On beauty

I find lots of different things hard. But one hard thing that keeps coming back, time and time again, is the hard thing of beauty.
The other day a nurse came into my hospital room, saw our wedding picture which I had on the wall and commented on how different I looked. It was a throwaway comment. But it’s one that I went into the bathroom and cried about. It’s one that I just can’t get out of my mind. Because it’s true. On our wedding day I did look different. CF didn’t affect me in the same ways as it does now. One month after our wedding I picked up MRSA, got a lot more ill and things have changed hugely since then. I’ve been on antibiotics which yellow my teeth, I’ve moved from osteopenia to osteoporosis, when I’m on IVs my hair starts to fall out, my skin gets dry and more translucent, my back hunches over more and more, a reaction to an anti-sickness tablet had far-reaching effects and the list goes on. And then I have the PEG, the port and oxygen tubes which are all external reminders.

I look in the mirror and see Cystic Fibrosis. I see the difference from my peers. I see who I used to be and the changes that make me who I am now. And it hurts so much. So many small things, stripped away. Making me ever weaker and realising all the more my need for a God who sustains and strengthens in different ways.

God is an artist. He sculpts and creates us. But I’ve come to realise that God is an artist who specialises in mosaics. Beautiful things made out of broken pieces. The breaking is hard but slowly, piece by piece, we are refashioned into something more interesting, more faithful and more beautiful.

I certainly feel that way. I’ve been broken many times and in many ways. But as each hard thing, like a rock, breaks down yet another part of me that I thought was good or pretty or useful, I see God picking up the pieces, reshaping them and rebuilding me.

I struggle to learn this lesson. Every now and then I hear a comment or glance in the mirror and all the sad, ugly feelings come rushing back. But this is just another step in the upside-down Gospel journey. What seems like weakness, is built up into strength. What seems like failure, is success far greater than this world can imagine. And what looks like ugliness, is transformed into beauty.

That’s the truth. And even the truth itself is beautiful.

On being helped

I love to help. I love to be the one that people come to when there’s a problem. I love the idea of cooking meals for people, driving people places, looking after their children and other great things.

I don’t love to be helped. I’m a very independent person. Doing things alone means a lot to me. I love being in control and getting things done.

Which means that the last year has been very difficult for me. Gradually I’ve found myself in the position of someone who needs to be helped. The help-ee, you might say. Family and friends bring us the odd meal and take me shopping, help clean our house and drive me places. It’s pretty hard. I always found it easy to be the helper but this new role is one that doesn’t fit me. It’s like putting on a new dress and realising that it’s too short and the sleeves are in the wrong place. It just looks stupid on me. I’m not the help-ee. This isn’t who I am. It ruins my own view of myself.

It takes a certain sort of grace to be helped. It requires a tearing down of pride. At times, I just can’t bear it. It feels as if everything is being taken away from me right down to my ability to cook and clean in my own home. After all, I should be able to do things for myself, right? Wrong.

I think I’m learning the real meaning of ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’ Sometimes I’m tempted to have a chat with the Almighty and set him straight: ‘You know, Lord, I’d much rather be able to do things for myself. I’ll trade back again. You can have your grace back and I’ll have my little independent world in order again. Thanks.’

But in my sane moments, the ones where I’m looking to my Lord, I realise that in the taking away itself there is a new giving. God never leaves you with nothing. That’s not His nature. When He takes something away he replaces it with something new and something better. Just like you’d expect from a ever-loving, gift-giving, cup-overflower like our God.

And so, my job is to pray, ‘Lord, thanks for the taking, thanks for the giving. And for now, give me ever more grace to be helped.’

On easy living

Call me strange, but I struggle with having an easy life.

I know, I know, my life doesn’t look that easy. But after a bad spell even the simplest things make my life easier. Being able to get up in 2 hours instead of 3 or 4. Not feeling ill all the time. Having a bit of energy to have people to visit or chat on the phone. Not being tired and thinking about bed all day long. Tiny things they may be but they make a big difference. And the difference they make is not just one of a slightly easier practical life but one of a slightly harder spiritual life.

The thing is, when I have quiet after my storm, when I have downhill strolls after my uphill hike, I slip, quickly and easily, into dissatisfaction. I have time and energy to think about the things that my life is missing. I notice the differences between my life and other people’s. I begin to think that things would be better if only I had a baby, a career, a long life expectancy, or whatever that day’s gripe might be.

You see, when I’m in a hospital room or sitting in our flat able to do nothing, I have to run to God. There’s no other way. When things are hard, it’s obvious we can’t do it alone. When illness pervades my life and my mind can only focus on one thing, it fixes on my Lord.

And that’s why David and I sit on our sofa in the evening and thank our Father for the trials and the hardships. That’s why we feel a little scared when we’re thrust into the world of easy living. And that’s why, in a strange, the-world-wouldn’t-understand kind of way, we look forward to our next lesson. No, we’re not being masochistic or martyr-like. We’re just learning lessons. And right now we’re realising that the best place to be is focusing on God and it’s worth whatever it takes to get there.

On being scared

Before I came into hospital this time someone asked me if I was scared. My fairly unhelpful response was to burst into tears and abandon the phone. But it was a good question.

I’m not scared of death. Why would I be? I firmly believe in an eternity of glory. Bring it on.

Dying, however, is a different thing.
I’m scared of a long and painful dying.
I’m scared of years of watching life go by, as I’m able to do less.
I’m scared of the pain things cause my family.
I’m scared of leaving my husband alone.
So, yes, I’m scared.

At times I think that I’ve lost my faith. After all, how could someone who is so scared and worried be truly trusting in God’s plan? A friend said this to me: ‘Faith is still faith even when you are holding on by your fingertips.’ And it’s so true.

Every day I find something hard. It’s usually health related. And often I can’t find the words when it comes speaking to God about it. In my latest really not great spell, I could hardly make sense of anything. I went in and out of consciousness. But all the time two words echoed round my head: ‘Please Lord.’ I didn’t know what I was asking. I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But in my fear, I went to the one safe place. I ran to my Father. And that was enough.

God doesn’t demand total and perfect faith and hold it against me when I don’t deliver.
He doesn’t lose his temper when I don’t learn my lessons first time.
And He listens to my prayers when I cry out to Him. Even if those cries are just two words spoken into silence.

In my life, fear isn’t a barrier to faith. It’s a bridge. When I’m scared, I need somewhere to run. And my Father has shown me that in those times He’s the kindest, He’s the best and He’s the safest place to run.

Small hard things

I sit on my sofa staring out into the world. I see the vivid green of the overgrown lawn. I see the tiny, moving specks of black that are flies hovering over plants. I see the great dark silhouette of a bird of prey. I see the darkening clouds fast approaching. All parts of life.

There’s a wasp in the room with me. He flies back and forth, crashing repeatedly against windows in his desperation to escape. After every crash, he flies back into the big, open space of our sitting room, braces himself and tries again. He sees something better. He wants more. I’ll try not to be offended that he doesn’t seem to enjoy my hospitality.

I sit on my sofa listening to the world. I hear the deep rumble as a train approaches the nearby station and the almighty clatter as it passes through. I hear the slam of a car door as our neighbour returns from her working day. I hear the rustle of the leaves as the wind teases them playfully. All parts of life.

And I am here, alone. Quiet. Peaceful.

Sometimes I like to be alone. There’s beauty and simplicity in a day spent quietly alone. Running errands, clearing up and cleaning, reading, sewing, sitting, thinking, seeing, listening, being. That’s the introvert in me. But at other times the extrovert, tiny little girl that she is, fights her way through and asks to be with people. And at those times, on those days, being alone is a hard thing.

There’s a whole lot of my life that is made up of easy things. Maybe that’s why I notice the hard things and feel them keenly. But it’s ok to notice hard things and to feel hard things. God gives us hard things and expects them to be hard. If they weren’t then they’d be easy things. Doh. And while easy things are good, they don’t help you to do much growing.

Speaking of hard things, I should go and make dinner. Don’t laugh at me. Cooking day in, day out, is a hard thing for me. Hard things can be small. Don’t worry if you find small things hard. It’s ok. That’s fine. But keep at them. Come on, let’s face the hard things together. Jesus is here too. He’s good at hard things.

But first, I’ll just let out that wasp.

Look up and look out

‘Be careful what you pray for because it might just happen.’
It’s true. Answers to prayer come in ways that I was never expecting. And often they’re extremely annoying ways. I pray for patience and end up in hospital. I pray for strength and have a diabetes scare. I pray for joy and watch as another part of my world comes crumbling down.

Life is a battle. It’s hard down here in the trenches. It’s hard fighting for your life every day. Fighting for joy. Fighting for hope. Fighting for strength. That’s the thing about being in the trenches. It’s hard to look up and see out over the battlefield. But it’s vital.

Come with me. I need you to see something. You stand on my shoulders, then I’ll stand on yours. Look out, up above the trenches, over the muddied field. Look out past the old, wooden cross. Do you see that flash of white? Do you hear that sound? That’s our King, that’s our Captain. He’s on his white horse, his sword’s in his mouth and his crown is firmly on his head. That’s the sound of the armies of heaven following him. That, my friend, is the sight and sound of victory.

It should be easier to fight when the victory has been won. But often it doesn’t seem like it. And that’s because I forget to look up. I forget the glory. I forget the honour. And I forget how God answers prayer. Just ask Jesus. Not my will but yours. But be careful praying that because it might just happen.

It gets harder…

It’s always a sign that things aren’t going well when the baby steps you take get even harder. Foetus steps isn’t a phrase and there’s a good reason for that! Marathons get harder and feel longer when you slow up.

Things took a turn for the worse in our house recently. It was pretty grim. It ended with a GP’s visit, a hospital appointment and a hospital bed. We found out a couple of days ago that if we hadn’t gone through the GP and had a hospital appointment, I would have been put onto a 5 week long waiting list. God never ceases to amaze.

And yet it makes me so ashamed that when God was sorting out my not having to wait for 5 weeks, I was complaining. ‘God, why am I so ill? What is this? Can’t we just have a year of marriage when things go smoothly? Ok, 3 months? Even better, just take CF away, Lord. I don’t want it. It’s not fair, surely you can see that.’ I’m called to trust in the small things and so often I’m blind and so often I’m ungrateful.

This little bout of illness has done two things, taken me into two phases.
The first is the realisation that life will never again be easy. I used to think it was. But I’m older now, a tiny bit wiser. And I know. I know when things aren’t going well. I know when life gets harder.
The second is the realisation that life will never be as wonderful as what’s coming. I watch people having babies and it hurts. Look at the King, Ruth. Look at his Glorious Kingdom. That’s where you’re going. Now go and have fun playing with the baby. I watch people playing sports and having fun and it hurts. Look at the King, Ruth. Look at his Glorious Kingdom. That’s where you’re going. Now go and have fun being a cheerleader. I watch people advancing in careers and it hurts. Look at the King, Ruth. Look at his Glorious Kingdom. That’s where you’re going. Now go and have fun listening to people’s stories and encouraging them.

There’s a reason we’re told that God does all things for our good. It’s because it’s true. And in tiny ways I’m being allowed to see this truth. Come and look through the cracks in life with me. Light seems brightest when it’s shining through a small crack. Walk into its glare and you’re dazzled. Better yet, sit down in the ray and bask in the warmth and light of our Father’s choices for us.

There’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t run, some days walking is hard. But I will outrun my illness. For now I can run metaphorically into the arms of my Saviour. I look forward to the day when I will physically run into Glory taking deep gulps of breath. And maybe even yell ‘Hooray!’ at the same time.

On colds, worlds and Glory

I’m sitting on a chair in the living room. I’ve just got dressed. It was a huge effort, much bigger than it should have been. I can’t speak. At least, when I try to nothing more than a croak comes out. My ears are misbehaving so that sounds seem more distant than I know they really are. I feel like I’m in a different world. My own private world. It’s lonely and it’s me-centred.

I don’t imagine that anyone likes being unwell. No, me neither. For one thing, it’s so annoying. Doesn’t my body know that I have things to do? Surely worlds will stop when I’m not there doing my bit. I am very important. Or perhaps not. Perhaps everything will carry on without me. It seems to be doing fine while I’m here sitting on my chair.
Well, ok. Maybe life doesn’t stop. But what about my opinions? I can’t speak, can’t enter conversations. I have things to say, worlds to change by my words, people to influence. But maybe they’re better off without my words. Maybe more of my words tear down than build up.

Being ill comes as a sharp reality check. Even though I know that my plans for myself aren’t guaranteed, it’s always a bit of a shock when God’s plans are different. When I have to cancel those dinner plans. Miss seeing those people. Keep those thoughts to myself.
Being ill tears down the wall of pride and self-importance that I like to build. Oh, I’m pretty quick at building it but God breathes and it crumbles beneath his glorious plans. I don’t like to see it crumble. In fact, I get pretty cross about the whole affair. Sure, I know what I’m supposed to do. I know the thank you prayers I’m supposed to pray. But seeing my wall fall down hurts. Every time.
Being ill pushes me along the path to Glory. It’s not a gentle push. It’s more like a poke with a cattle prod. I often try to resist it but, God be praised, he’s a lot stronger than I am.

I say this stuff. I believe this stuff. But I’m not sure that before I’m made new and perfect, before I meet Jesus I’ll even begin to really understand this. But as I sit here on my chair, I don’t have to understand it. I know that Glory is coming, and I’m getting a preview right now.

The Valley of Vision

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine;
let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty,
Thy glory in my valley.
             ~ Arthur Bennett