Monday, March 30, 2015

And So God Turns Away

This is my art work from Sunday's retreat at the Abriachan Forest classroom. I am amzed what soft pastels and charcoal stained fingertips can accomplish.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Last Line

I know my story
and how this chapter ends
I watched as the pen seemed to
weigh heavy in Your hand and
the words struggled to be written

Other words fell like laughter
from your lips as they shaped an empty void
I, the Living Word
with overflowing joy
sculpted mountains and carved out seas

This day, this last line is upon me
The ink smears as tears fall
Final words will tear my skin and unhinge my bones and
place sorrow on my shoulders
A felon’s death I can bear

But Your silence?
How can I endure that?

(Psalm 139:16; Isaiah 53:5; Mark 16:34)


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Liquiglide

I’m not a Jonathan “Woss” fan and I hope that his afternoon slot on Radio 2 is just holiday cover.  Maybe it’s the “w” thing that replaces the “r” thing.  He is a lazy elocutionist.  Laziness in any forms offends me – except when I’m being the lazy one, of course.

I was on the point of turning over to Radio Scotland when Woss began talking about sauce bottles.  He referred to the advert where someone gives a couple of sound slaps to the bottom of an invisible bottle and out pops the ketchup, and the bottle materialises.  He talked about his preference for a glass bottle over the squeezy plastic one.  Personally the slap on the bottom of the bottle has never worked for me, particularly to get the last dribs lurking at the bottom.  Vigorous shaking and poking a knife into the neck of the bottle has been my preferred solution.

Liquiglide is the answer.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology has come up with Liquiglide - the first and only product "to create permanently wet slippery surfaces".  The plan is to coat the inside surface of bottles and jars with Liquiglide, so the sauce slides out easily.  If this was April 1st I would classify it as a very good April Fool’s joke.  Woss’s worry, or should that be wowwy, was that the sauce would slide out of the bottle so quickly that his sausages would be like sharks swimming in a sea of ketchup. 

I am getting further behind with Bonhoeffer in our 40 days walk.  He is not quite out of sight but we are not walking shoulder to shoulder.  Life and other commitments have interfered.

The focus was on giving in one of the devotionals.  I had checked my bank balance the day before pay day and was pleasantly surprised to see it wasn’t empty.  It was more a shock to see so much left over at the end of the month that I began to think about an unpaid bill somewhere.  Giving and some money left over at the end of the month seemed to go hand in hand.  It was as if this particular devotional, the time I got around t reading it and the presence of some money were like planets aligned.  I couldn’t operate on a fall-back position that I couldn’t afford to give.  As Bonhoeffer put it so well – even when I can’t afford to give I can’t afford NOT to give. 

I am very unlike my husband.  If there were canny Scots in our houshold with their presumed frugal habits, carefully counting out the coppers, it’s not him.  I must be that Scot by marriage not birth.  I am a rainy day kind of girl and the rain needs to be the Noah’s Flood variety before I part with my spare cash.  I am getting better over the years and blessing people around me, but only after intense dialogue with myself and with God.  It encouraged me the other day when I discovered the leftover money in the bank that my first thought, accompanied with joy, was about who I could bless.  OK so I haven’t blessed anyone yet – one has to wait for the weekend to do that! Does one really? Is this yet another procrastination in the life of me?

So, there I was, listening to Woss harp on about sauce bottles, sausages and Liquiglide.

“It’s a pity,” said God, as we safely negotiated a very small roundabout on the way home, “that something like Liquiglide didn’t occur to me when I created people.  If only the giving heart in you was coated with Liquiglide, the compassion and the mercy would flow out so easily instead of stubbornly lurking somewhere at the bottom.  I could just tip you up, and out it would all come.  People would be swimming in a sea of love! There would be no waiting for the weekend to bless people.”

I didn’t point out that it’s not only compassion and mercy that reside in the heart of me, simply because I didn’t think about it as the time. In the heart of me, living uncomfortably side by side with compassion and mercy, are the grudges and the complaints, the petty resentments and, at times, the unforgiving attitudes.  They shouldn’t be there, but they are because I am human.

Maybe I ought to live my life as if my heart was coated in Liquiglide – perhaps then I would deal so quickly with those negative things, taking them before God to deal with, and stop allowing them to live side by side with compassion and mercy.  I would be swift to encourage and I wouldn’t have that extra money waiting for the weekend to bless someone with.

But then, where does obedience come in, the sacrifice that hurts, if everything just slides out unhindered. 

Maybe it’s best to leave Liquiglide to
the sauce bottles.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talking About Jesus

I’m close to three quarters the way through my 40 days with Bonhoeffer.  When I get to heaven he will be one of the people I seek out first – that’s after Jesus, and God, the Holy Spirit, and my mum and dad, and my two unborn children, my sister Linda and my brother Mike and Joe’s mum and Laddie dog, and William Wilberforce and a host of other great names. 

The topic for today is the Word of God.

I feel myself to be on fairly solid ground when it comes to the Word of God.  I’ve read it, preached it, acted some of it out in various scenarios, written poetry prompted by it, prayed it, written devotionals inspired by it, drawn pictures of some of the stories, chewed over bits of it, spat out other bits of it, rewritten bits of it to suit myself and, sometimes allowed it to soak into me and become part of who I am and what I do. I have been transformed by it.

We cannot do without the Word of God. 

“But God put his word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others…God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians…Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them.”

I used to get into serious trouble every Sunday when I worshipped with the Brethren Church when I lived in Limassol in Cyprus. I don’t know whether the rules about women speaking in a meeting have been relaxed or not, but in my day they took Paul’s directive about women being silent very seriously.  It always surprised me that as a woman who rarely said much from Monday to Saturday when none would have complained, Sundays were a real battle to stay silent. 

There was always this bit in the evening service about testimonies.  A gospel message was always preached, despite everyone in the room having made a commitment to Jesus.  Visitors were rare and usually came with letters of recommendation from other Brethren churches.  When the invitation went out to share what God had done there was a heavy silence. No one was jumping the queue to get to the platform to share a testimony. There was no queue, just an awkward silence, before the speaker moved on.  I hated that silence.  God was not doing nothing! So I started to fill it.  I gave accounts of answered prayer.  I talked about encouraging conversations I had with my landlord about Jesus.  I described sunsets that had stirred me to praise God. 

Every Sunday I would say something.  It got to the stage where heads would start turning in my direction as soon as the invitation was given. I was admired by some but vilified by most.

Every Monday I would be called to the elder’s office and hauled over the stones.  Did I not know the Scriptures?  Did I not know that as I woman I was commanded to be silent?  I seem to remember some retort that went something like, “If the men in the church did their job properly I wouldn’t need to speak out!”

The spoken Word is not just about reading what is written in the Bible.  It’s also about testifying of how the Word in my life is transforming me.

The first of two journal reflections for today was about writing about people who spoken God’s Word into my life.

Have I mentioned my hermit tendencies and my self-sufficient streak before? I speak the Word of God into my own life!  I guess I’m not talking to as many people as I could, or I’m not talking about my Christian walk with them.  Sadly, I’m not even sure that I expect folk to speak from God to me.  It is not a good thing to admit.  I perhaps need to deliberately put myself in the path of His Word, and recognise and respond to it in all its forms.

The second journal reflection was about identifying the people I had spoken the Word to.  My problem here is, not exactly editing what I have to say, but saying the “God” thing and not just the “good” thing. Saying something is often not the problem.  Making what I say necessary is the challenge.

At a first glance I think I chastised myself for not being vocal enough and sharing my stories with others.  I have thrown enough pearls to so many pigs and seen it trampled into the mud that I am not always quick to speak.  But then I remembered the poetry that I write and share at the Sunset cafĂ©, or at a Sunday meeting, or on the blog…and I know that I am speaking the Word of God to people.  It’s wrapped in verse, but it is the Word of God.

One generation commends your works to another: they tell of your mighty acts. They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty - and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They tell of the power of your awesome works - and I will proclaim your great deeds. They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.” Psalm 145:4-8

Tell me about what you know of God’s mighty acts – truth I need to know.  Let me tell you of His wonderful works in my life – truth you need to know.

Let's talk about Jesus!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Community

A friend of mine has recently moved into a new house.  It’s closer to the children’s school so the family doesn’t have to wake up so early in the morning and there are no school runs to do with the  car.  There’s more space with an extra couple of rooms so people can spread out and not feel like they are tripping over one another.  Some of the plants from the garden also made the move with them.

I’m thinking about what I will buy as a house warming present.  It has been a while since any of my friends have moved anywhere.  We are a settled bunch. 

When my husband and I moved into our first house we were given a Visitor’s Book for people to sign.  It seemed to be the essential thing a house needed in the early days when the church was first planted in the late 1980s.  Everyone’s home had one.

I am not sure that there wasn’t some kind of unspoken competition going on.  Not just how many visitors, or how often they signed the book but also the “who”.  There were people who rated higher than others.  There might have been bonus points for unknown names – the true strangers who could have been angels in disguise, as against the usual names who couldn’t possibly angels at all! I don’t know where our visitor’s book is.

I am vaguely thinking about buying my friend a visitor’s book.  Will they see it as a hint that we want to be invited round?  Will they see something implied in it that I don’t think they are sociable enough? I just might go with a potted plant instead.

Day 22 with Bonhoeffer is all about community.  (It’s actually Day 26 if we’re counting from the day I signed up to the studies but, as ever, I’m in catch-up mode.) He reminds me that God never designed me to be a solitary figure but always in community.  Bonhoeffer doesn’t know that I have a hermit mentality but, it he did, he would still be telling me that I need to be in community.  God’s heart has always been for a people, not merely a single person.  Christ’s body is BODY not body part.  In the beginning in Genesis God said that it wasn’t good for man to be alone and created companionship and helpers.  He expects us to be our brother’s keeper. We support and are supported by our Cristian community.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think that people just get in the way.  God and I get along really well together.  When it is just the two of us out fellowship is sweet.  It’s people that throw the spanner into the works.  I was birthed as a Christian into self-sufficiency.  I am the spiritual equivalent to a South American big city street kid who knows how to survive. Making connections, interdependency, relying on or trusting others, or have them relying on or trusting me doesn’t sit easily with me.  Community is good for me because it forces my gaze away from myself and puts it on God and on other people. It gives me the opportunity to be responsible for others and to speak truth into their lives.  It’s important to know that other people have my back and take responsibility for looking after me.

Community is more than just a group of people in the same place.  We can be like marbles in the same jar, making a lot of noise as we connect – but we remain unchanged. We are still the same ball of glass we were when we began.  Better, said someone, to be grapes – bruised by the contact, bleeding juice and staining one another with our encounters. Our willingness to surrender and to give ourselves to others is what makes the Christian community unique.  We need to give what we can’t really afford to give but give it anyway, give because we can’t really afford to hang on to what can meet another’s need and not waiting to some personal disaster in a person’s life to begin to give. 

Next week our church is planning a day retreat at the Abriachan Forest classroom.  We were there around about this time last year. We will be spending the day together being community.  We strive not to make it a highly organised affair and want to balance assigning hours and minutes to one activity or another with just a walk in the forest and time spent chilling out and talking.  

I intend to be a grape and not a marble.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Real Hope

What is hope if not
a tenacious plant
that blossoms with subtle colours
on the steep and rugged cliff faces
of affliction and pain?
What is hope if not
the stubborn refusal to grant a man permission
to hurl himself down?

What is hope if not
something more than blind optimism?
What is hope if not
the unmistakeable fragrance that
will not fade
beneath the moist threat of grey clouds or
the damp smell of heavy rain?

What is hope if not
deep, deep roots
grounded and secure in
something more solid than our own fragility,
words beyond pale platitudes
laced with careless sympathy
or the chin up and the drawn-on smile?
What is hope if not
more than the false dawn
from a dark night?

Hope, real hope, is
confident expectation,
a timely gift graciously bestowed
upon the hapless and the helpless
by a faithful God
who sees the near sinking boat
and responds

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Moniack Mhor - the Sequel

It would appear that I really can’t write fiction to order.  

I was back at Moniack Mhor this morning.  Last week’s writing course on poetry left me feeling satisfied.  I has the bones and some of the flesh of poem and the fired up enthusiasm to tweak at it, pulling out some lines and chopping at others.  I don’t know yet whether I have reached an end result, but I like where it is at.

Today’s course was prose, using our experiences and observations to come up with a fiction piece, the beginnings of a short story.  What I would really like is for people not to say they have never written a short story before and then, at the end of the meeting, read out something really wonderful.  Surely their first effort could be a lot less than wonderful.  I, however, with a computer file of dozens of short stories find it difficult to spin a tale at times. I can’t seem to connect the dots.

Part of the problem was an underlying anxiety about getting home. A badly parked car had caused me to also park badly.  The car was pointing downhill, nose not far off a burn, on a stretch of icy mud. I had tried to reverse to a more secure spot but the wheels turned and car stayed where it was.  Floozy and her snow tyres were just not creating enough friction.

There was also the drive up the hill.  It had been a very warm day yesterday.  People in pale faces blinked at the unfamiliar sunshine and shed their winter coats and scarves.  There wasn’t quite the smell of sun tan lotion in the air, but it was warm.  At night time I suppose the temperature dropped.  There wasn’t a heavy frost, not at low levels.  Up in the hills where there had been floods last week, the wet patches on parts of the road had iced over.  Floozy slipped once or twice but nothing too dramatic.

How can anyone be expected to write fiction when reality had already been quite scary?  I was banking on another sunny day where by the time I drove home the ice would have melted.  Floozy and her snow tyres could cope with mud better than ice.

The tea, coffee and cake settling in was followed by the usual round-the-table introductions.  Only a few faces were familiar.  One side of the table was made up of member of the Black Isle writers group, many of whom were working on manuscripts which they humbly insisted were unlikely to be published.

We were given a proper guided tour this time and given a little more detail about the garden planted recently. Places that had been under water last week were dried out and accessible. 

No one asked me to listen to a plant speaking.  I have to say that having spent yesterday afternoon replanting the patio containers, the plant world and I might be on speaking terms now.  The task this time was to make notes, observe and use the material in a fiction story. 

I am a stone gatherer.  I like to bring something home after a visit somewhere, preferably a stone, but a bit of wood will do or a strand of sheep’s wool caught on a barbed wire fence.  I suppose these bits of things remind me that I went to these places.  Sometimes I remember what I did or saw, but most often the places merge.  That grey sparkly stone might have come from just outside a bothy in the middle of the Cairngorms or it might have come from a path beside a river in North Yorkshire.

I picked up a stone from a pile beside a pond and secreted it in a pocket.  I wanted to write about a stone gatherer, like me.  A different age from me, a different gender, a different place but a stone gatherer like me, with a glass bowl of stones on the window sill, and a first stone in his hand and a memory - a boyhood memory of sitting on a bench in the sunshine, underneath an open window, listening to someone teach a group of students how to write poetry.

I’d like to say it was a great short story, or the opening few paragraphs to one, but it didn’t really take my imagination by the scruff of the neck and insist on being written. Where the words of poem would have leapt from the wings into centre stage, the short story was flagging a taxi from the corner of the road to go home to warm slippers and a generous thumb of a single malt.

Without the option to pass, my short story was inflicted on the other writers around the table. It was seriously cringe-worthy and didn’t even qualified as the poor cousin in the room.  How different from last week when someone said my poem was their favourite.  There were no plaudits this time, just a swift moving on to the lady next to me.

OK, so this one morning I couldn’t write a decent short story. 

Am I down-hearted?  Not really. I’m not about the surrender my pen and donate my thesaurus to a charity shop.

Tomorrow I might write a best seller!

Monday, March 09, 2015

Garden Poetry

It had been a year since I had been up at the writing centre at Moniack Mhor.  That time, I had printed off a map from the AA Route Planner.  There was a left and a right and another left and I ended up on a farm track leading into a ploughed field.  Do they actually send someone to locate these places or is it all done by satellites?  If so the day they did the map to Moniack Mhor must have been a cloudy day!  After an hour of single track roads with passing places, and the frequent passing of buildings I had seen before, I admitted the AA Route Planner was useless.  I phoned for someone to come and rescue me.

So, this time, before I was due to attend a poetry workshop, I did some reconnaissance.  I timed myself, made sure I had enough petrol in the car for mistakes and headed off into the back roads around Kiltarlity.  There was the one encounter with a tractor.  He must have recognised me as not local and pulled his tractor and trailer into a passing place designed for a mini!

Last year I had been on the right road at one point but after driving a while had come to the conclusion I was on the wrong road.  A few more twists and over a few more hills I would have reached the destination.  I remembered the turning back too early and was resolved to keep driving. 

There it was nestled at the bottom of a track on the right hand side.  Tomorrow would be a piece of cake.

Tea, coffee and ginger cake greeted us as we arrived.  The sun might have been shining but it wasn’t warm.  There was a stiff breeze.  We introduced ourselves.  A good number were retired teachers.  Many had never attempted to write poetry before but were ready to give it a go.  There was a good balance of ages and gender.  The youngest poet was a pupil from one of the secondary schools in the region.

Garden poetry?  The BIG project last year had been planting a garden.  Money was available to produce an anthology of poems and prose with a garden theme. 

“Go outside…walk around the garden…and let a plant speak to you!”

John Glenday had read a couple of poems that were about plants, but not really about plants at all.  The deeper stuff that poets are supposed to be able to capture in their poems – that stuff that really eludes me – was the aim of the exercise. The daisy in the poem is a metaphor for unrequited love or a deep resentment of a mother or father. Yes, that kind of deeper stuff.

Plants don’t speak to me.  There is a plant-wide resentment that has its starting point with the neglect my garden.  Obviously the Moniack Mhor plants have heard the tales.  It’s either that or the fact that it was not quite spring and there were no thriving plants.  There was a stack of plant books inside as backup.  Quite a few people not only knew plants but something of the stories associated with them.  Did that give them the edge on plant-abusers like me?  Perhaps not.  I had a feeling that they had come already armed with a flower in mind and were not relying on a plant speaking to them at all.  It could be construed as cheating!

I chose to write about a thistle.  I have plenty of experience with thistles. There were phrases in my head about thistles being the uninvited guests to a party.  I went with the idea and wrote a twelve lined poem.  I liked it.  I liked some of the lines very much and tortured myself over some of the others.  It wasn’t deep.  It had a metaphor or two but it wasn’t deep.  It was well received when I read it out.  The competitive spirit in me just has to note that at the end of the workshop someone told me they liked my poem best!

The second step of the workshop was to cut our poems down by about a quarter or more.  We were required to identify lines that we could afford to lose, a word here or there, a phrase that wasn’t paying its way. Some poems really benefitted from the cuts.  They were neater and tighter and powerful where before they had rambled on.   Some…I’m not sure but I liked them before the cuts. And, yes, they were deep.  Some were just four lines long and deep.

Our time was up, John told us to take the poems home and have another look at them.  Revision! Revision! Revision!  A poem, it seems, is never quite the finished article but always a work in progress.  There comes a time when you have to choose to stop revising and accept the blemishes.

Hugely satisfied with a productive morning I wound my way down the hill and back into the real world.

 

 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Thistle

Gate crasher
Invader
Not invited to the party
You drift in, keeping a low profile
Lurking beside the drinks counter
You sidle close, yearning to join the conversation
But no one says
“What a lovely green dress!”
You’re not one of the pretty people
Prickly
You rub people up the wrong way
Bouncers approach armed with canvas gloves and a trowel
You are evicted

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

End of Year Report

The first thing you need to know is that it’s not the end of this year – but the end of next year.  One of the round-the-table discussion topics for the Keep Your Fun On (KYFO) personal evangelism course that I signed up to was to think about what you want to get out of the course and what you hope the course will not be about.  We used bits of cardboard and balloons last night but, being a writer, I thought it would be interesting to write an end of year report – God’s Report - in expectation!

Melanie came into the class knowing only a few of her fellow pupils.  Many of them had known each other for a while and worked together on different projects.  It has been good to see Melanie make new friends.  It took a while for her to feel comfortable around new people.  Now she is happy to initiate conversations and share her thoughts.  It has been good to see the friendship between Melanie, Heather and Ellie deepen over the year.  Heather has had a positive effect encouraging Melanie to take risks.

In her work place Melanie often talks about her faith.  She is happy to answer some of the deep questions people ask about life.  She comes from a Roman Catholic background and has always believed in God.  She has a mature faith and demonstrates a thorough knowledge of scripture.  She enjoys challenging people, but whereas she was determined to win the argument at any cost, now she seeks to win the person rather than the argument.

It has been encouraging to see Melanie step out in faith.  Joining the class in the first place was a big step of faith. She has a longing to be obedient to God but struggles at times to overcome her fear.  She is becoming more confident in exploring creative ways to communicate her faith. The Easter project was an overwhelming success and has done much to build her confidence.  She has shown a strong trust in God.  Watching her worship has been a joy. 

When Melanie joined the class she was very quiet.  She can be quite serious and intense.  Over the year she has relaxed a lot.  She more inclined to laugh with others and at herself, and exhibits a wicked sense of humour. 

Melanie has changed her prayer habits over the course of the year.  She is praying much more regularly than she used to.  Being a very independent woman, it is good to see her asking for help.  She loves to involve God in the challenges she faces, giving Him ample opportunity to be magnificent in her life.

The year had been an excellent time of growth for Melanie.  She has been a real asset to the group. She has embraced the adventure of lifestyle evangelism with enthusiasm.  She can look back over the year and know that she has been a good and faithful servant.  It is wonderful to see Jesus so clearly reflected in her life. 

She should see the year not as a programme she has successfully completed but a vibrant lifestyle fully embraced.