I’m currently in one of those seasons when I feel like I’m not at my best. I recognise it because when I’m chatting to people I want to sit them down and tell them ‘this isn’t me’. Normally I’ve got more energy or enthusiasm or ideas and I’m fun to hang out with, but right now I feel like I’m letting the side down. It’s not the first time this has happened and it’s not the worst time either. I remember when Dave was training to be a vicar and I would meet up for coffee with my friend Cath who was recovering from breast cancer and we would talk about our frustrations of how chemo and grief had limited our lives in that season. I would lament over what life used to be like before all the miscarriages and the epilepsy, longing to tell stories of what I used to do to prove there was more to me than the limited version of myself people saw in that moment. Cath, would often say; ‘I’m so tired of being sick and tired’, this was the closest she ever got to moaning and straight after she’d always say something Godly and hopeful, but I found it so helpful because it reminded me I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with the limits placed on my life by circumstances that were out of my control.
There’s a lady from Dave’s curacy church called Marg who has taught me a lot about living in these kinds of seasons and I’m really sad right now because she died suddenly last week and I wish I’d spent more time with her. Marg was in her seventies and she was a soul friend – we always had the most amazing conversations about God and life and faith. She loved blue, which is also my favourite colour and she was always very coordinated – her jewellery always matched her outfits, even when she was gardening. Marg talked about God in the most beautiful way, she would spend hours in prayer every day and her faith just naturally spilled over into other people’s lives.
I never knew Marg when her husband Lester was well. I only knew her when she was caring for him as his body and his mind were increasingly weakened by Parkinson’s, then dementia. I only knew her when she was worn down by the daily struggle of the slow and painful loss of the man she married whilst he was alive and then the physical loss when he died a couple of years ago. I only knew her when she was grieving. I never got to see her and her husband running church groups, I never knew her when she was younger and less burdened by struggle. From her perspective she may have thought she had not been at her best over the past four years, that the woman she used to be was disguised by the daily exhaustion of suffering, but from where I was standing she was wonderful.
Marg never pretended, she was always honest and after Lester died, we’d have many conversations in the Church car park when we would both end up in tears talking about God and loss and the days when grief crashes over you. She was also fun, this year I sat next to her at the church’s AGM and we giggled the whole night. I couldn’t even begin to understand the depth of struggle she had lived with for years, but her pain had not stopped the beauty of the spirit with which she lived from manifesting itself in everything she did and said. At times Marg was frustrated with the limitations her struggles had placed on her life, but I never saw that – I thought she was magnificent.
it’s the spirit of the story that affects how we experience it
Good stories have the power to move us, they stay with us and inspire us. Of course, the plot has something to do with it, but it’s the spirit of the story that affects how we experience it. Some of the most beautiful films I’ve seen haven’t had easy or happy endings, but they have moved me. My favourite stories of great men and women of faith aren’t great because they were always at their best, their stories were great because of the spirit with which they lived it out.
We all want to live a meaningful and purposeful life, we want the beauty that comes from a great story to manifest itself in us and we are often fooled that we must be at our best to do this. The plot and the spirit of the story are different things and they often contradict each other. I want the ‘good life’ free of struggle, but I also want a meaningful life. I want success and good health, but I also want significance.
we want the beauty that comes from a great story to manifest itself in us and we are often fooled that we must be at our best to do this
I have friends around me who are struggling with the physical limitations of their health, of grief, of anxiety and of the heartache of a life that looked nothing like they hoped it would. Right now, I’m waiting to find out if I have rheumatoid arthritis and both the pain and the news has made me feel really old and frustrated by the limitations a diagnosis like this could have on my life. I also feel worn down by the heartbreak of Christian ministry and the way leadership seems to highlight my weaknesses rather than my strengths. Just like my friends, there have been days recently when I’ve just wanted to sit people down and tell them ‘this isn’t me’, normally I’m more hopeful and fun to hang out with, normally I have lots of ideas and energy or normally I’d have offered to help you, but right now I’m not at my best. I have no control over this part of the plot, but I know I need to remember the circumstances of my life are only part of the story. I need to focus on the spirit of my story.
Redemption isn’t about God giving you what you want, redemption is God’s collaborative work of taking your pain and turning it into something beautiful and often something that can benefit way more people than just yourself
Living a story that has a beautiful spirit isn’t about pretending you’re happy when you’re not. The fragrance that rises from a beautiful story comes from the belief that your story is part of something bigger. It comes from the hope that pain is not wasted, but instead it can have a purpose. My faith tells me my life is part of God’s story and I need to remember the beauty found in this story isn’t because of the circumstances God’s people found themselves in, the beauty comes from the spirit of the story and it’s a spirit of redemption. Redemption isn’t about God giving you what you want, redemption is God’s collaborative work of taking your pain and turning it into something beautiful and often something that can benefit way more people than just yourself.
The spirit of the story Paul lived out was never limited by circumstances, in fact it blossomed in adversity
As I try to embrace this season of life I’m reminded of Paul, the apostle. He was hardcore, he endured prison and shipwrecks and rejection and this was all before he was killed. What challenges me about Paul’s life is he just assumes there will be suffering, in fact when he asks for prayer, it’s not for him to be taken out of their place of suffering, but for him to be strengthened by it. He doesn’t talk about waiting until he’s in a better place to tell others about Jesus, instead he celebrates and even boasts about his weakness and struggle, he talks about jars of clay and light shining through darkness, and the hope, strength and joy that comes from being forced to rely on God. The spirit of the story Paul lived out was never limited by circumstances, in fact it blossomed in adversity as he preached ‘when I am weak I am strong’ and he is right. When we are drowning in weakness we are forced to look outside of ourselves and as a Christian I know I’m called to look to God, the source of power and goodness and love.
We can’t measure the beauty that rises from the spirit of our own story, Marg never knew how much the Holy Spirit had infused the plot of her life with a spirit of redemption, but the purpose of our lives isn’t to show others how capable we are. We were created to bring glory to God and I can’t think of any better way than to start by asking for His help. I can’t make the spirit of my story beautiful on my own, but the Holy Spirit has the power to breathe a spirit of redemption into my life. Jerry Sittser, in his amazing book ‘A Grace Revealed’ says this:
My powers are severely limited and I suspect this is true for you as well, not only in shaping the plot as we would like but also in engendering the right kind of spirit. The best we can do, the only thing we can do, is to invite the Holy Spirit to unite us in Christ to make us like Christ and to impart divine life in us, producing a beautiful aroma that will awaken people to the reality of God, to the power of the kingdom and to the promise of an eternal spring.
This is the spirit with which Marg lived out her story, it’s also the spirit I saw in my friend’s mum Lucy who was also in her eighties and was driving people to a Dementia support group the day before she died. It’s the same spirit I saw in my friend Cath as she lived through breast cancer and chemo and it’s a spirit I see in so many of my friends who are struggling and this is how I want to live.
I believe in redemption, but now I need to decide what kind of person I want to become as I live out this story of redemption, I need to focus on the spirit of my story, not the circumstances.