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How do you help someone in pain? What helps?  What doesn’t?

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced both intense physical pain and the deep emotional pain of grief. The two came at once and, oh, what a miserable, depressed soul I have been.

My writer-self stepped in today, with the bright idea of recording what I’ve been craving from others during this difficult time. I wrote this list as a ‘note to self’ for brighter times, to remind myself of how it feels to be in pain and how I might genuinely help others. Different people, no doubt, crave different things, but being mindful of our own needs is a good place to start. As you read my thoughts, you might think about what helps you and make your own list.

I wrote five words describing what has helped me. I’m thankful for my family and friends who inspired this list with their thoughtfulness. After scribbling the words in my journal, I was amused to see that they spelt the word ‘H.E.L.P.S’:

            Honesty

            Equality

            Listening

            Presence

            Simple Kindness

Here is what H.E.L.P.S (and what doesn’t) when I’m feeling down and out:

 

 

HONESTY

There’s something about being in pain that intensifies my ability to sniff out people’s motives. I can sense an honest and genuine heart from a mile away. Even a brief text message or a smile from someone who really cares is so uplifting. I can also sniff out from miles away a ‘do-gooder’ who is ticking off their ‘to-do list of good deeds’ and considers me pitiful enough for a tick.  When I’m in a dark place, those motivated by a need to look good in front of others, or to earn tickets to heaven, are annoying at best and soul-destroying at worst.  If you honestly wish to help someone and genuinely care about them, do what you can and it will help. If your motivation is based on building up your own self-image, then perhaps consider saving other worthy recipients such as the environment or the whales.

 

 

EQUALITY

Chronic pain and depression don’t do a lot to enhance self-confidence. Genuine help is exchanged between those who consider themselves equals. Often it is people who have suffered great pain themselves who are able to offer the most enriching help. When I’m in pain, I want to be around these people. They approach me as an equal and know that at any moment the tables could turn and they could be the one receiving help. When charity is offered by a person who pities you and feels superior, their charity just intensifies the pain.  Whether you are suffering from a physical, mental or emotional issue, being around someone with a patronising or smug attitude feels like rubbing salt into a wound.  If you think you are better than the person you are trying to help, do them a favour and leave them alone.

 

 

LISTENING

The art of listening is a rare and valuable quality. I remember an encounter I had many years ago when I was battling cancer. After surgery and one round of treatment, I was supposed to be okay.  Instead, I received the bleak news that I had to go back to hospital for another round of treatment.  On my way home from the hospital, trying to absorb this shock, I happened to run into an acquaintance, a church leader, in the supermarket carpark. He asked how I was and, in my stunned state, I blurted out that I was feeling very depressed because I had to leave my two young sons and go into hospital again.  I still remember his peculiar response. He didn’t answer me, turned away and literally ran away across the carpark.  The encounter was so comical I remember laughing out loud, but it was also gut wrenchingly hurtful.  When we are suffering, we long for someone to listen to us. What we say may be confronting, boring or sad to hear, but the gift of listening is priceless.  Advice is rarely helpful and often the less said the better. At my lowest point, I’ve longed for someone to care enough to sit quietly and listen, to resist the urge to try to fix the situation and definitely not to run in the opposite direction.

 

 

PRESENCE

There are times, particularly when someone is seriously ill or depressed, when simply being present is enough. No words or actions are necessary, it is enough just be there. When my Mum was suffering from cancer, she couldn’t speak for quite some time, and I would sit quietly with her and hold her hand, read to her or just allow the silence to be.  I felt I was offering her very little, but she would smile and look content and many of our visits continued this way as her illness progressed. Sometimes our presence can be shared via technology, through regular text messages or telephone calls.  Following up is important too. I have appreciated the messages I’ve received after I’ve seen a doctor or attended for an X-ray.  Knowing that someone is thinking of me and sharing the gift of their presence is so comforting and sustaining.

 

 

SIMPLE KINDNESS

Last, but not least, if you want to truly help others, remember you can never be too kind. If your kindness comes from a place of honesty and equality, even the simplest of gestures will bring comfort and healing. Over the past few weeks, this is what I’ve longed for the most and appreciated so much from my family and friends. Keeping it simple is the key. Simple kindness in action is so much more valuable than grandiose ideas you never get around to doing. Some of the most moving acts of kindness I’ve witnessed don’t necessarily cost money or take much time. Pick some daisies from your garden for your neighbour who is grieving for her husband. Write a text message to your friend who is depressed, telling them how much you love her. Pick up some groceries and a newspaper for your uncle who has broken his leg.  Simple, genuine kindness is the best medicine for every type of pain.  It may not take the pain away, but it shifts the isolation and the sense of hopelessness.  Kindness brings light into dark places, and shows us that we’re not alone.  It is one of God’s most powerful weapons against despair. If you have the passion to be kind, do it generously and sincerely, whenever you can, to whomever you can, in whatever way you can.  You can never be too kind.

 

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see  –  Mark Twain

Motherhood for Misfits

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Blenheim Beach, New South Wales south coast, 2005

I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to the hip surgeon advising me never to have children. With my congenital hip problem, he told me, it would be too painful and I wouldn’t be able to pick them up or chase them around.

Sure, there were times when my two sons, born only 13 months apart, would dash off in different directions and I couldn’t chase them. Thankfully, we made it through those times and thankfully they survived. My hips were troublesome and painful and difficult, but I don’t regret one day of raising the boys. The love I felt for them somehow balanced out the pain until I found a surgeon who possessed a glass-half-full attitude, and fixed my hips for me.

It would have been nice to be the sort of mother who ran marathons and dragged my boys out surfing or mountain climbing. I was usually the mother sitting on the chair in the park rather than dancing around with my kids. I failed them miserably in the active lifestyle department.

My own Mum was brilliant with the boys when they were little. She would come to the park with us and run around with them, laughing wildly and sliding down the slippery dips with them. I would watch from my seat in wonder at the way a grandmother could engage with her grandchildren. It was as if the three of them were on a special wavelength reserved for grandparents and grandchildren and I was the frowning, sensible one, sitting on the park bench, telling them when it was time to go home. Mum would usually be the first one to say “Ohhh, not yet!”

Despite this happy memory, my relationship with Mum certainly wasn’t always Hallmark-card perfect. It was often fraught with disagreements and struggles. Only in her final years did we reach a place of peace and understanding.

When you are a Mum you realize the impossibility of being a perfect Mum. We are all human and flawed and we get things wrong. Yesterday I stumbled upon the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  I am not a theologian and I’m not a fan of long genealogies full of ‘begats and begats’, but for some reason I sat and read it. I noticed that in the long list of men named there were only five women featuring in the list:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, ‘the wife of Uriah’ and Mary.  Why just these women? Mary I can understand, but what about the others?

It was interesting to read that Tamar was widowed by two brothers and then went on to trick her father-in-law into marrying her by pretending to be a prostitute; Rahab actually was a prostitute who showed immense bravery and strength of character; Ruth was a widow who showed great loyalty;  ‘the wife of Uriah’ was Bathsheba (I think) who had an affair with King David whilst Uriah her husband was sent off by David to be killed at war and then, of course, there is Mary who, despite her innocence, was considered immoral by many at the time as she carried a child out of wedlock.

I love that these women made it into Matthew’s list. I love that some of them made questionable choices, lived immoral lives and suffered bereavement, loss and shame, but rose up beyond their difficult circumstances and played unique roles in history leading to the birth of Jesus. I love that Rahab the prostitute had such a brave and loving heart, breaking through all of the assumptions and stereotypes she must have carried.

These women reminded me too that motherhood is a wondrous mix of contradictions – immense love and strength mixed in with vulnerability and character flaws. A good Mum doesn’t have to be perfect. Her calling is to love her kids wholeheartedly, to sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong, to fall down but to get up again, and at times to be willing to say she’s sorry…

Above all else, a mother’s love is a love that’s worth every sacrifice she is called to make along the way.

The White Butterfly

Everywhere I turn at the moment I find articles, pod-casts, news reports, political updates, conspiracy theories, jokes and songs about the coronavirus. Some are informative, some are moving, some are clever, some are tragic and some are funny. All of them, together, are a bit overwhelming. Self-isolation may be quiet in one sense, but in another sense it is noisy, brimming with information and opinions.

Over Easter, I sat outside on our lounge, trying to quieten my thoughts and soak in the warm sunshine. A pandemic is something new for all of us. It’s difficult to grasp the immensity of the loss of life, the impact on our livelihoods and the uncertainty of the future.

Deep in reflection, I noticed a delicate white butterfly, wings shimmering in the sunlight, darting playfully around our garden. After performing an elegant loop-the-loop, the butterfly headed straight toward me and landed gently right beside me on the lounge. Its quivering wings were etched in soft grey and I gasped with joy at its unexpected visit. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it rose into the air again, graceful as a ballerina, soaring skyward and over the fence, a symphony of beauty and freedom.

When I look back at Easter, I try to recall the thoughtful words I read in an article I enjoyed and the insights shared in some excellent sermons I watched via “online church”, but all the details now evade me.  My mind is blank. The only thing I can remember is the white butterfly. Watching it sit beside me, sharing a few precious moments, I was reminded of the promise of better times. As it flew away, I felt a surge of hopefulness and a lightness in my spirit. One day this challenging season will be over and we will be free again to explore the world together.

In the words of Khalil Gibran, “sadness is but a wall between two gardens“. The butterfly was like a divine messenger in this time of sadness, reminding me that before too long we will all be back in the garden of life.

Love and Resilience

During the gap between the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic hitting Australia, we visited a local nursery and selected some plants for a new garden in our backyard. As we are not gifted gardeners, we chose the plant the assistant described as “fast growing and impossible to kill”. Thankfully, it was also the plant I liked the most, its shiny olive leaves reaching hopefully towards the sun, adorned with white wispy flowers and rich crimson berries.

I loved the name too – a native Lilly Pilly known as ‘Resilience’, derived from the Latin name “Syzygium Australe”. Syzygium is from the Greek word Syzygos meaning joined or ‘yoked together’ and Australe meaning Southern.

Not long after we planted our new Lilly Pilly babies, strong winds whipped up and in the evening I saw the little plants bent over, bowing down to the grass, their fragile stems unable to hold them up against the force of the wind gusts.

The next morning I expected to find them broken and uprooted, however, there they were, upright and perky, reaching up to the sky again. I wondered if I’d imagined their dishevelled state of the night before. Living up to their name perfectly, the Resilience plants had bounced back.

The word ‘resilience’ is often over-used in educational marketing and self-help tweets, presented as something we can learn or adopt if we put in enough effort. When I Google ‘resilience’ I find that it means:

1.  the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness; and
2.  the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

This certainly describes our new plants, but how does it apply to me?  How do I develop this characteristic, particularly when facing loss, pain and pandemics?   I suspect there is more to it than just adopting a self confident veneer or a tough exterior.

Further Googling uncovered a talk given by Rev Graham Long, of the Wayside Chapel in Sydney, about resilience.   I encourage you to watch it here:  https://youtu.be/xmyWn57fAWY

Working with the homeless on the streets of Kings Cross, and also surviving his own personal tragedy, I consider Rev Long well qualified to talk about resilience.

His words inspire and intrigue me. Resilience, he describes, isn’t a personal quality, but it is a gift others will give you, and “there is no end to the resilience available to you because it’s not deposited in you but it’s for you if you want it.” In recovering from his own emotional trauma, he found strength in helping others and, amazingly, received the priceless gifts of love and resilience in the process.

I find it comforting to consider that resilience isn’t a personal quality we are born with or can achieve in some way by our own accomplishments. Even those of us who are feeling weak, ill-prepared, fearful, depressed or desperate, still have hope. It seems that resilience flows from taking that first step. We start to bounce back after we fall down and reach out our hand to someone to help us. Miraculously, we find a way to bounce back. As a result we are empowered to reach out to help others and the miracle continues.

The big lesson here is that resilience is linked to vulnerability. It isn’t about acting tough or strong at all. In helping those we consider to be vulnerable we must remember that we too are vulnerable.  I believe that helping others from a position of superiority isn’t helping them at all. When we are vulnerable we are able to bend and bounce back into shape. When we are pretending to be strong, we are brittle and liable to break.

Since the coronavirus has hijacked our lives, I feel like I’m trying to walk on marbles. The ground keeps shifting and I can’t find my footing. It’s as if the earth has shifted on its axis and everything I thought was solid and secure must be reassessed. It’s time to find a new perspective.

All the panic, loss, disruption and isolation of living through this pandemic bring up questions. I’m looking at many parts of my life, as if I’ve just woken from years of sleep walking. How much time did I invest every day in unnecessary things, and how often did I overlook the truly important aspects of life because I was too busy with the trivial? How often did I rush around like a mad woman until I was utterly exhausted, completing task after task and never questioning why.

The true value of relationships, family and community are flashing at me like neon signs, as is the growing realisation of the ways I’ve wasted time and energy on meaningless pursuits.

My faith in God is being stripped back to its basics too. All the trimmings of religion suddenly look so unnecessary. Church politics, spiritual pride and self-promotion which sometimes sadly infiltrate organised religion now look like frills, false-eyelashes and stilettos to a woman faced with climbing a mountain: unnecessary, uncomfortable and easy to live without.

Without the distraction of the trimmings, I can catch my breath and gaze in awe at what is unquestionably real in my faith. Beneath all of the rubbish, remains something very beautiful: the priceless diamond of  unconditional love.

One certainty that doesn’t shift or change is the purity of love – our love for each other, our love for our planet and our love for ourselves. It’s the love you felt as a child, before disappointment, pain and deceit stole your innocence away.

Resilience, I’m discovering, is linked to love – the love we offer other people and the love we accept from them. Over-arching all of this, is the love of God, that pure, unconditional, healing and freeing love which is available to all of us. Even when no-one is around to lift you up when you fall, His loving presence is always there. The One who knit it all into being can be trusted now to bring us through this uncertain and frightening time.

On my morning walk today I saw an enormous tree partially blocking the path, several metres tall and almost as wide as it is high. It is thriving. On closer inspection, I recognised the familiar waxy olive leaves, the wispy white flowers and the crimson berries. It seems impossible that our small plants could one day grow as tall as this tree but there it is in front of me. Resilience.

Turning the Tide

Bikini Girl

Driving can reveal a lot about a person. On my way home from work I turn left onto a major road. It’s an intersection that requires patience, as the major road is congested and three lanes of traffic are travelling at speed.

Every few days whilst sitting waiting to turn left, a four wheel drive or truck will come along and stop beside me, waiting to turn right. I drive a sedan and the larger vehicle completely blocks my vision of the oncoming traffic and I’m forced to wait until this vehicle turns right.

Sometimes whilst waiting in this predicament, the driver in the car behind will beep their horn impatiently. In my rear vision mirror I see a red angry face glaring at me as if the weight of the world is resting on getting around this corner.

Last week I sat next to a van, all vision blocked, and a red-faced beeper started his usual routine. I was feeling weary this afternoon and for a fleeting moment I went to press my accelerator, thinking idly: “Well surely the road must be clear if he’s making such a fuss…”

A split second later a school bus swept by in the gutter lane, a bus which would have wiped me out should I have heeded the promptings of Mr Red Face, in all of his wisdom.

The white hot rage that shot up my back and down my arms surprised me. I know full well that the world is littered with a generous sprinkling of ignorant people, walking to the beat of their own agendas with little thought for those around them, but the idea that this gentleman was quite happy to bully me under the bus so he could get home a few minutes earlier, really made me cranky.

I considered how to respond. I could put my car into reverse, or hesitate in my turn just a little longer than I really needed to, hoping to REALLY annoy him. I also had the wild idea of waving an object out of my window to intimidate him. All I had with me was a large umbrella which was the enticingly appropriate size to smack him over the head with. It was only the thought of the headlines that may follow – the road-rage incident involving an out-of-control, middle aged woman armed with an umbrella – that stopped me.

Instead, I gazed at the mini solar-powered lady who dances on my dashboard in her pink bikini, jiggling her ample hips in wonderful nonchalance, and turned up my Midnight Oil CD louder than the beeping horn.

Mr Red Face didn’t even blink as the bus rushed by, along with the endless stream of traffic that followed. He continued to beep, glare and mouth words at me which I’m sure would have made a sailor blush. Despite my rising anger, I forced myself to smile back at him until my mouth hurt, and did a few Peter Garrett dance moves (difficult whilst sitting down) possibly making him question if I was having a seizure.

I wondered what would happen if I were to meet this man in a cafe waiting in a queue to buy a coffee. Would he grow red in the face, rant, rave and swear at me if I hesitated for a moment, considering if I wanted a cappuccino or a latte, skim or full cream milk? Would he go berserk if I were to change my mind altogether and go for a decaf? Somehow I doubt it. There is something about getting behind the wheel which opens the door to anonymity and an ugly attitude of self-entitlement, which we usually neatly pack away when meeting people face to face.

Is it possible to slip into a mindset of getting from A to B and forget that the other cars actually contain real, living, breathing, feeling people? Do we block out the fact that sitting in the other vehicle is someone like our grandmother, our son, our partner or our best friend?

I was trembling after Mr Red Face almost sent me under the bus. The music couldn’t calm me and my hands were shaking when I finally drove away.  All I could think of to remedy the situation was showing kindness to others, wherever I could. As I drove home, I threw out my little scraps of generosity along the way, feeling like Hansel chucking pieces of bread along the forest path, knowing they may be blown away or eaten by wild animals, but hoping that they would somehow mark the way. I let a frazzled red P Plater pull out in front of me, I slowed down so an elderly gentleman could gingerly pull out of a driveway and I smiled at a frightened-looking school kid at the crossing.  Gradually my trembling stopped and peace started to seep back in.  I wasn’t trying to be nice; I was trying to turn the tide.

Turning the tide requires a certain measure of determination and arrogance – a resolve to go against the tide of natural human behaviour. Instead of being tied up in knots by anger, resentment and bitterness, we calmly hand our coat to our enemy and offer to buy him dinner. At first it may feel like weakness. It is only when the tide is carrying you in the other direction, away from hate and toward love, that you feel the power, strength and freedom of its force.  In every little kindness we show, in every resistance to bullying and in all of those generous, thoughtful and creative words and actions, we are turning the tide. When we continue pushing in this direction, and others join us, the momentum starts to carry us along.

One remarkable example of turning the tide is the bravery of Bruce and Denise Morcombe, an Australian couple who tragically lost their son when he was abducted and murdered by a paedophile in December 2003. It would have been quite understandable if this couple locked their door and never wished to face the world again, but instead they have created a foundation aimed at child safety education and the support of victims of crime. Their vision statement simply, and powerfully, says: “Today we build a future where children are free from harm and abuse”. They often appear on our television screens, standing stoically beside other victims of gut-wrenching crime, ordinary people but extraordinary in their strength and compassion. Despite their agony of loss they aren’t drowning. They are turning the tide.

Yesterday while I was waiting to turn left at the intersection, an SUV crept up on my right, blocking my vision. I sighed and reached down to turn up the music and when I looked up I gasped as I saw a smiling young tradesman reversing his SUV back a metre or so, allowing me to see the oncoming traffic. Along came the school bus, hurtling along in the gutter lane…  I felt so overwhelmed by this thoughtful gesture, I almost burst into tears.  As my beach girl on the dash wiggled her hips in joyful abandon, I smiled back at this kind-hearted driver, waited until it was safe, and turned the corner.

Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.  Romans 12:21

Those Precious Moments

give-everyday-the-chance-to-become-the-most-beautiful-mark-13852082

Last night I sat on the lounge, sipping a cheap and cheerful merlot, listening as my husband and son played guitar. They went from Lennon to Bowie to the Rolling Stones, without pause, and things were sounding good. As I sipped, listened, tapped my toes and giggled at their unique interpretations, it occurred to me that this was one of those precious moments.  Here we were, all together, not doing anything Facebook-Post-Worthy on a Saturday night, but wrapped up in the very best that ordinary can offer – connection, love and the freedom just to be ourselves.

Lately I’ve been getting bolder in letting go of organising and planning. An empty diary no longer makes me anxious.  Perhaps the chill of winter is to blame, but allowing life to unfold gently, without careful planning or too much thinking ahead, allows the good times to flow freely and unexpectedly.

When I look back, it is the simple times that hold the best memories.  When I remember my Dad, I treasure the memory of Sunday nights on the lounge watching the Six Million Dollar Man and crunching Violet Crumble bars together.  The overseas trips and the special celebrations were highlights too, but they are hazy in my memory, not in sharp focus like those simple evenings watching the television, overindulging on honeycomb and chocolate and our admiration for Steve Austin.

Mum never ate chocolate and wasn’t impressed by Steve Austin, but I remember our evening strolls along suburban streets, discussing the days events or standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables.  When I’m having a rough day, I still miss calling in for a cup of tea and a much-needed dose of the comfort of home.

I would love to go back to some of those precious moments – re-live them and drink in their fullness. The saddest lesson in growing older is realising how often we wish these moments away, always looking to the next exciting adventure ahead, blind to what we have.  It takes courage to hit pause and stop striving to give our eyes time to adjust and focus on what is happening right now.

It won’t be long now until our much-loved on-site caravan on the South Coast is gone. The charming old caravans are soon to be removed to make way for something shinier and new.  For several decades these old vans have stood steadfastly by the sea, a sanctuary of rest and a gateway to fun for many. Families arrive pale and exhausted from the chaos of the city, to find refreshment in the sunshine and salty air. The simplicity of this life by the sea works a special magic.  It is a place where precious moments abound, where life slows to a speed where our weary eyes are opened to see the beauty of the people in front of us, and the magnificence of the natural world around us.

Losing our van reminds me of what it is to lose these precious moments. It is the deepest of griefs. It is a sweeping away of what I value most in this world – the connection to one another, the simple life of family and genuine friends, and the yearning I have for the natural world.  It is all being swept away for redevelopment, for modern dwellings that will only separate us – for a superficial and disposable holiday designed for people passing through.

When I was a child I would play a game of collecting precious moments.  I would pretend that I had a super power that enabled me to gather the special moments, the time spent with family, friends and pets, and even the best bits of my favourite games, and preserve them for eternity.  Carefully I would collect moments – from cuddling the grey purring cat I adored to skipping in the sand along the gloriously unspoilt beach we visited on holidays. I imagined how much fun it would be at the end of my life to go back and revisit all of these precious moments, filled to the brim with my favourite people, pets and places, preserved perfectly and replayed in technicolour.

I like to imagine that somewhere within this childish fantasy is a shadow of truth and that the day will come when we will all be reunited with our precious moments, the people we’ve loved, the places we miss and the times that have passed us by.  If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I see a place where we find those precious moments, lovingly collected and preserved, and make the joyous discovery that they were never lost at all.

SIMCAV

Early days in our caravan

Escaping the Stained Glass

The streets of Sydney hold many secrets and surprises. Breakfast at a café in Hyde Park revived us on a chilly winter morning. I chose the steaming porridge with caramelised banana and walnuts. Served with a strong cappuccino, it was warming and delicious – with a delightful sweet syrupy crunch.

Setting off along the path into Hyde Park, I was surprised by the number of homeless people. The crisp winter air, invigorating for us, our bellies warm and full, was no doubt a living hell for those sleeping rough.

On our way to St Mary’s Cathedral a dazed young man in ragged clothes approached us.

“What’s that around the corner? Tell me what’s around the corner!” he spat at us, looking panicked.

We peered around the corner of the path and saw a council truck parked under a tree.

“It’s a truck, mate” answered my husband in his usual relaxed fashion.

“No it’s not a truck!” shrieked the man “It’s a Brontosaurus!”

Unsure of how to respond, we continued on our way stifling a chuckle, but I felt a pang of sadness for this young man, alone in the park, and most likely alone in the world, plagued by his delusions.

St Mary’s Cathedral took my breath away as it always does, with its majestic architecture and mesmerizing stained glass windows. I’m not Catholic, but I lit a candle and said a prayer anyway, and popped my donation into the little wooden box.

People sat in reverence, gazing at the golden grandeur, the sweeping roofline, the candles, and the depiction of past holy men in the stained-glass windows, dressed in their finery with halos above, lit brightly by the winter sun.

Filled with awe, I tiptoed around this holy place, breathing in the peaceful air, and reflecting on all that we suburban Protestants miss out in our places of worship. Many thriving Protestant churches meet in old warehouses and plain little buildings.  Rather than flowing robes and impressive head-pieces worn by Catholic priests, Protestant ministers often wear jeans and sneakers and are hard to distinguish from the rest of the congregation.

Jesus was depicted in the stained glass, holding an expression of aloof holiness, the Son of God, the saviour of mankind. His face was a mixture of serenity and humility, and perfect in colour and form.  His clothing was regal and he stood amongst the saints, his halo glowing above him.  Jesus in the stained glass bore little resemblance to the Jesus I’ve read about as having “… no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2b).

As I gazed at Jesus in the stained glass, I had a strange sensation that his eyes, dark like deep pools of water, were meeting mine with an expression of alarm. As I moved around it was as if those dark eyes were following me, with a plea for escape.

Surely this is what is expected whilst viewing the Mona Lisa, but not Jesus… I shrugged and smiled at my crazy thoughts as we headed for the exit.

After leaving the quiet sanctuary of the Cathedral we walked through the City to the new gardens in Barangaroo and then onto the historic Rocks area. I counted another twenty or so homeless people along the way, most of them lying under their blankets, trying to stay warm.  I noticed a few homeless women, with an odd assortment of treasured belongings gathered around them, making a street corner their home – a far cry from the home they dreamt of having when they were little girls.  I wanted to rescue them all, but the task was too daunting, so I just kept on walking.

Time raced by as we explored all the wonders of Sydney. Our last port of call was the Fortune of War Pub in the Rocks, where a guitarist was just starting to play.  Sipping my chilled Sav Blanc I smiled into the eyes of a dishevelled elderly lady perched on a stool beside me, dressed completely in purple, each item a different shade of my favourite colour.  We connected on our love of purple and no small talk was necessary.

Somebody requested “American Pie” and the guitarist quickly obliged, and we all sang along. I danced as much as my legs would allow me after a day of walking the city.  Somewhere at the back of the crowd I noticed a man with long dark hair and a beard, unshaven and rough-looking, peering through the hazy light.  His eyes were dark and deep and full of kindness, and they followed me, curious but not creepy, like an old friend I’d forgotten.

Conversations paused as the song reached its climax and we all swayed and sang along to the well-worn lines:

And the three men I admire most

The Father, Son and Holy Ghost

They caught the last train for the coast

The day the music died

I turned back to the hazy crowd, but the man with the dark eyes wasn’t there. I wondered where he had gone.

His eyes had looked so familiar – following me, beseeching me without words. Just then I remembered the stained glass window and I was struck with a wonderfully ridiculous thought.

Had he escaped from the confines of the stained glass after all?

Had he left the lofty heights to sit beside those who were hurting out on the streets, to comfort the young man who was afraid of the Brontosaurus?

Was he walking beside us still, a humble servant, undeterred by our flaws and brokenness – at home amongst all the mess of being human?

Be still:

There is no longer any need of comment.

It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares.

A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

— From When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple, by Thomas Merton

Love Worth Suffering For

“Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.” Bob Marley

Sometimes people drive me crazy.  I remember the elation of buying my first home unit, standing on the leafy balcony off the shabby living area with threadbare carpet and apricot walls, feeling triumphant in the knowledge that I had escaped everyone, and could now live alone, please myself and no longer play the soul-destroying game of trying to please people who could not be pleased.  Perhaps for company I would buy a friendly cat, but that was it – no more people – no, no, no! 

The aloneness was wonderful for a while.  I could sleep in, leave the kitchen messy, play ABBA songs and watch whatever soppy dramas I wanted to on the TV. I’d found my safe place in the world.  But eventually I did crave some company.  Surprisingly, the friendly ginger tom who moved in wasn’t of the feline variety and, looking back, the decision to forego my treasured independence was a wise one.

This Easter I’ve been thinking about what it costs us to love someone, and what it is to suffer for that love.  There are, of course, the toxic and abusive relationships which need to be avoided at all costs, but even our healthy relationships can at times be costly and can cause us pain. 

I was once a young mum staring with besotted eyes at the baby in the crib beside my hospital bed.  I couldn’t take my eyes away from his angelic face.  Then came the sleepless nights, 3am feeding, changing nappies, cleaning up mess, cleaning up more mess, surviving tantrums, running, helping, trying to stay sane.  Yet the love continued to flow.  Even now as I muddle through mothering teenagers, balancing boundaries with acceptance, guidance with support, and often crawling into bed at night feeling like a complete failure, somehow the love still flows.

Love doesn’t always look shiny and perfect.  It doesn’t always feel warm, comfortable or easy. For the heartbroken woman struggling to care for her father with dementia, for the lonely old man living with the cherished faded photo of his late wife on his bedside table, for all who have lost a child, a friend or a parent, the pain is so intense it is often all we can see.  We wonder if it is all worth it. Would it have been better never to have loved in the first place?

Yet no matter what it costs us, I believe love is worth it.   Love calls us, consumes us, expands our hearts just when we think they are breaking, and lifts us up.

Easter reminds me about the reality of love – of a love that gives, suffers pain, perseveres, is patient and puts others above oneself. 

The humble Jewish man, so filled with compassion and love, who led people from their bleak lives and gave them fresh hope, healed the sick, comforted the lost, forgave the sinful and cared for everyone without judgement or limit, was the embodiment of love.  On the face of it, his suffering and pain seemed pointless – to die in pain and humiliation on a cross – to seemingly fail in his quest, and to be betrayed and ridiculed by those he spent his life loving. 

How extraordinary it was that love triumphed over such suffering.  The depth of the suffering couldn’t hold down the height of the love –  it only heightened it and made it stronger. His legacy was the Christian faith and an outpouring of unconditional love and hope for all.

So this Easter, let’s rejoice in love – the type of love worth inviting into our safe places, and the type of love that pain, suffering and even death, can’t hold back. 

Happy Easter!

 

 

The Other Anniversary

This year we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. On Friday I sat across a desk from another man who announced that it was our 15 year anniversary and we both marvelled the length of our relationship. I’m afraid this isn’t a juicy confession – this other man is my Endocrinologist who diagnosed my thyroid cancer 15 years ago and has been faithfully monitoring me ever since.

I still remember that bleak afternoon when the telephone rang whilst I was chopping up vegetables, a baby and a toddler at my feet, listening to the strained voice of my doctor asking if I was alone or if my husband was there with me, before dropping the bomb-shell about the lump in my neck. Strangely I remember hanging up and continuing to chop up the carrots which suddenly affected me like onions.

But now those two little ones are teenagers taller than me – one is learning to drive and has a part-time job and the other plays piano and reads ancient history books I don’t understand. I have watched them grow from little boys into young men and what a privilege this has been.  The day I stood over the chopping board, processing the telephone call, the future wasn’t so certain.

The doctor’s office is currently going ‘soft copy’, scanning and shredding their patients’ files, so on Friday the secretary handed me a crisp white envelope containing my important medical documents. When I came home I checked through them, feeling nervous and a bit sick.  There were the first scan results from St George Hospital – fading black ink heaving under the weight of the medical jargon, describing a suspect nodule clinically and without emotion, masking its meaning and making it sound almost harmless.  But then I flicked through the transparent scans showing the offending black spot in my neck.  My stomach clenched into a knot.  That’s all it had been – a black spot on a scan – it looked like a smudge or blemish that needed a damp cloth to be wiped away – but instead it changed my life.

The report I hated seeing the most was the one indicating the black spot was still there six months after surgery and treatment, and I was to go back into hospital for a further large dose of radioactive iodine. I had been quite positive up to this point, but this setback, and a further period of separation from my babies, pushed me over the edge and life at that time seemed very dark indeed.

Eventually the spot disappeared, the scans were filed away neatly in a dusty folder and life returned to normal. Until Friday those words that dictated life or death for me had been forgotten. But remembering them has made me realise that I was one of the fortunate ones. Since then so many dear family and friends, workmates and acquaintances, have suffered the agony of watching black spots return and grow and win the battle.

Perhaps unpleasant times in our life are best forgotten. But when we are accidentally reminded, there is an opportunity to reflect and be thankful – and I don’t mean the thankfulness we feel when someone buys us a coffee or when we find those new shoes we’ve desired so much are on special. Nor do I mean the smug #gratitude type of thankfulness we post on Facebook to show off to our friends… The thankfulness I mean is the true, deep, gut-wrenching type, the kind that leaps for joy at being alive and breathing, and delights at watching our kids grow up and relishes the thought of seeing our hair turn grey, the wrinkles emerge and our upper arms grow wobbly.  This type of thankfulness leaves me teary-eyed and thanking God for every day I’ve had since the black spot vanished – even the difficult and dull days. Every day of the past 15 years has been a miraculous bonus.

So Happy Anniversary, my dear Endocrinologist  – thanks for tracking through this with me – making that awful telephone call to a young mum at dinner time, listening to all my questions, watching me cry and putting up with me every year since then, taking all those tubes of my blood, explaining what those confusing abbreviations mean (so many times), each year listening patiently to my creative excuses about why I haven’t lost weight and for your unwavering belief that I would beat this. It has been quite a journey and I’m ecstatic to still be here.  Fifteen years of bonus time!

The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.         Psalm 28:7

Under the Deep Blue Sea

Napoleon

I met Napoleon under the deep blue sea.  After an awkward descent into the icy ocean, I gazed in awe through foggy goggles at the beauty stretching out before me. Coral bowed and swayed as small fish darted here and there, going about their daily routines, the rich colours of the Reef rising in intensity and receding, teasing me to swim further.

The first sign that Napoleon was approaching was a large dark shadow. I stopped swimming and wondered who’d turned down the lights and there he was, adorned in peacock-blue with splendid plump lips reminding me of Mick Jagger on steroids.  He swam swiftly toward me and stopped with his chin level with mine.  Despite his formidable size, I couldn’t resist scratching his impressive chin.  He seemed to enjoy it, floating beside me and pouting his magnificent lips. I had no food to offer, only scratching, but he seemed content with that.

My heart raced and swelled with affection when I was swimming beside Napoleon. I felt privileged to be in the presence of such a beautiful creature and felt strangely connected to him – two creatures swimming together under the deep blue sea.

Travelling for the past week in Northern Queensland highlighted both the goodness and flaws of our fellow travellers. Driving on dusty highways I noticed the driver who would block the overtaking lane and drive along with stubborn ignorance, causing tempers to flare in all the cars backed up and waiting to pass behind. Was he blissfully unaware of his surroundings, or secretly making a selfish stand?

Then there was the sole service station manager in a remote country town. I staggered in after six hours on the road, with a bladder fit to burst. He met my expectant smile with a sour look and told me he did not have a toilet. I could see the ‘public toilet’ sign hanging enticingly right behind him, but he asserted he did not have a toilet.  The lady in the coffee cart outside told me later that he did have a toilet but felt it wasn’t his job to clean it and now it was in such a filthy state he had taken to refusing people entry. She apologised for his behaviour on behalf of the rest of the town and quickly directed me to alternate facilities.

By contrast, there was the elderly lady working in the second-hand shop in another quiet seaside village, who smiled and looked steadily into my eyes. She was stout and honest, with piercing blue eyes surrounded by deep laugh lines. I imagined the fluffy scones she would bake for CWA meetings, and the nourishing beef casseroles she would slow cook for ailing friends. She began telling me she had just returned to work after losing her husband of 60 years only five weeks ago. Her bravery, openness and kind heart warmed me to the core during my purchase of two wine glasses and some board shorts for the princely sum of $6.00.

There was also the couple who rented us a cottage at a cheaper rate just because I ‘sounded nice on the phone’. When I met them I discovered that the lady had cancer and they were about to leave their idyllic cottages they loved so much to live elsewhere while she attempted to recover her health. Their courage and warmth overwhelmed me and I wondered how in the midst of all they were enduring they had found the energy to be kind to me – a complete stranger.

Travelling has a way of shining a light on the differences in people. In our chance encounters, goodness was illuminated and so was selfishness. We stumbled upon such beauty, and also such ugliness.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite books ‘The Great Divorce’ where C S Lewis describes a ghost’s bus trip from hell into heaven. His descriptions of those trapped in hell compared to those walking free in heaven brim with insight.  The ghosts living in hell are pale, grey and transparent, sustained by their selfishness, lies and illusion.  The creatures in heaven are bright, shining, authentic and real.  Even the blades of grass in heaven are so solid and real that they slice through the feet of the insubstantial ghosts, but bend readily under the feet of the heavenly beings.

Many believe that Heaven and Hell are places awaiting us after our death, but perhaps we have already chosen our path and embarked on the journey in this life.

The lady in the second-hand shop, her face shining with love despite her grief, and the kind-hearted man about to move with his wife to find healing, had an unmistakable authenticity about them. In their openness, honesty and love I sensed the very essence of Heaven. Others, by stark contrast, were rude, pretentious and had dark and empty eyes. They appeared trapped in their selfishness and delusion, emitting the oppressive stench of Hell.

But it was Napoleon, with his colour and charm, who captivated me so fully that I was overwhelmed by joy. If heaven could be found here and now, then I’m sure I found it that day with a Maori Wrasse, God’s incredible masterpiece, swimming beside me under the deep blue sea.

“Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”                        C S Lewis “The Great Divorce”