Wrapped in Bubble Wrap

We all experience times in our lives when we have to deal with tough stuff.  Things go wrong.  Things we didn’t expect to happen to us, do happen and we are hurt, sad and grief stricken.  The truth is that bad things do happen to good people.  Having a Christian faith doesn’t protect us from sour experiences.  But, hopefully our faith when we’re going through tough times helps us cope.

After my dramatic health situation while on holiday in Germany, last year, I’m continuing to experience ongoing health problems.  But despite the fact that it’s now been five months, and I’m still not well, I’m still feeling somewhat cocooned and protected.  I said to Andrew the other day that it feels like I’m wrapped in bubble wrap.  The impact of all the ongoing health problems is cushioned.  It’s still happening, but I’m not bruising as easily as I could be.   I don’t think I’m in any denial about what is going on with my body, the daily grind is impossible to ignore.  So why do I feel so cushioned and safe?  I can only conclude that my faith has carried me through.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this really, given it’s what I believe for myself and for others I guide on their spiritual journey, but it’s nice when it really matters, to know that faith really does help!  And it’s extremely comforting to me, to know that my faith does provide me comfort.

But I know people who are going through difficult times and don’t find the same comfort in their faith.  It’s made me think a bit about this of late and reflect on why my faith has helped me so much as well as hoping that in the future I’ll continue to get the same comfort from my faith.  I’ve been wondering if for me, my current bubble-wrap comfort is rooted in my view of God.  Maybe our view of God, affects what we think God can be and do in our lives.  Two people experiencing the same thing, both cope differently and have a different view of God’s involvement in their lives.

I’ve heard all kinds of things said by people that show how they view God.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Santa Claus’, handing out special treats to good boys and girls, we assume that our ‘goodness’ as noticed by God is rewarded by treats from God. Our interaction with God is reduced to something like us making lists of things we want to receive once a year, while trying to avoid getting on a naughty list meaning we’d end up with no treats.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Fairy Godmother’, waving a wand and fixing things that are not quite right, magically turning our pumpkins into carriages and our rags into beautiful gowns, we assume that God moves in and out of our lives, transforming some of our ordinary into extraordinary and making us feel special.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a cry for help for what we want from God, a cry to change our circumstances and bring us riches and magical moments.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Police Officer’, enforcing rules, keeping the law, looking after public health and safety, we see God as official law enforcers, uniformed and tough, sometimes on our side, sometimes on the side of the other person.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a valiant attempt to keep the laws and be a good citizen, staying out of God’s way, and only involving God’s help personally with our emergency phone call when something is going wrong.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Judge’,  determining whether by our behaviour we’re guilty or not-guilty and dishing out punishment accordingly, we see God as remote from us, sitting behind a high bench, protected by the legal traditions and processes.  Our interaction with God only happens at times of judgement, maybe when we think we’ve done something wrong or if someone else we know has wronged us, and in our eyes deserves punishment.

There are plenty of other views of God out there, and feel free to post a comment with your ideas. I think the closest I can come to describing my view of God, is something like God as Journey Guide.  You’ll know if you’ve ever been on a tourist tour and had a great local guide, how it helps to really see what is going on in the places you’re travelling through, to get an appreciation of the people that live in that place, their history and customs, to figure out currencies and sort out simple things that become so important on tour, such as great places to eat!  There is also the adventure guide, such as the Sherpas that guide hiking groups up the Nepalese mountains.  I imagine that these guides know the way, know the conditions, know what to do when things get rough, know the unpredictability and uncertainties of the climb.  These guides have experience of such journeys, yet at the same time, each journey is unique and new.  No two climbs are the same, and each brings their own challenges, joys, dangers and achievements.  And of course a journey guide can only lead if people are willing to follow. And as a follower, you can’t opt in and out of parts of the climb, picking out the parts you want, choosing only to walk on the flat bits and somehow jump over the steep climbs and avoid them. You have to follow from the bottom to the top all the way if you’re going to be sure of where you’re going.

To me this metaphor comes closest to my faith understanding of Jesus as journey guide.  One of my favourite things about Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel.  In the birth of Jesus, the world received Emmanuel or ‘God is with us’.  As Jesus lived amongst people, we have the eyewitness records of what kind of person this ‘God with us’ was, what he did, what he said and what he felt. ‘God with us’ or Jesus Christ as ‘journey guide’ is to me extremely comforting.  Jesus who understands pain and suffering. Jesus who speaks words of peace and love, forgiveness and hope.  Jesus who gives priority to the poor, the needy and the sick.  Jesus who tells us to follow him.  Jesus who shows us the way, the truth and the life. Jesus who faced despair, loneliness, sorrow and grief.  There is such comfort in knowing that God with us, in the person of Jesus is alongside me. And right now he’s got me bubble wrapped because he knows that’s what I need.

I’ve been thinking all of this over in my head in the last few weeks, and had actually started writing the blog a few days ago up to this point…

This weekend I’ve been quietly sitting with my laptop and formatting our next book, ‘Solving the God Problem’.  It’s written by Brian K. Smith, and is actually a revised version of a manuscript he wrote many years ago, called ‘The Xerox Equation’.    As my eyes flicked over the words, it struck me that this manuscript has been hugely influential in my thinking and concept of my view of God.  In fact it actually surprised me how many of the thoughts and ideas in Brian’s book, are integrally part of my faith, fully permeated through my thinking and have been now for many years.   “Jesus is the Son of God. See him, and you’ve seen the God that nobody has ever seen.” (Brian K. Smith from the ‘Solving the God Problem – John for Today” Due for publication in next few weeks from Kereru Publishing.)

I first encountered Brian’s Xerox Equation when I was running a children’s holiday programme based on the seven signs from John’s gospel about 25 years ago.  Andrew had a photocopy of the manuscript from his time at theological college when Brian was the Principal, and I used it as my base document to build up our holiday programme content.  Over the years I’ve dipped into it many times.  We were very excited when Brian agreed to give it a brush up for today’s world and publish it with Kereru.   And many of Brian’s old students have already expressed enthusiasm to get a copy once we’ve published, so it’s not just us who’ve been influenced and impressed by his thinking. Brian’s commentary on John We see God through the person of Jesus.  Reading the book of John from the bible alongside Brian’s John commentary shows that through understanding Jesus, we get a view of God.

Well this blog did not start out as a plug for our new book, but it is intriguing that the blog post flitting through my head of late and half written until today, should connect so well with my weekend’s work, so I really can’t help giving this a push!  Brian’s book is written for those with little or no biblical background, so fits in well with my ‘all ages and all stages’ thinking and is really a book for anyone. Brian uses contemporary language and metaphors to unpack the gospel of John and things that you read in the bible and wonder what they mean, are explained engagingly and creatively.  In its earlier format it was probably one of the first bible commentaries I had ever read, and reflecting on it now, I see how significant this has been to the foundation of my adult faith, my view of God and my life journey through the good times and the tough times. My bubble wrapping shouldn’t surprise me after all!

(Photo credit: my dress as seen through the bubble wrap)

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Light in the Darkness

Our family is using the 25 Stockings book each night at the dinner table.  As well as three versions of homemade ’25 Stockings’ hanging across the room, our 19 year old daughter bought an Advent candle this year. It’s one of those candles with incremental marks down it from 1 – 25.  So each night when we are all together we light the candle as we eat our dinner.  This requires very careful watching because although the candle starts off burning slowly, all of a sudden the wax drips down the side and the mark is reached for the day and it’s time to blow out the candle.

Once we’ve finished eating we read the bible passage. Because our children have always had this experience (I started writing the book when I was 19!) they love the three questions so we have to include that, and then we usually read the reflection and the prayer.

A couple of nights ago we also did the Discussion Time talking about darkness and times when we’ve been in the dark and turned on a light and how this makes a difference and of course how this relates to the metaphor of God’s love.  We had a satisfying conversation about light and darkness and times we’ve each felt God’s presence.   It was nice sitting there in front of a candle and talking about the impact of light that a single candle creates in a darkened room.

Last night I wasn’t feeling so good and although I went to bed early, I was up and down all night.  At first the rest of the family were still all up so while my room was in darkness, the rest of the house was a blaze of light.  By about midnight, 17’s door was shut and I figured he had turned in for the night. But sometime after 1, when I was up again and the rest of the house was this time in darkness too, I reasonably thought everyone else had now gone to bed.  But… around 17’s closed door was a silhouette of light.  (Not that, there was anything wrong with him still being up – he is on holiday)

I was pondering the idea that I had only seen the light around his door because the rest of the house was in darkness.  It was kind of the opposite thinking of our earlier discussion talking about darkness and the difference that happens when a candle is lit.  (Okay, I know it sounds like the same thing but bear with me.)  The light had been on all the time, but I only saw that it was on when the rest of the house changed from light to dark.

So maybe sometimes the metaphor is that we can be like a light in the darkness for others just like a candle lighting up the darkness.  And maybe other times we are part of a larger group of lights, indistinguishable as individuals until we are separated and stand as a solitary light in darkness.

I’ve really liked the metaphor as a follower of Jesus, of being a light in the darkness, or being salt adding flavour to the world.  But I also think there is a balance and when we are being ‘light’ we carry on being true to our call to follow Jesus and be light to the world, by both gathering with a larger group of other ‘lights’ and also living, working and spending time on our own with others who are not followers of Jesus, and therefore hopefully bringing light to their darkness.

It’s a balance that is a struggle and maybe always changing.  There is something wonderful and refreshing for followers to spend large amounts of time with other followers of Jesus.  And maybe at different times in our lives we need this fellowship more than other times.   But if we spend all of our time with our friends from our church groups, then how much is our light shining noticeably to others?  And if we spend too much time with others who are not followers of Jesus, are we in danger of our light ‘battery’ running out or our candle burning until the flame is extinguished.

Anyway, that was my middle of the night musing… instead of sleeping!  Just thought I’d share it.

In another language, in another country, in another space

Well it’s been a while since my last post… and a lot has happened sandwiched between the last entry and this one!  I’m not going to tell you the whole story, but over the next few months maybe bits and pieces of it will gradually be told.  But I didn’t want to leave this blog looking empty and neglected any longer.  The shortened version is that a few weeks ago, I found myself in a hospital in the town of Pirna, Germany, having emergency surgery! Not quite the holiday experience we’d dreamed and planned.  Following the surgery I spent two and a half weeks in hospital, then a night in a hotel, a 40 hour journey home and a ‘lost’ week at home before the NZ specialist sent me back into hospital for a further week.  Now I’m recovering at home… but this is a bit of my story from Germany…

There were a small handful of people who spoke some English among the staff, but for most of the nurses, they had no English and unfortunately I had no German.    It was an interesting experience in learning about communication without words.  While I was in intensive care my two wonderful daytime nurses did have some English and we got by with the odd words and dramatic gestures,  but when I moved to a general ward it was different.  Retrospectively, I wonder if it was deliberate that my first two nurses could speak some English. Once in the general ward, some of the younger nurses or student nurses had some English, but the older nurses had grown up in the days of the GDR and had learned Russian at school.  (No, I don’t speak Russian either!)  The staff were all amazing and I could not get over their care and compassion despite the language barrier.

My surgeon had the most amazing smile. I only met her after the surgery and when she first came in the room, in a group of doctors, I knew immediately that she was my surgeon, even before she’d introduced herself.  She had a glow around her head and I felt such a sense of warmth on sight.  She had lovely long fingers and when she changed my dressings and looked at my surgery she had the gentlest yet confident touch. She had absolutely no English, but she would pre-practice some key words to talk to me and then draw me pictures or gesture.  Communicating with her was a little like playing Pictionary.  I will always remember her as an angel.  She was my first angel.

My second angel was also there when I came out of the anaesthetic, also recognisable by a glow around her head, so I knew she was someone significant,  but it took me almost a week to find out that she was my Lead Doctor and actually the head of the hospital.   On my second day in the general ward I was uncomfortable with bags and tubes coming out of me.  I didn’t know who to ask for, and what I wanted to ask them.  So I just kept thinking of her face and praying that she’d come and see me because I somehow thought she’d know how to help.  She appeared by my bed in her street clothes – I think it was her day off.  I was ecstatic to see her “Oh, I’m so glad to see your face,  I’ve been hoping you’d come!”  She ordered the bag that was going through my nose to come out and stood over the nurse until it happened.  Even so, it was still another few days before I realised that she was the boss!  One day I asked her how many English speaking patients they had at the hospital, and found to my surprise that I was the first ever!

Necessity meant I had to communicate, and with the help of a tablet and German translator app, I had a resource which was frequently in use.  But there were many times when words became redundant, and I was intrigued how quickly I adapted and how well my nurses nursed me without words.  There was one particularly wonderful nurse on my general ward who was my third angel.  She never tried a word of English but she clucked and fussed over me, making me comfortable, guessing my needs and filling me with relief and confidence.  One night I when I was particularly in pain, so much so that I hadn’t thought to push the button for the nurse, she appeared in my doorway, a golden glow around her head.    “How did you know I needed you?”  I asked her.  She soothingly clucked away and came in and tucked my legs so I was comfortable and adjusted my pillows.  Of course she hadn’t understood my question, but by her actions, I was sure that she answered me, saying something like, “I just knew you were uncomfortable, so I came into help you.”   Whatever she replied… I was comforted and back asleep in no time.

Several people have said how much I will want to forget my time in hospital.  I hope I don’t forget it.  It was a time of great privilege for me.  I’ve always hoped that in a time of darkness, my faith would stay strong and this time it did.  From the moment in the A&E department, when the surgeon told me the news that I had to have emergency surgery and didn’t have time to get back to New Zealand, I had an amazing sense of peace wash over me. I had an image of being held in God’s arms.  Both the feeling of peace and the image of God holding me stayed with me throughout my time in hospital.

And words… the currency I deal with for most of my daily life, in both written and spoken form… all became sideshows to the languages of touch, gestures and images and that special something extra that can only come from God.

(Photo credit: the Krankenhaus (hospital) taken on the day I managed the first big walk outside!