Monthly Archives: January 2013

What do you do when troubles come?

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Photograph by Tracey Berry. Find more like this on Instagram @traceaberry

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 

2 Corinthians 4:17

Your life matters. Even if you thought it was just a drop in the ocean, trivial in terms of the grand scheme. I’ve discovered this little by little in the ordinary moments; as day by day those tiny dots reveal more than an insignificant point on a page. As I look back, as I take my pen, as I make the links and join the dots together, new truth is revealed. To begin with, it was just about me. My pain, my daughter, my family and the need to make sense of a situation that was beyond us. Yet God in His faithfulness guides my hand and the picture of His grace forms before me. He’s been there all the time pulling the pieces together, working all things for good.

The years teach much which the days never knew. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Still it’s easy to feel swallowed up by the subtle fears that linger in the night. Or to take a word that’s been spoken out of context and create a dramatic scenario in your mind. It’s easier to fill your mind with negative thoughts than positive ones even when your outlook seems positive to everyone else, even when you’ve won bigger battles than the one in front of you now.

I find myself laughing at Elijah who after defeating the prophets of Baal, “was afraid and ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). Secretly I’m encouraged by this. I am afraid too. I don’t know why. Why do we so readily return to fear even after experiencing success? Elijah went into the desert, came to a broom tree, sat under it and prayed that he might die. Sometimes it’s all too much and after a major battle another hiccup tips us over the edge. So we do whatever we can to regain control.

What do you do in these circumstances? I sort the cupboards, throw things out and try to create order. I make lists and resolutions. I explore a range of fitness options, even consider joining the gym. I catch up with the people who’ve known me forever and check on their lifetime goals and how they are tracking. I ask them to help me stay accountable as I pour us another glass of wine and comment that Febfast doesn’t start for at least another week. I tell myself that this year I won’t take myself so seriously, I’ll take more time to relax, spend more time with friends and worry less about the things beyond my control.

And as I make plans, God laughs, just as the Yiddish proverb says He would. Just like He did for Elijah, He sends me everything I need. He sends me food and drink and visitors. He shows me compassion and care. Tenderly He acknowledges that the journey has been great then He allows me to rest. In spite of all His kindness however He isn’t finished with me yet. Just as He wasn’t finished with Elijah, just as He isn’t finished with you. There’s stuff for us to do. When you get caught in a rut or complacent, He’ll come to remind you that your life matters. He’ll question your crazy thoughts. “What are you doing here?” He asks, challenging you to consider the work of His hands.

As you stand on the edge of the cliff seeking His direction, He reminds you that His ways are higher than yours. He’s not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the still, small voice. When you hear it everything is calm.

And the night will be filled with music
And the cares that infest the day
Will fold their tents like the Arabs
And will silently steal away.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Is this the path you chose?

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Photograph by Tracey Berry. Find more like this on Instagram: @traceaberry

When a man journeys toward his destiny, often he is obliged to change paths. At other times, the forces around him are too powerful and he is compelled to lay aside his courage and yield. All this is part of the apprenticeship. Paulo Coelho

“Sometimes pursuing your dream is like digging through a dark tunnel.” I told my husband last year. There were times when I thought I’d suffocate under the load of working full time, studying part time and you know, just living.
“You just have to be careful the whole thing doesn’t implode, to stop every now and then,” he advised as he drove me to the cafe for a break. It was a Sunday and like every other day I started with coffee and my journal but I left my uni books at home. Instead of legs and shoes, I looked up, I saw faces and took time to observe.

“Observe,” said da Vinci, “observe in the streets at twilight, when the day is cloudy, the loveliness and tenderness spread on the faces of men and women.”

The couple next to us at the long communal table were doing the crossword. They read the questions aloud. They puzzled over the missing word then asked my husband if he knew. Of course he knew. My husband has an incredible knowledge on almost absolutely everything! The word fit and we celebrated this achievement with our laughter. This was words with strangers not words with friends but it felt all warm and cozy in the shelter of the cafe as the wind blustered outside.
My husband was right. Taking time is a wonderful thing, even when it seems like there is too much at stake if we stop, even when we are afraid to take our eyes off the goal. It reminds me of Elijah and his promise to bless Elisha.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
“You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise not.”
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. 2 Kings 2: 9 -12

While we are tunnelling in the dark with our head down there’s an overwhelming fear we might miss out. We wonder if we’ll make it to the table when they’re sharing out the cards to play. God reminds us that we can only do our part and the rest is up to Him. Sometimes we are compelled to lay aside our courage and to yield. The path we are on may not be the path we’d choose but He, in his wisdom, prepares us. It is all a part of the apprenticeship. The double portion is still to come.

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What do you do, when you don’t know what to do?

“Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.” Annie Dillard

The guy at the counter orders a long black with cream on the side. It’s an unusual request and the cashier pauses for a moment. “Do we have cream?'” He asks the barista.
“No problems, we can do that.” The barista nods in reply.

It’s a small cafe and most of the customers are regulars. I know them by their voices and their shoes. I know them by the time they arrive and at their appearance I calculate how much time I have left before I need to leave for school. In this small community of the morning we gather, delighting in being known and sharing our private lives alongside one another in this hole in the wall.

There’s the woman with her crocheted blanket stretched across her knees, and the young man who writes in his a4 book. There’s an older man with his newspaper completing his crossword. There’s a young girl in a mini skirt and heels who flirts with the barista as she waits for her takeaway. There’s the woman who meets her son and a largish man who likes the spot in the corner. So do I. We secretly know this about each other and try to schedule our arriving to nab that spot first, we exchange a nod, settling for a smaller table by the entry when we arrive late. Occasionally he stands up as I arrive, “I’m leaving, it’s all yours,” he smiles like he’s discovered my longing for the space under the light.

At 5am in the morning, while the suburb sleeps, this place is a fort. A watering hole. A cosy space. Here you can read the paper, you can write your assignment for uni, you can use the wifi for free. You can sit outside as the day lights up and chat with the passers by.

I love watching people come to the cafe for the first time. There is a culture in this community and the rules are discovered as you enter the game. Anyone can play but it isn’t clear at first quite how. It’s hard to know which end of the small bar you place your order. People don’t quite know where to stand. They wear their insecurities as they balance their weight foot to foot.

One day as I was writing I heard a woman in R.M Williams order her coffee. “What do I do now?” She asked. “I feel like you want to get rid of me!” I looked up from my journal. I loved her instantly. She verbalised what everyone feels the first time.

‘No, not yet.’ The barista replied.

“Not yet!” She laughed out loud.

But the barista didn’t reply this time. He was greeting Nigel and it was 7:40am. Time for me to leave.

I closed my journal and said my goodbyes, wondering if I’d ever see those boots again. As I made my way to the car I thought about what it means to live in the present. I’ve been working on this for years now, this concept of living completely in the moment. It’s okay to feel hollow and empty. It’s okay if you don’t know the rules. The key perhaps is being completely conscious of the moment while attempting to lose all consciousness of self. It is self-consciousness, Dillard writes that “hinders the experience of the present” I try to challenge myself to live beyond all my own insecurities as I find myself constantly out of my depth. I remind myself that it’s only when we have no idea at all, that grace truly fills our cup and so I step forward bravely into another year of learning.

Dillard, A. (1974). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial.

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Have you lost your way?

Sometimes we find our true and inherent selves during our youth. It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow. Michael Ondaatje

I have the strange habit of collecting sentences. When I read, I read with a pen. If a sentence jumps off the page, which they often do, I reference it on the white pages at the back of the book. What are all those end pages for, if not for this?

It’s embarrassing when a friend asks to borrow a book I’ve read. I feel the need to explain all those sentences and why they are there. I don’t know why really, except in that moment of reading, they captured the pieces of my heart. It’s almost impossible to borrow books from a friend. I want to underline, cross reference and draw all over them. I want to return to those pages again and again.

Sometimes other people’s sentences express exactly what I am thinking. They are the words I could not find. The letters that rolled in the pit of me like alphabet soup. As I see them beautifully strung together on the page I can breathe again. I am vindicated somehow. There’s been an agreement between myself and the author. I can move on with this new depth of revelation. It’s like that verse in Matthew 18 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father who is in heaven.” New confidence accompanies these connections and we are reminded that God is for us, hidden in the details, waiting to be found. Every step of the way He cheers us on from the sidelines believing we’ll find our way through.

As a new year begins I’m writing out resolutions and somewhere in the list is the plan to laugh more, to do what I love, to be completely me. When you’ve spent your whole adult life married and raising children it’s possible that you’ve forgotten what it was that you loved. For so long it’s been all about your husband and the kids but he’s working through the weekend and the children call, ‘Bye Mum,’ as they slam the door behind them. Maybe like me you are left in the house without a car (because the youngest child has taken it) and it’s just you and the dog and your thoughts.

I smile, grateful that we’ve achieved the goal of raising three independent adult children and feel ready for this. I feed the dog, check the contents of my handbag and walk to the bus stop. The L90 arrives as I knew it would. After the initial panic of having no prepaid ticket, the young guy beside me reasssures me that its okay, ‘you can get a ticket on the bus on a Sunday.’ I head to the gallery, meet my sister for lunch, we learn about art and we laugh.

Along the road of my life God has been dropping clues like the bread of Hansel and Gretel. Have you discovered this too? You won’t find the crumbs if you look, they’ve been swallowed by ravens but you’ll find your way back. The answers are small within you and if you desire it they will grow.

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Have you been to the end of the pier?

“Had they known in these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.” Elizabeth Strout

Last summer, Emma and I started a tradition. She was about to move to Paris to study, Sam had just been married and though we didn’t know it at the time, a tradition began. We escaped Sydney for two days. We didn’t venture far but in those two days we did all the things we love to do both alone and together. We read, we talked, we wrote, we ate, we walked. This year we did it again. Different destination, similar experience. Instead of walking we kayaked and rode bikes.

I took her to a place I visited twice, two years ago. Two years ago I undertook the challenge of writing a novel in one month. As a teacher who worked full-time, National Novel Writing Month fell at a time of the school year when in Australia most teachers are writing their end of year reports. Somehow this fact made me embrace the challenge even more. I got myself organised and set the clock to wake up very early. To accomplish my goal it was necessary to write 1667 words every day. A girlfriend suggested that I book a cabin, or holiday house somewhere to help me complete the task. This challenged me almost as much as the task itself. At 46, I had never been away by myself. I found the perfect place and prepared to spend the weekend writing.

After unpacking my things and marvelling over the small details my host had provided for my stay; port and chocolate, towelling robes, a breakfast hamper… A message came from my friend.

‘Have you been to the end of the pier?’

The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. It was dark. It was late at night. Yet on her suggestion I ventured outside and made my way to the edge of the pier. Over the last four years, since January 2009, I have felt the nudge to go further than I’d normally go. There was nothing threatening or difficult about the edge of a suburban pier on a lake of glass. Going away by myself was not difficult. I simply had never thought of doing these things.

I talked to Emma about this as we dangled our legs in the warm water that lapped around the pier. The end of the pier symbolises something now for me, I told her. It’s a gentle challenge to consider doing things differently, to be fully present, to embrace all the experiences that surround me. It reminds me to pay attention and step out a little further than I’ve been before.

As I do every January, I’m rewriting my goals for the year. As I write them I am completely aware that life is fragile and that my circumstances could change in an instance. I remember the January I spent in my classroom making polka dot cushions for my fairy corner. I remember setting up Felicity Wishes with her tea set under the fairy net when the phone rang and my doctor told me to take Sam to emergency. Life is fragile and we have no control sometimes of our circumstances but everyday we have the opportunity to go to the edge of the pier.

What does the edge of the pier look like to you?

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What is prayer?

I realised yesterday that my prayers had dried up. I’d lost my voice. My rhythm. I lost my way to the altar. I woke in the night with my longing for connection. I took my fear to the couch, after boiling the kettle for tea. I struggled to find the words to explain my absence, to apologise for letting things go for so long. I made a poor attempt at praying. I thought to myself, what is prayer?

For years now my private prayer has taken place on the pages of the morning. This was awkward turning up without my book in the middle of the night. As I tried to explain this I discovered my words were not needed. He was already there. Leaning in. ‘So how about praying for someone else!’ He suggested. ‘This heaviness is not about you.’ Then he gave me a name and some faces. The rest was easy. I asked that God would do for them, all the things that I could imagine they might need. When I returned to bed, my own problems didn’t seem quite so big. I slept.

When I woke at daylight, my question still lingered.
What is prayer?
Why does it seem so complicated?
Why do I avoid it, or place it after everything else?
Why do I think it requires sacrifice, sacrament and strain?
Why do I feel so unsure when it’s easy?
If it’s easy, is it then not a prayer?

So I loaded my basket with some books and headed to cafe to research.
I packed my kindle, my new Mary Oliver book of poems, Eugene Peterson’s The Message and my journal.

In His faithfulness God reminded me that our communion need not be difficult.
Just like David wrote,
“O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

I started first with a poem and along with my coffee my answer came.

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum prayer as it crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
With my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
Self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

What do you think?
What is prayer?

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