Tuesday, February 24, 2009

As Others See Us

I have to admit that the gallery in Inverness Museum is fast becoming one of my favourite places. The gallery is on the first floor of the building. It is not a permanent exhibition but changes every so often. For one of the exhibitions, quite a while ago, a number of artists were told to do something about chairs. The variety and creativity of the results was amazing. A more recent exhibition focussed on the topic of journeys. Some artists had sculpted boats, others had used shells and seaweed and packing cases.

The current exhibition celebrates the poetry of Robert Burns. A selection of Scottish people from all walks of life and different disciplines had been asked to choose their favourite Burn’s poems and explain what it meant to them.

I don’t pretend to know much about Burns. Joe and I have never attended a Burns Night supper, although we have done our own versions on a much smaller and less formal scale with friends at home.

The exhibit caught my eye because one of the first contributors, complete with photograph and brief biography, was Peter Howson, whose artwork I admire. His choice of Burns verse was not one that I was familiar with.

Holy Willie's Prayer

Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To shew Thy grace is great and ample:
I'm here, a pillar o' Thy temple
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a ruler and example
To a' Thy flock.

What impressed Howson about Burns was that such a flawed man, touched by tragedy, could write such beautiful poetry. We are all flawed in some way, but too often our flaws and our tragedies poison what we do. We don’t always some out with something beautiful.

One of the other contributors made the comment that Burns’ poetry was accessible. There is no point writing anything is the reader needs a degree or has to have read the classics to understand what you wish to communicate.

Before I found the room with the Burns poetry, there was another exhibition of various artists. On one wall was a series of still life paintings – a bowl of fruit, another bowl of fruit with a ball on the table, another bowl of fruit reflected in a mirror, another bowl of fruit in shades of grey. The next wall had a series of black and white photos, many of them looked like close ups of a pile of driftwood. The following wall – that could only be appreciated by a person with an art degree – contained canvasses with, how can I put this? When I was a child I played with wet paint and a straw, blowing the paint in different directions. Had I kept any of my masterpieces, they would have stood side by side with any of those canvasses! “Heron on Water” had lots of blue paint, but where the heron was anyone’s guess! Not accessible at all! The final wall was a collection of sculptures. Again they had some exotic names but didn’t look like anything recognisable. There is nothing worse that staring at something and just not making the connection.

Another of the Burns’ contributors was a musician Eddi Reader. She has snag her way through every Burns’ song going and recorded an album. In her comments she said how she had been to all the places that Burns had been, stood in the same doorways, drank in the same bars, looked out on the same scenery he had seen. It reminded me of all those people that go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and walk in the footsteps of Jesus! They feel closer in some way.

There were a couple of other comments that have made me think about my writing. Someone mentioned that Burns looked all about hi, at the society of his day, at all the issues that people were talking about. He responded with poetry. Poetry was his heart speaking about all that he saw around him. The idea of making poetry my response to the things around me is challenging.

I am aware that my poetry is very much limited to spiritual things, although in some sense all things are spiritual. “A poet should cast his mind widely”.

For me poetry seems to be born out of meditation on scripture. There are few poems that I don’t muse about long before I start to string words together. Maybe if I mused more about all aspects of life, I would have a wider repertoire of poems. The more poems you write the more you perfect your craft.

Much to ponder!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Earlier this week, Joe and I spent time with a friend of our helping her to strip wallpaper from her bedroom wall ready for the expert painters to take over. One wonders about the foolishness of folk in the 1970s and 80s putting up woodchip! It comes off in bits and pieces and leaves the plaster below it with pock marks. I suppose that we should be grateful it comes off at all!

In between dousing the wall with water, and vigorously wielding the paint stripper and maintaining an interesting conversation, it was time well spent and we achieved a healthy patch of naked wall!

It was the tea break and the trip to the toilet that impressed me most. My friend’s house is very tidy! I suppose that when I look at my mess, and my husband’s, I soothe my guilty conscience by reminding myself that I am a busy teacher and active in the church. So is my friend – busier in fact. I think we both arrive at our respective schools at about the same time, but long after I have dusted the whiteboard ink (I would have said chalk but we don’t use chalk any more), the whiteboard ink (is it really ink? What is it inside the container anyway?), the whiteboard ink and locked my door and walked, driven or bussed away home, she is still there. So being busy is not an excuse.

After being at her house for the afternoon – even the wall stripping was done in a tidy manner – for weeks after we do something similar we trail bits of paper around on the bottom of shoes and slippers over the house – coming home to our house I was assailed by the mess. It doesn’t qualify as a tidy mess. If we were a hotel we could have been closed down and fumigated – or just simply closed down and condemned!

I often muse about the untidiness of the house, and less often do anything about it, but this afternoon, I seriously mused! It was inexcusable to put up with all the litter, the unwashed cups, the empty crisp wrappers (no matter how neatly they had been tied into a knot), the newspapers read and abandoned, the piles of Bibles and notebooks and pens (in various stages of used up), the ironing on the spare chair waiting to be done…it is all there and I would probably have not given them much thought had I not seen my friend’s clean house. Her living room, her kitchen, her bathroom – even the bedroom with the half naked wall, all emanated peace and tranquillity. Everything in my house shouts out “Clean me! Wash me! Move me! Iron me!”

It is amazing what we accept as normal until we see someone else’s normal!

I have heard too many times the people who say that they can be a Christian all by themselves and that they don’t need anyone else. They don’t need to be a part of a church. Technically they may be right! Sometimes I am a better Christian all by myself and it is the people that I deal with, inside and outside of church, who are the ones that trip me up.

Just like the example my friend set in the neatness of her house, I think that the examples set to us by our fellow church family member is essential! Only by being in her house could I see how neat she kept things, only by being side by side with other believers can we be encouraged in our walk. We need to be witnesses to people’s triumphs of adversity. We also need to be witnesses to people failing to triumph too, so that we know “life in all its fullness.” We don’t get that by ourselves.

We get a very skewed view of what normal for being a Christian is all about and only as part of a body can we see what really is normal.

I would like to say that my house is that much the tidier this week – I would like to. It is perhaps a little tidier. Some of the ironing has been done. Most of the papers have been collected and put in the recycling box. The used cups have been washed up (to be used again and left). But I have a picture in my mind about what tidy looks like. Maybe tidy for her looks like one thing and tidy for me looks like another…lets not open that can of worms!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

MOT Musings

I have spent too much of this week at the garage just down the road from my work. As ever my MOT was overdue and I booked the car in to get seen to. I was quite confident that it would be fine. The tyres had been seen to just a couple of weeks ago.

Well, so much for confidence. We did not pass successfully. The list wasn’t a long one, but one of the items was a bit costly. We have savings for that kind of thing, so I just took a deep breath and offered up the bank card.

They kept the car overnight, not that it was dangerous to drive or anything, or not that they had any clue that the MOT had run out, but simply because there would be no one around early enough to leave the keys with.

The next day I phoned to see how things were progressing. I was actually in a position to leave work early that day, but being told “another forty minutes” I just stayed on a did a few things. The forty minutes easily became an hour and bit before I arrived at the garage. The car was hoisted up and being tinkered with, so I took a seat in the waiting room.

An hour and a half later I was still there.

I read my way through the newspapers on the table, averting my eyes from a scantily clad woman on the front cover of the Daily Star. Someone had left behind a couple of weightier papers. If you watch the Sunday morning programme, they do a section that covers interesting articles in papers.

I picked out two.

The first was an article about drivers' licences. Who ever issues them is raking in the millions because the plastic picture licences have to be renewed every ten years. Most people don’t realise this and end up getting prosecuted. The “use by” date is printed in very small print just above the picture. However, just to complicate things, on the reverse side of the card there are a list of other “use by” dates next to the list of vehicles that the driver is able to drive. The dates are not the same. People look at those dates and not the one, the smaller print one, on the front of the card. Needless to say I got out my licence and scrutinised the date. I am OK for another five years! You have to pay to get the card renewed! Seems mean to me!

The second story was focussing on the anniversary of Charles Darwin in his legacy of evolution. Have we unlocked the mysteries of the universe? The unravelling of DNA codes were supposed to tell us so much, but in fact have posed more questions. The differences between species, not just chimps and humans, but flies and humans, and worms and humans, is so slight that it is amazing that such a slight variation in the genes results in such variety of life forms. The technology that has been developed that allows us to scan the human brain and light up bits of it that are used for different tasks was supposed to mind-map the mind. The more we seem to find out about ourselves the less we seem to know! What amazed the writer was how simple everything looks, but how incredibly complex it all is. It is like Torvill and Dean – they made Bolero look easy to skate, but when you and I put on our skates and take to the ice, it is not so easy at all. The secret of a good creator is to make creation look simple, when it isn’t!

As I was reading, I just wanted to scrawl across the page – God! The more I read the more I was amazed at the creative genius of God.

The afternoon wore on. The car was lowered and driven out the garage to join the queue to be retested. I had done the newspapers and dug through the purse to buy a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine.

Meanwhile other customers came and went. I have to admit that one man reached over to pick up the Daily Star with the scantily clad woman pouring out of a bikini. I must have given him my most disapproving look because he put it down quite swiftly!

The car eventually got released into my custody and I went home!

Worshipping like the Whales

I caught the tail end of a nature programme last week – Nature’s Great Events. The place was the Artic and the events might have been more to do with polar bears, and how they were dealing with the warming up of the oceans and the melting of the ice caps.

In amongst all the struggles of the polar bear, there was a small snapshot of a pod of beluga whales. They look like white dolphins. They have the same shaped face.

Apparently once a sufficient amount of ice has melted, the beluga whales swim into the coastal waters. They have a two week stint when they all gather together. They splash around and stir up the stones and pebbles from the sea bottom. The friction of the stones and the water acts like a defoliator, peeling off the old skin along with all of the wee parasites that have made their home there.

As the narrator said, for those two weeks they “joyfully” frolic in the water!

I am sure you have had moments when it feels like a light bulb has switched on inside! I had a moment of revelation! Just as the beluga whales were stirring up the stones and the water, and shedding themselves of old skin and parasites, I had a picture of what worship ought to be like.

In worship we ought to be stirring something up – obviously not stones on the sea bottom, but something. There is a sense in which we ought to be shedding “old skin”, and “parasites”. I am not sure that I can adequately work out what the old skin and parasites could be. For me the old skin is the tiredness of the working week with all its little niggles. The parasites might be the words that have been spoken, or attitudes and actions of others that burrowed into my heart, sapping my joy and peace.

In so many churches, people are often too passive in worship. We come away from the meeting without having shed the heaviness and the hurts of the week. We leave pretty much unchanged from when we arrived.

The beluga whales were not passive in the artic ocean. Their tales were slapping the water. They were creating waves. They all got involved. They showed an aerial view. There were lots of whales and the water was heaving with white waves.

In worship we need to create a few waves! We need to stir up the water and shed stuff that irritates!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Writing Love Letters

Valentine’s Day often comes and goes un-marked by some.

I had planned to cook an intimate meal for two, had worked out the menu, but then was informed that the rugby is on tonight and we have been invited to watch it with friends. My carefully planned meal has been replaced with something less romantic… ruby, beer and pizza!

I had been watching TV last night and one of the guest presenters was lamenting that people no longer write love letters. They text a message “Luv U babe” and press the send button! He read out some examples of proper letters – from Napoleon to Josephine – letters that were eloquent and something that the object of his love would put under a pillow and dream sweet dreams over!

I hadn’t forgotten to buy a card. I had it in my trolley at the supermarket. I just hadn’t picked up the envelope to go with it, and couldn’t face the search among the aisles to track the envelope down. Besides which, I had previously bought a box of cards for all occasions and I was sure that there would be one in there.

Aware that perhaps I was not putting enough thought and care into choosing a card that expressed all that I wanted it to say, I decided to take up the presenter’s challenge and write a love letter.

It’s not that I didn’t know where to begin – I am a writer, after all. I just wanted to see how others said you should begin. I googled “writing a love letter” and printed off the list of things to do.

The first item on the list was about the writing environment. The kitchen table over looking the pile of dishes from last night’s meal, with the local radio station blaring out a mixture of adverts and songs, was not ideal. I needed to be near a roaring fire, with romantic music playing in the background. We don’t have a roaring fire, although the romantic music was a possibility. I went out to the local pub. It was early enough in the morning to be selling morning coffees. There was a fire, but no music and I didn’t feel confident asking the man behind the bar if he could find some. I just settled myself down at a quiet table and got writing!

My corner of the room was pervaded by perfumed paper in a pastel shade of lilac. The card, quite a nice one I have to admit, was there, pink with hearts, with a pink envelope. And, of course, my list of what to include in the letter was close to hand.

I wonder what the bar man thought as he glanced over to my corner of the room. I would like to think that he wished that he had a wife or a girlfriend that sat in a quiet corner of a room and wrote a love letter on perfumed paper, instead of the quick text “Luv U babe.”

It is amazing that just the act of writing a letter makes you remember things, it makes you think about the person you are writing to, picture them in your head, imagine how they will react to your words. I say the words “I love you” and they are no lie, but when you write a love letter, you want to find words to explain how you love and why you love. You smile as you write.

“Luv U babe” gets translated into every aspect of life. What is convenient, what is instant, what is fuss free is how we love our lives and we forget to loiter. We do just enough, and occasionally go the extra mile, but we don’t live in excess or over the top. As I sat and wrote my letter, I invested time into something that wasn’t short and snappy, wedged into an already busy segment of the day. Some would say that I wasted a bit of time. It was an enjoyable waste, and from the look on my husband’s face after he read it, not a waste at all!

I think we all need to "waste" a little more time on most, if not all of, our relationships.

Monday, February 09, 2009

A Gross in a Box All Alike

A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, while my husband was perusing the shelves of a second hand book shop, I sat on a sofa drinking a very delicious cup of coffee in a nearby cafĂ©. I was minding my own business, just appreciating a comfortable place to sit, and the taste of the coffee when someone walked in and said, “Hi, Mel.”

I was just too relaxed to make my mind do the mental gymnastics required to put an name to the face. I had an idea, but wasn’t confident enough to say, “Hi, Avril.” What went through my mind was the embarrassment that would follow if it wasn’t Avril but someone else entirely!

“It’s Avril!” the woman continued, “You used to visit me in my house many years ago.”

I had met Avril once since those days some fifteen years ago. The baby she had been bouncing on her knee was in her last year at school and about to be launched into the world of universities and degrees.

I used to go door knocking in those days. I may or may not have carried a clip board and stood on the doorstep. It was rather like fishing. You cast a line with a tasty morsel of an interesting question and waited for them to bite.

Avril bit! She was probably saved, but because she did not say the right formula of words, she was considered not yet “born again” by our kind of church. She probalby didn’t need to be preached at, but I preached anyway. I visited often, played with her kids, collected apples that fell from her tree, borrowed her bike and baby sat. All the while I coached her to say the magic formula!

I look back in horror on my arrogance that I had got it so right and was moving forward in the Lord, and Avril was not because she was not in my kind of church! I have grown up since those days and abandoned my formulas. God cannot be boxed in, and neither can His dealings with His children fit into neat boxes!

I was reminded of this by some words in a book I am reading by Charles Spurgeon.

“God does not make converts as men make steel pens, a gross in a box all alike. Nay, nay, but in each case there is a living man created, and every living man, every living animal, every living plant is somewhat different from every other of its kind. You must not look for uniformity in the work of regeneration.”

It is not just in regeneration that we should not look for uniformity. Throughout our whole walk with God, we may not always travel the same road. The scenery God want to show me is my scenery and may do nothing to stir and challenge you in your walk with God.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Too Easy

A number of years ago, Joe and I went to Rome. It was an October holiday and I can remember that we went for a posh meal somewhere, complete with wine. The next day, on a trip to the villages in the hills surrounding Rome, we bought the same bottle of wine in a local supermarket for a fraction of the price!

What really sticks in my mind is something I didn’t do, rather than something I did. Somewhere in Rome, in one of the churches, there was a staircase. It had originally been a part of Pilate’s palace, I think. Someone had moved the staircase to this church in Rome. They had a habit of doing that kind of thing in the early days. Bits of the cross, bones of various saints and other religious paraphernalia were collected and treasured. This staircase just happened to be a bit bigger than most other religious artefacts.

Half of the staircase was roped off. It was set aside for pilgrims to ascend on their knees. The other half was for “normal people” to go up and down.

The one thing I regret was joining the normal people! There was something in me that really did want to do the knee ascend, not out of any impression that I could really impress God by the manoeuvre, but I suppose out of a desire to kneel before God and catch a sense of awe and wonder.

Sometimes as Christians we can take so much of the sensory experience of spirituality out of our walk with God that life and worship can be almost bland. I am not saying that anyone should ascend a staircase on their knees, that there is any more merit to be had than just walking up. People can wrap themselves in blankets of sensory experiences and not connect with God at all.

I have just finished watching a programme about a particular Buddhist celebration. I can’t remember the name of it. It is not an annual one, and it doesn’t always happen in the same place each time.

This particular year, the celebration was held in Tibet, in the town where the Buddha became enlightened. Lots pilgrims made the effort to attend, travelling from all over the place.

The programme covered a lot of symbolic actions. I was watching to see if there was anything useful, a small section that I could show to the young people I deal with and provoke conversation or whatever.

Most of the pilgrims walked to Bodh Goya. There were a group that didn’t just walk. They prostrated themselves along the route. They would take a step, kneel down, stretch out on the floor, then get back up, take another step and do the same thing. It didn’t matter about the terrain, over rocks, through streams of water, they would do the prostration. One man was interviewed. It had taken him three years to travel to Bodh Goya, travelling thousands of miles, prostrating himself at every step. He had a wound on his head and fibrous lumps on the side of his hands, from all the prostrating.

I can’t comprehend that kind of devotion. It puts going up a flight of stairs on your knees into the pale!

Part of the celebrations involved walking around the base of a mountain. It took three days to do it. Some of the pilgrims did the journey prostrating. The pilgrims that had not been properly acclimatised risked their lives to do it. At the end of the journey they erected huge pole with prayer flags flying from them.

The monks spent days meticulously constructing a huge mantra, an elaborate pattern, made of coloured sand, only to sweep it all away at the end of the celebration. It was a detailed work of art which had taken them ages to put together. The monks worked twelve hour shifts to get it done, and then it’s all swept away.

There just seemed to be so much to do. It was an endurance test.

Christianity in comparison, the vibrant faith variety, has it so much easier! You choose whether to ascend the staircase on your knees. No one makes you do it. And yet there is a sense that it is harder too. To rest on the work that someone else has done for you doesn’t always sit so easy. To have someone else say “It is finished” and to know that there is nothing you can add to that work…it’s like it is too easy. Inside we almost cry out for something to do, for some part in it…and our part is to receive what has been done, simply to accept.

Pride does not find that an easy part to play.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

My Ship of Faith

I was woken up at three in the morning by a combination of a sleeping husband on the sofa downstairs, a weightwatcher's flan slowly burning in a hot oven and a poem inspired by Charles Spurgeon's sermon itching to be born!

"My Ship of Faith"

He said my life was meant to be
A sailing ship upon the sea
To bear His love to far off places
Speak His hope to down-turned faces

Instead aboard a tiny boat
I struggled oft’ to stay afloat
A tiny boat that hugged the shore
I rarely looked for something more

“Come leave that boat upon the sand
Embrace the life for you I’ve planned
A ship of faith with sails unfurled
A voyage through an unseen world

"In the storm let faith be tried
Know My presence by your side
Amid the wind and roaring sea
Be assured you’re safe with Me"

Little boats can never be
Vessels for the open sea
Little dreams cannot fulfil
The Father’s plans, the Father’s will

(c) Melanie Kerr 2009