opening a doorway for change

We’re in our third lockdown and it looks set to stay put until February. Until then, we are not allowed to move beyond the boundaries of our municipality without written permission. And, while our small town has most things we need, you can no doubt imagine that being confined to the town limits doesn’t feel great. 

That’s not the only thing that feels uncomfortable in this season. There’s so much about the life we share with others, both near and far, that feels difficult, unknown, and hard to navigate. Much of the time, it is easier to distract myself from my real, personal response to it all than to feel it, or to face it. I have a tonne of work to do anyway, I’m staying in touch with a whole bunch of people online, there’s social media to keep up with and then, if there’s a spare moment, so many great new series on Netflix that are thoroughly absorbing.

But every so often, my own discomfort becomes hard to ignore. My fears for the future and anxiety in the present spill over. Let me paint a possible picture for you …

emotional spillage

I’m in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. I fill the kettle and measure out the fragrant Earl Grey tea leaves. The noise of the roadworks in the street outside is grating on me. My husband leans on the kitchen bench and remarks that he’d be happy for a cup of tea too.

A small, ordinary thing. But I snap at him: something about every time I come into the kitchen I end up doing countless unplanned things for other people, as though every family member lies in wait until I venture into the vicinity of the larder. I hear the tone of my voice, and it’s not kind; it’s not at all how I want to be talking but now it’s out there, in the air between us. I see his face, surprised and hurt at my outburst. My insides feel wound tight, constricted, like there’s not much space to breathe.

This is no good for anyone. I mumble something about going for a walk and head for the door, grabbing my coat on the way. As I find my stride, I take a couple of deep, shuddering breaths, grateful for being outside and alone. Even these breaths, taken without thinking, begin to settle the feelings that just spilled over.

Quite naturally, I head for the trail that we walk almost daily with our two dogs. In its wound-up state, my body knows that it needs to move. The uneven path heads downhill and I stumble as I hit a rock. Yeah, that feels about right, I think. Life’s path feels uneven and, truly, I am stumbling along it. My physical stumbling gives me pause for thought, a gut level awareness that I need help, I don’t seem to be doing so well on my own. My attention turns to God: how might God help me in this unsettling place?

As I right myself and continue walking, I notice that in spite of the cold snap we’ve just had - snow, rainstorms and disruptions - the first buds of almond blossom are nevertheless appearing on the trees. I pause. Could it be that on the back of those storms, the beauty of spring is just around the corner? Quite naturally the physical storms bring to mind other storms, of global pandemic, politics and so-called prophecy. Could God bring about something new and beautiful in this windswept place? My imagination turns to the fragrance of spring when a rich array of blossoms are in full bloom. I wonder where I should look for the emergence of small signs of newness, and I ask myself whether anything new and fragrant might be worked in my own life.

I return home from my walk feeling lighter. It’s almost suppertime and I catch my husband in the kitchen before the girls come to the table. Life feels stormy, I say. I’m sorry that the way I spoke added to the storm. He smiles and we sit down with the kids, holding hands to thank God for this provision. I find my attention turning to the desire I was aware of on my walk, that God would do something new and beautiful among us. That in this unsettled and scary season, somehow my response to God would lead to a lightness and a sweet aroma in my life with others.

signals & questions wake us up

I share this story - imagined but true to life - because if we are to be truly changed to be more loving, more Christ-like, it’s in the reality of our ordinary lives that we must learn to pay attention. As I think about what it means to follow Jesus in our times, I’m aware of a couple of things that seem as crucial for us as they have been for believers throughout history. 

The first is that God can only meet us in a place of reality, or truth. That is, God doesn't meet me in a place of pretence, or in my blind spots, or when I am trying to keep up appearances. God meets me right in the nitty gritty of what is revealed to be true about me. The second crucial thing is that, in order for me to be met by God in that reality, I have to wake up to that same truth. It’s not enough for God to know what is true about me, I also have to come to some measure of realisation of where I am and that God wants to meet me there.

This waking up process could also be called learning to pay attention, or becoming aware. And let’s be honest, there is a fair bit of flotsam that gets in the way of us seeing things for what they are. First and foremost, we more often prefer to distract ourselves from reality than face it, or feel it. Distraction - in the form of noise and busyness - makes it hard for us to pay attention to the things that matter most. (If you want to think more about our need to recover from living distractedly, you could start by reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by J.M. Comer.)

Thankfully and by contrast, there are also things that can help us to pay attention; to become aware of what is going on in us and of how God might be present to us there. Other people might say it differently, but I think we can summarise these attention-assistants into two categories: signals and questions.

Signals include all the feedback from our bodies. That is, all the messages from our five physical senses, as well as those physical feelings that tell us about our emotional state. In the personal story I recounted, you may have noticed that I heard the tone of my own voice, I saw the look on my husband’s face, I felt an inner sense of constriction. Then later, I felt the fresh air as I took some deep breaths, I felt myself stumble, I saw the almond buds and imagined the smell of spring.

Questions are those things we might ask ourselves when we receive a signal from our bodies. The best kind of questions in this context - ones that help us reflect in ways that grow our sense of awareness - could be called wondering questions. In my story you may have noticed that I wondered about spring arriving on the back of storms. I wondered about God’s intention to bring about the goodness of new growth in this season. I wondered at the ‘fragrance’ that might arise in my own life with others. 

Through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, the whole process of receiving signals, reflecting on questions and coming to awareness enabled me to return home and make things right with my husband. While it might seem a small thing, it is precisely in these small and ordinary moments that we learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in ways that bring us to maturity. And if this stormy season in world history teaches us anything, it is surely that we have a great need for people who are coming to emotional and spiritual maturity in Jesus. May you and I be those people!