Sunday, August 30, 2009

Where Eagles Soar

In the final weeks of his life, there had been lots of heated discussions about my brother, Mike.

One discussion was about whether sometime in those final weeks he came to faith in Christ. In the red corner were his friends that said, “Definitely not!” If he had made some proclamation of faith, it was the pain speaking, or the drugs. In the blue corner were the evangelicals. They had talked with him and prayed with him. They were there when he took a first, and perhaps only, step of faith.

Another discussion, linked to the first, was about Mike’s funeral. In the red corner were his friends. Having expressed no sense of religious faith to his friends they wanted a funeral where religion was absent and unacknowledged. I can see their point. Whatever else Mike had been, he had not been a hypocrite. He would have despised something marked by hymns and bible readings. In the red corner were the evangelicals. They wanted something traditional, with a church minister presiding. They wanted something sombre and sober, something quiet and respectful.

The red corner won. Mike had chosen the music – Eric Clapton, The Who and some other favourite band. The congregation were invited to write on Mike’s coffin with a selection of coloured pens, and to cover it in flowers before it was taken away to be cremated.

Outside, we made our way back to the cars, ready to drive down to “The Pig and Whistle” for drinks and a buffet. Out of the chimney from the crematorium a trail of smoke was pouring. I wasn’t watching the smoke, but something else in the sky. It was an eagle soaring high that held my attention. In slow, silent circles, the eagle surfed the air currents.

Did you know that as a Christian symbol, the eagle represents salvation, redemption and resurrection?

Some people just saw an eagle.

Some people missed the eagle and just saw the smoke coming out of the chinmey

Me? I saw the eagle and I heard God’s message to me – Mike saved, redeemed and, one day resurrected.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mad Mike - (What I Said at the Funeral)

My husband, Joe, has this thing that he says to me when we are away on holiday. “What do you prefer?”, he says “Cruising down Loch Ness or teaching third year RE?” or perhaps, “What do you prefer? Walking along the Champs Elyses or teaching third year RE?” The answer is usually a no brainer. Today, if someone were to ask me, “What do you prefer? Speaking at your brother´s funeral or teaching third year RE? The answer for once might be “Teaching third year RE:”

If you are hoping that I will be able to fill in some of the blanks of Mike´s life, you will be disappointed. I believe that many of you know him better than I ever did. Growing up together I was never curious enough to ask questions and he was not often around to supply information. Besides, I am a girl, and his sister!

When Mike was first diagnosed with cancer, I came over to spend time with him and give him some support. He had been admitted to Costa del Sol hospital waiting test results. One Sunday I had taken the local bus out there. I assumed that Mike was fielding a dozen visitors and I could cadge a lift back. It turned out to be just Mike and me, for six and a half hours, sitting on the terrace, drinking coffee by the cupfuls. He was in the mood for talking and I was curious enough to ask questions. On the bus back to Fuengirola, two thoughts came to mind.

Firstly, I really didn´t know my brother at all. Even the things I thought I knew turned out to be very different. After six and a half hours I might have known a few more facts, a few opinions, but I really didn´t know him.

Secondly, after six and a half hours of talking to him, I wasn´t even sure that I liked him very much.

Three or four months down the line, I can still say that I´m not sure that I knew the man, but I am sure that I liked him.

Life, for Mike, at least in the UK, was like wearing poorly fitted clothes. Too tight at the neck. Too short at the arms. He didn´t appear to be comfortable. However, there were one or two exceptions.

He loved school and won a scholarship to Lord Wandsworths College. He was a boy with the brain the size of a planet, and went on to join MENSA. The teacher in me disapproves that such a boy, with such a brain, never really put it to good use!

Michael loved music. He had a ear – two ears, in fact – that lead him to teach himself to play the piano. He eventually joined a band, as all musicians do – a Genesis tribute band. I heard him play once. Mike´s taste in music was very different from my own. I was into Donny Osmond and swooning over Puppy Love. Mike was into something heavy, which played at the right volume, shook the floorboards of the house. He tried to lure me away from Donny, spending hours compiling a tape of music tracks from his collection that he thought might appeal to me. I would like to say that I still have the tape, but I suspect that I wiped it and used it to record a Barry Manilow LP.

Michael loved his son, Elliot. It was his second spell of fatherhood. He was a little older for sure, a little wiser, debateable, and tried not to make the same mistakes as before. He loved Elliot dearly, and was immensely proud of him. He didn´t feel quite the same way about Elliot´s mother. It broke his heart when they parted and he lost touch with Elliott.

Then there was Fuengirola. If ever there was a perfect fit for anyone, for Mike, this was it. The years that he has spent here have been his happiest. The beaches, the bars, and the beautiful women – what more could he ask for? Feungirola became his home, and all of you became his family, and writing became his passion.

Richard and I, on behalf of the rest of the family, thank you for looking after Mike so well.

Finally, a last memory, and one of the most enduring. The year was somewhere between 1976 and 79. I was at university in Durham, Mike was at art college in Gloucester studying photography. The students union has bussed me down to London, to join a protest march. I was not political, I didn´t know what we were protesting about, so I went shopping instead. I was on Regent´s Street, on a busy Saturday afternoon. It was swarming with people! Suddenly I was accosted, attacked even. A bear of a man wound his arms around me and pulled me into a strong hug. It was Mike, perhaps also supposed to be marching, but skiving off.

“Hello, Mel,” he said, “Fancy meeting you here.” The odds against our meeting…well, I´ll leave you to work them out.

I am convinced that, in heaven, just beyond the pearly gates, somewhere along the heavenly equivalent of Regent´s Street, I will yet again be accosted, attacked even. A bear of a man will wind his arms around me and pull me into a strong hug. Yes, it will be Mike again.

“Hello, Mel,” he will say, “Fancy meeting you here.” The odds against our meeting…in my favour this time!

Thank you, every one of you, for joining us to celebrate Mad Mike´s life and to mourn his loss together.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Great Wall Builder


It has been almost twenty years since I moved up to Inverness. I left Rugby to work on a gospel outreach team, a Go Team, in 1989 and arrived in Inverness sometime in September or October. It was a challenging year and so absolutely the right place to be for me at that time

I remember a visit from Andrew Owen, who was the pastor of a church planted in Glasgow (who has gone from strength to strength forming the whole Destiny Church movement). There was a GO team in Glasgow at the same time, so I guess he wanted to try to build bridges and offer support and encouragement.

At the end of one of the teaching sessions we had an opportunity to ask questions, not just about what he had been talking about, but about his own personal walk of faith. I seem to remember asking him about what word of scripture he was chewing over and being challenged by. I can’t remember what he said because as soon as he had finished telling me, he turned the question back to me. What word was I walking with right there and then?

If someone asked me that question today I might flounder a bit, but then, there was only one word.

“You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD.” Ezekiel 13:5

Quite how I had come across it, I don’t know, but it burned in me. So many Christians are not able to stand firm in the battle because of holes in the walls, holes in their knowledge of God. The battle rages and they get injured. Some leave the faith completely, all because of too many holes in what they know about God. I was determined that I would fill in the holes, that I would make the wall strong, so that when the battles were fought, people wouldn’t be needlessly injured.

I would like to think I impressed Andrew!

I didn’t want to just fill in the holes for people, although it did lead to a lot of preaching and teaching, but I wanted to teach people how to fill in the holes for themselves. That approach wasn’t always successful. I had a long history of bible studies and intense prayer meetings gifted me by the Brethren Church. I had a natural ability to study, to read and meditate and shape the right bricks for the right holes. I found the whole process thrilling and stirring, and few people I knew shared my passion.

This morning I sat down with a cup of coffee to just be with God.

“Can you feel the wall against your back?” said God.

“What wall?” said I.

“The wall, that over the last twenty years, you have strengthened by filling in the holes.” He answered. “All that time you thought you were filling in the holes to keep other people safe, you built yourself a solid wall. For the last six months a battle has raged, a serious battle. The wall was built so well, so solidly, that nothing has been able to breach it or to bring it down. You have been safe!”

If God had had a glass of something, water from a rock perhaps, He might have raised it in my direction with the salutation, “To a great wall builder!”

Thank you, God, for teaching me to build walls.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Empty Chair

There ought to be three places to sit in our front room. There is a sofa along one wall, comfortable green leather. It a sofa that is not really for sitting on, but begs to be lain upon, all stretched out. There are two arm chairs, one of which reclines when you pull a lever.

Three places, but only the one, the sofa is really used and most times usable. One chair has been bagged by the ironing. The pile expands and contracts are regular intervals, as ironing is done and distributed to cupboards and drawers, only to be replaced by the next batch off the line. The other chair, the reclining one, is often the dumping place for coat hangers, bags, coats, read and unread newspapers and other stuff.

Yesterday I made a special effort to clear the clutter from one chair. I wanted one of the chairs clear in case of visitors. I had had an especially distressing day. News from Spain was grim. The doctor from the hospice had been in touch to say that Mike’s condition had further deteriorated and the weeks or months we had anticipated had dwindled down to merely days. He told us that it was perhaps time to come out.

I have always known that there will be an end to face. I just hoped it wouldn’t come. I cried, cleaned the kitchen, cried some more, half cleaned the bathroom, cried some more…you get the picture. And I cleaned off one chair, just in case I had a visitor, who would come to cry with me.

My mother used to have a particular bee in her bonnet. She is quite obviously disabled, partially sighted, partially hearing, very shaky on her legs. The church knew that she was not able to make her own way to church, but there was always this insistence that she phoned someone to ask for a lift. My family are usually very good at looking after mum, but things happen, and the shopping doesn’t always get done. When friends in the church find out that she is not being looked after they ask, “Why didn’t you phone?”

Why didn’t I phone and ask someone to come around and sit with me, cry with me? I think it’s because there are some things you shouldn’t have to ask for. It should just come under the label of “family”. If should simply be offered because you care enough to offer it. I am fed of carrying my sorrow to someone else’s doorstep.

The chair remained empty.

An empty chair is not necessarily a silent chair! It just seemed to be telling me how little I was cared for. By the end of the day I had wound myself up tightly into a ball of hurt and resentment.

God talked to the ball!

First of all He reminded me that, sad as it is, people will inevitably let you down. As much as we would like to lean on people, sometimes the fall over and take us with them!

Secondly, in Matthew 5 it reads “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I liked that! It’s not “might be” or “should be” but “will be”.

Thirdly God spoke about the other empty chairs in other people’s homes. Did I think that maybe I could go and sit in those chairs and cry with other people?

What a challenge! What a ministry! I’m still working on an answer.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

12,000 Hours

According to one of the newspapers today the average woman will spend 12,000 hours, the equivalent of one year and four months of their lives, crying.

I guess that makes me not average! I feel like I have notched up a goodly number of hours of the last six months or so in tears on a fairly regular basis. Does it make a difference too if those tears are gentle weeping that you can mop up with the back of your hand, or the overflowing dam of body wrenching sobbing? The way I have cried recently doesn’t qualify as anything less than a monsoon!

I was talking this morning with a friend, trying not to catalogue all the sad details of Mike’s cancer. She already knew about my sister, Linda and all the heartache of her loss, but she wanted to know so that she could know what to pray for.

As well as myself, my mother and my eldest sister are the only others in the family that enjoy a vibrant relationship with God. I am not sure how well they have weathered the storms of the past six months. There are been no shipwrecks, but a few masts have fallen, and a sail or two has got ripped. It has not been a comfortable ride.

Neither my mum, nor my sister, has had the chance to go out and see Mike and I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad one. Sometimes what we imagine turns out to be a lot worse than reality.

For my mum it’s not an option. She is not well enough to travel and I think that seeing Mike the way he is would bring back some very painful memories. My dad died of a very similar kind of cancer. For my sister, it is a choice not to go. She thinks that she would cry too much and upset Mike. She doesn’t think she could handle it. Personally I think we are always a lot stronger than we imagine ourselves to be.

Anyway, at the end of talking all these things through with my friend, she reached over and gently touched my arm.

“You do know,” she said, “that God loves you very much.”

I have to confess that I bit my tongue hard. Words would have spilled out!

If this…nightmare…this six month stalking by disease and death is about God loving me…what would it all look like if God didn’t?

OK I know that all this stuff is not happening because God loves me! It’s happening because I live in a fallen world…because these kind of things just happen…because…I don’t really know why it’s happening.

What would it look like without God’s love? I would feel very alone, completely broken up inside, hopeless and helpless.

As it is there are times when He graciously blows away the clouds and the sun shines!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Butterflies That Flutter By

Pretty, fragile butterfly
Why do you just flutter by?
I look and ponder, wonder why
Next door’s flowers catch your eye!

I have to admit that the man next door has done a wonderful job with his garden. It is real display of vibrant colours from a million bedding plants. It’s a garden that I wouldn’t mind sitting in.

Yesterday, walking from the car to my front door, I espied a trio of white butterflies flitting from flower to flower in my next door neighbour’s garden. There was so much colour and variety to catch their attention and keep them flitting around there all day.

Walking up the path to my own front door, I was aware of the lack of butterflies in my own neglected patch of grass and weed-infested borders.

“Where are my butterflies?” I whined!

“Where are your flowers?” said the voice in my head.

This year has been not a vintage year in terms of gardening. So much time and energy has been spent on other things that I have not got around to the garden. Holidays, and what I do in them, have been hijacked by one family crisis after another.

Make no mistake, my garden will never have the million bedding plants that next door has…I am too miserly to spend that much money at the garden centre! I wouldn’t be able to create the vision of beauty that exists next door. But…normally it’s not so bad.

So I spent an hour or two digging up two small flower beds. I pulled out the weeds, and made a million spiders and beetles homeless. All the best plants at the garden centre had been snapped up much earlier on in the summer, but I found a few daisies, carnations and Latin-named beauties on the sale shelves.

It’s not really the garden that I worry about. It’s the metaphorical one…the garden of my soul. I am not sure there is much planted their either. There is nothing there to attract the butterflies…those people seeking something that sustains and nourishes them.

And yet the spiritual garden isn’t as empty as it seems. Other people seem to see the flowers there that I can’t see. I didn’t plant them…but them I am not the only one who tends my garden, am I?

Let Daddy Deal With It

One of my nieces has just posted up a rant, for want of a better word, on her facebook page. It’s the summer break from her university course, and I suppose that seeing as she is not using her room, the landlord has rented it out to someone else. However, she had paid August’s rent. It turns out that the July tennants are still there although they were meant to leave at the end of the month. My niece is paying her landlord for someone else to be in her room...so she’s not happy.

Her post ended with the words “I don’t know what to do:( xxx”

My adivce was to ask the landlord for a refund!

Sometimes I forget how not everyone is as old and cantackerous as I am. I have no hestitation in recognising those times when someone has stamped on what I think are my rights. Some people call it assertiveness. At times I have it in bucketloads!

My niece’s response to aksing for the refund was “daddy's gonna call up and have a go”.

“What?” thought I. “Fight your own battles, girl!”

Quick as a lightning flash, the Holy Spirit spoke.

“Why don’t you let ‘Daddy’ call up and have a go?”

I have been in too many battles over the last few months – not with landlords and rent refunds. My battles have been the spiritual ones. They have been about how to hold on to joy in the midst of so much pain, or how to hold on to hope in the midst of so much suffering. I had thought it was all about being strong and not letting go.

I see now that perhaps it is not about that at all. It is about stepping to one side and letting my heavenly “Daddy call up and have a go.”

Let Daddy deal with it!

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Un-rescued

“God knows there's a purpose,
God knows there's a chance,
God knows you can rise above the darkest hour
Of any circumstance.”
Bob Dylan

I was listening to a sermon earlier today on Act 5, the bit where the apostles are put into prison by the jealous leaders of Israel. An angel rescues them. Next day when someone is sent to fetch the prisoners, they discover the door still locked, the soldiers on guard still doing their job, but the birds have flown the coop.

The preacher lamented that in today’s world, there are no angelic rescues.

Even in the early church, not everyone got angelically rescued, or rescued at all in fact. The apostles in chapter 5 got rescued, so did Peter later on, but James didn’t get rescued. He was put to death with the sword.

If I had been James, I might have been a little put out – that is before being decapitated.

Why do some people get rescued and others don’t?

It’s all about what serves the purposes of God and what brings him the greater glory. Yes, it has got to be pretty glorious to testify to opened prison doors. Maybe that is the kind of testimony that appeals to people – deliverance and freedom.

I think that the un-rescued, the ones that get put to death with the sword, speak a testimony that may not appeal to people who prefer to be delivered, but to the unseen heavenly hosts, to the rulers and principalities in the spiritual realm.

My brother finds it difficult that I can still believe in an all powerful, all loving God despite all the horrors of this year – my sister’s illness and death, his own advanced cancer and soon-to-be death. If God loved me, why did he allow these things to happen?

If God loved James, why did he allow him to be beheaded? Did he love Peter more?

I trust that the events that I have lived through these last few months, and my faith, battered rather but still there, serve God’s purpose. It’s not that I have not had my tantrums, not shed my tears, not questioned the reason for it all, not beaten myself on occasion for not praying more, for not stretching out a potentially healing hand – I’ve have done that and more. I can remind myself that this short stretch of tough times doesn’t outweigh the thirty years or more of fellowship and friendship with God and that there is joy yet to come – in this life and in the next, but it doesn’t stop me hurting now.

The powers and principalities would like to see me throw in the towel. They would like to remind me that I didn’t sign on for any of this. All credit to me that I lasted as long as I did. I fought a good fight. I can walk away with dignity!

Where is the glory to God in that? Do I just hang around with God because of the perks? Isn’t that what Satan said of Job? That he was just sticking with God because God treated him nice? Take away some of the treats, Satan challenged, and you wouldn’t see Job for dust. And Job’s reply (amid all the tears):-

“Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” Job 13:15

Monday, August 03, 2009

Sorrow - Up-Close and Personal

I am not a happy bunny right now. We have just returned from a visit to my brother in Spain. The week before we arrived he had been transferred to a cancer hospice in Malaga. None of his friends knows whether this a permanent move, or just a period of respite care to put him back on his feet.

He is looking very fragile, very thin, very cancer-ravaged. He has good days and bad days, times when he seems a little lost to himself, other times when he is his usual rude and irreverent self. Whatever…it all spells out a gradual decline. He is hoping he will still be around for his birthday in October, but others aren’t so sure.

Seeing it all happen and being so very far away leaves me feeling very helpless. Tack on to that my sister’s very recent death and it’s not just helplessness that I’m dealing with, but often hopelessness too.

I know that, as Christians, we are never without hope, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it sometimes.

Yesterday at the church meeting people had opportunities to share testimonies. Many of the folk have just got back from a church holiday. A friend of ours spoke about his mother’s illness and how they thought that there would be an operation involved, and how there had been a dramatic improvement in her condition. The operation wasn’t needed and it opened to door to praying together.

Why, I wondered, do these things happen to other people’s families, but not mine?

Another friend earlier on in the week had tried to encourage me with the words, “Everyone dies some time.” But they don’t! Many of the friends I know may have family who are seriously unwell, they may have spells in hospital, they may fear that the end is near for them, but each and every time, there seems to be a dramatic recovery involved. That does not seem to be the way for my family. It feels like everything is unfair. I want to rejoice with them in their victories but it feels like it is all being soured by my own family’s deaths and illnesses.

Why are these things happening to me and my family? Why does it seem like I am being singled out? Why isn’t some of the death and suffering of the last few months being spread around rather than just piled one me? I have never been so up-close and personal to constant hurt and sorrow before.

God’s answer? “Why not you?”

There are some that think that faith in God, a vibrant relationship, is like some wonderful vaccination against hurt and injury. That’s what we tell the world sometimes, that if they come to Jesus he will sort out all their problems and life will be so much better. There is a truth in that – life is better, problems do get sorted, but there is no immunity, no wrapping up in cotton wool. We are not untouched by sorrow. .

I know that through my sorrow, God is present.