Thursday, 25 October 2012

On Moving Mountains

"The Abdication of Belief
Makes the Behaviour small"

Emily Dickinson

After a day of sea breezes, sunshine and gaping around in shopping malls, we are back on Cold Mountain. Over stimulated and foot-sore, we rolled down the windows as we finally turned off the R63 towards the place I now call home. Settlements in the Tyume valley at the foot of the mountain, are dappled with an eclectic array of huts, shacks, half-built houses. We see so many of their inhabitants day by day on the mountain, yet know so little of their lives. Each settlement has an identity, with names as diverse as the people that breathe there. Aukland, Binfield, Umbombo, Lushington... There is poverty there, but also a sense of dignity and a degree of contentment. Scatterings of goats and other livestock glare at us as we speed past. A woman carrying a bucket of water's skirt flutters in the icy wind and I pray silently that there is wood for her fire and some "nyama" for the pot.

With our peace threatened by the monotony of grey rainy days, plummeting temperatures, a skinny purse and frustrated little ones, I remember. Days when the skies were mostly clear, the sun baked the tar into blisters and my bank account was soaring. I witnessed this all from the double-glazed window of an air-conditioned office, looking down on an endless stream of traffic and more office buildings under smoggy clouds. I also remember that beyond this mist, lies a vista that takes your breath away. Most of all I remember that "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). These "little foxes" are insignificant compared to what we have already faced since we've come to this beautiful place. In the face of a storm that seems so huge and angry that you have no defence against it, we tend to bend our backs into it and pray. And then seem surprised when God answers! Doesn't He say "All things are possible to him who believes"? (Mark 9:23) I'd like to add, all things are possible to God, even if we do not believe. But with true faith and daily prayer, our lives can and will be transformed by miracles that won't only leave you breathless but humbled with awe.

We could be tempted to ascribe miracles to chance or good fortune, destiny. When our hearts falter after weeks, months of desperate prayer, met only with silence, do we also call that destiny? Or do we dig deeper, test ourselves against His living Word and then return to the cross to surrender once more. I thought long and hard to find an example in my own life that would do justice to the witness I would like to bear. Something not too personal, too painful or embarrassing to share. We just seem to live a miracle, where would I begin... Do I tell you in mind-boggling detail how, edging towards ominous "midlife", I conceived, carried and gave natural birth to two perfect boy babies? Or do I relate the trial by fire it took to move here and build our home in the "wilderness". How we were given an extended family when I asked for a friend. Faithful friends that have prayed with, provided for, battled and loved us back onto the road to wholeness. Maybe some time, as I am led, I may share these stories and many more. But for now I can "only" share the heart of the most important miracle of all. The pivot point that I was led up to and from which nothing could ever be the same again.

For many years I believed that true contentment was the result of spiritual, physical and mental well-being. All backed up by a substantial, secure income that would help ensure that most of these aspects are kept in balance. Why was my scale then still tipping back and forth, never finding this elusive balance? At first it was a niggle, an itch that no amount of scratching and distraction would ease. Finally, the longing for truth and true goodness would no longer go away, regardless of how I tried to fill this void. It was a sadly delayed process, having so much to distract, numb and fill my stunted senses with. I do not for a moment judge anyone who chooses to live the life we escaped from, it works for some, it just did not work for us.

So there we were, en route to "paradise", the long awaited dream about to enfold. One by one the "disasters" struck, and each time we had to dig a little deeper to keep on trusting that we were indeed "doing the right thing". We learnt anew to pray, surrender, hope and hardest of all, to wait. The waiting was hard, but rewarded without fail, the shadow of His wings always there. I thought we had finally found our balance. Then all at once, I found myself alone, facing a deep personal crisis; and there was an eerie silence from heaven. Or so I thought. In these desert days, I was taken back to a place that rocked my world. The foot of the cross. I looked up and saw another suffering face, hauntingly familiar, but filled with not only my pain, but the pain of every living soul in the universe. Something broke inside me and I sobbed and shook with the realisation of what my Saviour Jesus' death and resurrection really meant. So yes, thank God, I was spiritually, mentally, physically broken, but I new that God meant what He said with "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" Ezekiel 36:26.

Now, one day at a time, He is truly "making all things new".  We're still here, in our piece of paradise, trying to live the forgiveness we were given and continue to receive each day. The mountains are visible again, even though with faith as small as a mustard seed, we could tell them to move and they would! (Heaven forbid). Another small miracle is unfolding as I write. At the bottom of our property, a hefty man is digging a hole for a pole (with another watching in the shade...). In due course a few more will follow, and finally a wire that will give us the long awaited land line will be connected. This should not take long, since Luke is there, his feet shod in bright red gumboots, digging with his little spade, making their work "light". So when the skies grow dark, another storm threatens and the foxes nudge at our gate; I water that mustard seed, hope for what is yet unseen and BELIEVE.

Matthew 17:20 ... "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain: Move from here to there, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you".

Friday, 19 October 2012

Shall We Dance?

"You turned my mourning into dancing, you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy."( Psalm 30:11)

Another day of swirling mists and soft persistent rain. Only the closest trees are visible, waving ghostly branches at the grey skies. We hauled out an old leather suitcase, snapped open its latches and within a few minutes my two tough mountain toddlers were transformed into glittery, jingly butterflies. I buried my nose in the fabrics and relived the elation of my shimmy-swaying dancing days. Aah, what fun we had,  twirling like little girls, veils flying high and our spirits even higher. I jumped up, rummaged for some desert vibes and off we were, Tigger, Tinkerbell and Poo, bumping shins and (almost) bringing the house down. Less graceful, I admit, but just as much fun. To each one of you, beautiful friends and hip-swaying woman, thank you! from my heart. We taught each other to fly, sometimes through pain, but all along discovering the wonder of being women, "non regrette rien".

I do tend to romanticise the past, but those were sweet times. All along, they have always been there, soul-sisters, kinswoman, doulas, midwifes. We are bound together by silken threads, at times stretched taught by circumstance or distance, but always there. I realised this morning that even if we no longer dance hip to hip, the rhythm continues.

When I first became aware of the new life that I carried under my heart it was at once wondrous and terrifying. Thoughts of nausea, untimely cravings, backache and the like spun through my head. A hormonal roller-coaster ride lay ahead for me, I thought. Why I was blessed with a near-perfect pregnancy, I'll never know. I could think of many more deserving candidates. I felt serene, alive and totally in awe of how wondrously we are created. Psalm 139:14 says: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; a phrase of scripture I say aloud to myself on days when the mirror does not. I treasured each day of flutterings across my belly, from the first sense of quickening to the goal-kicking thuds against my ribs. Even when I grew large, we never stopped dancing. Belly-dancing took on a whole new meaning and the little one loved it. (He still does).

With these dancing sisters I celebrated a rite of passage into motherhood. I was lead down a leafy path guarded by tiny flames. At the end of it was the place where we danced. A candle was passed from mother to mother and each one of them shared advice or a blessing. I soaked it all up, feeling truly connected. Somehow "knowing" each woman who ever felt strong and weak with love for the gift growing in her womb. I found something that I wrote a few days after giving birth to Luke. "The most profound experience of my life. The pain and passion of giving birth has given my own life new meaning and purpose".

So another week of grey sleety days draws to a close. My patience has been worn paper thin at times, but we're still dancing. We began before words and we will end beyond them.  We were given so many ways of expression, dance just being one of them. Why does it feel so good to lift your arms up to the heavens, palms outstretched and eyes closed? We were made to worship Him, our Creator of heaven and earth. He who's silence is the most eloquent of all. The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26) The comfort of knowing that in desperation, when we do not even know what to pray for, He does it for us. Not with words, with groans. And when your heart is filled with awe and gratitude that words cannot express; dance before Him. Sway and twirl with infinite bliss - no-one is watching but our God; and He's loving it!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Dumbfounded by Grace

"In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise."
W.H. Auden

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills" - I close my eyes and let the slow, soothing narrative evoke images of the familiar scenes to follow. Here, I too become a mental traveller, smelling the coffee plantations and feeling the wind on my skin as we soar above the Kenyan planes. Like the hero of this story, I love a story well told, and this classic film about a Danish baroness' struggles on her "farm in Africa", even entranced our three year old from beginning to end. This Sunday was a typical Hogsback day, misty-cool and wet. A day of fellowship, heartwarming food and for desert; a good movie. After sitting through tiresome repetitions of meaningless children's movies, we have discovered (with much wonder and relief) that our boys can somehow relate better to films about "real people". They both literally fell off the couch with excitement when that yellow biplane roars over lake Nakuru, the horizon filled with wave upon wave of pink flamingo's.*

Back to our own house on the hill - the wandering bovines of Hogsback have pruned our tender elm trees and neighbouring swines have dug up our newly terraced vegetable garden. It is still raining, still cold and the mists continue to swirl around the birches. Nonetheless, the veldt is lush with new growth in shades of startling green, the frogs are frogging and water reservoirs filled to the brim. In their lofty look-outs, fire-watchmen breathe sighs of relief and those whose seedbeds have not been raided, smile. Yes, the rain is a friend, as are the mists, even though it has taken me just over four years to embrace this gracious friendship. But it is the rain that refreshes my heart that I need most, for only then, can grace overflow into my life.

The community of Hogsback is an eccentric mix of individuals. Some are easy to love. With some I really need to remind myself that God extends (offers) grace to all people, and so should I. Our village brims with creative and artistic talent. We have sculptors, potters, poets, painters, mosaic artists, cheese makers, a knife maker, wood turners, a silver smith, musicians... The best of them all: an amazing artisan baker... The baker and I have been blessed with two amazing little cherubs called Luke and Daniel. They are works in progress, but we trust that they are masterpieces in their own right.

A group of quilters pin and sow textures and fabrics into functional art that is a delight to the senses. One can loose yourself in the intricate designs, drawing your eyes from the marvel of a completed work, to each intricate detail and touch that is the signature of the seamstress. It is the reward of patience, delicate attention to detail, as well as a willingness to creative intuitively , a reminder that all gifts and talents are God-breathed.

I am deeply privileged to call one of these woman a dear friend and mentor, not as a quilter, but sister in faith. The warmth and peace of her home attests to a woman who walks with her Saviour and it is wonderfully infectious! Whenever we meet there in His name, I marvel at how we rush in from our mountain-hollows, (often with wispy breaths and cold noses) to melt deliciously into the wide quilt-covered couches. It is a "gracious" warmth, not just from the hearth. Here the Spirit of God has infused each inch and atom, soaked up through years of daily devotion to Him who longs to live in our hearts.
"Enlarge the limits of your home, spread wide the curtains of your tent; let out the ropes to the full and drive your pegs home;" Isaiah 54:2

Back to the subject of grace... In his book "What is so amazing about Grace" Phillip Yancy explores the need for (and desperate lack of) grace at street level. If grace is God's love for the undeserving, and through Christ we become it's true dispensers, then how are we doing at lavishing grace on a world that knows far more about cruelty and unforgiveness than it does of mercy? Trace the roots of grace, or charis in Greek and you will find a verb that means "I rejoice, I am glad". We probably each have a different concept of grace and many reasons to be in need of giving or receiving it. For me, it is a humble acknowledgement of how in need I am of Divine grace. To live in this state of surrender, to share the gift, and  remain willing to forgive, is a daily challenge. Can I do this by my own strength? Most certainly not. I still stumble through most days, but I do have the certainty that "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" Phil 4:13

C.S Lewis uses the term "drippings of grace" for what awakens a deep longing in us for "a scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited" This struck a bitter-sweet chord with me. I remember feeling so hollow, that I would weep with longing and have no idea what for. In Afrikaans they say: "Jy sit op die stoep en verlang na mense wat jy nie ken nie" The thirst for grace will not be quenched, not even by the most crystalline mountain water. It is only when we respond to this great invitation that we will thirst no more. "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me,..... streams of living water will flow from within him. John 7:37

As I write this, the sun finally breaks through. The mountains loom large in the distance, casting deep shadows on their slopes. After a three-day "absence" behind the clouds they are once again breathtaking. To wake up each new day with this post-card panorama outside my window, is something I hope never to take for granted. Everything glistens, beads of moisture cling to the trees and the wild wideness of it, opens fresh spaces in my heart.

A forest walk brought this day to a close, watching two little blond heads bobbing through the pines, their happy voices carried on the still air. The Elandsberg flanks the road next to the forest and in front of us lay Gaika kop, (named after King Ngqika, the Xhosa ruler who reigned over the Rharhabe tribe in the beginning of the 19th century). Seeing things through these little ones eyes has made each experience new. They are like puppies, wide-eyed with exuberance, "tails" wagging and eager to please. We have received such healing through our babies, they have taught us to sing again, to play, to believe in endless possibilities and potential. They have allowed us a glimpse into the holiest of holies whence they came from. We learn, day by day, to trust again, to love more, but mostly, to surrender to the endless grace that began at that rugged cross, on a hill, far away...

* Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The story of Baroness Karen Blixen and her struggles on her Kenyan farm.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy

"Let the fields be jubilant and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy!" (Psalm 96:12)

Have you ever felt the welcoming coolness of a forest on a sizzling day? Legs carrying you up and on, eyes on the hot soil at your feet and then all at once you feel it. First a cool breeze, a hint that something is about to change. Then you look up and its there, just as it was yesterday and all the days before, but always the same deep intake of breath, the same sense of sweetness as you surrender to its embrace.

My brother used to play a song on his guitar, written by a lone country boy that longed for the dusty road home. He also waxed lyrical about a "gall" who "filled up his senses, like a night in the forest". Giving away my age am I? My guess is that the forest filled up his senses, long after his senses and his beloved had left him.
One of my favourite scenes from Lord of the Rings (Part II) is when Merry and Pippin are carried along on the limbs of solemn old Treebeard the Ent, shepherd tree of Fanghorn Forest. Their destination is Isengard; there to face the evil Saruman's army, a threat to all that is good and pure on earth. Up there in their lofty shelter, they seemed unperturbed. My tree never walked, although I did hear it whisper, especially at times when I felt that nobody cared or understood - pre-teens for sure. Our childhood garden was not one of magic and mystery, rather a typical suburban arrangement of shrubs and neatly trimmed lawn. But an eight year old romantic found mystery in a triangular dovecote and sheer magic in the limbs of a Jacaranda tree. It was my castle in the air, a flying steed (without the complications of a handsome prince), and whatever else I wished it to be.

Thomas Pakenham embarked on a five-year odyssey to most of the temperate and tropical regions of the world to photograph sixty trees of remarkable personality and presence: Dwarfs, Giants, Monuments, and Aliens; the lovingly tended midgets of Japan; the enormous strangler from India; and the 4,700-year "Old Methuselahs".

We don't have a Pakenham in Hogsback, but we have a Paroz, a quiet Swiss horticulturist with a dry witt, sparkling eyes, an undeniable passion for plant life and needless to say; trees. As time goes on I'd like to introduce you to more members of our eccentric community, but since the topic is trees, he may have the first entrance. Our Arboretum, (this in a narrow sense is a collection of trees only. Related collections include shrubs and vines. More commonly, today, an arboretum is a botanical garden containing living collections of woody plants intended at least partly for scientific study) is lovingly tended by Monsieur Paroz and volunteers from the garden club. Here, giant Californian Redwood branches interlace with a myriad of exotic and indigenous trees to create a cool canopy. The fragrance of a forest is unforgettable, "filling the senses" and clearing out the cobwebs.  To give justice to this haven and its humble caretaker, would take a separate chapter, but to me it remains a place of peace and beauty, where God still walks with man amongst the trees of this earthly paradise.

Yesterday was a joyful day of planting at Inesi. Twelve elm trees now grace our verge and a Japanese Maple was earthed for our youngest. All generous gifts from the Paroz's at Mist Rising. Verges throughout the village are dappled with colours from their nursery, and in recent years his collection of miniature trees (bonsai) have become yet another source of marvel. An innocent bit of humour, kind off sums up his youthful spirit: "Two barn rats notice a bat dangling from the roof trusses. Look! the one rat says to his friend, an angel"...
I'll risk wrapping this up with an analogy that came to mind during my last forest walk. My eyes focused on the hot soil at my feet, I reflected once more on the fact that there just doesn't seem to be such a thing as an easy stroll on the "wild side" of Hogsback. Someone even once referred to us as "frontiers". Seems flattering, but I just know that this frontering business would have made no sense, if God had not literally sent us an invitation to be here. I'm not sure if we've acknowledged it fully, but by grace we abide. The voice that speaks in the forest breeze, that roars during a thunderstorm, that whispers when the snow falls, also silences and humbles me with the depth of His unfathomable love. Will I ever truly fathom the extent of  the sacrifice that Jesus made on that cursed "tree", so that I may go on my knees in the forest and hear Him say once again: "It is done". Through daily surrender to that immense truth, I am set free. To trust, to live and to shout: His Divine power has given me everything I need for life...!

"You will go out in joy and be let forth in peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song before you and the trees of the field will clap their hands"(Isaiah 55:12)