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.