This novel, written about apartheid South Africa, has always had a special place in my heart, and right now it sums up how I feel about my own country, the United Kingdom.
Reeling from this past week’s EU referendum result, I need just to write to get some of my thoughts in place. This is an emotional response to what has happened, and I am not pretending it is anything else. I am not a particularly political person and have voted for 5 different political parties in my life. I do not claim to know the ins and outs of all the arguments but have tried to read and digest as much as I can.
Quite simply, I am grieving. I am grieving for the loss of my country as I knew it. A country that welcomed Jewish children in World war 2, that invited people from the Caribbean to work here in the 50s and 60s, that took in people of Asian descent when they were thrown out of Amin’s Uganda and that in more recent years has taken in students, workers, refugees and asylum seekers from all corners of the globe. I am grieving for the loss of a country that had a compassionate heart. I am sickened and saddened by posters like ‘Breaking Point’, by descriptions of hate mail, graffiti and expressions of racist language to fellow human beings who live in my country, legally and productively and may well have been born here. I am genuinely sad for many friends and colleagues who feel that this week, they are less welcome in my country than they were before.
I am also grieving for the loss of opportunities for the next generation, opportunities to study and work without regulations across Europe, for reductions in funding to universities for research, for those who will lose their jobs as we enter turbulent economic times. I don’t know how bad it will be, and for how long, and am aware that many feel ‘it will be alright in the long run’. Maybe so, but I have seen the effect of recession on mental ill health, suicide rates, family life etc and that may not be sufficient reassurance for some.
I am grieving for the loss of seemingly any credible leadership in my country. We will have an unelected prime minister, at least for a while, we have no strong opposition, no-one able to speak with courage, boldness, and calmness. In short, no-one who seems to have a clue what happens next and what we should do.
I am grieving for potentially the loss of my country’s name ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’: so much of that seems unreal right now: ‘United’? ‘Great’? and I acknowledge the reality of the Scotland and Ireland question.
My grief has taken many forms, from initial shock and disbelief (I never imagined this result), to deep deep sorrow ( on Friday morning, I sobbed uncontrollably in my bed, totally overwhelmed and surprised by the depth of sadness I felt about leaving the EU and aware of an emotional attachment to it that I hadn’t realised was there.) And then on to anger, it wells up uncontrollably. I am angry with Cameron for taking us into this referendum, as a way of dealing with the right wing of his party, and gambling away our nation in the process, and angry with Johnson and Gove as it seems they may not even have wanted to win! More political manoevering. I am angry with the Labour party for not having a strong voice into the current situation, I am angry with people who voted without understanding, (I am not so angry with those who voted differently to me but had at least thought through their reasoning), I am angry with myself for not realising the divided heart of our nation, and I am furious with Farage for stoking up racism and hatred.
And these feelings are not going away. The more I read, the sadder I feel. The experts seem to tell us we are in unchartered waters, and it feels like we have no-one to steer the ship.We are seeing the emergence of ugly scenarios of hatred and racism. We don’t yet know what economically will happen over the next few days, weeks, and months but I already know of one person who was made redundant on Friday.
There are many who are calling us to accept things and move on. I understand why they say this, but grief isn’t like that. It can’t always be hurried and I’m not ready to let go of my sadness and anger just yet. I also feel helpless, what can be done? What can make things better? Its not like a general election when we can get a different government in 5 years time. This decision is likely forever. How do we ‘make the best of it?’ I honestly don’t think I have the answers to these questions and that feels very uncomfortable. I have been through some tough situations personally in my life and I have found coping strategies. One of them has been to ‘live in the moment’, to be mindful of the things I’m in right now, and be grateful for them. But somehow this doesn’t feel right this time. I so desperately want my country back, the welcoming one, the one that offered opportunities, the one that was climbing its way out of challenging financial times. And I know that whilst personally I will be OK in all of this, my job and pension are secure, I can help my kids out if I need to, there are many many others who may not fare so well. What can I do for them? How do they just get on and make the best of it?
Finally, I am struggling to see where my faith fits into all of this and this is the hardest feeling of all. I cannot accept for now, what feels like the simplistic answer that ‘God is in control’ and He will ‘work it all out’. He allows us political systems to work within, and we don’t just leave it all to Him, or we would never vote anyway or strive for change in any other way. There are those who share my Christian faith on both sides of this argument, I have tried to be respectful of different views, but am left just wondering where is God in all of this? This is as honest as I can be, and right now I just don’t know what to think.
So I will continue to mourn the loss of my country as I know it. I will try to reach out to the many I know from other countries and ethnic backgrounds and let them know there are plenty of us who love them and want them here for all the richness of diverse experiences they bring. And I will somehow trust that this grief will lessen in time, that maybe there will be answers to the unanswerable, that there will be a way forward and that all hope is not lost. But this feels like a hard and long journey ….
Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival.
Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country
Last year I was inspired to find a ‘word’ for the year by one of my favourite bloggers, Lilyellyn (Such Small Hands– Check her out if you want an awesome blog to read!)
My word was ‘intentional’– to do things purposefully, consciously and not randomly or haphazardly. There were five areas I identified I wanted to be ‘intentional’ in: my relationship with God, my relationships with friends and family, life-long learning, being present in each moment and making a difference in people’s lives.
Did I achieve this? There are some areas I can definitely see progress in, my time in Cape Town brought people and situations into my path I would not have imagined and I hope I made a bit of a difference, I read through the Bible in the year, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager, I have been discovering ‘mindfulness’ and the benefits of intentionally living each moment. There is still a long way to go but I do think having a bit of a focus through the year helped me.
So for this year, I have chosen the word ‘Connected’- and I have a number of thoughts in my head. First to be connected to myself, the real inner -self that I sometimes try to avoid. I determine to spend more time deliberately alone, and not take every opportunity I can to necessarily be with others. Then to be connected to my world, developing this mindfulness theme more, enjoying nature, experiencing sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes just for themselves and not thinking too much whilst experiencing them. Connected to others in relationships, and being truly present and attentive when with them, not tempted to ‘multi-task’ with thoughts wandering to a thousand different places. And finally, being connected to God: rather than reading through the entire Bible again, I want to develop more meditative and reflective times of reading and prayer. I have identified two books to take me on this journey. The first is by Timothy Keller, ‘My Rock, My Refuge’, a meditative journey through the Psalms.
The Second is ‘Solo’, a remix of passages from the Message Bible, again looking to be experiential rather than expository.
I’m excited for these, and for any other resources and people and experiences that come my way,that help me along my journey of being ‘connected’ through 2016.
I enjoy reflecting back at the end of the year, thinking through what’s happened: the good, the bad and the ugly and hopefully learning some things for the coming days.
As I look back on 2015, my over-riding impression is that it was a year of huge change for me. I started the year with three months in Cape Town, on sabbatical, the longest time I have had not working (with the exception of two periods of maternity leave which I don’t think really count!) I came back to a job which has radically changed, and has taken some getting used to. At home, one child graduated from university and moved back home, to start working in London, and the other returned from a gap year and started her university days in Exeter. At church, our much-loved pastor left in April, to move on to the church I grew up in as a teenager and was baptised in. He has left a huge gap, still yet to be filled, and along with that the stresses of being in church leadership have felt challenging at times.
So as the year comes to an end, there are some things I have learned and wanted to write about before the busy-ness of a new year kicks in and they get forgotten.
- Life is tough. Not thinking about me so much, though I have had my own challenges. During my time in Cape Town, I was hit day after day by the reality that life for so many is one of struggle. Financial pressures, children who have lost parents , girls being sold into prostitution, inadequate housing, domestic violence….the list is endless. And probably the toughest of all things I encountered this year was the untimely death of Lenaise, the hostel parent for children in the hostel I have worked with, and also a key team member of Rlabs, the NGO where my daughter volunteered for most of her gap year. I still can’t make sense of the death of a 30 year old woman who had so much to offer this world. Yet her memory lives on and inspires others to dream big, to turn their lives around and make a difference.
2. God is there in the middle of our mess. Whether its mess we have helped create, or seems to be just a part of life in general, I have really sensed that we are not alone with it. I began the year reading Job, and what struck me for the first time, was that that well known verse ‘I know that my redeemer lives’, comes, not at the end, but right in the middle of Job’s ranting at God and his friends about the terrible sufferings he was enduring. Ch 19 v 25 to be precise, and he then continues for another 20+ chapters with his questions. But right there, in the middle of his mess, he could say with certainty that he knew his redeemer was alive.
This song sums it all up for me : ‘In the middle of it all, Here You are, You’ll never leave’.
3. I am more than my thoughts. For many years, my thoughts have run away with me. I analyse, I overthink, I plan, I reflect and I used to think this was all good. But so often, my thoughts can lead me down unhelpful paths. For starters they are often secret, and I am not transparent with them. Additionally, they can spiral me down into feelings of, whilst not quite depression, but certainly a less than helpful head space. Yet when I take a backwards step and look a little more objectively at things, I realise the reality is often not quite what my thoughts would lead me to believe. I have also just stumbled across something called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ and am planning to do some training in this next year. It talks about our ‘self’ being made up of three parts, our ‘physical’ self, our ‘observing’ self, which takes notice but does not comment on things, allowing ourselves to experience emotions, thoughts and feelings (both positive and negative) WITHOUT analysing them, and our ‘thinking’ self which so often dominates. By learning to get in touch with the other sides of our self, and then learning to take action based on what we value in life, rather than what we think and feel, we end up being much healthier and better adjusted. I’m actually quite excited about this and looking forward to the training early in 2016.
4. Learning to be alone. This is a biggie for me, I’m such an extrovert in that I am totally energised by being with other people. In the last few years, I have got involved in book clubs, theatre groups, film club, prayer group, walks, social meet ups with friends old and new, volunteered and become a trustee of a homelessness project locally, as well as numerous activities in Cape Town. I get a real buzz from being ‘needed’ and ‘appreciated’ and I think this is such a part of my personality that it isn’t going to change. I am never happier than with a group of friends chatting and putting the world to rights. But one of the problems of being such an extrovert, is that the drive to create places to be and people to engage with, can make being alone a very hard place to be. Its something I have struggled with my whole life, and yet if I actually decide to do it, to have time alone with me, and especially with my Father God, then I know I reap rich rewards. I have just started this journey, and it is a main area for development for me next year. Whilst not denying my extrovert tendencies, I plan to deliberately, consciously be on my own more, pursue learning, reading, hopefully some physical exercise, and an intimacy with God that I have neglected in recent years. I want to start travelling alone, a real big fear, going to places I want to explore, but without necessarily needing anyone to be with me. Discovering that ‘solitude’ is different from ‘loneliness’ and that maybe I will have more to give back to this world by learning to be just with me.
So that’s a few of my ‘life lessons’ from 2015. And there’s plenty to take into the new year- so much more to learn and to experience and my prayer is that I just keep walking where God would have me go and learn to trust Him more and more. As I write this, ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong is co-incidentally playing on my spotify ‘playlist of the week’. The words seem so appropriate :
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever you would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Saviour
Back from a totally awesome weekend at ‘Big Church Day Out’, a Christian music festival set in the grounds of a beautiful stately home in West Sussex. This is my fifth visit, and probably the best due to dry weather, an amazing line-up of perfomers, and lots of family and friends around to share the time with.
I have always loved music, especially, but not exclusively Christian, and I find that God can speak to me in particular ways through it. So today, as my knees recover from some jumping and dancing that I am really too old to do anymore, I have been reflecting on what has He said to me.
Firstly it was just the amazing variety of style and genre that struck me. Our God is a God of diversity and inclusivity. Five amazing sets on Sunday, going from quiet intimate worship in the presence of Father God (Jason Upton), through hard core New York style rap (LeCrae), who proclaims in a potentially hostile music environment ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ’.
Then onto Switchfoot, with their rock based songs asking searching questions such as, ‘This is your life, are you who you want to be?’, followed by Irish Folk/Rock band Rend Collective, now well known in the British church with their original musicality and praise lyrics that are becoming worship songs in their own right. And to end it all, a fabulous worship set with Jesus Culture and Martin Smith, some songs going back over 20 years, some more recent, but all leading us into the presence of Jesus, proclaiming to the world that He is worthy, He is holy and He deserves all our praise!
And then, within the songs and music, I found the Father speaking to me, gently bringing to me things He wanted me to hear:
Whisper, Whisper, Whisper gently in my ear,
Tell me words I thought I’d never hear.
Show me , Show me, Show me what You see,
Iluminate what’s right in front of me.
So He told me that He’s a God who knows my name, He knows everything about me and still loves me. And that no matter what happens in my life, how messed up I become, how wounded, downtrodden, spat upon, or rejected, I am still the same value to Him, and I still have His image upon me. LeCrae talked about having 100 British pounds, and treading on them, trying to crush them, ruin them, yet they still are worth £100. Nothing can change that. And we are worth the same to God. We can have wounds that have healed and, as we show to the world our scars, we demonstrate the evidence that we have a God who brings healing and hope.
Jon Foreman, the lead from Switchfoot, talked about writing his songs out of the dark places in his life. That resonated with me: I can’t write songs, but I can write a little, and find it therapeutic and healing when I am struggling. And perhaps many of the songs I love so much have been born out of the struggles of others, and so speak to me. I identify with those thoughts and feelings being expressed out of sorrow, pain, doubt, uncertainty. God gave us a good model for this in so many of the Bible’s Psalms of Lament. How often have I cried out to Him using those same words.
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord.
Psalm 77 v 1,2.
God also whispered to me that its not as difficult as I sometimes make it out to be to get into His presence. Someone made this point in my book group a few weeks ago, and it has stayed with me. I don’t do it often enough when I’m on my own, to be honest, but its my loss! It was such a blessing to spend several hours this weekend, just soaking in God, His majesty, His glory, His holiness, knowing He is for real. Its not that I can or need to recreate Big Church Day Out in my home, but I have His word, I can use music, and He is the same God! SO what stops me? I’m not sure I really have the answer to that question, but at least some of it is about desire and hunger and I do believe He has stirred that up within me again this weekend.
And finally, there was something about celebration, about jumping and dancing on my worn out knees with my son and his friend, under half my age! About looking around, whilst being three rows from the front watching LeCrae, realising I was way older than everyone else and laughing about that! About being told I was ‘hard-core’ by a younger member of our church group, after spending over three hours at the front! About being right there when Jon Foreman jumped off the stage and onto the barrier just in front of us, and sang the whole of ‘This is your life’ (my favourite ever of their songs!) right in front of my eyes! About watching a beautiful flock of white doves being released to the Martin Smith song ‘ Song of Solomon’, soaring into the skies and symbolising hope and freedom! And about finishing up the weekend, singing with thousands of others, ‘God’s Great Dance Floor’. I definitely felt alive, full of God’s Spirit, thankful for family, community and His living presence in me, and ready to go back and try and shine a little bit of His light in my corner of the world He has placed me in.
Looking forward to Big Church Day Out 2016!!
I am coming towards the end of my time in Cape Town, and as we move towards mid March, the temperatures seem to beginning to cool a little. Autumn is approaching here and I can look forward to Spring when I get back to the UK at the end of the month.
However, just two weeks back it was sizzling here. One day, Cape Town reached 42 degrees, the hottest temperature recorded in over 100 years, and for a while that day, it was actually the hottest city on the planet! It was an intense week in so many ways. From the weekend, the worst forest fires for 15 years had been raging over the Cape Peninsula. People were evacuated from their homes, and even from our side of the mountain, it was possible to see smoke billowing over the top. Fire fighters were praised for their bravery and it was incredible that there was not more tragedy and loss of life.
Also that week, on another scorchingly hot day, was the funeral service for Lenaise Titus, the inspirational young woman who died suddenly and about whom I wrote in my last blog post. Again, it was intense and overwhelming. I haven’t been to that many funerals in my life, and even fewer to those of young people. Traditions were also different to what I was used to, for example, an open coffin and the graveside service attended by almost all the mourners, and these seemed, for me at least, to make it all the more real. Earlier the church was full, mostly of young people, and the grief was almost palpable. It was a beautiful service, and tributes were given to someone who had turned their life around and who had set their heart on building hope for others.
There are still many unanswered questions, ‘why her?’ ‘why now?’ and for me the sight of her children without their mother with them ever again was heart-breaking. At one point in the service, the pastor asked for young girls and women who wanted to ‘take on her mantle’ and continue her inspiration to come forward. I was asked to pray for them, a truly humbling moment. One of the first to come forward was a young girl in the hostel I have been working with. She has seemed, at times, the one there most affected by this tragedy, and yet also the one who seems to show real leadership skills. She is the one to get the homework sessions started, to ensure the children keep to the times set for doing things, and I really believe that even at a young age, she has the capacity to grow and set an example to others, just as Lenaise has done.
I struggle with the idea that God somehow intended this to be, but rather believe that death, sickness, suffering etc is part of the fallen world we live in and that there is much we cannot understand this side of heaven. But I am also sure that new life and hope will be born out of this tragedy and that seeds will be sown and grow to maturity.
Linking back to the cape town fires, I read an article by a botanist saying how the fynbos vegetation is actually ‘fire-dependant’ and that in the immediate aftermath, seeds are shed and new flowers will spring up and the whole area will, in time, rejuvenate.
I pray this is also true with the intensity of the tragic death of Lenaise Titus. Her body was buried as the fires raged on the mountain, but her spirit lives on and her ways of creating hope in others will be taken up by another generation of young people. ‘Out of the ashes we rise, there’s no-one like You, none like You.’
Finally, I am reminded by some verses in Isaiah that though we will face enormous trials in life, we can be confident that in God, they will not overwhelm us, and the intense heat of the fire WILL NOT consume us.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
When you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.