Not Getting Killed

Great psychological thrillers, combined with innumerable episodes of crime drama, have given me a healthy appreciation of the dangers of picking up hitch-hikers.

In sum; Hitch-Hikers Bad. First nicey nicey & uber-friendly. Then, stabby stabby & a cold shallow grave. Generally and basically, it’s not the way I want to end my life. So, up to this point, absolutely and categorically no picking up strangers along country lanes.

But then there was this week. This bright autumn week turned out unexpectedly to be hitch-hiker week.

It all started in Sunday’s sermon. I had a week to prepare, to dig into the calling of the disciples, to Matthew’s unashamed challenge to my complacency… “Jesus said ‘Come, follow me’ and immediately they left their nets and followed him”. The message? When Jesus invites us to follow, our only sane response is to actually and immediately follow Him. To literally get off our bottoms and go where He goes, see what He sees, do what He does. To expend our energies, resources and gifting following the person and practices of Jesus Christ. To become, like Him, a ‘Your will be done’ kind of person.

I hear you, (you sound like my mother by-the-way). “But that doesn’t mean being foolish and putting your life in danger Christine”. Well now, your loving concern is comforting, but I’m not so sure that Jesus’ call was a call to safety.

The disciples followed Him into danger, prison, shipwreck, hunger, poverty and beheading. They followed Him into amphitheatres where they were torn apart by wild animals for the sport of the baying public. They followed Him into homelessness and injury and job-loss. They were only following their Jesus. Hounded by criticism, unjustly tried on trumped up charges, flogged, stabbed and crucified.

I reckon a choice to see the world through His eyes and respond, in-spite of my fear, might not be such a stretch of obedience. It is the pain and privilege of following.

Teaching Jesus’ call turned the dimmer switch way up to bright-white.  I started to see need. On the afternoon school-run a boy stood by the side of the road, hitching. He looked half frozen by the bitter wind. He was shivering, and thanked me over and over for turning up the heating. He stared ahead, arms wrapped around himself, hands buried in his armpits, knees drawn up, shrunken. I imagine he was quite tall for his age, but the chill in his bones made him small and vulnerable. He was matter-of-fact. The bus-fare for the 8 miles home from school was too much. Four days a week he got a ride with a neighbour, but not on Tuesdays. He’d been trying to get a ride for 40 minutes he said. I asked if he’d forgotten his coat today. “I don’t have one” he said.

I had no words.

I could hear him, deliberately inhaling the warm air. Then slowly and quietly, as if the thought had crept out into the warmth, I heard him wish to himself… “I just want winter to be over”.

The longing was tangible. The lump in my throat was large. I drove him home, but the poverty lingered. Probably enough to see the next need.

A few days later, in the pelting downpour on a country lane I passed a man walking. He looked just shy of 60, but then, age is difficult to determine in this neck of the woods. Hardship often adds a decade, sometimes two. I slowed, rolled down the window and met Mark, who hitches the four miles to town once a week to get food. He used to get the bus, but 6 years ago when the fares went up he took to walking (or hitching on a good day). Summer is better, more traffic in the lanes. Winter, he says, isn’t much fun.

We talked first of places he had traveled, then people he’d met, and afterwards spent time discussing the food he’d tasted on his travels. After a while, he sighed and said “God, I’m so hungry, I know I started it but can we change the subject?”

Nature and seasons took conversational precedent until I dropped him where he wanted to be. Again, the poverty hung in the air long after he’d shut the car door.

I’ve a lot to learn. Much of it is about love. Seeing the need and thinking of others before myself, living out of a place that honours those in my community who are eeking out a life at the edges of polite society. The margins. Where Jesus lived.

I didn’t ask either of them if they had faith, didn’t preach a sermon, didn’t give a tract, didn’t switch on a worship CD as we traveled, didn’t say I was a Christian, didn’t preach Good News to the poor. But what I did do, was follow the person and teaching of Jesus through my fear into His goodness. Along the way, I made the journey a little easier for a fellow human being, and caught a glimpse of the real needs of my community and God’s heart for the people of His pasture.

And I didn’t get buried in a shallow grave. Which you have to admit, is awesome.

Tell

Dearest. What I’d like you to know is this. Love is back.

I couldn’t even tell you when it left. Three months, maybe four? In its absence I learned my tell.

But its return, its return was a quiet little ta-da!  As our builder was going through our old yellow door, I heard myself call out “see you tomorrow love”. And there it was. Love. My end-stop, my punctuation of with-and-for-and-together, the last fond suffix between you and me. My love was back.

It’s been a habit, occasionally along with darling when the occasion called for it (though never a darlin’ quite as sticky sweet southern as my friend from NC). This love is not cosseted nor restricted to family and friends, it’s a matter of course, offered to the child passing the gate, the postman, the wiseguy on the bus. A generous custom, warm and open, of Yes-And, not No-But. Absentmindedly practiced. Like breathing in the cold wild air or wiggling toes in fresh summer grass. Second nature even.

However at the edge of summer, my first nature was ambushed by vampiric exhaustion. The kind you hear sneaking up in the alley but cross fingers and hope it’s your imagination. It wasn’t.  A two year concerto of transition, poverty and pastoral need, framed by glorious isolation, bled me out. It was all I could do to open my eyes, maintain coherence (I’m being optimistic here), and crawl wearily to the daily finish of my unchanged unmade bed.

Apparently it was about then that I ended my sentences with words and not love. I tired of connecting. Open was sappingly unsafe. Hatches were battened down. Love went unused.

Perhaps I fell into my dark self. Perhaps I lived in a shrunken closed world in order to protect the precious little love I had left. Perhaps I forgot that I was flesh and blood, and that the people of the world are as wonderful as they are complex. Perhaps I forgot that I was not alone. That I, body and soul belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. That I/ you/we, are all created for and fueled by one supernaturally natural propellant. If I had only remembered love and it’s unquenchable source.

Ladies, gentlemen, scholars and thieves, my tell is my love. Because in health and well-being, with rest, prayer, laughter, Jesus, and a few monumentally amazing friends, I add love to living.

Lath

It turns out money does grow on trees. But it takes blood, sweat and a few misty-eyed moments to get it out.

Right now, we’re ripping some crumbling walls and ceilings out of our home. For those who don’t know, that means no matter how much duct tape and plastic sheeting you use, life gets dirty.  And by dirty I mean there’s plaster dust in my knicker drawer.

But behind the plaster is gold.

Because nature’s ticking hides inside the walls.  Elegant thin wooden strips of lath, pinned neatly in place by a gagillion rusty nails. The end of each day holds a waist-high Pick-Up-Stick heap in the yard waiting to be tended to.  It’s up to me to spend my nights harvesting the gift.  Seize the day, or the walls, whatever my friend. Poverty makes opportunists of us all.

Just so you know, I’ll be making attractive vintage labels expounding the beauty of antique, hand split, twine-tied firewood [because  ‘vintage’ now reads 15% mark-up].

So far, I have sorted, de-nailed, broken and tied thirty-two bundles of kindling. I reckon that’s at least two big pots of creamy white paint. So while breaking and binding each evening, I’m fueled by the imagined view of a flat dustless painted ceiling from a crisp clean bath.

Hard work never looked so good.

Dust

Today I went to King’s.  It’s a tall white secret kept by solitary well dressed octogenarians. Which is why I. love. it.

Hiding in plain sight was the objective. So I sat quietly, ordered a pot of breakfast coffee while waiting for the view to soak into me. The five cathedral sized windows overlook the craggy jaggy black rocks and the silver sparkle of ocean. The sharp morning light made the air glow bright with shiftless dust.

One of the blessings of this patch of slow, is that I have given myself permission to purely, absolutely, unquestionably BE. To simply breathe.  In.  Out.  To inhabit each moment. This means, on occasion, I watch dust float. Don’t judge, it’s a choice for good.

In this dust-gazing-place I noticed an old soldier shuffle towards the light-shafts. His white cane tap-tapped to his familiar seat. He sensed me there, quietly breathing and turned politely to say hello. It was just a pleasantry, but, being unfolded to the world around me the pleasantry became an open door.

His cloudy eyes and white hair belied the colour he brought with him. A life of travel, ambition, adventure, wartime romance and a deep abiding love of the woman who gave him two children and 65 wonderful years. My eyes grew foggy too as he looked toward the bright ocean and said softly, “I miss her. Each and every day. Every hair on her beautiful head”.

Her name was Peggy. As each moment was unwrapped and cradled, her image glistened, crisply embossed on the screen of his memory. I listened long as constancy and devotion lapped around me.

When I went to leave he stood like the gentleman he was. Then called me gently over, thanked me for the kindness of the conversation and impressed the gentlest of kisses on my cheek.

We are indeed but dust and shadow. Yet our animated clay is bathed in love’s light. Enough to make even angels jealous.

Sycamore Hill

Before I go any further, this moment needs to be logged, marked, highlighted and breathed into the crevices of this restoration season.

It is this. The Quiet green of this ‘away’. Twenty minutes from home there is a piece of verdant heaven that’s open every Thursday to the ones who know it’s here.  A narrow gate among the dappled trees, the dew still on the grass. Sheep bleating and nudging in their pasture, and every now and then a feisty young cockerel exercising his right to crow.  I would if I lived here too.

The homestead is old, but far from dilapidated, it is honoured like the wise old gentleman it is. Wise enough to know you need boarders on flower beds, but yet that the world will keep turning if blossoms bosom over onto the path.  Each old and broken thing is reused, repurposed, refreshed into a catalogue of easy beauty, a clubhouse of the angels where hot tea and cold ginger beer is served with worn vintage style and without apology.

Thyme and parsley grow in cookie-jars, centering tables peppered by the marks of creativity, love stories and learning.  From the summerhouse the view is into the lichen-covered apple grove where a table stretches out long.  Overhanging branches are stippled with jam-jar fireflies in readiness for long summer evenings of candlelit conversation.

This is rest. This soaking in the wash of warmth and light and clean. This breath from the open window.  Hearing the tide of leaves waltz above. This country mumble of life that reminds me of the good.

I write here, closed eyed. Free. Seen and unseen. Alone and not. Silent and yet encircled by vital noise. And I feel my shoulders drop. My jaw unclench. My breathing deepen. And I realize the whole of me is present now.

Seeing Thestrals*

While clearing out my old files I found this…in this season of grieving new things, it seems right to revisit the true.

Now forgive me for being morbid, but for the last month or so there’s something I’ve wanted to process out loud. It’s something that will make most of us not want to read any further, so ingrained is our avoidance of the clear reality of each of our lives. It’s about facing grief, loss and the inevitability of the universal constant of ‘the end’.
Death’s not all bad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s painful in layers that i never even knew were there, but I’m coming to see that it adds lavish depth to the colors of our lives. I’ve been thinking of it as an intensity, a vibrancy even, in each life-picture that comes as a result of including the sumptuousness of rich dark shadows. Without the shadows the image is flat, lifeless almost.

These thoughts don’t come out of nowhere, obviously. I’ve just navigated another first. Father’s Day without a father. It also happened to be his birthday. Not an easy season. No standing in the card aisle for me this year, awkwardly trying to pick just the right phrase that said not too much or not too little. There’s a strange kind of loss even in foregoing sad little rituals isn’t there? And then there’s coming home yesterday to a mum who’s had her double bed moved out and is now sleeping in a single surrounded by photos of together times. It hurts my heart. But it’s not just our family’s pot of loss, there’s more.

Every Wednesday morning I knock on the doors of people’s crisis. I enter a time-locked moment where they no longer have control. Somehow a giant PAUSE button got clicked without their consent. It seems to have caught me off-guard, but I have not yet met a patient who believes they ought to be lying in a hospital bed, staring at the ceiling. The light-box of hospitalization simply highlights their confusion. No-one deserves their lot. I’ve lost track of the number of bedridden people that insist they are really healthy. Shocked that their bodies are not behaving according the the script they made up in their heads. Illness, injury, accident, death are entirely rude. Inconsiderately spontaneous.

But here’s the thing.

Here’s the benefits of seeing thestrals. We are fast-tracked into reality without the option of remaining unthinkingly impassive to the fact that we are physically temporal, limited beings. It astounds me how I choose to navigate life with the made-up notion that the universe exists for my personal happiness and benefit, and that I am in control of my destiny. It doesn’t. I am not. Ask anyone who has stared at a ceiling with an IV in their arm, or who has followed a loved one as they’ve been wheeled down the corridor into ICU, or who has picked up ‘that call’.

We do have every right to ignore the thestrals, to live in a make believe world of our own choosing. It’s probably paler (in a pastel colors kind of way). But then we also have the right, if we’re brave enough, honest enough, to maybe choose to live every day alive, right into the corners. Shadows and all.

*thestrals – for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter series, are magical creatures that can only be seen by those who have watched death in action. To all others they are invisible.

Dots

The sky was falling. Persistently. Relentlessly. Sidewalks fluid, glossed to the edges. No safe place to step, only splosh. It was one of those mad-men-would-venture-out days. One of those, no-chance-of-returning-with-dry-underwear days.

So out we went, umbrella’d and be-coated. Resilient, in our most waterproof shoes. Hoods up and drawn in, eyebrows furrowed against the torrents, shoulders hunched against the storm. Think waterproof tanks tackling the onslaught of wet missiles, and you’re half way there.

Uphill, fast plod, breathing deeply. Bitter wind whipping our bodies into tension and exertion. Just. Get. There.

And then we heard an unexpected cry…of pure unadulterated delight. Downhill were two little plastic dots, splishing and splashing toward us. One kangarooing pink dot, and a twirling blue dot. Each with complementing rainboots that hopped, stomped and splatted their way toward us. Arms and mouths were open wide to welcome the cold delicious wetness, joy squeaked out of each conquered puddle. All expended effort was in relishing the experience of encountering the real. Of enjoying, not fighting the storm.

And there it comes, the lesson in life from little dots. The smile of recognition, the sigh, the giggle as we watch their life and colour, their wonder and delight. Our shoulders drop, and we remember what it is to be where we are, not to fight but to allow the experience. More than allow… to embrace. To stretch our little arms wide in the shining grey, to jump, to twirl, to open our mouths and taste the sky.