Saturday, January 31, 2009

"To Lilian"

I had no intention of buying a book. I have more than enough books in the house that I have yet to read, but seeing as I was in a bookshop, a second hand bookshop at that, I had a muse about the shelves.

What attracted me to this particular book was not the title “Twelve Sermons for the Troubled and the Tried”, nor the author, Charles Spurgeon. It was the handwritten note at the top of the title page “To Lilian…13/10/81” There were at least half a dozen “Twelve Sermon…” books in a series, one placed right next to the other. All of them carried the inscription “To Lilian.” Only the date was different in each case.

I wondered who Lilian was. I wondered whether Lilian had actually read the books. I know that I am one for buying books, even books of a favourite author, and dipping into them as interesting chapter headings capture my interest. I don’t always read a book from cover to cover.

I wondered if, when reading one of the sermons, how much she had been touched by the words. There are times when I pick up a book, turn to a chapter, and the words written there speak a truth to my heart that almost hurts as it cuts deep. I wondered if Lilian had any kinds of those moments when she read the books.

Reading through the early chapters of the book of Exodus, and seeing how Pharaoh kept hardening his heart, and refused to hear the truth, even when it was spoken by his magicians and sorcerers, even when it was believed and acted upon by some of his officials, I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to be faced with God’s word and have too hard a heart not to be touched by it.

Reading my recently purchased book over a cup of coffee in yet another newly opened coffee shop in the city centre, my attention was caught by these words.

“God never gave us faith to play with. It is a sword, but it was not made for presentation on a gala day, nor to be worn on state occasions only, nor to be exhibited upon a parade ground. It is a sword that is meant to cut and wound and slay; and he that has the grit about him may expect, between here and heaven, that he shall know what battle means…His gift of faith to you is a hint that you will want it; that at certain points and places you will especially require it, and that at all points, and in every place, you will really need it…and if God is to give thee great faith thou must expect great trials…Little boats may keep close to the shore, as becomes little boats, but if God make thee a great vessel, and load thee with a rich freight, he means that thou shouldst know what great billows are and should feel their fury till thou seest His wonders in the deep. ”

I crave safety too often, and spurn the great vessel in favour of the small boat keeping close to the shore, and when I do so my faith is so much the poorer for it!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Ten Minute Comfort Factor

It was a CTD teacher than passed on this morsel of interesting information. He didn’t pass it on to me as such. I just happened to be present when he was talking to a group of young people.

They had been set the project to design a sports shoe.

He had a box with a trainer in it and pointed out the various features. The colours, the logos, the quality of the laces and the cushioned sole – all of these features were not random choices but carefully constructed for one reason or another.

Then he went on to say, “Of course, you all know that every design for a sport’s shoe incorporates the “ten minute comfort factor”. Of course, we all didn’t, so he explained. We have all done it. We have gone into a shop and tried on a shoe. We have twisted our feet to peculiar angles in front of the mirror at the bottom of the wall. We have all walked up and down the carpeted shop. We have lifted ourselves up on to our tip toes, and then dug out heels into the ground and tried to lift our toes. This all apparently takes under ten minutes.

The shoes pass the comfort test and we line up at the check out desk, where the queue seems to be abnormally long and slow moving. And we walk away with out purchase. Once out of the shop, wearing the new shoes, we come to the realisation that the shoe isn’t that comfortable at all. I am sure that it actually makes a difference what time of the day we try the shoes on.

I suppose that we are honest enough to admit that however comfortable we felt in the shop, there is always going to be some breaking in. It’s new leather and there is a bit of stretching that has yet to happen.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. Maybe you have lucky feet! Me, I have unlucky feet. One foot is definitely half a size larger than the other. Whatever feels good on my right foot, you can bet that on the left foot it will be much tighter. Whatever feels good on the left foot will probably slip off the right foot. I have a feeling there is probably some company that mixes and matches shoe boxes precisely for people just like me.

The shoe might have felt comfortable for ten minutes in the shop, but believe me it’s not comfortable an hour or two later!

It doesn’t help that I am too mean and miserly to pay for a really good shoe that costs more than my entire food budget for the next month! I wait until the sales, and even then, hum and ha over the price which is still, in my opinion, a bit steep. Don’t criticise me, please…I was born and bought up in a hand-me-downs household!

It doesn’t help either that my last pair of ten-minutes-in-the-shop-wonderful pair of shoes have rubbed sufficiently persistently to give me a corn on my little toe. I rubbed away at it with an emery board a few weeks ago…probably not the best use of an emery board, or the best way to deal with a corn! It worked, for a while.

I wonder if it is possible sometimes that we “market” our faith with an incorporated “ten minute comfort factor”. For a while, perhaps not as short as ten minutes, perhaps as long as a week, or a month, or two months everything is fine, then reality hits. People sometimes don’t seem to be aware that, yes, there is grace, but yes, there is also discipline and devotion and dedication. We don't take enough time to really lay down the foundations of our faith. Just as the new leather needs to soften up to the shape of the foot, our lives need to do some softening up to take on the shape of our new faith. It is all too easy to soften the faith to make it more palatable to our lives…but the change needs to come from us.

Just as shoes that rubs and rubs results in a spot of hard skin called a corn, one wonders if the result of badly fitting faith that rubs and rubs results in a few hard spots in our hearts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The teacher training college that I went to was a place called Middleton St George, about seven miles or so from Darlington. It was perched at the end of the runway at Teeside Airport. Teeside wasn’t the busiest of airports, which was all well and good seeing as the noise from the planes landing or taking off was rather loud. It you happened to be outside when it happened you could almost identify individual faces in the round windows, the plane being so low!

The college, in a previous existence, had been an air force base during the Second World War, and maybe the first one too. It was very military looking. The buildings were built not to look good but to be practical.

The place was closed down just after we left. In fact, we were the last intake. Our final year saw just the couple of hundred of us bouncing around in the buildings.

One thing that they did have was an earwig infestation. The earwigs lived in the ventilation system. The vents were at the top of the walls and the rooms being a certain shape, the beds would only fit alongside the wall where the vents were.

It was not uncommon to be lying on the bed and have an earwig fall on you. It was more common for you to be out of you room for most of the day and when you returned there would be half a dozen crawling around on your eiderdown (this was the days before duvet covers).

I don’t really do creepy crawlies. I don’t do them crawling around on the bed, and I certainly don’t so them falling on me! After a while, I guess we just got used to them. We stopped screaming and jumping around like banshees when one landed on us. We just picked it up and tossed it out the window. It was just part of the college experience!

I am not even sure if the college every got in the pest control people. It was never deemed a serious risk to our health and well being, but had someone offered to get rid of the earwigs, I don’t think anyone would have protested. There would have been a resounding “Yes, please!” They may have been harmless, but they were not loved and respected!

It just makes me wonder why Pharaoh, when confronted by the plague of frogs put up with them one more day than he needed to. Once he had agreed to let the Israelites leave, Moses offered to pray for the frogs to go. All Pharaoh was required to so was to say when he wanted Moses to pray.

Imagine frogs in the bed, frogs in the bath, frogs swimming in your tea, and in your bowl of cornflakes. There were frogs everywhere…and not just the ones that Moses had summoned. There was a double dose because the magicians had conjured up their own frogs too.

Pharaoh’s answer to “when” was “Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? Why wait another moment? Why put up with the inconvenience any longer than you need to? Tomorrow means more frogs in you bed, more frogs in you bath? Why wait until tomorrow?

I have no answers.

“Tomorrow”. How many times have we said “Tomorrow” about certain things? There are things that we put up with when we don’t really need to. We can do something about them now. Why wait any longer?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Before a Watching World

I was sat in the car. To the left of me I could see the wall of the garage. It probably wasn’t as near as I thought it was. To my right were a pile of tyres, recently removed from my car when I went to get the tyres checked and changed. Again, they were probably not as near as I thought they were. The audience comprised of a half a dozen or more mechanics, most of whom were probably a lot busier that I supposed. Two or three male customers stood beside the door to the waiting room, cigarettes stuck in mouths, mobile phones glued to their ears, probably not even watching.

Every fibre in my being wanted to ask someone else to reverse the car. I could have simpered with the best of simpering females, and smiled helplessly, but in that one manoeuvre I was aware that it was being witnessed not just by a bunch of men, but that the spirits of dead suffragettes, who had chained themselves to iron railings to ensure that I would have a vote, were also watching!

Even though I had an all male audience, and there were obstacles to the left of me, and obstacles to the right, I clamped down my panic, told myself boldy that I could do this, gently reversed my car out of the garage, confidently executed a three point turn and drove away!

I watched the other day as Obama was sworn in as President of the USA. With obstacles to the left of him, obstacles to the right and in full view of a watching world, he took on the mantle of leadership. Watching him were the spirits of every black civil rights campaigner, and every white civil rights campaigner, who had died in the struggle for freedom and equal rights.

If he manages all his political three point turns without hitting the wall, or the pile of discarded rubber tyres, his success is the success of every black person in US. And if he fails…well, failure is not an option.

No pressure!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mashed Banana Doctrine

I am valiantly ploughing my way through one of the classics, Charles Dickens’ book “A Tale of Two Cities”. I picked it up in a charity shop a month or two ago.

At school I was deemed not intelligent enough to qualify for the top stream which tackled quality literature like Shakespeare. Placed in the middle stream we ambled along at a slower pace with a slightly dumbed-down syllabus. There were few expectations that any of us would amount to anything in the academic world. I broke the mould!

“A Tale of Two Cities” is somewhere in my husband’s top ten best reads. He admits that it was a long time ago when he read it, but he remembers it as a rattling good yarn. I am not so sure that he is not remembering the black and white film of it, which is also a rattling good yarn! Dickens has a way with words, as we all know. Where twelve carefully chosen ones would do, Dickens eaks it out to a paragraph or two! Where a concisely written paragraph of action is sufficient, Dickens spreads it over two or three pages! I loose myself in the maze of clauses and sub-clauses, and have to retrace my steps to find out what was at the beginning of the sentence!

It’s just not how people write these days. Short sentences that go in a straight line, without meandering make up most of the books I read.

A W Tozer in one of his books makes the point that we have lost the art of reading through difficult prose. The heavy theological tomes that the fathers of the faith either wrote themselves or read are left on the shelf. We look for short and snappy ideas, where the writer spoon feeds us the mashed banana version of something much chewier!

Our mental muscles are atrophied and we don’t even know it.

I think that by challenging myself to finish “The Tale of Two Cities”, I am in the process trying to halt my mental laziness. If I can finish Dickens I will feel that my mind has become a little less flabby and piled on a little more muscle.

I don’t want to be lazy in my apprehension of scripture either. I don’t want the mashed banana version of doctrines either. I want to know what I believe, and know why I believe it. I just want a little bit of depth and a little less fluff!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tending the Soul

A friend persuaded me to open a “facebook” page a couple of months ago. I even managed to track down a fairly decent photo for the page to replace the androgynous grey image in the photo box. It allows me to maintain some form of connection with people. I like keeping an auntie’s eye on my two nieces who seem to post a million pouting poses of themselves and their friends every day. Oh, the exuberance and the vanity of the young!

There seems to be a lot of applications and programmes to play with too. I kind of drowned for a while in a half dozen word puzzles, and now I am spending my time sending and receiving plants for a cyber-garden. Occasionally I have to wield a cyber rake to get rid of my cyber leaves, or feed a cyber bone to a cyber dog that seems to have found a way under the cyber fence that no doubt needs a few cyber nails to repair it!

As I send out plants I am apparently saving square feet of the rainforest – the real rainforest, not the cyber one!

Underneath the green space of my garden there are some interesting statistics that tell me not just who of my cyber pals have contributed most of the plants, but also who else, apart from me is raking up the cyber leaves and feeding the cyber dog in my garden.

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that I wish that in real someone would come into my real garden. There are no leaves the rake up, but the doggy do left by the non-cyber-dog that makes free with my lawn – it would be nice if someone scooped it up!

I bought a book at the weekend. “Finding Our Way Again” by Brian MacLaren. He talks about the need to tend the soul. Left unattended, our soul, he suggests, “will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a vacant lot filled with thorns, weeds, broken bottles, raggedy grocery bags and dog droppings.” What exercise does for our bodies, and study does for our minds, we need something for our souls. The book then launches into spiritual disciplines.

I like the idea that I am not called upon, alone, to tend my soul – although the chief responsibility lies with me. Just as I have cyber friends popping in to chase the cyber rabbits out of my cyber garden, I also have friends who join with me in tending my soul. We are all called upon to tend each others souls – to keep, not just an auntie’s eye on the nieces, but speaking a brother’s word of encouragement, and a sister’s gentle reproving into the family that God has birthed us into.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

In the Thick of It

I can remember many years ago having a discussion with a friend about opting out of Religious Education when they were in school. It is one of the few subjects in some school that is compulsory. Pupils don’t really have a choice about attending or not, unless their parents can produce a letter highlighting what the “religious” issue is. They are not allowed to opt out simply to dedicate more time to other subjects that they feel might be more valuable to them. They have to prove that what is being taught compromises their own religious values in some way.

There is a sense a which some parents feel that the beliefs of their children will come under attack if they study the theory of evolution when they have a creationist background, or how studying Islam is somehow going to confuse them, or convert them!

I am all for nurturing a person’s faith, but at some time or another their faith need to be tested. As much as a person needs to know why they believe the things that they believe, they also need to know why they reject the things that they don’t believe.

Some people live in a religious bubble. They bounce from church on a Sunday, to a prayer meeting or Bible study mid-week, a cup of coffee with a Christian friend…and they never really touch the yet-to-be-Christians.

I was reading in Exodus how as soon as Moses was weaned he went to live in the palace with the Pharoah’s daughter, surrounded by Egyptian culture, customs, religion and way of life.

God wanted his people out of Egypt but plunges his deliverer right into the centre of Egyptian life. Does He sit wringing his hands, worrying that Moses is buying into the whole Egyptian lifestyle? I don’t think he does. God knows that the gods of the Egyptians are just wood and stone. They don’t have any power. He also knows that somewhere down the line Moses is going to encounter the Living God in a burning bush. Whatever Moses might think about Ra and Seth and all the other gods, when he encounters the real thing, he will know who is real and who isn’t.

In the meantime works on developing the heart of His deliverer. Watching an Egyptian beating up a Hebrew slave leads Moses to take action. He even attempts to deliver one Hebrew from the violence of another. When he eventually leaves Egypt all together, his first act in the wilderness is one of deliverance – fighting off shepherds to protect a bunch of girls. Deliverance is in Moses’ DNA.

This whole opting-out thing, and religious-bubble thing is a lack of trust in ourselves that what we know and teach others is enough. Sometimes it is a lack of trust in our children. We don’t think they can discern truth from error – because we often can’t ourselves. Perhaps too, it is a lack of trust in God that the lure of the world is too powerful and God is too generous in giving us freedom, and that deep down we are really not sure that He will look after us.

Just think about Moses – in the thick of everything Egyptian, and yet he becomes the one person that God speaks to face to face.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Back on the Road

There are some people that can tell you exactly what they were doing when Neil Armstrong took those first memorable steps on the moon, or when the shots rang out from the grassy knoll that felled J. F. Kennedy, or when someone opened fire on John Lennon. These are defining moments in some people’s lives. I was probably outside “playing”.

Where were you between the hours of half past two and half past four yesterday afternoon? One would hope that you steered well clear of the roads in Inverness! Joe asked for and was given a block of driving lessons for his birthday. It has taken me a few months to get around to phoning an instructor.

“Has he driven before?” I was asked.

Two cars before the one we now have, Joe drove some of the way down to Rugby. Joining the A1 at Newcastle during rush hour was a notable event! Driving over the Aberdeen regularly for fertility treatment, Joe tackled some of the roundabouts in Elgin quite fearlessly! He has, in his time, accidentally driven into a privet hedge – the difference between forward and reverse gears can be a stickler at times. During a hill start he panicked, rolled down hill for a considerable distance and ended up in a ditch! Yes, he has driven before!

“Let’s call it 20 hours, shall we?”

The lesson yesterday was a two hour diagnostic operation to find out how much Joe had retained from his lessons and “practice” some fifteen years ago. You see, Joe doesn’t really want to learn to drive. He has a perfectly good chauffeur who is willing to drop him off and pick him up. It’s just that the nature of his job is changing and it is no longer of case of not wanting to learn to drive but having to learn to drive. The job demands it – and Joe loves his job.

We were swapping words the other night that best described how he was feeling. Anxious? A little bit too strong a word. Worried? Again a bit too strong a word. Uneasy? That’s more like it!

He phoned after the two hour lesson to tell me that it went well. He liked the instructor and thought that the instructor liked him. I think what Joe liked more was that he was getting to grips with actually passing his test this time around!

Me? I am looking forward to passing on the mantel of the MOT and all car related concerns!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Ninety Nine Places

I am not sure that what I have in my head is a working title for a poetry book or a gauntlet being thrown down by my imagination. The title is “Ninety Bine Places”. It comes out of a book I got at Christmas, “Teach Yourself Creative Writing”. It doesn’t actually specify ninety nine places, but one of the exercises is to find different places, or venues to write. You don’t write about the places, but observe people and places and find inspiration to write about whatever the place or the people provoke you to write. Naturally it doesn’t have to be poetry either – any kind of writing will do.

The request for the book is a challenge in itself, never mind the ninety nine places. Some friends of ours are looking into the coffee culture and seriously thinking about opening a coffee house to provide an alternative drinking venue from clubs and bars. Most cafes and coffee places are daytime establishments and our friends are looking into something geared towards evenings.

This would not normally float my boat. I am a home-body, but another one of the exercises in the book is about joining a writing circle or a creative writing club. It would appear that there isn’t one in Inverness. There might be one that you need to be in the know to know about, something you find out about by word of mouth, rather than hitting the google button, but for all intents and purposes, there isn’t a “findable” one. On discovering this, my brain tootled “So start one going!” That’s rather proactive for me, but I decided to arm myself with a Teach Yourself Creative Writing book just in case I actually got proactive. A venue like a coffee shop would be ideal.

So, yes, challenges abound. Working titles? I am working on it!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Barrenness and Other Women's Babies

I can remember coming across Psalm 20:5 many years ago. “We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God.” It is the pronouns that impress me. It is easy to shout for joy when we are victorious but perhaps not so easy when the victory belongs to someone else. “You” is not you personally but the other person. While they are experiencing the victory, perhaps you are ankle deep in mire and not feeling the rock beneath your feet. As Christians we are a body and the victory of one member of the body is a communal victory – we all share in it. But we are all too human and when someone experiences something great, our all too human reaction is “Why them? Why not me?”

I was reading the opening chapter of Exodus, the account of the two midwives. I seemed to dredge up from somewhere that it was often barren women that became midwives. If they could not enjoy their own experience of giving birth to a new life, then they could enjoy it vicariously by aiding another woman to do so. I suppose that because they did not have the same responsibilities as mothers, they could respond to a call for help at any time of the day or night.

In my early days of discovering my own barrenness, I found it extremely hard to be around pregnant women. I found it hard to shout for joy when someone was so obviously enjoying a victory that was denied me. I am sure that most people did not begrudge me my silences, or my tears, and they didn’t last long, but my first response at hearing the “good news” was not joy.

When called upon by the Pharaoh to dispose of the baby boys as they came out of the womb, the two midwives refused to get involved. Much is made of the lie they gave to Pharaoh that the Hebrew women were strong and vigorous, giving birth before they could reach them. A lie that saves a life…particularly when one of the saved lives is Moses…is OK by God, and let’s not forget that the Ten Commandments along with “Thou shalt not bear false witness” was not yet given. And let’s not forget either that God rewards them with families of their own. I don’t think the reward is for the lying part, but for refusing to kill the babies.

I got to thinking about times when we all feel barren in our spiritual lives. There are seasons when things flourish and life bursts forth. There are also seasons when, like winter time, nothing is happening apart from ice crystals forming on frosty branches. It may be easy to look at someone who is flourishing, when we are not and ask “Why them? Why not me?”

The secret may be to not dwell upon our own barren state, but to involve ourselves in the lives of other people to ensure that what God has birthed in them comes to fruition. Not every birth is without its struggles. Our help and our encouragement to “Push” is needed. In helping Moses’ mother to give birth to him, and protect him from Pharaoh’s wicked scheme, those two midwives had played their part in the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt!

When we have helped others to bring to birth the things that God has conceived in them, it opens up the way for God bring to birth great things in us.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Being Fruitful and Multiplying Greatly

“The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.” Exodus 1:7

You know, that sentence so does not apply to my shitake mushroom kit! Apart from half a dozen very large mushrooms a few weeks ago, nothing much is happening in my block of compressed wood chips impregnated with shitake spawn.

I get excited when I read words and phrases like “fruitful”, “multiplied greatly”, “exceedingly numerous” and “the land was filled” and it is also a New Year with resolutions. I can just see it there written down…my resolution is to be fruitful, to work with God to see the church I am a part of multiply greatly… and so on.

If there was ever a day of pressure and great expectations it has to be January 1st of any year. People come out with some very grandiose resolutions. They wash off the chalk from last year’s list that they never really achieved, draw a line under their lack of success and take a clean stick of chalk from the box and start all over again with a new list.

Before I had written the first word on my resolution to be fruitful, God reminded me that the verse doesn’t stand in isolation. There is a “before” that came generations before the Israelites were fruitful. Way back in Genesis, God had made a promise to Abraham that just as the stars in the sky were beyond counting, his descendents would be beyond counting. And Abraham believed it would happen because God said so. Without God’s word and without Abraham’s faith in God’s word there would have been no “fruitful”, no “multiplied greatly”, no “exceedingly numerous” and no “the land was filled”. Abraham’s faith was the catalyst that made it happen.

There is no doubt that being fruitful is good. But there is a danger that the fruitfulness that I would like to see might be Mel manufactured. I am capable of great achievements when I put my mind to it. It needs to be something that begins not with me, but with God.

My problem is that I want the word to be “Mel-sized” – Mel manageable if it cannot be Mel manufactured. I don’t mind stretching if I can decide how far and in which direction, but that’s not what God wants. This is not about what I can manage. It has to be a “God-sized” word, managed entirely by God and where He gets to decide how far I am stretched and in what direction.