A is for Adversity
My diary has emptied of everything I expected to do this week. And the weeks to come have become blank, too. I feel as if all the pieces of my life are like a jigsaw puzzle which has been thrown up into the air. I don’t know where the pieces will land, or when, and I wonder, in a bit of a panic, which will end up being lost altogether.
When adversity strikes, shock sets in. I know this, of course. I know it will take time to process what is happening to me, to people near me, and to people far away. I know that the first step is accepting what the situation is, and naming helps us to do that.
I’ve experienced adversity before, in different ways, as we all have. I have found that not only naming and accepting what is happening is important, but also knowing that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower” (Proverbs 18.10). God is the one on whom I can call; for “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46.1). I sense that, besides filling up my diary with offering help, while I am able to, I will ask God for help, not yet knowing what the picture will look like as the pieces land, but seeking to trust in the name of the Lord.
B is for Breathe
I realise that I am sighing a great deal. It tells me that I feel weary, without clear purpose. Like most of us, I am worried, uncertain, no longer going about my daily business as usual, and lacking a rhythm. Noticing my breath is a way of realising how I am feeling.
When Jesus’s disciples were frightened, they locked themselves in a room and Jesus came and stood among them, breathed on them, and said: “Peace be with you.” (John 20.21-2).
Breathing slowly helps to calm us. I have found that breathing slowing can be a way of praying. Sometimes, I use a phrase as I breathe in and out, such as “Breathe on me, breathe of God”, or “Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the holy one is here.” Sometimes, I imagine my worries being breathed out, and God’s peace and love being breathed in.
C is for Calm before the storm?
I am not sleeping too well, like others I know, and this tells me that, although on the surface I am quite calm, underneath, my peace is disturbed. I haven’t been panic- buying, but I am hassled by teenagers who eat randomly. I am thinking of the stories that my parents told of rationing, evacuation, and war; so I am worried about providing, and about my elderly father. I feel the forced calm of someone used to providing solutions, answers, care, who is now in a world where the winds of news rock the boat of my life every day with a new restriction or fear. I sense that my calm is a calm before a storm, a calm which is me locking down, bracing myself for what is to come.
I also have another image in my mind — of Jesus standing in a boat with his arms out, the rain and wind coming in every direction, the waves splashing over the side. I know he shouts “Peace, be still,” and the storm dies down; but what inspires me is that he sleeps in the storm. He wakes because his friends are frightened, and they wake him up. And he deals with it, for them, at the right time.
I realise that I might not need to force calm, and brace myself for a storm, but recognise that both are present now, as is Christ. I feel invited by God to open myself to the peace of Christ. At 7 p.m., as we pray, I include words used at Night Prayer: “Save us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep may rest in peace.”
D is for Desert
Some years ago, I spent some time alone in the desert. I went to the desert to retreat from the world. I was expecting it to be bleak and deserted, and it was. The territory was harsh, and survival was a physical and a psychological challenge. I felt that the desert just didn’t care. I knew that if I didn’t pay attention to how much water I was drinking, or to my state of mind, I would grow weak and I would panic.
Now, I find myself going nowhere, confined at home, not facing the vastness of miles of sand; but there are similarities. Streets are deserted; and I must pay attention to hand-washing and not give in to worst-case scenarios and panic. What helped me in the desert was looking up and out. I hadn’t expected the desert to be so beautiful, so spacious, the colours so intense. The landscape drew me in and nourished me, so that I could settle, pray, and find peace. Today, I can see the boldness of yellow daffodils, slanting sunshine, and a powder-blue sky. Spring is emerging; bulbs are bursting with colour; nothing will hold them back.
Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. He struggled, but found not only temptations but angels who ministered to him. In the weeks he was confined in its borders, he prayed, and gradually his vocation emerged.
I, like you, have my own stuff to pray through. I hope that I can also be nourished by the season, by the unexpected beauty of place and time.
E is for Exercise
I have been out for a run or two in these days. I wouldn’t describe myself as a runner. My kit, which mostly consists of hand-me-up items from teenage children who are now much too cool for them, is by no means sleek. Getting outside and getting my heart rate up for half an hour wakens my body and my spirit. It grounds me in my humanity, enables me to express frustration, and uses my energy, making me fitter, stronger. It does seem necessary to grab this opportunity to exercise. It is a way of getting outside. I can exercise in my home, just about.
Even though I can’t go to a church, I can pray at home. I realise, though, that I’m not yet grounded in my prayer for this time. I’m restless. My practice of silent prayer tells me that this is because I notice my mind jumping about. With a prayer book, or audio, I am easily distracted. Perhaps I can learn from the times I go outside. Sometimes, I go out and walk, taking in the sky, the trees, the sunshine: a receptive mode. Sometimes, I go out for a run. It’s active, intense; and my focus dominates.
So it is, perhaps, with prayer. I’m seeking to set aside the time when I am open and receptive, open to the candle flame of God’s light, open to a verse of scripture I read or words from a written prayer. This sort of prayer can ground me in God. And I set aside a time which is prayer-focused on the needs of the world, my need to pray, to intercede for those who are ill, fearful, loved by me. This prayer wakens and engages my spirit, so that I know my need of God, and, as Jesus taught in the Beatitudes, so be blessed (Matthew 5.3).
F is for Fasting
We gave up meat for Lent in our household; but we are running out of lentils, and I would feel safer, more secure about providing for my family, if we had several portions of chilli con carne in the freezer.
Fasting comes in many forms: it is a giving up of something for some greater good, some spiritual benefit, such as solidarity; or denying yourself, so that you can give to others via a charity, perhaps. Fasting is restorative — it gives life, as those who now fast from gluten or cholesterol-soaked products can attest. Me giving up meat is a contribution to saving the planet. Now, I’m fasting from human contact so that lives can be saved. I can go out to shop for food, but not stock up: I’m limited to two of anything.
The Israelites, on pilgrimage in the desert to the Promised Land, had to rely on manna. They had to trust that God would provide the manna every morning, because, if they tried to stockpile, they discovered that it was rotten by the next day.
One spiritual benefit of this current fast from going out is awareness of a connection to other human beings, with whom I share my community and world, with people who have jobs that enable me to live now. Human beings cannot live by bread alone, as Jesus discovered while fasting (Matthew 4.4). Like those who journeyed through the desert long ago, I am learning to rely on God to provide; God, the source of all life. Give us this day our daily bread.
G is for Guilt and for Gratitude
I am not saying that there isn’t anything I am guilty of — far from it. But I find myself feeling guilty in such a way that it turns me inwards and could close me down. I feel guilty that I live in a house with a garden and so have space, when others are confined; that I am still being paid, when others are struggling financially; that I, for now, am healthy, when others are getting sick. You can see that there are a lot of “I”s there, and so I am guilty of thinking that this is all about me. So, of course, I then swing to feeling grateful, genuinely so, for my daily bread, for all that makes up my life.
Time to go deeper, I think. It’s too easy to make faith and guilt so personalised that I wallow for a bit in a feeling of guilt, only to spring out of it without the deeper acknowledgement that I am part of a world in which structural injustice means that I have and others have not. The power I have gives me a responsibility to play my part.
Perhaps what I find most hard is that I can’t save the world, or even my bit of it: I can only play my part, which, just now, is staying at home. It’s not very heroic. I can give some money from the self-denial, which results in my not being able to buy my flat white (even with the discount of a keep cup). I can play my part and be grateful for what I have now, by sharing what I can.
So, I’m seeking to give out of my gratitude — a healthier place from which to do anything at all. Gratitude is a place in my heart which can bring about healing, deepen my prayer, and have me reach out; for it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20.35).
H is for Home
I have never wanted to be a hobbit, although the prospect of a second breakfast has often appealed. The hairy feet put me off, but I have often admired the sense of home, of contentment, of being at peace in daily life — not least now.
Confined to home sharpens up in me where I am not at home in myself. Grateful for a lovely home, I am still restless, not at home, at peace. Part of that is because our world has been turned upside down with its massive impact on daily life. What I did at home, and when I did it, is now all up for grabs; and I flit between chores, work, family, and endless calls, all the time thinking that I should be doing something else, something more. Part of this, though, is just me not being at home in myself, and, like everyone else, having weaknesses exposed in these unusual times.
The hobbit Bilbo Baggins gave his memoirs the title There and Back Again. We will look back, as he did, from the perspective of having come through; but now I know I must go on an inner journey, take steps to lean into developing patience. For a start, I must take steps to be at home in myself, at peace with who I am. It is the journey of spiritual growth. Jesus spoke of the many rooms in his Father’s house prepared for us, and that he stands, at our door, not rushing off, having rung the bell, but knocking and calling so that we can hear, open the door, and share a meal (Revelation 3.20).
So, I will try, at home, to be at home in who I am, and open my door to the one who draws me deeper into life, often just by resting in the presence of light itself.
I is for invest
I so want to look back on this time, tell the tales from the perspective of a pub lunch with friends, from the future. But I don’t know when this time will end, and when I can look back. “How long?” as the psalmist says, though not to the Prime Minister. When is the halfway, the turning point? How long, O Lord?
It seems to be time to invest, to stop bracing myself for some new direction or restriction, but to be present, now. So, I have found some seeds, found a pot, and maybe some lettuce will grow. I will even be around to water it. I am investing in the future and the present both at once. I might even bake some cakes with a new recipe. I’m pretty good at taking a bit of time each day to do something nourishing, such as reading a poem or noticing beauty. That’s me investing in the present.
But I am experiencing an invitation to invest in the past. This surprises me. I know that there is sorting out to do, photos and boxes, there always is, and I’ve sat pretty lightly to much of that before. I sense an invitation to recall events of my life, which, if I do sort out photos or cupboards, will be right there in front of me. I sense a need to recall, remember, and reframe — to take the time, prayerfully, to feel what I did then.
Much will make me smile, and enlarge my gratitude, and it will be good to pause and be nourished by it. Some trips down memory lane will have me right back there — in grief, in feeling belittled — and the fear of diminishment is why I haven’t gone there. But I will, I reckon, find myself open to spending some time walking in the valley of the shadow of death and difficulty. Reframing is travelling the way of truth, which will also give life. Surely, as I travel this path, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord (Psalm 23.6).
J is for Juggle
I don’t have any juggling balls any more. The children have outgrown them. I’ve had to make do, unsuccessfully, with clementines. Quite a proficient multi-tasker (if I do say so myself), I am dropping the clementines and they are creating a squishy mess in my mind and heart. Health and hygiene — why do they keep sitting on the kitchen table? Chores and prayer — I completely forgot to light my candle at 7 p.m. last night. Keeping in touch and work — I’m sure my lovely colleagues are as sick of my face on a screen as I am of having to see theirs.
So, before I really do drop my juggling balls, I need to lay some of them down. I need not try to be a domestic goddess or super-mum. I’m not too important to take time off while home working. There do not need to be so many balls in the air. I can choose to catch one, or two, or ten, and lay them down, before they drop and break something. We are all under pressure. Stress takes up a lot of energy. Simplifying is required, not whirling around, trying to feel indispensable and important. I am these things, but, in such uncertainty, I reckon that I am looking for them in the wrong places.
Which balls do I choose to keep? How many can I hold? In the desert, the Israelites were given a command and promise which I frequently return to when overwhelmed: “Choose life so that you and your descendants might live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30.19-20).
I think it is time for me to write down on some little pieces of paper all that I think I have to do and be now. As I peel a clementine, I shall put some under the words Choose Life, (staying in, of course, goes there), some under Next Month, and others can get recycled for now, or, if I remember tonight, placed by a candle to be offered to God.
K is for Kettle
I am not finding it easy to know what day it is. That happens on holiday or in a period of sickness, but this is different. That the clocks have changed and it is getting lighter makes it even harder, because I have less grasp on the time of day, too.
I have a fancy kettle, which my daughter bought us for Christmas. It has a 90º as well as the 100º setting, which I can choose depending on whether I am making coffee or tea. The “making a drink ritual” is thus a touch more complicated this year, but my coffee tastes better. I’ve enjoyed the slowing down which the new kettle has brought, even though it is not to the standards of a Japanese tea ceremony.
Now, however, I’m never at home alone, and the kitchen always seems to be a mess. Boiling the kettle for a cuppa ritual has extended to taking my mug and finding a place to sit and be still: the lounge, the garden, a windowsill. The Psalmist boasts of praising God seven times a day (Psalm 119.164). I don’t punctuate my day with prayer like nuns and monks do, and I don’t want the clock to rule my life. I can use my kettle to remind me to take time to be grateful for something I have enjoyed or done well, pray for someone. I can sip and pause, catch up with myself, and remember the goodness of God.
L is for Laughter
And the Lord said to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come forth,” and Lazarus came fifth and won a toaster.
Some months after the Manchester Arena bombing, I was invited by their health-care chaplains to come and speak about resilience — to help them, in some small way, to make sense, personally, of what was going on for them as they cared for others. There was also a laughter workshop, which I went to. I had such a good laugh; laughing helps us in difficult times. When we laugh, we live in the present, physically and emotionally, opening our lungs and our heart. Laughter takes our minds off the past and off the future, just for a little time, perhaps. Laughter is contagious, relaxing, shared, good for you.
In the last week of Jesus’s life, he went to have supper with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In the Gospels, we often find Jesus eating and drinking, taking time out, telling stories, relaxing, being in the present. Jesus spent time with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. Despite the fear and the danger, he was able to share friendship, and I expect there was laughter, as there generally is in such a gathering. There might even have been toast. Take time to laugh in the midst of everything else.
M is for Muscle
My mother used to tell me that she had to sit down because her legs were killing her. My muscles often ache these days, when I have walked a long way or gone for a run. Partly, it’ll be because I haven’t warmed up and down as I should have; partly it’s because I’ve worked my muscles harder than they are used to.
My daughter, now a very new doctor, tells me that my legs ache because exercise causes a small amount of damage to the muscle fibres, which then send signals to other cells, which come and repair them. Working the muscles against the pull of gravity, weight-bearing exercise, strengthens you, makes you more aware of your body, and improves your balance. If you don’t keep it up, your muscle turns to fat.
I feel as if I’m bearing a weight, that we all are, in this time. I’m having to put energy into carrying on. The quality of resilience is often compared to a muscle. You need the pressure of adversity to become resilient, just like you need the pull of gravity for muscle strength. And, like exercise, you don’t arrive at a plateau: to become stronger, you have to keep up the practice, endure, go further in compassion, grow in wisdom.
Words I regularly say as a priest and find unfailingly moving are of Jesus “who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread and gave you thanks; he broke it and gave it. . .” I have prayed those words in joy and sorrow, in grief, and at the end of my strength, and encountered afresh the touch of Christ, who, under the most immense pressure of betrayal and impending death, with a fearful and aching heart, could be thankful and give of himself to others.
For him, giving in such circumstances was another aspect of a life of bringing about healing, of working for the poor, and, also, of knowing how to rest, pray, and let go into God. For me, I will continue to practise carrying on as patiently and graciously as I can, working the muscles of my spirit, even though they ache, and turning to God to bring about healing and strength.
N is for No
A wise friend told me, when I was a new mother, that you have to have a very good reason to say “No” to a toddler. I think it is true of teenagers, too. “No” is a very powerful word. I notice that when a toddler uses it they are expressing choice, agency, trying out their personality. As an adult, I find that saying “no” can be difficult, especially when there are many demands, mostly all good causes. When I do, it is liberating. When times are tough, when I am at the end of what I can manage mentally, physically, or emotionally, saying “no” draws the boundaries around who I am. It protects my very self, the core of who I am and need to be to live with integrity.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, who was treated like a brute beast in the concentration camp, wrote about his refusal to accept this definition of himself by holding on to his belief in his humanity, his memories of being loved. He withheld his consent, refused to be an object, although he was unable to change what was happening to him.
Jesus stood before those who falsely accused him, and maintained silence: a powerful way of saying no in the face of threat. He used what energy and agency he had sparingly. He said “no”, by his silence, to pointless self-justification in a kangaroo court. When he did speak from the cross, it was to entrust his loved ones — his mother, and his disciple John — to one another and to cry out to God.
In these days, with little power to change our circumstances, we can live fully as our own person, use the agency we have to do what we can to change the world: love and pray.
O is for It’s OK not to be OK
I have struggled to find a balance between being a responsible citizen aware of the issues our world is facing, and getting so overwhelmed by bad news and death tolls that my hope is eroded. Even though I limit the amount of time I listen to the news or look at a screen, and seek to give time to opening myself to what is life-giving, there are times when it’s just too sad, or I am upset and angry. I have learned that it is OK not to be OK. Indeed, not being OK is the reasonable, natural, and compassionate response to what is going on.
It can be difficult to say it, though. There’s a judgement call to be made regarding what and how much you reveal about yourself, and to whom. Society seems to say that you should always be happy, and that being sad or showing sadness is a sign of weakness. Being human involves the full range of emotional responses. Being resilient involves acknowledging what you’re having to cope with, what threatens you, as the first step to facing it and growing through the experience.
I am reminded of the prophet Elijah. He was capable, reliant on God, but otherwise pretty self-sufficient and successful. He’d challenged the false prophets of Baal, won the contest, and then had to flee from the evil Queen Jezebel. But then he wasn’t OK. Languishing in the desert, he feared for his life, felt his life was worthless, and wanted to die. Exhausted, he slept and an angel visited him, fed him, and let him sleep (1 Kings 19).
Since Elijah was unused to being on the back foot, he was very keen to tell God about all the good things that he’d been doing, and how hard life was for him. God’s response was to give him some time safely tucked away in a cave and teach him to honour silence. Elijah was too fired up, looking for God in the drama of earthquakes, wind, and fire. It took him a while to realise that God was to be found within, in a silence from which wisdom could emerge. For Elijah, that meant securing a new political leader, and someone, Elisha, to train up and eventually take over from him.
It is OK not to be OK, even — perhaps, especially — if you are unused to acknowledging the feeling. Sleep, nourishment, some cave time, and facing what is tough, not in the drama of it, but in a calm quietness, are necessary steps to honouring where you are at. You may well find the support of an angel or two, and, later, insights that bring wisdom, purpose, and a future.
P is for Pattern
I have noticed, as I usually do, when I have any sustained period of time alone, that my mind still chatters on, even if I have no one to talk to. Chattering wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s the rumination which drags me down: the repeating pattern which goes on and on and never ends and I know erodes good mental health. I might be replaying conversations. I might be justifying or accusing myself.
Distraction is a good technique, and most of us, I expect, distract ourselves from unproductive trains of thought before they ever arise — by filling our ears and eyes with something else: radio, TV, social media. But being alone more often, and without much of the bustle of normal life — that is harder. The thoughts begin before I realise, and, once they have begun, pushing them aside leaves me feeling empty inside. I know that I need to face them and refuse them their power over me.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the fourth and fifth century were familiar with patterns of thought that took people away from a focus on what is true, beautiful, loving, and good. These they called impure thoughts — thoughts that led not to wholeness but to fragmentation. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah (10,15), Abba Poemen said: “Is the axe any use without someone to cut with it? If you do not make use of these thoughts, they will be ineffectual, too.”
We have to stop the negative patterns of our thought, and cut them off before they take hold. Perhaps the hardest part of turning away from negative repeating patterns of thought is a lurking sense that they might be true. Worries, a sense of shame, fear for oneself and loved ones — these are real. These can be offered to God, left at the foot of the cross each morning or evening, by lighting a candle, or on a daily walk, pausing at places on your route to offer a situation to God.
Like the pattern of a dress or wallpaper, you can choose to focus on the bright and rich colours in the pattern. A pattern of prayer does this. When I notice the dull patterns which will take me nowhere good, I find that a verse from a hymn or the Bible can axe a negative spiral and redirect me. Just now, I am repeating “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3.22). I know a sung version that I’ve been using to help me wash my hands properly and it has stuck.
This seems to me to be a time to form new patterns of daily life, and also to notice old unproductive patterns of thought. Notice, offer to God what cannot be held lightly, and choose some colourful shapes and threads to weave into a new and renewing pattern for your mind.
Q is for Quiet Time
I went away to school in my teenage years. One of the key features of the morning routine was the bells, to wake us up, and then for quiet time. Quiet time lasted for ten minutes, from 7.20 a.m. until the breakfast bell. In the evening, quiet time was the ten minutes before lights out.
I don’t think it was the ritual, actually, that taught me either a rhythm of prayer or how to pray. Since we had to be sitting on our beds, what we could do was limited, but I do remember learning how to plait my own hair, French plait other people’s, and put my hair in a bun. This has been a useful skill; and, indeed, now I’ve thought about it, doing something with my fingers does quieten me, even though it’s years since I’ve had long hair to brush. Roman Catholic friends might talk about handling rosary beads, and Methodist friends about pastimes such as knitting, which form part of quiet time in prayer.
Even when we are experiencing more quiet than usual, though maybe less solitude, we still need quietening and the peace and solace it brings. Jesus was known to get up and go off to find a place to be by himself and pray, because, before long, someone would be looking for him (Mark 1.35).
The physical movement of walking can be good preparation for quietening the soul, for then sitting and looking up, out and within. Quietening usually requires a bit of effort and rhythm, both to settle the body and encourage the soul. You don’t flop, but are renewed, at home, in peace.
The Psalmist compared resting in God to the experience of a nursing mother and baby: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Psalm 131.2). I learned to say my prayers sitting on my bed, as a child, in my own space. It was also where I fed my babies, propped up by pillows.
So, in these unusual times, when I can’t go to church, I am open to quietening myself at home, and to enlarging my peace and resting in God, in new and old ways, with pillows, walking shoes, or a hairbrush.
R is for Resurrection
Resilience is all about coming through adversity well, stronger, so that, when you look back, you can see growth, and even treasure difficult times for what they have brought you.
I can see some of the difficulties of my life in this way. Right now, I, like you and the whole world, am right in the middle of something — maybe not as far as the middle. I wish I were, but I’m not in a place to look back, it all being over. Being resilient is not about being invincible and gritting my teeth, but about having set up what I need to cope, and finding that I can rebuild my life. More than a rubber ball bouncing back up and recovering its shape, a resilient person comes through wiser and more compassionate. You cannot go back to what was, to normal: you always move on, more mature, or otherwise diminished.
An empty cross, or one made of precious metal and jewels, or brightly coloured, points to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus has come through death to new life. Resurrection goes with remembering the awful things in a new way, a way that can forgive, a way which is open to reconciliation. It goes with freedom and new life. But we are not there yet. I am still confined, separated, suffering as part of a suffering world. Even though it is the Easter season, Good Friday seems more appropriate. There is more to endure in this pandemic.
A lovely cross, however colourful or precious, is still a cross: a method of torture and execution. But it declares that death and destruction do not have the last word. Light and love absorb, heal, and overcome. The texture of human life is made up of light and darkness; both are always present. The resurrected Jesus is recognised because of his wounds.
I struggle because I want to know when this will be over, when I can get back to normal. But there is no going back from the cross, from this. The path Jesus revealed for us to follow is life-giving, but it makes us vulnerable. He trusted that God would bring him through, even though he did not know how: “Your will not mine” (Luke 22.42), and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46).
Sometimes, we have to let go, put down our defences, and acknowledge that we don’t know what comes next, or how anything good could come of now. This is one of those times: today, this week, and other weeks. We might shout, or stamp, or cry. The low points are often the ones at which God can work in us most easily: the points of realising that we are not in control, but that the God who can raise the dead holds us, and will bring us to life again. Let go and trust.
S is for Support
I loved the bit in Thunderbirds when Lady Penelope removed the underwire from her bra, so that her manservant Parker could pick a lock. Bras are not meant to be useful, though: they are meant to be supportive. A bra should be comfortable, it should lift and separate, like a conversation where you have sought to give support and realise that you have also received support.
By being separate, I mean being able to give of oneself, not trying to do what we cannot, such as carry someone else’s burdens. We can lift another’s spirits, choose what we can give (daily, weekly), what we can’t give, and, very importantly, be reliable. These things enable us to maintain a healthy separation and support others effectively.
So, may I suggest that you seek to be like a good bra in the conversations that you have? There’s always a bit of an issue about how to put on a bra, the fastening generally being behind your back. Beginnings matter. I know that an answer to the question “How are you?” sets a tone, and, if I am careless, it can have me plunging into unhelpful whinging, or being buttoned up, revealing nothing.
Shape is important: paying attention to the shape of a conversation supports someone having a hard time. I know that conversations which lift me when I am low are those where someone has taken the trouble to tell me something about their life, or ask me a question which expands my horizon, helping me to envisage something beautiful. When someone acknowledges in words what’s hard for me, without minimising or drawing too much attention to my vulnerability, I feel supported.
Changes in life, such as pregnancy or surgery, require a re-engagement with the dreaded cold tape-measure and scrutiny of early teenage years. We do need to stop seeking support where it can no longer be found, and to seek what or who can give us care and confidence.
And then there is cup size and the bewildering choice of fabric and style. I do not want to be trivial, but although the Bible does not mention bras, there is much about accepting ourselves as created and loved by God. Jesus speaks of the cup of suffering (Matthew 26.39), the Psalmist of a cup which runs over with joy (Psalm 23.5). In every aspect of life, knowing that God is with us and being supported by others makes it possible to live well. Make that call.
T is for Tortoise
I am someone who has usually done a great deal before breakfast: the washing will be in the machine or on the line, the dishwasher unpacked. This habit comes, in part, from years of needing to get children up and out before I could start work. Now that spring is here, the tortoise, out of hibernation, needs to be fed and watered every morning. This pet, you understand, isn’t mine. The child the tortoise belongs to is not yet in a position to accommodate it. I was told that this would happen by others wiser than me, and I heeded the advice, agreeing to a low-maintenance tortoise.
And Nettle, for that is her name, shows me every morning that, even before nibbling that yellow flower, she needs to be in the sunshine. No basking at first, just being there, cold and still. After the night, Nettle, having been out of the sunlight, can do nothing. She may be low-maintenance, but being in the sun is essential and has to come first. After that, she races around, really (remember that tortoise and hare fable?), eats, basks, and sleeps.
Nettle reminds me that it is not doing things before breakfast that is the issue; it is doing anything at all if I haven’t placed myself in the light and presence of God — not just to acknowledge my creatureliness before the creator, but to be warmed and energised.
It need only be a pause, a glance, a sentence — spoken or sung. Then I act out of the gift of life, connected to God, not deluded that I can live self-sufficiently. Jesus described himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches (John 15.5). Abide is what he asks of his followers: abide in him, in his presence, because, apart from the vine, the branches cannot live, cannot be fruitful. They wither and die, or, because they are useless, get lopped off.
Prayer, being in the presence of God, has been expanding for me. I have noticed the life around me; I have needed to put myself in the presence of beauty, stillness, and colour, and have fewer words. I need to join Nettle in just being in the light, before doing anything else.
U is for Umbrella
I’m hardly going out, of course, in this lockdown. When I do, because I have to restrict my normal interactions and keep distance, I feel unsure, disturbed. At worst, I feel shunned. By concentrating on not getting physically close to anyone, I know that I protect others and myself. But I feel I need another kind of protection — not a mask, but some inner truth or wisdom which reaffirms my humanity: one that can recognise the utter unnaturalness of separation, and soothe my heartache when I go for a walk and have to cross over to the other side of the road because I see another human being.
Spring usually has me carrying an umbrella to dodge getting soaked by the unpredictability of April showers. I have to work hard not to break, lose, or forget my umbrella; so I either have one which is distinctive and big, so as not to lose it, or one that I can fold up and carry in my bag, so as not to forget it. When I put my umbrella up, it covers me, shelters me, and keeps me dry. As I child, I loved looking up through the colours, holding my mother’s hand. Now I’m always surprised at how intimate it seems to share an umbrella with someone else.
The Ancient Egyptians and the Romans used umbrellas; the word comes from the Latin and means “a little shadow”. For them, umbrellas provided protection from the sun rather than the rain. A parasol and an umbrella are, for the most part, the same thing.
The Psalmist describes God as being the shade which protects us from sunstroke. At the beginning of Psalm 121, the writer encourages us to lift our eyes to the hills and look to God for help. At the end of the psalm, the writer tells us: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, for this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121.8).
So, I have begun to think that the protection that I need to remember in my going out and coming in is the inner assurance of the dignity of my humanity, created by God. Like a long black umbrella that doubles as a walking stick and goes nicely with a bowler hat, God, as my protector, provides strength on which to lean and confidence to venture out into the outside world. Just as an umbrella enables me to look up — to the hills to God — and also see that there is path ahead, I can recognise that, like a shower, this time will pass.
I cannot now offer shelter to others under an umbrella; but I can, by my actions, extend protection to those who are out when I am, and, by my prayers, ask God to watch over those who stay in. And I will choose the colours and shape of my inner umbrella to reflect who I am: a human being, made in the image of God.
V is for Voice
I am not using my voice as I usually do. It’s more often transmitted through some device, and it feels strained, dry, odd. Using one ear on the phone so often makes listening to other people’s voices unbalanced, although it is lovely to hear the voices of people I know well, and it takes me nearer to feeling their presence. I remember when I first heard my recorded voice and couldn’t believe that it was me. Hearing me as others hear me still makes me wince and realise how far I must have to go in being less hung up on externals and accepting myself as I am.
In these days, I am wondering what I have discovered about myself that is more my true self than the way I was living before. We speak about finding our voice to describe times when we are able to express our own opinions or tell our own story. Life isn’t balanced now, but I am finding a voice within me which wants to add new tunes to the song book of my life. Some are definitely tunes, without all the words that so often filled my days; some are songs of thankfulness, praise, lament. I realise that I must feel more free to use my voice and express myself, because I notice that I have begun to sing, on my own, without accompaniment.
Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who knows each of his sheep. They recognise him, he says, because they know his voice and listen for it; because he provides for them and leads them (John 10.14). In these days, without the noise of traffic and much else, listening out for what and who calls us forward, as well as listening to our deepest selves, will take us forward, so that we might live more fully (John 10.10).
W is for Weary
Monotony, every day and week being the same and with no clear sense of when it will end, leaves me weary. Even though there’s much I should and even want to do, I can’t be bothered with it all. I find my strength is sapped, and I feel too tired to endure. I could just lie down or flop on a sofa. But my weariness isn’t assuaged by collapsing into bed. I have been duped into thinking that rest is having nothing to do, and doing nothing is something I don’t find restful. I need the kind of rest which renews and recharges me.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28). Many burdens come from external sources and worries. I have to sift these and lay many down. I know I also need God’s grace to free me from the burdens I place upon myself, even though I notice they bring no good. I get weary of the inner drivers of my mind: thoughts that push me to believe that, if something needs doing, it should be me, or, if I said that I’d do something, I shouldn’t rest until I have.
The biblical principal of sabbath time provides for rest and recreation. Sabbath means stop, and I know that there are times I must just stop. I can stop, recognise that I need rest, and it can even create the space and opportunity for others to step in. Stopping is an essential first step to rest. Being in the company of those who accept and love me eases my weariness, helps me feel safe and relaxed.
Jesus promises rest, the kind of acceptance and care that connects us to our humanity. We need constantly to be recreated, connect to beauty, nature, love. Noticing our weariness and then stopping for a while, or a day, enables us to seek the source of our life and find rest.
X is for X-ray
I think that it is my posh shoes which I am missing most not wearing, being in all the time. I have stopped wearing makeup, on the whole, even for calls on which I can be seen; and as for my hair. . . My attention, more than ever, is focused inward, on the effects on me of what the day brings, what I engage in, what enters my world. I can see or hear in others, too, the effects of anxiety and frustration as it emerges from under the surface.
We are sent to have an X-ray to look inside, beneath the surface of our bodies at what might be broken or going wrong in some other way. Something might not look right, or we might be in pain, and the X-rays, able to pass through our bodies, reveal the dense bones as white, and softer tissues as shades of grey. A skilled professional will interpret what is seen, and a doctor will treat. Commonly, for a break, a limb is put in some sort of cast to keep it still and aligned, to aid the natural healing of the body.
When the prophet Samuel was looking for a king to rule the people, God told him not to focus on the external appearance or height, for “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7).
When God looks at us, it isn’t to see what is wrong with us (though we might bring our brokenness and the pain of the world to God). God looked at the heart of the youngest son of Jesse, David, and saw potential and possibility in this person who showed loyalty and love, courage and care.
Too often, when I look under the surface of myself or of another, my approach is to analyse or judge. God, the great physician, looks on my heart and the potential in me. God sees the brokenness in order to heal. Just now, the world and I are provided with stillness for a realignment. Let us look beneath the surface and set our lives and limbs, so that healing will come.
Y is for Yearning
After weeks of being in, there are some things that I miss, like sitting round a table with friends or colleagues, and some that I don’t miss, like traffic jams. I am conscious of another, deeper sort of missing: a sustained and tender longing or yearning. It is quite specific — for people I love and haven’t seen for too long, or may even never see again. And it is a more general but focused yearning for the simple and good things of life to return, like having a coffee outside at a street café while watching the world go by.
Lockdown is not like war, because then, although there were curfews and blackouts, people could gather and interact in the ordinary ways in which a society does: at work, school, and socially. In war, people long for peace, of course, and so do we — a peace which is more than the absence of war. Peace, Shalom, means the integration of lives in mutual fulfilment and harmony. It is essentially creative, reconciling, connecting. That is what we mean when we hear and say “Peace be with you.”
My favourite psalm is Psalm 42, in which we find the deer yearning for the dried-up river beds to flow with water again. The deer yearns to drink, just as “my soul longs for you, O God”. The psalmist feels that God is not listening or doing anything, but, in feeling the yearning in prayer, comes through to “hope in God, for I shall again praise, my help and my God”. My yearning is, at least, threefold: to hold again those I love; to take my place as part of a wider peace, a new society; and to hope, in the steadfast love of God by day and at night, God’s song with me (Psalm 42.8).
Z is for Zip
The end of the alphabet, but then what does it matter which order the letters come in? Even a keyboard doesn’t follow the order we all know. We do need some markers in a landscape where the horizon doesn’t get nearer. Some time, clock time, marches on, each month after weeks, after days. Some time is more profound, and we sense that a time, a turning point, a marker has been reached.
Zips are a lot faster than buttons: you can zip up and unzip easily. But zips have a habit of getting stuck. Some zips don’t lead anywhere at all: they are just for show, to make you think there’s a useful pocket.
Life has slowed down, and I, like you, am living differently. I have more time for the present moment. I am open, unzipped now to what comes through my senses, particularly nature, the wind, colour. I am conscious that I have become more open to myself, less judgemental, less demanding of myself and others. Yes, I can see a pile of unsorted papers, a floor that needs to be swept; and, mostly, there is a space between seeing and acting, a space where I can choose to sweep, or to read, to sort or to ask someone if they would. Once, I would have found myself stuck in frustration, trapped between the teeth of immediate action or suppressed resentment.
I don’t want to lose what I am unzipped for, open to now. I want this time to be more than a zip there for show, serving no purpose. I’d like to keep my sensitivity to myself, and I hope to others, but I guess, as I think about zips, that I’ll need to zip up or close down some things to create time and space for what is life giving now. The days of lockdown because of the Covid 19 pandemic will come to an end, but, for God, “one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as one day” (2 Peter 3.8).
Time passes, and inner growth and wisdom endures, folded into who we are, within God, in whom all time dwells.
The Ven. Dr Justine Allain Chapman is the Archdeacon of Boston, in Lincoln diocese. She is the author of Resilient Pastors: the role of adversity in healing and growth and The Resilient Disciple: a Lenten journey from adversity to maturity (both published by SPCK).