Monday, 25 January 2016

A shrivelled heart

I wrote the following at the beginning of 2015.

"Self preservation shrinks the good parts of life. Entering a new year and still struggling with feeling like life takes more energy than I have, self preservation seems the only option. 2014 seemed to consist of doing less and less, lots of visits to the dr, trying yo get my meds right and generally feeling frustrated. I watch other people who seem to be taking such delight in life and I ask myself what my problem is? Why is each day a battle? Why can't I seem to get to the end of the day and not feel on the verge of exhaustion.

Maybe this is all normal. Maybe parenting and working and life is just like this. But I don't think it is. I know tiredness is part of this season but dragging myself around doesn't make sense. I talk to other mums who are enjoying this season. They delight in their kids and though housework and cooking and managing tricky stages and behavior is draining, they can get out of bed in the morning."

Well unfortunately 2015 brought more of the same. I saw a great holistic gp who did tests and diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue.  This is a debated condition and not officially recognised.  Basically the adrenal glands which produce cortisol and adrenaline get drained due to long term stress and anxiety.  High levels of cortisol and adrenaline are bad for your body in lots of ways but once your body can't maintain it your cortisol drops and you get terrible fatigue. Both stress and exhaustion lead to sugar cravings and your body gets into a terrible cycle of sugar crashes, fatigue and anxiety about feeling so awful. Plus the wonderful side effect of weight gain, particularly around the tummy.

Her recommendations included dropping sugar, gluten, taking probiotics and omega3 and 6. I also needed to some exercise so starting cycling instead of driving. By March I had lost weight and was feeling much better.

But thanks to an infected toe, antibiotics, general anesthetic and hospital food, my get well plan hit the wall.

In April i got a nasty flu like virus. In the July holidays I got another one. By the October holidays I was barely functioning dragging myself through each day. I just wanted to sleep forever.

More tests and chronic sinus headaches meant more antibiotics. Specialists revealed the problem was actually my upper back and neck. And possibly post viral fatigue. 

And in November I had the end of my toe amputated.

And there is no easy fix. Rest, changing my diet, exercise to strengthen my core muscles and reducing stress. Switching meds again to see if that helps.

So back to the shrivelled heart...

I think the most painful part of the last year has been the slow hardening and shrivelling of my heart as I have to carefully calculate the energy - physical, mental and emotional- which I can afford to expend.  Conversations I want to have will take to much and so I don't start them, time with precious people is a luxury I couldn't afford, generosity of time and affection, even to my own kids and hubby felt impossible. And each cruel and cold calculation shrivelled my heart some more. Cause I love people and doing things and making life good. And I haven't been able to do it.

So a year later I am making big changes. Thanks to hubby's new job I am able to stop working.  Leaving my dream job was a very hard decision. But it had got to the point where I couldn't get out of bed in the morning and I felt working was just becoming impossible.

This year I am determined to take back control of my health. I will have three days of 5 hours without my kids. My wonderful husband wants me to rest and slow down. I am looking forward to doing simple things like reading, going for walks and writing. I want to spend time in the vege garden and with the chickens. I want to enjoy not rushing and being able to look after my kids with out constant childcare logistics. I am even looking forward to having a cleaner house and cooking recipes from my loved but not well used, cook books.

And through this I hope my raisin-like heart will swell and be refreshed again. I want life to hold new promise and possibility and to regain some of the confidence I have lost. I want life to be more than a test of survival and a disappointing struggle.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

It's not working any more

I haven't written a lot this year. I haven't felt that I had anything much to say. At my tender age of 36 I seem to feel more uncertain as time goes by. Things I was strident about and sure of seem to have slipped through my fingers of the last decade or so thanks to the realities of real life and the awareness that there is no one size fits all list of answers and advice. As well as uncertainty over the more existential issues one wrestles with, I have also had a few years of facing my limitations mentally, physically and emotionally. Depression relapses and the vulnerability of knowing my mental health is fragile means that I have learned the hard way that great ideas my not be a great idea in reality when I have to actually deal with the pressure, anxiety, work load and lack of sleep such great ideas usually involve. Great ideas don't usually involve doing less and having less responsibility. At least not for me.

I have also learned that I don't enjoy the tension between my family life and work and all the other things I could get involved in. I find the juggle and the constant feeling that I am not doing anything well, torturous. I think it is becoming the normal state for many women. After finding life at home with pre-schoolers was driving me up the wall, work has been a blessing in so many ways. It has filled my cup and made me a better wife and Mum and person all round. But the balance tipped after having a second child, and especially since my daughter started school. The commute and the anxiety over getting to work on time and then getting back to pick up kids on time is so tough. I can't put my heart into my job in the way I would like to because I have no extra time or energy to do so. And even being so physically far away from my kids each day has it's own special almost psychic tension.

This year I got more involved in our church. I love church. I know that many people have some very good reasons to avoid church and all its associations. But for me the church we attend has brought hope and challenge and healing in so many good ways. Feeling part of a community who loves and cares for me is like gold. And feeling able to contribute is such a delight and privilege. For years I have felt on the outer of the churches I have attended and struggled to build close enough relationships to feel like I belong. Having that now is just amazing. But it is also something which I have to manage.

I have always been a problem solver and community builder. I can see where things could be improved or where there is a gap that could be filled. And I often have really good ideas about how to achieve those things. I can articulate myself well and as a teacher and someone who can speak confidently, I seem more than capable of getting things done. But, don't be fooled. Sometimes the ideas people are not the right people to take the lead. Feeling like I am the person with sole responsibility for something brings me out in hives. I feel the weight of it and because I want it all to be perfect I struggle with it. I have so many ideas but my resources and energy are limited and it is hard to find a balance between my perfect vision and my imperfect self. I am getting better at that but it still triggers my anxiety.

I think if I was a details perfectionist, maybe it would be different. But I am a relational perfectionist. I want everyone to be ok, to feel great about my ideas and plans, to feel valued and happy and I also care too much about what people think of me. And since I don't have the gift of mind reading, usually I am guessing based on very flimsy evidence and my current emotional state. I have no real idea what people think and I am likely to believe the worst rather than the best.

As well as the vulnerabilities of perfectionism and depression, I am a pretty low energy person. I need my eight hours a night. I need time to do the simple things and I don't do well without visual order in my home. I need my routines and space to think. So filling my days and evenings up soon leads to illness and exhaustion. All the great ideas start to look like terrible mistakes and I find myself backing out of commitments as fast as I can. But I still want to have a project and I still yearn to be involved.

And hear I find myself. My health has packed up in a big way. I have some sort of post viral fatigue and general exhaustion, my neck and back are causing terrible headaches every day. I struggle to get out of bed in the morning and have missed a lot of days of work. My kids are spending a lot of time in front of screens while I lie in bed and we are eating meals given to us by lovely friends because by the end of the day, cooking dinner is beyond me.

I am gaining a new appreciation of the suffering and pain of those who deal with chronic illness. The stress of not being able to manage the essentials of being a Mum and looking after my kids and home is indescribable. I try to accept help as much as I can manage, But it slowly erodes my self confidence and feels awful in the deepest parts of me. In the last 6 years I have had to have help a lot. And I think I am becoming allergic to it. I appreciate it all so much, but I hate having to have it at all.

Becoming well is not a clear cut treatment plan. Rest doesn't seem to be making a difference but trying to do everything leaves me unable to get out of bed. So just waiting to get better probably won't work unless I do something more than lie in bed. And everything that will help is going to be pretty tough. No magic pills to fix this. Diet changes, exercise, changing how I move, giving up things I use to cope which undermine my well being. I often find myself feeling so angry. It seems that other people can drink red bull, work long hours, party hard and still come out full of beans. But really it is irrelevant what other people do. At the moment a cup of tea after dinner has me awake all night and sitting the wrong way brings on a migraine like headache. I can feel sorry for myself, but it won't change anything.

I keep trying to find the reason why this is happening. What am I supposed to be learning through this? When will I be able to move on from this season into one where I can be productive again and feel like I am capable and strong again? But I also am starting to wonder if the "successful and well" me I have in my head is ever going to be possible.

My physio who is treating my back and breathing issues said something interesting the other day. She said that possibly all the things I have done to cope and survive have worked up till this point. But now with children and a home and work and other responsibilities and then you add a virus, my coping techniques and behaviours suddenly become problems rather than a help. Neglecting my diet, not making time for exercise, using anxiety as motivation and care too much what others think have become the exact things which have left me like this. So I can probably never go back to how it was. Cause how I have been living and doing life won't work any more.

Becoming well is beginning to look like learning how to be me from scratch. Dropping the ways that don't work and learning to welcome the ways that do. And I don't think it is going to be easy. I don't think much of it will involve taking the easy path. But I hope it can be self loving and gentle. I hope I can learn to achieve wellness without perfectionism and because I am worth it, rather than because I feel that I am failing otherwise. I didn't get this way by using alcohol, drugs or any other stereotypically destructive habits. But what I have been doing hasn't been that great. So I have to find the self discipline to put down the junk food, turn off my phone, put on my yoga pants and pick up the kale. To breathe and be still.

I know I should feel like it will be a wonderful journey, but at this point I still feel like crawling back into bed for an indefinite period. I think getting well will be hard work and confronting. No excuses or putting it off. Why does looking after myself seem so much harder that helping other people?

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Don't be amazing

So much of the advice for living well and being successful at life uses adjectives like "amazing", "unique", "authentic" etc. And 2 minutes on pintrest is full of lists of steps, commands and changes which will give you and "amazing" life. When you add the highlight reel of facebook profiles and magazine articles about people who achieved the extraordinary, it can create an expectation that if it's not amazing then your life is a failure.

And I just want to call bulls$#/@ on that, for myself, as much as anyone else.

It is not that I think there is anything wrong with adventures and proving you life satisfaction. I think achieving wonderful things and setting goals to work towards are fantastic. My problem is with the expectations it sets up and the pressure it creates to have an amazing life.

I think the word "amazing" needs some interrogation.  Does it mean a perfect life of only mountain-top moments and pinable pics? Is it a life curated and constructed for an audience? Or is amazing all about achievement? Do you need to run a marathon, lose your own body weight, publish a novel, make a million bucks to have an amazing life? And what about those amazing experiences? Travelling to your dream destinations, riding the adrenaline rush of jumping from a plane, hosting a party people will talk about for years...

To be honest in my rather fragile state it all seems rather exhausting and completely out of my reach.

None of the above are bad and all are amazing, but maybe that's not what life needs to be about.

If amazing is the qualifying criteria for a good life then I guess most of us won't get that. And a lot of people may feel like their lives are spent as spectators of other people's "amazing". There are a lot of things which can get in the way of amazing; illness, responsibilities for others, financial realities, time and energy.

But I think everyone can have a life they love and are content with. And a life where they choose a good and whole and peaceful way to be. Where you use you talents and enthusiasm for things which matter to you and where you sleep a deep and restful sleep at the end of each day.

Where did this expectation of "amazing" come from? My parents didn't expect it. Their parents lived through two world wars and a depression. Surviving was pretty amazing. There was so much less to compare your own life with. Other people's homes, clothes, money and families were restricted to the people you knew in real life. Celebrities were far away characters on a screen you paid to see. Celebrations were simple and over the rhythms and moments that mark most people's lives. And you couldn't design your moments based on millions of people's moments. The suggestions came from the pages of a women's mag and included a recipe or two. Travel was slow and expensive. Leaving town was pretty amazing.

But now anything and everything is on offer. And the normal and everyday can seem a bland and boring life.

As I contemplate having barely enough energy to get out of bed, I can't be bothered with an amazing life. I think it is a carrot on a stick used to make people buy stuff and experiences and to drive economic growth.

Instead I want to be happy and free to do all the simple and humdrum things which life is really made up of. Meals, housework, playing at the park, a hot cup of tea and a nap. Loving my little family well. I want to do all of this and be satisfied and content. I don't want to dismiss this life as not enough cause it doesn't look "amazing".

And for two thirds of the world my life looks pretty, darn amazing. Yes, go after your dreams, have adventures, go for impossible goals. But don't do it so you have an amazing life.  Don't do it to prove anything or for some audience judging the worth if your existence.  Do it cause you want to and it is part of who you are. And at the end of each day you can be at peace with yourself.

I hope you can take the pressure off and just be you doing your life. And im pretty sure that's what us truly amazing in this crazy time we are living in.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Let it go

Oh the joys of Disney and the power of animated princesses. That little phrase will never be the same again. It was a hit at our house too. Ella loved the princesses and the music. George loved the snow but wasn't  too keen on the snow monster. I liked Olaf and his dreams of summer. His blissful ignorance that the season he wished for would lead to his demise had something tragically poetic about it.

But that song. Despite how annoying it became (Ella actually screams with pain if I sing it near her. Five year old girls love to be dramatic), there are sentiments I like.

Spoiler alert - if you have not seen Frozen then maybe save this post for another day...

Anyway, I like the words of the song as princess Elsa sings about the struggle to be good and acceptable and keep her ability to freeze things around her, under control. When she runs away she sings about being able to finally be free and let go. To be who she is and no longer locked away and afraid. Of course it is not that simple. But the freedom of being herself and expressing herself is clear. As I pondered why I found it so profound, I was struck by how easy it is to suppress my passion, enthusiasm, gifts or interests due to the fear that somehow that might not be acceptable to other people. Or that if I truly revealed who I am, and stopped trying to be what I think other people want, that I would be rejected and abandoned.

And that fear is not without reason. I imagine many of us have experienced times when others have rejected us because we have turned out to not fulfil their expectations of who we should be. Or someone has discovered that we are not the person they thought we were and they find it difficult to accept this new facet of our identity. It doesn't have to be something major. Maybe you became friends with someone through a mutual interest and all was great until you broadened the friendship. And suddenly it wasn't so easy. Maybe you have divergent views or ideas. Maybe you just don't understand each other. Or perhaps in a work situation you took a different view than a colleague you usually see eye to eye with. It can be so hard to let each other go. To let each other be who we are and not hurt each other in the process. Because none of us fit together comfortably all the time. There is always friction and discomfort because we are separate people, each working out our lives in different ways.

I am often hyper aware of the underlying expectations others may have of me and the narrow view they may have of my identity. Sometimes I cultivate that. I don't think it is deliberately deceptive. I think most of the time we want to find common ground with others and we emphasise what we have in common. And after a while it can be hard to bring attention to the parts of ourselves that don't fit the relationship so neatly. It is like when someone calls you by the wrong name and you don't correct them and after a while it is just too awkward to say anything. The same can be true when I realise that the box I have thrown myself into for the benefit of connection with someone, has become a bit of a cage.

And then I have a choice. Do I keep sitting in the box or do I risk stepping out and possibly breaking the relationship. You might think this is a bit dramatic. But have you got friends who you always expect to respond in a certain way to you? Do you have people who you expect to always understand why you are late cause they struggle with lateness too? What if they suddenly said when you turned up late to meet them for coffee "Hey, I am getting really frustrated that you are always late. I know I said I was also someone who struggled to be on time, but 45 minutes waiting for you is just too much". It is highly likely that you would feel hurt but also betrayed. You were buddies who were late together and she was supposed to get it. And she doesn't any more. Another example might be someone you met through a baby group but as your children get older you realise your parenting approaches are getting further and further apart and it is getting harder to spend time together cause at some point the differences will become so awkward that hanging out is not fun at all.

These boxes we find ourselves in are no-one's fault and often if you take the risk of stepping out of the box, your friendships and relationships will actually deepen as you get to know each other better. Suddenly the 2D cut out becomes 3D and that growing knowledge of each other can fill in so many of the gaps and make it so much more joyful to share life together.

But if you are people pleaser or someone who fears abandonment (both my hands are raised) it can be very hard to let go of the impression I have created and projected and allow myself to be seen as I really am.

At the same time it can be very painful when someone I know steps out of the box in front of me. Suddenly they aren't playing the game by the rules I expected. Suddenly I am not sure who they are anymore. My expectations are not being met and I .might be disappointed, or outright angry.

However, the only choice which will allow the relationship to remain intact, is to let it go. (Thanks Elsa). I need to let go of the need to control the opinions of other people about me. If I step out of the box and get rejected well it is probably for the best. I only want to be close to people who love me and accept me in all my mess and complexities. And others have the same rights too.

And who am I to know what anyone else thinks of me anyway? What a lot of wasted energy trying to manage other people's opinions. Instead I could be just getting on with living.

I remember a colleague talking to me about being in her 30s. I was bright eyed and angsting through my 20s. She said that the best thing about being almost 40 was that she just didn't care what anyone thought about her anymore. She was too busy getting on with living. I hope I can get busier living and let the opinions of other people go. They are just people anyway, and with just as many flaws and weaknesses as me. Well maybe not that many ...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


The summer holidays are always a surprise to me. With working part time as a secondary teacher and the pressure to complete all assessments, reports and end of year prize givings, plus now all the end of year events for my school age daughter, it seems I just stagger over the finish line as school ends. As I lie their gasping for breath, Christmas looms. I deliberately do no preparations for Christmas before about the 12th of December. Some may think I am unwise, but actually I think I am a genius. Having so little time to do anything before the big day means there can be no overly ambitious handmade, pintrist inspired, creativity. There are definitely no Christmas cards or family letters to post and even if I had the cash for lavish presents, I certainly don't have the time to buy them. This year I had a total of 3 hours to do all my Christmas shopping. George was at daycare and Ella was still at school. That meant I visited two shops and was done.

Now from that extremely utilitarian description of my lead up to one of the most significant days in the year, it would be understandable to conclude that I am not a person who enjoys the season and that gift giving and the traditions of advent don't really interest me. But that assumption could not be further from the truth. I love traditions and building them into our life as a family. I love buying presents for people and try to think about who they are as a person as I pick them. I also really enjoy baking and putting together food as a gift. I especially enjoy trying to make it a special day for my children. But over the last few years I have learned to set my expectations at the same level as my energy, and our finances. The result is that I have learned to accept what I am able to do, and though I look forward to a time when I can do more of what I love, I can let that go for now. I had moments this year of wishing we had all decorated the Christmas tree together (hubby took the kids and did it with them), or that I had made more handmade gifts, or that I made sure I had the Kings College Choir Christmas album to listen to as I wrapped presents (a tradition from my own childhood) or that I could buy more presents for more people and not worry so much about how to afford it. But it was still good. Perfect is not possible and isn't worth trying to achieve because it doesn't actually exist. The meaning of Christmas remains a constant no matter how much or little I do in preparation. An authentic Christmas means coming to that special day as I am.

And this year I was in bed with vertigo. Horrible spinning every time I moved my head. In days before Christmas I was so exhausted that getting up to prepare breakfast for the kids took superhuman effort. Every cell in my body yearned to sleep. I would have volunteered for a human version of hibernation if it had been offered to me. On Christmas morning I had hoped that rest and doing basically nothing for a week would mean I was fighting fit. But I wasn't. I managed that excitement of stocking opening and pancakes for breakfast but then had to crawl back to bed while hubby took the kids to church by himself. Then afternoon was thankfully spent with family and not at our house and I was so grateful that I didn't have to contribute much and could just sit still. It was a good reminder that there is no controlling this thing called life. Poor health and a mystery virus can strike at any time and is no respecter of circled days on the calendar.

The summer holidays have felt like extended convalescence and recuperation. Every day I napped and when I could I lay down. Hubby did most of the housework and keeping the kids entertained. I was really only useful to change the odd nappy and have cuddles on the couch. I have read about 5 novels. Probably 4 more books than I read all of last year. The heat has meant that lethargy is an acceptable way to be. And I have embraced it. Only two weeks ago did feel close to normal and back to myself. And finally this week I can imagine returning to work and not keeling over on the first day in exhaustion and shock. I am grateful beyond measure for my job which blesses me each year with so many holidays. This extended break over summer is a life saver.

I have also used the time to really focus on changing my diet. (I will write more about this later) I have also stopped having coffee, milk and gluten. This was all on the advice of a dr. I have been teetering all year on the brink of deep depression and increasing my medication regularly in the hope that finally I will reach that magic dose where the clouds lift but the side effects don't disrupt my life to much. So far no magic and so I am also beginning the process of weaning down. Too many side effects including this chronic fatigue that plagues me. And who knows what has made the difference and has me feeling well enough to actually write tonight. Maybe it is just having some Vitamin D, maybe it is getting more rest and not having stress or pressure. It could be the many supplements I am now taking or that somehow my diet is helping my body to function properly again. Who knows? All I know is that in December I was asking myself how I could actually do my life with so little energy and wondering whether other people had some sort of super power secret I wasn't privy to. Now I think I am accepting that I was physically burned out and that my stamina for busyness and stress is low. That's just how I am.

So 2014 was my year of No. I said "No" to a lot of ideas and opportunities. I said yes to one thing - planning and organising our church preschool programme. It has stretched me in some ways but in many ways it has refreshed me by reminding me of the core beliefs I have despite my times of struggle and questioning. And in the end any positive growth in me this year stems from the renewal of that foundation which I base my life upon.

2015 seems to be rolling along at a frightening pace already but I have been so grateful for the easing into it which I have been able to do. I have been considering what the focus for this year might be. I am thinking about choosing my attitude and actions rather than letting thoughts and emotions drive me and feeling powerless to their influence. I don't believe in denying how I feel but I do believe that once acknowledged, I can then choose my response in the light of wisdom and in the knowledge that my perception is often clouded. A blog I read a lot uses the phrase "we can do hard things". This is my hard thing. To establish some self control over my mind and heart and choose the right thing, even when it will challenge me. I am not thinking of any massive situations. I am thinking of those days when I wish I didn't have to go to work. Instead of frantically searching for a way to quit, I want to remind myself that my job is a blessing and that today is just a hard day. This will save me the exhausting tension of rethinking everything all the time just cause it feels hard. So I am welcoming 2015 knowing that I am going to need to build some muscles and do some practice but I "can do hard things".

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Joy at Advent

On Sunday I had the privilege of speaking at church on the them of Joy. It was terrifying. But the process of writing what to say and thinking it all through was so good for me. I hope you find it gives you some joy or comfort in this silly and sometimes painful season.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:10-12

People don't tend to use the word “JOY” in normal conversation. We talk about happiness more often. There is even a growing field of happiness research. It seems that being “happy” is something we struggle with and it seems to be something that is a growing problem of the first world. We buy things, travel to places, take all manner of substances, give up gluten, take up yoga, get married, get divorced, downsize, and upsize, all in the hope of finding happiness. But it doesn't seem to stay around for long. And in the end it seems that we are all heading to the same place but flailing around quite a bit as we go there. From a less extreme stand point, happiness seems to mean the daily small things that make life easier or more pleasurable. A delicious meal, a day that went smoothly, listening to a song you like, finally achieving a goal. All good things and all make life more satisfying and fun. I had a pedicure yesterday. That was definitely an experience that made me happy. But did it make me joyful?

It doesn't seem a coincidence that happiness researchers have found that people who practise gratitude, prayer, meditation and serving others, report greater happiness than those who don't. Maybe because that is the way we were designed to live?

When Tim sent me the list of topics I could choose to speak about I chose Joy. Some that no me well will recognise the irony in this. It is something that seems to be a struggle for me. I have struggled with depression most of my adult life and severely since having children. For me, life can feel like being in a t.v show. I follow the script and laugh at all the right times, but inside I am not experiencing it. Inside I am tortured by feelings of self-doubt, perfectionism and self loathing. I feel overwhelmed by all that needs doing and feel stretched too thin. Not very joyful really. And as a Christian, something I have wrestled with a great deal. How can I be so sad when I apparently have such hope? How can I struggle to love myself while knowing how much Jesus loves me? How can having children, something I have longed for and hoped for - also bring such pain and struggle?

So I have thought long and hard about happiness. And have decided that though it is nice to feel happy, there is very little in the Bible that indicates that we can expect happiness as a normal state of being while here on earth. That is not to say we will not experience happiness, but it just isn't the point, I don't think. But there is quite a lot about joy.

Joy is deeper. Joy seems to come to the fore when things are not going so well. It is a deeper river that keeps flowing, even in suffering and pain. It allows us to touch the eternal and divine. It is experienced in death of a loved one, as we celebrate knowing and loving the person who is lost while also being torn apart by it. It is felt as we welcome a new child, despite knowing that we will now forever feel responsible for another person and possibly experience a great deal of pain along the journey. Joy is the relief of admitting we cannot do it alone and we need help, and someone taking our hand and saying you are not alone and we will do it together. Joy is sharing my pain and struggle, and instead of advice or a look of shock, the person says “me too”.

To me Joy, rather than the temporary status of “happy”, is all about the eternal. I experience Joy when I wake early in the morning, go outside and hear the birds waking, smell the fresh newness of the day and see all that God has created. There is a sense of the divine and the eternal. There is Joy.

I experience Joy when I see a student suddenly become curious and thirsty for knowledge or finally seeing how precious they are after being judged or put down by others. My joy is in seeing that they are glimpsing their God given and eternal value.

Joy for me is talking with someone and having a meeting of mind and heart. Hearing each other deeply and sharing a love and care that I know comes from God. This is a joy that goes beyond the conversation to something deeper. It reminds me that God is love and he himself is the example of community and true relationship.

Joy is new spring growth on an apparently dead tree.

It seemed appropriate to show this picture after Jesse's stump was introduced as a symbol to meditate on during advent. Some of you may remember when I led communion in the depths of winter in July. I talked about a plum tree which I was sure had died. It looked like a stick. No green to be seen. Nick and I had agreed to disagree about it. He was certain that come spring I would be proved wrong. With my typical knowing smile I said “Well, come spring I guess we will find out”. The knowing smile is me knowing I am right...

But I was wrong. Here is a picture of the tree.

Now that is a picture of joy. Despite all visible evidence to the contrary, that plum tree was alive.

We are so used to hearing the Christmas story and knowing it is a story about Joy. But if you didn't know the whole story. If you were living it as it happened, the evidence, and the way the situation unfolds around the birth of Jesus, isn't one that immediately points to JOY. And it definitely doesn't include too much happiness.

Imagine the Christmas story as a series of headlines appearing in the NZ Herald. We all probably feel like the news is the last place to look for Joy. And the Christmas story is full of apparent bad news.

Unmarried and pregnant – condemned by Jewish leaders. Mary may have been a privileged woman chosen by God to bare His own son, but it wasn't a great situation to be in. This is why the angel may have told her not to be afraid.
Heavily pregnant woman forced to travel on donkey for census – I would not have been happy to travel on a donkey at 9 months pregnant, but I guess it was better than walking.
Accommodation shortage in Bethlehem – forced to sleep with animals – sleeping in the stable would have been similar to sleeping in a wool shed. Not pleasant.
Massacre of first born sons – Thousands flea to Egypt

So it is all about perspective. Knowing who Jesus is and what God's plan was for his life means we know that even though the evidence seems gloomy, it all works out in the end.

It is all about what you are looking for. Despite her fear, Mary welcomed the angel who brought her the news of her pregnancy and that she was to give birth to God's son. She agreed to be part of God's plan without knowing how it would all work out and at great risk to herself and her reputation. She was possibly risking Joseph abandoning his promise to marry her. Her faith and knowledge of God's goodness meant she chose to have a perspective of faith and hope, despite the struggles and challenges she would face. She had no idea what it would mean to be Jesus' mother. She would only have known the hope for a Messiah that all the Jewish people were holding onto while suffering the Roman occupation. She made a choice to believe in Her God, rather than the very real risks she faced.

Luke 2:13-19

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

 Mary was chosen by God because He knew she was the right woman to be the mother of Jesus. This passage I think reveals one of the reasons why. She has been through the most amazing experience. I think all births are. But she had the added knowledge that her son was the Messiah. She knew that everything that happened was ordained by God. The shepherds who were visited by angels and prompted to visit Jesus and the amazing visitations by angels that both she and Joseph had experienced. In her life the practical details of travelling by donkey, having nowhere to stay and a rather uncomfortable place for a birth, must have become small in scale, compared with the eternal perspective God had given her about her life. Mary's Joy came from having an eternal perspective of her own life and experience. I think Mary's approach can teach me a lot about Joy. When I let my mind believe that the evidence around me reveals truth and reality then I let my joy and hope disappear into despair. But when I remember that God has a plan and that the story is not finished I remember Joy and I look for His hand and His movement around me. I hear His voice and I commit myself afresh to follow His prompting.

As we approach Christmas again and prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus the reason we sing carols that say “Joy to the World” is because there are so many reasons not to feel joyful. If the world was already filled with Joy we wouldn't need to sing it. But we are in need of Joy. The evidence around us can seem pretty grim. It can seem that evil is triumphing and that we are suffering and that sometimes it is all too hard. But unlike Mary, we have the gift of knowing how the story ended. Well, actually it didn't end. His birth was one beginning. But in Jesus's death we find the true beginning.

Our Joy at Christmas is that in that little baby there is hope and the promise of forgiveness, the end of all suffering, injustice, pain or death and the beginning of a new life. That life is about living now in relationship with the creator of the universe and with Jesus who truly knows the pain and struggle we experience, but also gives us the Holy Spirit to comfort us, guide us, encourage and embolden us so that we can experience and dwell in the Joy of knowing Him and making Him known. He gives us an eternal perspective of ourselves and our purpose here on this earth. Because our lives are just the beginning too.

And even as we know this truth, sometimes it can still be a struggle. And joy seems far off. But when all seems lost and the pain is too great I hold onto this. My favourite verse:

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11

This is not a request. This is a statement of fact. It is not conditional on your efforts or a promise for the future. It is now. His presence now can bring us Joy. A Joy that is holy, healing and can quench a thirst that on He can satisfy.
I pray that for all of us this Christmas, we will know His presence, feel his hand upon us and know His deep and strong and healing love. And that by his Holy Spirit, we will know His joy.

As we go out may we also listen to his voice. He is Emmanuel, God with Us. And he goes with us as we share our Joy in Him, with those around us. Faith in Jesus is not a promise of happiness, but it is a promise that you will never be alone and that in a world that seems to have lost its way, that each person is loved and has meaning and purpose. He is moving and his promise of an end to suffering will come. Now that is something I can be joyful about.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Facts over feelings

Hi world.
This year really is proving to be hard work. No big reasons for that. Except my brain still threatens to slide back into depression. My struggles with the tension between what I want to be able to be and do and reality steal my peace and joy. I dream of some greater peace. I see glimpses of it and I keep being reminded that I am enough now. However, 35 years of feeling less than is hard to shake.

One of the questions I ask myself in an attempt to stop my negative thinking is "Is what I am telling myself, the facts, or the feelings?"
Often my feelings take me off what is really happening into a reality I am creating out of the emotions thay arise.

Yesterday os a good example. I was just exhausted. As it was Sunday, hubby was home. So after lunch I said I just couldn't keep going without a nap. As I lay in bed starting to doze off, the feelings were failure and letting everyone down. I felt that me not being up and involved meant I was a bad mother.

Was any of that true? No. But my unrealistic expectations of myself create those feelings when I have to admit I am actually human and need rest.

The facts helped to check if the feelings really reflected reality. And those facts were that I was really tired and needed a nap. Everyone needs a rest and asking for one is wise.

And checking the facts helped. I enjoyed my nap and woke up feeling much better.

I hope that in time I can have more realistic expectations and that the feelings and thoughts I have would become more gentle and self compassionate.  But in the throws of being overwhelmed by self destructive self talk, remembering to check my facts definitely helps.