Confessions of a bad mother and a bad worshipper

Grief affects the whole family, but affects us all differently.  An experience that should draw everyone together, can instead be divisive.  I have one ill daughter, one disabled daughter and one neglected daughter at present.  I feel I ought to be giving all of them more attention than I am.  I also feel I’m so overwhelmed by my own emotions that I haven’t any energy left over for handling theirs.   As a result we get irritated with each other and tempers fray.  Bad mother.

After witnessing a fracas between me and one of my daughters this morning, a friend reminded me that we all need to lean on each other, but no one can do more leaning than weight-bearing, or we all collapse.  Wise words.   This afternoon I flicked on the radio in time to hear a song with the line, “I worship You and I hide in the shadow of Your wings”.

I realised that the reason I’m short on patience with my daughters is that I’ve allowed my focus to be trained in the wrong direction.  It’s good to be self-aware, but to be self-analytical is to turn my focus away from Jesus.  Instead of worship, which makes me lose myself only to find my true self in Him and Him dwelling in me, I stare at the problems and the feelings, which then loom large.

I love to lie in bed at night with my curtains open, looking up at the night sky, feeling the mystery of having my own place in this vast universe, occupying a slot created just for me.  But if that’s where it stops, it’s not enough; it should lead me into quiet communion with the Maker of it all.  And lately, I’ve neglected that, caught up in my own overwhelming feelings.  Bad worshipper.

By the end of this morning, my daughter and I had apologised to each other and I had made a peace-offering cup of coffee!  Repairing the minor damage done to that relationship isn’t too difficult – just a bit of grace and forgiveness on both sides, and, of course, a hug, because wrapped in someone’s arms it’s hard to doubt that they love you.  She hasn’t rejected me as a bad mother!

As for the other relationship – with the One I worship – I ask myself where that has gone wrong, and what needs to be done to put it right.  One thing I can identify is that, for many years I was in the habit of getting up early, spending time in prayer, worship and reading the Bible.  I journaled my walk with God and my prayer life.  It was good from time to time to read back over it, see where I had come from, and marvel at the things God had done in my life.  It started out as a real thrill – I gradually woke up earlier and earlier in order to spend more and more time with the One I loved.

But somehow, over time – especially, perhaps, as my marriage was failing, my heart was taking a battering and my ability to trust was being eroded – the very thing that had been an exciting and life-imparting tryst with the Lover of my soul began to become a legalistic ritual, devoid of life and maintained simply because it was something I’d always done and thought I ought to do.  There came a point where I strongly felt it was right to stop it and find other, more creative ways of meeting with God.  I began to encounter Him more in the ordinary moments of life, just as I had when I first began those early morning meetings with Him.

That was all well and good to start with, but over time I seem once again to have moved from knowing God as my dwelling-place, living all the time in the shadow of His wings, to having Him as my hiding place – I know where to go when trouble hits, but I am increasingly hungry for His presence and longing for the days when He was my constant place of residence.  So I am again going to start to get up early and resume those meetings with Him in the quiet before the rest of the household is awake, not because I ought to or it’s what I’ve been taught, but because He says that the way to rekindle our first love is to do the things we did at first – and the memories of those sweet early mornings are still vivid.  I shall wrap myself in the prayer-shawl made for me by my friend Cynthia, which itself became for me a symbol of God’s presence, and which I haven’t used for a while.  I’m confident that as I do the first things, the first love will be rekindled.

But crucially, just as my daughters understand that I’m grieving too, and haven’t rejected me as a bad mother, God understands more than anyone, more than I do myself, and neither has He rejected me as a bad worshipper.  His heart is beautifully expressed in this extract, taken from a hymn which my eldest daughter chose for her father’s funeral:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice
Which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

If our love were but more simple
We should take Him at His word,
And our life be filled with glory
From the glory of the Lord.
(Frederick William Faber, 1814 – 1863)

Dealing with Grief (2)

Two weeks ago I sat on Worthing beach and admitted to God that I am not all right.  So what has happened since then?  The immediate thing that happened was a profound sense of relief – that it’s all right not to be all right sometimes.

The other thing was a deeper sense of engagement with God.  I think this is always the result when we are honest with Him.  It’s not that what we tell Him comes as a startling revelation to Him, of course not – He already knew how I was feeling better than I knew it myself.  But somehow being deeply honest with Him about exactly how I am takes down a barrier of my own making and ushers me further into His embrace.  It’s a good place to be.  I would even say, from fairly long experience, it’s worth the pain we go through to get to that place.

That was a discovery I first made in 1996 when Ellen had just had major spinal surgery.  It saved her life which was by then hanging by a thread.  But it also robbed her of some of the scant use she still had left of her limbs and worsened her disabilities.  And as her mother I discovered such a depth of comfort in Jesus that I realised it’s worth anything we go through just to know that our comfort comes from Him; because if we were never in need of comfort, or never admitted our need, there’s a whole aspect of Jesus we would never encounter.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had a bit of a meltdown – I’m still quite fragile, and it doesn’t take much to push me into scary-not-coping territory – this week it was something as minor as both our pets being ill that was the final straw.

But, gradually, I am starting to feel, if not all right, then at least that I can see I will at some point be all right again.  This is a journey. It can only be taken step-by-step.  Flying leaps don’t get you further along, they just result in faceplants.  Maybe the Psalmist knew that when he wrote, “The steps of a good man (or woman!) are ordered by the Lord, and He delights in his way.”  Step by step God has marked out this path for me, and as I make each tiny forward movement He is delighted with my progress.

That definitely makes this more bearable because it becomes purposeful.  Somehow, somewhere, this experience I am going through fits into God’s great scheme of things, and its purpose will one day be revealed.  So I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death, not setting up camp here.


Dealing with grief

I have just re-read C.S. Lewis’s small book, A Grief Observed.  I have read it several times before, and it just seemed pertinent reading for me at the moment.  Some elements of his experience are, I suppose, pretty universal, except that not everybody would have his outstanding ability to capture it in words.

Other elements I don’t identify with.  He describes grief as feeling very like fear, and I can’t say that has been my experience – at least, not so far.  There is a definite sense of it being totally outside my control, but that is already a familiar feeling, having been through a disintegrating marriage and a very unwanted divorce which my most strenuous efforts over many years failed to avert.  I have stopped fearing the loss of control, and have become more certain of God’s trustworthiness when life is out of control than of any other fact in the universe.

Nonetheless, I am not OK.  On Sunday I was willing certain people to ask me how I was.  There were a few people present with whom I would have felt safe enough not to wear what my father used to call an “evangeli-grin” and say “fine”.  There were a few people I wanted to get hold of and say “I am not OK, and I don’t know what to do about it.”  Thankfully one of them did ask me and has kept in regular touch with me all week.

I’m someone who likes my solitude but right now (just as all my closest friends are going away on holiday!) I feel as if I need people around me.  Yesterday I wanted to scream at the universe, “I AM NOT ALL RIGHT!”

Today I went down to the sea shore.  Not the gently beautiful Mediterranean nor the majestically moving Atlantic, just the sea front at Worthing, the place of my birth.  Still, the sea is the sea and I think there can be few ills in life that are not, at least in some degree, cured by a good blustery walk along the sea shore.  Sitting there on the shingle I felt the gentle, familiar presence of my Father God, and it was very real.  I don’t know how anyone can doubt His existence – He manifests Himself so very readily whenever we take time to be still and engage with Him.

And I have come back feeling as if I am not all right, and it’s all right not to be all right.  But if I am not all right, it is all right.  All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, as Mother Julian said.  I feel as if half of me was ripped away when my marriage ended and now that half has gone altogether.  Life will never be the same.  It may be better, freer, safer – who knows?  But it will never be the same.  And I am not all right.  But I am held by One who has everything in control and who makes no mistakes and who loves me more deeply than I have ever imagined, and at a very fundamental level everything really is all right.

Matthew 11. 25 – 30

One day He came to our city.  I had heard so much about Him, and I had often wished I could see and hear Him.  That was before the catastrophe struck, the illness that carried my husband away.  Maybe if He had been here then, He could have saved him.  It was too late now.

But, He had come; and the town was in uproar.  All the neighbours had packed small loaves and leather bottles of water and gone out for the day to follow Him and hear what He would say.  They had not invited me – I was still in mourning, and would not be expected to go.

But if I did not go – what then?  I would sit indoors all day with the same thoughts going round in my head, the same old thoughts that had been troubling me for the past week.  Thoughts of my three daughters, now almost grown – but where would I get husbands for them without his help?  I didn’t go about in the community and meet people as he did in his work as a tradesman.  Where would I meet suitable families?  For one daughter it would be hard enough – but for three?  And my poor girls, consumed with grief as they were for their father – how could I help to steer them through their mourning when I hardly knew how to cope with my own grief?  And my mother – he had chopped her firewood every day, and dug her field and planted her vegetables.  I would have my work cut out managing my own plot; how could I manage my widowed mother’s too?

And so that was my choice.  Stay at home, as I was expected to, with so many anxieties for company, or creep out and see this young Rabbi that all the world was talking about.  Seizing one of the loaves I had just baked, and pouring a little water from the jug into my husband’s leather flask, the one he used to take to work, I slipped unseen from my house and made my way to the river’s edge where a crowd had gathered.  Not being tall, it was quite easy to sneak unnoticed into the back of the crowd at the top of the slope and look down to the waterside, so that I had a good view of the Rabbi without being conspicuous myself.

He was talking, but He wasn’t addressing the crowd.  His eyes were turned to the skies, and the expression in them almost made it seem as if a light was shining out of His face. I had never seen such pure joy, unmixed with any other emotion except perhaps love for the One He was addressing.

“I praise You Father,” He was saying, “Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to little children.”  What things, I wondered.  What had He been saying before I got here?  I strained to catch His words above the shuffling and fidgeting of the people around me.

“Yes, Father, this is the way that You like best, it pleases You.”  Then lowering His head, and scanning the crowd before Him as He spoke, he continued, “Everything has been handed over to Me by My Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.”

I thought about His words.  The one He called the Father – we had never known Him by that name, but we had worshipped Him all our lives; did we not know Him already?  But then again, maybe if we really knew Him, we would call Him Father too.  I thought of my three daughters.  How badly they needed a father!  Suppose God could be that Father to them?  Suppose He could be a Father to me, too?  Then surely He would look after my mother the way my father had done when he was alive.

But how?  God was not here, not in any physical way, was He?  How could He fill the role of a Father?  If only God could come among us!  How different things would be.  These thoughts were too much for me, they made my head ache under the hot sun.  I uncorked my leather flask and drank some water.

My little movement seemed to attract the Rabbi’s attention.  He turned His gaze in my direction and held it there as He began to speak again, so that He seemed to be speaking directly to me.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and weighed down by heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  He smiled at me, a look of great kindness and empathy.  I thought of all the burdens I was carrying – how I would feed myself and my daughters now with no breadwinner, as well as all my other concerns for them and for my mother.  Imagine having rest from all that!  I couldn’t even picture what that would feel like.  He continued, first pointing to the field away downstream where a farmer was ploughing with two oxen yoked to the plough.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me,” he said.  “For I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for Your souls.”  I followed His gaze over to the oxen.  The yoke seemed to be an ill fit because they both walked haltingly, stopping intermittently to jerk their heads from side to side, as though the wood chafed their necks.

He seemed to have noticed it too – and noticed me noticing it, because He turned back, picked me out again at the back of the crowd and looked me full in the eye as He said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

He seemed to be inviting me to yoke myself to Him, to His way of living.  There was no doubt, since my husband’s death my burdens were heavy.  And the way these worries turned themselves around and around in my head all the while, it was exactly like those poor oxen, with something constantly chafing away.   Suppose there was a way to be free from all of it?

I sat down on the grass, out of His view, and thought over His words.  “Learn from Me,” He had said.  “I am meek and humble in heart.”  How?  How could I learn that meekness and humility?  I thought of the look of joyful trust on His face as He had called God “Father”.  Surely that was His secret.   But then I thought of what else He had said.  “Everything has been handed to Me by My Father.”  Those did not sound to me like words of meekness and humility.  They sounded like a very grandiose claim.

Unless…. unless… they were actually true.  Then they might just be a matter-of-fact statement.  But if so – if He could honestly say, in all meekness and humility, “Everything has been handed to Me by My Father” – what did that say about Him – about who He was?  Sitting there in the grass, puzzling it over, it gradually began to dawn on me.  What had I wished?  If only God could come among us!  And here, in this meek and humble young speaker, clad in a simple, homespun robe, with the very light of heaven shining from His eyes, looking at me, right into my soul and seeing all the thoughts and anxieties of my heart – if this was not God come among us, then who else could He be?  In all my years of life I had never met another such as He.

And so in the only way I knew how, I learned from Him.  I lifted my eyes to heaven in an act of loving trust and whispered the word, “Father.”  And in that simple act, I felt all the burden of the past days lift from me.  The endless chafing of those thoughts stopped, the chatter of the anxieties was silenced.  I felt as if I had come home.  It was like a child being picked up, wrapped in an embrace and carried to safety.  It reminded me of words I had often heard my husband read from the Torah: Underneath are the everlasting arms.  I nestled into those arms, and lifted my daughters and my mother to Him, letting go of them into His hands.  And as I did so, I was filled with a profound certainty that everything was going to be all right.