Sunday, 31 August 2014

Playground pick up? It's just like being back at school

I hated school.  Hated it.  26th May 1995 was the day that I left and I still count it as right up there with my wedding day as one of the happiest days of my life.  Schools have a kind of prison-like quality to them, with their high fences and heavy metal gates; strictly monitored and locked between the hours of 9:30 a.m and 3 p.m.   And even if you were to somehow work out the code to open the gate, you still have to master the locked door, complete with buzzer, and be admitted by the gestapo on the front desk.  And no one is entering or leaving that building without scribbling their name and mission on the signing in book.
This is all very reassuring for us parents of course, for we want to know that the dearest things in the world to us are as safe as can be, but I can never shake from my mind the fact that while the school is undoubtedly concerned about locking the bad guys out, they are equally determined to lock the children IN.
Years later I can still conjure up the unpleasant feeling of being deposited at the school and left behind a sealed glass door at the end of a labyrinthine network of corridors that I could never have hoped to find my way out of alone.  To make matters worse you're incarcerated in a room full of people who you don't know and would never have met at all except for the fact that they too were born in the same nine month time span as you.  In my case, the person who was supposed to be in loco parentis, my reception teacher, was clearly Peri-menopausal, hated children and had all the kindness and patience of Cruella Deville.  And what the hell was that smell? A combination of rubbery floors, wet coats and soup.

Group dynamics

As you grow and become accustomed to the school environment (read: institutionalised), the focus shifts, inevitably, to your fellow inmates. Sorry, classmates.  Very early on factions and cliques develop and the pressure to belong to one of them is intense.  Like minded individuals tend to recognise similar personality traits and therefore gravitate towards one another.  Once a person is a member of a particular group, it is nigh on impossible to switch allegiance, although with girls at least, there appears to be a certain amount of toing and froing during the primary phase until the cliques become pretty much fixed in secondary school.
Before my eldest child started school, I naively supposed that I'd left all this behind me on 26th May 1995.  Just one term of standing on the playground at drop off and pick up time was enough to disavow me of that particular notion.
I was back on the school yard.  And so were the cliques.

Feeling cliquey

There's the Older Mums, who don't feel that they relate to the younger mums; the Young Mums who don't feel they relate to the older ones; the Working Mums, who are instantly recognisable by the high heels and tailored clothes, and the fact they are always rushing because they have to start before 9:15; the Earth Mothers, who usually come complete with at least one child strapped to their chest and always wear Birkensocks (for some reason these mums have a boy called Felix and they never cut his hair. Why? Why?) and the Yummy Mummies, who rock up to school every single day with a face full of slap, hair dried and straightened, looking immaculate.  
Even outside of these broad groupings there are minor, less stable cliques, based upon nothing more than the fact that we have children who are the same age.  We may have never spoken to one another except on that playground, yet we are thrust together every morning and every afternoon for at least five minutes until the kids come spewing out, arms waving, coats trailing, pony-tails skew-whiff.  

Not fitting in

Does any of this sound familiar? Try this anecdote for size:
It's quarter past three on the playground.  I hover at the perimeter; not because I'm too timid to walk straight into the centre, but because I have my dog with me and all canines are banned from the school yard.  As usual I'm red faced and a bit sweaty, having had to run part of the way because my time-keeping is appalling.  Because today I can't go onto the school yard, I'm forced to stand next to the Dog Owner Mums, a clique that I am most definitely NOT a member of.  They all have children in a higher year than my daughter, and this is the parental equivalent of looking down on lower school when you're in upper: They gave birth two years before me, and therefore are far more experienced and know far more than me.  To add insult to injury, their dogs are all well-behaved, and mine is, quite frankly, an embarrassment.  My two year old cocker spaniel is beside herself with excitement to be at school; a place teeming with people, new 
smells, and three new doggy friends nearby! One of them, a beautiful, dignified looking Husky, takes one step towards my dog to have a curious sniff.  
'Down,'  her owner snaps.  The Husky drops to the floor at once.  My dog is now choking herself - very audibly - in her desperation to get to the Husky, who is eyeing her with a look that blatantly says, 'you are a disgrace to the entire Dog Nation.'  The owner turns to give me a look that I believe carries a similar sentiment.
I spend the remaining five minutes until chuck-out time pondering the situation whilst pulling my dog away from each and every passer-by.  These are the conclusions I came to:
The school playground can be a place of hostility, unbridled bitchiness and rampant competitiveness.  But it can also be a place of great kindness, huge camaraderie and massive comfort during times of worry.  I have met some lovely, inspiring people during the past four years; people who I absolutely would never have met if it weren't for the random fact that our children were born in the same academic year.

We are all mothers

So what about the cliques then? thirty-five I'm certainly too old to be a young mum, but tooyoung to be considered amongst the ranks of the more mature mothers.  Being a full-time mum/homemaker/housewife/unemployed person (pick whichever phrase is most pleasing to you), I most definitely can't belong to the Working Mums, although maximum respect goes to them for getting it together day after day, when it's sometimes a challenge for me to do the breakfast dishes before I leave the house in the morning.  I really would love to be a Yummy Mummy of course, but such dedication is beyond me.  I consider it a result if I manage to get in the shower before I leave in the morning.  Which I suppose leaves me as an Earth Mother, for no other reason than that I actually do own a pair of Birkenstocks...

Friday, 29 August 2014

Wait til your Dad gets home! Why God as a father-figure is a problem

The phone rings:

"Hi Dad. It's me."
"Is Mum there?"
"Can I speak to her?"
"Yes...I'll put her on."

This is just about the only one-to-one conversation that my Dad and I have with each other since I moved out of home. Admittedly, my Dad is something of a relic from a forgotten era, and still views the telephone with bemused suspicion, but looking back, I don't think conversations were actually all that fulsome when I was still living under his roof.  Introverted and quiet by choice, for decades he has moved silently from his arm-chair, to his bike, to work, and then home again, to return to his arm-chair and the sanctuary provided by his newspaper.
He's just not much of a talker, but then again, he's never needed to be. Since the age of seventeen, he's been with my mother, and honestly, she can talk enough for both of them. She was - and still is - the conduit between my Dad and I.  If I need a shelf putting up ( my husband and I are complete DIY morons) then I ask Mum...and she TELLS Dad to come and do it.  Any familial news, trivial or earth-shattering, we tell Mum and in due course, she passes it on. This is our status-quo, and if I ever attempted to bypass her and go directly to Dad, she would probably feel quite put out, because that's just not how things are done in our family.

Dad the Father

 It's not that my Dad is a non-entity; quite the opposite in fact.  Because he is so taciturn, when he does say something everybody pays attention, unlike those of us who probably talk too much and have our superfluous conversation tuned out frequently.  Growing up, he played the role of traditional Dad; he went out to work and my Mum kept house and looked after my brother and I.  If we were naughty (which was regularly) we were often threatened with that old chestnut, "just you wait until your father gets home!" To which my brother and I would snigger, knowing full well that upon hearing of our crimes, his reaction would be something along the lines of, "Oh well...don't do it again then," before retreating behind his paper.  In our house, my mother was the true disciplinarian.  She punished us if we needed it; she was the one we went to if we were hurt, or scared, or lonely or bored,
 or whatever.  She took care of our needs, which were many and varied.  As a child, she was my whole world, and in many ways she still is.

God the Father

I don't want to denigrate Dads, least of all my own; it's just that my relationship with my Mum is so much more all encompassing and in many ways, more vital to my daily happiness.  Trying therefore to get my head around a God who is my Father, has often not been helpful to me in building and deepening my relationship with Him.  If I'm upset and need a calming arm around my shoulder, it is to my mother who I inevitably turn.  If I have a problem and desperately need advice, my mother is my first port of call.  My Dad loves me, and I know on an instinctive level that if I were to go to him
in any of the above scenarios, he would do his very best to comfort and help me.  Unfortunately, the
inter-change would be so excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us that I'd never consider putting
him through it. You perhaps see now why I have a hang-up in this area; it has the potential for creating rather awkward prayer moments.

God the Mother

Some nights, my prayer to God might be a request to embrace me with His love; to commit me to his tender loving care; to nurture my burgeoning faith and feed my hungry soul.  And really, aren't many of these words adjectives commonly reserved for Mothers? Let's indulge in the stereotype for a moment and consider who it is in our society who commonly does the nurturing and feeding and caring; whose love leans towards the tender side? It is mothers whom we more often than not turn to to meet these needs. Which makes me wonder why we don't focus more often on this clearly feminine aspect of God's character, or rather, why we give these characteristics a male hook to hang them on.

Problematic labels

The God of my childhood most definitely was a dominant male Father-figure, in the most traditional sense. This was the God of Sunday school, with an Old Testament bias and a concentration on judgment, punishment and repentance.  This then was my Christian heritage/ baggage that I had to unpack when I first started to seriously consider becoming a Christian as an adult.  It is an issue which continues to impede me on my journey of faith, for it is inconceivable to me that I should desire a personal relationship with a God who, quite frankly, terrified me as a child of four.  While my Dad is actually a pussy cat by comparison, the Father label then just doesn't cut it for me. But then ultimately, nor does the word Mother.

In the name of the Parent? 

In an ideal world parents would be the perfect double act.  They ought to complement one another and share out the duty of care and responsibility equally.  One parent might have a particularly gentle touch when it's needed, the other might be adept at standing firm; one might be a good listener; the other might be just the person to go to for advice.
I want to envision a God who epitomises all these qualities, and I want my vision to have no gender bias. This image of God would encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of both sexes, for weren't we all made in His image, men and women? For me, this is a view of God that is far broader than I ever imagined as a child and it's one that I wouldn't mind forming a relationship with.
So for any any problems I have, I'll be offering them up to Him/Her.
For putting up shelves, I'll still be asking my Dad.

If you've got any thoughts on this, please do share them with me.  I'd particularly be grateful for any suggestions of reading material that might help me on my way. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Be honest: Being a Christian is hard work!

In less than two weeks time, my little boy starts school. For me, the transition from the lazy freedom of pre-school days to the regimented routine of Reception class, is utterly heart-breaking.  But observations about how clingy a parent I am and what this says about my need to control everything will be left for another post; what I actually want to write about is my son's perspective on starting school and how we've tried our best to make this life-change as positive for him as possible.  We've told him about all the fun activities he'll get to take part in, all the new friends he'll make, how lovely his new teacher is, and how grown up he'll be when he's at 'Big School,' just like his sisters.  We've waxed lyrical, we've enthused, and ultimately we've exaggerated. In short, we've lied, at least by omission.  Because at no point have we admitted that school might actually be a tad boring at times. At the very least it's restrictive, and will certainly preclude him from sitting at the kitchen table all morning with his play-doh, as well as being able to stroll round the park with his Mama and his baby brother.  Not to mention the fact that his treasured Spiderman t-shirt will be off-limits for five days of the week. I can't help but think that the reality of school; which we've built up hugely in an attempt to reassure him, will none-the-less be a major disappointment.  We've focused almost entirely on everything good about the experience and we've left out all of the bad.  I fear it's just not going to live up to expectations.

Fibbing by omission

I see a parallel here with the testimonies of many Christian people, particularly when they're focussed on evangelising people.  There is much talk of the difference that God will make to your life; how accepting Jesus will dispel fear and unhappiness; how his presence will be a constant source of joy to you, how communicating with God in prayer will unburden you, and how worship will uplift and sustain you.  I agree with all these things, and want to write that a belief in God has for me been utterly life-changing and transformational, though I'm obviously not done yet, not even by half! I just wish that someone had told me about all the other stuff...

Not all it's cracked up to be? 

Without a doubt, becoming a Christian is the hardest thing I've ever attempted to do, and I've got four children under the age of ten! Perhaps this is just another signpost pointing to me being a huge glutton for punishment ( I adore my children but I've not slept properly now for more than ten years) because being a Christian certainly doesn't make your life easier.  Sure, it's more fulfilled, more meaningful and more full of wonder than ever before, but easier? No way.  

Not so easy 

 I'd like to think that in terms of distance I wasn't a million miles away from living my life according to Christ's teachings; I tried to be honest, attempted to be thoughtful and sensitive to the needs of others and wouldn't have dreamt of cheating anyone.  But I have certain personality traits (we shall call them flaws) that make being a Christian really difficult.  Firstly, I have a vile temper and it's a real challenge some days to reign that in and apply myself in a way far more pleasing to a God who ultimately, would much rather I didn't fly off the handle and hurl angry epithets at other members of his treasured Creation.  Ok, so this doesn't happen often, but I really do struggle to maintain my new Christian aplomb sometimes, particularly if someone has upset one of my kids. The red mist descends and WWJD? is the last thing on my mind.  

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! (Matthew 5:44.)

This edict presents me with my greatest challenge as a Christian.  People can be selfish, thoughtless, obstinate, rude, ignorant or just plain annoying (yes, even me!) and that's not even taking account of the people who are cruel, sadistic or murderous.  And Jesus wants me to love them?  With my Christian journey still very much in its infancy, I have to confess that I'm nowhere near fulfilling this command.  It's hard to not dislike those minor irritants who we encounter as we go about our day, such as the man in the white van who winds his window down to swear loudly at you because he cut you up at the roundabout, or the woman who 'tuts' really loudly at the supermarket and gives you the hairy eye-ball because you accidentally knocked her ever so slightly with your trolley.  This doesn't even include those truly heinous human beings, who have done things so terrible that they scarcely warrant that title. Love them? I try really hard each and every day to remember that these people - all of us - are God's children, and he loves us, one and all.  Some days, I'm lucky enough that I succeed, and I see the world through God's eyes; I see a person how He must see them, and the sense of familial affection is overwhelming.  Unfortunately, much of the time, particularly when someone has vexed me, my dominant thinking is: Sorry God...not today.  

Reality bites

Some days, I glibly wonder if becoming a Christian has actually made my life better after all, and I hanker pointlessly for that time, 'pre-God,' where the main point of reference for my behaviour was myself and I was free to dislike with impunity.  Least I wouldn't have so many things to be sorry for at the end of each day, nor would I have to endure a continuous sense of failure as I struggle to measure up to an apparently impossible moral yard stick. So yes, following Jesus is hard...but isn't it meant to be? I mean, at no point did Jesus himself claim that it was going to be an easy ride.  He makes it quite clear that following Him is going to be difficult: He says, 'Don't be surprised when I say you have to be born again...' And if I have to be born again, then perhaps part of me needs to die first? If a death is involved it's probably going to pinch a bit.

And you will know the truth...and the truth will set you free.' (John 8:32)

Would it have helped me to have been told from the get-go that this would be a struggle? That not only do I have to contend with my family and friends thinking that I've suddenly got a screw loose, as well as the weekly challenge of attempting to get four kids to church on a Sunday morning ("whaaaaat? Sunday is a pyjama day, right?!"), it's actually going to be hard? That's not a tempting proposition now that I come to think of it.  And choice would have still remained the same; I would have chosen to accept God into my life (or open myself to the reality that He was there all along) despite all the stuff that I find difficult, or irksome, or just plain inconvenient.  The most worth-while things in life are usually those things that have cost us something to attain; I'm thinking about the four kids again, in particular the collective eight days spent labouring. Ouch.
When the going gets tough whilst on your journey of faith; those times when you indulge in murderous thoughts about that obnoxious man who lives two doors down, or the BMW driver viciously tail-gating you on the M56.  Or when someone close to you is sick and you've prayed and prayed, and she's not getting any better, and you think, what IS the point? Forewarned is fore-armed and if you know in advance that it's coming, and that it's normal to feel that way, and that we've all been there, then you will find comfort in the knowledge that you're not alone; this is how it is sometimes...and that knowledge might just be enough to give you a stronger grip on the cross and to keep clinging on.

So...will I be telling my little boy that he might actually hate school? That his fellow pupils might not be delightful little children, that they might annoy him...or worse?  That his teacher might not be an angel and might actually expect him to sit still, be quiet and God Forbid, work hard?
Not on your nelly ; )

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Do I really need to be good?

It was the week before Christmas and the retail park where I'd come to do my last minute shopping was typically packed and teeming with shoppers.  I was five months pregnant with my first child and was trying to work out how to afford Christmas and still manage to buy all that I would need for my new baby.  While returning to my car I looked down and there it was: a clear, plastic bank bag, full of twenty pound notes. I gingerly picked it up and guiltily looked around; part of me imagining that Dom Joly or someone similar would yank the bag out of my hand with a fishing rod.  I didn't count it; I didn't have to. There were clearly many hundreds of pounds in the bag, possibly more.

What do you do?

The money would have made a huge difference to me. I could have bought much of what I needed for my new baby, which was actually a real worry at the time. But what of the stranger who had dropped it? I immediately imagined the sort of person who deals in cash, an elderly person perhaps or someone self-employed. They were probably frantic. They might have saved the money, bit by bit. Of that though, I knew nothing, and ultimately it didn't really matter what the money meant to them, or indeed how they themselves had come by it. It wasn't mine, case closed. I went into the shop nearest to where I found it and handed it in to the manager who assured me that they would hand it in to the Head of Security.

Pay it forward

As I drove away from the retail park I felt a warm glow of pride for having done what I knew to be the right thing.  I hoped that the person who it belonged to came back to claim it. More than that though, being of a sentimental disposition and with some half-baked notions of fate and karma, part of me really thought that something good might come of it, for me. I had done a good deed; I had acted unselfishly and therefore I might, in some small way, and not necessarily in a financial way, be rewarded.  Not really the definition of unselfish, huh?

How it really works

The following year was the worst of my life. All manner of personal tragedies struck me, and much, much later, I remembered the little plastic money bag and I thought, well that's just charming isn't it? Looking back at this episode with Christian eyes, I want to laugh at the blatant self-interest I displayed and then I want to cry at my naïveté.  To think that anything we do in this life somehow stores up cosmic brownie points, or increases our currency with God, at best represents a simplistic idea of how He works, and at worst shows really suspect motivation for doing anything good.

The Story of the Lost Son

This story, sometimes called the Story of the Prodigal Son, best sums up for me the idea of doing something good..and then expecting something good in return.  I've always struggled with this story and felt a huge sense of injustice on behalf of the son who is left at home.  Possibly because I have a brother who lives overeseas, whose visits back home are greeted by my mother with all the anticipation and ceremony of a visiting dignitary, whereas I, who can be seen any day of the week, never elicit such excitement.  But I digress into bitter rantings...back to the story of that other prodigal: He returns home after a prolonged absence, during which time he has frittered away his father's money, lived what Luke calls " a wild life," and then has to ignominiously return home, cap in hand.  Instead of being castigated for his monumental screw-up, the son is generously and lavishly welcomed home; his dad throws a party for him!  It can't only be me who identifies with the other son's sense of betrayal: He complains to his dad in Luke 15:29 - "all these years I've slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me!" He feels hard done by; he's been faithful and hard-working and he obviously expected something in return for his efforts: He bleats bitterly in Luke 15:29' "and yet in all that time you never even gave me one goat for a feast with my friends!"
(Ok, so the goat thing might be a distraction; think house party and a keg of beer instead.) Kind of like me with the money bag, this son has done what he thinks is the right thing, but he expects some kind of special reward for doing it. He's completely missed the point...just as I did.

"His father said to him, 'Look dear son, you have always stayed by me and everything I have is yours.'"

I suppose it's counter-intuitive (and counter- cultural too!) to do something without reference to your own self-interests but shouldn't that be the very essence of the Christian spirit? Isn't that why it's so hard?  This is what the son has to grapple with; he had his dad's love the whole time, he didn't have to earn it. And of course the opposite is true, as shown by the other son; there is nothing you can do to cause God to take that love away.

Do our actions matter at all then?

This was my question: if God loves me anyway, and I can't make Him love me more, and I can't make Him love me less, what is the point in trying to be good? In other words, I should have taken that wretched money! The "Anyway" prayer, often attributed to Mother Teresa and reportedly written on the wall of her room in Calcutta, is the best and simplest answer to this question. Take a look:

People are often illogical, unreasonable and self centred. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful you will win some false friends and true enemies. Be successful anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
What you spend years building someone may destroy overnight. Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today people will forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may still never be enough. Give the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lord, I am so small and your universe is so huge

"When I consider your Heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" Psalm 8

I identify so completely with the thoughts of this psalmist; who indeed am I, or any one of us, that an all powerful God should care at all, or even notice us?  I hear the atheists clamouring to answer this question with a resounding, He doesn't, because He doesn't exist!  And yet, it was thoughts like this that made me start to question His existence in the first place.  The world is at times so beautiful, and my experience of it so achingly profound that I refuse to accept that all I am, all WE are, is a ragbag of cells and connections, with no greater meaning or purpose than the instinct to not die.
Is this because I'm over-sentimental? Emotionally flaky?  Terrified to face the 'blind, pitiless indifference' that Dawkins speaks of and therefore desperate to believe in anything to take away the 'sting' of death? Perhaps it's all those things...or perhaps not.

The world is a truly remarkable place, but it is our interaction and pointless enjoyment of it that is most incredible.  I write pointless, because there is no need for us to enjoy our environment; it isn't essential to my survival that I should find the smell of my garden after a summer rainstorm so intoxicating, or that certain music by Sigur Ros  should make my chest ache with bitter-sweet emotion when I hear it, or that I should be so moved and captivated by the minute perfection of my baby boy's hands. No, I enjoy these things because there is more to be had from my existence than mere survival.
 Is it so hard to believe that we really might be that incredible and unique, and yet fallible and broken...but still loved, and valued and eternally precious? Go with it. Live with the notion that you really are amazing.  You're no mistake. You are meant to be here. There is meaning woven into every part of your day. There's someone who is bigger than you, bigger than This, bigger than all of us.  And if that concept is too much for you, then perhaps I'm not the only one who's emotionally flaky...

Wake up sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! - Ephesians 5:14

How much of life passes us by, while we're rushing around like headless chickens, attending to the mundane but necessary admin of our day? We are a household of six, and as a stay at home mum  much of the 'admin' naturally falls on me to attend to. Six people generate a lot of washing and cleaning and cooking.  I can spend an entire day simply picking up after people and lose count of the number of times I answer a child's request to play with them with the words, "yes, in a minute."  The guilt I often feel at the end of each day when I consider the things of value I could have accomplished, had I not gotten bogged down in the laundry or the endless dishes.
Our house is a place of noise; the kids shout, I shout back, baby cries; there are umpteen disputes and inevitably somebody gets whalloped, and I'm called to the scene of the crime to adjudicate.  When the noise finally ceases at bedtime, it's usually so late that I'm too tired to revel in it.
How does someone in my position find time for God? How do I fit Him into a life where four small people already make so many demands upon my time?
The answer of course is that I don't. God isn't something or someone to be fit into anywhere; he's too big and all encompassing for that.  Fitting God in; or worse, scheduling Him into my routine, is a tiny and altogether tawdry way of viewing Him.
I think it's actually the other way round...I must fit into God's way of doing things.  I must arrange my life around God's schedule.  Exactly what that means in practice, I'm not sure, but I know it won't involve a day spent plodding through housework like an automaton; it will involve being open to the potential of each new day; alive to the possibilities available to me and mine, and most of all, fully awake to the presence of God in my life, whether I'm on my knees in prayer or up to my elbows in dirty dish water...