On a bench in our kitchen, visible from every part of the room, there is an old screw top jar decorated with a strip of fading wallpaper and some ribbon that was once glossy and smooth. We call it our memory jar. Throughout the year we fill it with scribbled memories of little moments that would easily be forgotten. Silly jokes. Spontaneous picnics. Thoughtful gestures. Each New Year’s Eve we put on a pot of tea and open the jar, taking it in turns to relive some of the memories from the year that has passed. There is always a lot of laughter, punctuated with shouts of That was so cute! and Oh, Yes! I had completely forgotten about that! and Let’s do that again this year!
As last year rolled relentlessly on with all its inherent uncertainty, we began to notice something unexpected. Over the past few years, as our girls have grown and life has become busier, it has taken less time to empty the jar. However, by the summer of 2020 the jar was already pretty full. By autumn it was packed, and by the start of winter you had to push the bits of paper down to squeeze another in.
Despite the challenges, there was much about 2020 that was good. As we adjusted to the enforced rhythms of a quieter, more solitary life, I confess I entered our first lockdown with a pervading sense of optimism. Not for all that was unfolding in our world, but for the silver lining of unbroken time with family. Opportunities to put right the things I regret. Time to read and bake and just talk. Time to study the Bible with my daughters and pray with my husband. Time to make memories and laugh and do school in a whole new way.
The biggest surprise was the grief that ran just below the surface of even the good memories.Heidi Johnston
All those moments, and many more that I hadn’t anticipated, will stay with me forever. If I’m honest, by September I was already mentally drafting a post about the rich beauty that can be found in the midst of so much darkness. However, as we sat down to open our memory jar on New Years Eve, the biggest surprise was the grief that ran just below the surface of even the good memories. So many of the things we chose to recollect began with the words “even though it was hard” or “even when we were finding it tough.” For the first time since the tradition began, even though previous years have held more specific and overtly painful challenges, the opening of the jar released more tears than laughter. In a way that we hadn’t fully named until that moment, it became clear that each of us had quietly begun to measure success simply in terms of survival.
For me, the most unexpected aspect of this pandemic has been one that I am still processing. It would be so much easier if I could simply list the things I have learned but life is rarely that linear and, for now, I still have as many questions as answers. I am, however, becoming aware that God has been using this time of quiet and isolation to refine me in unexpected ways. To call it refining is an act of desperate hope because, right now, it still just feels like breaking. All this time at home has meant facing my own brokenness in a way that busyness and noise had previously allowed me to avoid. It turns out that silence and isolation have a way of stripping back your defences.
Among other things, I’ve realised consciously for the first time that I have a distinct and powerful bias towards legalism. This tendency first became apparent as I struggled to keep up with the new coronavirus regulations. Here, in the UK, there was a new coronavirus briefing every day. Regulations and restrictions, sometimes dependant on your postcode, were either tightened or relaxed. To make matters worse, in Northern Ireland we were getting simultaneous briefings from our First and Deputy First Ministers (one after the other) with different regulations again. The tension of trying to work out which rules applied and then ensuring that my family complied as best we could created a constant underlying stress.
Gradually, the Holy Spirit began to nudge my consciousness with the suggestion that my desire to keep the rules wasn’t limited to the pandemic. Even when it comes to faith, the exhausting tyrants of perfection and legalism are always there, breathing over my shoulder and laughing at what I perceive to be my failures.
We are spending time as a family but we are fighting too much.
We are studying the Bible but it’s too rushed.
We’re eating good meals but I resent that I’m the one doing all the cooking.
We’re watching movies but the plots are too light. They aren’t teaching us about redemption.
It’s remarkable how often I take God’s blessings and turn them into frantic attempts to achieve an unattainable standard, cheapening the grace that has already been so extravagantly secured on my behalf. Grasping for something that was never promised while at the same time forfeiting the peace that is my birth right as a child of God.
As a concept, brokenness is a common theme in Christian circles, and rightly so. Yet there is a danger (for me anyway) of putting an almost romantic spin on it. It’s often the veil I pull over my sin to make it acceptable. It’s the bias I allow myself when mentally comparing my weaknesses with the sin of others. Unlike the concept, the reality of brokenness cannot be spun. When God gives us a glimpse of our own foolish rebellion it’s hard to do anything but weep.
The season of Lent is both a fitting companion for this unsettling grief and a bright shard of hope that removes the sting of despair.Heidi Johnston
The season of Lent is both a fitting companion for this unsettling grief and a bright shard of hope that removes the sting of despair. Amidst so much that seems fragile and unsure, Lent offers the inescapable certainty that it will be followed by Easter and the glorious, transforming truth of the resurrection. God doesn’t bring us low so that he can keep us there. If he allows us to see the horror of who we really are, it is always so that we can look with fresh eyes at the truth of who he is. There is a powerful refrain in Rend Collective’s “Weep With Me” that says, “Turn this lament into a love song.” If I have one prayer for this season of my life, that would be it. Sometimes it takes a glimpse of our own brokenness, in all its inescapable ugliness, to turn our eyes back to the only one who can be utterly, completely and forever relied upon.
If I have slipped into a view of holiness that relies on my own achievement, then the grace of God’s breaking is not to release me from a desire for holiness, but to transform my restless striving into holiness that is a response to the outrageous love of God. Even when the piercing light of God’s presence illuminates things that cause us temporary pain, our greatest joy will always be found there, reveling in his grace and cultivating the kind of authentic holiness that, while it may be difficult, is ultimately grace-filled and life-giving.
When we see what we are capable of, sin may grieve us more deeply but it will shock us less, not only in our own lives but also in the lives of others. It is no more within my power or my calling to save myself than it is to force others to submit to Christ’s rule in their lives, however noble I believe my intentions to be.
Our family has been watching The Chosen over the past few weeks and one line, spoken by Peter’s wife, has been lodged in my mind. Overwhelmed by the impact of Jesus in her own life, she says to Peter, “Thank you for obeying and following Him. You led Him here.” What if the best way to impact the lives of others is to cultivate a heart that is alert to his voice and responding in obedience? What if the very things that will lead others to Christ are the humility and love which overflow from the grace that has been lavished on us?
If anything has become clear in the last twelve months, it’s that building our identities around things that are shakeable, whether around or within us, will leave us constantly at the mercy of any new storm that blows through our lives. Systems will fail us. People will let us down. Some days we will glance in the mirror and come face to face with our own, sometimes staggering, failures.
Yet it is at this very point—when my own sin is exposed, my fearful heart is laid bare and all that is shakeable has been shaken—that I am drawn back once again to the cross. There, because of all that Christ has done, I find myself in possession of the very thing I have so spectacularly failed to procure through my own efforts. Written in grace, the banner over me declares: “Holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col. 1:22).
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.