Category Archives: Courage

Richer Soil.

What is the essence of a person? It has nothing to do with their circumstances. It is rather whomever they understand themselves to be while they’re doing – or not doing – whatever is in front of them in the circumstances they are in. 

I’ve just been on a lightning trip back to LA. The children and I came to England last July to visit their grandparents post-my divorce and, unexpectedly, a path of major life transition spooled out before us. We decided to stay for good. (For details see earlier blogging on bemusement, amazement and reckoning).

And so it came to pass (Advent motif here) that I would need to go back to organize the shipping over of all our stuff. A brief window of opportunity opened and, two weeks ago, I charged forward.

As I’ve written here before, when you move you use the time you have. So, for me, it’s better the shorter and harder you hit it. I’ve also learned that you can never “go back”. You’re no longer fish nor fowl once you’ve moved, so be fast and brusque and firm. No one knows what to do if you linger, and no one – least of all you – needs the emotional drain of mushy sentimental goodbyes. Focus instead on going onward together, flags to the fore!

I went for six days. I packed, I shipped, I sold, I conquered the monumental list.

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And in the midst I managed to squeeze in (I counted) over forty fierce hugs and hopes with beloved friends. Many of them one on one (my personal fave). How did I do it? There was a lot of providence in timing and unexpected windows opened.

I have to say it was utterly bizarre being back. It felt as though I had never left. Walking into friends’ houses felt so normal it was as if these past 18 weeks abroad had simply been some sort of brain seizure on my part: “Now THAT was a crazy dream!” Which of course it is not.

I think the problem with modern travel is that you traverse the globe too quickly.  Don’t get me wrong, the faster I can get there physically the better. However, one’s heart and mind don’t travel at the same speed as the rest of one’s body.

I left frosty, sharp Surrey on December 1 to touch down in balmy, blue skied LA just 11 hours later.  Going over, I coped with the transition by subsuming my recently established English life into a sort of surrealist daydream. I didn’t have to deal with it and, to be honest, I didn’t have time to.

Returning home has been a different story. I do think of here – England – as my home, but I have been almost unable to speak of my trip “home” to LA since I got back. It’s just too much. It feels like I have this huge holding tank of emotions in my chest and as long as I keep it level and don’t spill it, I’ll be ok. Briefing my sister I came perilously close to upset and changed the subject.

I have grown super sensitive to my limits, which is a good thing. While in LA I didn’t go within a two mile radius of our old home. I couldn’t see our neighbors, I couldn’t look at the house that had been ours, go to our local stores. There was a force field in my spirit every time I thought about it: “Don’t put yourself through it, Jose. It’s purposeless pain.” And so I didn’t.

I went to our old church to say goodbye though. Knowing there would be no orchestra to play me off, I took my Oscar speech moment and ran with it.

What I wanted to – and did – say was how hugely impactful the love of the Body of Christ in that place had been to the children and myself. We arrived in crisis in ’08, we endured numerous crises thereafter, and we left in crisis last July. What had remained constant throughout had been the love and support and community of our friends: down in the ditch together; scaling the heights; shoulder to shoulder; eyes always up.

I said that I would happily tell anyone more specifics of the circumstances of our move, but it seemed irrelevant. Because the point is that Sarah Jane, Guy and I are children of God going on with Him – just as all of our friends there are too. No matter where He takes us, what transpires, how many moves still lie ahead. We’ve got our anchor for high seas;we’ve got our rudder for the horizon; we’ve got our sail for the wind. And it’s Him.

At my parents Golden Wedding service a few years ago, I quoted Rupert Brooke: 

   There shall be 
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And I spoke of that richer earth within my mum and dad. That richer soil that had nothing to do with what they’d achieved or what had happened. It was the rich earth sourced only in their relationship with Christ. That rich soil concealed and therefore not evident to the naked eye. That rich soil that sustains them, grows them, strengthens them, heals them and is only made known through the fruit it has produced in them both.

For me returning home to the U.K. after 24 years abroad, I pray that all the mulch the Lord laid over that rich soil of my relationship with Him during that time – the pain, the joy, the challenge, the victory – may have served as the fertilizer needed to produce richer and more abundant fruit in who I am today. I do so hope anyway.

It shall just no longer be fruit that will grow in the balmy climes of California, but in the green and pleasant land of England instead.

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jsg/dec 16

NOT your misery memoir.

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When I first met Katherine and Jay Wolf, they were impossibly hard not to like. Which was infuriating, because they seemed to have it all.

Young, stop-in-the-street beautiful, warm and funny, they sprung from solid Southern Christian families with a strong, foundational faith themselves. They married their college sweetheart, moved to LA to pursue law (him) and modeling/acting (her). And then on top of all that the Lord gave them the surprise cherry on the cake in the sweet form of baby James.

I can remember the day I first spotted them.   Hugely pregnant with my second, I was sweatily teaching the Young Marrieds class at our church on an appallingly hot August Sunday morning when they walked in. Even among the beautiful young coupledom of LA, Jay and Katherine stood out like a cool, uncomplicated breeze of joy.

Dealing with whatever was on one’s own plate, it was easy to look at these carefree two and think, “Well how easy is it for them to be happy?? They have everything! What have they ever really suffered?

And then, almost two years later in April 2008, I got an email prayer request saying that Katherine, at age 26, had suffered a massive brain stem stroke and was not expected to live.   Jay was only days away from sitting the California bar exam and their baby James was just six months old.

“WHAT?” It was like getting a hard, head-numbing slap.  I can still see where I was sitting at my father’s desk in England with a cold Spring light coming through the window. “What??” I repeated to myself. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen to someone like Katherine! She’s the fairytale, this isn’t right! This is not the way their story should go.” And I prayed.

Miraculous is a term that (ironically) can be overused. However Katherine’s survival has been nothing short of a divine miracle.   And her ongoing survival has come at immense cost, not only to her but also to Jay and little James.  It has at times been almost too hard to believe.

If crucifixion is the ultimate test of character, then over the past eight years Katherine and Jay have proved over and over again that they are both, indeed, the real deal. What has come out of their crushing has not been bitterness, but the aroma of Christ.  When you spend time with them they are full of humor, and honesty, and their love of life.

The many vertiginous twists and turns, ups and downs of their journey thus far they have now written down in a book entitled, HOPE HEALS.

Even though Jay and Katherine have material in spades about suffering, their story is the polar opposite of a ‘Misery Memoir’. And what makes their book so uplifting is their candor. Their generosity in sharing with the world what their journey has truly looked like from the inside: good, bad, ugly and astonishing.

HOWEVER, let me be clear. This is not a book of victory-flag-waving-at-the-summit-of-life-now-it’s-all-over.

HOPE HEALS is a book about what it means to believe in a loving God who has allowed you to fall into the very deepest trenches of life and expects you to keep going.

HOPE HEALS is about what it means to hope when hope may only now be found in the Giver of Hope Himself.

HOPE HEALS is about what it means to hold onto your marriage when it no longer looks anything like what you signed up for.

HOPE HEALS is about what it means to determinedly play out the hand you’ve been dealt and continue to lift it all up for God’s glory. When you haven’t the strength even to lift your own head.

HOPE HEALS is about… just that.

Katherine’s journey continues. The Wolfs’ lives were forever changed by the stroke. And while one can never be thankful for such horrendous suffering, I am immensely grateful that they have chosen to share all that they have learned/are learning in the midst of it with the rest of us.

If you’re looking for a book to encourage, a story to uplift, a teaching to strengthen feeble knees (in every sense, in any circumstance) to keep going, you can buy their book here.

www.hopehealsbook.com  (Also available in the UK here)

Buy it. And, as Katherine and Jay would say, HOPE IT FORWARD.

 

Jsg/April 16

The Hate Monster and the Bitterness Pill.

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Here is how the Hate Monster comes into your life.

You are in terrible pain and you hear a knock on your front door.

“What?” you growl, swinging it violently open.

“Hi there!” the beguiling hulk says cheerfully. “I understand you have some pain you’d like removed? I’m just the guy for the job. You give me the pain and I… take it away!”

“What’s the catch?” you ask, irritated that he’s even caught your attention.

“No catch! Give me your pain and I take it away and recycle it. Only one stipulation – I can only take away particular kinds of pain. I don’t do knees, gastrointestinal tract, cancer, that sort of thing.”

“Well, what do you take then?”

“I take any pain that is taking up space in your heart? That’s my specialty.”

As it turns out you have quite a lot of that, or at least some.

“How much do you take?” you ask in a suspicious tone.

“Only the bit that hurts! Everything else, I promise, will be left untouched.”

“OK,” you say. And the deal is done.

Only after he’s taken that part of your heart and recycled it into hate, do you recognize the catch. You’ve got less heart to use.

You’ve got less capacity.

For compassion.

For empathy.

For patience.

For trust.

For generosity.

For forgiveness.

For Love.

For Hope.

Every time the Hate Monster has persuaded you (often with little persuasion) to part with those pieces which hurt so badly, he leaves you with less and less storage for the qualities only your heart can produce which bring you life.

It is so tempting to answer his knock. “Anything but this pain,” you groan. “Hate will lighten my load, it will incinerate my roadblocks, it will give me energy and invigorate me out of this torpor.”

And it will. It will do all these things. Except what you will be left with is not life, but nothing. And nowhere to go. There aren’t any roadblocks because there’s so much less available road.

You got rid of the pain, but it was not redeemed. Instead, you let the pain take you, overcome you, destroy you.

Leaving you with less heart to move forward. To move beyond. To try again. To stay open to life in all its unimaginable possibilities.

Your lesser heart wants to make you stay indoors. Not try. Not help. Not hope. It’s too exhausting to hope when you have so little heart left to do all the jobs intended to be done by a whole one.

So if not to the Hate Monster, where will you go with your hurt?

And then there’s the Bitterness Pill. Most often provided by the Hate Monster to deaden the pain of getting parts of your heart removed. “This will help,” he assures you. “Nearly all my clients take this as a 2 for 1 deal. It makes a lot of sense really.”

So you’re persuaded to take the Bitterness Pill. But it doesn’t deaden the pain. It turns whatever is left of your heart sour. A sourness that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth that no amount of water, wine or wisdom can wash away.  It’s corrosive.

The sourness is so distracting that when people ask you a question, you can’t even hear them properly. “What are you asking of me now? Can’t you see I have this horrible taste in my mouth? It takes all my energy to just get through my day! Shut up and go away. Find someone who cares, because it won’t be me.

And they do. The people go away. And so the Hate Monster comes again and finds even more treasure waiting for him to consume. To “take away”. And you wash another Bitterness Pill down with the contaminated water he just happens to carry with him.

He says it’s water. It has the quality of water. It’s a liquid. But that’s where all similarity ends. Because it’s a toxic formula intended to slowly poison whatever pockets of your heart still hold life. To poison you slowly so you won’t even notice and stop it in time.

And so the cycle continues. Until you have no one who is willing to stay around you. No one who is willing to keep calling out the living heart that still beats within you, because you are actually still alive…

The Hate Monster and the Bitterness Pill are not our friends. Tempting as they both appear to be in the short-term/quick fix category.

They are merely deceivers. Out to kill, steal and destroy. Have nothing to do with them. And alert your neighbors to what they look like, how they appear.

If you do refuse to do business with either of them, what can you do with your pain? Where can you go?

I know of only One who has the mojo to heal and redeem what hurts so badly in the human heart.

And He’s already in the house.

 

 

Jsg/March 16

When you stop being brave.

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I’m in a fairly horrible season of my life and I’m not enjoying it. I’m very grateful it’s not something worse, but it’s delivering a fairly earthy kick nonetheless.

Loved ones keep calling me brave, or valiant. What is bravery really?

I think of bravery as being about choice. However, if you’re just in it, should you de facto be considered brave?

In the ER following a bad car wreck in my twenties, a doctor and three nurses cut into my stomach while I was fully awake. They stood over me and poured pints of saline (in a white plastic jug I remember, but could this be correct?) through a tube into my stomach to flush it out. All the while they discussed the details of the upcoming wedding of one of the nurses. What flowers had she decided on having and was so-and-so going to be able to come?

I lay there in a detached state of un-categorized pain thinking how surreal it was. Did they know I was there? Could I survive this? I remember thinking calmly, “This is insupportable. It’s insupportable. I’m going to rip out that tube, throw off the blanket and scream.” But there was nothing I could do. So I just lay there silently and stared at the ceiling as they pulled and tugged and chatted on.

Was I being brave? It didn’t feel like it, what choice did I have? I stayed silent because screaming could only have made it worse.

There are times when we clearly are brave. Brave to stand for justice (Nelson Mandela); brave to choose death over prolonged but limited life (Roger Ebert); brave to stand for belief in the face of religious persecution. But is it brave simply to endure something when you have no choice?

What are the choices in the death of a child, or the end of a marriage, or the loss of one’s health?

In Webster‘s bravery is defined as ‘to defy, challenge or dare. … A general term that suggests fortitude, daring and resolve.’ And ‘valiant’ implies ‘an inner strength manifested by brave deeds, often in battle.’

All things you choose to do. You could stick with where you are, but you choose to do something more instead. Some visible action in the face of testing circumstances above and beyond simple survival.

I didn’t feel I was being very brave about my present situation, until yesterday. Yesterday I realized that my “action” in the face of current circumstances is to behave as if I can continue to handle everything else as well.  But I can’t.

Perhaps it’s the British in me. The Stiff-Upper-Lippedness of my upbringing. The guts and tenacity that won us the war, illegitimi non carborundum and all that. Certainly there is much to be gained by this attitude.

But in harder seasons of one’s life, does one really have to be big enough to say “I can handle this and all the rest of it”? Do we fear being accused of self-pity if we allow the circumstances to consume us for a while?

Why not say:

“No, I’m sorry, my heart is haemorrhaging on the table right now so I don’t think it would be a good idea to drop your child off with me.”

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t sew that for you even though I could do it for free. Every ounce of energy I have is going into my kids and keeping the show on the road.”

“I really am pleased for your happiness/joy/celebration but I’m not going to be able to go much further than that only because I haven’t got any margin.”

Yesterday I realized how much more I take on in addition to what I’m having to deal with already. Why have I said yes to it all?  Am I actually defying my reality or just denying it?

I do “cover” a lot: “No, no, I’m still laughing haha, yes I’d love to come!”

I pretend I can manage more than I can: “No, no, not at all, don’t worry, I can totally do that for you.”

Is it pride? “This isn’t going to get me.

Is it fear? By not waving brave, do I fear I will sink not survive?

Why do I think I must be brave?  It’s exhausting “being brave” all the time! I’m not going to do it any longer.

I’m not going to pretend that Mothers Day isn’t going to kill me. That I’ll be fine hearing encomium to marriage and motherhood from the pulpit. Because I won’t, so I’m not going to go.

I’m not going to tell friends I can help them right now, because I can’t.

I don’t need to expect myself to climb out and be bigger than the hole I’m in, because God’s arms are beneath me and He’ll lift me out in due time.

I don’t need to be called marvellous, or gutsy, or brilliant, or brave. I don’t feel any of those things, but I am quite proud to be still on my feet.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I’m going to say, “It just continues” and then let the silence sit.

From here on until the landscape of my life changes, I’m just going to live it. Not ungrateful, not bouncy.

I’m going to sit with this season for as long as I have to be in its company, but I’m not going to be jumping up any time soon to pass around nibbles and drinks in the meantime.

I’m just going to stay silent. Screaming wouldn’t help.

Jsg/may15

Stinging Nettles.

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In my sister and brother-in-law’s garden in North London, they have a strip of woodland. A great place for my kids to explore and build swings and forts.

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It is in the beginning stages of being landscaped, however there are still huge banks of ivy and stinging nettles growing wild and free.

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My sister and I decided to try our hands at Nettle Soup – and why wouldn’t we with so many of the ingredients readily available?!

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Sleeves pulled down to avoid getting stung and wearing gloves, I grabbed handfuls of the nettles and shoved them in plastic bags.

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Then, sitting on their sunny patio with mug of coffee at hand, I began patiently to snip each individual leaf off each individual stem and chuck it in a bucket.

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The recipe required 1lb of nettle leaves. Blimey, I thought, I’ll be here forever.

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However, in the beautiful morning sunshine with budding trees all around me, the Heavenly-smelling Verbena coming into flower beside me and clumps of tulips ready to burst, I decided it was a pretty pleasant exercise.

I relaxed, the unexpected heat of English spring sunshine warming my back.

As with any creative endeavor, it gave me time to think. Engaging my faculties in one activity seems to enable my mind to wander freely over any number of topics meantime. Have you noticed this?

So as I snip, snip, snipped – carefully protecting all exposed skin – I wryly noted how much this activity represented my own life.

Nasty things happen in life, they do. The question then must be, what do we do with them? How can we move beyond them?

Stinging nettles were the scourge of our childhood growing up in the countryside. Many an intrepid walk was halted by an agonizing brush with their leaves. Yet here they were in my sister’s woodland in abundance. Was there anything we could do with them other than just burn them in the next bonfire, add them to the compost or simply throw them away?

There was – we could make soup. We could take something poisonous and painful, and turn it into something fruitful and nourishing.  Not all of it, but some of it.

I thought through some of my own experiences in recent years. In which of them were there redeemable elements and what might I make of them, and of myself because of them, now?

ALL is not lost in the bad. God promises us the ‘treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places’ that only occur because the darkness in spite of itself produces them: courage; perseverance; wisdom; gratitude; maturity; strength to name but a few.

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At supper, pureed then swirled with a bit of cream and black pepper, the soup was declared a complete winner.

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Ah yes of course, I thought, tucking in. So are we.

Jsg/april15

What you intended for evil… #JeSuisCharlie

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An estimated 4 million people (including 40 world leaders) gathered in Paris today to walk in solidarity against the acts of terror which killed 17.  Among the leaders was the Prime Minister of  Israel and the Palestinian President.

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British landmarks lit up in the French tricolor in unity with France.

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All over the world people have joined in solidarity raising pens in the air.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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Can you hear us?  What you intended for evil, God has brought to good.

jsg/jan15

Pulling together.

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I have always thought of marriage as a boat.  You leave the individual boats that were your single lives to join together in a new boat of your mutual making.  You decide which of the things in the individual boats should be brought to the new boat, and which things no longer apply and can/should be jettisoned.

You then each grab an oar and, settling down, pull together in the same direction.  Perhaps you take turns at the tiller but – in order to move forward – you always need to be in agreement as to the direction you are headed.

If the tide turns you address it together.  If a storm hits, it hits you both.  If the boat is becalmed, you’re both stuck.  If there is a fair wind, you both delight in it. And so on.  The crucial thing is that you’re in it together, and you’re committed to pulling in the same direction together.  If you speak against each other, no matter that it’s under your seat that you’re drilling a hole — you’re both going to sink.  And if you turn on the only other person in the boat and attack them, or make a course correction without referring to them, your boat together is going to go nowhere whatsoever.

The problems with choosing not to see the boat as mutual are so obvious as to be not worth mentioning.

When I think of marriage I think of my parents, who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.  After an engagement of high drama and intrigue, they made it to the altar and on October 1, 1954 embarked on their voyage.

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I think my parents have a good marriage.  By which I do not mean an easy marriage, or a marriage that has not had (perhaps more than) their fair share of hardship and tragedy.  I mean a marriage where – no matter what – they have journeyed side by side and pulled in the same direction.  Shoulder to shoulder.

Attacks from without?  They have met them head on sitting back to back, and discussed what they thought of each other later.  Strife within?  They have kept it within the boat and, although not necessarily “sorted”, it has been negotiated and made to work.  In rough seas, they have kept a sense of perspective and (as far as possible) retained a lifesaving sense of humor.

The children and I wanted to make them a special present to celebrate their diamond anniversary, so we built a banner to celebrate their 60 years.

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As we worked, I thought of each canvas as another season of their journey.  Things that are common knowledge or that I remember, and things only the two of them know about themselves and each other.

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I attached three ribbons to the back for hanging and now, as I write, even that seems representative of the three cords running through all the years of their married life: faith, hope, love.

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They have modeled for me what the union of marriage means.  They committed to pull forward together, and they are still pulling.

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May my children be so blessed as to find a partnership similar to the one reflected in the love of their grandparents.

A voyage together in all weather, with only one map and one North Star.

jsg/nov 14

Courage is a choice not a circumstance.

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When I was 21, I was in a bad car accident.  My mother and I – miraculously – survived, but we were in hospital for months and it took years to ‘recover’ in any true sense.

We had lots of visitors. You could tell the ones who had some level of understanding because they said nothing.  They showed up, loved up and shut up.

Many people unfortunately did feel the need to speak:

“Wow, you were lucky, it could have been so much worse.”

“You are so brave.”

“You’re coping so well, I couldn’t cope if I were in your shoes.”

“You’re lucky that you’re so young.”

These comments were meaningless and made me sweat.  However well-intentioned, they presupposed a choice I had not had, and minimized the reality of what had happened by comparing it to what hadn’t.  It made me feel guilty.

It’s true I wasn’t dead and I was young, but I didn’t feel lucky nor was I actually being brave or coping well.  Being there without choice didn’t make me brave or able to cope.

During the accident, I wasn’t brave. When I faced what looked to me like certain death, I felt supernaturally calm but not brave.

I also wasn’t brave after the accident, I just lay there and survived.

I did become brave however, when I recognized I had a choice.  When I saw the far more devastating injuries of those around me and knew I was going to survive.  It gave me context. Not just about where I’d been or where I was, but also about where I was going.

I had hope and I had purpose, so I then chose to be brave and press forward.  I’m not sure it’s possible to choose courage without hope and purpose, is it?  And courage requires action.

Look at the soldier who goes to war because he sees purpose in it.  That is a courageous action. The bereaved mother who gets up in the morning because her other children still need breakfast.  That is a courageous action. The widower who knows there’s still work to be done, life to be lived, ways to contribute before the end, so they choose to  get on with it.  That is a courageous action.

Context offers us choices in how we respond to circumstance, and courage is one we have to act upon.

We choose courage by persevering not just existing. And others notice.  By choosing courage, we reveal that even when darkness closes in and we may be awake for most of it, we still believe there’s a new day coming.  It’s still worth it.  Our actions show ourselves as well as others that we know there is yet hope to press forward.  And so we choose to.

That is courage.

jsg/oct 14