Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent Poems

At the end of my summer holidays I spent a week with a friend in Armadale on Skye.  It was just the two of us with a plan to write. We both had books half written and thought to make some progress. Mine was a second poetry book.  I thought the first poetry book published a couple of years ago was so good that perhaps I didn’t have a second book in me so I had been putting it off and putting it off. In the process of helping my friend organise her material – absorbing stuff about Scottish clans – I took a fresh look at the second book and began to see what poetry I already had and what poems I needed to write new.  The first book had an Easter section and the plan was for this new book to have a Christmas section. Trouble was I didn’t have that many Christmas poems and the ones I had were all very alike – nativity scenes really – different words, different rhyming schemes, different rhythms but same poem.  Maybe I should just abandon Christmas – don’t we all feel like that sometimes?

Advent arrived. I had signed up for email devotionals, bought a study book and found a sheet of Christmas themed Bible verses to write out each day – the usual overdosing.

It came to me that I might want to use the advent devotionals and/or the study book and/or the Bible verses I was writing out daily to use as poetry prompts.  I figured that by Christmas and up to the end of December I would have a whole pile of poems to add to the Christmas section of the new book.

Seriously? Have I had fun? Absolutely!

Some poems are book-definites, others need a bit of polishing up to hit the mark, some will never make it and one or two are rather quirky but I love them.  I am four prompts behind schedule.  My brain tells me it’s OK to write a bad poem to fill the space or just two lines that rhyme.  Not every poem has to be brilliant. The writer in me objects strongly and insists on a good poem!

It’s the reading up that I’ve enjoyed the most.  Reading up about Herod, or the star, or the magi has given me a different perspective of Christmas.  I have always known stuff but it feels like I am on my own little journey, seeing aspects of the Christmas story from all the different characters involved.  In trying to find their heart I have found interesting bits of my own.

Yesterday’s poem was all about Joseph.  I was reading articles about the role of men at the birth and whether they had any real role to play at all.  Gone are the days of walking up and down the corridor outside the maternity suite in the hospital.  They are there holding their wife’s hand – but do they need to be?  Apparently, yes. Bonding matters to fathers just as much as it does to mothers.

I read the things that men had written about holding the baby minutes after the birth, even before the baby is cleaned and wrapped in a blanket. They are in awe of this little life they hold who wield such power over them.

I admit to a real surge of jealousy, almost anger that I had been denied that experience.  There are times when childlessness bites deep and the wound never really goes away.  I felt angry that my husband never had that experience either. He would have been a great dad.  Some little child would have had absolute power over him.  I would have been relegated to the role of bad cop.

I thought of Joseph holding Jesus and searching his tiny face for signs of himself even though he knew he wouldn’t find any – the set of the chin or the shape of the ear.  Of course, Joseph was the biological father.  God chose so wisely when he chose not just Mary, but Joseph too.  In his later life when Jesus talked of God as Father – it was Joseph that had taught him all he knew about fathers and Joseph had done a good job.

There may not have been any DNA of Joseph’s floating about in Jesus – but Joseph had built himself into Jesus through the words he spoke, the compassion he showed, his gentle patience as a carpenter and his love of God and His word.  God himself couldn’t father Jesus in his humanity but He found someone who could. 

Joseph’s Son

I marvel at Your tiny form
Cradled here, so soft and warm
I breathe Your fragrance, hold You near
And tremble with an awesome fear

I cannot help but look to see
If in You there’s a trace of me
Of form and frame there’s nought we share
Yet God has placed You in my care

My boy to nurture and to grow
But You…God’s Son…I just don’t know
A task so big, I dread to fail
But God so close, I will prevail

I see the grain in lengths of wood
In You I’ll shape what’s kind and good
And then one day, I’ll glance and see
In You there’ll be that trace of me

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Magi

East dwellers; immortalised by storytellers
Avid learners; lighting candles both end burners
Star gazers; read what’s written there amazers
Truth seekers; into heaven’s purpose peekers
Risk takers; crossing deserts, journey makers
Stable finders; smell of scented hay don’t minders
Crown wearers, gold, frankincense and myrrh bearers
Knee benders; up into heaven praise senders
Christ revere-ers; simply blessed to be right here-ers
Home headers; as they travel joy spreaders

Thursday, December 03, 2015

There's Something About Mary

I think I have been taught to mistrust Mary over the years.

I cut my spiritual teeth, as it were, in the Roman Catholic Church. We had been wrenched away from Sunday School at the local Congregational Chapel just streets away to walk two miles every week to the Roman Catholic Chapel in a neighbouring village.  I wasn’t pleased to go as I was planning on winning the annual memory verse challenge that year.  I had come third the previous year and felt I had something to prove. The Roman Catholic Chapel didn’t have memory verse challenges.  It didn’t really have anything designed for children at all.  We just sat in the pews with the adults and followed the liturgy in the books we were given. I never really dived in deep into the theology of saints and statues.  I watched “The Song of Bernadette” many times and considered a life as a nun until Donny Osmond rescued me.

The other churches that have dotted my faith landscape have not been kind to Mary.  One almost gets the impression from them that Mary must have posed for the marble statues, that she was a willing partner. She’s just one of us, they insisted, nothing special.

I have been thinking about that and I’m not so sure she was nothing special. What young girl in any culture doesn’t dream of a wedding day? I’m sure Mary did – but God launched her into a very different future from the one she planned. God had been silent for hundreds of years so miracles were not part of everyday life.  What other alternatives were there to explain a young girl’s pregnancy? And the law was harsh on women even without the charge of adultery being thrown into the mix. Mary embraced it all.

She wasn’t just a womb, you know. Chromosomes only go so far in producing a person.

Without Mary, the Jesus we have would not be the man He turned out to be. Before He began His ministry, Jesus had thirty years of Mary. It was her arms that comforted Him and her fingers that wove the fabric that His clothes were made from. It was her voice that sang the lullabies that sent Him to sleep ad her gentle shakes that woke Him in the morning. She bathed the grazed knees of childhood tumbles and pulled out the splinters when he began his work as a carpenter. Her silly songs made Him smile and her pain made Him cry. And what He learned about the Father He learned from her. What he learned about servanthood he learned by following her example.  What He learned about prayer came from listening to her prayers. He became the man He was because she was the woman she was.

Mary’s Song

My heart cannot contain such praise
My soul bursts with delight
For God stoops down to rescue me
Displays his power and might
Those kings who claim to be secure
Their thrones He sweeps away
The rich with greedy grasping hands -
Such men have had their day
He turns to lift the mild and meek
The famished heart to feed
The things He promised come to pass
There’s boundless joy indeed

Luke 1:46-55

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Have Mercy On Me

“He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Luke 18:38

When the blind man begging beside the roadside in Jericho heard a commotion he wanted to know what was happening.  He was told that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.

When he called out to Jesus, the blind man swapped titles. He called out to Jesus, Son of David, not Jesus of Nazareth. And that caught Jesus’ attention.  Jesus of Nazareth is just a geographical title, pointing to a place on a map and carrying with it assumptions people thought they knew about people that came from there's.

The title “Jesus, Son of David” points to a place in time, and a promise made by God. It was a Messianic title reserved for the long-awaited Deliverer and the fulfilment of many Old Testament prophecies. By choosing that name, the blind beggar was expressing a longing for God’s kingdom to be established – a longing for God’s rule through His King and a kingdom that wouldn’t end. He was looking for a Kingdom where there was wholeness and completeness, a kingdom without tears and without pain.  This was the cry of his heart.

When the crowd tried to silence him, he shouted all the louder.

It makes me wonder if my own heart has a cry that will not be silenced by the crowd.

Jesus had the blind man brought over to him.  The title “Jesus, Son of David” had caught His attention and mercy had been asked for.

I have been thinking a lot about that phrase “have mercy on me.” A plea to God for mercy is asking Him to withhold the judgment we deserve and instead grant to us the forgiveness we in no way have earned. It came to my mind after I had been catching up with Facebook posts.  The bombing of Paris had been followed by posts announcing how gun-ready and armed people were getting in some parts of America.  There seemed to be no safe places and terrorists lurked behind every Burka clad Muslim woman. Japan, it was posted, had it right by banning Muslims from a whole host of human rights. There were a few lone voices appealing for calm. 

I sensed an anger in me that Christians who speak about the love of God could be so lacking in compassion for the Muslim majority who have nothing to do with ISIS or terrorism. 

In the middle of a divine encounter, when God is talking about the destruction of Sodom, Abraham stepped into the conversation:-

“Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

It seems that we are not willing to be like the Judge of all the earth and do right. To ensure the end of the minority, we are willing to sacrifice the majority, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. If we are so swift to defend ourselves and so savagely, when do we allow God to fight on our behalf? When do we step aside and let God fight for us? Is this too big and issue, too important a battle to leave it up to God? Perhaps we are just not interested in God showing any mercy.

The cry of my heart?  I think I have discovered it.  If Jesus asked me what I want Him to me to do for me it would have nothing to do with ISIS at all.  I want to be always tender-hearted, giving and embracing. I want to be always able to show love.  His mercy towards me would be in His intervening in my life to stop me following a path of hard-heartedness.

Jesus gave the blind man what he asked for. He restored his sight.  Loud again, he praised God.  This time there was no crowd telling him to quieten down.  They joined in.  The blind man was a catalyst, a pivotal point in the community.  The crowd who had had no personal interest in Jesus turned from being interested observers to active worshippers.

Amazing things happen when we cry out to Jesus, Son of David, and ask for mercy,  Not for someone else, but for oursleves.  Not pointing out what is wrong with the other person, but what is worng with us.

"Have mercy on me," is becoming the cry of my heart.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Warm-Up Act

He stands centre stage
dressed in an echo of another man
He knows his lines and
delivers them with authority
to a packed crowd

“Snakes!”
He names those in the gallery
who peer down from lofty heights
fools that think they are near to God
They bear no fruit of repentance

To those in the stalls
he sets the challenge to sacrifice 
spare shirts and
scrap all their schemes to swindle
Savour contentment instead

He tosses water
into the audience
cold and clear, bestowing on them a
clean slate start

Of course, he’s only the warm-up act to
the man with top billing who waits in the wings
He knows he’s being
written out of the drama

Will he surrender the stage,
gracefully step aside and
take his final bow
before the curtain falls?
No lengthy encores?

Jesus of Nazareth arrives
quietly
He sees him and declares,
“The Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world.”

An aside to the audience
Last lines spoken humbly,
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The spotlight shifts as
a dove flutters down


Sunday, November 15, 2015

To Summan...from Rebekah

According to a newspaper article I read last week research has shown that children from religious backgrounds are more likely to be selfish and less inclined to share than children from secular homes.

Children were given stickers and encouraged to share them with others in the room.  How giving the children were was calculated according to how many stickers they gave away.  The religious kids were not generous.

I read through the article hoping not to see Christianity listed as one of the religions.  It was there. Along with Islam.  They took the lion’s share of selfishness while those children from secular backgrounds were hailed as more giving.

I’m never sure that I like these kinds of reports in the sense that they really don’t tell you all the details. They cherry pick the juicy bits. Secular households will nod their heads sagely and say that they knew that religious people were not nice. It confirms what they already thought they knew. Religious households will look for something to explain the results.  I did it myself – there are nominal Christians out there, the ones that are not practising Christians.  They tick a box that really says they are not Muslims or Hindus or another religion, but it’s just a label and not a lifestyle.  I’d like to think they are not the real thing at all.

It saddens me to think that they were the real thing so I tell myself another story. I am disappointed that we have failed to be Jesus in the room.

Then, as if to prove a point, last Sunday happens.

I had a row of children sitting in front of me.  Unsupervised children. They chatted through the worship time and did silly things with their arms inside their T-shirts. It was a distraction but I didn’t feel I knew them or their parents well enough to put a stop to their nonsense.

The real test came later on.  One of them had pad of blank paper and a pen.  They sat heads bent over the page drawing things and giggling every so often.  It was an improvement on the arms inside their t-shirts. There was a girl sitting with them.  She wanted to have her turn with the pad and the pen but the boys hogged the paper. I felt her frustration.

“Give her your notebook and a pen,” said God.

I turned a deaf ear as I do at times.  God nagged me as He does at times. I tapped her on the shoulder and surrendered my notepad and pencil into her hands.  I thought we were just minutes away from wrapping up the song part of the meeting and then the children would head off for junior church. Her first picture was labelled " To Summan...from Rebekah". "Summan" is "Someone". She doesn't know my name.

Did I count how many pages she used? Yes! It was not a large notebook, just A5 in size.  She flicked from one page to another, drawing pictures. The boys suddenly became interested in the notebook she had and abandoned the one they had.  My notebook was passed from one to another as my precious pages took on an art gallery of scrawlings.  

“You have plenty of notebooks,” said God, “Stop fretting.” 

He was quite right, of course. I have lots of notebooks squirrelled away in drawers and on shelves.  So I stopped fretting and relaxed.    

I discovered that like these children in the report, the religious ones, I also had a hard time sharing.  I am not a nominal Christian.  I practise hard and I am improving.  My tick in a box isn’t to say I’m not a Muslim or a Hindu or another religion. It’s not a label but a lifestyle and I’d like to think I am the real thing. 

The report went on to say that it is the adult in the home that provides the role model.  If we want our children to be generous and giving throughout their lives as parents we need to set the example. That applies to more than just generosity.  If we want our children to be courageous – we have to demonstrate courage.  If we want them to be adventurous – we must live adventurous lives. If we want them to know God answers prayer – we have to start praying the kind of prayers God likes to answer.

We must be the demonstrators showing the way.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Silencing Hope

A different take on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:-

There was an Islamist soldier dressed in explosives and armed with a machine gun. He prowled the streets of the city looking for someone to kill. Having a quiet drink in downtown pub sat a man named Dave.  He was watching extra time in a football match on the large screen.  He was thinking about going around the corner to the chippie for a fish supper. He had a heart of gold and wouldn’t harm a soul.

The Islamist soldier detonated the explosives and the pub went up in flames. 

There wasn’t enough of Dave left to bury and nothing of the soldier remained to identify him.  He could have been any man’s disenchanted, radicalised son. Angels carried Dave to Abraham’s side. The Islamic soldier found himself In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Dave by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, what is this atrocity? Where are the virgins I was promised? Why am I not in paradise?  Did I not fight for Allah and bring honour to his name? I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, you chose an evil path. Knowing the difference between right and wrong you allowed yourself to be seduced.  You suffocated all compassion to live a dream of death and destruction. You have stained your soul so deeply that the blood of those you killed cries out to God.  They are all comforted here in heaven.  And you are in agony.

“There is no place for you here.  Hate does that to a person.  It separates them from the one person who truly loves them.”

The soldier answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Dave to my family in Syria for there are many Jihadi soldiers and their wives. Let him tell them the truth, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”

Abraham replied, “They have minds that have known reason and hearts that have known compassion - let them listen to them. And they have heard a message of love preached by the men, women and children they have captured and executed.”

“No, father Abraham,’ the soldier said, ‘their minds are corrupted and their hearts are cold stone. They will not listen to the words of infidels.”

Abraham said to him, “Then they silence the hope that would save them.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Inner Peace In-A-Box

It began with just me in a room with four course tutors.  They had thought about cancelling the event.  I didn’t seem worth the attention of four people.  I wasn’t a class of primary school children, just one individual.  Four other people walked in in the room and we all sighed.  I was now one of five and there were four of them and the event was on.

Inverness Museum was hosting a creative project called “Making Peace”. The series of morning and afternoon workshops were geared around Remembrance events.  I had managed to enrol for two afternoon sessions. 

There was a bit of “permission” giving at the beginning – us giving them permission to take pictures and videos of us working and to have our work presented as part of the exhibition later on in the week. We were also required to give ourselves permission to have fun, make mistakes and work with others or not. The “or not” was the only one that really appealed. Having fun, making mistakes and working with others isn’t really how I operate!

The plan was to produce a peace box – an Inner Peace In-A-Box. The box was the size of a large matchbox, complete with a drawer that pulled out. The plan was to decorate the outside of the box with coloured paper and ribbons and fill in the drawer with “treasures” or reminders of peace.

They catered for every creative thought we could imagine with pens and pencils, glue and glitter, coloured and patterned paper, sequins and shells, feathers and ribbons, sparkly stickers and little pom poms, leaves and pine cones and more.  The choice was too much and the inner Mel panicked thinking they were expecting me to use everything!

We began with a discussion about peace.

“What is peace?  Freedom from….” Fill in the blank space. Fear, perhaps, or anxiety.  Someone said, “Having boundaries encroached.” She was the daughter of a conscientious objector, a Quaker in her own right. I suggested that maybe it wasn’t so much “freedom from…” but rather “freedom to…”

“A feeling of…” Fill in the blank space. Stillness, calm, balance, being present in the moment.  All good ideas, apparently. What came to my mind was “a resting heartbeat” – the poet in me rising to the challenge.

Is it possible to disagree with other people and be at peace? How? We talked about respecting the rights of others to express opinions.  We didn’t have to agree with people, however, we acknowledged that we have a tendency to obsess about who is right and who is wrong.

If every person could find inner peace, they would be more peaceful towards other people.

I have a feeling it’s probably not true. The path to inner peace, the how-you-get-there, has divided people of various religions and of none for centuries.

Enough of the talking.  We were there make to a peace box.

No one said it was a competition but there is just something in me says I have to make something better than the next person!

I spent all too much time looking at what the others were doing with their boxes. The lady sitting next to me was making a production line of them for various relatives.  I didn’t know you could make more than one.  Another lady had carefully made a tiny doll out of craft bits to go in her drawer.  Someone else had filled her drawer with sequins because it reminded her of dancing and she loved to dance. It seemed as if everyone was making a nicer peace box than mine – I was not at peace with that! 

The boxes, once completed, were going to be framed for the exhibition.  We were photographed with our boxes and a comment was written down explaining how the box and its contents reminded us of peace. I’m not even sure what I said.  I shall read it all when the exhibition opens at the end of the week. 

I have a feeling that I will be disappointed both with my box and with the comment.  It might not be an accurate picture of what inner peace means to me at all.  Inner peace doesn’t come from long woodland walks collecting leaves and pine cones, listening to bird song or collecting sea shells along the shore – all those things I put into the drawer.  Slowing down and taking time to listen – that resting heart beat idea – is still a good one, though. Peace for me, isn’t really about where am or what I am doing but about who I am with.  I am at peace when I am with God.

But God will not fit into a box.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Telling Tales

“Once upon a time…” – four words.  Human beings - something happens in the brain.  Some part of them, that inner child, sits down on an imagined carpet in some infant classroom and the story begins. We are hard wired for stories.

Last night I was accosted by a storyteller.  He didn’t take anything of value – a little time, perhaps, but it was going spare. He filled my head with stories of bees and hares and witches and spells and thumped out a rhythm on a drum.  He dragged me into a chorus - “He walked for a day.  He walked for a week.  He walked for a month.  He walked for a year…and a day. Then he stopped.”

“No, there isn’t any poetry tonight,” said the lass behind the counter as she took my order for a mug of hot chocolate and a large slice of cake. “We’re launching the Festival of Storytelling.”

I didn’t know anything about the Inverness Storytelling Festival which kicked off at the Velocity Café in Inverness.  The first Thursday of the month is usually a poetry and a pint night.  I had a bag of poetry books and a bottle of pear cider. The usual crowd of people were absent.  An unfamiliar lady sat in my seat and a man with dreadlocks placed a drum on the floor.

The unfamiliar lady was the mother of the man with the dreadlocks.  Her other son was sitting a few seats away.  I smothered a prickle of jealousy.  She had two sons she was immensely proud of.  I wished, for a moment, that I was her, that I was there to cheer my lads on.  

If you put aside the sons and the grandchildren, the lady and I had a lot in common.  Neither of us are particularly happy in a crowd.  We both fight the hermit gene.  She probably told me her name but, sadly, I already have too many names to remember.

Dougie, the storytelling son, wanted to create an atmosphere from a distant past.  In days gone by when people lived quite isolated lives – the distant past?  That sounds like life today.  You don’t need to live in a lonely croft house in the middle of nowhere to feel isolated.  In those days people were hospitable to strangers.  A hot meal and a warm bed could be bought for a song or a tale and news of what was happening somewhere else.

So he opened up the night to stories and songs. He told the first story about an unlucky man on a journey to find God.  Only God would know why he was so unlucky.  I’ll not tell you the story just in case you meet Dougie MacKay someday.  He tells it well – with his drum and the chorus, “He walked for a day.  He walked for a week.  He walked for a month.  He walked for a year…and a day. Then he stopped.”

Another storyteller, a lady this time, told a tale about a girl and a frog.  Scattered throughout the narrative were songs that she sang with a lovely voice. Yes, the frog turned out to be prince – no surprises there!

Maybe there is a difference between a told story and a read story.  The next story was hot off the press, written earlier that day by a woman sitting in a café, drinking coffee. I confess I wasn’t rally listening.  I was looking through the documents stored on my kindle wondering if I had a story I could share. So, yes, I wasn’t paying attention. Hypnotise me if you will and I doubt if I can tell you any details of her story.  It could have been a ghost story perhaps or something of a Halloween nature. No, sorry, it’s like my Chemistry classes from school – a real blank.

I didn’t find a story on my kindle, but the next best thing was a narrative poem – “Rosie Baxter's Legacy”  - that I had written many years ago.

I read it and did my best to inject a little drama into it with expansive hand gestures and an attempt at varying the voices of the characters. I figured that I would never see these folk again, these storytelling people, and acting was part and parcel of the evening.  It went down well.  I got a round of applause.  The poem has a really gentle message.  I wasn’t out and out preaching – but truth was slipped in quietly!

Dougie did another story about bees and a blue eyed hare.

The evening ended with a song.  The man was a little wild looking.  He has an amazing bushy grey beard that made me want to search it to see if there was bird’s nest lurking inside.  He had been sitting at a table with a pile of leaves, berries and nuts – a forager’s treasure. He explained later that everything on the table was edible.

He unslung a ukulele, not to my ear tuned properly.  He himself wasn’t tuned properly either but he belted out a song about a soup-stone in a pot and a family that never went hungry.

The evening came to an end.  I left with a smile on my face, feeling that my soul had supped well. I imagined Jesus walking through the door. The master storyteller would have been right at home.

But Rosie Baxter and I didn’t do so badly either!

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Invitation

Father…I hesitate to call you Father, but He said I could.  Of course I’m not really one of His followers except for just now.  I am trying to follow, just this one time, but I feel like it might be more than I can do.

I wish, just for once, not to be on the receiving end of His censure. I have listened to Him and His words have slipped into my head.  I have sat at the feet of my mentors and have soaked up all their teaching.  Arguing verbs and tenses and the nuance in a sentence has not prepared me for such a man as Him. He deals in practicalities and throws out a challenge like a fisherman tosses out a line.

He dares me to hold a lunch or a dinner and not to invite only my friends, my family or my rich neighbours. All I am asking for, he says, is an invitation in return. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, he says, and I will be blessed.  They have nothing and cannot pay me back, but there will be a reward in the next life.

He knows, of course, that I don’t mix with those kind of people.

Father…I am afraid.

What if by holding this lunch or dinner with these people I become defiled? Surely they are poor or crippled, lame or blind because of their sin? I have been so careful to steer clear of these people, to keep myself separate and pure. Strange that I don’t worry about what my friends might think.  They will put it down to a foolish boy mixing with the wrong crowd, a minor rebellion perhaps, something I will doubtless grow out of.

I worry, Father, about what You might think.

His words will not be ignored.  I want to prove Him wrong, to show Him that I can act out of compassion.  Deep inside, however, I think he has described me well.  He knows me to be a selfish man and the heart in me would agree. His very presence shines a light upon me and I feel exposed.  Even one of his own disciples said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”

Of course, He didn’t go away at all. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a man who goes away no matter how much we want Him to.  He stays and pokes and prods, and stirs a man to distraction.

So, Father, I am going to do what He says. I’m going to hold this lunch or dinner.  Not to prove Him wrong about me, but to see if He is right and if there is something I can do to change. I will invite my friends and family, though they might not come once they know who the other guests are.  I’m not planning anything elaborate, just something simple. 

Father, help me.

 

 

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Reclaiming the Kitchen Table

“Then Jesus said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite only your friends, your family, your other relatives and your rich neighbours. At another time they will invite you to eat with them, and you will be repaid. Instead, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they have nothing and cannot pay you back. But you will be repaid when the good people rise from the dead.”
Luke 14:12-14

This particular story has wrapped itself around me.  Not just the outside me, but the inside me.  It has smothered my heart.  It appears to be stalking me.  It doesn’t hide behind lampposts or show a keen interest in a window shop display as I turn around.  No, it just shows up.

Take yesterday, for instance.

I had responded to an invitation to a morning’s discussion on “A Good Society” hosted by the Inverness Cathedral. It came with a promise of soup and a sandwich lunch.  There was a good crowd, enough to make for a game of sardines in the room set aside for the meeting.  Most where church people though not from the same church, or even the same town.  Sprinkled in the crowd were a couple of Muslims, a couple of community councillors and a few not-yet-faith people.

The starting point was a youtube clip of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community in Inverness and winner of the Templeton Prize 2015 and “What it means to be fully human.”  Listening to him, I came to the conclusion that I am not quite fully human, but on the right path. 

Somewhere in his speech he talked about the Bible verses above.

Nowhere in the story does it say that you invite people – the poor, the cripples, the lame and the blind – so that they will get fed at least one good meal.  The point of the story is not about dealing with the hunger of those in need, although that happens. It says “you will be blessed” – the meal provider, not the meal eater. There is a blessing to be bestowed by becoming a friend of the rejected.

It was never about what you ate, but who you ate with. The meal was just the backdrop for fellowship – for listening and telling stories, your own stories and the stories of others.

Certainly in Jesus time there was a set of expectations about who was invited to a meal and where a person sat at the table.  There was a pecking order.  Your place at the table told you where your place was. It was important to know yourself better than others and for others to know that too. The rules might not have been written down, but everyone knew them and lived by them.

Jesus didn’t adhere to the rules.  He ate and drank with the wrong kind of people.  He would not allow other people to govern the kind of man He would be. He was always seeking for ways to connect with people. 

The people in our group, yes we were in groups, talked a lot about making connections with people in the context of a shared meal. Somone made the point that without the shared family meals, we are failing to teach our children how have a family meal with their own children, and how to provide that necessary background for sharing our day's stories.

We live in a world where making and maintaining connections is not easy.  Family meals with everyone sitting around a table are not common these days.  Quick microwave meals sitting in front of the TV are more common, perhaps a different meal to cater for different tastes or meals at different times to make the most effective use of time in a busy schedule.

There are only two of us, but we have fallen into the TV dinner habit. It may be a cooked-from-fresh meal but we rarely eat it around a table.  It never seems worth it to lay a table for two.  And the kitchen table has become a dropping off point for all things cluttered – empty boxes, old newspapers or plastic bottles for the recycling bin, fruit still in their packaging waiting to make it the fruit basket, toiletries bought but not quite in the bathroom yet, egg boxes of various dates with one or two eggs in them, pens and notebooks, shopping receipts, pans and casserole dishes washed and not put back into cupboards…I would like to think everyone lives this way, but I’m probably wrong.

We are not just robbing ourselves of the meal time stories, that unique opportunity to connect – we connect at other times and in other places – but the cluttered table means we don’t invite people around as often as we could.  It’s a major clean-up job.  We actually invested in new crockery a year or two ago with a view to hosting meals – but life got busy.

It really isn’t enough to say to myself “How sad!” or “What a missed opportunity”. I have a tendency to learn truth but not always to practice it.

“Let’s start by reclaiming the kitchen table,” said God. “Start small – choose a couple of days in the week and eat at the table, just you and Joe.  Take the time to eat slowly, undistracted by the TV and share the day’s stories with each other.  Then, after a while, put out a few more plates and invite some people.”

We’ve started.  The kitchen table is almost reclaimed.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

This Fallow Field

He gave to us this fallow field
and asked that we might sow
a hundred thousand different seeds
and watch a harvest grow

He put into our hands the tools
the ox and sharpened plough
and sent us out to turn the soil
plant not someday but now

Not ever asked to toil alone
no tasks with labels “mine”
the field was His, the labour ours
no drawn dividing line

We planted potent seeds of love
through kindness on display
and sprinkled seeds of living hope
through lifting words each day

We searched out seeds of spirit truth
and planted wisdom deep
sowed endless joy and laughter loud
and sorrow’s tears to weep

We sowed the seeds of mended life
through hands that touched to heal
With subtle fragrance soothing souls
we learned again to feel

With lifted heads and upraised hands
we planted jubilant praise
We sang our Saviour’s victory hymn
that set our hearts ablaze

We scuffed our knees to rid the field
from bitter weeds of hate
Wielding faith and warrior prayer
we battled long and late

We sowed our seeds not sparingly
not from the miser’s hand
but freely given, we freely gave
and richly sowed the land

Today we see the harvest in
His church, this vibrant place
and the world sees a reflection of
the Father’s loving face

Intentional Seed Planters

I’m into the last week or so of the Bible study notes for September and October.  I have been faithful and not skipped too many days except for last week when I was on holiday. Not only had I taken my study with me but also a new notebook with the intention of keeping some kind of journal of the places we visited, the things we saw, the people we met, the food we ate – the usual fare.  The notebook is as new as it was when I left.  The writer in me didn’t really surface and it was too hot, and I was too miserably bitten all over to that care much. A bottle of insect repellent with all natural ingredients I had picked up from a craft fair, crafted to deal with the West Coast midge did little to stop the nightly onslaught of Maltese mosquitos. But I digress.

The Bible notes have focussed on the book of Luke. I’m more of an Old Testament gal really.  I feel like I have tramped over the gospels so often that it can be difficult to find something new – not that rediscovering something old doesn’t have its appeal.

We were into the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.  I admit to groaning as a plethora of stuff I already knew flapped around me like bats from an old belfry.  I’d done the autopsy years back when I did my “O” levels, “A” levels and a degree.  I knew context and form and had a mental filing cabinet’s worth of information gleaned from sermons over the years.  I felt justified in groaning but settled down anyway and asked God to show me His truth in the stories.

The Bible I’m using is on my kindle.  Once I am done reading, and making copious notes, that I really need to start looking over, I have developed a habit of “googling” the story and making more copious notes from various study sites.

“Mel,” said God, “You asked for My truth on the story.  Why are you looking for someone else’s truth?”

He boiled the story of the mustard seed down to just a single sentence.

“It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden.” Luke 13:19

The man’s action to take a seed and plant it in his garden was a deliberate action.  He was not a farmer in the parable of the Sower who scattered seeds.  This man took a single seed and planted it.  He didn’t just clear the ground and hope that a mustard seed would casually fall into the ground.  His actions were planned and intentional.

He didn’t just plant any seed.  He took a mustard seed and he planted it. He was not looking for an olive tree to grow in that space or a raspberry bush – but a mustard tree. He wanted a mustard tree – not an apple tree or a date palm.  So he planted a mustard seed.

There is a whole thing about how small it was and how big the tree turned out to be – but he had to plant the seed to get the tree.

Last year, this time last year, I planted a whole load of bulbs. Incidentally it might interest you to know that once upon a long time ago I mistook a daffodil bulb for an onion.  I was in the process of chopping the “onion” up to add to the frying pan when the smell and the stickiness of the “onion” was so unfamiliar to me that I realised my mistake before I tossed it to into the pan.  Spring was greeted with daffodils, tulips and crocuses. Without the planting spring would have meant dandelions and buttercups, which nice as they are, sometimes, were not what I wanted.

My dad had an allotment.  A field on the outskirts of the village was given over to allotments.  The council, perhaps, had done a dig over, divided it into strips and rented them out for measly sums.  There was a long waiting list. Each strip needed a proper going over to get rid of the big stones and the clumps of turned-over grass and weeds.  Once ready, soil worked to a breadcrumb consistency, my dad planted vegetables.  He did not expect a neat row of carrots to simply appear.  He planted stuff.  He planted everything at once and months later we harvested everything at once. We didn’t have a freezer and took bags of goodies to church to hand out to people.  For a few short months were had lots of vegetables.

As Christians I think we all long for vibrant lives.  Many of us settle for something mediocre.  We are almost content with the spiritual dandelions and buttercups that come our way.  But we don’t consciously take a seed – of love, or mercy, or joy or patience – and deliberately plant it.

We listen to a sermon or make copious notes from Bible study notes but we don’t deliberately select an aspect of the character of God we want to see in our lives and plant the seed of it.  We just hope that it will happen somehow.

How do we become an intentional seed planters?

By knowing that we need to be.  Waiting for a tulip to appear when we know we never planted the bulb is a waste of time. Tulips don’t work that way. Or onions or carrots.  Or love or compassion – the really powerful variety!

By knowing what we want to see in the garden of our lives.  We need a vision of what God intends us to be. The man who planted the mustard seed had a picture in his mind’s eye of the fully grown tree.

By taking the seeds and planting them.  Seeds need to be pushed deep into the soil.  Lying a tulip bulb n top of the soil will not get us the tulip in the spring. There it shrivels in the sun or rots in the rain. It needs to be buried deep down. We need to plant our spiritual seeds deep, digging down into our heart.

God has all the seeds of His character we will ever need but leaves the planting of them up to us.

I want my mustard tree and I have the mustard seed in my hand.  It’s time to plant it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

One Thousand Dulux Shades of Life

found fossil skies and dove slate cloud
warm pewter rain and urban chic pavements
my life has dulled to 32 dulux shades of grey

muted mocha office and roasted coffee briefcase
dusted damson suit and muddy puddle deadlines
Joyless work in 97 dulux shades of brown

lemon drizzle smile and sunny day laughter
soft vanilla calm and wild primrose passion
I miss her in 67 dulux shades of yellow

volcanic splash anger and red stallion rage
ruby fountain sorrow and rose trellis tears
grief poured out in 164 dulux shades of red

woodland fern stillness and forest falls peace
spring meadow serenity and minted glory promise
God comforts me in 76 dulux shades of green

fragrant cloud prayer and velvet ribbon praise
lilac spring dance and cotton breeze joy
gentle restoration in 76 dulux shades of violet

harvest fruit healing and earth glaze complete
honey beam satisfied and golden rambler awake
tossed high, I soar in 65 dulux shades of gold




Author’s Note:- Dulux, retailer of paint and home improvement products, boasts of over 1,000 colours of paint

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Write With You"

The detective arrives at the crime scene.  There are yards and yards of police tape strewn between the surrounding trees and a small crowd of the curious gathers - late night runners, the river-side dog walkers, the arm-in-arm lovers and the last spill of theatre goers.  It’s still early enough to be the evening side of midnight.

“What do we have, Stenson?”

“Well, the victim is definitely not a poet.  We did a thorough search of her bag.  We found a small red notebook but nothing resembling poetry, rhymed or not, among the pages – not even a rhyming couplet or two.  Notes from church sermons it seems.  We checked all her pockets.  Thought we found something but it turned out to be a shopping list for a Blythswood Shoe Box appeal. Her car is the blue Mazda just over there – it’s clean.  We have combed the car inside and out for poems – the glove compartment, the boot and all the other hiding places.  There was nothing poetic anywhere! – just a collection of faded parking tickets scattered over the dashboard.”

There was, of course, no reason to be carrying anything poetic last night. I had been told quite firmly that all the open mic slots had been filled.  The flyer for “Write With You”, a fundraiser for Syrian refugees, promised a five minute slot for the bargain price of a fiver. I assumed that I could turn up with my poem, pay my fiver and win over the audience with my words.  I checked small print to discover that, yes, I should have phoned, and no, there were no empty slots left.

I thought about not going – an I’ll-show-them reaction.  I would buy a large bar of chocolate or two with the fiver and they would have less to give the Syrian refugees. Ha!

On leaving the house, I had thought that maybe the end of the performance of the open mic poets would dry up and there would be some general invitation – “Anyone else who would like to share?” I thought I had stuffed my latest poem into my pocket on the off chance. The chance never came and the poem wasn’t in my pocket anyway.  I must have left it on the open ironing board beside the front room door.  I did a thorough search of my bag – nothing poetic anywhere.  I am not someone who remember these things by heart. 

The only piece of paper, folded up neatly in my pocket, was a shopping list for a Blythswood Shoe Box appeal.  I turned it over, smoothing out the folds and taking hold of a pen, tried to reconstruct my latest poem. There were phrases that came instantly to mind but not enough to reproduce the original poem.

The absence of anything poetic really bothered me.  What if I was on some kind of reserve list?  What if I was called to the mic?  I wasn’t reserved or called.

In among all the poets were three big names – the heavy guns, all delighted to be asked to participate in the event.  Val McDermid headed the bill with Lin Anderson and Moira Forsyth underneath and in smaller print. They had longer than five minutes and read sections of their books or a short story. Both Lin and Moira were excellent. Val claimed the lion’s share of the evening with reading a section of her book and then being interviewed by the lady who organised the event. The organiser had, evidently, read all or most of Val’s books and asked questions about characters and settings and the process of writing.  For Val it happened in twenty minute slots cemented together with coffee breaks and walks.  I could do that.  It doesn’t sound too gruelling.

The venue of the evening was the Cathedral.  Even having a healthy amount of padding around my rear end, two hours on a pew was beyond me.  I can see why they usually stick to an hour’s service on a Sunday.  Had I been a toddler squirming around in my seat I would have been quietly smacked.

What came to mind was something from earlier on in the week.  I am learning how to creatively communicate Bible truths every other Wednesday. The speaker had talked about getting the attention of your hearer.  A listener ought not to have to write notes form a sermon.  The delivery should be such that they remember what was said. They were reeled in by polished storytelling skills.  Was it the hard pew or their lack of storytelling skills that had me fidgeting? A few thousand sales, if not millions, of their books point a finger firmly at the pew.

Of course, it was a Friday night and I’m never good for anything on a Friday night.  Post-traumatic stress kicks in after a week of work.

Cathedrals might have all the necessary ingredients for choir performances, but with speakers and a microphone there are too many echoes to deal with.  Wearing hearing aids has its advantages.  I rarely switch to the loop setting but last night I was able to hear most things clearly, perhaps more so than most, but it did require me to keep my head at a slightly unnatural angle – upright on a Friday night is not natural!

As I pulled up outside the house at the end of the evening my eye was drawn to a folded up piece of paper on the ground.  It was wet and all but floating in a puddle.  It was my poem – not on the ironing board at home and not stuffed into a pocket firmly enough.

Today I will address the lack of anything poetic on my person or in my car.  I will possess something, somewhere that identifies me as a poet!

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Truth Trimmers

As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57-58)

I came across this verse yesterday.  My daily study is based on some of the middle chapters of Luke’s gospel.  It’s about navigating the ups and downs of life.  The disciples had some incredible ups followed by some miserable downs – much like myself in recent weeks.

Nearly 40 years ago I was that someone saying to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He didn’t talk to me about fox dens and birds’ nests.  I knew about the part of having no place to lay my head. The journey he called me to make, then, and now, is not one of comfort and physically putting down roots or settling somewhere.  The journey always remains a journey.

The safe place in that journey isn’t in a house or a home, or a secure 9-5 job (with weekends off!).  The safe place is Jesus and He doesn’t make His travel plans according to my whims and fancies.  His priorities need to become mine.

Yesterday was not such a good day.  At work we were fundraising for McMillan Cancer Support. I know what cancer is and why we were raising funds but I spent a few minutes at the start of the day flicking around their website and watching videos of some of the personal stories.  I have my own personal story, not of surviving cancer, but of watching someone else not survive.  It surprised me to realise that it was seven years ago, not just three or four.  Time moves on.

I tracked down my blog entries for that time and found loss and grief, and humour and laughter.  It was not all dark.  But it was a lonely time.  My family don’t live nearby and my friends mostly didn’t know what to do or say.  There wasn’t a fox den or a bird’s nest, a place of peace or rest, built for such a time.

Things happen in the world. Bad things happen. Last week I went to a book signing evening.  A friend had published a book about the Holocaust. There are always untold stories still to be unearthed.  My friend had talked to survivors and written down accounts of their experiences.  Throughout the pages of her book she had sprinkled her poetry. It was more of a memorial of an old ill rather than a celebration of a new book.

A few lines of poetry came to me as I watched the power point presentation

Mama,
they took my shoes

Child,
what use have you of shoes when
you stand on holy ground?

There are no easy answers to satisfy the questions asked about the Holocaust.  In the midst of great suffering there are no easy answers to any questions about the presence of God, the love of God or the omnipotence of God. There isn’t a one-size-fit-all answer to any of it.

There is a sense in which we, as Christians, inhabit a spiritual no-man’s land. We are convinced God loves us and is able to do the impossible – but sometimes the scenery we find ourselves in doesn’t match the truth that we know. 

For some of us it changes the way we look at God – He is a shade less loving or powerful.  We don’t say it out loud, but deep down we think it and it alters the way we live our lives. We cut the truth to suit our circumstances. Trimming the truth is never a good policy.

I know I have the potential to be a truth trimmer which us why I commit myself to reading God’s word as honestly as I can.  I have to choose to surrender the spiritual scissors. 

I might not have the defined space and the fixed boundaries a fox den or a bird’s nest – but I have Jesus.  He is my defined space and my fixed boundary. He knows all the answers and because I am with Him, I am secure and it is enough.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Refugee Child

displaced child of war
ancient eyes and soured skin
fouled by smoke and sulphur,
faded, dull flower
drained of colour

precious to few
expendable to most
powerless to dictate
life’s direction

treading a long road
unkind beneath tired feet
head down
heart heavy
even the birds don’t sing

the monsters from
under the bed
now hunt in daylight


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

World Peace Day

Last night I went to a World Peace Day celebration held at the Breathe Chapel, just off Grant Street in Inverness.  The Breathe Chapel is where our writing group meet and where the River Connections Project have been carving circle poems into stone all week.  It’s a little island of peace in a part of town that isn’t always peaceful.

World Peace Day calls on all warring parties to lay down their weapons and observe a global ceasefire. It’s just for the one day.  If they can stop killing people and the destroying homes for one day maybe they can do it for another and another and another."

Warring parties don’t have about the big wars between nations.  It can be a small scale conflicts – neighbour versus neighbour. And perhaps the enemy isn’t other people but a person’s own personal demons or addictions, or the battle is all about making ends meet.  The weapons don’t have to be missiles but can be fists flying or insults hurled. Killing doesn’t have to mean a body to bury but can be the death of someone’s hope.  Love can be fragile at times. 

So, there we were at the Breathe Chapel talking about peace. It was a small gathering.  I only knew one person there.  We had come with poems and prayers, stories and songs to share. 

Peace took a battering. A bottle of whisky was pulled out of a duffel bag.  The man was asked very politely to put it away.  He complied but not before taking a swig from the bottle.  It’s possible he had been swigging long before he arrived at the Breath Chapel.

The chapel has been around for a couple of years now.  It is open for people to come and have a time of silence.  It’s a space where people feel the touch of God. There are no rules written down about what you can or can’t do – but then, they are not needed. 

Suddenly there was a warring party of one man.  He talked about his house and how he would never lay down the law about drinking in his house.  He thought people should have the freedom to do anything they like anywhere they were.  His house, his rules but this wasn’t his house. He argued himself into a place of no-way-back and left the room. The man with the whisky opted to stay and we continued to share our poems and stories.

We moved on to talk about forgiveness, talking our way through the story of the woman caught in adultery.  When Jesus says that only those who have done nothing wrong can throw a stone, He was challenging them to look at their own lives and realise they were not fit to judge other people. 

We talked about places in the world where forgiveness was not easy.  We talked about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  Forgiveness was the only way to heal wounds and move forward in harmony. 

The man with the concealed whisky bottle mumbled something. He wasn’t the easiest of people to understand.  Eventually he swore himself to silence. Was I just pressing the point about forgiveness too earnestly such that he felt picked on? I don’t know.

I am beginning to think that I’m at a disadvantage when talking to people who are knee deep in the mudslides of life, telling them about the love of Jesus.  I know He loves me, but I have been surrounded all of my life by people who love me.  I know what love looks like. Many of the people I meet in different ministries that I help out at are not like me or have lived my kind of life. 

The things that I have done wrong the world would say are small fry. They don’t rank very highly on the badness scale.  A combination of very loving parents, an upbringing in a quiet village, a healthy batch of chromosomes and strong and positive friendships have helped me to turn out to be a nice person. Even with my chances to derail myself with careless decisions and falling into the ditch every so often I have turned out fine.

Perhaps my expectations are too high and I overestimate the power of a poem.  I expect my words to be like a sword thrust to the heart, dismantling the hard shell people build up over the years.  I talk about the love of God and my listener looks clueless.  I say that God sees everything a person goes through and it breaks His heart and I’m looked at sideways. Just what planet do I live on?

The things I have done wrong are not small fry to God.  My sin is in trying to live my life outside of His control.  When I insist that I can do it my way it may not lead me to the bottom of a bottle of whisky but it doesn’t take me to where God wants me to be either. Turning out fine is not good enough for God, only humble surrender to His purpose will do.

“Maybe,” said God, as we picked over the evening, “it’s not about the words you speak, but about just being there and not getting up to leave when they dig out the whisky bottle.  Maybe it’s about listening to the stories they need to tell rather than telling them your own stories they don’t want to hear.  Sometimes the answer you have doesn’t fit the question they are asking. 

"And sometimes it does.  Sometimes a person leaves the room but takes the answer with them to ponder."