Monday, 15 June 2015

Is this all? NO!

An old school friend died recently. She was just a few months older than I am and would have celebrated her 61st birthday just two weeks after her death. It wasn't totally unexpected - she had been battling breast cancer for nearly 18 months - but it WAS sudden. She was taken ill and died just 17 hours later.

I knew she had cancer: her Christmas letter had mentioned it in amusing detail; but I thought, from the tone of the letter, that she was in the clear.

Evidently, she wasn't.

I didn't contact her. We were, by now, only on Christmas letter terms. That doesn't stop me from contacting other friends who I only hear from every year, should the news warrant it, but this time I didn't.

One ugly reason played a part in this. A small part - the main part was busyness and no sense of urgency. We weren't close - hadn't met, in fact, for 15 years. We lived far apart - to meet would have entailed planning and travelling and intention, and neither of us pushed to do any of those things. We still kept in touch, as old friends often do, but few of our group of friends ever met up.

The unspoken reason - for not meeting and for not writing - is the immense spiritual division between us. I am a Christian, trying hard to follow Jesus as closely as I can; she was an avowed atheist/agnostic. I had the conversation years ago and I knew that spiritual questions did not figure largely in her life.

The 'Order of Proceedings' at her funeral hammered this home to me. There were tributes; a poem; a song to listen to; a welcome. But no encouraging Bible reading, let alone the sign of a hymn or a prayer. Nothing. No sense of hope. No sense that there is more to this life than just the eating and drinking and merry-making. No glimmer that Jesus is standing beyond the grave, longing to welcome us to his home. Just a sense of emptiness and sadness and a focus on what was not, rather than what would be. A focus on the empty space rather than anticipation for the future.

This sadness has reflected the uneasiness in my soul every time I have thought of my dear friend. A knowledge that there was a huge gap in belief between us.

While a sense of spirituality, of seeking meaning to life beyond the here and now, was absent, what did feature in her life was fun. I have just received a copy of the loving tributes which her two daughters paid to their mother. She was a warm, friendly, colourful, creative fun-loving woman who was highly intelligent, a marvellous cook, a dedicated gardener and a determined education-seeker. She had several degrees, learned the piano as an adult and took up teaching late - she must have been well into her fifties when she did so. She had travelled all over the world. Her leaving this life will undoubtedly leave a large, large gap.

Much that happened in my friend's life was owed to her husband's high salary and a comfortable lifestyle which gave them many adventures and luxuries. Often, she was not able to work, so pursued studying and socialising, learning to make friends easily. There were no money worries, the children went to private school and were privileged - though not, I think, spoilt - in many ways. Life was for living and she was able to squeeze the last drops out of it.

Over the years, I sensed she thought me foolish in my beliefs. After all, giving money away - a core tenet of Christianity, which teaches us to hold our possessions lightly - is counter-intuitive to the world and means a lower standard of living, however you interpret that. But above all, my focus was so different from hers. It put a huge wedge between us.

And so I look at her life - so full, so rich in friends and family and the pleasures of this earth. I think of many other lives, not least friends in Africa, whose lives are full too. Full of friends and family and of struggling to care for themselves and others. Who is to say that hers was a 'better' life? It was the only one she had and she lived it to the full as best she could.

But is that really the best? I think of another friend who died a year ago; who managed her death so beautifully, thinking only of her sons and husband and family, so giving and cheerful to the end. I think of her funeral - fiercely humanistic, as she had lived for so much of her life. Many of the songs and readings - meant to be uplifting, I am sure  - were anything but, serving only to highlight her absence and the sorrow she left behind.

Yet in her last weeks and days, she turned to God. She had conversations with the curate, a friend whose daughter was a her son's classmate. She received anointing some hours before she died. And so in that service, led by the curate of our parish church, were many glimpses of true hope: the prayers, the readings...and every time the name of Jesus was mentioned, my spirits lightened as his name touched me,  reminding me that there is indeed life beyond this life, that Jesus the man was Jesus God who demonstrated that he has power over death, that he has the whole world in his hands and that in his company there will be no sorrow or mourning or tears or death.

So...I am sad that my friend appears to have rejected Jesus, to have lived her life for herself, her friends and her family, commendable though that is. I feel sad that I do not know how to talk to her husband about this hope we have within us, a hope that would transform his grief, his life...

And I am sad that, in the end, it is our wrong choices which determine our destiny. I determine to pray for my friends and colleagues, wonderful people though they are, who seem determined to squeeze the cloth of life dry. And I ask for strength and courage to speak, to write, to love in the way that Jesus would.


Monday, 8 June 2015

Not looking, but...

Not looking (at the moment, anyway) but found some good articles on what to look for in a church: one by Kenny Silva "How to Find a Church: Seven Things to Look for in a Good Church (Acts 2:42–47)"
"Exercise some discernment in evaluating whether that is a faithful community in which you would like to be a member.

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42–47"

This helps me, when I find myself becoming frustrated with lack of commitment from the other church 'members' - because, actually, they may not be 'members' but 'attenders'. Different.
"The local church should be a place that loves and serves the community regardless of whether they profess Christianity or not.

That said, when we talk about a believing membership in the local church, we’re not talking about the people who attend that specific church or are served by its ministries. The people we’re talking about are the covenant members of that church. These are the people who have sacrificially, emotionally, financially, and spiritually “bought in” to that church and what it’s doing for the kingdom.

Wise advice, worth coming back to.

Biblical Literacy

Just come across a brilliant website resource - Biblical Literacy.  Here is just one of the resources: looking at JB Phillips' book Your God is Too Small in our modern world.

"...the basic ideas that are worthy of greater reflection and contemplation. They set forward God as great and grand, a God who is not simply a port where we hide in a storm, but a God who teaches us how to endure the storms around us with confidence and joy in his ability to quell those storms in his good time."

  • "As a man, God showed himself in ways we would never see otherwise. God (Jesus) was not a super-mystic holy man who seemed ethereal and otherworldly. Nor was Jesus the same run-of-the-mill person we find on the street. He was a real man, but one of truth, goodness, and beauty (not beauty of appearance, but of character). Jesus exhibited the actions that correspond to those traits: 
  •  He challenged the current values of those around him. 
  • He probed for people’s motives over simple focus on their actions. 
  • He insisted on real human values in the ways we treat each other. 
  • He endorsed the search for truth. 
  • He endorsed a love for all people. 
  • He suffered conflict with stale and false religion. 
  • He called people to God

Friday, 5 June 2015 time of grief

I don't know this lady - she is the friend of a friend on facebook - but this is what shes writes, after the death of her husband: "Sheryl Sandberg with Dave Goldberg
Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.
A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.
But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.
And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.
I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.
I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.
I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.
I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.
I have learned that resilience can be learned. Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry.” To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.
For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.
At the same time, there are moments when I can’t let people in. I went to Portfolio Night at school where kids show their parents around the classroom to look at their work hung on the walls. So many of the parents—all of whom have been so kind—tried to make eye contact or say something they thought would be comforting. I looked down the entire time so no one could catch my eye for fear of breaking down. I hope they understood.
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.
I can’t even express the gratitude I feel to my family and friends who have done so much and reassured me that they will continue to be there. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces pull me out of the isolation and fear. My appreciation for them knows no bounds.
I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, “There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.” I love you, Dave."
Sheryl Sandberg with Dave Goldberg

Thursday, 4 June 2015



Compassion. Instant pity. This was how the father in the story of the prodigal son felt; how Jesus felt when he saw the crowds of 'lost sheep', people without someone to lead or guide them. And when two blind men sitting by the side of the road called out to him to heal them; .when a crowd was hungry because they had been with him, listening to his teaching, for 3 days.

God has said over and over again, starting with Moses, that he has compassion on his people. He is the Father of compassion.

And so, because of God's great compassion, we can live this way: "...what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.