Monday, 6 June 2016

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Saturday, 23 April 2016

Prodigal Generosity

 "Don't be miserly, give them a proper watering!"
This was what I felt God was saying to me as I eked out a dribble of water on each plant I was trying to salvage recently. 
We were going through a hot dry spell, and although it was officially Autumn, someone forgot to tell Summer; the weather was set to be the longest hot dry spell we had had in months. 
Living on rain water as we do, it meant we were running to the end of our reserves. Although we are better off than millions of others in the world, as we can afford to buy water and can easily get it trucked in, it still grates on me a little. We don't live in a particularly dry area and I would like to be able to just use what we are given.
In all this, the garden was starting to look pretty sad. While I tend to be a pretty tough gardener - you don't survive in my garden if you need too much watering - there were plants I just didn't want to lose, so I had been watering a little more regularly.
I am aware that my minimalist watering can be quite ineffective. In some areas of our garden, the water just runs off the top; the soil is so dry that it takes a lot more water to get the water to soak in. As I reflected on these observations, the gentle nudge came from God, telling me to stop being stingy and water them properly, to stop worrying about the expense of buying water to refresh my garden. It just seemed so wasteful and extravagant to me - the plants are just for pleasure, just to look good. They can't be that important, can they?
And then we had a day that was really hot. It got to 40 degrees (C) on my way home. I stopped at the supermarket, and there were a few promising looking clouds around, but nothing that significant. The weather report had said there was a chance of some rain around the hills in the evening, and I had asked God if we could have some of that please, because my garden really needed it. 
I wasn't in the supermarket long, but when I came out, it was raining quite heavily. It felt so good, even though it was still very hot, and there was that wonderful smell that comes with rain after a hot dry spell, along with the sense of the soul being watered as much as the land. 
As I drove the fifteen minutes to home, up into the hills, the temperature dropped from 40 down to 32, then by the time I got to the end of the suburbs, it was down to 23. The rain was heavy enough to start to run off the road. I was only about 5 kilometres from home. Surely we were getting some of this. My daughter rang to find out when I would be home and told me that it was all blue skies and hot and home. No sign of any rain.
I felt pretty disappointed. We did eventually get a few smatterings, but barely enough to register, let alone revive my garden. What was going on? What was God trying to say to me in this? Why didn't He answer my prayer the way I wanted?
So I had a chat with Him. Why did we miss out? I know it is not the end of the world, it is not that big a deal, but it is easy for Him to give abundantly where He pleases. 
And suddenly it got a little more challenging.
I was reminded of a few things. One was a verse: "Give and it will be given to you...For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:38). Along with this was the oft recited story of the person walking in the desert, nearly dead of thirst, who finally came across an old pump. At the pump was a jug of water and a note. It said that you had to use the water that was there to prime the pump, and then it would produce as much sweet, fresh water as you wanted. There was also a reminder to leave a jug of water for the next person. One moral to this story is that you have to relinquish what you have in your hand sometimes before you can get what you really need, but it is a step of faith.
The third was the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1Kings 17). There was a severe drought, and she had enough food left for her and her son to have their last meal.  Elijah challenged her to share, with a promise that God would provide for her until the rains came again. Very like the pump story: are you prepared to give away what you have on the promise alone of more?
Jesus observed and commended the widow who gave two small coins in the temple, stating that her giving was worth more than those who give from their abundance. While she gave from a position of poverty, not a position of plenty, she gave from a position of faith that her needs would be supplied, even as she gave the little she had.
I have been learning that God's generosity goes way beyond the sensible or rational, way beyond what I think I deserve or is enough. He gives and keeps on giving, even when we don't show gratitude or appreciation, even when we squander what is given. When we look at the example of the father toward the son who wasted his inheritance in the story of the Prodigal Son, we see a picture of Father God who pours out His abundance regardless of our response.
He is prodigal in His generosity.
If I am to reflect Him, His glory and goodness, I need to be generous in the same way.
The question is, when I don't feel like I have much, do I hold back, waiting until I have plenty before I give generously (whether that be money, food, goods, or time!), or do I give in trust that God is generous, that He will continue to give me more as I need? Do I trust in what I have already been provided with, or do I trust in the further provision, in the Provider? Am I holding on so tightly to what I have that don't have spare hands to receive the next installment?
Am I as generous with my little as I am with my abundance?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

What's Your Next Season?

There are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.
So goes the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Not wanting to upstage him at all, though, I would like to add a third certainty: Change. Change is just as inevitable. The way we respond to change, however, is as unique as each of us.
My husband and I are going through one of those changes in life right now. As we move toward becoming "empty-nesters", the next generation of our family is arriving. Our niece had her first baby last October (so now I have graduated from being an ordinary, run-of-the-mill aunt to being a great-aunt!), and we became grandparents in January, with a second grandchild on the way in August. It is a new season in our lives, and one we are happy to see.
But what happens when we approach changes we are not so sure about? What happens when we are comfortable where we are, and we don't want things to change? How do we deal with changes we just don't want?
Sitting out on our deck recently, I noticed that a few leaves on the trees were starting to exchange their vibrant summer green for their autumn glory. It got me thinking: how do the leaves know it is getting time to change? The weather didn't seem any cooler or wetter. And what makes some leaves change earlier and others wait?
As I reflected on this, I realised that it was a good picture of how we humans can respond to the changing seasons of life.
Some people are ahead of the game. They can see change is coming, and they get ready straight away, embracing it with gusto. While others are still settling in after the previous shift, they are already looking ahead, already preparing for and getting excited about what is coming.
For others, they wait a little longer, wait until they are sure the change is coming. Like the leaves realising the temperature is dropping, the days are significantly shorter, we can wait until the previous season is definitely over before we are ready for the next. Sometimes we see the trend, also. We see the increasing numbers of others ready for change, and we join them, moving with them, not wanting to be left behind.
Then there are those who just want things to stay the way they are. We can be like those leaves that just hang on and hang on, all through winter, stubbornly refusing to let go of the tree even though they are well and truly past their prime, brown and dried up, but refusing to drop. We can be just as stubborn, holding on to the past when that season has well and truly finished and we should be well in to the next.
Jesus talked a bit about recognising seasons in some of His final messages, (see Luke 21, for example). In the middle of describing some of the signs of the times, He reminds us not to be afraid, (v.9), but to be alert, ready for what is next (v.34-6). The bridal party in Matthew 25 is another great example of our need to be prepared for what is imminent, to be looking ahead.
Dealing with change has been a real struggle for me at times. Either living in denial of my need to change, or having unrealistic beliefs about my ability to change things back to how they were kept me stuck at a number of points in my life, even contributing to depression at one point.
Over the journey of transformation that God has led me on, I have realised that burying my head or running away is counter productive. I have learnt that it is much less painful and far quicker to embrace change, to push past the struggle; to meet the difficulty head on in those times where change is not my choice. I have learnt that although change can be uncomfortable, if I allow myself to move and even be changed with it, the benefits generally far outweigh any discomfort.
Although we can get very comfortable in the season we are in, and wish we could stay there forever, just like the leaf on the branch, refusing to fall, we end up out of place and alone. The weather has changed around us, and we find it is no longer as comfortable as it once was. One way or another, we will get shifted on by what it coming next. It is up to us whether we jump or get pushed. 
What changes are on the horizon for you? Are you  ready to allow your true colours to come through as you launch off your branch into the next season?

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Be careful what you wish for...

If you could be transported back in time to be with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing what He was about to go through, and you could pray with Him, what do you think you might pray?
Would you pray for His release, for His escape, for His safety or for His life to be spared? 
During our Good Friday service, two very different prayers got me thinking.
In praying for our world, we also prayed for a cessation of the violent acts, for God to intervene and prevent those thinking of further terrorism from implementing what was planned. 
As we reflected on Jesus' last hours, and His prayer in the Garden, I thought about the fact that we so often pray for what we would like to see, rather than God's purpose and will coming to fruition. If the disciples had had any real inkling of what Jesus was about to undergo, I wonder whether they would have been praying that God would prevent it, that God would change the outcome. What would have happened if they had? Would Jesus have died? Would the Christian faith as we know it exist today?
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He included the words
"Your will be done".
It is so difficult for us to see what this might look like, because we would like it to look like a 'good' outcome for us here, right now. We would like to see our will be done. And this generally means, my comfort, the comfort of my loved ones, a lack of difficulty for any of us immediately. Our prayers often boil down to "Please God, make everything nice again, for me and mine, and please do it now!" 
The problem is, if God answers those prayers, are we actually missing out on greater blessings? Are we actually missing out on what God wanted to show us, to teach us, to grow in us by taking the 'easy way'? 
Most of us know about the dangerous prayer of asking for patience: you generally get even more opportunities to practice! How many more circumstances and situations does God place before us to move us into better, more helpful, more Christlike behaviours and opportunities to demonstrate His love? And how often do we ask to be excused from those opportunities?
The problem is, we rarely know, much less understand the long term ramifications of so much we long for. Even though we might ask to be relieved from having  to go through difficulties, how do we know that our present trials are not preparing us to cope with other future challenges, not to mention the impact our experience has on other circumstances around us? The threads are all interwoven, and each impacts the other.
Personally, I have been learning a deeper way to pray for sometime now. Much of it involves the difficult task of listening, the difficult task of laying down my will, my desire, my wants, my comfort, and waiting on God to hear what He wants to do in me and through me. It is not easy. It takes time, and it takes honesty and transparency with God.
Often I find it is more helpful to be honest about my feelings and what I want before I start to seek His way. I have to get that out of the way, otherwise self keeps popping its head up again, distracting me, causing me to respond out of my emotions again. When I pull out my stuff, my emotional response first and look at it with God, through His eyes, it becomes easier to lay it down and release it to Him. Then I am (more) ready to go His way, to see His way.
Jesus' prayer in the Garden was like this: "God, I really don't want to go through this, I am really struggling", and maybe even "I'm so scared", but never-the-less, "not My will, but Your's be done".
Underlying all our struggles with prayer is a question of trust. Do we pray because we think God needs some help working out the best way forward for us and His world, or do we pray because we want to partner with Him in what He is already doing really well without our help?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

On the road again...(or Lessons from the road Part 2)

"Whatever you do, don't run into the screen door!"
These were my father's famous last words as he released me to ride alone. He was teaching me to ride a bike in our yard, and as I wobbled and peddled and hoped I wouldn't fall off, I rode straight into the screen door of the french window. 
This story has had a great workout in my family over the years, usually at my expense. I was about six or seven and my dad was helping me get my balance riding around in our garden. Knowing what I know now, there are a few things I would probably have done differently if I were my dad, one of them being the words he used. 
Through driving lessons and more recently, motorbike riding lessons,  I have repeatedly been told that we tend to go in the direction we look. That's how you get out of a skid - look where you want to go, and your brain will respond accordingly. So if someone mentions something like a screen door, you are likely to look at it, and hence, head straight for it!
However, when it comes to riding on a motorbike, I am struggling to put this into practice. Even though I have been riding pillion on the motorbike for some years now, cornering is still something of an issue. (Confession: I get scared.) As we lean into the corner, I often do battle with the fear that the bike is either going to tip or slide out, especially if there is any gravel about or it is a particularly tight curve. It is not a healthy or helpful way to ride!
In dealing with this problem as a rider now, I have been given similar tips by numerous people - obviously I am not alone in my fear! One of the main pointers is to look ahead to where you want to go. Don't look at the curve or look directly at the road you are on, but look up, look ahead. The other is to breathe out as you go around the corner, which perhaps helps you to relax.
Aside from the more irrational fears, there are many other aspects of the road that are far more dangerous for riders than those inside vehicles. Simple oily patches, gravel or potholes on the road can mean serious injury or even potential death if not dealt with appropriately. Riding in fear of all these, though, can be just as dangerous. 
Contrary to what seems natural, however, looking up, looking ahead at the direction we are going, we will find that we naturally avoid most hazards. Our brain is quite good at directing us if we don't over-think it. I am reminded of a time I was walking on a beach  covered in pebbles. I suddenly realised that without even thinking about it, or watching where I was walking (barefooted), I was choosing a path on the sand automatically avoiding stepping on the pebbles. Our brains are quite amazing at keeping us out of danger if we allow them to do their thing!
These principles can be applied far more widely than simply riding a bike, though. We can easily spend many aspects of our lives in fear. If we choose to focus on all the bad things that could happen, there is a never ending list. Just like when riding, if we focus on that pothole, that gravel on the side of the road, that screen door, we will, in all likelihood, end up in it.
We will head where we focus our attention.
 Just as true is the fact that what we think about, what we dwell on, will become the way we think. A favourite quote from a friend, is "don't think about pink elephants". What's the first thing that comes to mind?
We have to purposefully change our thinking. Paul puts it brilliantly in Philippians 4:5-8 "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation...present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things...And the God of peace will be with you."
If we want to change our thinking, we have to practice thinking differently!
 And of course, we can tie ourselves in knots trying to change, as well, beating ourselves up with thoughts like "I have to stop thinking like this", which leads to the other helpful tip.
Just breathe.
Just breathe and relax. After all, most things are not as bad as we tend to think, and even if they are, all our stress and worry is not going to improve anything.
If we are walking in faith, we can stop everything and focus on simply breathing, on purely be-ing. Relaxing is the place of rest that is promised by God so regularly. When we live from this place of resting in Him, which is really about trusting Him, He becomes our focal point. Then we will find ourselves naturally changing direction, automatically avoiding those obstacles which endeavour to trip or waylay us. Over time, chances are we won't even notice them anymore!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

On the road...(Or Lessons from the road - Part 1)

I went on a trip back in time a few weeks ago.
Heading off to pick up the motorbike my husband had bought me was like going down memory lane as we travelled some 350km out west, to the other side of the rural city I spent most of my childhood in.  I have rarely been there in the ensuing thirty-something years since we moved away, but on the occasions I have, the memories come flooding back at every landmark, town and hamlet.
We decided to make a bit of a road trip out of the journey, leaving early so we could take it easy. It was nice not to have to rush, not to have to be anywhere by a certain time. Our day was largely unplanned, stopping morning tea when we felt like it in a lovely old rural town, complete with the Saturday market. By lunchtime we had made it to my home town. As we sat outside the main street bakery in the summer sun, eating our pies, I felt waves of nostalgia for days gone by.
Reflecting on my feelings, I realised that we had left there at a point where I was gaining greater independence and freedom, which I didn't have to the same level in the place we moved. There was a part of me that still felt I had missed something because of the move. However, there was also the problem that although many things were just the same as I remembered, so much was different.
My heart was yearning to go back to that simpler place in that simpler time, but it is no longer there and neither am I.
The desire to go back in time has been a temptation for me at a number of significant points in my life, particularly in the pain of divorce. Thinking about what life might have been like if things had been different, if I had made a different decision, if I had been more emotionally healthy, the "if only..." scenarios can seem like an escape from dealing with the difficulties of the current situation. I have realised, though, that these thoughts don't actually help at all. They keep me stuck and can simply lead to bitterness and disappointment colouring all that comes after.
I can't live there.
The past is gone and it is unalterable, just as the person I was back then no longer exists. And besides, I still have more past to create, I still have a road to travel. If I try to do that looking backwards, I will either come to a grinding halt or I will crash. Consider Lot's wife. Looking back inappropriately brought her to a permanent standstill!
However,  looking back at the past with nostalgia is not our only problem.
Looking back on the journey of our lives in any capacity can be a dangerous occupation.
Reflecting on the past with the rose-coloured glasses of time can be wishing for something that really never existed. We forget the less than perfect bits. When we reflect and feel, "I wish it was like the 'old days", or "life was better back then", we can also diminish our enjoyment of the present.
On the other hand, we can dismiss the past in its entirety, deciding that because there were bad bits, none of it has any value. Doing this, we lose a significant part of who we are and can become a little rootless. It makes it easier to disconnect from any part of life we find unpleasant, leaving a shallowness in our relationships.
Recollections are important at some level, though. God was pretty adamant about it with the Israelites, urging them to remember all the lessons, good and bad, from their past with Him. It helped them remember who He was (and is) for them through tough times, and was to keep them from straying back into past errors. 
Celebrating and being grateful for the good times, for the positive experiences and input, and learning from mistakes - our own as well as those of others - is an important part of the fullness of life. It can keep us grounded.
Embrace the past. Make peace, however you can, whatever it takes, with those aspects you'd rather forget. They are part of what makes you who you are - make them count for something good! Give thanks for every opportunity for growing and learning, whatever form they came in. I promise you, it will change your perspective on the worst experiences. Share the joy and sadness with others.
But remember to come back to living the present you have been given, looking forward to future joys and challenges, so when they are done with they too can become part of the ever-changing scenery of a life well traveled.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Just a Flat Tyre?

When I got my driver's licence and bought my first car, my father was adamant that I needed to be able to change a tyre. His only daughter wasn't going to be 'one of those' helpless females! Besides, we lived in a rural area, and being before the advent of the mobile phone, he didn't want me stranded for lack of knowledge. Lack of strength was a whole other kettle of fish, but I could usually get those pesky wheel nuts undone by standing/bouncing on the wheel brace. These days I drive a 4x4, so I don't even think about changing the tyre - I can't even lift the spare out!
 All that said, in nearly thirty years of driving, it has been a reasonably rare occurrence.
Until recently.
 In the last three months, I have had three punctures. Apart from the exceptional frequency, it was unusual because I had never heard of, let alone experienced the cause of these flats before. Two of them were caused by sticks! I was really surprised the first time, almost to the point of disbelief, although our local tyre repair assured me it was quite common (which it proved to be for us!). The other was caused by a quite small, seemingly normal piece of stone with a particularly pointy end. Not your usual suspects given their prevalence.
Driving home from the repair shop after the third one, I was wondering about this sudden pattern, and was reminded of one of my husband’s favourite sayings:
“It’s just a flat tyre.”
It’s his way of putting things into perspective. As much as a flat tyre is an irritation, annoyance or inconvenience, it is rarely a major problem, unless you haven’t bothered to make sure the last one is fixed and you’re already running on your spare!
However, even as I remembered this, the words, “yes, but three in three months is a little bit much!” came into my mind. As I thought of the other things going on in our life at the moment, many of which we try to keep in the perspective of simply being a “speed bump” or “flat tyre”, the frequency and continuing nature of these is starting to get wearing. Just when we have felt we are coming out of one incident, another comes out of the blue to take its place.
It is tiring (no pun intended!), to say the least. And with that tiredness, hopelessness and despair also come creeping.
It leads me to the question of what my faith looks like when the waiting for promises to be fulfilled seems to take too long, when the circumstances continue to look like no, or even “wrong way, go back”. How do I hold on to my faith, how do I keep hoping, flat tyre after flat tyre after flat tyre?
But by very definition, isn’t that what faith and hope are all about? As Paul says, “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Rom 8:24) Underlying this question of faith, perhaps the real question is whether God is faithful. Can I really place my hope and trust in Him?
Naturally, we all know the ‘correct’ answer.
Of course God is faithful and trustworthy!
But that is before we were waiting.
And waiting.
And waiting.
And the problem with waiting is that we usually don’t really know how long is enough. Like the proverbial piece of string – how long is it? Until we get to the end, we won’t know. Like my call to the insurance company today, forty-five minutes waiting in the queue, then another thirty on hold. You start out hoping it will be shorter than they say, and you keep waiting because hopefully it will be in the next minute, or the next, or the next. And if I get off now, I will have to start all over again. So you wait, hoping the phone won’t go flat, too.
We are right in our first answer to the question, though. God is faithful. He has proven Himself time and again, in history, in the lives of our friends and families, in our own lives. But this is new. This we don’t know. This time (again), we are not sure if we can wait that long, that our battery won’t go flat in the waiting, or that we actually have a spare tyre.
Which reminds me of the story Jesus told about the bridesmaids, where half of them had extra oil in case they had to wait longer than expected. The other half ran out, and while they were off getting some more, they missed the bridegroom’s arrival.
There have been various interpretations of what the oil represents, from the Holy Spirit to simply about always being ready. For me, the idea of the “oil of joy for mourning” springs to mind, which could be linked to the joy of the Spirit as well.
Joy seems to be a good antidote in the place of waiting. It is the antithesis to hopelessness and despair. While it is not something we can always elicit in ourselves, especially in those places we are struggling, it is one of the fruits of living in the Spirit. However, joy cannot coexist with hopelessness and despair. We have to make a choice which of these we would like to carry in our places of waiting, in our places of flat tyres.
As for me, I choose to lay down (evict, reject, cast off) hopelessness and despair, and to pick up joy!
Come Holy Spirit, fill me afresh!