Monday, August 29, 2011

The End

Suppose there are six people. They are all patients with terminal illnesses. One or two are at home, looked after by a family who are running out of resources. They have lost their strength and battle with tiredness and guilt. Maybe one or two are in a hospital where nurses are not really trained to deal with their specific needs, besides they are always rushed off their feet. The other two are living alone, managing to get by on daily visits from a team of helpers but finding it harder to cope each day.

There are just four beds in the hospice.

Who gets the beds?

It’s an interesting discussion perhaps, but for the Highland Hospice, it is a reality that they face on a regular basis. It’s the always-present challenge about the most effective use of limited resources.

I visited the hospice this afternoon, not in the capacity of friend or family to a patient there, but to talk to the chaplain. He had talked to a group of young people about the work of the hospice and we were performing the autopsy! We took the powerpoint and metaphysically weighed it on the scales. Was there the right place between information and pictures? Did it convey the information they needed to know? We dissected the discussion points to find out whether the task was clear enough and generated sparks. We consulted diaries to plan the next visit.

While my brain was engaged in the business side of things, my heart was elsewhere.

I knew I wasn’t in Spain. I knew it wasn’t the hospice in Cudeca. I knew that my brother wasn’t in one of the rooms losing his fight against cancer. I knew that all of that was three years ago. My head knew it…but my heart wasn’t listening.

The art work on the walls might have been different, and the garden wasn’t basking in Spanish sunshine, but the two places were involved in the same business. There was the same tranquility about the places as they sought to make the last days of someone’s life peaceful and trauma-free.

I think my brother’s experience had tilted me towards supporting living wills and some kind of euthanasia. Mike wasn’t going to recover and the final forty eight hours was very distressing for him and for those of us that were there with him. It wasn’t just those forty eight hours really but other days of not coping. It just seemed stretched out and anguished.

Part of the problem was a language one. The nurses knew enough English to deal with his physical needs of food and medication and cleaning him up. I am not sure how much opportunity he had to talk about his fears and anxieties.

Another part of the problem was probably a lack of cooperation from my brother. In life he kicked against the goad and he continued kicking when life was ebbing away. He wasn’t an easy patient. He did not want to join in and scorned communal activities.

I tell myself that Mike died at peace, that he didn’t just stop breathing, but I don’t know whether he had the chance to tell his life story in artwork or poetry – whether he wanted that, or needed it. He spent one evening playing tunes on an organ in the common room until someone told him to stop because it was late at night.

I got the guided tour around the Highland Hospice. Every picture on the wall had a story to tell. A dog made of plastic bed pans stood in on the counter in the craft room. The patents had laughed as they responded to the challenge to use only materials they could find in the hospice to make it.

I have to say that the balance has tilted the other way. If you can fill the time between diagnosis and death, not just with the right kind of medication, but things that stir the heart and spirit, there is something more than just waiting for the end to come.

Filling your days with things that stir the heart and spirit has got to be a good move for all of us. There is more to life that waiting for the end to come – the end of any season in our life – not just The End.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Car Boot Sale

Following some dos and don'ts from a helpful car booting website:-

…get everything ready the night before… and pack the car

It was not our own personal car boot sale adventure, but one of our church’s “inside out” Sundays where we leave the security of our four walls and do something in the community. We were fundraising for Equipe - an international charity that works in different parts of the world.

Our house…our car boot was deemed to be the dropping of point for boxes of books, DVDs, toys, jigsaw puzzles, bric-a-brac and home-baking. It’s not a big car boot (as we found out one weekend trying to get mum’s wheelchair in it) and the boxes just kept coming. I think it had a Tardis moment!

There was some concerns that tempting glimpses of car boot treasure might prove too much for some passers-by. I have had bricks lobbed through car windows before but never in inverness, and never to take a newly washed soft toy on show. A blanket flung over the boxes in the back seat concealed the goodies within.

...check the pockets of sale clothing for money and other valuables

We found “a valuable” not in a pocket, but folded away in a book. No ten pound note treasure but a letter written to us by a friend a few years ago. He had been going through a rough time trying to make faith work miracles in his messed up life. He was a regular visitor to the house and shared meals with us. He wrote the letter simply to say thanks for looking after him.

...arrive early

7.00 am was too early! It wasn’t too early for the organisers who had sold us two table spaces. I couldn’t believe the volume of traffic there before us! Parking in the disabled spaces was permitted to unload stuff. You could tell the traders and the old hands who had bought trolleys and other things with wheels attached. Joe and I made what felt to be a hundred trips back and forward from car to table.

...choose a sunny pitch away from big muddy puddles

Seeing as it was inside we didn’t need to worry about sunny spots or puddles. We were allocated two tables somewhere in the middle of the room. I don’t know whether there is any advantage in being at the end of the row, or near a door.

On one side of us was a lady with lots of home-designed jewellery. She had a small selection of second hand clothes. Behind us was a lady from South Africa, with the same kind of stuff as us, who was seriously tormented by the smell of our home baking.

At 7.45 the doors were locked and we had until 8.00 to set up. If you happened to sleep in you lost your table.

At 8.00 the queuing public were let loose!

...go with someone else (it's so much easier as you can take it in turns to serve and it's more fun with two

As this was a church venture, people were lined up to take their turn. Joe and I did the early shift and planned to be back for the end. It seemed to me that the women did much of the work while the men went browsing the stalls, or found a cosy spot in the café to read a book. Not so Adam who had come to visit the in-laws and did his fair share of manning the stall. He had an easy banter with folk.

...have a look at your stall from the other side, the buyer's perspective - Is everything displayed to its full potential?

We had a lot of stuff. We could easily have outfitted a charity shop. There was too little space to display everything. (Not that some of us didn’t try!) The DVDs went really well – on account of them being really good ones! Many of the children’s books also sold well restoring my faith that some kids like reading. The baking didn’t really shift until later on in the morning. I guess that chilli and coriander sausage rolls are not great breakfast fare.

When you have a car boot behind you, I suppose you can leave things in to bring out later, but with the car boot and the car parked the other side of the car park (you had to shift it from the disabled spaces once you had unpacked) it wasn’t an option.

...resist the urge to price things with labels. It may seem like a nice idea but it puts buyers off - let them ask the price and perhaps haggle with you.

We bought a whole load of sticky labels and stuck them on everything, although we were open to haggling and making deals. I didn’t do the E-bay search to find out what was a reasonable price to charge so I think we priced many items too low. It is quite possible that some of our buyers were from other stalls buying cheap and selling on for a healthy profit.

I know for sure were selling cupcakes at 20p where another stall, a few rows away was selling them same size cakes for £1.

...keep in mind why you are there.

We were raising money for Equipe. We don’t know how much was raised, but some rather large notes were floating about. The next sale, planned for some time in January will be purely a Kerr affair.

A by-product of the car boot sale, however, was not about money at all but about relationship building. Seeing people in a context other than a usual Sunday meeting is always good. There was a strong sense of family!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Power of Words

There are a number of things that really irritate me about kindles – electronic reading devices. I treated myself to a kindle for my birthday way back in March believing my life to somehow be incomplete. Many of my friends had kindles, waved them before my eyes and waxed lyrical about them. I dreamed about how good it would be to own one. Yes, I coveted a kindle.

I miss the smell of a book and the feel of paper. New books in particular have an unread, new ink, freshly printed fragrance about them that I like to inhale. I suppose I could just go into a bookshop, pick a book off the shelf and sniff to my heart’s content.

I miss the opportunity to read a page or two before I buy a book. There are books that take just a line to get you hooked. Dick Francis always did that for me. The opening line was a hook and the rest of the page just reeled me in. If you can read the opening page before you download to a kindle I have not yet discovered how.

I miss the whole exchange at the cash register. At the click of a button on my computer or my kindle, the book speeds across cyberspace. It is all too easy to press the button. There is no need to check the contents of my purse or count out precious pennies and pounds. Just the click of a button! I have clicked too often and have spent more on books that I usually do.

What I really miss, though, is the ability to flick back through the pages to re-read paragraphs or chapters to remind myself of what went before. Once I have finished a book I like to go back to my favourite bits and read them over again. Bookmarking just isn’t the same.

The most recent book I have read on my kindle was “The Confession” by John Grisham. It follows the story of young man accused of murdering a young girl. He is not the culprit, but that doesn’t stop him being convicted and sentenced to death. Nine years down the line the real murderer turns up to own up to the crime and save the young man who has 24 hours before he is to be executed. It is a page turner of a story.

I discovered a favourite chapter. I knew, as I was reading it, that I would want to come back to it again and again. I suppose I should have taught myself how to book mark a page. I now know, after much button pressing, that it’s chapter 29.

If you haven’t read the book and don’t want me to spoil it for you, skip the next few paragraphs. Go and make a cup of tea and come back in a minute or two.

Sadly, the real murderer is ignored as one of these nutters that turn up at the last minute to stop executions, so the young man was executed. The prosecution lawyers, the judge and DA are unprepared give a day or more to investigate the new claims. One of them knows that a lot of bullying went on behind the scenes to get the young man convicted.

Anyway, chapter 29, beautifully written, really heart-rending, has the mother of the executed boy preparing his body for burial. She could have left it all the funeral home to do but it had been nine years since she last had the chance to hold him. She cries a lot as she gently cuts away the clothes he was wearing as he was given a lethal injection. She touches scars on his body and remembers the events when they happened. She sings hymns and kisses him and she saves up the prison clothes to burn in a private ceremony.

I cried as I read it.

I wanted to be her. I wanted to have a child and if, for any reason, I outlived him or her, I wanted say my goodbyes in such an intimate and loving way.

I felt robbed. I don’t have children. Some of the time, most of the time really, I don’t think about it. It is just the way life worked out. Sometimes it hurts. I ache for what parents take for granted. Sometimes I seethe with anger. I stand in a line at a checkout and watch a woman drag a child by their arm while snarling and hissing at them and I want to say something but never do.

The power of words – to evoke such strong feelings.

Writing doesn’t come much better than that.




Thursday, August 18, 2011

National Bad Poetry Day

Apparently it's National Bad Poetry Day. Here's my contribution to bad poetry. I wrote it as part of a month long challenge to write a poem a day a few years ago. The prompt was the word “Rebirth”.

I think it qualifies as a bad poem because it is awful. It is a very clichéd idea and lacks substance. You may disagree with me if you like and even comment on how much you like the poem but you won’t change my mind.

Phoenix

I stand within my nest
Of broken dreams
And disappointments

Ignite the fire
And let me burn

Then I will be
Reborn and
Made anew

And the ashes
Gathered by the wind
Will drift away



A Song the Angels Can’t Sing

Once upon a time, when my husband and I were courting, I had this strong urge – yes, courting couples have to deal with strong urges. I had the urge to serenade my husband.

Late one night, with a moon shining overhead I wanted to stand beneath his bedroom window (or beside it seeing as he lived in a bungalow) and sing a love song. If I had been able to play any musical instrument, I might have given into the urge but as it was I wasn’t sure that I could convince a guitar playing friend to help out. Well, let’s be honest here, I think she would have been more than up for it as she was a romantic at heart. I am not always as courageous as I would like to be. I find it hard to get beyond the people-will-laugh-at-me stage.

I regret not doing it. There are just some things you need to do just because the moment will never come again. Some events, like falling in love, just need to be marked. I know that it is supposed to be the man that does the serenading – but it would never have occurred to Joe to so something like that. I wouldn’t claim to have a pitch perfect singing voice so perhaps it was all for the best.

I picked up a book in the sale at our local Christian bookshop - “Beyond Amazing Grace”.

My knowledge of John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace is very limited. I knew that he was a captain of a slave ship and he had an encounter with God that changed him. The film of the same title follows the life of William Willberforce. John Newton is there, in the film, barefoot and mopping the church floor saying, “I was blind but now I see.” I didn’t realise that he had written scores of other hymns.

The book is a collection of his hymns, extracts from letters and sermons. One section of a book has the heading “Songs angels cannot sing.” There is some debate about whether angels can sing at all. One person said that seeing as angels do not have physical bodies they wouldn’t have vocal chords so they can’t sing. Another scholar looked carefully at some of the references in the Bible where we think they are singing and the word in the sentences is “say” or “shout”. Another scholar pointed out that in Western Churches saying is simply just that – saying. In Eastern Churches saying is not really saying at all but singing or chanting. The liturgy of a church service is sung.

One of my favourite verses, which isn’t about angels singing, but God singing is Zephaniah 3:17

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

It seems to me that a God who sings will surround himself with others who sing. In Ephesians 5:19 we are encouraged to follow in our Father’s footsteps:

“speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Poetry and song writing are not entirely unconnected. I can write poetry. What is a song without music but a poem? What is a poem but a song waiting to be put to music? Just what songs are the angels singing? Here’s what the song the shepherds heard.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
(Luke 2:14)


St John heard a different song in his vision of heaven while on the island of Patmos.

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”
(Rev 5:12)


The song the angels cannot sing is the Song of the Redeemed.

“Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." (Isaiah 51:10-12

When the angels fell from heaven led by Lucifer there were no second chances – no chance to repent. They had no excuse to turn away from God. They are not rescued by God and restored. Those that never fell had nothing to be rescued from. They can sing about God’s salvation, but is not a song born out of their experience.

Just because they can’t sing it doesn’t mean that they don’t love to hear it when it’s sung. I can imagine that when Paul and Silas began singing the Song of the Redeemed in the Philippian jail angels turned their heads to listen. Maybe they leaned against the walls of the jail as they listened. Maybe it was all the angels leaning on the walls of the prison that brought them down!

I wonder how often the angels hear the Song of the Redeemed. I am not sure that Christians today are singing it as loudly and as lustily as they should. If we sing it at all, it’s under our breath, perhaps just quietly hummed. More likely the songs that we sing are dirges and laments. We more often complain and grizzle about our hard lives and our trials. It’s not a song that lures the angels to listen and join in.

The absence of the Song of the Redeemed – if Paul and Silas had kept silent in the prison, or if their song had been one of complaint, chains would not have fallen off, prison walls would not have tumbled down.

The Song of the Redeemed is a powerful song. More things happen than just music filling the air and people exercising their lungs. Chains fall off, prison walls collapse…but too often they remain intact because the redeemed don’t sing anymore. They sing with their lips, perhaps, but the Song of the Redeemed gets its power from the heart and the spirit. It’s a declaration of God’s salvation – not as a done deed gathering dust on a shelf somewhere but as an ever-present, dynamic reality.

Get singing!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Every Living, Breathing Creature

In the absence of someone willing to wield the remote control for the TV we watched the Proms on BBC 2. I am never quite sure where I stand on classical music – but seeing as it wasn’t exactly classic classical I knew where I stood on last night’s performance – somewhere out of earshot.

I haven’t been to the Proms, and the closest I have come to a Prom’s night atmosphere was during a five year stay in Cyprus. With there being a number of air force or army bases on Cyprus, I became acquainted with and developed a passion for military bands. Although we had no connection to the forces bases, we used to take the pupils from the boarding school out to the ancient amphitheatre at Curium for the concerts.

The amphitheatre is balanced on a clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is spectacular. It has been around for thousands of years and leaks ancient history, but for the few hours when the military bands play, it is like creating a very British event. I don’t remember there being any flag flying. It was all very stirring – the bands playing the great and good, a mixture of pure classical music and modern theme tunes. I know I loved it – and I think I loved it simply because of the venue.

I am sure that people have made all sorts of attempts to define what music is. Dictionary.com defines it as “the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” Beauty, it would seem, is definitely in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the ear of the listener. The composer had married together the usual orchestral instruments with other stuff. I wish I could name the other stuff – a thing that make rhythm, that looks like (and probably is) a record player or two, you know…they spin the record back and forward to make interesting scratchy noises. Gosh, do I feel out of touch with youth? I suppose that the music world, like any other, makes progress by experimentation. This experiment, to my fussy ear, did not work.

I like my music to sound like music and come from proper musical instruments played in the proper way.

I was reading Psalm 150 this morning.

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy house of worship,
praise him under the open skies;
Praise him for his acts of power,
praise him for his magnificent greatness;
Praise with a blast on the trumpet,
praise by strumming soft strings;
Praise him with castanets and dance,
praise him with banjo and flute;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,
praise him with fiddles and mandolin.
Let every living, breathing creature praise GOD!
Hallelujah!

(The Message)

Praise Him where? Inside churches AND under an open sky!

Praise Him why? Because He has done mighty things and because He is awesome and great.

Praise Him how? Not always silently or in stillness.

This living, breathing creature will praise God.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Not Lucky But Blessed

It seems that everyone is crawling out of the woodwork to offer an explanation for why young people are rioting. A lot of blame has been heaped upon parents for not doing their job properly. Schools have come under criticism for not equipping young people with sufficient qualifications for them to secure a job. Fears about cuts to the policing budget have lead people to think there are not enough policemen to deal with the lawbreakers. The obsession that bankers have for over-the-top bonuses make people think that money and possessions make the man lead the don’t-haves and unlikely-ever-to-haves to simply take when the opportunity arises. And, of course, the blame has been squarely placed on the government’s doorstep as the inevitable fruit of severe cutbacks.

I listened to one woman yesterday saying that solution is to bring back the birch, or corporal punishment and that the army is the right place to send the offenders.

Another woman was loath to condemn anyone. She would rather ask the rioters, assuming she could get close enough, why they were throwing bricks through windows and stealing goods. I am sure that very few of them would be able to explain their actions.

A liberal politician warned listeners to look below the surface. He spoke of young people being without hope. Even armed with qualifications there is no guarantee that there is a job out there for them. Lots of projects aimed at getting young people off the streets and out of gangs and into something positive or productive have been shelved because of cutbacks.

I would imagine that there isn’t one single cause for all the riots, but a mixture of all sorts of things. I have nothing but admiration for those young folk who manage to get through today’s minefield of setbacks unscathed. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up – I was lucky.

“Luck,” said the Spirit, “had nothing to do with it. You were not lucky but blessed.”

Luck is down to random chance and nothing more. I read a newspaper report about a girl who found a five leafed clover in the grandma’s backyard. She thinks she is for some special kind of luck. I have not been lucky but I have been blessed.

I have been blessed to know what I wanted to do with my life long before I met a career advisor. I never drifted aimlessly.

I have been blessed to be studying for a degree in the days of grants. I wasn’t faced with excessive fees and bank loans and a threat of repayments to haunt me for many years.

I have been blessed with family and friends that never allowed me to abdicate my responsibility to participate in the world. I was never allowed to claim that no one understood me.

I have been blessed to grow up at a time where there were no reality shows. There was no one to wave a promise of a music contract, or dancing on a Broadway stage or a number 1 Christmas single. There were no short cuts in my day.

I have been especially blessed by God’s involvement in my life. Eric Von Daniken tried his best to convince me that God was an alien from another planet, and I listened for a while. I don’t think I particularly gave my life to God, so much as He ambushed me with love and claimed lordship over me. God moved in and rearranged the furniture. If He moved out, I would be desolate.

I am blessed that I know myself to possess all the resources I need not merely to survive, but to flourish.

Because

Because I know that in all things
God works His good for me
Because He called me for his own
His Son in me to see
Because He stands beside me now
My enemies can’t win
Because I’m cleared of charges by
The One who bore my sin
Because Christ intercedes for me
And stands at God’s right hand
Because no hardship, famine, sword
‘Tween Christ and I can stand
Because I might face death each day
To life I have been raised
Because I know that I am loved
I’ll triumph all my days

(Inspired by Romans 8:28-37)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In Mark's Name

Many will say to Mark Duggan on that day,

‘Mark, Mark, did we not riot in your name?
Did we not gather together
With bricks in hand to smash windows?
Did we not loot and pillage, carrying off all kinds of treasure
Not to take home and use
Or sell for profit
But to shatter uselessly on the pavement

And in your name did we not set cars ablaze
The roar of the flames
Echoing the roar of blood
Coursing through our veins
We stamped on all restraint
And on those who would seek
To restrain us

And in your name did we not send our children
Through broken shop windows
To steal?
We urged them on
Thinking them too young
To be punished
Hiding our greed behind their innocence
Did we not surely teach them
Our own evil ways?

Then Mark Duggan will tell them plainly
‘I never knew you.
Away from me, you evildoers!’

Monday, August 01, 2011

Carrying Seed to Sow

A friend of mine hosts Monday Manna – an opportunity to meditate on a verse of scripture and share our thoughts with others.

“He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:6.

I remember the event, not the specific day or year, or the person’s name or the exact conversation. I was living in Cyprus at the time, working in a small faith school in Limassol on the south coast. Many of my friends were from various missions working, not so much directly in the mission field, but providing administration support for colleagues working in the Middle East. Being surrounded by missionaries, but not being one myself, I suppose they rubbed off on me. Talking to people about my faith seemed much easier out there.

I remember that you had to be careful about who you spoke to. The Cypriot government allowed the missionary organisations to base their administration in Cyprus, but they were told very firmly that they were not to evangelise the Cypriots. As far as they were concerned the Greek Orthodox Church was the country’s denomination so they were Christians anyway.

The conversation I had took place one evening. I can’t imagine how it began, but I was talking to a man. I have a feeling he might have been really down on his luck and asking me for money. Although I was teaching, I didn’t have a teacher’s wage, but was supported by my church back home. I was struggling to make ends meet. I told him that I had nothing I could give and I told him why. I shared my testimony with him and I shared my faith.

I saw it in his eyes that he thought I was stupid. There was no light dawning, no faith ready to be ignited – he took nothing on board.

I went to a friend’s house and told her everything that had happened – and then I burst into tears. Mostly I was crying for myself because it seemed to prove that I was a useless witness and I would never get to chance to carry sheaves to Jesus. Some of the crying was for the man that he had not listened. He hadn’t taken the chance to see more of God. He was on the path to hell.

My friend quoted the verse from Psalms and together we prayed for the man, and my words, that they would produce a harvest.

I was reading yesterday, or the day before, the events in Isaiah 6. If ever there was a man who had cause to weep as he sowed it was Isaiah. When God had asked, “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah put his hand up and volunteered. God sent him to a nation where they were not going to pay any attention to his words. They put fingers in their ears. They closed their eyes and they turned their back. There were going to be no altar calls, no hundreds and thousands coming to faith.

What is not to mourn about a God’s Good News being ignored? It is almost worth not carrying the seed to sow if you think there will be no harvest.

But God’s promise is he, the sower, “will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves…”.

It brings to mind The Parable of the Sower. No one likes to think that the seed they sow falls on the path to get eaten by birds, or on to rock to spring up swiftly with no roots, or choked by weeds – some of the seed does – but not all of it. Some of the seed falls into the good soil and bears a harvest.

I am challenged by the phrase “carrying seed to sow”. Do I have a word of encouragement or a testimony that I can share with a friend, or a stranger? Or do I have an empty pocket and nothing to give.

Sometimes we divide our lives into segments – this is church, this is supermarket shopping, this is the school run. We have a pocket full of seed for church meetings and church related activities. When it comes to other aspect of life our pockets are full of other stuff – car keys, tissues, loose change – but not seed.

I think we all need to be carrying seed and carrying it with the intention of sowing it – listening to the Holy Spirit directing is to the good ground that He had prepared.