When there are no answers

Do you ever doubt? Or is it just me?

Do you ever question where God is in life and how he works? Or again is it just me?

I don’t ever doubt God is real or that he is incredibly good and loving but sometimes I just don’t get the way he works and I can become like a dog with a bone, I wrestle and wrestle, until I am exhausted with wrestling, I lay it down again until something happens that means those questions come to the forefront again.

I came into this year excited about what was ahead, expectant, full of hope and faith – it felt like a new season, I had experienced God move amazingly in my life in the last few months of last year and again into this year and it felt like the past was truly the past. Then the other week, out of nowhere one of those phone calls came that left me curled up in a ball on the floor screaming “No” and “I don’t understand” over and over again. One of those phone calls that means that your family is changed forever, again.

My heart broke because even though the news on the end of that phone wasn’t a direct loss to my life it was news that has shattered the lives of two of the most important people in my life, the two people who are the closest I will ever have to sisters, and I knew the depth of their pain and what is ahead.

And so the questions and the doubts and the wrestles came flowing back and to be honest left me feeling lost, a little bit scared and very heavy hearted.

Does God have a plan for our lives? Is he there and working for our good? How does he choose when and how and when not? I have lost so much sleep over the past 10 days trying to work out the answers to these questions – even though the last 9 years should have taught me I will never have the answers. As ever there are angels there who listen and help me process, who reminded me that it is always about truth and grace, and that sometimes truth is messy but that grace is always grace. That doubt and wrestle can sit side by side with worship.

I said to my brother that his work were going to start thinking he was making up things, given the number of times he had to phone in and say there had been a death or medical emergency – to which he responded that he had only said the same thing that morning.

He then went on to say that we were going to keep choosing life.

Since that phone call I feel like I have been walking a tight rope where I literally could fall one way or the other, one being right back into the valley of death, that valley which I know God lifted me out of. I feel like there has been a battle raging inside me.

Last night as I spent time talking to God and being quiet and I felt a peace return – I felt that all God had done in the last 6 months was coming to the forefront again. I want to keep choosing life. That doesn’t meant my heart will stop hurting for those I love, I have a feeling I will be hurting for them in some shape or form for a long time to come but I want to be their hope when they can’t hope for themselves, I want to be the one who is strong for them, as so many people were strong for me, I want to be able to push them forward when they don’t have any strength left.

I don’t want to keep asking the questions, it exhausts me, it takes away my peace – I want to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, in the way he moved in John’s life, in my Dad’s life, the way he bought me through, the enormous blessings I have in my life, the way he showed up and pursued me at the end of last year when I was ready to throw the towel in and the way he breathed life back into me – that same God who was faithful in the past, is still faithful today and will be going forward.

This world and this life can be overwhelmingly hard at times but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful. I love that unexplainable feeling of seeing God at work, the excitement that it brings that is so difficult to articulate. I love the people he gives us, I love that we don’t have to do any of this on our own, so yes there are times in life where the pain is unbearable, where the loss feels too great but he puts us in families, in communities and in relationship which help us to survive, heal and thrive again. In the first few days after that phone call I wanted to hide away, to stop caring about people because actually it hurt too much and it hurt too much to see people I love hurting but the reality is my heart is already too entangled with them and so many others to simply stop loving. It is just not the way I am wired or in fact any of us are wired – we have no choice but to love people despite the potential costs.

I still don’t understand but I am putting the questions down and learning to trust that I may not know but he does, he knows the answers, the reasons but also the pain, he holds it all and us in the midst of it – I keep coming back to the fact that I can’t but he very much can.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brene Brown.

Real love

 

I have been thinking a lot recently about what love looks like – real love, love that transforms, love that heals, love that brings hope, love that is in it for the long haul, love that really makes a difference. I have realized as I have thought about it that I am not very good at it. I love my child, my family, my friends but they are pretty easy to love most of the time – I have chosen them or they are a part of me and so love for them comes naturally and that love is fierce and overwhelming.

Is that though the love that the bible talks about?

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13 vs 13)

I have no doubt I am asked to love the people that God has given me to share life with but I am pretty sure that that is not where it ends.

The other week I heard someone say that the gospel could be summed up as always being willing to love the next person that came along. I love that! But what if that person doesn’t fit into the type of person I want to love or that I find easy to love. What if that person is difficult, or needy or smelly?

Then on Sunday I read a really familiar passage from the bible, from Mark 2 and in particular verses 2 and 3 just really hit me in the gut – “Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.”  That is quite some effort for that man’s friends to go to – to take time out of their day to carry their friend to find Jesus, with presumably the hope that he could heal him, but then they get there and they can’t easily get to Jesus because the crowds are massive and so they climb up with their friend to the roof, and then start to take the roof apart to be able to lower their friend to Jesus.  As I thought about the level of their friendship I was really impacted – they put in so much physical effort, presumably a fair bit of emotional effort as well as risking embarrassment and getting into trouble for taking someone’s roof apart. They jumped in and got stuck into the mess of their friend’s life, they showed commitment, compassion and faithfulness despite of how hard the circumstances were or what the outcome was.

I would love to think I would show that same commitment to people– to sit with them in the hard, dark places, to stick with them even when issues and struggles did not disappear quickly or when those same issues and struggles were tough and heavy going and when it meant personal discomfort or inconvenience to me. If I am honest I think there are probably times where I haven’t been able or wanted to go to those places because it pushed me out of my comfort zones, or when I was just plain lazy and/or selfish.

I say those things totally and completely believing that love is the most powerful thing there is, and knowing it has the power to change lives but yet often my sin, my humanness and my rubbish just gets in the way of loving the way I was made to do and called to do.

On the flip side I have experienced that love in abundance when I have been so undeserving of it. As I waded through my grief, my anger, my hurt, my questions I was truly horrible at times – I lashed out over and over again. People would say to me that they thought I was doing amazingly but I knew the truth that if they asked those closest to me, my parents, my brother and my closest friends they would be able to tell them a very different side. My pain was so deep and so big that at times I just didn’t know how to handle it. I can feel the tears coming as I write this as I think about the faithfulness those people showed me, they never stopped loving me even when I was at my foulest, they would hold me as a I screamed and sobbed, they listened patiently as I threw questions, struggles and confusion at them – they got right in there, right in the crap of it all even though they were hurting themselves and walked through it with me, sometimes pulling me through – quite simply loving me through it. I would not be where I am today without them. They showed me true love, the love of God.

I have been given so so much in terms of family, friendship and community that I know that so much is expected back of me. So how do I do that? I believe God wants me to love not just those that are easy to love but those that are difficult, those whose lives are not easy and comfortable, but those whose lives are in chaos, those whose lives are broken- even when that is really uncomfortable for me.

I work for a charity called Church Army, which works with hundreds of people, each year, throughout the British Isles, who are on the margins of society – the broken, the rejected, the hurting. Over the past year I have grown in passion for this organization – I love what it does, its projects are amazing – so many people sacrificing so much to get stuck into the brokenness of people’s lives to bring hope and transformation. I have the privilege of working with people, many of whom I often wonder if they are actually angels. They have shown me what real love means – transforming, healing, powerful, life-changing love – loving when it is hard and messy and complicated- young people self-harming, women locked into lives of addiction and prostitution, homelessness, mental health issues, deprivation.

So as the challenge has come my prayer has become “God help me love the next person that comes into my path with that life changing, hope giving love that only comes from you, and don’t let me hide away when that love is hard, when it takes commitment, when it is out of my comfort zones.” I truly believe that if we truly learnt to love we would see so many more lives transformed and situations changed and healed. That type of love is infectious and so life giving. I can think of people I know and love who just shine with that love and every time I spend time with them I feel closer to God and come away with a desire for more of God and more of that love. I am desperate to get better at it but I know that that will be an on-going choice to push myself, to think beyond my own needs and to keep falling into God.

“I am a strong believer in aggressive love. And it challenges me to the core. I AM going to love my neighbour. I am going to forgive. I am going to have faith that things can and will change. I am going to hope that my children will lead a better world than the one that I leave behind. And I fight that lust that licks at my feet day in, day out, choosing generosity, love, inclusion, hope, faith, …it is these things, and these things only that make an eternal difference in our world.

Live an inclusive life, not a selfish one. Challenge yourself to seek faith, hope and love in every circumstance. Don’t just look out for yourself, but build into other – share you life openly, spread faith, hope and love around generously.” (DVO)