Packing Ballast (on gaining weight, for good)

One of the things I really love about belonging to a book club (okay, I lie, I belong to two. Three over the summer…) is that I get introduced to books I would not otherwise have picked up. Most recently, I read Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Amazing Voyagea biography which tells of the ill-fated attempt by Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 to cross Antarctica in 1914. Spoiler alert: it did not go well.

The ship Endurance got stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea before the crew even set

foot onto Antarctica. The terrific pressure of the ice crushed their mighty vessel, andShackleton and his men spent the winter, the following summer, and yet another

250px-Endurance_Final_Sinking winter adrift on make-shift camps of ice, surviving on a diet of seal, penguin, and heroic courage.  In the final unfolding of the drama, the crew (all of whom survived: a testament to Shackleton’s remarkable leadership skills) rowed to Elephant Island, just off the shore of Antarctica, and made one of their ramshackle lifeboats as seaworthy as they could to try and make it over the Southern Ocean. No one in the world knew where they were and there was no technology to make contact: if they were to survive, six of them would have to cross the stormiest sea on the planet – 800 miles in a 22 foot yacht (and just for perspective: that little vessel would be facing hurricane-force winds and waves measuring up to 60 feet.) Biographies are not usually my thing, and maritime ones even less so, but I stayed up late in the night reading what happened to this feisty crew. Here’s a little documentary if you’re curious:

That final leg of the journey had me holding my breath – that one voyage even has its own wikipedia page.  The crew slept in snatches, the rest of the time bailing water as if their lives depended on it (they did), spending every last breath on holding their course through wind and waves. And, they repacked the ballast.

I don’t know that I had ever given a moment’s thought to what ballast was or why it was needed until I read this part of the book, but it became clear why it was critical. In preparation for the James Caird’s voyage, the men had devoted significant time to finding stones to pack into the base of the boat as ballast. The weight was needed to make the boat stable against the waves, giving it balance and a center of gravity (in as much as anything on the sea can have such a thing). These days, elaborate pumps push water and air in and out of the base of sea-going vessels to add (and lose) weight as needed for stability, but Shackleton’s men had to do as the seafaring Vikings had done centuries before: they packed stones in the hull.

ballaststonessmall.jpg
Reconstruction of ballast in a Viking vessel, by Stephen Fox (archaeofox.com)

As the James Caird was buffeted by walls of water, one of the many brutalities the men endured was being bashed and bruised by rocks as they tumbled around the base of the boat. And no sooner had rocks tumbled their way to the starboard side, the little boat would once again be somewhat unbalanced, and the crew would have to pick up those rocks and repack the ballast. So much of their energy in preparation had been to making sure they had enough weight for the voyage. And so much of their energy in the arduous journey involved repacking and redistributing that same weight so that they would remain stable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ballast. I won’t be so dramatic as to compare my life and calendar right now to crossing the Southern ocean, but it certainly has had its ups and downs and is requiring a focus and discipline I can’t remember having needed in quite the same way before. To be sure: it’s an adventure. I’m working hard on writing a book, I’m loving working as an editor and curator for Propel Women’s ministries, I’m delighting in the preparation and study and teaching of a 9 week series on the parables, and there’s no small amount of travel and house project and kid stuff going on, too. But the possibility of taking on water and the feeling that I’m about to sink feels all too real. I’ve long loved the image of Jesus being my anchor in a storm, but I didn’t know until reading this book that a ship being buffeted in a storm needs more than an anchor: it needs ballast. Something weighty to keep me from keeling over. Some centering stones, which may need to be tended to and re-packed from time to time.

My ballast comes in the form of sleep, setting aside time to exercise, and to be quiet and pray . In truth, those are the first things I tend to chuck overboard when things feel choppy, but if I think of them as ballast – things that will not sink me in a storm, but in fact keep me stable, it helps. I’ve set reminders on my phone to go to sleep on time. I’ve got calendar appointments to “be with God”. I’ve installed an app that reads Scripture to me, and set a reminder so that it pops up right around the time I’m usually wiping down the kitchen counters at night. This week things got crazy and I needed to repack my ballast: exercise isn’t working at the same time of day now that daylight savings time has kicked in, so I’ve needed to move it around. Redistribute the ballast because I feel myself tipping.

But paying attention to the ballast is the thing: some items on my to-do list feel heavy, but others are weighty. Weighty is not the same as heavy. Weighty helps us stay the course, even when the going is heavy.

When Church Feels Like Ballet Class (some thoughts on Posture, Strength, Flexibility, and Attitudes)

 

Someone asked me recently when last I was “wowed” by church. I didn’t know what to say, but it made me wonder about the question: should I expect to be “wowed” by church? If not, what should church feel like?

I’ve been wrestling with this for days, and the closest answer I can think of is to say I want church to feel like a ballet class. It’s been a long time since I was in ballet class but this is what I remember from the years I spent in pink tights: there was something profoundly good about group dance classes. I could work on stretching and routines at home, and I could have a hundred dance parties with friends… but ballet class was non-negotiable. We all stood in a row at the barre, and worked through the warm-ups, positions, and attitudes of the discipline together. We would stand tall, and the teacher would remind us to breathe, to look up, and we would move our bodies through first, second, third, fourth, and fifth positions; seeking beauty and strength in every exercise.

The studio had mirrors so we could check our alignment, and work on moving in concert with our class members. The teacher would walk up and down the length of the barre, sometimes moving closer as my feet were extended in point to make a micro correction to the position of my hip, or my ankle. I was always trying as best I could to be in the right position, but the teacher could see little adjustments that needed to be made and it was always surprising to me how a little nudge, a little turn of the foot or angle of the neck could suddenly lengthen an arabesque, or make me feel a stretch in a way that I hadn’t before and which I just knew was right.

I cried as I tried to describe this to my husband as my hope for church. I don’t expect church to be a Master Class with Misty Copeland every week. And I’m not a beginner: I can just imagine how overwhelming, foreign, and downright awkward an adult ballet class must be to someone who hasn’t done it before. But church at its best feels to me like a ballet class: where we gather in community to do things we could have done alone at home, but there’s something so good about stretching and strengthening our souls in a group setting. Singing and sitting under teaching feels to me like a series of barre exercises under an insightful instructor: my spiritual walk mirrored by the practice of those around me; and the words of the songs and preacher are seldom BRAND NEW BIBILICAL REVELATIONS!!!! with brand new coreography…. but they are like the micro-corrections of attitude and posture in life by the Holy Spirit. See how I thought I was extending myself in the right direction? No, the instructor nudges, adjust a little that way. Adjust a little this way. Breathe and make this adjustment. And see? Feel that stretch? I know it is right.

On a good Sunday, I leave church spiritually limber: my body and soul attuned to the rhythms and attitudes of grace. My deepest core has been strengthened, I am more flexible than when I came in, and I am grateful.

Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

A Prayer for Election Day

a-prayer-for-election-day

We were apprehensive about that election in 1994: the first democratic vote in South Africa’s history. There had been so much bloodshed leading up to that point, and I was just one of a throng of believers who prayed fervently as people cast their ballots. More often than not, I found myself praying 1 Timothy 2:1-6: for a government that would allow us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, so that the gentle work of God drawing people to know him could continue.

Today is election day in the USA, and again I am one of a throng of believers praying. This time, these are the words I keep finding myself praying:

Our Father, who is in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom Come,

Your Will be Done –

– on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins. Even as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

Deliver us from Evil.

For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are Yours.

Now, and Forevermore.

Amen.

Idiot Psalms (Scott Cairns)

Idiot Psalms

Idiot Psalms

1   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so, 
                     dimly apprehended in the midst 
                     of this, the fraught obscuring fog   
                     of my insufficiently capacious ken,   
                     Ostensible Lover of our kind—while 
                     apparently aloof—allow 
                     that I might glimpse once more 
                     Your shadow in the land, avail 
                     for me, a second time, the sense 
                     of dire Presence in the pulsing 
                     hollow near the heart.   
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline 
                     your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy 
                     of immolation, if You will. 
                                     2   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper 
                     of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent 
                     of energies both appalling and unobserved,   
                     do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen 
                     or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant   
                     to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,   
                     nor narrowing his affective sympathies 
                     neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. 
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue 
                     to enjoy my morning run among the lilies   
                     and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might 
                     delight in this and every evening’s intercourse   
                     with the woman you have set beside me. 
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness 
                     to roll out readily, accompanied 
                     by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,   
                     the idiot’s undying expectation,   
                     despite the evidence. 
                                     3 
       A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously   
                     slow to act, should You incline to fix   
                     Your generous attentions for the moment 
                     to the narrow scene of this our appointed 
                     tedium, should You—once our kindly 
                     secretary has duly noted which of us 
                     is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused, 
                     You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions, the discussions, the several 
                     questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots. 
                                     4   
       Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator 
                     of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing   
                     Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible, 
                     I find my face against the floor, and yet again 
                     my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart 
                     caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue. 
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire 
                     one day to slip my knot and change things up, 
                     to manage at least one late season sinlessly, 
                     to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
by Scott Cairns: Poetry (January 2009).
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

***********

I first heard this poem spoken by Cairns himself at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. I had never heard of Cairns, or the Idiot Psalms, and didn’t know what to expect. At first: it seemed snarky and pretentious, but then it began to hit uncomfortably close to home,

…. and I think: yes, this is no doubt how I sometimes pray, too. I start off self-important, asking for placations and blessings and if God would please just keep me comfortable. But, if I stay there long enough, at some point I become more aware of Him, aware that I’m rambling and asking for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. These lines stuck out to me in particular:

You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions.
I pray my own idiot psalms too, sometimes. And I am grateful that the Holy One who “endlessly attends our dreariness” is patient, loving, and knows we are little and young and self-absorbed, and yet he loves us still.

 

When God Hears Prayers in the Kenyan Dust

Loki and Grant Swanepoel were guests at our wedding just days before relocating to Kenya to serve as missionaries there. It has been my great joy to learn from them and support their efforts among the nomadic tribes of Northern Kenya: they are precious friends and faithful workers in the gospel: parents to four kiddos, leaders in their church, and fully committed to encouraging and training local pastors to be better equipped Bible teachers. In the way of missionaries , they have found themselves developing some mad skills: like repairing Land Rovers and water pumps. Also? Grant takes AMAZING photos. I asked Loki if she would write something for us. I’m so glad she did. 
IMGP4668
With President Obama’s recent visit to his ancestral home here in Kenya security measures were at an all-time high. Even the airspace around our Nairobi’s International Airport, Jomo Kenyatta, was closed for 72 hours. Having lived in Kenya now for more than 10 years of our married life, we have experienced our fair share of security concerns and a few narrow escapes. Friends and family of ours have been shot at. Just three months ago we had to be evacuated out of the area where we live and work due to a huge escalation in tribal violence.
IMGP4760
Writing home about these scary events is hard. We cringe especially for our parents,who have to hear about all this from a distance and can ”only pray” about it. Being a Mom of four myself, I can understand how hard it must be for my Mom and Dad to worry and  pray about yet another trip through bandit country. I always think that must have been the reason why God sent us an army once in answer to my parents’ prayers.
IMGP5113
Let me explain. During my parents’ second visit to Kenya , we were driving to Nairobi on the notorious Great North Road, which stretches from  the  Ethiopian border in the North all the way to the South. Sections of it have since been tarmacked, but we used to joke that the only part of the name that was true was ”North”, since it was definitely not great and not much of a road.
IMGP5904
We had been hearing reports of a UN vehicle that had been attacked by bandits on this road a few days before our trip. As we were driving down south to Nairobi, we ran into serious trouble with one of the shocks on our Landy. You guessed it, we broke down right by the place where the attack had taken place just a few days before. The front left shock turret  (a short of tower-like little part on top of the shock for those of us who are laymen) had completely torn off. We were pacing up and down on the side of the road and my Dad came to me to say ” We need to pray to find a piece of wire here next to the road. Maybe we can somehow tie this thing up and make it to the next town”.  I was trying to be calm and cheerful and make the kids comfortable on the kikoy (local wonder blanket/sheet used for everything) I had spread out for them on the desert sand under a thorn tree. I was even busier inside praying and scanning the bushes for possible attackers.
_IGP4360
A few minutes later a British army vehicle appeared on the horizon, followed by another one and another one and another one. In the end, we counted more than 25 vehicles. They were out in Northern Kenya to do maneuvers with the Kenyan Defense Force (they do training here). In the convoy there were two fully kitted out mobile ”garages” with mechanics at the wheel. They had every Landy spare known to mankind in there. Their trained mechanics got out, looked at our car and had it jacked up, new turret mounted and all back on the road again in a matter of minutes. My eyes were brimming with tears. My Dad walked up to me and said ”Here we were praying for a wire, and the Lord sent an army!”
IMGP8979
It was the one and only time that He did this particular thing for us. I think He  was demonstrating to my dear parents  that He is able to do whatever it takes to take care of us.
We live in times of shootings and insecurity on every side. I am not saying that God will, at all times, protect His own. He can, but sometimes He shows His glory in other ways too. For that day though I believe He wanted us all to know what can happen if one ‘just’ prays.
IMGP2659Loki Swanepoel is the wife of her favourite person in the world, and a missionary who is very thankful for the gospel, since she sees her own need for it daily. She is Mommy to a prospective electrical engineer, an aspiring knight, a perpetual sunbeam and a compassionate artist. You can follow their adventures on Facebook at Nomads Pulpit, and check out more of Grant’s incredible photos on Instagram at GrantsMind.
P.S. Note from Bronwyn: All photos in this post are subject to copyright and may not be copied without permission from Grant Swanepoel. You may think no one can see you… but remember, you are seen by the God who sees what happens on deserted roads in Kenya… so act in light of that, mkay?

What women want

I’m over at Ungrind again this week. Here’s a sneak peek – click over here to read the whole thing 🙂

WHATWOMENWANT1

I settled down at the table and watched my daughter compose her face in her “now-I-have-something-important-to-say” expression: eyes level, chin down, forehead hopeful.

She paused dramatically and in a butter-cream-smooth tone, said: “Mom, if you just gave us more of the things we want, there would be less crying and being angry with you.”

Reader, I literally snorted with laughter. I laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed until the tears streamed down my cheeks, infuriating my daughter more with each passing second. In hindsight, I probably should have laughed a little less.

I laughed because this was not the first time I was getting advice from my kids on how to do a better job as their mom. Not unlike the young tyrant from Calvin and Hobbes, my children are full of suggestions on how I can “improve my ratings,” or secure better responses from them.

In this particular instance, my 6-year old was angling for me to change my mind about whether or not she could have her ears pierced: a decision we had already said no to. She entreated us daily. For weeks on end. Sometimes with tantrums. Sometimes with stony silences. And on that particular day, she resorted to cool, calm reason. If we would just give her what she wanted, she’d be less angry with us.

Somewhere in the midst of that laughing, I felt the Holy Spirit tap me on the shoulder. Once again, He directed me to consider that panoramic vantage point into God’s parenting of us, His children, which we become privy to when we become parents ourselves.

(continue reading at Ungrind…)