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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”

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Holidays are over and my boys headed back to school this week filled to the brim with adolescent reluctance.  Now they are in high school there is less drama and screaming in getting back into routine, but there’s certainly a whole lot more sighing and rolling of the eyes.

Just as they have grown taller over time, so too have their questions evolved. It can be daunting as a parent to be asked certain questions.  When they were very young, the questions about sex were difficult, but at least they had their funny side – “Mum are those lions on TV fighting?” (son 1) – “No, they are just playing!” (son 2).  Phew, that time I didn’t need to say anything at all, just quickly change the channel!  But I have found the theological questions are often the hardest to answer.  As little guys, there was the “So who is God?”  This one was easy enough.  But then came the brutal follow up question: “But who made God?” and things started to go downhill from then on.

Recently another theological question arose during a car trip to the local shops.  “Why do Christians believe different things, and why do they disagree so much?”  Now where do you begin answering a question like that?

The first thing that came to my mind was a day long ago when I was home alone as a fifteen year old.  A sweet looking elderly lady with a woolen skirt, sensible shoes and a wide welcoming smile came to the front door.  She was clutching a booklet with what looked like happy people in a tropical garden on the cover and began talking animatedly about paradise on earth and God’s kingdom.  She seemed friendly and harmless enough so I told her I had recently become a Christian myself and shared with her how happy I was with my new-found faith.  Strangely, my enthusiasm for God seemed to dial down the radiant smile on her face.  She continued with her heaven on earth spiel and I continued telling her about my discoveries about God.  As we talked, it became glaringly obvious that we were both coming at this Christian thing from a very different angle.  I was willing to accept our differences and call it a day, but she continued relentlessly, becoming less friendly and more red in the face as she went on.  Eventually, when open hostility took over and the sweet-looking lady turned very sour, I shoved her back out the front door, closed it with a thud and stood feeling stunned, confused and shaken. A few minutes later the tears came.

That was the day I discovered that not everyone professing to be a Christian is full of the unconditional love and acceptance we expect, and that beneath certain inviting smiles lurks a whole truckload of secret agendas and control issues.

Recently I attended a Christian Women’s Conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was an entertaining and intelligent woman and I enjoyed listening to her words of wisdom.  But towards the end of her final talk, she made a comment that jarred against my spirit.  Describing how we listen to God and are guided by Him, she encouraged us to read God’s Word, but to guard against such things as listening for his voice in other ways, seeing him at work in circumstances, or of taking notice of mystical things such as dreams and visions. Now I’m sure we have all met people who have gone a bit too far down the “mystical” path and have left reality far behind, but her tone was verging on mocking and allowed no room for those who may have had genuine mystical encounters.  As she spoke I recalled the heavy sprinkling of mystical experiences throughout the Bible  – for example the promises in Acts 2:17 that: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’.

I sat squirming at this point as I just happen to be one of those slightly weird Christians who do have the occasional mystical encounter – a sentence may pop into my mind at just the right moment to steer me out of trouble, or a dream predicts a pivotal event which is ahead and prepares me for it, or I meet a new person and inexplicably know about a secret battle in their life which helps me treat them with an extra dose of sensitivity.  During times of illness, stress and grief, these “mystical” experiences have given me the strength and hope to keep on going. I know not everyone experiences God the way I do, but I suspect some of you reading this will relate to what I’m describing. We all have our own stories to tell and it’s captivating to listen to each story with an open mind and a gracious and humble heart.  Our stories are as diverse as we are –  and are uniquely ours.  To listen to a well educated and well meaning woman of faith denounce these experiences as silly in a room of a few thousand left me feeling utterly deflated.   I half expected everyone sitting around me to hear the undignified slow squeak of a balloon losing its air.

So I gazed at my son with his important question, sharing his concern for the confusion and pain that arises between those of us who profess to share a common faith.  I answered along these lines:

“You know when we go out together, we head down to the bookstore and buy a book each and then go and chat in the café?”

“Yes” he replied.

“And you know how your brother hates bookshops, and when we get together we go for a walk in the bush and look at all the different types of birds, and take some photos?”

“Mmm”

“Well I think it’s like that with God too.  Each of us are different.  He loves us all, and he knows exactly how to communicate with each of us.  Some of us are academic, logical and structured  – others are emotional, creative and messy.  He relates to each of us where we’re at.  Different churches reflect these different ways of relating with God.  The problems start when people of one style of faith begin to judge and criticize people of the other types.  If we could only accept our differences, get on with our own journey (or as I read in Romans recently “tend to your knitting”) and leave others to tend to theirs, we would fully express what it is to be a Christian.”

It was the most honest answer I could come up with on the hop and I hope it reflects some of the truth around this complex issue.  He seemed satisfied with that for now. I’m sure another question will come up soon and I will try to answer.  In the meantime, I will keep on listening for the answers, which I know will arrive in their own unique, quirky and God-inspired way.

So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit…  So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.  Romans 14:10-12 (The Message)

 

 

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Every now and then I experience something quite mysterious. Sometimes it’s a strong sense of knowing what is about to happen, a sense of impending doom or nervous anticipation depending on what is ahead.  Sometimes it’s a still small voice, fresh, surprising and way outside the boundaries of my usual  flow of thoughts.  At other times it’s a dream holding a startling truth I haven’t been brave enough to face, or just a vivid picture in my mind in my waking hours.

Quite often I ignore these mysterious happenings altogether, wondering if I’m going mad.   But then in hindsight I kick myself, realising the crazy little voice was actually a glimpse of something quite extraordinary and I missed the mark when I ignored the prompting.  I suspect you may read this and relate. Possessing a ‘sixth sense’ or strong intuition is far more common than we may think.

We are currently in the latter stages of a large renovation to our home.  Now we are about three-quarters of the way through, I’m getting impatient with the waiting.  The first couple of months were exciting with the house growing by the hour and our dreams unfolding before our eyes, but over the past month things have slowed down.  The scaffolding which at first looked to me like a symbol of promise and growth has become stifling, like prison bars encircling us.

At Christmas we had a much-needed pause from the noise and dust, but after a brief re-appearance in January, our builder vanished again.  He is hard-working, professional and reliable, and when I was told he had gone away on holiday without mentioning it, I was a little taken aback.  On hearing the news that crazy little voice whispered to me “He’s had a death in the family – he didn’t plan on this”.   I enquired further with the building team and was told again that no, everything was okay, he had just decided to take a holiday.

My impatience has risen over the last week as my list of questions and building ideas has lengthened and still no returned emails or telephone calls.  This morning he was nowhere to be seen and I again asked the question of his team of builders.  However, this time the answer was different.  A family member had passed away and he had been forced to rush off overseas unexpectedly.  Aha! Once again, the crazy little voice had been correct.  Thankfully my nagging suspicion that the voice may hold some truth had prevented me from venting my anger, leaving the ranting and raving voicemail message which was on the tip of my tongue at one point.

This story may seem trivial, but so many of the misunderstandings, conflicts and fall-outs in our relationships stem from trivial things – an unkind word, a thoughtless gesture or being so focused on our own issues that we can’t see the other person’s point of view.

I often wonder if God gives me extra assistance in this way because he knows what a mess I can make of things when I overreact to situations and fail to see the problems of other people and the whole ‘big picture’ view.  We all wear blinkers to a degree and see only our unique little corridor of the world.

My note to self today is to keep listening to that intuitive inner voice and to remember that there is often more to peoples’ actions than meets the eye.  The pain and struggles of others so often aren’t immediately visible.  It takes an extra measure of grace,  kindness and crazy little voices to notice them.  God walks ahead of us just as he walks beside us.  His wise promptings can help us avoid unnecessary problems, pain and hassle.  It’s always worth pausing, taking a breath and being brave enough to listen to that crazy little voice.

 The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.   Deuteronomy 31:8

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The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul….. (from Psalm 23: 1-3)

When was the last time you did nothing?  I mean really nothing.  No television.  No texting.  No music.   No writing shopping lists in your head.   When did you last sit and allow yourself to be completely still and without distraction?

Modern life isn’t conducive to silence and stillness.  More and more we are living lives of ceaseless activity and noise, of constant cyber-chatting and deadline-driven reality shows, with our fingers hovering expectantly over mobile phones which we never switch off.  It can be easy to ride the roller-coaster of busyness and flurry, and it often takes an extreme life changing event to force us to jump off the racing carriage, to sit alone in the silence and take a glimpse within.

The time came for me several years ago when I was trying to cope with my mother’s decline with brain cancer.  One day I asked my doctor what I could do to keep going. It felt like I was drowning under a tsunami of despair.  I thought she may offer a big bottle of antidepressants or suggest I head off on a trip to Fiji, but instead her advice was unexpected. She suggested I learn to meditate.

Novelist Iris Murdoch described grieving as “still contemplation of what is uniquely terrible” …  I knew what I was searching for wasn’t in the noise and chaos of the busy streets, self-help books or the endless stream of unhelpful advice offered by people.   I knew it was buried somewhere in the stillness and the quietness.   The doctor was right.  I needed to meditate.   But how?

As a Christian, I began to search for a local church with a meditation group.  I found plenty of prayer groups but nobody knew of a meditation class.   My request was met with a few raised eyebrows.   There was a sense of fear and apprehension surrounding the art of meditation.   The word seemed to sit in an exotic and vaguely taboo basket with yoga and Eastern religion, rather than in the safe ‘Christianity basket’ with its sermons and catchy choruses.  I remember as a young Christian being warned: “never empty your mind in meditation or the devil may come in” and, as bizarre as that sounded,  those words  had stuck with me.  I wondered what to do.   The  Bible is full of references to contemplative and reflective prayer.  Jesus often went to quiet places to pray and commune with God.  Wasn’t this a form of meditation?  Was it really as spiritually dangerous as I had been led to believe?  At a local cafe I noticed a brochure from a Buddhist Nun advertising meditation classes in my suburb.  I decided to give her a call.

I told the Nun about my predicament.  She was very understanding about the pain Mum and our family were dealing with, having suffered from a brain tumour herself. She also worked extensively with the dying.  I was able to speak without holding back and it was such a relief. We spoke at length about caring for a loved one who is dying, the nature of brain tumours, and about our respective faiths.  Thankfully, she offered no advice, and spent a long time listening.  I asked her if she could show me how to meditate and if it was possible to meditate as a Christian.  She assured me that it was.  I explained that I was unable to worship Buddha and I didn’t want to offend her in any way.   She didn’t see a problem with this. 

The friendly Nun seemed slightly more formidable in her earthy brown gowns when I arrived at the first class.  I identified myself and she gave me a reassuring smile as I found my place on the floor.  She began to speak in gentle tones, and I felt my exhausted soul begin to relax.  At first I fought the lure of the flow of words, my mind jumping from one random and anxious thought to the next, fighting the worry of the devil dropping in, until eventually the flow of soft words, the silence and the peace reassured me that it was okay to let go.  It was okay to lie down in the softness, to breath deeply and to listen with fresh ears to the divine.   It was okay to do nothing else other than be still.

I felt a jolt as our teacher repeated a mantra involving Buddha, but immediately she added  “and Jesus for Kerry”, allowing me to recite a mantra focusing on Jesus.   I still remember the intense relief of  finding inner rest, and the depth and power of the visions I experienced whilst meditating in these classes.  Ironically, I felt totally immersed in the presence of God.  And guess what?  The devil made no attempt to ‘come in’.  In the stillness and peace, all I could sense was the loving hands of God, his empathy for my struggles and his strengthening presence to carry on.

After one class I told the Nun how amazing the class had been and I shared with her a vision I had of a white dove connecting with my spirit.   I was quite overwhelmed by the vision at the time and awkwardly wiped away some stray tears.  It had provided such comfort as Mum was continuing to deteriorate.  When I shared this vision, she looked steadily into my eyes and told me I was the only Protestant Christian she had ever met who didn’t hate her.  Her words shocked me like as slap across the face.  How could it be that this gentle and kind woman evoked such a reaction in others professing to be Christians?

If we are truly Christians, why is the faith of another so threatening?  Is there a perception that others will brainwash us, or belittle us?  Perhaps they will try to do these things, but does it matter?  Some of my most cherished friendships are with Atheists and people of other faiths.   These are the friends who keep me honest and refreshed.  Christianity is based on love and acceptance, not judgment.  It is so sad when we forget this.

I am, of course, not the first Christian to discover the joys and benefits of meditation.  The Christian faith has a long heritage of meditation, or contemplative prayer.  Monasteries and abbeys are devoted to those seeking solitary lives of prayer and meditation.   However, in some Christian Evangelical circles, meditation has not only been lost, but it has become frowned upon.   The move back to meditation in main stream Christianity in an increasingly stressful and fast-paced world may be an important step in maintaining a faith which sustains us and strengthens us for the demands of life.   Thanks to the late John Main and Laurence Freeman (Catholic priests and Benedictine monks) organisations such as the World Community for Christian Meditation are now present in more than a hundred countries.  John Main originally learnt about meditation from an Indian Swami.

In an interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC’s Compass program, Laurence Freeman discusses John Main’s experience:

He had originally learned to meditate when he was a diplomat serving in, in Malaya in the early fifties. But he went to see this Swami one day and, on some official business, and after the official business was over they began to talk about spiritual matters and the Swami asked him if he was a religious person and John Main replied, yes he was, they began to talk about prayer, and the monk, the Indian monk explained his way of meditation which to John Main sounded vaguely familiar but at the same time rather strange…

What he taught him of course was a way of prayer that moved out of the mind into the heart, into the silence and stillness takes us beyond words and images and thoughts, and, what John Main was discovering although he didn’t realise it fully at the time was, was contemplative prayer. And it was then some years later that he discovered this same teaching on meditation and how to move from mind to the heart, in his own Christian tradition in the writings of the first Christian monks, the desert fathers.

It’s not only priests and monks who are embracing meditation in their everyday lives.     Gina Roberts, who leads a Christian meditation group  in the crypt of St James’ Anglican church in the heart of Sydney, is quoted on the Compass episode:

Meditation is leaving the shallows…leaving the surface and entering into the depths of your own being. The reasons why in the Christian tradition we meditate, is that the spirit of God, the spirit of the creator of the universe dwells in our hearts, and in silence is loving to all.

Others also described their experiences:

To me, it is that warmth and tranquillity that comes over me, it’s almost like a mist that cuts out the traffic noises, the distractions outside, police sirens, car, fire engine sirens, when I am in the meditation, this is the, quite a busy centre in the city of Sydney, we always have people, buses, sirens, traffic, but when we get into the depth of meditation which takes about five minutes to get down, the world drops away, and it’s absolutely marvellous.  (Judith Coffey)

It’s a way of practising a passage in Scripture, from one of the Psalms, be still and know that I am God. It’s had effects in my life, I tend to be a bit more patient with myself, it helps with focus and, concentration, they are sort of, aspects, which I find have changed in my life.  (Richard Cogswell)

Meditation has been the most important Christian experience, because I have never felt it being mechanical, sitting saying my word, my mantra, come Lord and the silence and stillness have centred me in the palm of God’s hand, I feel close to God and to the universe and it’s the most profound religious experience I’ve had, and I think ever will have.  (Ron McCallum)

I was very interested to read Laurence Freeman’s views about the idea amongst some Christians that ‘blanking the mind’ in meditation may allow the devil can come in:

 I’ve never understood that, that theology of prayer because it seems to me to contradict basic Christian faith which is that Christ is dwelling within us, that we are already filled with the spirit of Christ, he has overcome the powers of darkness.

I no longer attend meditation classes, but I continue to pray and meditate in the quietness of my bedroom, on my daily walks or when I’m sitting or walking beside the ocean when I’m able to escape from the city.  The lessons my friend taught me have remained an important part of my spiritual and emotional wellbeing.  Mum lived for another year after I first consulted the doctor about my anxiety levels, and because I took care of my soul when I needed to, I was able to be there for Mum, withstand the pain and grieve her loss deeply and completely.   It certainly didn’t lessen the suffering, but it allowed me to survive it.  The times spent in meditation, drenched in God’s love and peace, enabled me to be present with Mum during the final weeks we spent together. 

I believe that many of the answers to the problems we face in modern life are not found in noise and activity, but in stillness and silence.  The Church is sometimes seen as irrelevant in the 21st century. I wonder if recovering some of the contemplative aspects of Christianity,  once confined to monasteries and convents,  may bring peace and purpose to the lives of everyday men and women. Perhaps by simply being still and knowing God at a deeper level, and by being open-minded and willing to continue learning and growing, the Church may become a haven of peace in our increasingly chaotic world. 

I believe keeping an open mind is necessary to maintaining a healthy faith.  If we truly seek to find the truth we will find it.  If we are looking for the latest fad or a band-aid solution, we may indeed be drawn to the wrong paths.  But those who seek after spiritual truth will find it.  Those who seek, will find.   – Laurence Freeman

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Seventeen years ago today I went to a workmate’s party and met a nice man in a purple Kawasaki cap. He was interesting to talk to when I could steer him off the subject of motorbikes.   I remember clearly how nervous I felt about going to a party where I didn’t know anybody.  There was a good movie on the TV and my house mate was staying home, curled up on the comfy lounge with slippers on. As I was leaving I remember yelling out: “I’ll be home to watch it with you – I’ll just have one drink and come home early!”  Famous last words. I think it was 5am when I finally made it home that night! Two years later I married the man in the Kawasaki cap.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d given in to my nerves and stayed at home that night, or if my friend hadn’t thought to invite me along to her party.  The movie ‘Sliding Doors’ starring Gwyneth Paltrow explores the powerful impact missing a train made on a woman’s life.  How intriguing it is to realise that such a simple decision or mishap can shape our destiny.

Life changing moments can appear as nothing more than random events and coincidences, falling haphazardly together to form a reality.  Are our lives simply a game of chance, or is there more to it?

I believe our destiny goes far beyond anything we can manipulate and orchestrate. If I had gone to that party with the intention of meeting my future husband I suspect it would never have happened.  If we try to force our destiny into reality, it rarely cooperates.  It is like fighting against the tide of the ocean.  A lifesaver told me recently  that if you are caught in a rip you should simply relax and go with the tide. Eventually the ocean will bring you back to shore.  Life can be like that too.

Sometimes I worry about making the wrong choice, of losing my one and only chance or of generally mucking up my life, but then I remember an old proverb that describes it so well:

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.  Proverbs 16:9

God’s plans will come about despite our organising, striving and, at times, kicking and screaming to have our own way.   His power is like the ocean tide, guiding us gently at times and at others knocking us off our feet and turning us upside down, particularly when we refuse to give him our attention.

Seventeen years on, I’m still listening to the motorbike stories, but I’m so thankful I went along with the tide that evening and met my greatest soul mate and friend.   Sometimes it’s a relief to acknowledge that we don’t have a lot of control over what happens to us, but there is a plan for each of us, and the One who controls the tides loves us unconditionally and will continue to nudge us in the right direction.

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Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.   Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was overwhelmed recently by three little words.   They weren’t the three little words that usually capture our attention, but they were refreshing, inspiring and uplifting just the same.   The three little words were:  ‘I trust you’.

Trust can be difficult to find and easy to lose. From a young age we are warned not to trust strangers.  It’s confusing knowing who we can trust.  Sometimes it’s easier to trust no-one.  We are told that people must earn our trust, but how do we work out the price to win us over?  Even when we avoid those with shifty eyes, bad reputations or recent convictions, often it’s a close friend or family member who lets us down.   Perhaps the only loyal companion we will ever have is our pet dog, yet ever he has his snappy days.

It seems to me that a general lack of trust and the need to protect ourselves from hurt and betrayal is a normal way of existing in our culture.  Our workplaces and relationships are infected with a vague but persistent hint of suspicion.   We use paperwork as a buffer against deceit:  forms, policies and agreements are put in place to shield and protect us.   Hollywood movie-stars are beset with cheating partners despite their stunning looks and sparkling personalities.   If it happens to them, what hope is there for the rest of us? Mistrust can be infectious too.  As Harold MacMillan observes:    “A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.”

Since starting my new job I’ve been reminded of the value of trust.   Nervous and uncertain, I arrived in a community of kind and gracious people.   It’s early days yet, but I am overwhelmed by a lingering sense of trust.  Being trusted is affirming and life-giving.   Trust is like sunlight and oxygen to a crushed spirit.  It is a catalyst for growth in self-confidence, motivation and enthusiasm.

Not being trusted does the opposite. Have you ever been in a relationship where your partner doesn’t trust you?  I once had a boyfriend who flew into a jealous rage if I arrived home half an hour late from work, couldn’t cope with me going out with my girlfriends and questioned my every move.  The crazy thing was, I was trustworthy.  Yet by the end of the relationship I was so exasperated there seemed little point in remaining faithful and I began to doubt my own integrity.

What a relief it was to meet my husband who never questioned me when I was late and told me to have fun every time I went out with my friends.  There were never any questions or accusations.   I felt trusted and so I could be trustworthy.

To grow up without trust and belief from your caregivers is to grow up believing that you are not to be trusted and perhaps even that you are inexplicably flawed.   It is no surprise that children who grow up in dysfunctional families find it hard to trust.   If there is no intervention from outside the home, how are they to escape the mindset they grew up with?   Children need trust to grow up whole and functioning.  To trust your child is to weave self-confidence and joy into their life so they will grow up feeling that they are valued and have something to offer the world. 

But trusting is hard.  Trusting leaves us vulnerable.  Yet to live without trust is to miss out on so much and to suffer both personally and as a society.  As Jonathan Tame puts it:

With any loss of trust, relational capital diminishes. Society becomes poorer as more time is taken drawing up detailed contracts and regulations, more funds are spent on security, surveillance and policing, and health declines because people grow more anxious.   

The Christian faith is built on trust.  Whatever you make of it, the story of God sending Jesus to demonstrate his great love for us is a story of daring to trust.  While we didn’t want to know him, God could see our potential goodness.   We ignore him, deny his existence and ridicule him, he doesn’t give up on us.   When we finally recognise the extent of his love and graciousness, our own trust naturally follows:

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge…  Psalm 62:8

When I look at the times I’ve trusted and been disappointed I no longer feel ashamed.   If we put our faith in a philanderer or confide in a friend who gossips behind our back, have we failed or have they?   If we dare to trust we have acted with bravery and integrity.   The betrayal is a reflection of the flaws of the other person and we can walk away knowing we tried our best and that next time may be different. 

So if you want to extend the ultimate compliment and offer a life-line of hope to someone, just say three little words.   “I trust you“.   You never know, those words may be the seeds that transform a life and the boomerang of grace that will one day return to you.

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I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.   – G.K. Chesteron

Do you remember the fable of the man, the boy and the donkey?   As a child I cried about the poor donkey, who was ridden and led along by two spineless guys, taking to heart everyone’s advice and ridicule.  Eventually they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders.   The fable finishes with the chilling:

In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

‘That will teach you,’ said an old man who had followed them:

‘PLEASE ALL, AND YOU WILL PLEASE NONE’.

The man and boy succeeded in killing the donkey despite all their best intentions and eagerness to please.  The moral is, of course, that you can’t please everyone.   It also reminds me that taking on all the advice offered to us can be foolish, no matter how valid that advice may sound.  There is a certain wisdom in making up our own mind and ignoring the strong tide of opinion that may threaten to overwhelm us.

This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again.    Some advice is, of course, very helpful.   As children we listen to our parents, no matter how much we hate to hear their views, and often realise as we grow older that at least ninety percent of what they told us was true.   We have teachers who impart their wisdom and educate us about how the world works.   There may also be mentors or grandparents who influence and guide us.

But there are times when listening, smiling and then retreating quietly to do your own research is a wise idea.   Sometimes sifting through all the advice thrust at us reveals thinly veiled criticism, negativity and jealousy blended with genuine concern and healthy thinking.   Even genuine advice can be misleading, despite its pure intentions.

One good test of the validity of advice is to ask if the person has been through the same situation themselves.   For example, if somebody is telling you that placing a loved one in a nursing home is heartless, ask them if they have themselves cared for somebody at home with acute dementia.  If they have, then it may be worth listening to them. If they haven’t, they probably don’t have a clue.

The most confusing times are when the so-called experts let us down.  We know not to go to our plumber with a toothache, but when we go to the dentist, we expect him to help us.   I remember the time I went to an orthopaedic surgeon in desperate need of advice with my hip dysplasia, only to be told that my condition was too complicated and ‘I wouldn’t touch you’.   It seemed that my ‘unique’ hip structure put me into the ‘too hard basket’ and nothing could be done for me.   It took several years of excruciating pain before I gathered enough courage to approach another surgeon who told me ‘I can fix it’;  which he promptly did. Imagine if I had never sought another opinion?

I also remember the time when I came to buy my first apartment.   Everyone I spoke to insisted I get at least a two-bedroom unit, as a one-bedroom unit would be a bad investment.  However, at the time I was single with very little money in the bank, and a one-bedroom unit was my only option.   I eventually found the perfect little place, spacious and quiet and in a great location, despite it’s ‘one bedroom’ status.  So I took the plunge, despite the advice.

Two years after buying my apartment, I married and decided it was time to buy a house instead.   What a lovely surprise it was to realise that the property that everybody had told me would be a bad investment had gained $50,000.00 in value in only a couple of years!   This was one of the moments I remembered the donkey story and vowed to do my own research and follow my gut instincts in future, despite the loud and impressive voices urging me to do the opposite.

So if you are facing a big decision, listen to the people who offer advice, but make your own decision.   There are many areas of life – real estate, finance, bringing up our kids and even our spirituality, where those who speak the loudest and sound the most convincing, are often the most misguided.    We all have the ability to seek out and find the truth and to hunt out the best path to walk through life.   Often it is the quiet, gentle nudge in our spirits which is the most accurate guide. Don’t be taken in by the ‘know it alls’ and remember the warning of the old man in the fable.  ‘Please all and you will please none.‘   Have the courage to follow your own path and keep your donkey, and your sanity, alive and well!

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  Matthew 7:7

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