Friday, March 16, 2018

The Battle of Culloden - Part 2

Culloden Moor is my go-to place when there’s a clear night sky and I’ve a hankering to see the stars. It wasn’t dark when I went this afternoon and it wasn’t stars I was looking for.

I had been in Inverness perhaps a week or two when the subject of Culloden came up. I was on a gospel outreach team and we were knocking on doors and sharing the good news of the Kingdom. I had introduced myself and was about to launch into the well-rehearsed four point plan of salvation when the man, it was a man, held up a hand and said he didn’t talk to the English because of the outcome of the Battle of Culloden.  My knowledge of any history is sketchy at best but it doesn’t stretch to Scottish history. I thought the battle was recent and that he might, perhaps, have been a survivor! I was all set to apologise for any harm that had been caused.

A more recent visit to Culloden was on the way back from a long drive out to Grantown-on Spey. I’d been enlisted by the Crofting Commission to drive my husband to a meeting there. We had a cup of tea in the town before he went off to his meeting and I went shopping. It’s not a big place. His meeting took longer than my shopping expedition. I found a forest walk to amble along. On the journey home a toilet stop was required. We were just that too far away from home. We stopped off at the visitor centre – me to the bathroom, Joe to the shop. He bought me an ice-cream. It was a warmer day then.

Over the last few months I really have felt a little strung out. I wouldn’t say that I am losing battles but I am fighting more than my fare share. I felt the need to declare a few victories. I decided to look up a few Bible verses and march about, as some do, and proclaim battles won long before I fought them.

“Culloden Battlefield,” said God, “That’s where you need to go.”

“Culloden is all about defeat,” I replied. “I’m looking for victory, not defeat!”

“The place of defeat is the best place to start declaring victory,” said God.

It was six o’clock in the morning and it made sense.

“Take a friend with you,” He added. We both knew which friend He had in mind.

I looked up some verses and a victory prayer, printed them off and put them in a poly pocket. The forecast was for rain and I dug out a woolly hat. Umbrellas are not much use when there is a gale force wind ripping about the moor.

I drove around to the friend. The friend didn’t want to be taken and I didn’t twist her arm.  She knew that she wasn’t winning many battles but trailing around a battlefield on a wet and windy afternoon didn’t appeal. She wasn’t convinced that the exercise would achieve anything or that God was her side right now. We talked for a while but the bait I dangled didn’t attract.

It was very windy but not wet. Armed with my Bible verses I headed off along the path.

Deuteronomy 20:1-4 was a good reminder that being outnumbered by the enemy was no cause for fear. God had looked after me so far along my journey and wasn’t about to walk away.

I began to sing as I marched along – “In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, we have the victory…” I had the moor to myself. No one else was daft enough to be out there in the wind. Apart from one lady and her dog. Phone held to ear she was shouting that she was freezing. Yes, shouting – she hadn’t worked out that she wasn’t talking to a person next to her with the wind whipping away the words as she spoke.

Psalm 44:3-7 was another reminder that my victories were not about me and the strength I wielded. God’s right hand, His arm and the light of His presence were the reason for any success. If it was all down to me it would be a sorry thing Indeed.

Exodus 15:1 prompted another song. A golden oldie. “I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider fell into the sea.” Moses faced the Red Sea in front of him and the Egyptian army coming from behind. If I had taken my walking stick with me, I would have held it out in front of me and pictured the Red Sea parting. God always comes through in the end. There’s always a miracle just about to happen when we call on His name. We just don’t call.

As I kept up the Bible readings and the songs something in the heavenlies shifted. The battlefield scenery, the wind howling and my speaking God’s word was a powerful combination. I have a vivid imagination and I’m never sure that what I am sensing is just the imagination running amok, or if it’s something spiritual is going on. There was a sense of something hostile almost, saying this battlefield was their domain, but at the same time something not hostile almost glad to see a friendly face.

I read 2 Chronicles 20:15 and thought about all the battles I insisted on fighting when I should have stepped back to let God fight on my behalf. How long do we wait for God to step in? How do we know if it’s our turn to fight and not His? I thought about the soldiers at the battle back then – they probably didn’t have much choice in whether they fought or not. The movies tell us it’s better to go down fighting that live under a cruel king.

A line in “St Patrick’s Breastplate” (I Arise Today) about calling upon all the resources we have been given to stand “against every cruel, merciless power that may oppose my body and soul”. I sat on a bench sheltered from the wind and read the lines and thought about the powers – natural and supernatural – and called on God to “shield me today”

There was another battle on Culloden Moor this afternoon! There were armies out there – unseen armies.  I marched at the head of an army of angels. We snatched back the ground the enemy had taken – in my life and in my friend’s. It was an awesome battle. The victory songs are being sung in heaven right now!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

He and Us and Joy

Long out of Eden
We forget the evening strolls
And talking with God
It’s almost as if
There never was a garden
And we walked alone

But God pursues us
Though we are men polluted
He chases us down
There is nothing else
But us in His tender care -
He and us and joy

Saturday, March 03, 2018

So that's what goes on in RE

I like the “I” newspaper for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with the news.

I like their sudokus. I have stopped doing them in pencil.  If I make a mistake, I make a mistake and I don’t rub out and begin again. I just abandon. I call it a good day when I finish them, and an “ah-well-there’s-always-tomorrow” day when I mess up.

The other thing I liked, but they only did it at weekends, and they’ve stopped doing it, were the whole page spreads with the poems generated by Nationwide Building Society.

Today I was seriously not happy with their cover story. It wasn’t so much the story itself as the misleading headline. The small breakfast in the cafĂ© was anything but.

“Teacher gave terror lessons to UK pupils”

I am very protective of the teaching profession. The long school holidays – yes, I can see how that might add a few bees into a parent’s bonnet. Skipping off on holiday during term time – yes, I can see those bees shifting to a teacher’s bonnet.

It was the sub-headline that caused a whole swarm of those aggressive African bees to make a nest in my bonnet.

“Children shown brutal videos during Religious Education lessons”

Now, let’s step back a bit. Have I, or have I not, shown some brutal videos in my time? Last week even? Well, kind of. We watched the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in a lesson looking at a liberation theology response to poverty and corruption in El Salvador. We also listened to a heart breaking account of a woman whose children were killed by a raid on the wrong house during South Africa’s apartheid era. And there was the government and police responses to Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests. The world was and is a brutal place, make no mistake. Too many things happen that shouldn’t.

I read the cover story on p3. The school was a Muslim fee paying school somewhere in London. The headline didn’t really give you any clues on that one. The “teacher” was not a qualified teacher but an administrator. The headline didn’t make that clear either. There was no mention of religious education lessons at all in the article. It was in after school and evening classes at a Muslim fee paying school and a mosque that the IS inspired radicalisation was happening.

Florence Someoneorother had the by-line. I imagine she might be one of those people I meet sometimes who ask me what I do for a living. When I say I’m a teacher they pry further – what do I teach? When I tell them I teach religious education most people don’t really remember much about it. Some never did it. Some didn’t particularly like it. And some, the ones I used to teach a while ago, invariably apologise for how they behaved in my class. Florence strikes me as being in the last category.

“Ah, so that’s what goes on in RE,” says one parent, reading the headline but no further.

“Just confirms what I always thought – it shouldn’t be on the timetable,” says another.

“Religious nut-balls indoctrinating my kid,” says a third.

And all because Florence Someoneorother couldn’t come up with a more accurate headline. With a flurry of fingers over a keyboard she has made it seem as if all RE teachers are pedalling dangerous theology. She has also made it seem as if children are like blotting paper, soaking up everything without question. That is not true of the variety of children I meet. They know how to argue the toss.

Teachers are doing a great job. They don’t view the children in their classrooms as a captive audience and themselves as someone like Moses, chosen by God, to pass down something like the Ten Commandments. They actively encourage discovery and debate, critical thinking and creativity.

Florence, your RE report if I should ever write one for you would read “Florence should express her ideas more carefully to avoid confusion.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

“Postscript” Moments

Going for a walk is always on the to-do list but doesn’t often get done. Mostly it’s on account of the weather. I know I’m not made of sugar and I won’t melt but I don’t like getting wet or being cold. Just lately access to a toilet needs to be factored in. Today was an almost-spring day and I swear the sun called to me to come out and play. The sun and Seamus Heaney that is.

I read his poem, “Postscript”, this morning. In the poem he had driven out west and the wind and the light played off each other. The sea was on one side of him, wild and wave tossed. On the other side of him was a slate-grey lake and a flock of swans. It was one of those moments of rare beauty.  Nature lines up a spectacle and most people miss it. They are, writes Heaney -

“…neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass”

I suppose I didn’t want to be “a hurry” through which things pass. I wanted to be there when those moments happened and to not let them pass. Heaney had climbed into my head, I climbed into my car and off we drove to a forest trail that I like.

It might have been a sunny day but it wasn’t warm. The tide was out as I drove along the road that skirted the Beauly Firth. The firth stretched out in a dozen shades of the pale blues and the distant mountains were snow-capped. It was breath-taking in its beauty.

It was a Seamus Heaney Postscript moment.

I tried to stir the poet in me to write something. The Seamus Heaney in my head kept poking me to describe what I was seeing and scorned my choice of words. Later, not then, I wrote something -

I rest my eyes
Gazing on a distant horizon
Snow brushed mountains blur into
Cold blue sea
I inhale deeply and
My soul settles

I have worn glasses since I was three years old. I have worked my way through a number of NHS plastic frames of every colour of the rainbow. I once asked the optician if there was anything I could do to improve my eyesight. I’d read somewhere that there were exercises a person could do to improve the eye muscles. There were inspiring case studies of people tossing their glasses away because they no longer needed them. My eyesight problem did not fall into that case study category, said my optician. If I was looking for an exercise to do I should relax my eyes by looking at a distant object. It wouldn’t improve my eyesight but it might slow down the deterioration that would come with age. Looking at a distant object seemed more like putting strain on my short sighted vision but I did it for a while.

I relaxed my eyes by looking at the snow-capped mountains far off in the distance. Nothing was moving. Seamus Heaney might have had his wind tossed sea and a flock of swans with ruffled feathers. I had a light blue sea and stillness.

The stillness crept into me, through my skin and into my soul. The “hurry” in me slowed down and the known and the strange things stopped and tipped their hats and we engaged in conversation.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Things Tied to Us

Yesterday’s Streetwise was all ours. The usual three people was down to just Joe and myself. It’s a Sunday evening ministry – preparing a meal for some of the people that the Street pastors meet on the streets over Friday and Saturday evenings. I try out various soup recipes, some more successful than others and there are sandwiches, crisps, tomatoes and cucumber. And there's pudding.

There is also a time of reading the Bible together, sharing our stories and praying together. Last night we read through the opening verses of Hebrews 11. I am working my way through a Lent poetry book and Hebrews 11 was one of the readings given for Sunday. It’s a lot to live up to when we read through the list. We have a habit perhaps of dragging out the mental plumb line to see how we measure up. What God calls us to is not Enoch’s calling or Abraham’s but our own. How we work out that calling doesn’t always look like Noah building an ark in the desert.

Verse 8 reads, “By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going.”

When I left Rugby to join a gospel outreach team in Inverness way back in 1989, the church prayed for people who it was sending out and they were sending me out. They spoke words of encouragement over us. This was one of my words. Just like Abraham I was responding to a call from God. I was called to travel to a place I didn’t know. I’d looked up Inverness on a map. It was a long way north of where I was. I left not knowing much about where I was going.

There were eight of us on the team, piled into a minibus heading north on the A9. We stopped in a layby in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t just having second thoughts about the destination and the job ahead. I had convinced myself that I was not the one for the job. This shy hermit didn’t seem to have a place proclaiming the kingdom of God on the streets. It wasn’t just Inverness that was unfamiliar but the “mission”. It was too big a change for me to deal with.

It was dark. It was in the middle of nowhere. There were not street light to pollute the sky. So many stars pressed down on me.

“Look up, Mel,” said God. Mel? I’d always been Melanie. New start, new name perhaps? There was of the Girl Guide in me to recognise a few constellations.

“See those stars? Those constellations are still the same. They are the same stars you saw back in Rugby.” I chose not to point out that the I rarely saw the stars in Rugby because of light pollution.

“Just as those stars in the sky haven’t changed – neither will I change.”

I might doubt myself and my readiness for what lay ahead, but I didn’t doubt God. The shyness was eventually shed like old skin. The hermit took a back seat but never really left the stage. I was in my element proclaiming the kingdom on the streets.

This morning, thinking about last night, God reminded me of the other half of the encouraging word that day back then when I was prayed over. It wasn’t tied into any particular scripture. Someone spoke over me a word about bringing down the strongholds that the enemy had built. I was marching forward to inflict damage on his kingdom.

I had fulfilled the Abraham word more or less. I had made Inverness my home. Sadly I had swapped the tent-frame-of-mind for a terraced house. I had settled and let go of my pioneering roots. This was something God said we would do something about. The bringing down enemy strongholds? The inflicting damage on his kingdom? That word seemed to have been forgotten.

I was reading “The Pilgrimage” by George Herbert this morning. It’s an allegorical that might have inspired John Bunyan to write “Pilgrim’s Progress”. There’s a verse that talks about passion and a wasted place and of being robbed of his gold. All the poet had in the end is “one good Angel which a friend had ti’d” close to his side. The Angel was a specific coin in those days. I was challenged to consider what I had tied to my side, or my friends, what they had tied to my side. Bringing down the enemy strongholds was perhaps one of these things.

I suppose I lamented that I hadn’t seemed to inflict that much damage over the years. I hadn’t cast out any demons. Yes, I prayed – but for the most part my prayers seemed pale and powerless to my ears.

“It’s the small victories, Mel,” said God, “and maybe the pale and powerless prayers are not pale or powerless when I hold them in my hand.”

I wouldn’t say my life passed before my eyes – but I was aware of so many times I could have reacted in a way that took away God’s glory, or demonstrated that I really didn’t trust in him – but I held firm. I have planted so many words through conversations over the years. The poems I have written have touched people’s hearts. It is the little persistent victories – I’m inflicting death by a thousand tiny cuts. It is in the choosing to do things God’s way that I inflict damage on the enemy’s kingdom.

That said, it is perhaps a good time to take the words that have been tied to my side and really look at them. They’re not dead words. They’re just covered in a lot of dust.

Time to dig out the spiritual equivalent of Mr Sheen.

Friday, February 16, 2018

All The Kingdoms

there’s Son
there’s a Father
there’s an enemy and
there’s a desert

there’s the Father’s promise
“ask of me and
I will make the nations Your inheritance and
the ends of the earth Your possession.”

there’s the enemy’s promise
“all this, all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour
I will give you
if you will bow down and worship me.”

the question isn’t whether
the Son gets the nations, the ends of the earth
and all the kingdoms of the world
make no mistake, they will be His

the question is not “if”
but “how”
how will He build the Kingdom?
how will He redeem the world?

“ask Me, “ says the Father
and He will give all the kingdoms to the Son
but the cross stands in His path

“worship me,” says the enemy
and he will give all the kingdoms to the Son
and he takes the cross off the table

the Son
asks the Father and
embraces the cross

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

More Than Pancakes

The supermarkets have gathered all the ingredients necessary for making pancakes and put together on the shelves even down to a new frying pan should you need one. I had a practice run earlier on in the week and I’m ready to tweak the recipe. That’s Pancake Day for you. Another day not safe from the curse of commercialisation.

Pancake Day goes by another older, less jumping-on-the-money-bandwagon name. I know where the pancakes come in, but wasn’t quite so sure about the “shrove” part of Shrove Tuesday. Shrove?  I know that we are on the brink of Lent, the season leading up to Easter and that it’s time of sacrifice. For us it is Jelly baby time – our replacement for all things chocolate. That still doesn’t explain the “shrove”.

Before Lent begins it was necessary to confess sins and receive absolution for them. It's a day of penitence, a time to know and own your sins and pull them out into the daylight. It’s time to be forgiven and to know a clean soul. It’s a day of celebration. The weight of all the wrongness has been lifted and tossed away. That’s the “shrove” bit.

Too many people are consuming their pancakes without being “shriven”. The holiday has lost its heart and soul and no one has noticed. Sims are not confessed and absolved these days but talked through and labelled, understood and perhaps excused.

This morning I was watching on old DVD with some young friends. “After Apartheid” followed the journey of a white police officer as he returned to a village where he had massacred eleven people. He had thought a meeting of black rebels was in progress in a house. Shots were fired through the window and the door kicked, all guns blazing. It was the wrong house. The police officer was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Then apartheid ended. A new government was sworn in. Decisions were made abut what do with the prison population whose crimes had been politically motivated.

This is the “shrove” bit. Prisoners were given the opportunity to confess their sins. If they were prepared to tell the truth of their involvement in the violence and death inflicted in the name of apartheid, they had the chance of amnesty and being released.

We weighed up every word spoken by the police officer, and every word not spoken. Had I been heading back to that village I would have done my homework. I would have known the names of every person killed that day and the names of every person that had been present, giving evidence at my trial. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” would not have been an option. The villagers shed tears while he remained “sorry” but dry eyed. We were cynical enough to wonder how sincere the apology was or his intention to redress the balance. He had been facing a life sentence and now, just by telling it as it was, he was about to be released after serving four years. Four years seemed too little a price to pay for ending eleven lives. Was he genuinely penitent? We also observed that he probably got off quite lightly too because of the camera crew filming it all. How would he had fared if no one was filming?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that set Brian Mitchell, the white police officer, on his journey of repentance. Tutu had to listen through so many stories of the horrendous things one man did to another that day in day out his heart was being broken over and over again.

The confession and absolution, the really letting go and the really being forgiven, the release, the freedom, the knowing of our burdens slipping from our shoulders – that is the start of Lent, not the finishing point. Lent with all its sacrifices is not about earning the forgiveness and the release from guilt and pain. We cannot earn forgiveness. We can only accept it and live in the good of it.

The Lent journey tells me who forgave me, why and the price paid.