Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The nice man who came to repair the heating system recognised me from his previous visit. We had had an interesting dilemma over a five pound note. I can’t remember exactly how much the bill had come to, only that I didn’t have the exact change. He didn’t have a spare five pound note to give me any change, and I had magnanimously said, “It’s OK. Keep the change.” I would have paid more than he asked anyway to get the heating back! But, no…he insisted that he would only take what he charged.

“What if,” he said, “I put the five pounds into the collection plate at church? Would that be OK?” He then assured me that he would really put the money in the collection plate…he wouldn’t hang on to it. He wouldn’t just spin me a line. He called around later to tell me that he had put the five pounds in the collection.

That was a year ago. A couple of days ago, the heating broke down. It wasn’t unexpected. Along with last year’s repair had come a warning that one day there would come a day when the heating system would be unfixable. We had been thinking that we would have to upgrade the whole system…sometime in the summer. We never got beyond the thinking stage. So on discovering that the heating was broken, we slipped and slithered to a friend’s house to get warm and phoned the repair man.

I thought he said “Tomorrow” (Tuesday) between eleven and one. He thought he had said “Wednesday”. The next day I waited. I timed my quick slip to the shop to be back in time for his visit. By half past one he hadn’t come. Our electric heater was bravely churning out heat, but making very little impression and clad a hundred layers of clothing, I phoned to see where he was. His wife assured me that if he said he would come…he would come, and promised to phone him on his mobile to chivvy him along.

Maybe an hour later there was a knock on the door. “It is you,” he said. He told me that he had marked me down in the diary for tomorrow. Had he not remembered out previous meeting, and the five pound note, he told me that he might not have come around. Apparently he was all too used to people making arrangements for one day and then “pretending” they thought it was an earlier day. Some little old biddy would insist that the arrangement was for “Tuesday” knowing full well that it was on the Wednesday, but he didn’t like to call their bluff.

He looked me full in the eye, “But you wouldn’t do that, would you?” Actually, no I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have phoned his wife to chivvy him along if I had thought it was anything but the Tuesday. Even now, I was almost closing the door on him saying that I would see him tomorrow then, apologising profusely from dragging him away from a freezing pensioner!

Seeing as he was here, and not due anywhere else for a half hour or so, he said that he would look at the heater anyway.

“So when was I last here?”

“About this time last year…maybe a little earlier.”

“And what exactly did I do?”

I explained that the pilot light had gone out on the gas heating and despite trying to relight it, it kept going out. I wasn’t sure what he had done exactly.

“And that was last year? Not the year before maybe?”

This wasn’t some kind of memory game. It really bothered him that he had possibly done a bad job. Just as he was used to the old biddies spinning him the line that it really was “Tuesday” he had agreed to come, he was also aware of workmen that did a less than good job. They would spin out a job, doing it less than well, and get to do it again and earn more money. That was not the kind of workman he was. When he did a job, he did it well. One could almost hear him muttering to the heater that it had no right breaking down again like this, not after he had fixed it. It mattered to him that I knew he wasn’t playing the system.

“It’s very sad that we live in a world where we no longer trust people,” he said as he folded his earnings into his wallet. He had come armed with a five pound note this time. “No, wait a minute…it’s really sad that I don’t trust people. I don’t trust that you always knew I was coming on Wednesday. No…wait a minute…I know that you thought I was coming today. I know that because I know you are a Christian.”

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Flesh to Flesh Immanuel

It is amazing sometimes how one verse in scripture can create such a vivid picture in your head that almost haunts you.

I have been reading through the book of Amos. It is not cheerful reading until the final few verses when I guess Amos comes to the conclusion that if God doesn’t finish on a word of hope, people will simply be crushed beneath heavy words of judgement.

The verse that hit me isn’t in the last few verses, but Amos 9: 5 – “The Lord, the LORD Almighty, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who live in it mourn.”

Once upon a time, in the Garden of Eden, God used to touch the earth. He used to encounter Adam in the cool of the day and I am sure that there were no tears, or no mourning. There was friendship and intimacy and communion. Once Adam and Eve had tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, all that fellowship went. It wasn’t in an instant. God was still a part of their lives, but as the generations come and went, it got harder to remember what it felt like. It got harder to maintain any kind of relationship with God because it no longer came naturally.

I have never really spent time with ex-boyfriends. There are very few of them to begin with. I am not entirely sure how it would all go. It probably wouldn’t be an issue since I am very happily married, and I might not have been is the ex and I had stayed together.

Imagine though if the only effect that you have now on someone you used to love, and who used to love you, is them bursting into tears when you enter the room. The joy that you used to share together has been replaced with sadness. Maybe you realise that neither of you are complete without the other and that without that completeness you will never be truly happy. Maybe you have left enough time for them to look for happiness elsewhere, knowing that one day they will turn back to you. Maybe you begin to realize that as each day passes, they remember less of what life was like with you. They don’t know what it is they should be returning to.

God used to touch the earth and there would be joy. Now he touches the earth and it mourns. Who would not want things back the way they used to be, if it were in their power? And yet the way things were was not really good enough. Who would not want some kind of plan to make sure that what had happened the last time, wouldn’t happen all over again?

Christmas is about God touching the earth again. Nothing melts this time and there is no mourning. This time he touches flesh to flesh – no mystery, no majesty – just flesh. Immanuel.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Don't Call Me Prudence

One of my favourite films is “Support Your Local Sheriff” with James Garner. The love interest is a rather clumsy woman called Prudence, who is anything but prudent.

The dictionary defines prudence as “wise in handling practical matters; exercising good judgment or common sense.” I think my mother was prudent in not calling me Prudence, because quite often I am anything but prudent.

I am thinking about prudence because this morning I was reading Amos 5 and came across verse 13 “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.”

The chapter is about the rich trampling on the poor and denying them justice. Righteousness was “cast down to the ground”. Courts were rife with bribery and corruption.

Good judgement and common sense led people to keep quiet during evil times. When is it the right time to be prudent and keep quiet? When is it not the right time? Amos obviously wasn’t being prudent because he was speaking out against the evil doers of his day. Maybe prudence wasn’t an option for him anyway, because God’s message pressed heavily on his heart. Maybe given the choice to speak or keep quiet, Amos might have chosen to be prudent!

I suppose there is a time when, like casting your pearls before pigs, you know that not only is it not going to make any difference to how anyone behaves. Your words, and perhaps you yourself, will end up getting trampled on. Is that sufficient reason to say nothing? Does that count as self-protection, or cowardice, or prudence or what?

I encounter some mildly “evil times” in my work place – very mild episodes. On the Richter Scale they would probably not register at all in comparison to ethnic cleansing or genocide. I have wondered whether I just ought to keep quiet. It seems at times that my expressing any opinions about things just makes it worse and achieves very little. I prefer to think that my words might be chipping away, little by little, and my silence would be even worse!

Who was it that said that all it needs for evil men to prevail is for good men to say or do nothing? Or something along those lines.

Prudence, if it is silence when times are evil, is not really an option.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mr Angry

Amos 4:6 – 11 makes for really heavy reading.

“ I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town…I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away….Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew…I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword… "I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah…yet you have not returned to me," declares the LORD.

This is not a case of bad things happening randomly and God making use of the circumstances to bring about someone’s good. This is not about Satan doing the bad stuff to people and God using it to bring about his purposes. This is not about other people doing bad stuff and God getting the blame. God took responsibility for each of the disasters that overtook the nation. They were to be left in no doubt that none of it was random, none of it was caused by Satan, none of it was caused by other people…it was all caused by God! This is not even God allowing the bad stuff to happen. There is nothing passive about any of the verbs here.

I am having difficulty with this God! This is an angry God.

I was talking with a group of young people the other day about whether parents should be allowed to smack their children. Being as most of them were still of smackable age, almost to a child they disagreed. One lone hand up insisted that sometimes it was the only way to get the message across, and sometimes it came as a last resort when all other attempts at correction had failed. Another voice argued about what happens when the message of the smack doesn’t get heeded. Do you just smack harder? And then harder still? And then what comes next?

I am not sure that I have ever felt God’s smack, or if I have been smacked, whether I recognised it as a smack.

Do you just wipe out these paragraphs of scripture and say that God doesn’t do that any more? If he doesn’t do it any more, why did he do it then? If he doesn’t do it any more, why not?

I know that Jesus has entered the scene. With Jesus comes complete and total forgiveness. We are made right with God in a way that was not possible for people in the time of Amos. We have the ability to please God in a way that the people at the time of Amos didn’t have. I stand in Christ. Christ pleases God, and I in Christ please God.

Does that mean that there isn’t an angry God any longer? I don’t think so. I am just not sure what I do think about it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It's All in the Answer

What we say when we are asked a question, or how we respond to a challenge says much about ourselves. I have just been preparing a word for church today based on the parable of the tenants and the vineyard.

You can read it in Mark 12:1-12. Towards the end of the story, after telling the hearers about the tenants beating up the servants, sending them away empty handed, then later on killing them and eventually killing the beloved son, Jesus asks the question, "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? In Mark’s gospel it is Jesus that provides the answer, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others”. Matthew has a different rendering here which I prefer, Jesus asks the question and the hearers provide the answer “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."

What they say reveals their hearts…not God’s heart. We are bent on revenge and people getting their just rewards. God isn’t. God doesn’t think like we do. If he thought like we do, he wouldn’t have sent his Son.

Friday evening I was chilling out. It was the end of a rather busy week. There was nothing on the To Do list apart from the usual ironing and housework that rarely gets done! There was a phone call from a friend asking me whether, seeing as I was leading the Sunday meeting, I wanted him to bring his guitar and lead worship. What? Me? Leading the Sunday meeting? This was the first I heard of it. The little bird that told him hadn’t told me.

The gauntlet was thrown down! Obviously the little bird thought she had asked me. Usually I can come up with the distant memory of a vague conversation weeks ago, and I can usually hunt through a half dozen note books and find it written down. Not this time. There had been no conversation, no note…nothing. I hadn’t been asked.

I usually know about these things weeks in advance and have time to think and to pray. It ends up being the Friday night when I start to sift through my thoughts and bring order.

“So what’s the difference?” asked God. “Had you known two weeks ago, it would have still been this evening that you would have sat down and written something out.”

“They never asked me!” was my stubborn reply. I can be small minded and hard hearted at times and I suppose I wanted my tantrum. Not being asked. Presumed upon. Taken for granted. All these things were what I wanted to dwell upon.

“OK, so they didn’t ask,” said God, “So I am asking. Will you speak on Sunday?”

You can’t really hold out against God! I agreed to have a look at the topic, read through the assigned verses and think about it. And then God shared his perspective on it all and we came up with a word for the meeting.

I just wish that I hadn’t gone through the whole tantrum part of it. I was challenged that I was doing the same thing that the tenants in the story were doing. The vineyard was never their own and yet they wanted to claim it for themselves. Everything that makes me able to share a word on Sunday – the study habits, the access to books and materials, the time and concentration to meditate, the skills to communicate the truths I find – none of it is my own. I can’t claim anything and then demand that I choose when and where and to whom I will share my insights. It’s not mine, so I should not be treating it as mine.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fit to Teach

It is amazing the amount of people I have got to know over the last couple of weeks just by being in the main building at work and not secreted away in some prefab.

I have learned that one of my colleagues is a tattoo addict! She got her first tattoo for her thirtieth birthday and has not looked back since. Her advice to me, as if it will ever be needed is never to get words tattooed because the ink eventually slips (whatever that means) and the letters shift.

Another colleague does judo. I think that might come in really handy with some of the people I encounter during the day!

I sat next to a lady at lunchtime who is an accordion player! She is one of those people who can pick up any musical instrument and play a tune on it. She doesn’t like brass instruments much, but she can play them.

I shared with her that for while I had piano lessons from a friend. What I didn’t say was that I sometimes led worship in church, and felt that perhaps being able to play a musical instrument might help if I wanted to be able to write worship songs. My friend was told by her own music teacher, that teaching someone else was a good way to learn oneself! I didn’t really need to be motivated, I was keen anyway, but she was teaching a young boy at the same time and had introduced glittery stickers. She thought that the offer of a sticker would make me practice harder or whatever. Suddenly getting the sticker seemed to take precedence. I suppose that it worked to some extent. I stopped messing around on the piano and practiced really hard – but it was the messing around, making up silly melodies that I really enjoyed. Once it became hard work, I got de-motivated! The pressure of getting the sticker got too much.

The work colleague told me about a particular student she taught some twenty years ago. She lived in Falkirk, I think. It was somewhere not far from Edinburgh.

A friend of hers asked if she would be willing to teach her boy. It turned out that the boy was just four years old, so refused thinking that he was too young. The friend asked her to come to the house and meet the boy before she made up her mind.

It must have been a big house because one of the rooms had a grand piano in it. They boy was s child genius on the piano. Move over Mozart! She recognised his potential and he first thought was she couldn’t teach him. It wasn’t a case of there was nothing that she could teach the young Mozart, but she didn’t want to teach him any bad habits! He had too much potential to be damaged by a bad teacher – which she wasn’t by any means.

She phoned up a music academy in Edinburgh to ask at what age they took on children. Six years of age was the minimum. She couldn’t persuade anyone that he was worth the effort. They did, however, give her lots of advice of how to teach him. The most important thing was not so much the technique but making sure that he stayed interested. As it was, he has a very severe asthmatic illness and was often at home. He spent the day playing the piano.

The academy in Edinburgh eventually enrolled him not long after his fifth birthday. He went on to be a concert pianist, played a million other instruments, released albums and all the rest!

To be involved in part of that has got to be good!

I was thinking about her hesitation to get involved with him because she recognised his potential and didn’t want to cause him any damage. To teach him bad habits, or to use an approach to teaching that would turn him off piano playing for life was a heavy responsibility. In the end, armed with all the help from the Edinburgh academy, she went for it.

I think of the responsibility of being a teacher in the church setting. Every child of God has the potential to be a world changer. Perhaps some people never get to be the world changer they were meant to be because some other people taught them badly.

I don’t think that anyone deliberately sets out to bring a sermon, or a word, that is designed to mislead or deceive another, but sometimes there is a vibrant truth that gets watered down to make it palatable to as many as possible. It may not be bad teaching, but it doesn’t qualify as good teaching either!

If we are looking for a people of God leading powerful lives, it has to come because the word of God was preached powerfully to them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Deal or No Deal

I know that my husband enjoys watching “Deal or No Deal”, the programme hosted by Noel Edmunds where contestants have to guess which box contains £250,000 and trick the banker into buying the box they have in front of them for more than it is worth.

Yesterday I decided to do a pile of ironing. I am not sure that I actually chose to do the ironing – it was that or traipse around the house in the buff! The bottom of the pile has not been exposed for months.

The lady that was in the hot seat was a fairly elderly Asian lady. She was so calm and unwound up that it was very different from most of the contestants. Some quiz shows drive me to distraction when the contestants explain why they reject certain answers or choose others. This lady was not one of those. She just chose one number after another, quite calmly, and politely and no matter the amount of money she exposed – the big red number or the small blue ones - she seemed to be unflustered.

She had decided right from the start that she didn’t want the £250,000 box. It was far too much money for anyone to win. For her, it would be a burden to have that much money. Noel Edmunds tried to persuade her that she could so all sorts of good things with it, but her reply was that she could do just as many good things with a lot less.

The game progressed and she seemed to have lots of the big numbers left and just a few small ones. It was a gambler’s game. The £250,000 was still in place with six boxes left to choose. One box was a blue one, the rest were all red. Then there was the banker’s phone call. He offered a deal of £30,000.

Noel Edmunds reminded her that when she had been asked how much money she would like to win, in an early questionnaire I presume, she had said £30,000. Presuming she would pick the blue box in the next round, the minimum she would walk away with was going to be £20,000 – but the £250,000 was still in the game.

He was offering her exactly what she had asked for, but yet there was the chance of getting much more than that.

Everyone was giving her advice on what to do. “Play on” seemed to be the general consensus.

Behind my ironing board I was shouting “Deal!”

To my mind there was more than £30,000 at stake, and more than £250,000 too. This was about someone’s integrity. She might walk away with the top prize, but it would cost her too much.

Without any fuss at all she said, “Deal.” She took only what she had asked for and turned her back on the big prize! The next box she chose was the wee blue number and the banker said that he would have gone up to £50,000, but she just smiled. She didn’t have the £250,000 in her box, just a mere £20,000 so she beat the banker.

She stood against the temptation to be greedy and take more than she had asked for. Her integrity was not worth £250,000!

We seem to live in a world where people grab and snatch and never seem to be satisfied. It was refreshing to see someone who was different.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Missed Encounter

I had a dream a number of months ago. It was a third person dream much like watching a film. The man in my dream was very much a down and out. He was just one step up from homelessness having just been given a flat to live in. He had suffered one disappointment after another and was just about surviving. He might have even spent time in prison. He wasn’t a bad man, just really down on his luck.

There was a talent competition in the town centre and my man (I don’t think he had a name) was persuaded by some of his friends to have a go. He had the most amazing singing voice and had the audience wiping tears from their eyes.

I am not sure if he won the competition but he went back to his flat totally unaware that he was being followed. The person following him knocked on the door and as soon as the door was open swiftly got himself inside.

“This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he told the man. “This is not the life you are supposed to be living.”

He went on to explain that an encounter that should have set his life on a different course was prevented from happening. Some one stuck their oar in and shipwrecked his life. The homelessness, the prison sentence, the deep sense of failure – all these things were not part of the plan for his life.

I don’t know whether the missed encounter was with a specific person, or an event that he was supposed to attend, but the result was he never got to be the person he was supposed to be.

I was reminded of the dream when I read a few of the verses from John 1:35-39

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying? "Come," he replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.

Imagine how different their lives might have been if they had not encountered Jesus. If they hadn’t been listening to John, if they hadn’t followed Jesus, if they hadn’t been curious enough to know a little bit more about him, if they hadn’t taken up the invitation to come and see, if they hadn’t spent the rest of the day with him – they would have missed the path that was planned for them.

Sometimes we think so much about the things that we add into our lives that don’t always do is any good. Sometimes it is what we fail to add into our lives that causes the most damage.

I wonder what I would say in answer to Jesus question “What do you want?”

I wonder how I would have responded to Jesus’ challenge “Come and you will see”

I wonder whether I would have spent the day with Jesus.

I wonder…

Sometimes we focus on Jesus being where we are and neglect to consider us being where Jesus is. Where I am is often somewhere quite colourless and insipid. Jesus inhabits a place that is vibrant and lively. I plan my life to almost avoid the extremes. Too much joy, I believe, will not last long, and come crashing down eventually. Better to be “just happy enough”. Too much pain, I believe, seems to last longer than it should and leaves me wrung out like a twisted dishcloth. Better to be “just comfortable enough”. Jesus inhabits the extremes. Anointed with the oil of joy and yet a man of sorrows he lives in the extremes.

“This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he told the man. “This is not the life you are supposed to be living.”

How many times do we end up in a place where we were never supposed to be because of a missed encounter?

Come and see the place I stay
Remain with Me throughout this day
The life that you are searching for
You’ll find in Me and so much more

Sunday, November 02, 2008


I think that the programme QI ought to come with some government health warning! Things that I thought I knew I am no longer sure that I know them at all. Holes are being drilled in that part of my brain that is labelled “Undisputed Facts”.

I am not sure any more that the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066, apparently we have more than the five senses I learned about and drew diagrams of in Biology and centipedes seem to have lost some of their legs!

There is a sense in which I suppose we should never simply take things for granted, or accept something as true because some else said so.

Just as Stephen Fry is drilling holes in my general knowledge, I have felt over the past or so a similar drilling going in my knowledge of God – although Stephen Fry is not to blame for that!

My every day circumstances don’t seem to match up with what I read in scripture. I want to believe that God will never leave me or forsake me, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from feeling alone and abandoned. I speak truth to myself, but it doesn’t always mean that I necessarily experience that truth in a tangible way.

I was having a very “down” time this morning. It is the usual battle with the winter blues. I was reading the opening chapter in John’s gospel.

Verse 14 reads “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That might be true of the disciples when they wrote the gospels, and members of the early Christians who had been in the crowd when Jesus spoke or healed someone, but that is not true of me. Jesus said that the people who had seen it all and witnessed it were blessed and that those who hadn’t seen and yet who would still believe were even more blessed. I just don’t feel blessed! I just feel it’s all a bit of a struggle sometimes.

The solution is to lay down the struggle before God. Perhaps we are hesitant to confess our struggles because we feel that we are letting God down, that we have failed in some way. Keeping a lid on it really doesn’t help. Frustrations come out in all sorts of ways – in physical illnesses, or, in my case, very unsettling dreams.

My morning study led to reading Exodus 33, Moses asking God to show him his glory. I think this request was not born out of a spiritual high. There had been the unpleasant Golden Cow incident (Cowgate!), and Aaron’s part in it all, the breaking of the first set of commandment stones. I don’t think that Moses was on a high. I think he was pretty discouraged and his request came out of a sense of desperation. What he knew about God just wasn’t enough to meet the challenges of leading the nation to the Promised Land. He needed more!

And God gave him more!

The things we ask God for reveal the state of our hearts. What our lips ask for and what our heart asks for doesn’t always match up. What we ask for and what God would like us to ask for doesn’t always match up.

God uses our circumstances to drive us to our knees before Him. Stiff necks aren’t always our problem – it’s our stiff upper lips that gets in the way. We wrap determination around us like a cloak and persevere when we should surrender – not to the circumstances, but to God.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not Scotland Not Fair!

I can remember on holiday one year travelling to Paris on the train – the one that goes under the English Channel, through a long, long tunnel. The Euorstar! My husband had been looking forward to the journey for ages. He likes train journeys.

He was rather disappointed that there wasn’t anything to mark the line between when you had actually passed from the English bit of the tunnel to the French bit of the tunnel. I suppose they could hardly have stuck a notice on the side of the tunnel itself that would wisp by in a second and no one would be any the wiser. Perhaps what was needed was an announcement over the sound system. “We are now in France,”

On another holiday to Saltsburg we went into a salt mine. Trailing through the original mine shafts hundreds of feet underground, at one point there was a notice on the wall that we had just crossed the Austrian/German border!

Borders! I have crossed many of them in my life time!

There are no lines along the ground to tell you where one country finishes and another begins. They may be there on a map, but there isn’t a corresponding dotted line that someone had painted across the fields, meandering up hills and through forests.

Of course there are more tangible landmarks like Hadrian’s wall, a little to south of the border, or the Antonine Wall a little bit to the north.

I discovered today another wall! It is the television broadcasting wall.

I was very delighted to discover that my hero, Sean Bean, alias Richard Sharpe, will be back on our screens tomorrow. I have fought all those peninsular wars by his side. I have been with him in dingy prisons when he has been betrayed by various baddies. I was by his side when he won the eagle! Sharpe and I go way back!

It was my husband that pointed out the words “not Scotland”. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me. I know that somewhere in our millions of Sky channels I would be able to track down Sharpe. However, right now we don’t have millions of channels. We just have four. The digi box died last week. It refused to be revived. The Sky man will replace it sometime in mid November!

“Not Scotland” doesn’t apply to all of Scotland. If I lived in Jedburgh, or Melrose, or Dumfries, or Gretna, around about the borders, chances are that I might be able to see Sharpe. I just live too far north and Scottish channels want to show Scottish made programmes.

I just wish that a Scottish newspaper, with a Scottish television magazine, had not taken out a half page article, with a large picture of Sean Bean looking scrumptious, telling me about a programme it isn’t actually showing!

It’s just not British…or Scottish…or fair!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Christmas Recipe

Most weeks I enter a story or a poem or an article of some kind into the Faithwriters website weekly challenge. It doesn't cost anything to enter. There are no prizes in terms of money to win. It is simply an opportunity to practice writing to a topic, with a specific word limit and a deadline. Members of Faithwriters generally comment on the piece and a number of volunteers each week judge which entries have made the top ten.

It is fun, although sometimes you take it too much to heart if few people seem to be reading or commenting on your work. You are also inclined sometimes. particularly when you think you have written an especially good piece if it doesn't rate in the top ten, or the top 40 that get posted up later on in the week.

This week the topic was "Christmas Baking (not recipes)". I have to admit that even thinking about anything to do with Christmas, yet alone writing about it, is not my cup of tea. I suppose as a professional writer you don't always get the chance to choose the topic you are commissioned to write about. You just have to lay aside your inbuilt prejudice and do the best job you can.

I wrote a poem. This was last week, the night before we went on holiday. The deadline might have been a week away, but by Friday might I would be in Italy. So I took a couple of hours to see if I could put something half decent together and submit it before I left.

I loved it, as I love most of what I write! I was aware that I was stretching the rules a bit. The topic did say "no recipes" but I figured that mine was not a proper cooking recipe so it didn't count.

Imagine my delight to find that not only did it get into the top ten, but it hit the number one spot! I am well chuffed!

A Christmas Recipe

Begin with a night, so silent and still
Across the expanse a million stars spill
Cast into the heavens a star really bright
That fair draws the eye, with radiant light

Stir in a stable, a mother with child
A manger to lay him with hay freshly piled
A father to watch them, a smile on his face
Amazed to be part of God's glorious grace

Fold into the mixture a trio of kings
Complete with their camels and valuable things
Empty the gold, frankincense, myrrh
Hearts full of worship and gently stir

A pinch of shepherds, and handful of sheep
On a Bethlehem hillside sharp and steep
Blend in a choir with a heavenly tune
In the warm silver glow of a cold winter moon

Generously spread a dollop of joy
Lashings of laughter for a Saviour boy
Sprinkle with wishes for peace on the earth
Liberally douse with a belly of mirth

Cook in a prophecy, a secret foretold
Wrapped in a promise, spoken of old
Simmer and watch tepid hearts start to glow
Bear witness as mustard seed faith starts to grow

Dole out a portion to each hungry soul
That fills hollow hearts and makes all men whole
A dish to remember as each year goes by
The taste in our tongues no money can buy

(c) Melanie Kerr 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bad Boat Days

Over the years, I have got into the habit of keeping a journal while on holiday. Seeing as I don’t usually have access to my computer, it is down to pen and paper.

Let me replicate for you exactly what I wrote this time round. This takes in five days in Venice.

“Venice – 2008”

I hope you didn’t blink your eye there and miss it! Yep! That was it! That was the extent of all my sights and insights about Venice!

I am quite disgusted with myself! This is perhaps why I don’t have the cheek to call myself a writer! There are no excuses – I was just too busy doing things to write about what I did.

One thing that Joe and I usually incorporate into our holidays together is a day apart! In the normal run of things we see each other in the morning and then in the evening. To go from that to twenty four hours, five straight days is a bit unreasonable! There are no children to act as buffers. There was no day off and about half way through, maybe towards the end of the holiday, we had a bust up. It was more heated than usual with loud threats to head out the airport for the next plane home!

I hate it when you get these terrorist bombs and then every known organisation phones up to claim responsibility. I claim just some of the responsibility for our “bomb”. I am one of these people that replay the whole incident over and over again. I don’t alter the details, but they take on a significance that was never intended. I get really stewed up.

I had got myself into such a state when a picture of something that had happened earlier in the week came to mind.

Venice is all about water, and canals and boats. Where most cities would have busy roads and lots of traffic and pelican crossings, Venice is a bit different. It is so unlike anywhere I have ever been. The main road is the Grand Canal, the traffic consists of various kinds of boats, and the pelican crossings are bridges everywhere.

I was standing on one such bridge watching the gondolas. In amongst them all was a man in a rowing boat. Where we would park a car in the garage, the folk that live in the centre of Venice would tie up a boat to the back door.

This particular man was trying to tie up his boat to his back door step. I don’t know whether he had the rope on board and was trying to tie it round one of the poles beside the door, or whether the rope was tied to the pole and he was just trying to reach it. Whatever the problem, things were not going well. He reached too far over and the boat tipped over and he fell in the canal.

For a while he had a hand on the side of the boat, but he just couldn’t physically pull himself back into it. A couple of the gondolas came to help.

That man had probably done the manoeuvre a million times before and never fallen out of his boat. He could probably have done it blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his back – well, perhaps not. You know what I mean though. What made this time different? I suspect he might have been returning after a drinking session with his mates. What is easy to do when you are sober, is a sheer impossibility after a few bottles of wine. I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t a hangover but the onset of a touch of flu. Or maybe he was just having a bad boat day.

As I was giving myself a hard time over the argument with Joe, I remembered the man and his boat. I don’t think for a moment that the next day he went down to the newsagent and put a “Boat for Sale” sign in the window. He had had a single bad boat incident, not a lifetime of falling out of boats. Three hundred and sixty four days in the year he had tied the rope around the pole with no problem. Just this one day he had missed the pole and fell in the canal. For all the days that Joe and I have been married – the “bad boat” days are few and far between. They happen. It’s life.

There was still some fallout from the explosion to deal with but nothing a wine tasting day in Northern Italy couldn’t deal with!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Juggling Anxieties

I once attempted to learn to juggle. Having no balls, tennis or otherwise, I used the next best thing – apples. They were round and nestled just right in the palm of my hand. Some months ago I had treated myself to a book. It was a Reader’s Digest book entitled “I Can Do Anything.” The book lied. Apparently I cannot do anything. Other people might be able to do anything, but after an hour or so of my attempts to juggle, all I had to show for it was three bruised apples and a wonderful apple fragrance that filled the room.

I was thinking about this after reading Psalm 4 this morning, particularly verse 7 – “You have filled my heart with greater joy”. My heart seems to be filled more with greater anxiety than it does joy. I feel like I am juggling concerns about a dozen different things, many of them holiday related!

I seem to be spending so much mental energy planning to manage the anxieties that I am not really feeling the joy I ought to be feeling.

Sitting with God this morning we disassembled all the various things I was feeling anxious about. I need to see things the way that God sees them, not as major obstacles hindering me from experiencing joy. Rather these kinds of concerns should make me head towards God, to hand them over to him, confessing that I am not designed to carry them around inside.

Leaving it all with God, I have opened the way for joy to flood through.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Real Jesus

Imagine if you will a police line up. Imagine that there is an assortment of men standing side by side. They don’t look alike. There is nothing particularly similar about them. They are not even wearing the same kind of clothes.

Imagine if you had heard about a man who, for example, works with your husband, or wife. You have never met them before, but only hear about them in conversations.

Imagine that from the police line up you are asked, on the basis of all those conversations, to pick out the man. Obviously you don’t know for sure, and your best guess is not going to see him convicted of a crime or anything. You are simply guessing.

Actually this reminds me of a game show hosted by Donny Osmond not so long ago. I can’t remember the name of it, but the aim of the game was to match up the people to their occupations. I rather thought I would like to be a contestant, not on the basis of being able to pick the right people and match them to their jobs, but on the basis that I would get to stand very close to Donny Osmond!

My husband, a very long time ago, used to mention a friend of his who didn’t exactly work with him, but was involved with the Crofter’s Commission. I formed a picture in my mind of what I thought this person looked like. I thought he was in his early fifties, not particularly tall, quite stout, bald headed and serious looking. I have no idea how I came up with that kind of a picture.

Imagine my surprise when I actually got to meet the man. My husband will tell you that my jaw hit the ground with a solid thud. This man was Mr Universe personified. He was, as I blurted out to Joe afterwards, “Gorgeous!” He might have been in his early fifties but he didn’t look it. He was tall, slim, had brown hair that just long enough to flop over his forehead in a very attractive manner. And he smiled a huge smile. He hugged me, because I was Joe’s wife and I went weak at the knees.

My reaction came as no surprise to my husband as all the women in his section at work were drooling at the mere mention of his friend’s name! He just thought I was made of more solid stuff!

What happened to my small, stout, bald man? I tried to explain to my husband that part of my reaction was due to shock. I described my small, stout, bald man, confessing that I had no idea where I had come up with such a picture.

Having shared with some friends, Christian friends, that I have read and enjoyed “The Shack”, I have found myself involved in a dispute. They think the book is poking holes in the Christian faith. One of the main characters in the book is Papa, or God, but is not described in a familiar, masculine way. It took a while for me to stop being offended that his description of God did not match up to my impressions, or stereotypes. That was exactly the point that the author was making though that we see God in a certain way and anything that doesn’t match up we tend to ignore.

A while ago, the BBC produced a series of programmes called “Son of God”. They traced the main events of Jesus’ life. Part of the attraction of the programme was using all the up to date information to construct a model of what Jesus looked like. It was like the unveiling of some great mystery. What the Bible doesn’t tell us, the BBC using the latest technology was about to reveal.

I can remember being very disappointed with the final product. It didn’t look anything like “my Jesus”. My Jesus had definite Robert Powell overtones – blue eyes and long hair. This didn’t look like that! I remember thinking logically that the BBC’s Jesus was closer in terms of ethnic colouring and stuff.

I can understand fully why the second commandment is there – about not making graven images. We need to relate to Jesus in some way. It is when we refuse to change our picture that we begin to become unstuck.

When I meet Jesus I do wonder if I will recognise him. I am almost sure he will not look like Robert Powell. It will not be from the colour of his eyes, or his hir that I will know him. Perhaps it will be the welcome that is expressed though them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shacks and Shedding Light in Dark Places

I think I ended a previous post with the wish that I could give some answers to give some people breakthrough in darkness they were walking through. I just might have some “magic words”.

They are not my words. They are not words lifted from the Bible either. They come in the form of a book I bought last week “The Shack”

The blurb on the back sets the scene. A man has experienced the loss of his youngest daughter. Evidence points to her having been brutally murdered. He is left with a Great Sadness that seems to cover him like a heavy blanket over his shoulders. Four years on he gets a message from God to meet him at the shack where the murder occurred.

He chooses to take up the encounter not really sure whether it is a cruel joke or what. Does he really encounter God there or does he just fall asleep and dream it all?

“Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” That’s the big question that the book attempts to answer. Mack gets to ask the questions we would all like to ask if we were face to face with God. He gets to say the things we want to say, but we are sometimes too polite to say them, or too scared. He gets to shout at God. He gets to experience God’s tenderness, His tears, His smiles, His sadness and to hear God’s side of the argument.

The book digs holes in my preconceptions and makes me look again at what I think about God, about the world, about me and my part in it, about suffering, about answers and about how little I really know about anything.

There were things, truths explained, I already knew, but hadn't really allowed to filter down into my heart, and then through to my feet to be walked through daily. Being an RE teacher, the philosophy of religion comes as part of the degree. The book showed that it's not supposed to be mind-boggling, and largely irrelevant theory but life giving, Spirit breathing truth.

I did what I always do when I have got a good book to read. I spent the next few hours reading it. The washing up didn’t get done, or the ironing and I didn’t talk to anyone until I finished. This is not the way to read “The Shack”. One should read it slowly soaking in the words, taking the time to digest the words and think about them. There is a lot to chew on.

So I will read it through again - slowly.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Grow-Your-Own Mushrooms

Shitake spawn sounds like a Japanese insult, doesn’t it? I can picture it now. The scene opens with Mel walking down a country lane. Suddenly out of the bushes jump four ninja warriors covered in black from head to toe, wielding sharp curved swords. Mel takes up a menacing pose. In a brisk fight she disarms them all and they run off to shouts of “And don’t come back, you shitake spawn!”

Yeah well, I never have had pretensions of being a good script writer!

The shitake spawn that I am dealing with comes in a grow-your-own-mushrooms kit. Last weekend Cawdor Castle was hosting a food festival. It was all about promoting local produce, much of which was organic.

I managed to deeply impress one of the stall holders. Her son and daughter had been through my classroom a few years ago. Once I could bring to mind the mother’s surname, the names of the children were dragged out of the memory files. I was able to ask how Eric was doing and how Claire was doing. It was impressive!

Most of the stalls were the ones that usually set up for the Farmers’ Markets once a month. The one stall that was not usual was the one with the grow-your-own-mushroom kits. They had “grown ones” on display and many people were taking photographs of them because they looked so artistic. They looked very surreal. They were blocks something the size of a breeze blocks, grey in colour, with a few dozen mushrooms swarming all over them. It they were made of pottery you could see them selling well as ornaments!

Basically all you get is a man made block of something that looks remotely like polystyrene but it is made up of oak shavings, wood chips and bran. One is supposed to stick the block, in its plastic bag, in the airing cupboard and leave it for six weeks. After that you put it outside, or in the fridge for a couple of days to shock the block and initiate fruiting. Then it’s back to the airing cupboard with a tray of water and the mushrooms start to appear in a few days.

The kit comes with a money back guarantee. If, for some odd reason, you have a dud kit – no shitake spawn – you can claim your money back!

The sellers encourage the folks who buy the kits to take their picture with it, once it’s active, and post it on their “Hall of Fame” web page.

It is amazing that something that looks so uninteresting and dull on the outside, has inside of it, the potential to be over-run with shitake mushrooms in a few months time! There is life residing in that block of oak shavings, wood chips and bran.

I have got something residing inside of me. I may look dull and uninteresting on the outside, but inside of me is the Holy Spirit, and, with Him, the potential to be over-run with His life giving power and His all embracing love for everyone. There is nothing “dud” about the Spirit within and no need for God’s money back guarantee. No need to incubate what I have in an airing cupboard, although a warm worshipful attitude will no doubt help. Maybe just like my mushrooms, I will need “shocked” into activity…but there will be a harvest.

Gardening Leave

My husband is swinging between hope and despair – well, maybe hope and despair are not quite the right words. Between being “thoroughly miserable” and “putting on a brave and cheerful face” is perhaps a better way of saying it.

He was away on business most of the week, but keeping an eye on a Scottish debate about the future of the Crofters’ Commission where he works. There had been talks about, not exactly closing it down, but slimming it down. Lots of the things that the Commission do could be done by other government and non-government bodies. Joe manages grants and project developments. He does it really well! This is not just a loving wife’s biased opinion! The people that move to his department through Joe’s excellent people skills usually go on to do great and glorious things when they get promoted! He does a good job!

However, it is the grants and development projects that they have decided to hand over to other bodies who they think could do it better. The Commission will simply regulate whatever it is they regulate, and they won’t have responsibility for developing and managing grant schemes. When they deal with crofters they won’t be able to help them access the various grants that they may be entitled to, like they can now. Someone else will do that who doesn’t perhaps have the necessary crofting expertise. They will just have the money and make their own recommendations about who gets it and maybe a specialised small community of farmers will not be at the top of their list!

This means that Joe’s job has gone! It hasn’t gone yet, but it is on the way out. The very thing they pay him to do, someone else will be doing, and to my unbiased loving wife mind, will not do it half as good as Joe does it! Joe will no longer be “the mannie with the money” and get his wee drams from the crofters when he visits them. No more visits.

He is not going to be made redundant. He will continue to be employed, but not doing what he has loved doing for the last ten years or more. He could broker a deal where he goes with the job when it gets passed over to another body – but he is a Crofters’ Commission man.

Already there is an unofficial “Save the Joe” campaign at his work. He is not an endangered species, and I am sure that whatever he goes on to do, he will excel.

He was telling me that if he was a few grades higher he might be given “Gardening Leave.” This is where the job you were doing no longer exists and nothing else at your management level is available. They don ‘t want to loose you to some other company, so they agree to pay you full salary while you stay at home and they wait for a post to become available that fits your grade. It only really happens to the top grade people.

Gardening leave would be good – if he actually spent it in the garden. He is dreaming of getting a dog and doing the rounds of the newsagent, the betting shop and the pub for a half a pint. Keep dreaming, sunshine.

Quite how I would cope with him staying at home, and getting paid to stay at home, while I was out battling with my acne and attitude inflicted adolescents, who know? It won’t reach that stage…will it?

I am glad that our security, mine and Joe’s, is not in how we are doing in the workplace. God is the one who holds both our lives in his very capable hands.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Cast Your Burdens

The way that the message paraphrases Bible passages can be really stirring. We used this section of Psalm 89 in our worship meeting on Sunday.

With your well-muscled arm and your grip of steel—
nobody trifles with you!
The Right and Justice are the roots of your rule;
Love and Truth are its fruits.
Blessed are the people who know the passwords of praise,
who shout on parade in the bright presence of GOD.
Delighted, they dance all day long; they know
who you are, what you do—they can't keep it quiet!
Your vibrant beauty has gotten inside us—
you've been so good to us! We're walking on air!
All we are and have we owe to GOD,
Holy God of Israel, our King!

It was only this morning that I read on to the end of the Psalm. I was in need of a bit of stirring. Reading on was not so encouraging, however:-

But GOD, you did walk off and leave us,
you lost your temper with the one you anointed.
You tore up the promise you made to your servant,
you stomped his crown in the mud.
You blasted his home to kingdom come,
reduced his city to a pile of rubble
Picked clean by wayfaring strangers,
a joke to all the neighbors.
You declared a holiday for all his enemies,
and they're celebrating for all they're worth.
Angry, you opposed him in battle,
refused to fight on his side;

What is this? This is not the God that I love and know…is it? What happened to all the stirring encouragement?

I was talking earlier on in the week about insights into Genesis 3, the bit where the curses start. It is the serpent, the devil, who is cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust all the days of his life. That is not the fate reserved for Adam and Eve. Their may be pain in childbirth for Eve, and hard labour for a reluctant harvest for Adam, but are not cursed to crawl on their bellies and eat dust. And yet, it seems there are times when we feel like we are crawling on our bellies and eating dust!

Reading that second part of the Psalm this morning brought to mind the difficulties a couple of my friends are going through. They feel on the receiving end of God walking off, tearing up his promise, blasting their faith to kingdom come and reducing their lives to a pile of rubble. Obviously they know that God has, in reality, done nothing of those things. Knowing this in your heart is one thing, but sometimes your experience doesn’t match up.

I was surfing last night to see if anyone had come up with an enlightening truth I could pass on. I googled “When the going gets tough” and came up with the lyrics to the song which wasn’t helpful!

A few pages along I came across a psychological study into whether there was a time when it was better for you to give up than to keep on pressing on with something. When the going gets tough, they concluded, sometimes the right thing to do is to give up, but, not give up forever. What they discovered was the best way to persevere in difficult times was to let go for a while, give yourself a break, and then pick up the burden afresh. Giving up altogether on something was not conducive to good mental and physical health, but laying down the burden for a short while, and then picking it up again later was much better.

I don’t know if that applies, or how that applies to issues of faith. Laying down burdens seems to be a spiritual principle. I guess it matters exactly where you lay them down. And which burdens exactly you can lay down. Perhaps the burden that you lay down is not necessarily the same burden you pick up again. The process of laying the burden down before God gives Him a chance to transform it. Or perhaps it is not the nature of the burden that changes at all. The person that laid the burden down is not the same person that picks it up because God has transformed them.

I feel like I have been carrying the burden of my friend’s situations around with me today. My mind has been humming to itself the golden oldie “Cast your burdens on to Jesus for he cares for you.” And I have.

But I wish there were some answers I could give them to break through the darkness that seem to be walking through right now.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Being Together

I will be the first one to admit that I joined in all the complaining! Yes, that was me muttering under my breath. It may not have been the word “Humbug!” but it was certainly the kill joy attitude!

The notice came around work sometime earlier last week. Some bright spark has suggested a fundraising event that involved everyone piling out into the car park beside the canteen and doing a giant conga.

I could think of better things to do with my time, and more useful ways to raise funds for things. A litter pick up wouldn’t go amiss. Why not issue everyone with a pair of plastic gloves and black bin liner? Get sponsored for the weight of bin liner! But no – a conga was deemed to be just what we needed.

Our union man wasn’t impressed. He thought it might be a health and safety issue – all those people packed into the car park. If someone fell over, who’s to say they might not get trampled to death?

I prayed for rain, knowing that it would be postponed if the heaven opened and drenched us all. It was possibly the sunniest afternoon we have had all year!

The people lined up, the music blared from loudspeakers, the boss directed operations using a megaphone and someone stood on the roof of the building recording the event for prosperity. We moved in dribs and drabs. Some people laughed because they were outside and the sun was shining. That had to be better than being inside sitting at desks.

The music changed. What was it called? “Popcorn” Do do do do - do da do – OK, so that does absolutely nothing to give you a clue as to the tune.

There are some tunes that come with memories attached! In my childhood days, our family was firmly committed the village amateur dramatic society. Every year they put on Christmas pantomimes. My first stage appearance was at the age of six or seven in the village production of “Robinson Crusoe”. I was part of the children’s chorus. I was a pygmy. I was certainly just the right size. Come to think of it, I am probably still the right size to be a pygmy – the PC phrase is “vertically challenged”.

As pygmies we hopped, jiggled and shimmied our way through a dance routine to “Popcorn” dressed as skeletons!

So when “Popcorn” blasted out of the loud speakers that sunny afternoon, I was back to being six again! I joined in, not just with my body hopping this way and that, but with my heart!

Looking back over the event, I have to confess, that despite all the grumbling and complaining that went on among the less-young, there was a sense of community that we have not seen in the workplace for quite a while. It’s not often that we are all the same place, at the same time, involved in the same frivolous activity. Too often we have our only cliques and hidey holes for tea breaks that we don’t often spend that much time together.

Don’t ever under-estimate the value of being together!

The Going-Nowhere Rut

Don’t jump to the conclusion that just because I have been silent on the blog, that I have been leading a boring life. That just isn’t true! Well, some people might dispute that – I may be active, but what I have been doing some people might consider to be boring!

A couple of weeks ago I went for a really long walk. In the local Inverness Courier they usually include a route for walking or a bike route. The bike is in the shed with tyres that require pumping up. I have finally conceded that the bike and I are never going to be great friends. Sometimes the walking routes are not nearby, but this time it followed the canal path and then just outside of Clachnaharry it headed up into the forest. It was do-able, I had downed a very hearty breakfast fry up in the morning and was conscious that the scales on Monday were beckoning!

I don’t seem to be able to follow a route! I managed the first bit - the bit that followed the canal. I managed to find the path up to the forest. I managed to find the yellow path marker, and a little way along the route, the blue path marker. The instructions went on about a steep path but failed to say whether it was steep uphill or steep downhill. Having gone up hill already, I deemed it time to go downhill. I chose wrong!

I found myself in a lovely shady glade. Through the trees I could see glimpses of Inverness basking in the sunshine, and took myself off the path I was on to have a better look.

When I first moved to Inverness, the forest was a favourite haunt for myself and the friends I had made. We used to climb up to a prominent place and pray over the city. In our less “spiritual” moments we used to play hide and seek in the dark! When Joe and I first married, the flat we rented was a stone’s throw away from the forest. That was a long time ago. I was younger then and I was much fitter then. I think I have always struggled uphill, but I don’t seem to remember sweating such copious amounts of fluid in those days. So, yes, it was a bit like a trip along memory lane!

Turning back to find the path I had strayed from, I almost walked into a huge spider’s web. The web was huge, but the spider wasn’t! The web was stretched across two trees that were more than my arm’s lengths apart. I have absolutely no idea how the spider did it. Did it drop to the floor, walk across the space and then climb up the next tree dragging the slender line behind it? Did it wait for just the right kind of breeze and drift across from one tree to the other? This was one spider with a degree in architecture! I had the camera with me, with a flat battery inside, but “took” a photo, just in case. Just a few steps, and obviously with a different angle, the web was not visible.

This morning I was thinking about the spider’s web. Had I not left the path, I wouldn’t have seen it. It was worth seeing, and if I had stayed on the path, I would have missed it. The man that wrote the route told me to look out for deer, and for red squirrels – neither of which were in abundance that afternoon. He didn’t mention spiders’ webs.

Sometimes our daily path through life follows a familiar route. We have our blue markers and our yellow markers and we walk the same path day in, day out. We maybe see the same people, perhaps feel like we have the same conversations with them and deal with the same irritations usually in the same way each time. Life takes on a predictable hue. We get the rare glimpses of the deer and the red squirrel – but we stick to the familiar trail. We almost know in advance what’s coming up. We know how to deal with the familiar because we are used to it. Our lives are perhaps in a rut – not a positive rut, but a kind of going-nowhere rut.

You don’t find spectacular spider’s webs on well trodden paths! Sometimes we need to invite the Holy Spirit to take us off the familiar path, the going-nowhere rut we have found ourselves walking, teach us to let go of our usual responses and reactions to things and take a different trail.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Getting to Know Me

For no apparent reason our Sky digital receiver box has decided to stick on standby and nothing we can do, or the nice support staff on the end of the help line can do either. We have been advised to get a new one. The man on the end of the line suggested we try a local dealer rather than have one of their men come out and see us. We did think for a moment of taking the opportunity to upgrade to a HD package but it was more than we could afford right now.

So last night was a quiet night. I might have switched off the TV and found something else to do anyway, but I didn’t like the decision forced upon me.

I decided to pop along to Blockbuster to see if there was Mel type DVD I could chill out with. I picked up one or two that sounded interesting. I wasn’t looking for girly romance. I wasn’t looking for scary horror. I’m not sure I was up to grisly murders and who-dunnits. That kind of narrowed the list. What really put me off many of the ones I picked up was the box on the cover that informs you of strong language, level of nudity and sustained violence. Just about everything I thought I might like had lots of strong language and violence and stuff. I actually stood in the line for all of five minutes before I realised the one I held in my hand also included “sustained torture”. I put it back in the shelf.

I lived for a while with my parents after returning from working in Cyprus for five years. It was a mixed faith kind of street. The corner shops were owned and run by Pakistani gentlemen. One of the shops was a video rental place. We used to hire videos quite often. The man in the shop got to know my tastes over the months. It was nothing I said, but the comments from my mother, “Our Mel wouldn’t like that film…too much swearing.” He used to carefully select a half dozen or so films just for me and keep them aside until I visited the shop. I never really needed to browse because I would be presented with this pile of videos he had vetted! I have to confess that they were mostly PG certificates with the occasional 12 certificate thrown in. 18 certificate films never made it into the selection.

I missed that last night! I missed popping around to the corner shop to find out what my Pakistani friend had decided was suitable for me! I miss someone knowing me that well and looking out for me.

We seem to live in a society where people don’t seem to know people. I bought a book a couple of weeks ago. “Just Walk Across the Room” by Bill Hybels. I shouldn’t need a book to tell me that I need to walk across a room and talk to people. I certainly shouldn’t need one to tell me how to walk across a room. Having said that, I have been trying to walk across a few rooms in my work place. I have joined a couple of working groups looking at aspects of our working day. Partly it is because I feel strongly about the particular issues, but also it is to do with allowing people to get to know me better. Whether these connections I am making will lead to deeper relationships and challenging conversations I don’t know. It just feels good.

Incidentally, this morning I was complaining to my husband about the over abundance of films with too much nudity and swearing. His reaction was to fling off the covers, swing his arms and legs about, in the bed, dressed in very little, and chant “Bugger, bugger, bugger.”

“You mean, like, that kind of nudity and swearing?”

It maybe doesn’t come across so well in writing – but it was a very funny moment.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Caterpillar With Wings

This time last week I dashed home from work to put the washing out on the line. I was planning to be gone just for a half hour. I don’t know what I drove over, but there was a horrible crunching sound. I thought it was the sound effects on the radio play I was listening to – but, no, it was a flat tyre.

It has taken a week to organise a replacement. I drove the car over to garage near to where I work and told them to do whatever needed to be done and I would collect the car at the end of the day.

The garage was a fifteen minute walk away. It had rained most of the afternoon. It was the kind of rain that was so light that it was almost not worth putting up an umbrella. About five minutes into my walk back to the garage I realised that my shoe was letting in water. I squelched into the garage ten minutes later to discover that they hadn’t been able to do anything about the tyre because they couldn’t find the wheel nut.

It had occurred to me that they might not find it, but I assumed that seeing as they had a phone number, they could always call and ask. don’t do that! They don’t ask. It’s not macho to ask!

The man at the reception desk assured me, once I had opened the little compartment between the front seats, retrieved the wheel nut, and placed it in his hand, that as soon as there was an available ramp free, they would sort the tyres.

In the space of one and a half hours I had read every paper and magazine on the coffee table in the waiting room. Why is it that garages always buy the Sun?

In one of the papers it had the story of someone seeing an upside down rainbow in Cambridge. There was a picture of it.

I remember once upon a time I was on a train journey. I think I was heading south at the time. The woman opposite me was gazing out of the window with a very puzzled expression. She had that kind of intense stare about her. I twisted around in my seat to see what she was looking at. It wasn’t a rainbow, upside down or the right way up, but a blob of colour. It was as if someone had reached into the sky and gathered up the rainbow’s arc and scrunched it up. You could identify the red, and yellows, the blues and the greens – but they were all mixed into one blob instead of lined up in an arc shape. We both stared at the blob, trying to work out exactly what we were seeing.

You know something about rainbows? No two people see exactly the same rainbow! It’s all about angles and things. You have to bee looking up at a certain angle to see the rainbow. I don’t know – something like 42 degrees. My 42 degrees will be different from someone else’s 42 degrees depending on how tall you are and where exactly you are standing.

Anyway, back to the upside down rainbow. Remember if you will, that I have squelched into the garage with wet feet, the tyre isn’t repaired because of the missing wheel nut and I have read my way through everything on the coffee table in the last hour and a half. I think that entitles me to a less than positive response!

“Oh yeah,” thought I, “It’s just an ordinary rainbow printed upside down.”

I apologise for my cynical thought. It reminds me of a comment made to my husband, long before we were married. He was sharing a house with another fellow. There was a beautiful butterfly, wings splayed out on the window. My husband pointed it out to his flatmate,

“It’s just a caterpillar with wings.”

He apologised swiftly recognising it to be a cynical remark. His day at work had been a bit of a bummer.

My day, also, had been a bit of a bummer! But that is no excuse not to marvel at natures little idiosyncrasies.


There is a stain on the bathroom floor. It’s kind of reddish brown colour. It could be blood – but it isn’t. It’s hair colour! Belle Colour by Garnier 5.5 Natural Light Auburn to be precise. I had been feeling very conscious of the grey roots and decided to tackle them myself and save a couple of hours in the hairdressers and a hefty bill at the end. This is my second attempt to do it myself and it looks OK, as long as you don’t scrutinise the underneath layers of my head!

There is a stain on the bath mat beside the bath. It’s a kind of reddish brown colour. It could be hair colour – but it isn’t. It’s blood! Not a huge amount, so those of you who haven’t seen my husband for a while need not worry that I have done away with him. It is his blood incidentally. He cut his toe in the bath! We had a new bath put in a while ago. The previous one was leaking and it was unsettling to see the light bulb at the back of the hallway filling with water every time someone had a bath! This new bath has a stopper rather than a plug. Once the stopper is pulled out, there is a jaggy edged trim to the plug hole. I have shredded my finger on it clearing away the build up of hairs. Quite how my husband managed to cut his toe on it is beyond me.

However he managed it, he is a little bleeder. There were bloody footprints from the bath, along the landing and into the bedroom. There may be bloody footprints all the way up to the bed, but it is a dark blue carpet, so it is well camouflaged.

It took most of the plasters from a travel pack to bind up the broken skin.

He hates anyone touching his feet. He was a brave soldier!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Game of Two Halves

It was just bad planning by the Union bosses to organise a meeting in Glasgow for a weekend where Celtic were playing away to Motherwell! My better half being a Union man was at the meeting and took the time to catch up on family. I joined the party on the Friday night.

We planned to watch the Celtic match in a bar that had Santanta. We were somewhere near Glasgow Cross I think, just a few hundred yards away from the Barras.

We watched the first half of the match in a bar diner. There was a huge screen, with a couple of big sofas parked in front of it. Being a bar diner, there were menus everywhere, appetising aromas and plates wheeled in with carefully arranged food on them. The sound from the match was turned off.

The times that I have watched football matches without any kind of commentary have not been good times. I don’t know who has just kicked the ball to whom, or who had committed what foul, or who had just scored the goal. They run around in enforced silence hugging one another and I am trying to get a glimpse of the name on the back of the jersey.

Football is not the number one item on the menu. It may be up on the big screen, but the food on the plate takes precedence. People are not really involved in the game, it is just background flickers and is not allowed to interfere with conversation – and eating.

We were there simply because there was a blackboard perched outside the door telling us that they were showing the game. Showing was all they were doing. We decided to find another place showing the game for the second half.

A hundred yards down the road we went into the Sarecen’s Head – or the Sarry’s Heid. The same game was playing – a different audience was watching. There must have been a half dozen small screens in addition to the big one, so that no matter where you sat in the bar, whatever direction you faced you could see the game.

The volume was definitely switched on, but you couldn’t hear it so well on account of the commentary given by the watchers. The commentary was sprinkled liberally with choice swear words most often aimed at the Celtic players for not scoring in the second half.

Eating and drinking played second fiddle to the game. Every kick of the ball, every throw in and every corner was scrutinised. The game was centre stage and every person watching was drawn in. It mattered who won and who lost. Somehow there were no spectators in the room, but everyone was a participator.

Two places, involved in exactly the same activity and yet two very different experiences. It made me think about church. You can have two churches involved in exactly the same activity – worshipping God – and yet end up with two very different experiences. I have been in churches that have been very well-behaved. There is order and structure. Everyone knows what happens next – like the menu on the tables. Sometimes, although it says so on the poster outside, God is not really at the centre. The minister might put Him there, but the congregation might there for other reasons – they always go because they have always been.

And then you get churches like the Sarry’s Heid. God is centre stage and there are no spectators. You cannot help but be affected by the enthusiasm and the involvement of the people around you. I admit that there isn’t a sprinkling of choice swear words, but people are not quiet either. They allow what is on their hearts to spill out.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tears in the Town Centre

I wouldn’t say that it takes a lot to make me cry! I wouldn’t say that I do it all the time! I would have to say that it is not often I cry in public – I usually save my tears for private.

At the weekend, in the middle of Buchanan Street, I cried!

John Innes, who calls himself the Peoples Tenor (note the absence of the apostrophe – we discussed later on, after I had done mopping up the tears, where it ought to have been placed, on the cover of the CD my husband bought his mother) was doing a promotional event. He was not quite your usual busker. There was no guitar, no open guitar case with a sprinkling of change, but just a mike and a backing track.

He started off with “Ave Maria”.

I am not sure whether I like classical music but it was hard not to appreciate the quality of his voice. He will be having a concert later in the year and was drumming up a bit of interest and giving people a foretaste of what they could expect.

It was his next song “You raise me up” that caused all the tears. Was it Westlife that took it into the charts? Sometimes you take a song for granted without having listened to the words properly. I suppose to that the really well trained tenors know how to really enunciate the words.

When I am down and oh my soul, so weary
When troubles come and my heart burdened be
Then I am still and wait here in the silence
Until you come and sit a while with me

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be

Wouldn’t you like to know who the “You” is? I suppose that all of us have different “you”s depending on our circumstances. For some it might be a parent that had always been there to inspire. For others it might be a husband or a wife that sees them through the difficult times. Perhaps it is the child inspiring the parent.

For me the person that raises me up to be ”more than I can be” is God. He is the one that comes and sits awhile with me. He makes the journey to come to me and doesn’t always wait for me to make the first move.

Luke 15:4-6 says "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”

We all have times when we simply need to be carried and God loves to carry His children in His arms.

Embarrassed as I was at surreptitiously wiping away the tears, I rejoiced that my heart was, and is, soft enough to be touched.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Tossing Down the Gauntlet

We all meet people that rub us up the wrong way – some of us meet more of them than others. Our church leader made an interesting observation the other week that sometimes people rub us up the other was because we create an environment by our approach to them that makes it happen. The tone of our voice, the set of our shoulders speak as loudly to people as do our words.

I don’t often deal with just individuals. I deal with groups of people. As much as I mind the tone of my voice and the set of my shoulders as I deal with an individual, I always have to consider the good of the group. They are watching me to see what I do that creates for them an environment where they feel looked after and protected. In order to do that I have to take on the challenge of the individual, pick up the gauntlet as it were that he or she tosses to the floor. I am the top banana, and one or two would love to pull me off my tree!

Some times it wears me down. The fuse that was a long one at the start of the day gets a little bit shorter with each and every encounter. One lesson I have learned is to blow well before you have run out of fuse! Blow early and you are in control, you are pretending to be angrier than you really are. It’s an act, scary as it is. Wait until the fuse runs out, and then blow - well, who knows what you will do or say because you are out of control.

There was one such encounter recently where the fuse was short. The person in question had been most aggressive – not only towards me, but towards others. I could well understand if someone punched him soundly on the nose. He had pushed us all well beyond the limits.

I could hear the voice in my head saying, “That is it! You have been so obnoxious! You know what I would really like to do to you?” At this point I confess to visions of the person being mowed down by a lorry – Oh, come on, don’t you sometimes feel that way too?

Before I could answer my own question, the Holy Spirit darted in and answered it for me.

“Pray for you!”

Talk about tossing down the gauntlet!

Before I could argue the point and say that I preferred the lorry scenario, the Spirit continued…remember all of this is in my head, not said out aloud…

“And do you know what will happen when I start to pray? You are going to change! And do you know why you’re going to change? You are going to change because the God that I pray to can do anything.”

It was said so seriously, almost like a threat! I have met people who in dealing with others that have caused harm to themselves and others, have resorted to cursing them – not just your the angry flow of expletives kind of curse – but the spiritual kind! The Spirit made it quite clear that the kind of prayer he was looking for on behalf of this individual was the wholesome kind, the building up, the edifying, the intercession kind where I held in my heart love for the individual and looked for the best for them.

Make no mistake, I am know that often the change happens in the person that is praying rather than the object of the prayer. The situation doesn’t change, but their attitude and reaction to it does. This was not one of these times. It was not my words about changing the person – but the Spirit’s. I have every expectation that I will change anyway as I get involved in the praying process.

Later that night, the Spirit reminded me of those unspoken words. Just because they had not been said out loud did not make them any less binding.

So I prayed!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Stepping On Landmines

That sounds like it ought to be the title of a book! It isn’t! It is, however, a rather apt description of part of my afternoon! We are not talking about real landmines just proverbial ones – but they can do just as much damage. They may not rip off a leg or anything, but they can rip a large hole in your heart.

The thing about landmines, so I gather, is that you don’t know they are there until you’ve stepped on one. The landscape you are walking through looks harmless. It may be that you have walked the route often without injury!

I got into conversation with some young people this afternoon, talking about the existence of God. We were batting back and forth opinions about whether there was a God or not. I suppose there is a tendency to take out the usual reasons from the back of the mind, dust them off and present them much like a conjurer talking a rabbit out of a hat! I talked about the precise nature of the universe. If it all begins with a Big Bang – don’t explosions create chaos rather than order? The world is too full of balance and mathematical details for it to have come about by chance.

One young lady talked more personally and spoke about prayers she had had answered, and for her it was proof that there was a God.

“What about the ones that don’t get answered?”

The young man who asked the question shared a heart breaking story of his grandmother who had been a devout church goer. She never missed a Sunday. A wonderful lady who gave herself unreservedly to God, she got sick. He prayed for her to recover, but she died.

“How come God answered your prayers, but he ignored mine?”

There is no answer to that one. It seemed to open the floodgates. Other young people who had been happy to sit back and let the loud ones speak suddenly came up with their own unanswered prayer experiences. One young man shared about his mother’s pregnancy. Up until quite close to the birth everything was going well. Suddenly there were difficulties and she was in hospital. He prayed for the safe recovery of his mother and the baby, but she miscarried.

“Where was God then?”

You can’t be a Christian for long before you encounter these hurdles. Things just don’t add up the way they should. Good people go through hell on earth. Why isn’t their goodness somehow a vaccination against bad stuff happening? Bad people make our lives a misery and yet they sail through life apparently immune. It wouldn’t be so bad if these were just little issues – but they are huge! They are mountain sized issues. Those with faith are just as much liable to flattened when they fall on top of them.

I have learned over the years to live in a state of paradox. Things happen that cause me personal heartbreak, but my underlying faith, although bashed about, remains very much intact. There are times I ask “Why?” Sometimes I get an answer, most times I don’t and I remind myself that one day I will know. One day there will be no more of the “though a glass darkly”. For now, not understanding, I try my best to trust in the character of the God I know, love and follow.

I have come to that place in life when I realise that I don’t really need to know the answers. I don’t need a neat and tidy box, although that does help! I just need to know that God is with me in it. I have found my rock.

Helping someone else to find their answers is a challenge.

“I don’t know” might well be an honest answer, but it is not the answer they are looking for.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Fishy Tale

We were talking about pets in work today. I didn’t tell any horror stories about our pet gerbil, Larsson’s Hairband, though one of my colleagues has a daughter who has asked for a couple of gerbils for her birthday!

I told them my fishy tale instead!

I cut my teaching teeth in the east end of London. The last stop on the Victoria line on the underground is Walthamstow. I lived in the nearby district of Chingford, right on the edge of the Epping Forest. Being new to teaching, and new to London, I lodged with a family. It was a big three story house.

The landlady was a social worker. She had separated from her husband and was bringing up a daughter by herself.

This particular daughter had asked for a tropical fish tank for her birthday. She filled it with the usual selection of sunken wrecks, anchors and such like. The fish were guppies. They swam about and looked peaceful.

One particular guppy seemed to get bigger than the others and started to bully the smaller fish. It would quite viciously bite big chunks off fins and tails – or rather, little chunks seeing as they were so small. Little essential chunks. There were even times when the remains of guppies floated on the top of the water.

Now remember the landlady was a social worker! She decided to do something about the bully. She fished him out of the tank with a net and dropped him into a bowl of cold water! It wasn’t freezing cold. It just wasn’t tropical temperatures.

She left him in the bowl, by himself for a week.

Then she returned him to the tank with the rest of the guppies. Perhaps it was that chance the other fish had to grow a little quicker without his bullying behaviour that caused the change, and not the week in solitary confinement. The returned guppy behaved perfectly and gave up him bullish manners!

Telling the story, there is always a ripple of laughter. There is always the sceptic response too. I mean, don’t we all know that fish have a two minute memory? They swim around the tank, see the same scenery, but they just don’t remember they have seen the scenery before. Two minutes and everything is new.

I know what I saw because I was a witness, and yet in telling the tale, I am haunted by the fish’s apparent two minute memory. The bullying guppy could not possibly have remembered the solitary confinement and the cold water!

I have been rescued! Apparently fish are not as dumb as we make them out to be! Granted, some of them may not be the card carrying MENSA’s of the marine world, but they do remember for a lot longer than two minutes!

According to a newspaper article, anything a rat can do in being taught to learn to negotiate a maze and get rewarded with treats for its endeavours, the same is true of a fish. They have been given a bad press.

It makes me wonder about information that we heard somewhere, once upon a time and we – in fishy terms – swallowed, hook line and sinker! What other information do we presume to know as undisputed truth, but it is just isn’t true at all?

Someone once told me, and I believed them, that God was watching me. He had a little black book in which he recorded all of my misdemeanours. Maybe it wasn’t such a little book as I was not angel. I fretted about that book and tried hard to be good. I put myself under intense pressure and eventually cracked up. I could never be that good, so why keep trying?

What a relief it was to discover the truth. There is no black book! Yes, I am being watched, but watched in love. I don’t need to be good enough because Jesus has been good enough on my behalf.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Something That Isn't Jesus

I have come from a church history of preachers that like to dissect Bible passages and then order their notes neatly with alliterating headings! They make four or five points that are perhaps memorable because the headings start with the same letter.

This way of bringing a word appeals to the “control freak” nature in me. I like things to fit into neat patterns and structure. I don’t really do “messy”.

However, having said that, in the Monday evening contemplation of the first chapter of Genesis, we were encouraged to think about just one thing that struck us as we read through. Under normal circumstances my mind would be making leapfrog connections between the words and alliterated headings for each section! But I kept it to the one thing!

I am bringing the word this week in church and decided to focus on the one thing again. The story is following on from the account of the Transfiguration. A man with a demon possessed child brings his son to Jesus and finds his disciples instead. Despite their experience – they have cast out demons before – they are unable to help.

The one thing that struck me was the whole concept of people coming to us, the Church, or us, as individual Christians, looking for Jesus, and finding something that isn’t Him at all.

Personally, as I was praying as I prepared my word, I am aware, that just like the disciples, I have done it before. I am on the rota for bringing the word. I have a bookcase-ful of commentaries and studies. I have a list of favourite website addresses and a history of successfully (?) bringing a message. I have done it before! But when my brothers and sisters come, and visitors come, to a meeting, looking for Jesus, do they get Jesus or do they get Mel? There are times when there is no difference. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing – just being the messenger, and faithfully delivering a God given message. However, there are also times when, I am not sure about the message. I am not sure that I have heard from God, but I am sure that with my mental gymnastics I can come up with the alliterated headings that apply. What I might end up with is good stuff that can inspire anyone. It’s stuff that they can build with – but it might not be God stuff which is what truly transforms.

This morning I went to mass at St. Mary’s. There seemed to be a little bit more incense waving and more bell-ringing than normal. I thought of the people that come looking for Jesus. Do they find Him? Undoubtedly there are people who find Jesus in the ritual and the ceremony, but for some people, all of that becomes interference and intrudes on their search of Christ. Perhaps there are others that never find Jesus but never realise they haven’t found him. The ritual and the ceremony becomes a substitute fro the real thing.

All churches have their ritual. Substitute a worship band for incense waving, for example, or clapping hands for bell ringing. Any of the things that we do can end up being a substitute for the real encounter.

The man with the demon possessed child knew when he had encountered Jesus. In the presence of Jesus he couldn’t pretend a faith level he didn’t possess. He realised the poverty of his spirit, acknowledging just how much help he needed. His son was released from his demonic jailer. Without Jesus none of those things are possible.

I don’t want people to come to me looking for Jesus, and finding something that isn’t Him.