Why did the friends cross the road?

Two summers ago, I found myself in the streets of Klagenfurt. The neat, tidy, clean streets of Klagenfurt – streets with pedestrian crossings clearly marked.

It was here, at the pedestrian crossings, that I found myself in the company of friends. I knew no-one – in the usual sense of friendship. I had earlier been sitting in a cafe, reading my book, drinking a coffee, on my own. But here, before the red shining man, I enjoyed the company of those who abide by the rules. These were my friends!

I generally like to keep the rules. Not because I’m more virtuous but because, in my inner world, it feels safer to me. I am quite comfortable with an inanimate light box instructing me, with red and green lights, when to walk and when to stop walking.

And here, in the streets of Klagenfurt, my new friends were OK with that too.

In Salzburg, three days earlier, I had found a smattering of such friends. But they were slightly hidden from view by a plague of ‘foreigners’ who forged ahead, crossing the road when a gap appeared in the traffic.

In Klagenfurt, my friends and I were happy to wait – with not a car in sight – for the green man to appear indicating that we were now allowed to walk across the road in law-abiding solidarity.

Yet, this is where our friendship ended – at the other side of the road. Law-abiding will only carry a friendship so far.

That evening, I experienced true friendship – an outing with old friends to a field strewn with straw, surrounded by unharvested fields of sunflowers and ranges of beautiful mountains. We sat on sun-warmed bales of straw, with beakers of good, cold, Austrian beverages and disposable plates of hearty food. All this with good conversation and laughter.

I was getting a taste, from my friends, of some of the highs and lows of living as ‘strangers’ among a polite people – a people who were ‘friendly’ but hard to build friendships with. They told a story of a woman from Ireland (a place where friendship-building also takes some time). This woman was struggling to find friends and community in this foreign land. My friends spoke to her about their church community where friendships were forged – with the help of the Maker of friendships. The Irish woman came to see this community. She came again. She found both friends and friendship with God.

Later that night my friends and I spoke together of painful times when our community and friendships had gone wrong. And yet – how God, the friendship-maker, often used those times to build community in later times and in other places.

The next morning, I read the pain-filled words of Heman the Ezrahite and I recalled my own times of conflict in the past:

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.

Your wrath lies heavily on me;

You have overwhelmed me with all your waves.

You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.

I am confused and cannot escape;

My eyes are dim with grief.

(From Psalm 88)

Those times are mere memories now.

Today I rejoice in God’s gift of friends – two years ago among sunflowers – and right here, right now. Friends who have welcomed me into their hearts and homes, near and far. I am blessed with good friends and they’re a blessing because they know the Maker of friendships – they are friends with him – and he with me.

I am in the company of friends and I find God there.

(Response to the Daily Post http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/on-bees-and-efs/)


When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Missionary Ballerina Doctor

‘When I grow up I want to be a Missionary Ballerina Doctor,’ said a girl with little idea. Actually she had a third of an idea. Now, as a young woman, she’s working in a country not her own, not too far from here, with students who want to know God better. She sounds like my kind of woman.

This woman, typing right here, had similar dreams. She used to dance around the large living room of her family home, in a manner most elegant and moving. Well, she moved anyway and would abruptly cease movement whenever others entered the room. She dreamed of the day when she would appear on the TV talent show for the youth of the day. She never did. That was the convenience of intentions not acted upon – one could fully believe that, should Jonny ever see her audition performance of ‘Fernando’ (all dancing, all singing), one would become the teen star of the year.

She aspired to be a singing ballerina…but her feet and fears were too big.

She considered being a Doctor. This morphed into a desire to be a Physiotherapist. She went to a local clinic for her week of work experience while in secondary school. She was all set. This was her career path! Only to make the devastating discovery that the study of Physiotherapy required the study of the Sciences. Chemistry class made her cry.

She aspired to be a Doctor – or some kind of medical practitioner – but her grasp of science, maths and reality was too small.

She always wanted to be a missionary. Whenever she heard someone speak of their work in places where people had little access to food, medicine or shelter her heart strings were tugged. When she heard of places where people didn’t have the opportunity to be introduced to the God she knew to be so loving, forgiving and restoring, she felt she had to go there and make some introductions.

In her minds eye (and on the slide shows she saw) she would be living in a small, dark, bark hut. She lives, now, in a comfortable home with big windows.

She assumed there would be much dust and little grass. She lives, now, in a place with much rain and too much grass (if that’s possible).

She ignored the fact that it would involve adventure and being out of one’s comfort zone. She hated adventure. She loved comfortable zones. Since then, she has learnt to live with adventure because the God she lives for has been with her and held her hand each step of the way. She has learnt to construct comfort zones – no matter how temporary – wherever she lays her head.

She wanted to be a Missionary Ballerina Doctor.

She had no idea.

She had no idea of where this would take her. Even if she had some idea then, it would not have prepared her for the twists and turns of the years that followed.

But in the end. She’s what she wanted to be. She may be more a Doctor of the heart. She may still be confined to ‘dancing on the inside’ – or at least inside the house when no-one is watching. Her feet and fears are still very big, but she’s living the life she dreamed – though in a way she would never have imagined.


In Row 47, Seat F

At my inflight, fold-down table, I was appreciating the extra inch or two of legroom that one finds in the last four rows of economy seats on an Etihad flight back to Ireland. The girl next to me hadn’t flown before and so she didn’t know any better. For now, she was just excited! Legroom wasn’t a concern for her. She was an Australian travelling with her Irish boyfriend to see his beautiful homeland and meet his family. She was proudly clasping her newly-purchased copy of ‘Angela’s Ashes’. She told me she had saved reading it for the long flight. She was excited! The first offering of a drink and miniature bag of pretzels will do that for most first-timers.

Later in the flight – about eight hours later – the gloss was wearing off her first in-flight experience. She was now experiencing that precise moment for all passengers (the ones that can’t sleep on planes, anyway), after the first drink, the first meal tray, the first two movies and a fitful attempt to sleep, when one realises that one is not going to arrive at their destination anytime soon.

I noticed her fidgeting and her squirming (sure signs) and then with moistened eyes she turned to me and asked “How long is the next leg of our journey?” We still had 8 hours left of the first leg of the journey. I recognised the rising panic – the realisation that this journey was going to feel longer than she had ever imagined.

It’s at that moment that every economy class passenger faces an important choice: giving into the panic and tears and angst or submitting to the present reality – thinking ‘This is my life for the next 24 hours and I will calmly try to accept that life.’ You don’t have a third choice (short of one involving a parachute but, as far as I know, there are no parachutes provided in economy class). So you can either fight it or submit to it.

You don’t have to be seated in row 47 of an Etihad flight to face these two choices. They can appear before you in many different contexts: a 40 hour train trip to Townsville; an 18 hour trip on a Greyhound bus; a 15 minute trip on a train at peak hour with your face in a stranger’s armpit; or just about any situation in our ‘long-haul’ life where we are faced with an inescapable reality from which we would like to escape.

Can God be found in these moments? It’s sometimes very hard to find him there. Often we can admit that he’s there but we’re fighting with him for putting us there or for leaving us there. Occasionally we don’t even look for him there, as we are consumed with the rising sense of panic.

So many songs, poems, riots, screeches from fed-up children and status updates come from this space. ‘I’m here with seaweed wrapped around my head’, ‘My bones are aching’, ‘I’m forgotten’, ‘Where are you, God!?’

Some time ago, I travelled a short car journey with a friend. He is a true poet, a man of depth and one who suffers the excruciating ups and downs of chemical imbalance. He’d had a good week. A glimmer of joy in the lyric of a new song he’d heard. God had stepped into his long-haul journey and shown he was there. He lifted him out of the miry pit – for a little while anyway. This friend, like many others, has journeyed in this reality and pain for what seems like an eternity.

We long for rescue. Someone to step into our present journey and lift us into another – to upgrade us to the flat-bed seats and champagne of business class. Sometimes that happens (for awhile anyway) and other times it doesn’t. Other times we’re there in row 47, trapped by our seat belt and the overly reclined seat in front of us. There’s no way out. Fight or submit?

David, the poet king, once wrote of his submission to a good shepherd who gave him all that he needed. This shepherd sometimes took him to still waters and made him lie down in green pastures. But other times the shepherd travelled with David in row 47 in the 8th hour of the first leg of the journey – the ‘valley of death’.

This shepherd is not just a fellow passenger, but the pilot, the air-traffic controller and the flight attendant with a real glass overflowing with the best of beverages. He’s all that, right there with us in row 47 as we settle back and try to enjoy the in-flight entertainment and ignore our swelling ankles.

At the end of the long-haul flight to Ireland there are green pastures in sight.

This journey will be over soon and it will end so beautifully with a feast of the fruit of our longings during those dark valley times – feasting in the house of the shepherd forever.


With Marcella #37 & #38 (of 466)

At my table tonight sat…no-one!

Not even me!

That’s because I was sitting with two friends at the other table…outside!

That’s right. Outside. At night time.

It’s summer in this part of the world. So it was time to start up the BBQ and cook something on it. Outside.

Admittedly it did get a little cold and we decided to have dessert inside.

But for an hour, we lived like those who live in perpetually warm places. We ate salads. We wore sandals and skirts!

Though now I’m wearing slippers in an attempt to reintroduce circulation into my toes. A hot water bottle may also be in order for bedtime.

Tonight: #37 ‘Shredded Carrot Salad’ and #38 ‘Boiled Courgette Salad’ with Sausages from the BBQ and Hannah and Stephanie at my (outdoor!) table.

An Alien, a Spaceship and a Family – with Marcella #34, #35 & #36 (of 466)

I have just come back from a holiday where I stayed in four different households with four different lots of old friends. In the fourth of these households, a little boy with an active imagination gave me the task of writing a story. I asked him to give me five things that I had to include in the story. He could only come up with three: an alien, a spaceship, a family.

I am no writer of science fiction. I have little appreciation of the genre. The following attempt at fulfilling my given task will not likely grab the attention of the little boy should he ever read it, but here goes:

Once upon a time there was an alien. She wasn’t always an alien, though she often felt like she didn’t quite belong. But one day she got in a very big spaceship – with big wings, a lot of seats, and very little leg room. She travelled in that spaceship to the other side of the earth – a place she’d never been before. It was a very green place. They spoke the same language, but she found it hard to understand.

There were times when she really missed her family – those who knew her really well and understood her even without her having to speak. It was hard being an alien. Though she grew to like life in that far away place. It was cooler there and the buildings were old and beautiful.

Sometimes she didn’t want to be an alien anymore. But once you’re an alien, you’re always an alien.

So sometimes she travelled to nearby places – just a short trip – to be with other aliens. People who knew what it was like to not quite fit where they were.

There was one special family of aliens in a place where pirates once used to be (I know, that’s a mixture of genres!) and where there were many prehistoric-looking scary sea-birds! They were a lovely family who had known that alien for a long, long time. They were a family who were good at welcoming aliens as part of their family.

While she was with that family she made them a meal. It had green peas in it – a suitably coloured ingredient for an alien from a green land.

They held hands and gave thanks for the food. They enjoyed the food! The young aliens even wanted second helpings.

And they talked together about their Ruler who knows them all so well. A Ruler who knows what it feels like to leave one place to go to another. To feel like he doesn’t belong. To seek out others to be part of a new family.

The alien eventually had to travel back to her green land, back to her own pod. And it felt familiar – and not too alien.

In a place by the sea: #34 Pasta with ‘Cranberry Beans, Sage and Rosemary Sauce’ with Angeline and David at their table.

In another place by the sea: #35 Pasta with ‘Peas, Bacon and Ricotta Sauce’ with Chris, Vicki, Mason and Jake at their table.

In the alien’s pod, post-holiday: #36 Pasta with ‘Tomato Sauce with Porcini Mushrooms’ with Hannah at my table.