Saturday, April 27, 2013

Things My Mum Said


This time last week I was preparing to go off on a silent retreat.  This time now I am preparing to go to meet my family and share together in the loss of mum. 

Last week I sat with God sharing all my concerns about the day.  I can at times go off the deep end and I asked God to walk with me only in those places He wanted me to go.  Today I find myself praying the same kind of thing. 

Last week I picked up a book in the chapel and after reading a while, made a note of the title and author, intending to buy the book and read it slowly - “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ” by Jeanne Guyon.  Having read the first couple of chapters I am finding it’s not a book I wish I had written – I come across a lot of those.  It is a book I wish I had lived.  I am shocked to discover, even in the first couple of chapters, that the life I claim to live, so close to Christ, isn’t really that close at all.

I doubt whether my mum ever read the book.  It is a possibility.  But I am finding the things my mum said in the pages of Jeanne’s book. 

“I give you an invitation: If you are thirsty, come to the living waters.  Do not waste your precious time digging wells that have no water in them” (John 7:237; Jeremiah 2:13)

“If you are starving and can find nothing to satisfy your hunger, then come.  Come and you will be filled.

“You who are poor, come.

You who are afflicted, come

“You who are weighed down by your load of wretchedness and your load of pain, come.  You will be comforted.

“You who are sick and need a physician, come.  Don’t hesitate because you have diseases.  Come to the Lord and show Him your diseases and they will be healed!

“Come!"

Anyone who has known my mum and been in the same worship meeting as her will recognise her familiar “Come!” call.  She would sometimes grab hold of my arm and whisper it urgently into my ear.  All I had to do was to come.  All that God wanted from me was for me to come to him.  Any resource I needed was with him.

She didn’t always do what she told me to do, what Jeanne said to do.  In those times when she didn’t “come”, God was so gracious and He did the coming. 

I think there were times when she would have liked to shoo Him away.  She wanted to be rebellious and do her own thing.

But God never went.

God doesn’t stop saying “Come!” He said it to Jeanne Guyon in 1685.  He said it to my mum throughout her life.  It is message that He is always saying to His children,

“Come!”

Monday, April 22, 2013

Silent Retreat Day - Playing With Pictures


I am not an artist.  My media when it comes to anything creative is not pencils or paint but words.  I took art at school only because my best friend took art.  She was good at it and I was hopeless.  Somewhere in the mist of my memory I think I see a fibre-glass tray but I don’t think I made it.  The teacher would usually take stuff off me and do it on my behalf.  I suppose any artistic talent I had was well and truly squashed by that approach.

I was on a gospel outreach team funded my local church.  I was supposed to keep in regular contact and send updates of what I was up to.  I hadn’t discovered the poet in me at the time.  A letter every month seemed very boring.  I drew a comic strip cartoon of my days.  You can get by with a comic strip with not-so-great artistic skills. I thought it was good and church never wrote to tell me not to do it ever again so they must have been satisfied too.

One of the activities at the Quiet Day Retreat was art based.  A few months ago I went to a day’s prayer retreat on the other side of the firth.  They had a table there with all sorts of art supplies.  The expectation was that you would experiment with colour and shapes to express feelings.  Most of the people there were from traditional church backgrounds.  Drawing pictures did not feature in their pathways to God.  They gave the table a wide berth – as did I.  Memories of my art teacher taking away my paintbrush to do “it” for me came rushing back.  It was not my forte so I wrote a poem instead.

It was never my intention to go anywhere near the art table.  Having spent the best part of an hour and a half at the cross, which was never my intention either, I wanted to draw a picture.  I had imagined a scene so strongly that I wanted not to write a poem about it, but draw it.

There were a few inspiring pictures about the place and books on how to draw.  I felt sure that if I looked in the books I would be put off drawing rather than encouraged.  Whatever they asked me to in the books I would not be able to do.  I decided to go it alone.

“Let’s keep it simple…” said God.  “Really, really simple…” I didn’t get any sense of Him wanting to take the pencil from my hand and do it for me.  He was not like my art teacher. 

The tongue was out in fierce concentration.  The pencil scraped away on the paper.  The rubber left a grey stain with every line I erased.  I might have been unconsciously muttering to myself.

I was onto my second sheet of paper, the first having been neatly folded and put into the bin.  I wasn’t frustrated, but a little bemused.  The picture in my head and the picture forming on the paper just didn’t look the same.  The task was beyond me. 

Have you ever seen the simple illustrations from the Good News Bible?  It came to mind that sweeping lines and bold colours might be the way forward rather than worrying about the shape of fingernails and wrinkles around knuckles. 

It didn’t quite pass the “is-this-really-a-photo” test.  It was one step up from the Good News Bible but on another planet to Michael Angelo.  I liked it.  So the woman had a double chin and her nose looked to have been broken some time in her life, but it was the best I could do given my lack of talent.

I left it on the table after signing it at the bottom.

Once the silent part of the retreat was over, we were free to talk to people.  People re-introduced themselves.

“Mel?” asked one lady, “The artist Mel?”  Was I the person who had drawn the picture of the woman kissing Jesus’ feet at the cross?  Something about the picture touched her heart.  Not the lack of perspective or the double chin – but something beyond what could be communicated with just pencils and paints.  She was drawn to the woman, drawn to the cross, drawn to the expression on her face, drawn to a sense of stillness.

As my husband said later, once you let these things out into the world, whether it’s a poem or a picture, it ceases to be yours.  People see their own meaning in them. 

Yet again, I was surprised by the unexpected.  I hadn’t planned to paint a picture but God had planned it into His day with me.

Silent Retreat Day - The Cross


Jack Reacher, the hero of many Lee Child novels, facing a suicide bomber on a train, recognising that he is not a hostage negotiator, had this to say about himself - “Mostly I’m a very silent person.  It would be statistically very unlikely for me to die halfway through a sentence.”  Jack would probably do very nicely at a Quiet Day Retreat. 

I had no worries about the silent part of the Quiet Retreat Day at Kilravock Castle yesterday.  Having said that, I have an inner chatterbox and although I might not say much, there is a conversation going on in my head – not so much a conversation as an unspoken monologue.  I like to think that God joins in the conversation when the inner me pauses.

My worries were that despite being there the whole day, with ample opportunities to connect with God, I would not really connect at all.  Everyone else, I imagined, would be having life changing encounters and I would be frittering away the day pleading with God to say something.  It didn’t happen that way at all.

The day began with a few short notices and a tour of the castle.  It was essential to point out where the toilets were.  Perhaps the one worse thing that not being able to ask for the toilet is not being able to tell someone where they are.  There were a couple of sitting rooms and a couple of bedrooms for our use as well as the castle chapel.  Silence descended.

On the lawn at the front of the building is a huge cross.  It seemed fitting to begin at the cross.  It also seemed fitting to do something more than just stand beside it.  Sometimes when the spirit is not sure how to begin, the body can show the way.  I think if I had been watching me I would have muttered that I was taking it too far – I knelt down.  I also sat down and at one point lay down.  A man from reception very kindly brought me a rug as the grass was just ever so slightly damp.  What was intended to be a swift bow and acknowledgement turned out to be a much longer linger.

There’s no denying that the cross at Kilvarock will never be put to crucifixion use.  It is a very neat and tidy cross in the gentle surroundings of woodland walks and daffodils on the lawn.  There were no noisy crowds hurling insults, no soldiers with hammers and nails and no weeping mothers.  I could run my fingers up and down the wood and get no splinters.  There was no blood.  Crosses and crucifixions are so alien to our lives.  It’s all very clean and sanitised and it is almost beyond our imaginations to picture the reality of it.

I don’t know how long I had sat making all the usual connections one makes about crosses.  Had it not been a silent day I might have sung a hymn or a chorus.  I was aware that my mind was doing a lot of the work – I was thinking, rather than allowing God to speak.  I thought good stuff – but not God stuff.  Maybe that’s why I stayed so long.  My feet might have been ready to walk away, but my spirit wasn’t.

Imaginative contemplation is about reading a gospel story and imagining the scene as though it is happening at this moment and we are active participants in it.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but as a writer it goes with the territory.

I tried to put myself in the scene.  It was a case of closing my eyes and re-writing the sounds and smells around me to something closer to that day.  Did the birds stop singing the day Jesus died? I know the sun stopped shining.  My imagination introduced the shouts and the calls of the crowd and the soldiers.  I heard the rattle of dice or whatever it was they were using to gamble for the robes. 

I pictured the scene after everyone had left.  There has to come a time when you have had enough.  If you were a teacher of the law, you would have used up all your anger and vented your spleen.  There was a sense of anti-climax perhaps.  The feeling of satisfaction you hoped to feel with Jesus disposed of is absent.  Jesus’ death hasn’t brought closure.  There’s a sense somehow that it’s not really over.

I stood beside the cross.  The only part of Jesus I could reach was his feet.  I’d perhaps heard about the woman washing Jesus feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair and pouring out perfume.  It was too late for anything like that.  I wanted to touch him, but I didn’t want to embrace the blood.  If I kissed him, I could only kiss his feet, not washed with water, but stained with blood.  Did I want to do that?  Was it safe? I mean there were still soldiers around.  Did I want to align myself with someone so utterly cursed and rejected by God?

Sometimes when the spirit is not sure how to begin, the body can show the way.  I moved as close as I could to the cross, picturing myself cradling his feet.  I too washed Jesus’ feet with my tears. 

I know the end of the story.  I can’t un-know it.  I know about the resurrection.  It didn’t stop me at that moment feeling a little bereft.

God touched my heart

I connected.e already had i

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Horeb

I’ve taken off the prophet
I’m dressed as just a man
Carmel’s lightning
Scorched stones and
The smell of smoke
Were yesterday

The courage I had then
Has abandoned me
The steel has melted
Only fragile glass remains
Fear strips away faith
And I run

I find the rock
That is higher than I
And I wait for the Lord
He speaks not in the wind or the earthquake
Not in fire where we last spoke
But in a gentle whisper

I, only I am left, I say
As if imparting a truth He doesn’t comprehend
He tells me a greater truth
That I am never alone
Seven thousand men
and an army of angels are on my side

He restores the prophet
And repairs the man
The courage and the steel,
His, not mine, are bestowed
He opens my eyes to see
He is always enough

Not a Sparrow or a Glutton


If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.  Exodus 12:4

It was the eve of the exodus from Egypt.  God was about to loose the Angel of Death on the Egyptian households.  Pharaoh’s continued hard heart had led to this moment.   Most people are familiar with what happens next.

My husband and I qualify as a small household, which means that if we were part of the Israelite nation at the time we would have been sharing a lamb with our nearest neighbour.  I confess that even with living where we do for the last twenty years we know very little about our nearest neighbour. 

It was not just sharing the lamb with them, but taking into account the number of people there and how much lamb was needed in “accordance with what each person will eat”.  I can just about deal with the numbers.  I know how many children there are having taught more than a few of them.  It is the appetite of each family member that would have me flummoxed.   That kind of knowledge is beyond me.  If it was my neighbour who was providing the lamb it is unlikely they would know how much I or my husband would eat.

God assumed when he gave that instruction to Moses and Aaron that it would present no problems.  The community was close knit.  They lived together in the ghetto that was Goshen.  They had a shared experience of suffering and a shared experience of joy.  They shared the same faith, bruised as it was. They knew exactly how much each person would eat.

Today many of us do not enjoy that kind of close community.  There are some people that make it their business to know everyone else’s business – but I am not one of them.

Take it into the church setting – would that be any better?  I suppose I am lucky that being a part of a small fellowship I have the opportunity to discover my neighbour’s appetites.  Some people I know better than others.  There are some people I more naturally move towards than others.  Others require a little more work to find the things we have in common, or create something on which we can build a relationship.

It requires honesty and openness.  I have begun to think about what people think about me that isn’t true.  And not just what people think about me – but what I think about myself that isn’t true either.  If I think about myself as a victim, for example, I live my life that way and other people see that and see me as a victim too.  If I pick at my food, like a sparrow, in public, but gorge myself in my own home – people see the sparrow, not the glutton.  When the neighbour finds the lamb to share with my household, he provides for the sparrow he sees, not the glutton I hide from him.  He is not able to meet my needs because he doesn’t know what they are.

There have been too many occasions lately where I have not been the “me” I really am.  The “me” I am is not really that quiet and silent.  I am not aloof and unfriendly.  I am shy and take a while to feel at home enough to unlock myself.  I am worth getting to know.  There is wisdom in me that doesn’t always lie on the surface.

If you are buying a lamb to share with me – I am not the sparrow or the glutton but somewhere between.