walk around like the good work of art you are

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Imagine a world where art took in a breath and came to life. Imagine it walking through the streets stirring up questions about existence, about purpose, about possibilities. It would congregate where shadows gather, lighting up dark allies that strike fear.

Fear begins to pitch its tent in the streets around me. It sells its fortune-telling trinkets from stalls glittering in dark omens on every street corner, computer and smart phone. Fight, flight or freeze – natural responses, normal responses, survival responses.

But I want to respond differently. I don’t want to be afraid. It muddies the waters and stifles out life. It steals away joy and cauterizes contentment. I want to be beauty. I want to be art. I want to speak to these streets and shout, “It doesn’t have to be this way!”

In the beginning God created a sculpture from the earth, a work of art intended to live. I don’t particularly care about the techniques he used or how long it took him. The result was beautiful. And then he breathed into it. And it lived, perfectly, for a while until diluting the breath of God with toxic pride.

Fear came. Death came. Hatred came.

That is what we were made to be. Living works of art with the breath of God in us. We still can be, but it’s a little harder than before. We have to seek out his life in us. We have to pull down the bricks we’ve built around our hearts to keep us safe and let love in. Love will change us. It will pull back our shoulders and set our spines straight. It will clear our muddied thoughts and replace them with wisdom. It will seek and destroy lesions of bitterness that are slowly killing us.

We have a choice, this choice: stand at the stalls of fear, hide in self-preservation or light up the darkness. We cannot do more than one. Want to go on a walk with me?

I want to add to the beauty to tell a better story. I want to shine with the light that’s burning up inside. And this is grace, an invitation to be beautiful. ~ Sara Groves

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for the love, peel off the compassion gloves

A newborn baby struggling to live is placed on the naked breast of a parent. The warmth of their presence, the strength of their heartbeat, the rise and fall of regulated breath pass life to the vulnerable child. A concentrated mix of human contact and love give strength to survive. We know that children need skin to skin contact to live, to thrive, to grow.

Gracing our digital screens, these powerless infants stir in us a call to nurture, to give, as if somehow we will create a more peaceful and loving world if they make it through childhood. Relying on the strength of our immune system to keep us healthy, we sanitize our skin so they won’t be harmed by us and what we carry when we reach out our un-gloved hands, offering the comfort of our warmth. Perhaps when children are this small we might invite them to be even closer, to be neighbour, to be family. In them we see humanity, the image of God, our own lack of innocence. So, we protect them and chisel out laws that we hope will give them a fighting chance at a healthy and happy adulthood.

Our precautions turn out to not be enough. The vulnerable meet our eyes, with strength in their arms and lines of heartache etched across their faces. They no longer remind us of what is common to us all. For the love of people, we increase the list of human rights, and yet, it is with sterilized gloves we have offered compassion. The vulnerable receiving care from outstretched hands covered with personal protection against contamination.

Our programmes but not our friendship; Our money but not our neighbourhood; Our laws but not our daily kindness; Our pity but not our love.

“God loves me…” she slurred through wrinkled lips, her bloodshot eyes pleading for confirmation. “He loves you very much! But you’ve got to stop drinking so much because it’s not good for you,” Paddy gently assured her as he walked with her outside. She shuffled her petite, aging frame towards the steps. A worn ballet flat came off her foot as she murmured, trying to come to grips with love. In the same moment Paddy dropped to a knee, with one hand he picked up her shoe and with the other, her foot. Without pause, he slid her shoe back onto her foot, speaking gently but firmly about the value of her life. She continued down the stairs and into the street.

For the love, peel off the compassion gloves. As well as our programmes, money and laws, offer friendship. Offer neighbourhood. Offer kindness. For the love … offer love.

if god would only give up his archaic ways

Some days I’m not so sure about being on a team with God. First of all, he’s not as obviously visible and vocal as another human being. It can feel like I’m talking to myself: “Ok, God, if I understand correctly, I head this way and you head that way and then we will meet over here.” And trying to listen to him? Well, it sometimes sounds like this: “——————-.” Apparently he hasn’t read all the books about how our current culture operates. He might have a better understanding of how to function in society if he had. With that better understanding, maybe he’d fit in a little better. Maybe he could take all his strengths and even become as successful as Google – with all those unique qualities he has: being everywhere at the same time, knowing everything, being able to do whatever he likes (creative genius behind the concept of the world and all …).

But I signed up for his team a long time ago. I signed up for his team. He didn’t sign up for mine. In moments of complete clarity there is nothing I’d rather be doing.

We think we are so smart, so evolved, so ahead of every society that ever came before us. God is old, really old. He hasn’t quite caught up to the way we deal in information overload and fast-paced environments. He doesn’t know the way we communicate these days. If he did, he’d know we are an extremely intelligent people with hurting souls, and who really needs a soul (it’s like an appendix, perhaps it had a function once but might just cause us health issues if it doesn’t get removed). He should learn from us.

But then there is a dream that follows me like a shadow around the city, even on a cloudy day. In it there are children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours laughing with each other in the streets coloured with trees and flowers instead of advertisements on abandoned beer cans. The empty shop fronts and derelict buildings are housing unique and bustling businesses that are birthed through the creativity of a community. Creased foreheads have been smoothed from peace and hunched shoulders of desperation are pulled back in hope. Heaven, it smells like heaven. It is a place to belong that stores up so much love that it comes up from the ground in springs of a playground on a hot day for everyone who passes by.

It is unrealistic. It is a fantasy world that we know couldn’t possibly exist because the world just does not work that way. And yet, as fast as I run and no matter where I hide, that dream stalks me, sneaks up on me and crouches in wait before crashing over me – in beauty, in life, in belonging, in the essence of the dream. Caught up and overwhelmed by the dream … that is where God speaks, reminding me that my role is not as complicated as I over-think it to be and his is far more complicated than I could ever imagine. He knows what he is doing. Do I know what I’m doing?

He has bigger dreams than me and has set into motion creative tides of change that have swept over our universe again and again. Should we both be visible and standing side by side I would only be noticeable if he made me noticeable. We aren’t playing together to win some sort of intellectually clever competition. We are playing to see whole communities bought back in hope. Perhaps it is us who haven’t caught up and he is way ahead, groaning over our archaic ways.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God. ~ Ecclesiastes 5:1, 7


freedom thoughts – taking a hammer to the cage

sewing class

A few weeks ago, while preparing for the sewing class I teach, I started watching The Paradise on Netflix. In this historical series a young woman finds herself working in one of the first department stores. Her creative ideas and leadership skills help draw out the original concepts for the store and make them even more successful. Unfortunately, she is living in a society that makes this very complicated for women. Instead of being able to voice her opinions freely to the right people, she finds herself having to influence through other means and be satisfied with others getting the credit for her work. I couldn’t help but think that could have been me. I could have grown up in a society that put limits on my possibilities and opportunities to speak just because I am a woman. I don’t think that I would have done very well.

Unlike this character, I have freedom to really be who I was created to be! The legal and social cages that limited how God could use me have been crumbling over the past century. I can influence my countries (I have two now) through my vote. I can problem solve and challenge the thinking of society in higher education. I can encourage people from the front of a church in both my sending nation and the one I live in. I don’t have to be saved from poverty by having a husband or living at home. I can defend myself from harm and the law is (should be) on my side. I can share ideas and start a company. And I can wear heals and skirts while baking cake and watching Pride and Prejudice for the 200th time.

God wasn’t surprised when he began placing and nurturing my personality, my dreams and my abilities inside a female body. I am 100% convinced that he didn’t get any of that wrong. I don’t have to become the image of a constructed version of the perpetual virgin Mary if I want to pursue the best of what God has for me as a woman (lack of feminine sexuality = godliness). I also don’t have to have holiness measured by my marital status, number of children, ability to run my home and discipline to stay silent in church.

I am free spiritually and socially to truly be me! All of me as God intended.

So here is acknowledgement of the millions of women who God places value on when others do not! Who he gives dreams to and whose personalities are bigger than life. Here’s to the woman who is a thinker and leader but whose voice is stifled. Here’s to the woman whose only financial option out of absolute poverty is to sell her body. Here’s to the woman who is limited to teaching only her children when she is gifted to educate the world. Here’s to the woman who lives as a pretty pet on a leash because all someone wants is a beautiful face. Here’s to the woman who is filled with inner-strength because she knows that her value is not dictated by her government but by the One who made no mistakes when he created her. It is not enough for us to say to a woman, “God knit you together in your mother’s womb,” and then make sure she knows her restrictions of how she is socially allowed to live out those God intended purposes.

So yes, I am thankful that I am free and thankful for the women and men who sacrificed so much in the past so that I can be. And thank you, Jesus, that you had intellectual conversations with, gave dignity to and even touched the women around you!

With these freedoms comes responsibility. Let wisdom temper the passions I have and channel them into something useful for all people. Let courage fortify my soul so I take the risks I am asked to take for God’s beautiful kingdom to come. And let me stand up for the people beside me who are bound up in glass cages unable to share their voice because they don’t fit in to our ideas of smart enough, accomplished enough, able enough. I want to, selfishly, be blessed by them as they live in the fullness of the personality and purposes God has placed in them. But how can I if I don’t take up the hammer to their cages? For me, my hammer is love. It is creativity. It is seeing the world with different eyes. It is faith … and maybe a bit of project management thrown in.

how to positively engage young people

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I walked quietly into the room and sat down on the far side of the couch. One wrong move and I would spook a very fragile teen girl I was going to be spending a bit of time with over the coming months. That could take a while to recover from and trust was the goal. I kept my head down, my body turned slightly away and just let her get used to me being there. I made no demands and didn’t ask any questions. The next move was up to her. We sat like that for 20 minutes.

This sounds like the opposite of what it looks like to engage a teenager. Logic might tell us that engagement requires eye contact, conversation or doing something together. That might be the end goal but the journey is not always as simple. Trust needs to be built first and trust takes time and some key components. Working on trust is worth the effort though. Trauma specialist Dr. Bruce Perry writes, “Relationships matter: the currency for systemic change was trust, and trust comes through forming healthy working relationships. People, not programs, change people.”

Trusting relationships alleviate pain. And let’s face it, most people experience varying degrees of pain in their teen years! Two of the main building blocks of trust, patience and faithfulness, have worked miracles in alleviating pain in many young people’s lives. They are some of the best things we have to offer teens who are feeling pretty raw with hurt. This might seem like common sense and yet it is amazing how quickly we decide that a young person is not deserving of patience and faithfulness when they come across as disrespectful or downright rebellious. If we are not patient and faithful, it will be unlikely they will truly engage with us. Pushing our buttons or refusing to play by our rules is their way of testing how trustworthy we are. Patience and faithfulness prove that we can see through their behaviours and actually see them – not for what they can do for us but for how much they can really entrust us with.

In case you are wondering what this looks like in real life, patience looks like watching them make the same mistake … again, while genuinely encouraging and cheering them on. It looks like knowing when to challenge them and when to hold off a little. It looks like sitting in silence sometimes. Faithfulness looks showing up over and over again even if they don’t. It looks like only making promises you can keep and then keeping them – every time. It looks like staying focused on them when you are meant to spend time with them. Faithfulness is holding to the consequences, good or bad.

Today I will be leading a mini-workshop on Engagement with Young People as part of Solas Project’s Step Up mentor training (I have been a mentor with them for a year and a half now). As well as speaking about persevering in building trust we will also cover some very practical things we can do:

Use intentional body language. Be aware of what you are saying to a teen without saying a word at all! How close are you standing? Sit down or lean against something so that they get a sense that you aren’t there to dominate them. Think about all the things you think are great about them (if you are struggling to find good things, it will nearly be impossible to engage them!). Your thoughts about them will come across in your facial expressions and the feeling of the air around you.

Find out what they like and do that together. First you need use creative investigation to find out what they like! Some teens will take some time to pry this out of. Easiest way is to just ask. If they don’t tell you, try a few things out and watch their response. There will be time to challenge them to try new or difficult things but start with the easy stuff first!

Tell them the good things you see in them. This might send them running in the opposite direction at first – especially in an Irish context. When they do a good job at something, even if it’s small, tell them and tell them why it was good (i.e. “The snowflakes you drew were so creative. I love the colours and different shapes”). If there isn’t really time or if this is something new and you have to think about it, find a way of writing it down and giving it to them. A journal that you share. Sticky notes that you put up in random places for them to find. Whatever you do, make a habit of it! They will get used to it.

Be real. A friend who worked with teens dealing with addiction and/or mental illness once said to me, “they will smell it if you’re not.” Don’t put on a show for them or try to act super nice – just be super nice if that is who you are. If you are having a bad day you don’t have to look like everything is rainbows and sunshine. Just make sure that your time with them doesn’t become about you and your issues. Let them see who you are over and over again. The real you is the best thing you have to offer them. If you don’t like the real you, then make the changes you have been wanting to!

With some young people, building trust has taken two years. With others a level of trust has been built within an hour. For it to go deep though, it will take time. And that is where the healing is.

Read on for group discussion questions. Continue reading

fruit of the spirit – not just child’s play

“I guess you could say that I’m like a tree, growing up from the ground. I pray that the Lord would water me so everyone around could look and see the fruit I bear and then enjoy the fruit I share. All my life I want to be like Galatians 5:22 and 23!” ~ The Fruit of the Spirit, Upward

Dancing bananas, apples, oranges, grapes and pineapple labeled with name tags use their jazz hands – a colourful mix-up of fruit that never go off and will always stay happy forever. It is hard to read Galatians 5 without imagining cartoon fruit skipping around the pages in their own little musical performance. When analyzed a little closer, their story is much more happily-ever-after than Noah’s Ark or Jonah and the Whale. We hang laminated fruit by pieces of yarn around children’s necks as they display the spiritual fruit named on it that day. “Well done for being so patient,” we might say. “If I want to win the prize, I need to try harder,” they might conclude.

A game of Upset the Fruit Basket begins as different fruit of the Spirit compete for space in our lives. Only one ever seems to end up “it” while the others remain seated. The only thing supernatural about this fruit is relegated to animations that came to life with songs that make a young child request them over, and over, and over … and over again. They become child’s play – nothing but an unrealistic expectation we enjoyed as entertainment when we were young.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ~ Galatians 5:22-23

Not our efforts or hard work. Not our self-discipline or yearly goals. Not our natural ability. By God’s Spirit living in us. A mystery that is a little too complicated for me. So, I remember the song we taught children (while I was dressed up as a singing, dancing tree) … “I guess you could say that I’m like a tree, growing up from the ground. I pray that the Lord would water me so everyone around could look and see the fruit I bear and then enjoy the fruit I share. All my life I want to be like Galatians 5:22-23.”

I am growing. I am praying. The Lord is watering. I am bearing. People are enjoying. Simple truths. So simple we can teach a child and so simple we think it is dumbing down something that is actually quite complicated. But that is how God works. We pray. He changes things. There is fruit. It’s his fruit – all of it, none are sitting down. And against these, things there is no law! Imagine …

fruit of the spirit

Before Christmas many people generously sponsored sewing machines for the courses I am teaching. Each one is now named after a fruit of the Spirit,  in Irish … I had to ask a friend to help with that! I am praying that as the Lord “waters me” each person will experience the fruit their machine is named after and know that there is a God. (There are only 8 machines so I used the first 8 included in the fruit of the Spirit)

make me a witness

As the sun set off the hustle and bustle of the pier on the warm summer evening the musicians came out to play. We lazily wove through the crowds. My young nephew began to sway to the beat of the music until he was all out dancing for himself and the crowd – an interpretation of what he was experiencing in the moment. My niece tumbled cartwheel after cartwheel. We, along with the crowd, were witnesses of satisfaction and joy. We saw with our eyes the smiles on peoples’ faces as the sun dipped below the sea. We heard the guitar and voice. We breathed in the scent of warm earth cooling. These memories are mine. I will try to draw you in with the picture I paint and the one I capture but it is my memory. I am a witness, recalling from memory the scene unfolding that day.

Make me a witness to every moment and every day. Make me a witness to the changes in the seasons and changes in people’s lives. Make me a witness to miracles. Make me a witness to a living God at work in me. Let these experiences be my sensory memories, not portraits from an ancient book or the screen in front of me. I don’t want to know the stories. I want to be in the stories. A witness is in the present – living, breathing, feeling, seeing, touching, hearing. A witness is forever changed.

Make me a witness.

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Come and hear, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me. ~ Psalm 66:16