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Back-to-school

Will I fit in? Will the work be too much for me? Will I be able to keep up? How did I get here? Am I doing the right thing?

back-to-school-4

I work at BBC  (not the corporation, the college – Belfast Bible College) and tomorrow is the first day of Orientation Week when we welcome our new students; then on Tuesday all of our returning students join us.

The staff have been preparing for this day for weeks. Some of us are feeling a little anxious, others are feeling a little giddy, all are feeling excited to get the new academic year going at last.

How are our students feeling? I suspect that for some of our new students, the questions are these: Will I fit in? Will the work be too much for me? Will I be able to keep up? How did I get here? Am I doing the right thing?

For some of our returning students, the questions may be different: The work is going to be harder than last year – will I make it this year? What am I going to do when I have finished? 

Actually at BBC we are all learners. Whether we are staff or students, we want to know God better, we want to love Jesus more. In church today, the theme of the morning’s service was that we want to be with Jesus, we want to be like Jesus and we want to do the things Jesus did. Jesus calls us to be with Him. Jesus calls us to be like Him. And Jesus calls us to do the things He does.

When some of the first disciples first met Jesus, they asked Him where He was staying and He said ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). He invited them home.

You may know that Jesus did the same with Zacchaeus, the unpopular tax collector, who climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus as He was passing by among the crowds of His followers. Jesus stopped under the tree and told Zacchaeus he would like to go home with him – He wanted to share a meal with him.

Brennan Manning, in ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, explains that for Jesus to invite himself home for dinner meant that he was saying that he wanted to enter into friendship with Zacchaeus.

It was always God’s purpose to live in us, to live with us, to enter into friendship with us. Way back in the Old Testament, when God gave instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, he said, “I will dwell among he people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29:45-46)

Then in the New Testament, God comes to live among His people in the temple. But ultimately – with the death of Jesus Christ for us – God comes to live within us! We become the temple of the Holy Spirit. God has always wanted friendship with us.

Manning says, “That’s good to recall, by the way, every time you receive communion. Jesus Christ is the Host and when He invites you to come to His table, He is declaring, ‘I want to enter into a deeper friendship with you.'”

So, whatever questions we have this week, and whatever questions we will have to answer this week, this is the most important thing: that we will learn what it is to be friends with Jesus.

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Trusting in the waiting

Today was 9 May and I was sitting waiting for news – again.      
In a strange coincidence, exactly 20 years ago today, I was also sitting waiting for news. Alan had been unexpectedly diagnosed with major heart disease and he was having a triple bypass operation in the university hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland. I was sitting at home waiting for news. The outcome was, of course, very positive: Alan came through the surgery well and has been living in the good of it for the last 20 years. 

Today – exactly 20 years later – I was waiting again. This time Alan was undergoing a different kind of procedure: it was the viva of his doctoral thesis, when he had to defend what he had written before two examiners. It was the culmination of 6 years’ hard work and diligence. Alan did well in his viva and, with a few adjustments to his thesis, it will result in him receiving his doctorate.    
But for me the test was of a different kind. The question was this: how good am I at waiting? 

How do I feel when I am waiting?
Helpless. 

There is the sense that the circumstance is totally outside of my control. Whether heart surgery or a university examination, there is nothing I can do to change the outcome. 20 years ago, when Alan had been taken for an angiogram, the nurse came into the ward and started to remove Alan’s clothes from his wardrobe and pack them in his case. She knew he was going to have to go to another hospital for surgery. But I didn’t. I thought he must be dead. When she saw the look on my face, she quickly explained. 
Hopeful.

20 years ago, God was clearly at work in Alan’s diagnosis and subsequent provision of all that he needed for his heart surgery. One circumstance in our lives builds hope for the next. If God provided all I needed then, can I trust him to do the same now?

In times of waiting, times of need

When I know loss, when I am weak

I know His grace will renew these days

The Lord is my salvation.

My biggest challenge is this: did my waiting today look any different from my waiting 20 years ago? What am I like in the waiting?

Have I learned to trust God more in the intervening years? Am I less anxious?

Do I believe that God will ultimately do what is best for me and for my loved ones? Am I more confident? Can I trust Him?

I want to be growing in my faith, stretching my spiritual muscles.

Waiting is a test for all of us. I want to trust God in the waiting. 

You are not enough

As women, we are constantly bombarded with voices which tell us we are not enough. Voices come from within and from without. Voices come from our past and from our present. Voices come from ourselves and from our culture.

voices in our heads

These voices can lead us into several traps:

1. The temptation to compare 

As women we constantly compare ourselves to one another – we always have done. But today we live in full view, 24/7, of one another because of social media. And yet of course Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t give us a true picture of one another’s lives – they only give us the picture that others want us to see. Often that is a picture-perfect glimpse into others’ lives and so if our lives don’t shape up, we are left feeling woefully inadequate.

2. The trap of perfectionism

My house isn’t tidy enough, my kids aren’t smart enough, I am not pretty enough…the list goes on and on. I spend my days trying to reach the mark. And I never do. But in the attempt, I become anxious and fearful – anxious that I am not good enough and fearful of being found out. I’m striving to please, always striving to please. We call it people-pleasing; psychologists call it peer pressure; the bible calls it fear of man.

Ann Voskamp, in her book ‘The Broken Way’, says;

‘Perfectionism is a slow death by self. Perfectionism will kill your sense of safety, your self, your soul. Perfectionism isn’t a fruit of the Spirit – joy is. Patience is. Peace is.’

3. The lure of consumerism

I might try to bridge the gap between where I think others live and where I live by consumerism. If it means buying clothes and shoes and make up which I think will make me look more like others around me, then that’s what I will do. If it means choosing a holiday which I can’t afford in order to keep up with my friends, then somehow I will justify it. Consumerism drives us to possess more and more in order to impress. The trouble is that the promises it makes are empty – we may get an adrenalin rush as we make that longed-for purchase, but it won’t last and we will end up feeling less satisfied, always wanting more.

4. The attraction of status-seeking

Some of us acquire status rather than possessions, whether that is academic status or status in the workplace or even status in church. In a vain attempt to overcome our own inadequacies, we feel that ‘if only’ we can prove to ourselves and to others that we can reach the standard, we will be content. But we never are.

What effect does this have on us as Christians?

Superficial community

Nowhere is this striving to impress more ugly than in the church. We as Christians ought to be able to be ourselves with one another; we ought to be able to remove our masks when we come into church. Yet it can be one of the hardest places for people to be real. If I think you and your family have got it all together, then I’m not going to be able to admit that I haven’t. We don’t dare to share on a very deep level – because of what people might think. Also, we don’t want to burden others with our problems. When we are broken and struggling, it is easier to avoid community than to try to remain a part of it. So we withdraw until things are OK again.

Forgotten identity

We have forgotten our identity. Those voices that tell us we are not enough, those voices that tell us we are imposters, they are lies. But because they shout loudly in our heads, we listen to them – and they can drown out the still, small voice of God. Ann Voskamp talks about a school teacher who told her that she only made it into her class by the skin of her teeth and she should never forget that. Ann says this:

All of my life I’ve felt like a fraud with skin on….later on in some way, those words formed me. They’ve become like my own name engraved right into me. Fraud. Phony. Not Good Enough.’

What does God say about this?

Who does he say we are? In Matthew 3, when Jesus was baptised and came up of the water, the Father spoke from heaven and said ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’. God has become our Father and he speaks the same words over us:

‘You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased’.

What do you think, what do you feel when you hear those words? May I suggest that in the measure that you feel uncomfortable, in that measure you do not believe them. Allow God to speak them over you, meditate on them, soak your soul in them, until they sink in and you begin to believe them, until you begin to allow yourself to let go of the lies of our culture and of your past and of the evil one. Allow yourself to believe what God your Father speaks over you. You are beloved. That is your identity. Ann Voskamp says:

‘Belovedness is the centre of being, the only real identity, God’s only name for you, the only identity He gives you.’

A. When you think you are not enough, remember who you are

You are the beloved child of God.

Instead of the superficial fix of a Facebook or Instagram ‘like’ or comment, which says I am or I have done something good, I can choose to listen to God’s voice telling me there is nothing I can do which can make him love me more – and there is nothing I can do which can make him love me less. I am enough. I don’t need to compare myself with others. I don’t need to strive to be better and to do better. The Father loves me. I am His beloved.

Instead of the transient surge of pleasure which comes from a quick purchase, I can choose instead the deep security of hearing the Father remind me that he has bought me with the blood of his Son and I am precious to him.

I don’t need to seek status. I am enough. I don’t need to prove to myself or to anyone else what I can do or be. God – who knows me best – loves me most. I am accepted. I am secure in his love.

In the well-known story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the Father leaves home twice: once to invite the younger son home and once to invite the elder son home. That is who our Father is. He desperately wants to welcome us home – to the place of security and peace, where our quest for acceptance and unconditional love is over.

Henri Nouwen, in his book ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, says this:

‘I am the prodigal every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found’.

Our heavenly father invites us to come home – where we can rest in the knowledge that we are his beloved children.

B. When you think you haven’t enough, remember who God is

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” Matthew 6.

God as Creator looks after the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. How can you think, that as your heavenly Father, he would do any less for you? He knows what you need. And if he knows, he will take care of it. That’s it – because he is your heavenly Father.

We know this – we know who we are and who God is – but how do we remember it?

When I find myself chasing after affirmation from others, craving the praise of others, seeking to please others; or when I find myself overcome by voices which are telling me I am not enough; or when I am anxious that I don’t have enough, I need to remember who I am and who God is.
We start by recognising the lies which we are believing – and then we replace the lies with the truth of God’s Word.

Imagine you are stressed and anxious about money. That worry will lead to a certain kind of behaviour: you will either be striving to get money or you will be anxiously saving money and may become stingy. That leads to the belief that it’s all down to you – and that leads to a view of reality which says either that you can’t make it happen (so you will be angry) or that you can make it happen (so you will be proud).

Imagine instead that, with that same anxiety about money, you choose to live by the truth of God’s Word instead of your feelings. So you will perhaps go to these verses in Matthew 6 and remind yourself that your heavenly Father knows your need. Now that will lead to the belief that, if your Father knows your need, you can expect him to take care of it. And that will change your behaviour so that you are expecting God to provide, while you do what you can to increase your income or reduce your expenditure. The feelings that accompany that will be peace and confidence – so very different from the anxiety which you started out with.

Or when I am craving the praise of others, I can choose to remember that God calls me His beloved. I don’t need the affirmation of others. I am secure in his love. That restlessness which sends me to social media to check my popularity ratings is telling me that I am only as good as the number of people who like my status. I can choose to reject that lie and rest secure in the knowledge that my heavenly Father calls me his beloved.

C. If you know who you are and who God is, you are free to love others

I John 3 tells us this:

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…..By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”

As we learn to live out of our true identity as beloved children of God, then we are set free to love others. Our community as Christians becomes authentic. We are not hiding behind masks. We are free to be real. And as we are real with one another, we learn to trust each other with our brokenness. We don’t need to impress, we don’t need to please. We are free to be – to be the beloved children of God together, all equally loved, all equally accepted, all learning to live in that love. Ann Voskamp says,

‘All there ever is to see is Jesus. All there ever is to hear is “Beloved”.’

He is enough.

Waiting and wondering on Easter Saturday

Easter Saturday – or Holy Saturday – is that in-between time. The worst has happened. Jesus has been crucified. The hopes of many have been dasheIMG_6347d. The disciples are confused, disappointed and frightened. They retreat behind closed doors and withdraw into their fear, scared to look ahead, afraid to hope.

The two disciples who walked along the road to Emmaus were walking the long way home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking about all that had happened in Jerusalem on Good Friday. They were joined on the road by a Stranger, who wanted to know what they were talking about. Surprised that he didn’t know – wasn’t it the talk of the town? – they told him that Jesus had been crucified. They confessed, ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’.

The One they had put their trust in had disappointed them. They were confused and disappointed and were retreating – going back home. They didn’t understand what had happened. Things hadn’t turned out as they had hoped. Had they been wrong all along? Confusion and disappointment ate at their broken spirits and their hopes were dashed. They must have wondered what was going to happen next. Some of the women had said they had been to Jesus’ tomb but his body wasn’t there. They couldn’t work out what it all meant.

So the Stranger began to talk to them about the Scriptures. He explained their meaning as they walked that long way home. And – I love this part – when they reached their house, the Stranger ‘acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”’ He wasn’t going to impose – He never does – but always  waits to be invited.

And so it was that, in the breaking and blessing of the bread, they recognised the Stranger. Was it his hands as he broke the bread? Was it his voice as he blessed it? And just as suddenly as he had appeared, he vanished.broken bread

But it was enough. They knew who he was. They knew what he had been talking about. Now it all began to make sense. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And immediately they set out to return to Jerusalem to share the good news.

We live between the ‘now’ and ‘what is yet to be’. We have put our faith in God but so much of what we read in the Bible belongs to the ‘what is yet to be’. Our lives are often filled with disappointment. Our hopes are dashed. Often we are confused; often we are frightened. Sometimes we don’t dare to look forward. Sometimes we are afraid to hope.

Some of us have hopes that have been dashed. Life hasn’t turned out the way we had hoped it would. We are struggling with broken health or broken relationships or some other loss. Some struggle with the loss of mental health. For them, just to get out of bed in the morning is a huge act of faith – a heroic thing. What they had hoped for hasn’t happened. Can they dare to hope?

Some of us have questions related to our faith that make us afraid to hope. It’s all too good to be true. What if it’s all a lie? Can we really base our lives on it? Does it really work? Does it make sense? Our faith is wavering. Can we dare to hope?

We all live in a broken world, a terribly frightening world. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t make sense. Can we dare to hope?

As we wait and as we wonder, let’s give the Stranger time to draw alongside us. He won’t impose but, if he’s invited, he will come. Things might begin to make some sense. And even if they don’t, the presence of the Stranger will bless us in our brokenness.

Do I know your face….?

If you are my friend, and I have walked past you without speaking, I was probably not ‘blanking’ you – I totally failed to recognise you. You need to know that I suffer from face blindness – or prosopagnosia. proso-pics

According to the NHS, ‘Face blindness often affects people from birth and is usually a problem a person has for most or all of their life. It can have a severe impact on everyday life. Many people with prosopagnosia aren’t able to recognise family members, partners or friends. They may cope by using alternative strategies to recognise people, such as remembering the way they walk, or their hairstyle, voice or clothing. But these types of compensation strategies don’t always work, particularly when a person with prosopagnosia meets someone out of context, at a place or time they’re not used to seeing that person.’

I am fortunate in that I have never (as far as I know) failed to recognise a family member or a close friend – but I have often failed to recognise people I have only met a few times. I still cringe when I remember this: my husband and I had dinner with another couple one evening; the husband subsequently turned up at my place of work – and I had not a clue who he was.

Prosopagnosia refers to a severe deficit in recognizing familiar people from their face. The condition can follow neurological damage (typically from stroke or head injury), but many more people (perhaps as many as 1 in 50) have what is commonly referred to as “developmental” or “congenital” prosopagnosia, and these people simply fail to develop normal face processing abilities despite normal intellectual and perceptual functions. People with developmental prosopagnosia seem to have had face recognition difficulties for most of their lives, and perhaps even since birth.

That seems to be the case with me. I have only recently realised that my struggle to recognise people is not because I am stupid and just need to try harder – which is what I have thought all my life. (Imagine the complications of being a pastor’s wife when you have this condition – I would love to be able to go back to all of the church members I have probably offended through the years by not recognising them!)

For me, there are often clusters of people among my acquaintances who look alike. I work in a bible college and I know there are students whom I cannot distinguish between – they probably do have similarities but someone else could tell them apart. I can’t because I can’t see the differences and I don’t know them well enough.

The other side of the coin is that people with prosopagnosia will often speak to people they don’t know because they think they do know them – and yes, I have done that as well.

It’s often funny – and I can usually laugh at myself – but it also explains why social anxiety is often linked with prosopagnosia.

And, if that isn’t enough, there are other aspects to prosopagnosia as well:

‘Prosopagnosia can affect a person’s ability to recognise objects, such as places or cars. Many people also have difficulty navigating. This can involve an inability to process angles or distance, or problems remembering places and landmarks.’ I have often thought that I could get lost in any of the towns we have lived in – now I know why. It’s not just that I have no sense of direction – it’s that I just can’t recognise places I have seen before.

‘Following the plot of films or television programmes can be almost impossible for someone with prosopagnosia because characters aren’t recognisable.’ Just ask my long-suffering husband about that one! If a film has a lot of characters in it, it’s just not worth the bother.

If you think you might have prosopagnosia and would like to do a test, you can go to Trouble with Faces and take the test online.

If you live within travelling distance of Bournemouth University, the Centre for Face Processing Disorders may be able to offer you a formal testing session and the opportunity to take part in their research programme.

Adventures in a red coat

If you wear a red coat be prepared for comments (and jokes and suggestions….)img_5590

I once had a young friend ask me ‘Pauline do you know where my granny is?’. When I said I didn’t think I knew his granny, he said ‘Oh sorry – I thought you were Little Red Riding Hood!’.

In church one day, a deacon came up to me with a letter and said ‘Oh sorry! I thought you were a letter box!’.

And just yesterday afternoon in Belfast city centre, a complete stranger accosted my husband and me in the street saying, ‘I hope you don’t mind – but you’re so cute! I love red coats!’ As he left us, he shouted ‘Happy Christmas! And God bless!’

I don’t think I have ever had an item of clothing which produced so many comments, from the many who have simply admired it to the more jovial comments above.

What is it about a red coat?

A life lived with terminal illness – and with hope

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary thanksgiving service for the life of an extraordinary man – although he would never have allowed anyone to call him that.

douglas-and-alison

Douglas Mark’s desire was that his thanksgiving service (which he planned himself) would be ‘a time infused with joy and thanksgiving’ and that is exactly what it was – just as his life had been.

Douglas had lived with cancer for 10 years and had been through more than 40 chemotherapy treatments, but he refused to say that he was ‘battling with cancer’ or ‘coping with cancer’. He ‘lived with cancer’, fully accepting that this was part of the journey which God had chosen for him. He demonstrated joy as he trusted God with every detail of his cancer.  One of his favourite sayings was this:

 Life is not waiting for the storm to pass – it is learning to dance in the rain.

 

Douglas trusted God and that was clear right till the end of his life. He believed that it is more important to trust God than to understand Him. I am sure that it was that unshakeable trust in God which gave him the joy which characterised his life as he lived with cancer.

At the seminar which he and his wife Alison gave at New Horizon this year – which they called ‘Living with terminal illness, and with Hope’ – he said this about joy:

Joy is a self-assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, a quiet confidence that ultimately everything will be alright and a determined choice to praise God in all things.

Douglas had chosen to praise God in all things. When asked how he was, he used to reply, ‘I’m thankful to be as well as I am’. His prayer was that he look for signs of God’s faithfulness every day.

Douglas and Alison were passionate about encouraging Christians to model to the world what it’s like to live with the hope of heaven in the face of death. They spoke in many churches and other places, encouraging Christians to live out their faith in this way.

Alison gave a very courageous tribute to Douglas yesterday, in which she said this:

Don’t allow what you don’t understand about God to destroy what you already know about Him.

As Douglas’s health declined in recent weeks, Alison refused to talk in despairing tones, choosing rather to say that Douglas was ‘edging gently home to heaven’. What a beautiful picture. And that is exactly what he did. There’s no doubt that he has heard his Lord and Saviour say ‘Well done’ as He welcomed him home.

He leaves a legacy: not just a life well-lived, but the challenge to us to live our lives well. For Douglas and Alison, that meant living their lives in the light of eternity and through the lens of eternity. It was that perspective which gave them the courage and faith to live with cancer and hope, at one and the same time.

To download a copy of the seminar which Douglas and Alison gave at New Horizon, go to http://newhorizon.org.uk/resources/mp3-downloads/