Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Lost One

Try this, says Julia, after talking about memories and loss - bring to mind the things lost that you want to memorialise, make use of whatever materials you think are appropriate and….make a doll.  She had warned me that I would likely resist. Although we have never met she knows me well.  She also told me that is a powerful act and considered in some societies to be almost religious.

I am as capable of making a doll as the next person.  I allowed my mind to hunt down the necessary materials.  Twigs and sticks were not to be ruled out.  For a moment I entertained the nation of how much like playing voodoo the whole thing sounded.  Did I really want a doll that embodied my loss only to have someone steal it off me and stick pins in it?

The real hiccough was to make “a doll that reflects your emotions”. She assured me that I would know the right form.  It sounds like a remit given to an artist for a display of work in our local art gallery. I’m no artist and, to be honest, some losses are too deep to probe. I have made my peace with them and prefer not to stir the water.

But I can write about loss.

The London Underground lost property office boasts of 12,000 umbrellas, 27,000 phones and 11,000 keys and a shrine to Arsenal FC memorabilia left on trains. One of those umbrellas might me mine depending on how long they hold on to things.

Things that comes to mind that I lost include the keys to a trunk.  The trunk belonged to my brother who had graciously passed it to me in my university days to ferry clothes and books back and forth between Durham and home.  It was bigger than your average suitcase and in those days, in the absence of wheels, a person sent things ahead on the train and picked them up at the destination.  I lost the keys and discovered I had a talent for picking locks with a hairgrip. I can manifest an enormous amount of patience when required.

My husband has lost a selection of walking sticks.  I bought him a really nice one in Lisbon on a recent holiday.  The shop was amazing.  It was like stepping into a past era. Polished walnut cabinets and shelves stored hats for every occasion, not girly hats for weddings, but men’s hats for walking about town and looking gentlemanly.  They had walking sticks too, and the resources to cut them down to whatever size you needed. 

I have frequently lost my perspective on things.  I was unemployed for a long time.  It came at the end of a gospel outreach year of knocking doors and talking to people in the streets – of being possibly the kind of person most people would give a wide berth to.  Grace seemed to be absent from my presentation.  Afterwards, it was not so easy to slip back into the world of work.  I was overqualified for most jobs in the paper.  There was this voice in my head that insisted that God owed me.  I had given up a year to serve him (“Not your life then?” asks God) and thought I deserved better than the dole queue.  I dissolved into depression and it affected every part of my life. Worship and reading the word were not abandoned but neither were they enjoyed.  I didn’t feel valued and saw criticism in every loving conversation.  It was not a good place to be. My friends rallied round and pushed me out of my pyjamas to at least do some voluntary work.

At this point in time there is an elephant in the room.  The losses that I could write about are small and perhaps entertaining – but there is a big loss, not even standing in a corner, obscured by the shade.  Two big losses.  A year into our marriage we discovered that we couldn’t have children naturally.  We had married late in life compared to some and some of the bits necessary for creating life were missing.  A few years of the rollercoaster of fertility treatment ending in two horrible miscarriages – that makes for big loss.  To make a doll about that? Perhaps not.  In those two losses there are a hundred or more, a thousand other losses.

Thinking about loss, it occurs to me that I have been the lost one.

We were not really a family that had enough money for big summer holidays.  We took day trips to places, sharing a minibus with another family from the street and setting off at ridiculous hours in the morning.  We went to Southampton once to see either a warship or cruise ship.  We might have gone to London once to take in a matinee performance of a show. It’s a long time ago. 

If you ask me whether I got lost in the children’s playground I would have to say yes.  If you asked me whether I was frightened when it happened I would have to say yes. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it might not have happened at all.  It might have been a generic story told by my parents to scare me into not wandering off, but tell a child the story often enough and it becomes a memory.  Apparently, so the story goes, it was on one of these day trips and there was a children’s playground.  There were swings and roundabouts and lots of other stuff not accessible in our village playing field.  We did the rounds of every item and then left to go back to the minibus – except for me.  I wasn’t part of the clan.  Much like the 12 year old Jesus not being immediately missed, I wasn’t immediately missed.  Two sets of adults and a gaggle of kids, I wasn’t missed until the head count was done.  I was a lost item.  Was it hours?  I doubt it.  It wasn’t in an age of snatched children.  I was found and reunited, after a swift smack for wandering off.  I didn’t like to say that I never wandered anywhere.  I was on the swings. But my memory of the event is only what I have been told.

My other sense of loss, not a manufactured memory but a real one, happened when I was eighteen.  My birth into the Christian faith happened in Wales at a houseparty run by Evangelical Alliance.  Dave Pope was the lead musician in worship and Pete Somebody was the main speaker.  It was a morning prayer meeting.  I was there because…I have no idea why I was there.  It wasn’t compulsory to attend.  I wasn’t a person of faith – a person of abandoned faith perhaps.  Listening to people praying I had a keen sense of being very lost.  These people knew God enough to pray normal words about normal things and I was on the outside of it all.  I was in the room but not in the throne room – access denied and all that.  That sense of being lost drew me to pray the sinner prayer.  Was I found then?  I didn’t have a sense that anything had changed, but it had.  I was found and carried on the shoulders of my shepherd.  Feeling found didn’t happen until much later.

There may be times when I feel lost but know that I never am.

God knows I am still on the swings when He does His count up of His kids.



Saturday, September 20, 2014

Love Unconditional

Love unconditional
is not counted out
in small, carefully weighed pieces
to the deserving few
who fit the pattern
carefully cut from the
steamed and starched
fabric of humanity

Love unconditional
is obscenely tossed
unnecessarily extravagant
to the all-tainted
No formulae to follow
Love generously applied to the
ruled out and rejected
now rescued and restored

Love unconditional
is the hallmark of the redeemed
A Holy Spirit seal pressed
into soft hearts that give
no questions asked
no switch to sainthood required
no leaked memo
from left hand to right

Love unconditional
grows only in a grace-fed field
cleared of cold stone resentment
and twisted thistle hurts
God’s heart transplanted
His compassion pulsing through veins
He smiles as His children give
Love unconditional

Third Person Mel

If sixty is the new forty then she's a few years shy of her fortieth birthday.  She prides herself on not looking her age.  A bottle of hair colour, “Nice and Easy – Light Golden Brown – non-ammonia” gives her twenty four shampoos to cover the grey.  Without her glasses she cannot see the lines beneath her eyes.  She thinks she is slimmer than she is, having dispensed with the discouragement of full length mirrors.  She knows that the scales don’t lie and never asks them for their opinion. 

She has lived most of her life compensating for the lack of inches.  She rarely wears high heels having listened to the sages about the damage done to spine, hips, knees, ankles and feet.  Two or three inches would so little to address the height deficit. She yearns for slim ankles and long legs.

A number of skirts, business shades of navy, grey and black, hang in the wardrobe.  She would like to resurrect the girl in her, but prefers trousers and jeans with elasticated waist bands.  Confidence comes in feeling comfortable not in power dressing.  She likes long cardigans that swathe her hips and rear end and avoids blouses that cling to every contour of her body. 

Some would say she is a quiet woman.  She perhaps stares at people or things for longer than she should.  It takes a while for her to feel comfortable with people.  She is slow to make friends but very loyal once she has.  If she said only half the things she thought about saying she would be a chatter-box. 

For a long time her family cherished the notion that she would be a missionary in some remote part of Africa.  She lived the whole spectrum of religious commitment from zealot to pew filler, settling for someone mellow and wise.  Black and white are not quite grey.  Hot and cold are not quite lukewarm. She is not as driven as she used to be and drives no one to meet her high expectations any longer.  She is becoming softer and kinder with every encounter. 

She loves writing.   She is in it for the thrill of the chase, hunting down the perfect word or the right sentence structure and deletes as much as she writes.  She carries a cast of characters in her head, like diamonds in a velvet lined drawer waiting for their right setting.  The opening paragraph that captures the reader is always being re-written.

She is a poet at heart and thinks in rhyming couplets.  Reading poetry isn’t really her forte but she is beginning to make friends with poets.  Deep imagery and symbolism confuses her so she keeps her poems simple and to the point. It’s unlikely her poems will make it into the textbooks and be dissected but she doesn’t mind. 

She is happy.  There are moments when she wonders if she missed the path she should have been on.  She gazes at her husband and knows that any road without him would not be worth the walk. He is her soul mate.

Look beyond the size and the shape, the quiet stare and the writing.  At her core, the centre of her being, is her faith in God.  It’s His approval she seeks and knows she has.

If sixty is really just sixty and forty is really just forty, it has taken her almost forty years to weave God’s life into her own.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Not So Well With My Soul

“It is well with my soul when the storms of winter blow,
And the cares of this world take their toll.
In the heat of the day there is grace enough to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

The first time I heard the contemporary version of the great hymn “It is well with my soul” was at our local Women Aglow meeting.  I am never sure that I like people playing around with a perfectly good hymn – but this is an exception.  It stirred my soul.

Truth of the matter is I wasn’t sure that it was so well with my soul.  The storms of winter were blowing and the cares of the world were taking their toll and grace wasn’t absent but my soul wasn’t well.

I know my soul is safe.  It is in no danger of turning away from God.  So, in one sense, it is well with my soul but I was greatly disturbed by so many things near and far. I read the news.  I know so many Christians that don’t read the news.  There is so much bad news that it is distressing.  I read the news so I know what to pray about.

I had reached saturation point. The horrific activities of the Islamic State seemed to be going unchecked.  Someone had shared a newspaper article that insisted the situation was beyond prayer.  Is anything ever beyond prayer?  I had read about the young girl from Glasgow joining the forces in northern Iraq, marrying a soldier and encouraging others through her twitter account to cause trouble in the UK if they couldn’t travel out to join her.

I began to pray.  I am not sure exactly what I wanted to see happen.  An end to the violence?  The safety and the witness of the Christian community?  People coming to their senses having had enough of war? Yes, I prayed about those things. 

It didn’t seem to help.  I didn’t feel like any weight had been lifted or that angels were rushing about in heaven doing stuff – or that God was particularly moved.

I began to cry. 

I was overwhelmed by a deep sadness. 

I imagined one of the Islamic State soldiers, a British convert, looking in a mirror, catching just a glimpse of himself, and not recognising the person reflected back.  As he looked deeply into his eyes he couldn’t see any trace of the man he used to be.  There was no smile in his eyes, no humour, no love or compassion, just a stranger looking back.  He hadn’t just travelled from one country to another.  There was an inner journey from being someone balanced and whole to someone fractured and broken. He seemed to realise that he had gone too far along the road to be able to find his way back to who he used to be.

Then I felt the presence of God so close.  It was as if God was kneeling in front of me.  And as if He took my hands in His. 

We cried together.

“He has lost himself.  When he looks in the mirror he can no longer see My image in him.  I had a plan for his life – to do him good, for him to prosper.  My plan would have brought him fulfilment. There is no victory for him to celebrate but only a loss to mourn.”

Together, God and I, prayed for this man’s restoration and healing.

And then it was well with my soul.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Your Footprints

You said You’d walk among us
And awesome You would be
You said we’d be Your people
From slavery set free

But I have searched for footprints
To show You passed this way
There’s nothing of your mercy or
Your kindness on display

A locust swarm of soldiers
Has settled in our land
Against their cold hostility
We try to make our stand

Compassion has been strangled
And mercy’s rarely seen
Love is trampled in the dust
As hatred rules supreme

A god of death is worshipped
Where streets run red with blood
With “mischief makers” butchered
While kneeling in the mud

An army mines the darkness
And dredges the abyss
The boundaries others honour
They blatantly dismiss

They stifle their humanity
But sometimes see a face
Of someone that they used to be
Another time and place

My heart is fully broken
My prayers are soaked with tears
I hold on to your promise
Relinquishing my fears

The footprints that I search for
Are those I leave behind
Through me You show Your kindness
My life with Yours entwined

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Opening Lines

Our Saturday morning writer’s group met yesterday.  It has been a couple of months since we last met. The last time we met at the Breathe Chapel it was a very sunny day.  We sat outside with the sun on our faces.  Yesterday we were huddled inside with dark clouds threatening rain outside.  We kept the door open for the late arrivals making things just a little chillier than I would have liked.  But the warm companionship made up for it.

My friend, Heather, was reporting back on her twenty minutes of time spent with Isobel Dixon from the Book/Literary Festival that ended a week or two ago. Running the opening laps of her poetry journey, Heather was looking for the inside edge – useful tips from the people who know about all necessary things poetic.  

Part of the “debriefing” included the need for a good opening chapter of a book you hope to submit to a publisher or an agent.  With a number of clients already on their books time is precious.  If you haven’t caught their attention by the time they get to the bottom of page 1, it may be too late.

Opening lines are very important.  We had a go at identifying some first lines of books, films, poems and songs.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”

Shame on me I got this one wrong.  I had the right author but wrong book.

“All children, except one, grow up”

I got this one right – not because I have read the book but I have seen numerous versions of the film.  Who else could it be anyway?

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”

This was on the tip of my tongue and remained stubbornly there.

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”

This I identified as “Tom’s Midnight Garden” – OK so “a bright cold day” doesn’t really match up with midnight.  It was “striking thirteen” that I was focussing on.

There were other first lines.  I did quite well with the songs, quite badly with the films and failed miserably to identify any of the poets.  Maybe that’s the way forward – set everything to music!

Thinking about first lines and the necessity to make a good first impression I was reminded of a poem that I had written a few years ago.  

Ten Seconds

Ten seconds -
The time I have
To impress you
Ten seconds -
The time you have
To be impressed

So I appeal your senses and
Arrange my attire
To match your standards
Skirt lowered, neckline raised
Make-up applied not to the face
But to conceal the tattoo on my arm

I can see
You’re impressed
An unrestrained smile
Ten seconds
And I
Impressed you

If only
Jesus was so
Easily impressed

I cannot appeal to His senses or
Arrange my attire
To match His standards
Skirt lowered, neckline raised
Makes no difference
He sees the tattoo on my arm
And other more serious things
I would like to conceal

You embrace me
Only if I fall within
Your acceptable parameters
He embraces me
Anyway
And by His grace I fall
Within His

Monday, September 01, 2014

My Mission Field

I write poetry.  I hang about with people who write poetry, or read poetry or listen to poetry being read.  It’s a very precise group of people. That’s my people, my place and my message is conveyed in poetic form – it's my mission field I suppose, which is not to say it’s my only mission field.

A month or two ago I spoke at our local Women Aglow meeting about digging up the gifts God has given us and shared with them my own discovery of poetry.  Something seemingly random tipped me onto a path that I didn’t plan for. I shared some of the landmarks along the way.  Through the generosity of my church I was able to publish a collection of poems – “Wider Than The Corners or This World”.

One of the ladies in the group shared an encouraging testimony regarding the poetry book.

Her father-in-law was very ill and in the final weeks of his life.  He was a lover of poetry but perhaps not such a lover of God.   No one wants to feel that they are being hounded into the kingdom but there was a sense of urgency as the days went by.

Knowing he loved poetry, my friend read some of the poems from my book. They don’t pretend to be anything other than poems about faith.  God isn’t hidden behind vague metaphors and deep symbolism.  You would have to read the book to see what I mean.  Some of them are full of gentle theology that bashes no one over the head.

She said that he smiled and held her hand as she read one poem after another. There were opportunities to talk about the truth in the poems, but mostly she let the poems speak for themselves. He found comfort in them.

It was a few weeks later that another friend shared with me that she had just returned from the man’s funeral. 

In the final hours before he died the family were gathered around and taking their turns to have a last conversation, a final embrace before saying goodbye. 

He sent one of the family members to fetch his daughter-in-law although he had seen her earlier on.

His request - “I think I am ready to meet Jesus.  Will you pray with me?”

The prayer they said together was possibly the last thing he said before he passed away.

My friend believes the gentle poetry was the turning point. The gospel presented in the poems did its job. 

Words are powerful things.  How they are lined up - one beside another – to convey a truth and stir an emotion inside – it doesn’t get better than a good poem.  Without the church’s encouragement it’s unlikely I would ever have found the finances or the confidence to get the book printed.  The poems would not have been in a book to read to anyone. 

God moves people and draws out of them the gifts He has first birthed in them. He chooses the people and the places where those gifts are best demonstrated.  Sometimes the planets align and something wonderful happens.  Sometimes someone is nudged just a little closer to God.