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Under the cloud

9 Nov

It’s been one of those weeks.

I saw the dark cloud approaching, hovering on the horizon, probably about ten days ago. I spotted it and I ignored it.

For some reason, I thought that denial might work – this time.

And as the cloud approached, I remained naively optimistic. It will be different this time. I can do this. I can win this battle.

I started feeling slightly disconnected – from those around me, from conversations, from life. And I still carried on thinking I would be ok.

Then. Then – the crash. Unable to get out of bed. Unable to answer my phone. Unable to connect – with anyone, anything.

The cloud had enveloped me. I could no longer deny its presence. I could not fight, I had no resources or strength. Nothing.

I felt so sad. Overwhelmed by disappointment. A sense of loss. A sadness at the world we live in, at the suffering of those I love. A sadness and a questioning – of the path I am on, the world I occupy.

I could no longer see, enveloped by blackness. Bleakness.

I have been under the cloud before. And it is horrible. Awful. It is lonely, isolating, enveloping, all-consuming.

No-one should ever have to live under the cloud.

And today? Today, the cloud is still there but there are some rays of light too.

So please don’t worry. I write these words not to alarm anyone, but in the pursuit of honesty and truth. Of vulnerability.

For I spend many years pretending I was strong. And I am not.

I cannot do this on my own.

And I cannot pretend anymore. It’s been one of those weeks.

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Moving up, moving down

1 Nov

I often hear talk, amongst Christians, of the desire to “be countercultural”, articulating an attempt to live differently in a world that is, in the West at least, marked by individualism, independence and financial aspiration.

And yet, the more I think about it, the more clearly I see: how little difference there is – in terms of every-day, nitty-gritty living – between those of faith and those of none.

For many middle-class Christians have embraced a middle-class faith.

A faith that allows for upward mobility, financial security and “confort zone living”.

A faith that, it would seem, talks about “going the extra mile” – yet rarely leads to worn out shoes.

A faith that ticks the “giving box” through impersonal direct debits, and avoids the command to “give away an extra coat”.

A faith exhibiting a reluctance to give-til-it-hurts.

A faith that has failed to truly cross the boundaries of wealth, class and background – so the rich get richer, the poor stay poor and we inhabit two separate worlds.

I write this not to judge, but as a confession. An admission that I, a fully signed-up Christian, am comfortable  in my comfort zone. I make choices that benefit me (and those I love) and I get caught up – day by day, week by week – in an aspirational, “upwards” mindset – bigger salary, bigger house, bigger cupboards. More. More. More.

Recently, though, my hubster and I made a different choice. You could, I guess, call it a “downward decision”. We had to move house – and so we left our lovely home with a big garden and moved into our friend’s spare room. We stepped off the up escalator and started exploring a different path. We are students of an alternative trail.

I know that some of our friends find it weird. After all – who would choose shared space instead of privacy? Which married couple would move in with others, except in an emergency? In a country obsessed with land ownership, why would anyone aspire to “shared space” over “my space”?

Then, this morning, I read these words:

“The rampant individualism of Western society is a relatively new thing, and its emptiness is increasingly evident … We are wealthy and lonely…”

We are lonely. We live in a world that is more “connected” than ever before. Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, BBM. Instant access to others. And – if the phone doesn’t buzz or beep – instant loneliness.

We are wealthy. And the more money we have, the more we isolate ourselves from others.

We are strangers. We bump into others, for we share the same public space, yet we rarely know each other’s names.

We are upwardly mobile, educated, financially secure and full of aspiration. We are middle-class Christians.

And we are missing out.

Missing out on the wonder of hearing the life-stories of those with journeys very different to ours, and the indescribable joy of the friendships that can emerge. Missing out on the laughter, and tears, of living-entwined-lives, and not solely with “people like us”. Missing out on the reward and challenge inherent in a risky “no” to cultural norms and a “yes” to downward mobility.

A guy called Shane Claiborne said, “we live in community and among the suffering because it is what we are made for”.

I love that. For it is truly counter-cultural. And it doesn’t sound very middle-class to me.

Who am I? Where am I? Part II

11 Jun

What did the clever man think? He liked it.

And I liked that he liked it. It felt redemptive somehow. Redemptive – yet confusing.

What should I do with that which has been salvaged? Plucked out of the dark and brought into the light? For that is how it felt – as though part of me long locked away was being released, allowed to re-emerge. “The failure” may not, after all, be the end.

Can failures be rescued, re-imagined, resurrected? What can we do with the remnants?

In Mozambique, several years ago, I visited a rubbish dump known locally as the bocarria. There lived the scavengers, those who made a living from others’ waste. Those who were so poor, so desperate, that the unwanted remnants – discarded by fellow human beings – became their livelihood.

These entrepreneurial rescuers knew instinctively that worthless things may actually be deeply valuable. That life is often found amongst waste, that hope often dwells in unusual places – and can be buried within a smelly, forsaken mountain of shit.

Many of us in the West never get anywhere near the shit. We live complacent, comfortable, there-is-always-enough (or there-is-always-too-much) lives. We throw away that which is valuable – both literally and metaphorically – because it’s easier, more convenient, than salvaging from the rubbish. We put the rubbish in the bin automatically, and we lock our failures in the cupboard in the same way. We discard that which may, sometimes, need to be salvaged.

And so we miss out. On redemption. On hope-restoration. On real-life resurrection.

We miss out because salvaging is hard work and costly. Painful. It takes time. And it rubs your hands (and heart) raw.

I – like many – often make the easy choice: sanitized living – clean, safe and predictable. I prefer order to mess. Hygienic surfaces to those strewn with waste. And yet, occasionally, in the midst of my need-for-order, the unexpected occurs. Scavenging – whilst terrifying and confusing – becomes the best choice. And so I choose it. And there, if only for a brief moment, is the sweet aroma of redemption.

Who am I? Where am I?

8 Jun

It’s been a long time since I put fingers to keys here. I am not sure why. I have been busy – yes. I have been away on a work trip – yes. I have been seeking, but not really finding, inspiration – yes. But these things have happened before and it hasn’t kept me away from the blog. This time it has.

And yet now, as I sit here, there is so much that I want to write and I don’t know where to begin. There is too much I’d like to say and yet I don’t know how to say it. The words were, for a while, inaccesssible; now they are competing for my attention. I don’t know which ones to choose first.

Maybe I will begin at the end and work backwards.

I am in the US at the moment on a work trip. I have been here for two weeks and I love it! I have met some incredible people – people who have chosen a different path and live on the periphery. People who keep me awake at night as I try to absorb the conversations we have had. People who are very “ordinary” and, in so being, somehow become extraordinary.

Last night, I was chatting with two of these people, two new friends. Both are academics – one a professor in post-modern philosophy, the other completing her masters in reconciliation, trauma and gender. I found that, as I talked about my days in academia – from 2003 until 2008, whilst I studied for my Ph D – a dormant part of me was resurrected again. A part of me that is usually shelved. part of Becca that tends to stay in a cupboard, in darkness, away from the light. Yet as we spoke – and we had much in common – this neglected part came into focus once again.

My Ph D was – at the time – the most important thing in my life. I saw it as a springboard to great things. Not academia but action. I spent five years thinking about street children in South Africa and the daily abuses of their human rights and, by the end, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty. So I went to the frontline, to the streets of South Africa, and dirtied my clean, library-sanitised hands, mind and body. I put the Ph D on a shelf and left the library for good.

When I came back from South Africa a few months later – deflated, exhausted and broken – I wondered why I had bothered. With the Ph D. With the move to SA. With the hours, weeks, years of thinking, planning and dreaming. It had all gone terribly wrong. I had failed. Completely and utterly.

My attempts, a few months later, to find a publisher for my Ph D were similarly impotent. They weren’t interested. I thought I had something to say, something to contribute, but these “experts” did not agree. And so I gave up.

Gave up being an academic. Gave up trying to work on the frontline.

So, what about marriage?

30 Apr

I am going to begin this post with a caveat (that means I feel a bit nervous writing this one!) – I write this blog as honestly as I can. I don’t ever claim to be “right”. In fact, I could be “wrong”.

So, if you massively disagree with me on this post – that is ok. We don’t have to agree on everything. I don’t want to offend, but also I don’t want to say nothing – for fear of offence. So, here goes…

Gay marriage. What do you think? This issue seems incredibly divisive right now – with people passionately defending both sides of the debate. Some getting very angry about it. Others being more gracious.

What is it about sex that gets people so worked up? Particularly, it seems, those in the church. A friend of mine was told he couldn’t marry his fiancee in a church as she was divorced – so she would have to “repent publicly” before her wedding. They chose not to. For she had nothing to apologise for – young love had simply fizzled out. She wasn’t usually a church-goer but liked the idea of a church wedding. Is that really a crime?

Gay sex gets people even more worked up. Makes people angry. Livid. Moving beyond all the “is it natural?” debate, surely the more important question to ask the angry is: why are you so angry? Is it really moral piety? Are you really so blameless yourself? So happy (and qualified) to throw the first stone?

Why do same-sex relationships make some people so angry? An interesting article recently in the Times, by Matthew Parrish (himself a gay man) talked about a spectrum of sexuality. The polar opposites we use to box people in (“gay” or “straight”) are, he claims, a social construction. Humanity is far more messy. Which means the right/wrong dichotomy becomes harder to justify. Life is, after all, too messy to fit into neat boxes (we all know that by now, surely). Do people get angry because it touches on an insecurity or pain deep inside them – the issue maybe being in the eye of the beholder rather than the accused? Do people get angry because they are living along a “them” v. “us” divide? It is, after all, easier to dislike (or even hate) “them” if they remain “the other”. Once “they” are closer to “you” (as friend, colleague or relative) such black-and-white loathing is harder to sustain.

If gay marriage is only understood in terms of “them”, it remains an academic issue (even if it is dressed up in moral clothing). Once it is closer to home, it once again becomes messy/grey/harder to outright condemn.

So this is my question: is it really so bad if two people want to make a lifelong partnership official? If they want to publicly commit to each other, should they be excluded? Is it more “moral” to exclude or to embrace?

I write this as a Christian – who believes in the importance of marriage and tries to live my life in line with what I read in the Bible. I wouldn’t call myself a “liberal”, but neither am I a fundamentalist (sometimes it feels like life would be more straightforward if I was!). I often wrestle deeply with what it means to live a life of faith and hope in that I cannot see. I have doubts. And questions. And sometimes it seems there are no easy answers.

I find it hard to reconcile faith in a God of love and generosity with the attitude I see around me in many churches – a “morality” seemingly based on superiority and judgment. I find it hard to stomach some of the venom directed at those who are for gay marriage. It seems like hatred, not love. And that sits uncomfortably with me. For me, Jesus was a radical, an unconventional Messiah who shattered most expectations and frequently offended the “holy ones”. He didn’t like religious rules. He loved the unloved and embraced the broken and needy. He didn’t create petitions to “witness” to truth, instead he loved prostitutes, the mentally ill and the outcasts. And he often healed them in the process (but not always – another conundrum!).

Jesus seemed to accept people as they were. He didn’t bring easy answers. He seemed instead to generate more questions. And confusion.

And this is why I am a Christian – because faith is not about ticking boxes or living separate from the world. For Jesus did neither. I believe in a radical, loving, generous, outrageous, extravagant Messiah. One who embraced the misunderstood/the different/the outcast and asks me to do the same.

So I cannot, in integrity, sign any petition “against gay marriage”. Nor would I want to. I cannot stand on my moral perch and condemn. That would be ridiculous.

And I hope that, whatever the outcome, the church – this time – stops thinking in terms of “them” and “us”. And – this time – chooses love over hate.

The oxymoron of “Christian celebrity”

1 Apr

This is a timely, thought-provoking, full-of-truth post by Alan Hirsch. It uses some long words but it is worth wading through them, because he is challenging a taboo here, and it is a much-needed challenge:

“Christian celebrity, especially in that ideological, primadonna-ish, spin-loaded,  cult of self that it embodies, distorts what Jesus essentially stands for.” I love this sentence!

I have long felt uncomfortable with the disparity between the life Jesus lived (humble, anti-status) and the way some leaders in the church live (seemingly status-driven, more-special-than-everyone-else, “set-apart”-but-not-in-a-good-way). This is failure (and-not-in-a-good-way). A failure of priorities. A failure to remember that the Christian way is not about self but the transcendent, beautiful Other.

As Lent – a time of reflection, abstinence and grief – draws to a close, let those of us who call ourselves Christians be honest about our complicity in the creation and sustaining of “Christian celebrity”. Let us grieve our skewed priorities.

And let us do all we can to ensure that the two words – Christian and celebrity – never belong together again.

Miraculous recovery?

25 Mar

It’s been quite a while since I wrote on here. I have surprised myself with my silence. The truth is – the quiet has been a combination of two facts-of-life: 1. Busyness 2. Complete dearth of inspiration.

Work has been busy – for which I am deeply grateful. Life as a freelancer is constantly unpredictable and I am very happy to have an influx of work, which will keep me busy and out of trouble for a few weeks.

Mostly – and this I suspect is the “real” reason – I just haven’t felt inspired. Haven’t known what to write about. Haven’t felt that I had anything to say. Fleeting thoughts have crossed my mind but nothing has taken root.

Until today.

This morning, I went to church. It was a lovely service. On the whole. A guest speaker and lots of happy faces. All was going swimmingly. And then the preacher mentioned Muamba. Muamba – the man who “died” (technically for 78 minutes) on a football pitch last week, and is now alive. Muamba – the sudden object of the nation’s prayers (or at least, the prayers of those on Twitter). Muamba – the “miracle”.

I must confess, however, that I did not join in with the Twitterati #prayformuamba – although I do pray quite often myself. I didn’t get overexcited about this seeming “answer to prayer”, this “miracle” – and it may well be one (or both) or these.

I couldn’t. I am not a cynic. Nor a pessimist. Quite the opposite in fact.

For me though, jumping on this bandwagon would have meant quelling the difficult questions, the deep agonising, soul-wrenching questions about unanswered prayer.

I have friends longing for a baby, who have prayed again and again for a baby, and who remain childless. And devastated.

I have experienced the darkness of  unanswered prayer in my own life. Where there are no answers to the question “why?”, no “happy endings”.

I am not the only one.

And this morning, I watched a young girl fall apart as the preacher ecstatically exclaimed the miracle of Muamba and the amazing answered prayers witnessed. She fell apart, devastated, because three years ago, she prayed – again and again – that her mum would be healed from cancer. And she wasn’t. Aged 14, she lost her mum. And now she struggles to believe in the God who didn’t hear her prayer.

For her, talk of the Muamba miracle only rubbed salt into the wound. Only compounded her question “why?” and her sense of God’s abandonment and lack of care.

Her pain – so visible and raw – was almost too much to witness. I love this girl deeply. I know how much she misses her Mum. Every day. And like everyone else, I don’t have an answer, a satisfying response.

Does this mean I don’t pray? No. Not at all. I continue to pray even when my prayers aren’t answered. At times like these, my prayers may not be very eloquent or “nice”. More rant-y and raving. At other times, more silent than spoken. At others, there are only tears.

I do believe in prayer. But I don’t like jumping on a bandwagon. A bandwagon that seems to create more questions than answers, more pain (for some) than comfort.

Is Muamba’s life a miracle? Maybe. But let’s not shove that in the face of the hurting and grieving, for like salt rubbed in a wound, the pain created runs too deep for words.

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