Interactions and Integrity – Hitting the Right Notes// FaithWalk

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I sing and play guitar (Takamine G Series, wine red) in a worship band at church. I’m up the front on a regular basis, looking worshipful and maybe perceived as one of the chosen few spiritual ones to handle a mic. I’d happily not be at the front (actually, the centre, at my place of worship – as we meet in a lecture theatre), but leaders don’t like the thought of guitarists or singers standing fourth row from the back or singing at the sidelines, which might well be my preference.

I’m also far from super spiritual, acutely aware of my shortcomings (impatience, self-centredness, negativity to name a few) whilst realising the responsibility of maintaining a heart that is intent on worshipping Christ and not focused on looking and sounding good. (Though playing badly through lack of practice is verging on unforgivable!)

My daily life, as for most, is filled with little interactions with a cross section of people in varied places… From chatting with my family round the dinner table, to petty talk with a cashier at the supermarket, to interactions with delivery guys or other people who come to the door. We all interact with those we know well and those we don’t know at all throughout the week. Neighbours. Parking attendants. Doctors or nurses. Teachers. Colleagues. Baristas.

And in those (often) insignificant moments there lurks something absolutely significant: As Christians, we represent Christ – and that either shines through to the people we meet, or it doesn’t. At worst, our flawed characteristics shine through (anger, jealousy, impatience).  And those attributes may be how we are remembered.

Shortly after a negative interaction with someone, in which I’ve shown little grace or displayed annoyance or impatience, I’ve almost immediately regretted my behaviour. It’s possible to apologise, but sometimes it’s too late. You’re already home unpacking the shopping when you wince over the way you huffed over the person in front of you in the queue who took forever.

That person who may have recently been issued with divorce papers. Or who just received a diagnosis of cancer. Or whose job is at risk of being axed.

The same person who could possibly show up at church next Sunday and recall the way you looked at them with disdain while you’re belting out… ‘I am a child of God’.

Yes, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. But I’ve found it helpful in my engagement and interactions with others, to keep in mind that the person serving me at the petrol station or cafe could move in across the street from me or turn up at church next Sunday. Will I aim for integrity in the daily minor interactions I face, will I represent the living Christ in me, or will I stomp through the day, caught up in the things I need to get done, unaware of my curt or impatient responses?

A smile or a helping hand or a kind word don’t cost anything, but they can mean a great deal to someone who is struggling or lonely.

It’s easy to think that the little things don’t matter but the little things often resound loudly to others. If just one string on my guitar is out of tune, it affects the whole sound of the other five strings when a chord is played. In the same way, I may display Christian attitudes and a heart for God most of the time but when my character becomes even a little out of tune with Gospel living, the song my life plays no longer sounds right, it’s out of tune with God and it may even drown out the positive parts.

I long to grow in integrity, patience and humility. I hope to reflect Christ. And the more I spend time in his presence, the more that becomes second nature. But it’s a constant fight to push back the old, inner self and let Christ be present in both the big and small aspects of life, day by day, moment by moment. We all need encouragement and grace to allow ourselves to be fine-tuned into a person of integrity, someone who can’t help resounding love, peace, patience – the fruits of a Spirit-filled life.

A Time to be Kind

Photo: Creative Commons

Photo: Creative Commons

Do you have a moment?

It’s a question that may easily induce mild panic or annoyance in most people. What demand on our time or energy is going to be requested of us? We may smile outwardly and respond, while inwardly gritting our teeth.

I don’t mean those kind of moments – times when others are asking for a favour or want to talk intensely for a while. I’m talking about the little moments in-between the hubbub of activities that dominate our lives.

Our days are made up of everything from eating, drinking, sleeping, washing, work and chores to leisure pursuits, projects, plans, errands, to caring or managing, learning and doing. In between all this busyness, we often find ourselves faced with a moment. A person or situation observed where we could make a difference in some small, seemingly insignificant way.

A moment where we could walk by or a moment when we could engage.

In his gripping life story, ‘Ghost Boy’, Martin Pistorius tells of being imprisoned by his illness-onset disability, unable to communicate or manoeuvre his body, even after his brain functionality had been restored, unbeknownst to his carers. He tells of a time sitting in a car on the street, waiting for his father to return, when a man walked past and smiled at him. Used to being ignored and talked over, just this small, friendly gesture and acknowledgement of his existence restored his hope in humanity, giving him a reason to not give up on living. That one smile made a big difference not just to Martin’s day, but also his life.

Frequently we use our spare moments to read or to look at a screen; I know I like to use spare minutes to read the news or look at social media on my phone. On Sat, while visiting my elderly mother in a busy hospital ward, I was on the other side of the curtain while two nurses were carrying out a procedure on her.  I looked around at the other elderly women on the ward. One frail, white haired woman in the bed next to mum had been sniffing and lightly coughing. Looking around for nurses or auxiliaries, I saw none. All staff were otherwise occupied.

I decided to say yes to the compassion that rose in my heart and to engage.

“Are you cold?”

She nodded.

“Would you like me to find you another blanket?”

Again, a simple nod.

I went to the nearby reception desk and asked if I could take a clean blanket from the trolley for the lady by the window? A receptionist said yes.

Collecting one of the standard NHS blue blankets, I folded it in two and lay it on top of the coughing patient, also pulling up her sheets to cover her shoulders and neck. I asked her if she’d like some water to drink. Again, she nodded, so I picked up the plastic cup on her table and guided the straw to her lips. As I set the cup back down, she summoned up the energy to whisper ‘Thank You.’ My heart melted. What I did took less than a minute, but it meant a great deal to her. No visitor had dropped by to see her during the three and half hours afternoon visiting slot.

Kindness doesn’t necessarily take up a whole lot of our time or effort. Sometimes we just need to respond to that gentle call to action that stirs up within us during unsuspecting moments. I will certainly be grateful if other people visiting relatives on Ward 6 of James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston show kindness to my fragile mum.

We should never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness. Not only is the recipient of such acts blessed; the giver is also rewarded with an enormous sense of purpose. It’s in giving to others that our humanity is revealed and we glimpse something of our compassionate God, who loves to work in us and touch others through us.

The line from a song we’ve been singing at church recently kept resounding through my head later on – “Let heaven come.” When we show compassion and kindness, we experience evidence of God’s kingdom being revealed on earth. That’s when a part of heaven touches earth.

In 2015 I will not… fear

Photo by Mihaela Muntean (c)

Photo by Mihaela Muntean (c)

As the fervour of another New Year sets in and everyone contemplates resolutions and fresh starts, there are many for whom the start of 2015 does not conjure up anticipation and excited expectation. They won’t make any resolutions or dare to dream of lofty pursuits; they may be uncertain of what lies ahead. Many just want to get by and survive the year without too much trouble.

As I look ahead to 2015, not one particular aspiration or goal springs to mind for me. It’s as if I’m open to ideas and direction as each day passes.

I’m not against goals and dreams – I think they can be helpful. It’s just that I’m not really sure what I will pursue yet – and as my faith is the most intrinsic part of my life, that means waiting on God and his leading.

The verses found in Proverbs 16:3 and Proverbs 3:5-6 are comforting sources of guidance. Essentially, the verses infer that it’s OK to make plans & commit them to God, who’ll ultimately direct our paths and make the way ahead straight. But I don’t have to make plans which begin on January 1.

Inspiration or revelation can come at any time, and each day can be seized with enthusiasm and giving my all.

It’s good to set goals, but it’s even better to listen to God, who doesn’t work according to my timetable or limitations. He doesn’t tend to stick to the calendar or restrict himself to our human conventions or practices, so I want to be open to his leading/backtracking/ sidestepping or detours.

Flexibility might just well be what God wants me to learn this year. It was while he was en route to heal Jairus’ daughter that Jesus let himself be distracted by the woman with an embarrassing uterine problem. Will I let myself be distracted by other people or situations that God puts in my path, for the purpose of life changing impact? Or will I be so intent on following my own agenda that I miss the plans God has for my life?

Life can be a beautiful mess when we’re open to exploring the alleyways and crooked places where Christ wants to shine his light, often away from the smooth, easy path we would lay out for ourselves.

So this year I’m not going to set myself impressive targets. I’m simply going to be open to where God’s leading me and not fear for the future. There’s much to be worried about and always something that demands my attention. But, for now, that still, small voice impressed upon me these words: “I will not fear for the future.”

Rough Edges// FaithWalk

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I marvelled at the stones beneath my feet on the quaint Majorcan beach, glistening through pure, azure blue water. All shades and sizes, thousands of them swept ashore by uncontainable waves riding relentlessly into the bay.

Scooping up a handful, I examined the pebbles in my hand. Each one perfectly smooth with curved, though uneven edges. There were no sharp, offensive parts.

I began to think about their journey to the shore and imagined that each stone had most likely begun as a jagged piece of discarded rock, thrust into the water and thrown about by the forces of the all-surpassing sea. Stones of all shapes had been continually knocked against  each other until they reached their final destination at my feet on this idyllic bay.

I couldn’t help consider the parallels with our own lives, as we weather not so much physical forces of nature but rather an array of knocks or assaults. Like the stones, we’re often powerless against torrents and waves that threaten to overwhelm – whether those waves are illness, disappointments, setbacks or perhaps our own personal demons.

Wherever we’re at, life’s knocks hurt. But so often they help to hone off the rough edges of our character, making us gentler and more compassionate towards others who are caught up in personal storms of their own. As our worlds collide with those around us, each of us may benefit from the experiences we encounter, however painful at the time.

Our rough edges become smoother as we give up resisting interaction or pursuing perfection, and allow our circumstances and experiences to shape us into someone who’s open to being part of a beautiful, evolving tapestry.

An individual stone is not particularly attractive or enthralling. It’s only in the picturesque bay or vast beach setting that it assumes aspects of magical imagery. Without engaging others or allowing the water of God’s Spirit to continually run over me, my lone, insignificant pebble of a life remains irrelevant, having little impact.

If I let myself be cast into the sea of lives around me, daring to to be affected by those whom I encounter, and in turn touch or influence them, it’s possible for the rough edges to become smoother, without much intervention on my part. The water, which is also an image of God’s Word, can also carry me through whatever turbulence comes my way.

No man is a rock. We’re all little pebbles of varying colours from various places jostling for our place in this world as we journey together. When we start to see the big picture, it becomes clear that God’s intention for us has always been community and interaction – both with Him and the people He’s placed around us.

FaithWalk/ The Truth about Prayer

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Prayer. It’s not necessarily something that conjures up the most positive or enthusiastic thoughts. The word itself sounds a little dull, while the Oxford English dictionary definition relies on the use of the word ‘solemn’ to describe it. (“A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity.”) As a Christian, prayer is meant to be a significant feature of my faith – an opportunity to talk with the living God. I don’t think I’d refuse a chance to speak to the Queen or the Prime Minister, and yet so often I, like many, avoid praying or find it difficult.

Our spiritual enemy doesn’t want us to communicate with our Father, to ask for forgiveness or guidance or help. He wants us to stumble around in circles, depend on our own strength, get annoyed with others, and eventually give up on our faith altogether. He knows that good things happen when we pray and that there is power in prayer – so he’ll do everything to distract us from this very crucial activity that fuels our relationship with God.

But his ways are subtle – just as they have been since Eden, when he put doubt and questions into Eve’s mind. (“Did God really say?…”) He won’t try to stop us from praying altogether – rather, he’ll make it difficult, cumbersome, a burden. We start to think that we have to pray for a certain amount of time every day for it to be of any value; we think our prayers must be long and impressive. We assume that praying should take up lots of energy and focus, or we think we can’t possibly pray if we’ve messed up and feel distant from God. That would be hypocritical, right?

Jesus shows us the opposite of these thoughts. When teaching his disciples to pray, he kept it to a minimum – literally seven sentences (plus an ‘Amen’.) Not a lecture, not a rant, no wordy ramblings on.  I’m reminded that prayer was never meant to be complicated; it’s simply keeping the lines of communication open with God and asking him to forgive us our transgressions. A hearty, meaningful prayer can take 35 seconds (that’s how long it took me to recite the Lord’s Prayer). 35 seconds!

We don’t need to be guilt tripped into not coming before God because of our failures; that’s precisely why we need to go to Him! We need God, we need his light and his life to help us through our daily struggles. And prayer is the door we can open to let his rays shine through and transform us. When we speak out words about His power, glory and supremacy above everything, our perspective changes and most of the small stuff we fret over fades away. Through prayer, I admit that I don’t have everything sussed and that I’m not in control of everything. Through prayer, God is lifted high and I acknowledge my dependence on Him.

A life can be changed and heaven can touch earth in less than a minute. What an amazing God!

 

Faith Journeys: We’re all in a different place

Creative Commons: JayRaz

Creative Commons: JayRaz

You’ve been dating your gorgeous boy or girlfriend for three months, have just received a phone call confirming that you’ve got the job you always wanted, and you’re looking forward to an upcoming holiday in the sun. Life is good and you can’t help skipping along the street or walking around with a ridiculous grin on your face. Worship on Sunday morning is a sheer delight; you’re just so thankful for everything.

Or maybe you’ve experienced the pain of losing someone close, you’re suffering with persistent health issues and you’ve just opened yet another rejection letter. Nothing seems to be going right in your life and you’re greeted by Mr Happy as you reluctantly slink into the church service, five minutes late, wishing that you hadn’t bothered coming at all. Life is miserable, and you don’t feel like clapping along to some hyper praise song with snazzy guitar riffs.

Perhaps the incredible thing is, that the two people described above could be one and the same person, just 5 -10 years apart. Those statements could more or less describe me. Life can be a rollercoaster sometimes.

I remember it well: We were on a boat off the shore of San Francisco’s bay, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the vague outline of hills in the twilight beyond. Having tucked into a wonderful four course meal, as a live band played  on board, we were then called out on deck to watch an amazing firework display. Hand in hand, gazing into the sky, we couldn’t believe our luck. Here we were, my husband and I, on an all expenses trip that only my husband and a few others from the UK had been awarded courtesy of his company.  The drinks flowed, the sky dazzled and everything seemed so perfect. It was as if we were momentarily caught up in the centre of a live movie. We would return later to our room at the downtown 5* Marriott Hotel with its huge 6ft wide bed and glamorous marble bathroom. Life was good! It seemed a world away from the reality of Birmingham, which we called ‘home’ at that time.

At 22 my life had been pretty stress free and enjoyable for the most part. My childhood had generally featured fun and friends; my teens and beyond marked by opportunities to dive into travel, drama, youth events, and hanging out in pubs. Even my foray into the world of work had been fun, as I found my skill at evening telemarketing earned me lots of money in commission for every appointment I made.  Everything I aimed for seemed to work out; every door seemed to open for me. I was accepted into my first choice of university, met my husband to be on the day I arrived (yes, really) and within a few years we would find ourselves living in New York City. Pretty sickening, eh? I had even enjoyed quite good health up until this time; the only problem I experienced involved a few dental operations.

Not long after this trip of a lifetime, things began to change. I didn’t get the jobs I wanted, friendships were hard to come by, and I noticed that things often didn’t work out. I felt unsettled, but hopeful that things would soon turn around for the better.

When we started a family,  that was probably the biggest change of my life. Whilst five years of marriage had been pretty much a breeze, this parenthood business was no easy feat.  My first son was colicky and difficult; my family were across the Atlantic. Even when we moved back to the UK in 2000, we arrived back to the wettest November in 200 years (similar to what we experienced just this January and February), and then I was hit by morning sickness of a second pregnancy. For  several years, life seemed challenging or disappointing in so many ways. (Yes it’s possible to be married and feel lonely or miserable – even though your partner is wonderful. Feeling constantly tired doesn’t help.)  Although things started to pick up work wise, and a few opportunities came my way over the next few years, I began to suffer from several health problems and sometime later watched my wonderful dad slowly degenerate due to cancer, dying  within a year and half after a couple of surgeries.  I’d never lost someone close before; my heart ached.

Through the hard times I grappled with sadness, wrestled with God and learned to accept that life will never be all round perfect all the time.  Compassion and empathy are developed during the times of adversity we experience. I’ve learned to read people better and listen more, my eyes now opened to the realisation that everyone is at a different stage of their life. Not so much in terms of age or marital status, rather the joy or pain they’re experiencing at that time. It’s good to develop sensitivity in view of that knowledge, and be open to hearing others’ life stories.  That subdued looking person at work or church could be you in a few years’ time. We all go through highs and lows; disappointments come to us all.  It’s crucial to give people the space to reveal where they’re at and what their struggles are.

As I grew and developed in my relationship with God in that time,  I also learned about waiting, disappointment, regret, anger and anguish. I discovered my weaknesses and fought with failure. I began to see situations differently – to not have an easy answer for everything. And I learned acceptance – acceptance that we can’t possibly explain why certain stuff happens in our lives. I finally began to grasp what was meant by that phrase ‘character building’ – which is far from sentimental – instead raw and tumultuous – and painful. It’s navigating through trials and troubles that shape and define you, that chip away at self until you learn to be desperately dependent on God. I basically grew up in my faith at the very time that God seemed most distant.

For me, creativity was also developed out of the tough times. I wrote poetry and a novel during my darkest hours – evidence of the beauty that can spring out from the dirt of a broken life.