Okay, I know it’s two days past the solistice on 21st December, but it’s not far from the shortest day.
I was out looking at the trees. The evergreens look much the same all year round, but the deciduous trees are appear lifeless, branches stripped as bare as bones. If we hadn’t witnessed every year of our lives, the miracle of buds and leaves appearing again in the spring, I think we’d all be convinced that these bare trees are dead.
The thought came to me that life can be a bit like these trees. On the surface, it looks like my life is stripped back. One of my kids got ill. I’m still supporting her recovery and that has meant stopping work and losing the chance to pursue personal goals.
Sometimes I’ve felt and still can feel that there isn’t much happening in my life. I’ve tried to get back to work, but so far my attempts have failed. Maybe there’s a grace in that. Perhaps the time wasn’t right and I would have been like a tree or a flower which buds too early and is blighted by the cold weather.
When I look at the bare trees, I know that beneath the surface lies a rich root system. Life is still there, even if it has shrunk back. The trees will bud and blossom again in the spring.
I’m trying to have faith that our own lives will expand again, that we’ll be able to blossom and become whatever God intends us to be.
There’s a rhythm to nature: autumn, winter, spring and summer, night and day, an in-breath and an out-breath. I’m impatient. I want summer to come, but even winter can be beautiful.
Today, I’m going to admit to being a geek and share some of my enthusiasm for physics. Yes, it does have some relevance for faith so please be patient.
Why don’t things keep on moving?
One of the hardest things for those new to physics to understand is Newton’s first law of motion: I’ll try to put it in plain English.
An object which is not moving will remain still while an object which is moving will continue to move at the same speed and in the same direction UNLESS an unbalanced force acts on it.
Before your eyes glaze over and you click this post shut, I’ll try to unpick this. Newton’s first law is quite extraordinary. What it says is that if something is moving, it should go on moving in the same direction and at the same speed forever UNLESS a force acts on it.
Okay, you don’t need to be an expert in physics to know that nothing goes on moving at the same speed for ever. If you kick a football, it will arc into the air, it’s speed changing, until it falls back to the earth and comes to a halt. If you drag a heavy bag across the floor, it will stop moving as soon as you stop pulling it.
However, if you were living in space, you would be able to see Newton’s first law in action. Once the space shuttle has got into space, it hurtles around the earth at a speed of 17000 miles per hour even though its engines are switched off. If you threw a ball outside your spacecraft, it would keep on moving at the same speed, basically forever, unless it bumped into something which changed its speed or direction.
Why do objects behave so differently in space and on earth? When we walk or drive over ground which isn’t perfectly smooth, there is a force trying to stop us moving. This force is called friction. It means that we have to keep on putting in effort to do things. If we stop tugging the case, it won’t move. If we don’t keep moving our muscles to put one leg in front of the other, we won’t get anywhere. If we stop pushing down the accelerator which keeps the engine going, our car will roll to a halt.
Sometimes it might seem tempting to wish that we lived in a world without friction. It’s easy to imagine a world where we could step on the pavement and glide down the road without any effort, or where our cars rolled along without having to burn expensive fuel.
Fancy a world without friction?
A world without fiction would be nice, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. Think ice.
A smooth expanse of ice is the closest we get on earth to a friction-free situation. If we step on ice wearing ordinary shoes, we will glide along for a few feet but probably end up falling on our behinds. If we manage, somehow, to keep our balance, we won’t get anywhere fast as we’ll just slide around without going in the direction we want to. It’s the same with cars. No-one wants to drive over a patch of black ice as it’s likely that their car will skid out of control.
Friction might seem like an annoying waste of energy, but the truth is that we need something resisting our motion so that we keep on moving forward in the right direction. In situations when there isn’t enough friction, we need to increase it. For instance, in a snowy area, we can fit tyres with a thicker tread in the winter. I once had the opportunity to visit an underground glacier. To walk on its slick surface, I had to strap crampons over my shoes which bit into the ice creating traction.
The friction of daily life
All this got me thinking about the friction of daily life: all these wee household jobs which have to be done every day, your child’s moods, your spouse’s nagging, the elderly neighbour who needs a visit when you have a hundred things to organise.
And then there are the times in life when you face such huge obstacles that you hardly seem to move at all: the illness of a family member, losing a job, having to move out of your home, school or workplace bullying.
Rather than wishing these difficulties and sufferings away so that we can make rapid progress towards what we think is our goal, should we actually be grateful for them? Like real-life friction are all these apparent challenges actually the force which keeps us steady and balanced. Are they what stops us falling over or sliding off in the wrong direction? Without them, would our strength fail and our faith stagnate, just like unused muscles in a frictionless world?
I’ve said before that being a Mum is hard. It’s not just that the job is difficult or even almost impossible (try keeping up with the cleaning and the washing with small kids). Often the most difficult part of being a mother is feeling alone and unappreciated.
I like to think that in the past women were together more, sharing daily tasks and keeping an eye out for one another’s kids. In the Highlands, women got together to finish a length of tweed, banging it against a table while they sang songs in time for their work. However, there were many other jobs which they had to do individually, such as carding the wool, dyeing, spinning and weaving.
At that time, women had few options, and many families lived in extreme poverty. Communities were close-knit, but if you were a bit different for some reason, would you have been accepted?
There’s no point looking back to some ideal which probably never existed, but it would also be fair to say that now families are living farther apart to follow opportunities for work and study, and mothers are becoming more isolated.
Becoming a Mum
Shortly before I became pregnant for the first time, I moved to a new country. After the birth of my child, I was desperately lonely and longing to get back to work after maternity leave because the only people I knew were through work. A local toddler group was a lifesaver, and I started to meet other mothers and learn the language.
The other thing about being a modern mother is that you’re expected to get back to work, as if motherhood is a blip or hiatus, something which you can manage on the side as a hobby as long as it doesn’t interfere with your real identity as a dynamic, flexible, self-motivated worker.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with going back to work, having a break from wiping bums and cleaning up spills, and having the satisfaction of contributing to something. Returning to part-time work helped keep me sane after the birth of my first two children, especially since I didn’t have the support of a network of family and friends. The friendly childcare centre became a source of support and was also an opportunity to meet other families.
The problem is that there isn’t enough support to allow both men AND women to take time off to look after children and to be able to work part-time and still have a meaningful career. While employers have had to accept maternity leave and more recently paternity leave, it’s often an all or nothing thing. Come back full time or risk losing your position. Or, as I found out, even if you return part-time, you miss out on opportunities.
I thought I had my future sorted out
Why am I thinking about all this now? I had an exciting career. I was quite happy to give it up and be a full-time mum when number three came along. Keeping up with the housework drove me crazy, but I loved going out to toddler groups and even helped to run one.
The thing was, I left work on my terms and expected to be able to go back into the working world with all my previous experience, plus my amazing, supermum, multi-tasking skills. Once the youngest one was at school, I studied full-time and began a new career. I was incredibly busy and didn’t waste a moment, whisking through the bathroom while I ran the bath for my son, or whizzing to the supermarket while my daughter was in music lessons.
I thought I had my future sorted out. My path back from full-time motherhood was clear.
Until … well, until everything fell apart. One of my kids got seriously ill, and I had to give up any thought of working while I put all my energy into supporting my family. I was a full-time mum again, but without the support network of either family or toddler groups (although I do have a few wonderful friends).
At times it seemed like I went through two traumas: my daughter’s illness and the loss of my own sense of identity as I gave up work.
No big things to offer
Things are a little better, but I have come to the painful realisation that I have to forget about having a career. If I go back to work, it has to be a job I can go to and leave at five o’clock with no responsibilities to worry about because right now I’ve got enough to deal with at home.
I’ve been trying to get back to work but so far no opportunities have opened up. Maybe the only job or vocation God’s giving me right now is being a mother. Perhaps God values this job even if it doesn’t gain me any status, pay, honorary degrees or promotions.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ parable about the talents in Matthew. Three servants were entrusted with money and two of them traded with it so as to make more. When their master returned, he said:
Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:21)
After talking about the servant who hid his talent instead of doing something with it, Jesus says:
For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but anyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has. (Matt 25:29)
Offering small things
That really spoke to me. Right now, I have no big thing like a career to offer God. I don’t have any medium sized things like jobs or courses or positions. No-one has asked me to do anything which is seen as ‘important’. Instead, I’m asked to do the dishes and clean the floor.
And so I am trying to go through the day offering these small things to God.
Dear God, I offer You the dishes I’m doing, the washing I’m putting into the machine and hanging up, the floor I’m mopping, the dinner I’m cooking, listening to my daughter, reading to my son, walking the dog …