When it comes to spending time with God, reading his word and praying, we often play around with terms like duty and delight. We know it ‘should’ be a delight; indeed we know it can be a delight. However, the reality is that we often require a good dose of discipline and perseverance to habitually meet with our Lord. We are well aware that if we waited for it to be a felt / anticipated delight before we got going we could be waiting a long time. On the other hand, if we get on with our ‘duty’, in God’s kindness we can eventually find ourselves tasting at least in part of the delights on offer.
But maybe it is simpler than that. Maybe we just need to do it because we know we need to. Like eating. Eating can indeed be a delight…
It is also a duty – when we don’t feel we can spare the time / effort we do our duty by our bodies by giving them what they need to keep them going.
I’m struggling at the moment to spend regular time with the Lord. I’m no where near duty let alone delight – but I do know that I need my Lord. So I’ll nibble away at the word of God, and I’ll open my mouth to speak to my Father even if I am unsure of what I can possibly utter. And that’s OK – because he’s got me – he delights in me, and will do his ‘duty’ (massive inverted commas) by me in Christ Jesus.
As I heard in a talk this week: Keep it simple, keep it real and keep it going.
A prayer to be kept in perfect peace
Stay my mind on you today,
Help me trust you come what may.
For what may come is my Father’s will,
His glory to bring and my cup to fill.
(based on Isaiah 26:3)
In this season however I am really struggling to stay my mind on the Lord. In fact I am struggling to stay my mind on anything. My mind feels more like a search light scanning the area back and forth desperately looking for something.
I constantly check my phone for a WhatsApp message from a friend – maybe I can stay my mind on that friendship, that valuing of me – at least for a moment. Next I check my email looking for some positive feedback on a project I shared with someone – approval might provide a resting place. And if all else fails there’s always just watching something or eating something or making another cup of tea….
It’s so foolish and futile though. None of these things are giving me much peace at all – let alone perfect peace. And of course when the WhatsApp reply or the email fails to materialise – far from being guarded and kept – my peace is assaulted and depleted.
And it’s even more foolish and futile because I know the answer and I know I know the answer. I know the answer even as I’m desperately, hungrily scanning away. I know where the treasure is!
So why won’t I stay my mind on my great, good, glorious, gracious Lord? And when I finally do try, why won’t it settle?!
Why, when the scanner sweeps over that huge X does it not starting beeping excitedly?
Well it’s bust isn’t it, I mean it’s dodgy at the best of times, but in the current climate (COVID-19) it is way off. It’s looking for the land of the quick fix and the kingdom of make it go away! It’s craving easy, numbing, low effort relief and it’s obviously unconvinced by the Lord as a source of that.
Which is pretty disturbing news to me.
Disturbing, but also revealing – as times of pressure often are. It would appear that – whatever good habits and routines I have (at times!) managed to sustain I basically fear (and not in the good way) falling at the feet of my Lord and finding my rest in him. There must be something about going to him that doesn’t feel safe enough or easy enough or simple enough or immediate enough. There must be something that I think is required when going to him that I know I just don’t have right now. There is something about it that isn’t a free action – it comes with a price tag and not one I am prepared to pay in this time of crisis. There’s not enough of me left / going spare for that right now – what I need is the next episode in a box set and a bowl of salted almonds!
And it’s not even that I am telling myself off for any of this. I get the need for self-care and kindness and being realistic in the season we are in. I get that the reality of my sin, my flesh, my old-self makes it costly to die to self and come to Jesus – that we are always going to struggle with that being automatic and easy this side of heaven. But the Lord promises that “he will keep her in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on him – because she trusts him” and I feel emboldened to explore what may be getting in the way of that now that our current situation has lifted the lid and shone the light on problems that prefer to hide away in the shadows.
Your “no” is better than my “now”:
Your test is better than my treat:
Your wisdom than my wants, whens and whys.
And by better I don’t just mean better for us;
It’s not ‘broccoli better than biscuits’ better;
It’s ‘freshly ground coffee better than cheap instant’ better;
It’s ‘Disney World better than the carousel they stick in town on a bank holiday’ better:
It’s ‘standing by Niagara Falls feeling the spray, hearing the pounding water, and seeing the rainbows dancing in it’ better than a dripping tap’ better.
It’s ‘You better than Your stuff’ better.
It is Your will NOT mine;
It’s Your glory AND my abundant portion from You.
So I choose Your will Lord.
Please help me to choose it with ever greater thanksgiving and trust, delight and joyful anticipation.
So, we’re on safari and we really want to see a lion. Our senses are so trained on trying to see a lion that the slightest movement in the grass causes a leap of excitement and many false alarms. Most amusingly to my family the ‘lion’ I saw that was in fact a monkey – a mistake I made not once, but twice! In my defence it was loping through long grass….
Our guide too, desperately wanted us to see a lion. He made sure we were up super early, on the first ferry across the Nile and into the park, where he proceeded to followed every hint of news he could get hold of and to draw on every bit of experience he had.
2 weeks previously he had done the same thing with a group and they had seen 14 lions!
We saw – wait for it…..
….a monkey that reminded me of a lion – twice!
We sought out those lions with all the resources we had, but they were not to be found – well not by us.
Happily, there is a Lion that may always be found by those who seek him. But do we seek him with anything close to the levels of perseverance, eagerness or focus we displayed on safari?
My answer would have to be – no.
Why? Maybe because, unlike our once in a lifetime safari experience, we can always do it tomorrow, we’ve done it before after all.
How quickly the amazing becomes just another normal.
Unlike the illusive big cats, elephants we did see – a plenty.
Harder to hide of course!
And how quickly did a heart stopping, emotion swelling, wonder inducing sight turn into ‘and there’s another elephant….’
Thankfully seeking God’s face is neither a ‘luck of the draw’ lion hunt nor a spectacle that loses its intensity as it loses its novelty.
However amazing it was to be observing God’s amazing creation in the wild – we were just that – observing.
As we seek God’s face, we are doing so in the context of a growing relationship. And in an ever-deepening relationship familiarity should not breed contempt, but depth of love and knowing, appreciating, feasting on and trusting.
And our God is more beautiful than an eternity of gazing can fathom – as his creation (even now in bondage) hints at.
Our hearts sang to see a family of elephants wallowing in the mud – of course they did. It was good. Elephants being so completely elephanty – well it’s so right. They are fulfilling the purpose for which God created them and in doing so pointing us to their maker.
To see a giraffe cantering across the Savannah – well it takes your breath away.
Giraffes being giraffy resonate deeply with us. It is good. They declare to us the wonder of the one who made them so well.
And yet how dull our hearts are when it comes to seeking the elephant maker’s face, to desiring the giraffe designer.
Dear Father, elephant maker, giraffe designer, thank you for those never seen, but eagerly looked for lions! They were just as much teachers pointing me to you as the elephants and giraffes which were so delighted in. Please preserve in me a sense of that urgency and keenness – and that dissatisfaction of what was unseen, unfinished – and so keep me seeking your face. Please keep me devoted to my quiet times with you – like those morning game drives which ditched morning comforts for far superior treasures. In Jesus – the Lion of Judah’s wonderful, precious name, Amen.
I wonder how many of you, like me, have the tendency to live life a bit like a contestant in the Great British Bake Off tent. NOT in terms of the amazing baking you do – not to imply anything whatsoever about your baking! – but in terms of your perspective on whatever it is you find yourself busy with.
Perspective in the tent is, after all very different! Attempts at dough or pastry that would be perfectly recoverable (even quite pleasing really) in real life go in the bin amidst a flood of tears in the tent. What would be the decision of a moment or even more likely just not cross our minds in our kitchens at home is researched and reworked for hours in the life of a Bake Off contestant. Minute variations and subtle combinations are analysed and agonised over and all under intense scrutiny! And quite right too! Given the context that is exactly the sort of perspective you would expect. How else would someone produce this…
The problem is that given a certain temperament, level of skill, a set of expectations (perceived or actual, coming from others or ourselves…) there is a cohort of us who – at least in part / on some level – are actually aiming for the end of each day to look pretty much like the scene above: a near perfect something to show for our efforts ready to be appreciated and validated by those who know about these things, and with all the mess and bother a thing of the past. A tangible triumph.
Not of baking necessarily…
Perhaps we would aim to have our children sitting up there swinging their legs, happy and eager to chat through the family devotional we had earlier in the day? Maybe we would are looking to produce a spread of nutritionally balanced food that has been enjoyed and appreciated? Or is it a thriving bible study group or one-to-one? A husband feeling tenderly loved? A well organised to-do list? A product from your craft or paid work – a patient you have really invested in and treated successfully, a brilliant diagnosis, a best seller, a positive comment from a colleague or mentor, a promotion, a qualification, a pupil who has come on leaps and bounds under your care….? Or a session at the gym / long distance run with all the right stats?
Even more worrying is that we might well be aiming for an element of all or most of those!
And so we have a ‘Bake Off Tent’ perspective on our days – the weight we place on each decision, the pain we suffer in failure, the panic in delay, the dismay when we see what other people are doing…
But what if we are in fact not contestants in the Bake Off Tent, but children making mud pies in the garden?
If we imagine we are aiming at this…
no wonder we feel depressed when we end up with this!
But what if we are only meant to be making mud pies?
What if we could be happy with an end of the day which looks more like this?
Which doesn’t give us permission to be lazy, slapdash or thoughtless; or to cheat people by being casual with their time, or the tasks they have entrusted to us. Nor does it diminish the value of what we do. It doesn’t render what we do unimportant or meaningless. No way! Those mud pies are to be made to the glory of God.
But it does mean that we need to remember that what’s at the end of the bench when time runs out is God’s domain – his masterpiece. We need to put aside our Bake Off tent perspective on our days and jobs and pick up the perspective of small, eager children helping and trusting their talented, patient Father.
You see – and this makes all the difference – our Father takes our very dishevelled looking, odd smelling, uneven, misshapen, sunken, overcooked, under-cooked, salt put in instead of sugar, piece of the baking paper baked into the cake, scraped off the floor….. creations and (jaw-droppingly) smiles in satisfaction and delight. Why? Because he has just the ingredients he intended at just the right time for the showstopper to stop all shows!
Or to mix my metaphors into my cake mixture – he takes our mud pies and lovingly plants a seed from which grows the most beautiful flower ever known.
To finish: a phrase that is not mine, but which I love:
How do you feel when you ask someone to do something and they reply:
For me – it is a start of a sentence that I really dislike hearing. It basically says “You’re not as important as this…..”
And yet those two words find themselves at the start of my replies far too often – even when I am talking to myself!
Child: “Mum are you coming through so we can start the film?”
Me: I’m just wiping the table.
Me: Can you come down to lay the table?
Child: I’ll just finish the page.
Me to self: You’re getting a bit frantic about this, take a break and come back to it.
My reply to self: I’ll just finish this bit.
And the worse thing is that I’m just….is rarely followed by the truth. I SAY “I’ll just wipe the table”, but in all truth I am planning to wipe the table, sweep the floor and make myself a cup of tea! My child SAYS “I’ll just finish the page” but what they really mean is “I’ll get to a good bit to stop”.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s often absolutely appropriate to ask someone to wait while you finish something – but there is a way to say it that makes it clear that you value them, that you are ready to obey (i.e. when we have asked our children to do something) or to come right now if that is what is really needed, and that is honest and realistic about what you are planning to do.
There is no just!
You are either coming or you are not coming. You are either ready or not.
(Sounds a bit like a game of Hide and Seek doesn’t it?!)
Otherwise not only are we not being honest with others we are probably not being very honest with ourselves. In my case at any rate, a day full of “I’ll just ….” should act as an alarm bell that I am trying to juggle too many things. In the words of my last post – that drips are dripping all over the place. That the lists are taking over!
Before we go on let’s be clear:
Lists are great – I like lists!
I am realising that perhaps they should come with a warning. Certainly in my case anyway – because if I am not careful I quickly let them dominate my life.
Let me explain:
I make a list so I don’t have to rehearse everything over and over in my mind. The list is an enclosure where a job can be kept until I get to it without the risk of it running away!
Note to self: Just because a job exists / has come to mind does NOT mean it has to go on the list! Some jobs are better running free!
But then I go on going over and over it in my mind. I go over what I have got done from the list, what I haven’t got done from it and what I need to add to it. So I end up emotionally ‘paying’ for each item on the list at least twice. Worse than that I think the people close to us can see the list in our eyes – see us scanning it as we ‘listen’ to them.
Our lists become like the ring in The Lord of the Rings – we want to turn them over in our minds, fiddle with them, look at them and master them. But we all know that the ring can’t be mastered!
OK so that is a bit dramatic – but you get my point.
Apologies if you have never read The Lord of the Rings and have no idea what I am talking about!
I’m not suggesting throwing our lists into the fire of Mount Doom – I think I would find that harder than Frodo did! But I do think we need to regularly put them down and walk away. Deliberately leaving things undone, deliberately ignoring their calls to us. Like Bilbo we need to give them up of our own free will to free us from their dominion over us. When we try to become The Lord of the Lists, the Lists rule the day. But when we regularly put them to one side and treat them as the suggestions on scraps of paper they are rather than the Holy Grail of our day – well then their power over us wains.
So stop constantly doing just one more thing! Stop chasing the end of the list like a dog chasing its tail.
One way I explain to my children why I just can’t listen properly to what they are trying to tell me –
– and I mean about Pokemon or Beast Quest not life threatening emergencies!
is to explain that my head and heart are already full and anything else poured in is just going to pour over the top and make a mess!
It seems to be a helpful image for everyone concerned.
The question I have recently been asking myself is what is hanging around in the jug to make it so full?
Often it is quite reasonably the actual task / conversation I am having already involved in. Here the lesson is quite simply about interrupting; pausing before launching to check if I am clearly otherwise engaged.
But sometimes my fullness is less obvious to them, and in fact to me. I am basically interrupting myself all the time – wantonly adding more to the already full – oblivious to the growing puddle around me. While this self-inflicted mess seems to be acceptable for a while, the slightest drop any one else tries to add in is totally intolerable and is given short shrift.
And so I have decided to get better at either emptying my jars as I go along, or screwing on a lid and leaving it elsewhere. It is a similar concept to my brain receptionist from a while ago, but it seems to be sitting within a more practical reach for me to access helpfully.
To give some examples..
As I drove back from a meeting yesterday evening I prayed about the things mentioned, mentally noted the three things I would type up and then turned the jar upside down.
Today when the All or Nothing wanted to play with me, I screwed the lid on the jar I had been filling, and got out a new one to enjoy filling with him.
I have one jar at the moment which is quite exciting and pressing and unknown and has a tendency to keep on dripping all the time – in other words it presses in on my consciousness regularly. So here I need to be really careful that I don’t let it drip into whatever I am meant to be concentrating on! Otherwise, before I know it drips from all sorts of places are all filling the same container and I suddenly have a bath tub full of water and just need to let the plug out!
No idea if this makes sense to anyone else, but the drips thing seems to have stuck in my imagination.
Another helpful image has been the 20% / 80% one. Which states that we generally get 80% of a job done in the first 20% of the time we give it. To get the last 20% takes a really disproportionate amount of time. So we need to be really choosy in what we decide to take beyond 80% in a day. We need to identify the tasks that we are really happy to just get to 80% on and then totally turn off all drips from that source. It is not an unfinished task, incomplete, failed or inadequate – it is just not a 100% task. It can have a clear tick next to it despite ‘only’ being 80% because that is all it needed to be. In the course of the day you might even have to downgrade tasks to 70% because as you weigh things up that is all it is going to get / all they need as compared to something else that has cropped up. The thing is that those tasks are just as much done as the odd 100% task we achieve.
It seems so simple – possibly even lazy – to stop at 80%! But actually, keeping on doing something can sometimes just be the easier option. Having the discipline to stop and shifting myself to do the next thing well and with full attention takes more effort.
Lord, please help me to be better at giving the tasks, and more importantly the people around me my full attention for the right amount of time and to leave what I don’t get to, haven’t managed or just have to abandon in your hands. Help me to discern where that final 20%, that extra work / time is valuable and a good investment and where it is just pride or inertia. That you Lord, Amen.
So is this really healing that is happening in my life?
Well, certainly God is doing a work in my heart, in my deepest place of me-ish-ness, which has enabled me to live in a place of peace and rest, stillness and smiles that I have never inhabited before.
As a result my life is not characterised by hiding away in fear – looking around nervously for escape routes. I am no longer living in a state of flight or fight mode, phobic of waking up to face another scary day in which I wouldn’t be good enough and in which others wouldn’t be able to make up for my failures.
Yes, life is full of mess – but now I can let messy people into the mess and messily love them there. And when your aim is to love, failure is taken out of the equation. And when failure is taken out of the equation a lot of the fear goes. And when the fear goes my need to be in control decreases. In an agenda of love rather than fear it is much easier to manage my need for order. Previously when fear had snatched the reins of my life every detail of disorder pained, distracted and tired me. When love, in the context of grace, is your aim then giving the situation to God and seeing where he takes it (5 loaves and fish come to mind) is simply much more peaceful.
In these words from the hymn Blessed Assurance:
“Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my saviour am happy and blessed….”
When I try to give people me and my perfect handling of a scenario – a set piece as it were – then I am full of fear and tighten my grip on whatever I am doing. When I aim to give love I seem to be able to go with the flow (all be it in a very me-ish way!).
A good spell before was a season in which I managed to juggle everything really well – keeping on top of things and feeling relatively in control. But of course there always came a time when I dropped a ball – for whatever reason. Even when I felt I was winning there was always a sense that I was only just outrunning a monster that would eventually catch up with me. And when he did I would drop everything and hide.
Now the monster and I are jogging partners! I have stopped trying to outrun life.
If life is like a trip from the laundry basket to the washing machine – arms slightly too full and a trail of dirty socks and pants left behind you – I have stopped feeling the need to bend down while my arms are still overflowing with washing and pick up everything along the way.
The secret of my well-ness is not that I am now better at coping, but that life doesn’t constantly feel like something that needs to be coped with. I am not chasing after an equilibrium at the end of my to do list that simply doesn’t exist.
This means that not feeling on top of things has become normal and acceptable! A crazy day or set of unusual challenges does not cost me the emotional fortune it would have previously. It doesn’t deplete me or send me into a panic. I don’t pay for it the next day, nor the next. I process it as I go along, let go of things when my hands get too full and avoid looking back over my shoulder.
I am still me and I need to apply the wisdom I have gained over the years in managing my emotional energies, No doubt there is much still to learn and many things that will still manage to floor me.
BUT something has changed. In one sense virtually overnight, but in another sense very slowly over years and years of healing since our son’s death [and in all probability just the lifelong struggle of being a broken me in a broken world].
Over the past 12 years I have prayed and read and planned and processed. I have written and prayed and learned; reflected and prayed some more. I have read about grief and depression, anxiety and fear, contentment and trust and while I have learned much these lessons have hovered slightly out of easy reach.
But just recently I have learned – and when I say learned I don’t mean intellectually, but deep in the very depths of who I am – the very simple and yet profoundly wonderful truth that God is completely good – not just in the abstract – but personally completely good to me and that my heart is truly safe with him. I am completely loved, with no expectations on me whatsoever. I am just loved – plain and simple.
And all those other lessons which seem to have been stored away in some sort of very hard to access holding area seem to have poured into my HQ like marbles clunking noisily, but pleasingly, one by one through a funnel in a marble run.
Who knows what will happen as the winter continues and the sunshine of summer is still far off – but I do think there has been a shift in my mental health and it is linked to my trust in God. “You will keep her in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because she trusts in you.”
Basically I am not so afraid of life any more – it is liked I have finally turned on the light and seen that the shadow lurking in the corner is not the menacing beast that I thought it was, but just a coat on a chair casting a funny shadow. And take away the fear and much of the urgency, perfectionism and panic goes with it – because the realities of life are no longer the enemy. Take away the perfectionism and the constant fight with life and the anger goes. Take all of that away; and failure and human error – both yours and other people’s – become acceptable, unsurprising and non-threatening. Take all that away and life is a LOT less tiring. And before you know it love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control find some space to grow.
Phew – that was a bit of a … not a rant, but the positive version of a rant – a rave perhaps? Thanks for putting up with that – it was good to put it down.