‘Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere.
Frankly, it is just another name for faith.
Without the inner discipline of faith, most lives end in negativity, blaming or deep cynicism – without even knowing it.’ Richard Rohr
A little while ago I was in the car with a friend who was driving me home from a night out. We had been talking and laughing most of the way, not listening to the Sat Nav and making a few U-turns. As we drove along there was a moment of quiet and into the darkness my friend asked,
‘So, what’s it been like without your dad, Tory?’
There are questions that take no thought to answer at all. Questions like, where did you get your shoes? or did you see the Bake Off Final? And then there are questions that require deep courage and a shed load of vulnerability to answer. And so, my initial response was to mumble ‘I don’t know’ which is ridiculous because of course I know. But articulating an answer meant venturing into a wounded part of my heart and soul. And it’s hard to know the outcome of that scenario. My friend was courageous in asking me the question but I struggled to find an equal amount to respond. A silence ensued.
Then my friend did something so simple, but truly difficult.
She just drove along without saying a word and allowed whatever needed to come to the surface an opportunity to rise. She didn’t change the subject. She didn’t offer me her advice. She didn’t panic.
She was able to sit and wait.
And slowly, I began to talk about my dad and my life now and faith in the midst of deep sorrow. I started to talk about a new understanding of brokenness and how I am learning to hold darkness and light, together. I told her that when dad died nothing really mattered much to me – all I really needed then was God. And there are days now I miss that same sense of dependency.
I share this little story because that car journey was important. To anyone else it was just an awkward quietness, but to me it felt like permission to share some of my struggle and experience. It was the encouragement I needed to think it all through. Most of all, it was so healing and helpful.
And the thing is, my friend said very, very little.
I have been thinking about growing up in a religious culture where the general response to asking questions and waiting for honest answers – was fear. I wonder what it was about difficult situations and broken people that filled us with such trepidation. Perhaps it was this fear that led to a pressure to say something, to hurriedly fix the brokenness and somehow right all the wrongs. When faced with a tangled mess of uncertainty we felt an urgency to remind the struggling few about the joy of their salvation. And somehow I learnt that those who wound up in the difficult ‘grey area’ were backsliders. Sometimes they came back to the church, but often they would disappear and who knows where they went.
Did we make them feel like less of a Christian because their faith was not all wrapped up in a pretty bow? Was there a way to talk about Jesus when all that existed was hurt and loneliness and ache? Did they have permission to bring their doubt and struggles to the table?
Because if there is one thing I felt growing up in church it was this:
My faith was predominantly experienced in black and white. Them and Us. In or Out. On fire or backsliding. We knew how to be liked and accepted but not so much about how to dwell in the grey area. We knew how to rush in with our truth and heap on our theology but it all lacked a sense of humility and grace. There wasn’t much sitting and waiting.
And now I wonder why.
Since dad died I’ve felt such empathy for those who struggle with church because they aren’t sure what to do with their questions. I think in the past I found it difficult to believe and cope with faith as paradox. I feared it. I rushed in with my own smug and succinct explanations of joy and despair. But then I’ve heard that experience changes your truth. And when my dad died so suddenly grief flung me into a world of darkness. It was there that I discovered there is much about faith to be sure of but there is much that is mystery, too. And God dwells in the tension. He moves in it. He speaks in it. He loves in it. I don’t need to fear it.
But if my faith is to mean anything to me I do need to learn how to live in it.
Because I walk a road that is straight and narrow with questions that are deep and far-reaching. And the work required to stay on this road and walk this way is far from simple. Or quick. Or easy. It can be lonely.
I am learning that those of us who struggle with faith should never carry fear or shame. In fact, it is deeply important that we don’t rush the difficult, messed up murky parts of our lives in a bid to keep it all neat and simple. It’s vital we take our time and ask our questions. It’s vital we keep finding ways to share our stories of faith, even if it is just with a close few. We need to make room for healing and hope by spending time with others who will humbly sit and wait while we unravel the mess.
May we embrace our God-given permission to sit and wait.
May we pursue a willingness to exist in the tension and learn how to make room for others to do the same.
May it become a transformational, faith-filled act in our lives.
‘Each moment of our existence we are either growing into more or retreating into less. The spirituality of wonder knows the world is charged with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.’
So…….there goes Summer!
We’re back to a 7.30pm bedtime and deciding what to make for lunches (sliced cheese or grated?). Once again Clarks have robbed us blind and there’s a shed load of school notes stuck to the fridge door. The nights are already getting darker, but hey ho, at least Bake-Off is on again.
We enjoyed a trip up north this year along with some time spent in Lusty Beg and a few day trips. And it felt like enough. I don’t think I needed the stress of too much this summer.
I think my heart needed a little room to feel and pay attention.
Because this was a summer without my dad. And that’s been hard. At times I found grief to only be a subconscious niggle and yet, on other occasions it became piercing and I was left wondering what the last few months have even been about.
This summer I have found the beach days and garden days and even the first school days both simultaneously great and difficult. I’ve thought about those of us who smile and wave and talk and yet hold a secret sadness. I’ve held space for those who on the journey home from the beach or the school gate or the garden feel a little heaviness return to their heart.
Because grief and loss can leave many of us feeling changed somehow, where everything is the same but different. Great days just used to be great but now, they are often tinged with sadness, too.
And we must find a way to sit honestly with both.
My dad died suddenly five months ago and I’ve been thinking about grief as loss but also as change. It’s change because things are never going to be as they once were. For me, one of the hardest parts of grief has been sensing the loss of a connection. My Dad was a very positive presence in my life, constant and unconditional and good. Sometimes I just feel the loss of that presence, that connection.
It was more powerful than I ever realised at the time.
And so now I must make room for the long, slow reality of living a life altered by the absence of someone I loved. I am left to consider how I am going to experience and accept the changes that come.
I find the only way I can experience grief as true lament is to acknowledge the place I find myself in to be okay. I am learning to allow myself to feel whatever rises to the surface, be it quietness or anger or ambivalence.
Resisting the perpetual urge to explain and deny is not an easy thing.
But what is even harder is trusting God with this difficult and mysterious space of change. What takes courage is trusting Him with my soul which is often tangled up in fear and uncertainty and regret.
I have trust for milk in the fridge and a coat on my back but how can I trust God with the pain of losing my dad? How can I continually trust in his goodness when my heart is often heavy with sadness? How can I know I won’t be trapped by my own feelings forever?
This is how.
I encounter a life outside of material blessing and wealth and success and I still find God to be good.
I end up in a crappy valley of grief and discover His goodness is nothing much to do with the absence of my sadness, but rather it is in His nearer-than-near presence. I realise that yes, I am blessed with His gracious gifts but I am blessed further still by a God who is found way beyond what I can hold in my hand.
And it’s in this place that He offers me a peace that gives trust a new meaning.
Trust is not naivety or holy nonsense. I know it only to be the reality of a broken hearted daughter stumbling forward in the light of a God who keeps His promises. Promises of comfort and presence in a life that was never meant to be easy.
It is not even a spectacle to behold. I know it to be the persistent choice to look up, moment after moment, quietly believing in the guts of faith I have professed for over twenty years..…’The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.’
And so, there are no fireworks but there is unexpected peace and undeniable comfort from being held and known and loved. I can watch my children squealing in the sprinklers and realise there is joy and there is sadness and there is God. I can sit on a step and wave at my kids and miss my dad all the while whispering prayers of thanks and struggle to a God who knows me better than I know myself.
And there’s a birthday in our house and a party without my dad. There’s a card from my mum signed, ‘Love Nanny’ and the tears sting at the absence of my dad’s name and my kids continually getting older without him. And I hear it. God’s voice. It cuts through the excitement and joy. It cuts through the bravery and ache. ‘I know about all of it. Your joy today. Your struggle. I know you. I’m with you.’ And I find courage to pay attention to that voice and trust it.
And there is a local library where my dad spent so much of his time. I go there and sit on tiny plastic chairs, reading with my kids and thinking about my dad. I feel his absence. And I feel God’s presence. It’s just a local library but sitting there I am both honestly broken and lovingly healed. It is not an easy thing. But my soul encounters the grace and peace of a God who is faithful.
And He is good.
Since my dad died I have been told many times that grief is a journey. CS Lewis described it as a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. And it’s a strange thing to ‘assess my progress’ as I walk this winding valley. In the early days progress was having more energy and sleeping better. It was finding language to describe some of my thoughts and feelings. Progress was being able to freely share a memory of dad.
And I guess I had this notion that I was covering a fair distance of this so-called journey. I was somehow dealing with it.
But not long ago, I walked up the road to church and slipped in quietly near the back to join in with those who were gathered for worship.
I had only been standing a matter of minutes and surprisingly to me (though perhaps not to you) tears began to flow down my face. Grief gripped me almost as if I had just been told the news about my dad. Overwhelmed, I found I could not sing a single note. The ability to open my mouth and have my voice form the words I knew so well was just not there. And naive as it may sound, it was a shock to feel this way because in recent weeks the emotional side of my grief had mellowed.
I had been talking about it, reading and listening and writing about it. But standing there on this Sunday evening, I found I was not yet able to sing.
And it was not a refusal to worship. It had nothing to do with a disagreement with the words or a firm resistance to their truth. Through the storm He is Lord. Yes indeed, I have found that to be true. I feel more known and loved by God than I have felt my whole life.
And yet my soul will not allow me to sing about it.
How little I understand about the pain in my heart and how deep it goes. It is not a visible pain and so, in most circumstances, it is easy to disguise. I can do much of life without acknowledging the hurt I carry.
Perhaps this is why I am fooled into thinking the pain has lifted and gone away.
But that evening as I tried to make the words come out I felt ashamed I couldn’t sing. I was disappointed that this journey had taken me around yet another winding bend and the landscape had changed again. I heard the old religious tapes begin to play in my heart;
‘Why can’t you just worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth?’ Sing
‘At all times he is worthy of your worship.’ Sing.
‘You can do all things…’ Sing
I bowed my head and jammed my hands into my pockets. I bit my tongue in a bid to keep it together and try harder.
It is so difficult to lean into pain.
But as the tears began to flow again I realised that denial and pretence are so futile. His fierce love is not dependent on my ability to hold it all together and cope. He does not need me to apologise for how things really are.
And so, my worship that evening was not audible, no words were formed or sung. I just allowed myself to weep and decided that weeping was my worship.
Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father, it is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Richard Foster
And here’s the thing I want to say.
Worshipping this way stirred up something deep in my soul that no other facet of life has done. And I am no expert on the effects of music on our inner being or making room for genuine lament at our gathered events or helping worshippers give and receive comfort. I am sure there are approaches and forms, liturgies and techniques. But I do know it had something to do with being in a place of no escape. There were no kids to chase, no floors to brush. There were no books to read or plans to make. There was no avoiding, pretending, ignoring or surviving in a culture of denial.
There was only the presence of God and the exposure of pain in my heart.
And whilst leaning into pain is so difficult and I avoid it with every ounce of my being, it also brings about a strange sense of healing. And this has nothing to do with the radical disappearance of hurt. There is no removal of sorrow or answers to my eternal questions. I am not politely and quickly fixed.
This healing has everything to do with honestly bringing my pain to light and finding God resides there. The healing is God himself. It is discovering he is not afraid of my suffering. He is not waiting around the next bend in the journey– the one where I might be wonderfully composed and full of courage.
His presence is what heals my hurt because He enters right into it. Every uncomfortable, ugly and painful step.
If I discover the fullness of my own humanity I also discover the many faces of God. Esther De Waal
Grief can feel like something to overcome and conquer. It is like you must find a way to quickly progress and emerge ‘fixed’, declaring it all to be the goodness of God.
But I think worshipping from a place of ruin has shown me that healing and wholeness are more than just becoming better at life, where everything appears to be tidy and comfortable. Wholeness is about living with an ever increasing sense of honesty about our need for healing. And it’s about demonstrating a hope in a healing God of love who longs to restore us.
Because when we stop fighting the urge to reject our stories of darkness we instead discover ways that allow the light to flood in.
This is Emmett. He’s the funny little guy from the Lego Movie. My kids love him. He’s not a special. He’s not a master builder. He’s beyond ordinary. He’s kind of a nobody.
Emmett knows many people but is actually known by very few.
I wonder how much this idea resonates with us. Perhaps we have dipped our toes in some form of community before and got burnt. Maybe we are tired of never quite fitting in. Then again, maybe we have found ‘our people’ and the word community genuinely excites us.
I’ve been around churches and youth groups and local towns long enough to get involved in a smorgasbord of community efforts. And no doubt this community thing is to be experienced in many ways.
Small groups. Homegroups.
Prayer partners. Prayer triplets.
Book clubs, gyms and running clubs.
‘New mum’ clubs.
Breakfast, lunch and supper clubs.
I found a lot of these experiences to be very positive and yet in many incidences, I remained a little like Emmet. Known by a lot of people, but not ever really known or even valued and understood. I’m not sure how much I actually experienced true change and growth.
It was no-ones fault. I probably approached it all wrong. Looking for people to fix me and fill a void. And I’ll admit I have a tendency to resist vulnerability. Who doesn’t?
Sometimes I gave up too quickly. Someone ruffled my feathers and I left out the back door. Someone looked at me weird and it was game over.
Parenthood impacted how I viewed community. As in, it made me feel like I couldn’t be part of one. It didn’t seem right to invite people over for turkey dinosaurs and alphabetties. I couldn’t seem to make any of the gatherings. I struggled to fit in when all I could think about was if my baby was sleeping for the babysitter. So I opted out. I just hung around the sidelines and the fringes. Known by many and yet known by very few.
For a while I was scared by the buzz words that seem to surround building community – words like authentic, leadership, growth, innovation, strategy, vision – they all put me off. I thought, I don’t know enough about this stuff. I’m not a master builder. I’m an introvert. I like books. I don’t have what it takes to build community. The skills required. The knowledge. The background. The training. The time. The experience.
Despite all that I lack I do genuinely love people. I do carry a deep desire to connect, to listen, to share life in whatever means possible. I do believe God is on me and in me and with me and it is quite possible for the Kingdom to invade my galley kitchen.
And I wonder if community is actually this great big buzz word we have made it. Is bigger just generally perceived as better? Does significant have to mean noticeable? Probably.
Culture has taught me to chase these things and manipulate any sense of community I might discover into something more, something ‘major’ with a brand or a title, something with a start time of 7.30pm and a decent programme, a strategy and a cool venue.
Is this why I end up believing a large group of people with new members is indicative of success, but somehow the change in my sweet neighbour’s life is not even noteworthy? Perhaps.
Over time I seem to have accepted the idea that community is a few big gatherings to miss rather than a few ordinary lives to share.
A soul can be saved but it will take softness and depth and space. The world will not help much. John Ortberg.
It seems all along my soul is just longing for some depth. But the culture I live in says this;
Don’t stop to think, just buy more and do more, the faster the better.
Slot community in when you can – share the links, but not your life.
Don’t overthink how little you belong anywhere. Parenthood has taken that away from you. But you fit in just fine on Instagram.
Heck, you don’t have time for any of this community lark. You barely have time to put the bin out. Your life is about Calpol and Cbeebies, not community.
No one wants to see or hear what you have to say. You are no good to anyone. You are too much.
Post another photo of your cute tablecloth and continue to survive.
And I believe it all. I believe community is out of reach for me. I believe I can’t build anything of worth or significance. I believe small is for the underachiever. I believe I’m not like those others leaders – the ones who get it done.
And I am wrong.
Ordinary faithfulness is the stuff of miracles.
Could ordinary faithfulness be at the centre of building true community?
Because if so, then I need to remain faithful to the deep desire in me to get to know others better in the most simple, small and ordinary ways I can imagine.
I need to learn how to make room for a few and begin to share a life together. I need to learn how starting with what is tangible (our homes, our food, our belongings) often leads to sharing that which is kept hidden (our frustrations, our hurts, our beliefs and our weaknesses).
I think it’s quite possible to just ditch the step by step plan, the name, the twitter handle and the 7.30pm start and just make a sincere promise to show up. In countless ways we could learn to make ourselves available, a presence that reliably shows up in each other’s lives.
What if my only agenda was to bring the Kingdom a little closer? What if it looked like a phonecall, a text to say I’m holding space for your kid today, an offer to walk to the park, an invite to pray in my kitchen? What if in order to make community a reality I have to do the same small ordinary things again and again and again? Can I do this?
I recognise the urge to rush it, define it, organise it and manipulate it into something I feel would be bigger and more significant. I resist that. I’m honest about a hope for future commitment and sacrifice but really, I just begin with love and invitation, genuine care and welcome.
Sharing lives with a few has taught me that hospitality is not so much fluffing up the cushions and baking a cake as it is opening the front door and saying ‘How are you? Come on in.’ I have discovered the gift is not actually found in my tidy house but in paying attention and providing a space to belong to each other, for however long it’s needed.
Because the truth is- it’s not about having answers but rather walking together as we ask the questions. It’s about softness and space and depth.
And let’s agree that usually something powerful takes place when we genuinely ask, ‘What’s your story?’ Because it’s rarely the one on Instagram or Facebook. When we begin to sift the perfectly uploaded images from reality it feels really good.
Perhaps it is only then that we can pull each other into hope and redemption.
Ordinary faithfulness is the stuff of miracles.
What if a beautifully changed heart was the indicator of growth we chased?
What if we swam upstream and let go of the big and the noticeable?
What if we were okay with remaining under the radar? What if small and slow and unknown became marvellous? What if it gave way to a sense of belonging that allowed true change and growth to become a reality in our lives?
And I wonder then, as we faithfully shared in something very ordinary with a few, would we crazily begin to feel part of something bigger with many?
Would building community and finding a sense of belonging be something you and I and everyone showed up for and became excited about?
I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown recently. In fact, I am a little bit in love with her. She says it’s not so much what we know but who we are that counts. And that being rather than knowing requires that we show up and let ourselves be seen. I think then, that building community might be something all of us can be a part of, not because of what we know or what we do but just because of who we are – not master builders or specials, not even experts or innovatives, just ordinary people who need other ordinary people to faithfully show up for them in the most ordinary ways.
Perhaps that is the stuff of miracles.