Flip-flops and blisters

A few days ago we got back from our summer holiday. The blisters from my flip-flops are still healing. My young son’s hair still smells of sand. The mild tan that I got despite religiously applying sunscreen, is still there.

I didn’t always love the beach. Growing up every vacation was spent in a caravan right on the edge of the rocky beaches of KwaZulu-Natal. The sand was too much. It was everywhere. It stuck to my feet like it had bonded with my skin. It spread across the tent floor. It was in my camper bed. As a little girl I loved to sweep it up and declare the tent spotless. It wasn’t as comfortable as the holiday homes my friends had, but every night we went to sleep listening to the waves and my dad would wake up early and watch the sunrise in silence (my dad likes silence). It suited our budgets and gave us contented hearts.

Then after many times being driven in a car over a hill to see the expanse opening out before me in its blue glory; after sitting in rock pools with my mum, pretending to be a hair dresser and “washing her hair” with sand and sea water (thanks, mum); after long, long walks along the east coast of South Africa with my parents and my sister, looking for cowries, taking giant leaps to step into my dad’s footprints; after dusky evenings sipping Sprite on the rocks with my mum and sister (mum would get white wine…necessary after the hair wash I gave her); and after being old enough to explore the beach and climb up onto tall rocks on my own, I found that it had wooed me. I loved it. I was alone. I could hear God. I absolutely loved it.

Those Indian Ocean waves would rumble and roll and crash wildly at high tide and in storms. At low tide I discovered another world snorkelling in those rocky pools full of colourful fish. They evaded my reach with incomprehensible ease as I brushed past. That sun was warm as I became a teenager and tried to get a tan. And when I moved to Cape Town and the beaches were more upmarket, with mansions lining the streets, claiming the kinds of sea views that our humble caravan had enjoyed, the sea temperature felt colder than ice, the waves were smaller and the water was turquoise instead of Prussion Blue, but the beach hadn’t lost it’s appeal.

For the waves spoke of love as they lapped the shores. I heard it when I closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my cheeks and eyelids and the breeze through my hair. The sunlight still sprinkled diamonds on the sapphire expanse. We would gather after volleyball and watch the sunset over the sea (now being in the west). As the luminous circle slipped below the clear purple horizon we would jump to “see it twice” and giggle at our ridiculousness and our delight. I soaked it all up in all its goodness. This was creation and it wrapped around me in a warm embrace.

I met someone who claimed that one night she had seen a vision of angels on the beach. They were moving along the waves holding them back. They didn’t have wings. “This far and no further.” I believe her.

On good days and bad days and on uneventful days I’ve gone there. When I was a young adult and had finished my degree I went there by myself on Saturday mornings to bake until I was warm, then I would run into the ice-cold waves to cool down for 10 seconds, walk briskly, shivering back to my warm towel, and wait there until I was ready to do it all over again. I’ve sat on a bench on cloudy days and breathed in salty air. I’ve gone there when I’ve been lonely. And when someone I had been praying for died of cancer, it was to the beach that I went to let the waves sooth my mind and remind me that God is still good. The waves still lap.

And now I take my children to the beach. It’s in a different hemisphere but it’s still the same. The waves lap; sometimes they crash. There are rocks and pools and dry sand that sinks against my feet and runs between my toes with a comforting scratchiness. It still gets everywhere. There is lots of cleaning off with towels and sweeping and my daughter hasn’t yet got past the point of being annoyed by it. My husband took them to the farm park when they’d had enough, but I went in the other direction for a long swim. When I got out and stood facing the sun to dry off, I closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my checks and eyes just like I did down south. The breeze stroked my hair. For the first time in a long time, I was at peace. Everything is going to be alright. I have hope my children will find that too.

Because the sea is still there. After all the pain of the years it is still there. Like a mountain it is mighty and it is steady. It goes only as far as God lets it. It is inviting. The waves lap. The sun shines beams on it in the morning. It’s as if God is saying, “Look!” Look what I made for you! Come and see, and hear, taste and smell it. Come and play in it!” And I feel loved.

A morning on the Isle of Wight

So I will enjoy the sandy smell in my son’s hair when I hug him. And I don’t mind the blisters.

A Letter To My Daughters

This is a letter I wrote for my lovely young daughters who have been home educated.

I got to keep you a little closer for a little longer.

I got to look into a mind like no other.

I learnt things no-one could teach me, just by teaching you.

You learnt things no-one taught you, because you were you.

I got to see it.

Because what is necessary for some was crazy for you. I got to protect you from it.

What is impossible for many is delightful to you. I got to give it to you.

What others don’t understand, you showed to them. You still do.

And when it was hard, you found your feet. You told me where I was wrong.

I learnt to do better.

I got to whisper encouragements when others would have restricted you.

I got to set you free to enjoy your reading, your contentment.

You got to grow at your own pace.

You got to see that there’s more than what people say there is.

I got to see it.

You saw how hard it was on me, though I tried to hide it.

You worked through it and learnt that mums have big feelings too, that adults aren’t perfect.

That you are just fine.

When you were ready, you stepped out and shone. You still do.

I got to see it.

Before you were born, I counted the cost. I was and still am prepared to die for you.

You are more than I could have imagined. So much more than I could have asked for.

You are infinitely reflecting your infinite Maker.

I will never regret keeping you closer for a little longer.

Can you hear it?

I woke up dismal and dark and empty for a few days last week. And then I heard it. Can you hear the hush?

It’s the quiet anticipation of an aching planet. It’s a steady, tender conviction.

Can you hear it? It’s there despite its bleak fragility. It hums the assurance that while shadows and failure stalk our steps, one is powerful enough to uphold everything.

We will indeed have a new beginning; the deepest untold yearnings will finally be realised according to the prophet’s poem. The poem that tells of gold and vibrant colours, abundant growth and fresh joy, royal perfumes and holy worship.

Of sorrow and sighing fleeing away.

The poem that tells of a beautiful, conquering king: gracious, righteous, meek.

Order that was brought into what was formless and void, is slowly being pulled downward. But hope tarries, stepping away from the pull, and looks upward. For one has promised to redeem.

To make all things new.

So in the hush and the grey, we pause to listen and we hear that hidden melody of hope and redemption.

He gives more grace. We can only receive.

Mercy on the Radio

God is on the radio.

Classic FM is one of the stations that are pre-programmed into cars and radios in this country. It regularly plays what I think is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It is a choral setting called Miserere Mei, Deus, originally composed in the 17th century by Gregorio Allegri.

It is loved by many. People are moved by it without even knowing what the words mean. There are comments on this video from people saying they’re “not religious” but would go to church if they could hear this being sung.

For those who can navigate the Latin, they still might not know that the lyrics were taken directly from Psalm 51, written about 3,000 years ago by David, King of Israel. He wrote it after he had broken God’s law in a way that is commonly seen today as utterly deplorable.

It plunges the depths of his regret. He had grieved a God whom he loved. His soul was so torn that his bones felt as though they were crushed.

But throughout the sober sorrow there is an undeniable sense of awe and grace.

Allegri knew this. Miserere is slow, with significant pauses. As I listen I hear the assuring rhythms and tones that speak of steadiness. God listens. He can be trusted. Through the ages he has spoken tenderly to unworthy people. His justice and mercy are expressed softly and humbly as one choir responds to another, and the male and female voices fill vaulted halls of cathedrals with a harmony that spans the centuries.

It’s all beautiful. But there is a moment that stops my heart. A solitary soprano lifts her voice and lowers it tenderly.

And then, after a brief pause, she lifts her voice higher, and then even higher, in a cry that seems to reach for the very throne room of God.

She sings the cry of faith. It is the cry of the church on earth, of all who would dare to believe. We’ve all messed up one way or another, but here is a prayer that asks for a grace so astonishing that even the words to ask for it were written down for us. Anyone can ask. It’s bigger than we can imagine.

My daughter and I regularly listen to it as we drive along the motorway. She loves all things Latin and Roman and Classical but she isn’t sentimental. This piece catches her breath.

God is on the radio. And across the country, in cars as people commute home from work, in kitchens as parents cook meals for their families, in earphones as people ramble to the pub for a drink, this cry rings out: Words that ask for mercy, and words that are answered by a God who loves to give it.

The Hidden Visitation

A week ago the church celebrated the feast of Pentecost: when we remember that first spectacular, fiery pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

About 6 days before, however, there was another feast that felt somewhat neglected: the feast of the Visitation, where the church remembers Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visiting Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist.

I’m not sure why it’s largely ignored. It’s about Mary so perhaps it’s a Protestant knee-jerk reaction to her. I don’t know. But I am encouraged by the testimony recorded in Luke’s Gospel of two mothers quietly rejoicing together.

Mums are often unable to be a part of church gatherings. When my first child was a baby and I often found myself alone, people said it was “only a season”. Now after three children with various needs, that season for me has been a quarter of my life, half of my adult life, when I am unable to join in on most things. Prayer meetings and seminars are often scheduled at night when most children need to be sleeping. Church services can’t be relied upon to be uninterrupted. Even weekday gatherings are largely impossible when the kids refuse to go to Sunday school or Creche. Meaty Biblical studies favour those who can sit still and be quiet. Those who can’t need taking care of. So like the temple rules of old, we’re at the back. Far away.

And it’s at a time when we are entrusted with teaching. We are the Loises and Eunices of today. Our lives shape the brains of the future church leaders.

For most people, church is being together in a diverse gathering, encouraging each other, being ministered to by ordained clergy, taking part in liturgy.

The mum’s church however, is praying over the phone, short WhatsApp requests and quick conversations. It is in the back garden. It is at the dining room table as she takes on the teaching herself.

It is in the hidden places. But what makes all the difference is this: Jesus is there too.

Those chosen mums met unseen and rejoiced quietly together – mums who might have been isolated for similar reasons. Jesus visited them and their joy was expressed in worship.

Whatever is lacking in the church is more than made up for by direct access to God himself, who has visited and will visit us, like a brilliant, glorious dawn from on high (Luke 1:78). He is present in the quiet worship and rejoicing of mums.

“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!”” (Luke 1:45)

Malcolm Guite sums this up beautifully in his Sonnet for the Visitation.

Hope Against Hope (3): What does Jesus know about stigma?

This is Part 2 of a series on mental health

Centuries ago criminals and slaves were branded by a hot iron and the mark left was referred to as the stigma. It was a permanent, visible sign of disgrace, enslaving someone, or reducing someone to a failing from the past. It rendered them irredeemable. Today stigma takes on a different form, but its power to hurt and isolate is still there. It can be applied to anyone, for anything, whether they deserve it or not.

Today the hot iron is the tongue, and its scalding fire is speech. It gathers strength as people draw together in suspicion, voicing disapproval. Instead of honest inquiry, they use biased observations to confirm their views. It becomes a prejudice that never bends to acknowledge what is right in front of them. If the one who holds the prejudice also holds the power, it can be brutally destructive.

For the victim, it’s a place of isolation where their judgment is questioned and their opinions don’t count as much as others’ do. In my last post I spoke about the comfort that we get as Christians: the assurance that he who rules over all things sees us and hears us with compassion, and he can answer our prayers. But how does he know what stigma feels like?

The man from Nazareth

We have heard about the man who, two thousand years ago, walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know much about what he looked like, other than there was nothing special about his appearance. We have heard of the extraordinary miracles. When we read the gospels we see one who spoke with authority, who taught, who had great power but who also had compassion, who was accessible, who answered questions. He was kind to the afflicted, he challenged social norms by engaging with the outcast, and he spoke cutting words to the proud. He even healed diseases. Thousands of people gathered around him, actively seeking him out, to hear his words, to get close to him, to touch his garment to be healed. They gave him little time to rest. He was like streams in the desert; he was what they longed for. They loved him. 

We also know how he died. How could it have come to that? The religious elite, experts in the Mosaic Law, were corrupting its practices with their pride, abuse and hypocrisy. Jesus called them out, and they didn’t like it. They refused to see the fulfilment of that Law, right in front of them. Opposition also came from those with political power, loyal to Rome: a ruling force with a criminal justice system that could bend to the whims of a mob. A force that would quickly quell a hint of rebellion. A force with instruments of torture like the cross of crucifixion at its disposal. 

While these two groups had little in common, they gathered together, intent on destroying Jesus. Among those in power he was assigned the stigma of a troublemaker who needed to be stopped.

Jesus became a marked man, but he didn’t back down. He was threatened over something that he could not, would not alter: the truth of who he was.

And as the opposition intensified, the ruling powers achieved their aim. He was betrayed and arrested at night, unlawfully tried, beaten and his hands and feet were nailed to a cross. He was lifted up on that cross to die while being derided by passers by and mocked by the religious authorities. His disciples fled. Women who followed him could only look on, weeping.

He bore the disgrace of a public Roman execution, the sentence given to someone who was rendered irredeemable, when he himself had committed no crime. But it also reaches a whole new level. He chose to bear a stigma no-one else has and no-one ever again will feel.

The great exchange

In a higher court than the court in Jerusalem, a great exchange was taking place. 

As human beings we have lost our way. We naturally ignore God. Our failings of thought, word and deed are a mortal affront to our Creator. Some failings are worse than others, but when it comes to God’s perfect law, the simple fact is we haven’t kept it. This is what brought death and pain into the world. This is what ultimately isolates us from God and each other.

He would not leave us to it.

Jesus knew that he would die in the way that he did. It had been written centuries before he came. He had seen how wickedness and death affected us, and he was indignant against it. He knew that the only just way for us to be delivered from it, was for someone who had never fallen short to willingly bear the full force of justice and die in our place. He set his face like flint and deliberately walked straight towards it. He rebuked those who tried to stop it, he commended those who believed him when he warned them about it.

He was heaven on earth and he never, not once fell short, but chose to bear the wrath, isolation, shame, nakedness, and the curse of the thorny ground on his head. He committed himself to bear it in our place so that we could live forever. It’s a need we could never have met, but he met it at immense cost to himself. History hinges around it.

He did it for us

Jesus entered into the stigmatisation of this world and felt it all, right up to its end. So he can sympathise with whatever isolation that is inflicted on us by others. But this is the most liberating part: when it was our failings that at a fundamental level isolated us, Jesus broke those walls down. We were stuck in death, mourning, crying and pain, and he did not despise our affliction, but entered into the depths of human experience, to set us free. 

When he showed himself to be alive again after death, those scars on his hands and feet – those marks of final disgrace – were still there on his resurrected body. They declare for all time that the he has defeated death.

And having removed our isolation, his joy is to gather us together to him. It is the ultimate “counter-stigma”.

The man who walked the shores of Galilee is alive today. With joy and singing, never ashamed of us, the loving defender of sinners, the man of sorrows, welcomes us with strong, protective outstretched arms. This is the love that captivates me and speaks to my soul. This is why I sing, “Hallelujah! Praise and honour unto thee.”

Hope Against Hope (2): Following Jesus when we are stigmatised

This is Part 2 of a series on mental health

A few years ago, a photo of a wolf pack went viral. The caption claimed that the first three were old and sick, the stronger ones were in the middle and the alpha was in the back. People loved the idea that the pack slowed down to the pace of the older ones, and that the stronger ones looked out for the weaker ones. Sadly it was not accurate. But we all wanted it to be. We applaud the idea because we know we are all, on some level, broken.

We also know that slowing down is costly.

It’s natural to recoil from something that looks scary or difficult. We can’t bear all the burdens. If mental health becomes dangerous, it is appropriate to put up boundaries. But if our response is based on prejudice or gossip or a determination to ignore or isolate, it becomes mental health stigma.

Reproach

Mental health stigma isn’t always mockery or insults. It is insidious rejection and it can even be done under the guise of caring for someone. Its poison is speech: gossip, slander, prejudice, persistent advice. It pushes down. It doesn’t listen. It isolates.

It can sneak in at work, with friends, at church, or at the doctor’s surgery. It starts in passive ways: we aren’t invited because they think we wouldn’t want to come; they don’t visit when they were invited, because they think we wouldn’t cope; or we aren’t considered for new opportunities at work. We aren’t always taken seriously. It progresses to being offered conflicting advice. If advice isn’t taken, we can be accused of being manipulative. We are blamed for what we’re battling. People speak about it among themselves, “out of concern”, forming opinions without taking the time to listen. Among Christians it can take the form of demanding a sort of supernatural perfection that is devoid of sadness. Our devotion is questioned. It’s our fault again. Not so long ago we could have been threatened with being fired from our jobs if we sought medical help.

So in the end, when we most need support, we might find the door shut, and a wall built around us. The isolation, poverty and distorted opinions that are forced on us make us even more vulnerable. 

When it happens, it can be mystifying. I had been honest with people because I thought I was safe with them or because I was obligated to in a work contract. When it became clear that gossip and prejudice had entered the fold, for a long time later it was hard to know who to trust. It made the burden ten times heavier.

The feeble bind on strength

Hannah’s story is recorded in the Old Testament. It occurred when the Israelites were at a very low point, before Israel had been established as a kingdom. 

Hannah was barren. She was married to a man who also had another wife, Peninnah. And Peninnah did have children. Every year they would go together to a place called Shiloh, where the tent of meeting was, to worship the Lord. 

It should have been a happy time – seeing old friends and feasting – but in the very place where Hannah should have found the most joy, Peninnah took advantage of her vulnerability. Year after year, Peninnah would provoke Hannah because she didn’t have children. On top of that, her husband didn’t think she should be upset – because she had him and apparently that was better than ten sons. He loved her, and gave her more food, and according to him, that should be enough. So Hannah did what any believer would do in that situation: she poured her heart out to God. The religious leader watching did not encourage her. Instead he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk.

Hannah is provoked by her husband’s other wife, silenced by her husband, and when she is most desperate and honest with God, her religious leader assumes the worst. She is isolated and it’s not her fault. But this is the key: the unburdening of her heart to someone who listens with true compassion is enough to sustain her before anything she has asked for has been granted. “….Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.”

In a final blow to her stigma, God gave Hannah a son. 

Hannah’s song tells us what she knew about God: that all the fortunes of the world are at his steady command, he rules over the power-bearers of the time, and he sets his special favour on those who are downtrodden and look to him.“Not by might shall a man prevail”.

So it can be with us.

In the warped isolation of stigma, we can lay before him what we need, whether it’s a loyal friend who listens, or a job, or protection. I waited and prayed. Battles were lost and I got up again. And prayers were answered. I got a job when all the odds were stacked against me. I was successful when people didn’t expect me to be. I also got a loyal friend. He does answer. And even before they are answered, when the voices around us, however well-meaning, seem to devour us, there is one who rules over all things, and he sees us. We need people, but when everyone has gone, he is the one who stays. He is the alpha wolf who slows to our pace, keeping watch. It’s a care that is borne of compassion, because he knows what stigma feels like. 

Next post: Hope Against Hope (3): What does Jesus know about stigma?

_______________________

Reference: 1 Samuel 1, 2

Hope against hope (1): Following Jesus when we’re depressed

There is a weed in my front garden. I pull it up but after a few months, there it is again.

Depression for me is like that weed. I became a Christian 25 years ago, and like many Christians, I couldn’t believe that anyone who knew the significance of the good news could also know despair. I thought I was done with it. Over the years there have been joyful times, but, like that ugly and obtrusive weed with the impossibly long tap root, depression and complex PTSD have always come back.

Have you ever seen an armadillo suddenly curl itself up when it detects a threat? In a moment it turns itself into an odd, heavily armoured football.  You can see it here. Similarly, our brains are designed for protection. They remember the times when we were in danger. So when circumstances are overwhelming, parts of our circuitry can go into a kind of shut-down mode. Sometimes we are set on edge, ready to fight, or fly, or freeze. Sometimes it deadens our sense of being alive. Demands still need to be met so we resist the urge to hide. Chemicals wage war in our bodies. They don’t ask for permission. The days are debilitating. It takes a whole lot to keep all these things at bay.

“Call your GP”?

It’s often the first thing we are asked: “Have you spoken to your GP?” Medicine and therapy are often essential but the system fights against us. 

We wait on hold for 30 minutes. We put the phone on speaker as we try to keep a clear head and manage endless demands at home, while having to listen to screechy music interrupted with the perpetual apology, “We are currently very busy.” We guard our privacy as we articulate the urgency of the problem to a faceless receptionist who might assume we are a burden on the system. 

We wait for the call-back. We don’t know when it will come. We don’t know which GP it will be and if we miss the call we’ll probably have to start the process all over again. We can’t call anyone else or drive somewhere or be otherwise distracted in case we miss it. We are scared of being stigmatised and misunderstood. Our stress levels continue to rise.

The call comes from an over-worked GP who deals with the vast scope of health issues presented to them each day. Within the 10 minutes allotted to the appointment, the natural suggestion is to prescribe medication without a managed care plan. Anything more than needing a GP every three months can’t be properly engaged with, unless things have got to the point of requiring drastic intervention.

Funded counselling sessions are strictly limited in number. Online portals send us around in circles with broken links. Private therapy is sometimes so expensive that we cut back on other needs, like food and warmth, just to get the bare minimum. The side-effects of medication include nightmares, weight changes, gut problems, drowsiness – all for the greater good of not being depressed. It can take weeks for our bodies to adjust to medication. Sometimes it isn’t right and we have to start again with something else. It can take weeks to find a therapist, then longer to settle into therapy only to realise that the therapist wasn’t right for us. Stress levels rise further. If we are mums, our children don’t stop needing us throughout this disjointed, at times fruitless process. They might need us even more than usual, and when we’re drowning in frustration, still we are told, “Call your GP.” It sounds practical. It sounds easy. It sounds like we have no excuse and everything is taken care of. 

In the empty spaces

Writers of Scripture were sometimes shocking in their honesty towards God. The Psalmists expressed being hunted, trapped, oppressed, abandoned, and abused by people. They felt far from God, appealing to him with desperation, expressing deep frustrations at the disparity between the good and kind God they believe him to be and the horror of their lives.

These words are in the Bible. They are prayers that God himself approved to be included in the Bible. They are far from the pattern on display at church on Sundays. They even commend the silence that comes when our lips are dry and we sit and wait. They show undeniably that God knows: he knows how frustrating it is, he knows that at times we just don’t understand him, we thought he would come through for us and things don’t make sense.

They show that he knows it better than anyone. So it can all be brought to him.

There in those words, we see one who can engage with the depths of the miseries of life and not recoil, but embrace us and defend us. He is not shocked by our feelings. We find that with him, we can feel safe with the reality of whatever state we are in.

He is the friend and advocate that we all deeply long for: a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. 

Many Christians still think that despair is wrong, but it is in acknowledging the reality of our circumstances that our faith shows itself. It is a faith that is honest. It doesn’t deny that in the midst of all the beauty, this world can be cruel. With Jesus, we don’t need to put on a front of positive words in order to look good.

My depression has brought with it overwhelming feelings of failure and uselessness. They sap my energy and affect my relationships. I have found myself unable to do basic tasks, while demands have only increased in intensity. I’ve tried multiple medications, and when I was younger I had stays in clinics alongside people in the throes of horrifying affliction. I never want to go back. And still the weed breaks the soil and spreads its thorny leaves. As I have grown my management of it has improved a great deal, but I still pray for it to go away for good. I have hope that one day it will.

In the meantime, this is the privilege I have found: when we are broken, overwhelmed, and not in the least presentable – not clad in a heavily armoured suit like our friend, the armadillo, but perhaps with crazy hair and scruffy joggers – we can find a friend who is closer than a brother. When in those empty spaces, I have met him in the Scriptures. He is someone who, with compassion, sits beside us in our pain. He brings the sweet safety of being known, and it fills a void that no-one else ever can. This is what keeps me going.