Thursday, January 26, 2006

Long night, lively poems and lots of whisky

I am feeling a little bit hung over from last night. It was Burn's night, which is a evening to celebrate the life and poetry of Rabbie Burns, a famous Scottish poet. It was also our church house group night and we have a tendency to celebrate all things Scottish. No one was up for the traditional meal of haggis, tatties and neeps, or for the formal speeches. We decided that we would choose favourite pieces of poetry - not necessarily Christian poetry - just anything that stirred our spirit.

I write poems, but confess that I read too few of them. Mindful that the way to improve my poetry writing is to read more, I had asked Joe one year to buy me a poetry book for Christmas. It was a collection of 20th Century poems, absolutely none of them familiar, and some of the poems quite heavy to wade through. On the end I resorted to reading a few of my own poems.

Joe shared a war poem, "In Memoraim" by Ewart Alan Mackintosh. Joe is really interested in World War 1. When we visited Belgium one year, he made appoint of visiting Ypres and the cemeteries there. It is very moving that in the midst of the horror of war, that men find themselves expressing their feelings in such beautiful poetry.
Our friend, Jeanni, shared a few poems written by Steve Turner, a rock biographer and journalist, who has been writing poetry since the 1970s. The book she brought with her had been given by an ex-boyfriend many years ago. The poems are very modern and open verse. They are very hard hitting and cut deep. Here's one I found earlier:-

The Crucifixion

You were one with the Father.
Then the Father turned his back on you.
You felt forsaken,
hanging there between heaven's thunder
and the dank spittle of earth.

For that moment you belonged nowhere.
You were love, cut off from love;
truth nailed down by lies.
You must have wanted to explode, to disintegrate,
to disappear into a void.
But that was forbidden.
And that was the test.

Your blood burst through your skin
and ran down like sweat.
Your sweat ran cold
and drained into your heart.
The universe caught hold of your pain.
The sun went blind with grief.
The earth shivered in shock.
History was torn in two.

I stood at a distance,
my collar turned up,
like a murderer witnessing
a wrongful arrest.

Jeanni's daughter, Ziz, writes poetry. She pours all of her emotions into her poetry and it is very raw stuff. I don't think I do raw emotion. Poetry expresses feelings, but I think I sanitise it.

Another friend, Jenny, brought with her poetry book published by her grandmother! It was a small red book - a collection of poems that spanned the early 20s and 30s. She confessed that although she had been given the book, it was more of a keepsake than something she had read. The poems that she picked out were wonderful. One of them was just a few lines long about a motor car - (she believed that they would never catch on!), another poem was about a pet dog. Jenny remembered the dog from when she was about six or seven. Thinking back over the small red poetry book - it really prompted me to do something about publishing my poems. Just imagine fifty years or so from now, my nieces and nephews digging out a book to find a poem that a family member had written!

It really was a great evening. The poems were interspersed with a lot of personal anecdotes and comments and the conversation was lively. We also managed to polish off two bottles of whisky between us all - not full bottles I hasten to add!

It seemed that most people were reluctant to bring the evening to a close, but seeing as I was giving people lifts home, and had a heavy school day the next day, I ended up chucking people out! As it was Jeanii stayed till half past twelve - her husband phoning to find out where she had got to!

It was a memorable night - learning so much about people's lives and just enjoying each other's company.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Not forgotten

I had a parent’s evening last night. One essential ingredient missing – the parents! Despite having arranged appointments, no one came! I had spent a considerable time gathering together the information I thought they were looking for regarding next year’s courses – but in the end, there was no one to pass the information on to!

However, it was not all a waste of time. The Gaelic teacher had a steady stream of parents to talk to, and one lady after she had been talking to her, came over to talk to me. The conversation began with a very hesitant, “Mel?” (Very few people in school call me Mel. It is usually the whole name – Melanie.)

The conversation continued with my reply…”Avril?” I am not sure if it was a lucky stab in the dark, or just God being good to me at that moment in time. There are very few people I know with red frizzy hair! Avril and I had known each other fifteen or sixteen years ago. When I was working full time in church evangelism, Avril had stopped one time in town to watch a street drama organised by our church. We had coffee together and talked about faith. She was a member of a church down by the river and involved in Sunday School teaching, but confided in me that she wasn’t sure what she really believed.

That first meeting led to many others, mostly round at her house, helping out with household tasks as we chatted. I think I was brash enough in those days to think that my church was the only church that had got it right and I think I badgered her, trying to get her to leave the church she was going to and come to mine. With our church being on the charismatic fringe, she wasn’t sure. We lost touch – mostly because I got a job, got married and suddenly things change. I am challenged about how easily I seem to let some friendships go.

What really encouraged me last night was that she had remembered me – I could not have been that bad! And almost as soon as she had introduced herself, she mad a point of telling me that she had really found her faith, and was confident in God. She was still with the same church, teaching the youth group! I went home thinking how encouraging it was to have someone see me, remember me, and be determined to tell me that they are moving on in their faith. I imparted something into their lives and they remembered!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Stepping into another world

One day last summer I spent the day with my sister Sharon and her boyfriend Malc. They own a small steading with half a dozen or so horses. There are lots of places like that round about Leicestershire - a few fields of grass, a few horses, a stable and a small horse riding business.

Maybe it is because of the horses, but they are also into country and western festivals. I suppose the right word is Hoe-down! They would normally saddle up a couple of the horses and ride out to wherever the festival is, provided it is not a million miles away.

The week that I was visiting the folks, there was a country and western event a few miles away and Sharon and Malc invited me along. There was a line up of singers and bands, perhaps not household names in my world - but known in theirs! No riding was suggested, so we piled everything we could think of in the back of a truck, and off we drove.

I imagine that it must be something like Star Trek conventions. Not only do people dress up as cowboys, and cowgirls - and even the occasional Indian - but they also have other names. Suddenly everyone is Ike or Mary-Lou, and out come the Stetsons and the spurs. Even the dogs walk with a slouch!

Not only is there a big tent and a stage with half the floor roped off for line dancing, but around the big tent there is a mass of satellite tents housing everything Country and Western that you could possibly need! Apart from getting yourself a gun - just about everything else was possible. Malc had a gun in a holster hung about his hips. In previous festivals they had shoot-outs, re-enacting great scenes from American history.

There were hundreds of Ikes and Mary-Lous dressed in an assortment of fringed waistcoats, jackets and skirts. Some of them looked like they had just stepped out of The High Chaparral! The bands were OK - Country and Western does not hoist any of my flags. The one man that I enjoyed was pretty much the first up, and he did his own stuff - but most of the bands did what were obviously popular C and W songs that everyone could sing along to. I attempted to line dance with people around me hissing -"left, shuffle, right, shuffle, turn..." with me a few "shuffles" behind and turning in the wrong direction.

It was like I had stepped into another world and after a few hours, doing the rounds of the tents a dozen times, and mumbling the words to a song that I thought I knew - I kind of got used to it. It was a world apart from my normal life, and yet in some ways it seemed more real to some of the Ikes and Mary-Lous than the real world was. It was safe and accepting.

Our church meets in local primary school assembly hall. For a number of weeks the heating has been temperamental. At sometime in the meeting, usually within the first half hour, the fan heaters begin chugging out cold air. This would be ideal on a hot summer's day, but in the middle of winter it is not appreciated! Sometimes it is warmer outside the hall than inside! The school janitor lives nearby. Sometimes we prefer not to call on his help, and just don on the coats and loose touch with our extremities - but not today. Rather than tinkering with the boiler and leaving us to it, Jim the Jannie carefully placed his keys on a chair and joined in. Looking back, I think he was just sticking around for a while to check that the boiler wasn't going to switch itself off.

He must have felt pretty much like I did at the Country and Western festival. It was not his natural habitat. He at least got the words to the songs on an OHP which I didn't have.

The whole church environment must be alien to so many people. As a church body we are so at home and comfortable that I think we sometimes forget what it is like for people like Jim. There is so much we just take for granted and accept so readily that for people who are not church-literate, it is just another world. For many people it is just as much escapism as the cowboy world of Ike and Mary-Lou. Being a Christian isn't a hobby and going to church isn't escapism. It is important for us to live our lives in such a way that we demonstrate the reality of our faith in our day to day lives.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Trembling in the Presence of God

I first encountered the whole "spiritual gifts" thing - baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues - way back in 1982. I was working in London, teaching in a city school in the North east area - the last stop on the Victoria line of the underground, at a place called Walthamstow. I was involved in a Methodist Church at the time, very much a part of the youth group, although at 24 years of age I was one of the older "youth".

I think it must have been the Easter of 1982 when all the youth went off to Spring Harvest. I have been to big national get-togethers since, but this one really sticks out in the memory. I had never encountered anything remotely Charismatic or Pentecostal up until that point. As far as my church background went, I had been brought up in a Roman Catholic home, and for a few short weeks after I asked Jesus to come and live in my heart, I went to a Plymouth Brethren church. For the three years up until this particular holiday, I had been pretty much settled in the Methodist Church. Nothing really prepared me for the Holy Spirit.

It happened right at the end of a worship meeting. I had been used to hymns - twice through and then you sit down. In the youth group we sang choruses - twice through and then you sit down. At the end of this meeting, however, people began to sing in the Spirit, and in tongues - a language only God could understand. There was just this rising wave of a melody that was unplanned.

It totally freaked me out! The music, the singing - I could handle, but the sense of God's presence was so strong that I was literally pushed to my knees. People talk about the fear of God and use words like respect and honour. That afternoon, I was terrified. I was just waiting for this bolt of lightning to hit, so conscious that God could see all of me, nothing hidden, everything exposed.

For weeks afterwards I couldn't step over the door of the church, or open my Bible at home without this same fear just flooding through me. I was seriously frightened. I had lived a "normal" safe Christian existence up to this point, entirely comfortable with church and hymns and order and ritual (for want of a better word), and all that seemed to be gone. I didn't know what to do and friends just advised me to "let it happen" and see where "it" took me.

I didn't take my friends' advice. It was too scary and I hated feeling out of control. So I ran away, basically. The chance of a job in a church based primary school in a Cyprus came up and I snatched it. There were other things that I was running away from too - but I was certainly running away from that level of intimacy with God.

I guess God had made up his mind that I wasn't going to get away. After three safe years tucked away in the Plymouth Brethren church, (where the activity of the Holy Spirit is very carefully managed), this thing started up again. My mother had become a Christian and the activity of the Holy Spirit in her life was just phenomenal. Under His care she blossomed and flourished and didn't seem to stagger from one crisis to another like I did.

Well to cut a long story short, eventually the Holy Spirit caught up with me, and I embraced, very timidly, everything that was on offer. I am not saying that I was a lesser Christian before then, and a more spiritual one afterwards - I just found a new love, a new way of relating that was vibrant.

There have been few occasions as compelling and awesome as my Spring Harvest encounter. I don't think I could handle it is it was an everyday experience.

Having said that, yesterday I came close. I was spending time in the presence of God. We were chatting about gifts and talents, and the next step of faith. I can't explain exactly what happened next - but I began to sense a real excitement - not in my heart, but in God's - He was getting excited about something. There was this sense of expectation, like when people suddenly go silent and hold their breath. God was holding his breath. I got the impression that spiritually - all the "planets" had lined up - that the right conditions needed for something monumental to happen had just occurred. His excitement boiled down to one thing - my next step of faith.

At this point I got scared - the same sense of fear, the same falling onto my knees as before. I know some people have a desire to see into the heavelies - they see spiritual beings whether angels or demons. I know that this particular step of faith was to allow God to peel back the heavens, not to frighten me, but to reassure me that there is a very real heavenly realm and that He is seated on his throne. In His hands I am entirely safe, and the future that He wants to lead me into is prosperous and full of hope. It is a good future - but a little bit scary - and so I got up and went to make a cup of tea!

I haven't made the step yet. I recognsie that my vision is limited - it is to self centred and small. I believe that at that moment, God was ready to let me see a little more. I don't think the moment is gone - it wasn't just that once in a life time - miss it and it is gone kind of expereince. Just like for weeks after my Spring harvest encounter I was hounded - I have to admit to being a little bit wary of opening my Bible, or stepping into God's presence! What is stopping me? It is probably something to do with hating to be out of cantrol. I don't really know - but I know that something has already changed in me. I sense it. I am freaking myself out just thinking about it, so i think I might just go and make myslef another cup of tea.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A cry of my heart

I am a member of the musicians group at church. I lead worship sometimes. A couple of years ago I began to have piano lessons as I was very keen to write songs. The words have never been that much of a problem to come up with, but I really don’t do tunes. I thought that if I could play an instrument, I would come up with the tunes. I am not the most disciplined of folk, but I actually did practice quite hard. My music teacher used to reward me with coloured stickers, to put on my music folder, if she thought I had done really well. The minute she introduced the stickers, getting the sticker became the focus of my lessons. I would try to get note perfect and put myself under intense pressure to get the sticker.

You know how it is with teachers – they are constantly raising the hurdles. Once a pupil gets one thing right, the teacher moves them on to something more challenging. It was the same with the stickers. Suddenly they were not being given away like sweeties! I was required to do much more to get the sticker! Of course, I just piled on the pressure! It was unreal. Learning to play was no longer fun – not because of my teacher, who was wonderful, but because of my being so “reward” orientated. I wasn’t enjoying the experience and it wasn’t helping me to find my tunes. So I decided to stop taking lessons. I admire those people that stick at these things – but for me, I don’t think it was something God called me to do. It was not a gift. Maybe it will be in a few years time. I think that gifts have times and seasons for some people and some situations.

Last night at musicians, we were practicing worshipping spontaneously. Sometimes we sing hymns and choruses in a very rigid manner. Perhaps it is all the way through twice and then we move on to the next song. What I want to see is the songs or the choruses being like an airport runway – just the starting point on the journey of worship. As I read the words of the song, I look to see what God wants to say to me, or find the response that is in my heart to the words. Often in our worship there is an opportunity as the musicians play to do that.

Yesterday I discovered that I have built safe areas, predictable responses. I begin to sing that God is worthy of worship, that there is no one like Him and I bow before His throne. All of this is very true – but for me it is safe stuff that I have sung about before. The sentiments expressed are "normal fare", the content of my songs is "the usual stuff". I think it is almost done without thinking – it is my “worship mode”.

I was particularly challenged last night to not do that. The minute I heard the usual words slipping out, I felt God saying that I was being lazy. I was not really exploring just how the words of a song had really affected me. I made myself really think about what it was I really wanted to say. What came out was a cry of my heart. God is easy to love but loving God with all our heart and soul is just the first step. Loving people is the next step. I was asking God in my song to give me His heart, that I could love and reach out to the lost, the way that Jesus did, the way that I was called to. Powerful stuff! It was very different, and unique and…my heart’s response!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Chocolate heaven!

OK, here's question? Where in the world would you most like to live? My answer, after this afternoon's jaunt has got to be Stathepeffer. It is a very small town tucked away in the Highlands. It is a Spa town, complete with pavilions gushing with water that stinks like rotten eggs on account of a high level of sulphur. That is not much to attract anyone - but just take a right turn and walk up the road and just on the right hand side is a chocolate shop!

Joe and I were visiting friends who own a croft, or a small farm, between Dingwall and Strathpeffer. We were completing the New Year circuit of visiting friends. They are in the process of building a new house and have spent the last couple of years living in a caravan on site. They have hens and dogs and sheep and cows and a quad bike. Joe had fun driving the quad bike all over the field chased by the dogs.

It was our friends that told us about the chocolate shop. The owners are genuine Belgian chocolate makers. Nothing factory produced but handmade.

Another friend and I drove out to investigate further. Living in the Highlands, we get used to many towns just closing down for the winter. Those that rely on the tourist industry tend to be open between March and October. However, the shop was open for business. The smell was just glorious, though perhaps if I worked there I might not enjoy it every single day - Yeah right! It is a café that serves drinks, as well as chocolates, but the most requested drink is hot chocolate. Not the frothy stuff that every other café sells with the marshmallow floating on top, but thick, sweet, dark chocolate. They serve you a tray with a mug, a small bowl of sugar and a tiny plate with one handmade chocolate on it. Then the waiter comes round with a jug of the hot chocolate, stirring it with a spoon, and fills your mug. I think if you left it to go cold it would just solidify. It was off this planet - a real taste sensation not to be missed. Any other mug of hot chocolate gets relegated to the taste and consistency of hot brown coloured water.

Perhaps it is as well that I am going back to work on Monday.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Outside of church hours

Over the last three days it feels like we have spent more time at our pastor's house than we have at our own! It came to mind this morning that our church has been behaving very much like the church in Acts chapter 2 - meeting together in each other's homes for fellowship everyday.

Part of it is down to us all being on holiday and having no work commitments as such. We have the time to spend with each other and are making use of the opportunities we have right now. It has been relaxing to meet together outside of a structured church meeting, just to have no specific church task to do or "spiritual" agenda, but just enjoy each other's company.

I was praying this morning that we would find ways to keep it up! I am conscious that once work kicks back in that we may fall back into the usual pattern of Sundays and mid-week meetings. Time suddenly gets allocated to work orientated stuff, and the fellowship that we share stops being so relaxed and casual and becomes very focussed.

I am more than the sum of what Bible verses I have been reading recently, or what worship songs I have been singing and sometimes that becomes all that I share with people. I need to make time available to visit people outside of church hours - a cup of tea after the school day ends and be normal!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Time out to tune in

Last night I found myself with an evening all to myself. Joe had been mumbling about watching a football match and I assumed that he would just take over the TV for the night. He decided he would rather see the game on a big screen in one of the pubs in town.

At this point I would have a good flick through the TV magazine and find a good movie to watch and perhaps even raid the wardrobe for a pile of coat hangers and make a dent in the ironing pile. What came to my heart was spending the time with God. Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions have been almost haunting me – not specifically for any one resolution, but just the idea of being much more pro-active in his pursuit of God, and in his resolution to deal with the things that got in the way of his relationship with God. I thought it might be a good time to get serious with God, sort myself out and get back on track.

I thought about soaking as an option. I didn’t really enjoy the last episode of soaking – I drifted rather aimlessly. I wanted something more structured, something that got you somewhere. I am not saying that soaking is bad, but last night I was looking for something else. I didn’t particularly know what it was I wanted – I didn’t want to get sidetracked down in interesting alley in a Bible study. Sometimes, like in the physical we can overeat – I think that also applies to the spiritual too. I have been disciplined about reading the Bible and setting aside time to prayfully take on board principles and truths that I uncover.

I was looking for some kind of guided meditation and downloaded something from the internet. It was something about renewal, about confession and surrendering to God anew. My life with God is not off the rails, but it does need tweaking. In the gospels, when Jesus wants to wash Peter’s feet, Peter demands that Jesus wash him from top to bottom. Jesus says that it has already been done and doesn’t need to be repeated – it’s only his feet that need a clean. The feet, the bits that walk though all the dust and the dung of daily living, that is what needs to be refreshed.

The meditation took the form of lots of questions, much like stocktaking. Some questions were easier to answer than others. There were times when I did not trust my judgement on an answer and asked God what he thought – always a dangerous option. There were too many answers that should have been a clear “Yes” or a confident “No”, but I squirmed rather.

One question – “Have I neglected the Word of God?” – I could give a clear “No.” to, but then had to do a double take. I read the word of God, but I don’t always put it into practice, so there is a sense of neglect there.

Another question had me thinking – “Is all resentment out of my heart?” I had to answer “No” to that. I think I resent the quality of the walk with Christ that some people have. Their lives shine a light on my own life that shows up the flaws in my own walk. I am not sure that I resent them having that life. Maybe resentment isn’t the right word. All I am aware of is that the feeling inside of me isn’t always gladness that they are doing so well!

“Do I have anything in my possession which does not rightly belong to me?” Immediately what came to mind there was a friend’s copy of the complete works of Shakespeare I borrowed years ago! On today’s to do list is a visit to return it!

“Do I really believe in the power of God to cleanse any sinner? Change my life? Take care of any situation? Guide me in my decisions?” I loved the confidence with which I could boldly shout “YES!” I have no doubt that God is the only source of help that I have to change.

It took an hour and a half to complete the meditation. One thing that struck me, that also to some extent bothered me, was that I didn’t cry. I felt that there were so many areas of my life that were out of order. I had every reason to mourn, but remained dried eyed. I thought that perhaps I was just too hard hearted, or failing to see the extent of my failings. Part of it was to do with what I prayed at the beginning – I didn’t want to be torn apart by what I discovered as I read through the meditation. The world does a good job of tearing people apart. I needed a cool look, not being over emotional, but being sober. Sometimes tears can be a defence mechanism. If someone cries, you instantly go into comfort mode, and perhaps leave addressing serious issues to another time. Tears are just one indication that something is having an effect – it is not the only indication, and in some situations not the best indication.

Am I any different? Have I changed? There is a definite sense of responsibility and that I am accountable for how my Christian life turns out. There is a line in one of my favourite films, The Scarlett Pimpernel, where the hero declares his love for the heroine. Her answer is “You move too fast.” His reply is “My heart dictates the pace.” I want my heart to beat a little faster when I come into contact with God, and when I am involved in His business.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Seven "pearls" of wisdom

I was reading Proverbs 9 this morning. It begins with the words "Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars." The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the tile of two books written by Lawrence of Arabia. The first one is something to do with castles and fortresses around Europe, according to my husband. It uses the image of pillars in a literal sense, in terms of something solid and lasting. The other book by that title is his autobiography. For ages I thought it was the seven "pearls" of wisdom, and argued quite comprehensibly that it made sense. If you think of wise sayings as being gems, the word "pearls" makes sense! I think I was only really convinced this morning when I read the word "pillars" that I had got it wrong.

Lawrence and I have a history! Before we got married, Joe and I went to see the film "Lawrence of Arabia" in the local cinema. It was four hours long, with an intermission. The coffee we ordered for the intermission was thick and black and you could have stood your spoon up in it! What I really remember though was not being well. I was sick and in no fit state to sit for four hours, but because Joe had brought the tickets already, and I loved him, and I didn't want to let him down, my queasy stomach and I sat through the four hours without complaining.

I haven't read the book, but found an inspiring quotation from it.

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

I dream by night - very vividly too. But it is just vanity when I wake in the day it means nothing and changes nothing. To be a dreamer of the day - how much more dangerous - acting out your dreams with open eyes and making it possible? That is the kind of dreaming that God wants from us - dreaming with open eyes and acting to make it possible.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Spiritual brownie points

I am just thinking about how my New Year began. Instead of being curled up on the sofa at home, just Joe and I. we were out at a party. Our unofficial church social secretary, Danielle, persuaded us to join the Loch Ness House Hotel celebrations to see in the New Year. It wasn't "spiritual". There were no prayers or prophecies, but fiddles and accordions and stripping the willow and highland reels (I didn't strip the willow or do a highland reel on account of some very impractical heels on my shoes!).

I remember someone saying that the way we begin the New Year sets the scene for the way we live it. When I lived in Cyprus, my Christian friends met together to pray and to sing hymns. On the count of midnight we went up onto the flat roof of the building and watched the ships in the harbour sending up flares and honking. The flares were last year's old stock and by sending them up they were getting rid of the old stuff because it was no longer needed. It had been replaced by new stock.

It is a wonderful picture to see the beginning of the New Year as a time for casting away the old stuff. I am a hoarder, and casting away any stuff is a challenge! And although I like the idea of beginning a New Year with prayer and worship, for me it presents a subtle kind of danger. I have a brownie point mentality! I give spiritual brownie points to certain activities. Stripping the willow to accordions and fiddles doesn't earn a lot of spiritual brownie points - unless you are dancing with a non-Christian and witnessing while you are being tossed about! Pulling party poppers and raising your glass also doesn't get you spiritual brownie points! Breaking bread gets you heaps of points, as does praying and singing hymns. This is how I think - it is not conscious thought, and it is not scriptural either.

I was reading this morning in John 10:10 that Christ came to give life in abundance. For me, this begins with assigning spiritual value to just about everything that I do. Every activity I get myself involved in becomes spiritual when I bring God into it. I want to live life in abundance this year, experiencing God not just on a Sunday, or in my quiet times, or in personal and corporate times of worship, or through a variety of church meetings that I attend - I want to experience God everywhere and anywhere I happen to be.