Saturday, July 24, 2010

Someone Else’s Territory

If you were to present me with a city centre street map of Inverness, I could mark on the map all of the various charity shops, and, which of those shops had second hand walking sticks. I know this very specialised information because I went looking for a walking stick yesterday.

It took just under a week for a dearly beloved husband to leave the new one I bought him in the back of a taxi. I had a slight faith/doubt tussle when it came to buying the stick. The man has done some injury to his knee. A visit to the doctor provided very little information on what was specifically wrong, but he prescribed medication to help with the pain. He also made a hospital appointment to explore the nature of the injury involving a small incision and a camera. In the meantime, the doctor said, “Buy a walking stick!”

It seemed to me that buying the stick was like giving approval to the knee injury. When you read in the Bible of various healing miracles, the ones that feature the lame people, Jesus doesn’t offer to buy them a walking stick. It’s not that I hadn’t prayed, or laid hands on the injured joint, because I had.

The doctor also made the very gentle suggestion that the injury could be weight related. He warned my husband that doctor at the hospital would probably make the same suggestion, but less gently. A history of many and wondrous things deep fried is not the healthiest of diets. Let’s face it, neither of us could pass for slim and sylph-like by any measure.

But anyway, that’s all to explain why I was in town and doing the round of the charity shops. It’s all scene setting.

One of the town centre churches was hosting a low key evangelistic event – free tea and coffee, a place to sit down and rest your feet, and…well, there is no getting away from it…a certain conversation. I wasn’t needing or wanting tea or coffee, but I did want to sit down and rest my feet. I don’t possess a pair of walking sandals and I had done a lot of walking. I didn’t really get the certain conversation either because once I had confessed to being a church going Christian my presence was…how do I put it? – ignored. I didn’t need witnessed to. It would have been nice to have just talked, but that wasn’t the object of the exercise!

Another lady sat down at the other side of the table. She was also a church goer – in fact she attended the very church we were sitting in. I was surprised that our hosts had even asked her the question, “Do you go to church?” You don’t know that she comes every week to your church? They dug a little deeper asking the lady if she “knew the Lord”. I am na├»ve enough to think it’s a given. The lady replied, “I’d like to think so, but we can never be sure, can we?” I was itching to jump in. I had been on a gospel outreach team for a year many years ago. I knew how to take it from here. I stayed quiet reminding myself that I was only here to rest my feet and this was someone else’s outreach program, not mine. I would like to say that God muzzled me, but I think I muzzled myself.

I wanted to say that we can know for sure. Just the afternoon before, a friend and I had been discussing the importance of confidence in faith. We read from Ephesians 3, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” And Hebrews 10 assures us “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” There is nothing “think so” about it. If we lack confidence we will hesitate to take steps of faith, never being convinced that God is with us.

The lady was handed a tract. There was no conversation to throw light on the issue, and I mourned the lost opportunity that they had, that I had, to make a difference.

So much of that encounter really bothered me. To have a woman coming to church every week and for her not to be recognised bothered me. For her to be coming every week and not ever being sure of her salvation bothered me. To have someone say that they are not sure of their salvation and be given a tract bothered me. To have an outreach activity that draws people in, but appears not to know how to talk to people about spiritual things bothered me.

But what really bothered me was my own silence. It wasn’t a case of being out or practice – the outreach team was many years ago, but it’s like riding a bike, isn’t it? It’s not as if I haven’t spoken to anyone since. It wasn’t a case of not knowing what to say – I had been equipped the previous afternoon for that very issue.

I didn’t feel free to say what I would have said had it been my church giving out the tea and coffee. I didn’t want to step into someone else’s territory – except it wasn’t someone else’s territory at all – it was God’s territory.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Searching the Deep Things

I can’t remember how long ago it was but it was certainly before 1993, or even what the problem was, but I went to see the doctor. The things that bothered me then are largely unchanged – it could have been the ears. I didn’t have access to the internet then and the buzzing in my ears might not have been given a name. It wasn’t just the buzzing though. I’d had a couple of intensely dizzy moments and felt constantly travel sick – again, something to do with the ears.

It could actually have been about contraception. I was engaged and about to be married and didn’t want to launch into motherhood right away. I wasn’t a teenager at the time. I hadn’t been a teenager for a couple of decades or more.

I remember the doctor doing something that I had never seen a doctor do before. He pulled out a medical magazine and started leafing through the pages. He scanned the index and then went back to the relevant pages. After a quick browse of the contents of the page, his finger tracing the lines of text, he arrived at a particular prescription for my condition.

I thought these things were already inside a doctor’s head. I thought they already knew what to prescribe and they didn’t look at medical journals.

Does it inspire confidence to see the doctor doing something like that? There must have been a look on my face that suggested the answer was “No”.

He explained.

Medical knowledge is expanding all the time. Research uncovers new secrets every day. New treatments are constantly replacing the old. It’s not a case of the old medicine no longer works, but that better medicines are being developed that are more effective or have less harmful side effects. Of course, he knew what he could prescribe for my condition – but he wanted to find out whether there was anything better on the market.

“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.”

I read these words this morning in my time with Jesus. I was reminded of my doctor’s actions so many years ago. The Spirit knows exactly what I need to make the next steps in my walk with God. He knows what revelation will ignite my heart, what promise I can claim to equip me, what rebuke is necessary to convict but not condemn me or what will stir my faith. He searches for those things among the deep things of God, looking not for something that will do – but for the best thing, the most effective thing, sometimes for the thing that will have the least harmful side effects.

Does it inspire confidence in me to know that the Holy Spirit is doing something like that? There is a look on my face that suggests the answer is “You bet it does!”

Monday, July 05, 2010

“Zah-khor”

In our fellowship meeting yesterday we were introduced to the Hebrew word “zah-khor” which, among other words, is translated “remember”.It’s not just recalling the past, but “actively focussing the mind on the present".

I don’t often post FW challenge stories, but this came to mind as I was thinking of remembering. It may not qualify as zah-knor as it does recall the past, but there is something calling to the spirit within me to bring what was there in the past into the present.

The account is, for want of a better phrase, biogrpahical fiction. The video cassette exists somewhere and the events on it are real, but if it is in a carboard box, and I have many carboard boxes, I have never found ti.

The "me" I used to be

The unlabelled video cassette was in a plain brown envelope in the bottom of a cardboard box. As an archaeologist might date a fragment of pottery from the surrounding objects, the letters, photographs and notebooks in the box, confidently informed me the video was almost twenty years old.

I knew what it was, even before I slotted it into the video player.

The opening scene was a finger, encased in a red woollen glove, pushing down the play button on a cassette player. It should have been bagpipes that set the scene, placing the viewer some where in Scotland. The elderly couple in the flat below us didn’t have a cassette tape of bagpipe music so we made do with someone playing an accordion, evoking images of Switzerland instead.

A quick tour of Inverness was followed by various scenes of what it was like to be on a gospel outreach team. The year was 1989. I had just returned from an overseas teaching post in a small church school. Settling back into the state school system, where boys wore long hair and earrings, and the courses I had left behind had been consigned to the filing cabinet as new, and supposedly, improved courses had been implemented, had left me feeling somewhat bemused. I wasn’t yet an old dog, but reluctant to learn new tricks.

A year out on a gospel outreach team seemed a good idea.

The video tape is a trip down memory lane. There’s me in the High Street, with a clip board and a questionnaire, looking very official. We had sat one afternoon generating the questions. On paper they looked harmless, and no one seeing me approach had any idea they were about to be thoroughly evangelised!

That’s me doing a sketch board. I took to that like a duck to water. Boxes painted onto a large sheet of white paper, were transformed into letters by adding a line here and a triangle there. I remember this particular one. “Spot the Scotsman”. It worked well with the tourists, cameras with their zoom lenses poking out at odd angles. How did it go? Something about a Scotsman being more than just someone who eats haggis, wears a kilt and tosses cabers around in the backyard. You have to be born a Scot with Scottish parents and all that. Then I went on to talk about what makes a Christian – reading the Bible? Going to church? You can see where it was all heading.

Me again – this time doing street drama. “The Race of Life” Why did I always get the part of the posh lady with the high heels and the handbag? “I give money to charity!” As if that was ever going to get me to heaven!

I looked so much slimmer in those days. I was single then, with no mouths other than my own to fill. I hadn’t discovered Lorne sausages and well fired rolls! There was less grey in my hair.

Is that Avril? Gosh, when was the last time I saw her? Parent’s evening a couple of years ago. That toddler in the pushchair has just taken her Highers! Avril was one of my potential converts. I say converts in a very loose sense. She wasn’t a Muslim or anything – just one of those pew fillers in the Church of Scotland. I had hopes that she would catch a spiritual spark off me and defect to the Charismatic Church.

Oh my! A Sunday morning meeting! So many familiar faces have passed on to greener pastures. I can see me right on the front row, arms held high, hands held out in supplication. The expression on my face – if I knew the camera was pointed at me, would I be so abandoned and lost in praise?

You know, suddenly I don’t feel like smiling. This “me”, full of exuberance and radiating life, is almost a stranger. I am ashamed that somewhere amongst fifteen years of marriage and a demanding job, buying a house and making a home, planting a garden and stalking bargains on the supermarket shelves – I have lost something.

I am ashamed that I have, so obviously, climbed back into the boat and embraced a predictable and mediocre Christian walk. I feel like the third servant in the parable clutching a decaying leather bag in my hands. The talent inside is tarnished. I just don’t remember digging the hole!

Father, forgive me. Please, ignite my spirit again.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Justice Disabled

Let’s suppose that I walked up to you one morning and thrust a photograph under your nose.

“What do you see in the window?” I ask.

You carefully scrutinise the picture. There isn’t really that much to see. It’s a picture taken through the front windscreen of a car. You can just see the edges of the bonnet, so you know it’s a red car. It’s not quite in focus. You can see the reflection of the man taking the picture. There is something on the dashboard.

“The disabled badge?” you offer cautiously.

“Yes, a disabled badge.” If you were a sea lion in a sea life park, no doubt you would be clapping your flippers and waiting for the fish. “Now, ask me – where was the car parked at the time.”

You comply. You feel safer with a script.

“Little Church Street, just across the road from the back entrance of Marks and Spencer’s, in a disabled parking space.”

That makes sense – a disabled parking place and a disabled parking badge. You are not sure where the narrative is headed but things are slotting into place.

“Now ask me – did I have a disabled passenger in the car?”

Of course, you have no way of knowing whether I am one of those people that have a badge and use it dishonestly. The rest of the driving population circle round car parks like vultures waiting for empty space to land, but others have the privilege of the marked out spaces for the disabled. You are beginning to get curious so you ask the question.

“My mother, almost blind, mostly deaf and quite old, she is definitely disabled.” I supply the answer. I don’t bother to tell you which shops we visited or list our purchases.

There would be something else in the photo if the parking attendant had taken his photo after rather then before he slipped the parking fine under the windscreen wiper! Despite having a disabled passenger, and displaying a disabled badge in the windscreen because I was parking in a disabled parking space, I still got fined.

The badge was not displayed the right way around!

Of course, I marched up to the Town Hall. Most times I amble to places, but this was not a time for ambling. I didn’t have to wait very long before I could thrust the parking fine under the nose of the lady behind the counter. She was on my side – or perhaps it was just the great training she had been given in dealing with potential tornados that made me think she was on my side.

I filled in an appeal's sheet, swithering over the wording. Even I conceded that I had obviously not “correctly” displayed the disabled badge.

She read through my account and assured me that if they took it any further they would be in touch in the next six weeks. She gave the impression that she thought they had made a mistake and it would not be pursued.

So that brings us to today and my imaginary conversation dragging you onto my side of the line. The fine stood, despite the badge in the window, the wrong way up. If there had been no badge, I could have understood it – but there was a badge. They – the district council of Rugby - had the chance to see the bigger picture and act in the spirit of the law, but they chose to be small-minded, money-pinching, nit-picking letter-of-the-law bureaucrats. Most reluctantly I paid the fine, although a friend said I should have made a stand! The words “correctly displayed” undermine my confidence.

It occurs to me as I retell the sorry tale, that I am swift to defend what I consider to be an injustice against me. I am challenged to consider whether I am as swift to defend others. My paltry parking fine is really only a small thing compared with real injustice.

Just as a PS I would like to apologise to the man in the car park. I was told that the attendant had just gone back to the main car-park so I set off in pursuit. He was standing there, a file under his arm and a name tag dangling from his shirt pocket.

I harangued him for fifteen minutes. I am not sure what I said, but he nodded sagely as I spoke. He agreed that it was unfair, that there was a disabled badge in the window, that I was entitled to park there, that I hadn’t exceeded the three hour limit and that the whole experience had been unpleasant for my disabled mother.

“What are you going to do about it?” was my final challenge.

“Me?” He looked alarmed. It turned out that not only was he not the car park attendant but he didn’t work for the council at all. It was lunchtime and he was just on his way to eat his sandwiches in the park and had taken short cut through the car park!