Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cloudy with Outbreaks of Rain

It may be the weather forecast for the day but it is also an apt description of how I feel right now. I am aware that it is coming close to holiday time and a million deadlines are not just looming on the horizon but are passing over me like birds flying south.

The clouds in my sky are mostly paper ones – newspaper articles that seem to have been dipped in poison, rolled up into little spit balls and carefully aimed at me with an elastic band stretched between two fingers.

I have a habit of scanning papers for interesting articles with religious content. It’s an on going challenge to demonstrate to the young people that I encounter that religion isn’t dead and that it still has the power to turn the world upside down. Too often all I find are articles about church buildings being sold or which church minister is having an affair with one of his parishioners. It is a sad testimony.

Last week there was a plethora of articles few of which were encouraging. Religion might not be dead, but according to a mathematical formula, it’s dying and will be dead in at least nine different countries. The formula was something along the lines of how many people express religious beliefs and whether they do so in an interesting and attractive way. A small group of boring people was basically how religion was summed up.

I followed a link – definitely a bad idea – to another article about a poll commissioned by a Humanist organisation to research people’s attitudes towards religion. Now, it seems to me that a humanist organisation is hardly going to publish evidence from their poll to state that religion is on the increase. You get what you pay for – and forget the whole notion of not being biased. I took it as said they would find “evidence” that religion is on the decline. I took that with a pinch of salt. What really got to me were the comments people had emailed in. Not one of them had anything positive to say about religion. They vented spleen leaving the reader in no doubt where they stood on the issue. Some of them came up with the usual suspects – religion causes war.

Another article was about the handsome, attractive young man on TV who unravels the mysteries of the universe before our very eyes on BBC2. He looks too young to be a professor. He professes himself to be a humanist, but lacks the axe-grinding gene. In fact, I think the article made a comment about him showing too much “wonder” about the universe. I don’t mind old, ugly professors dryly unlocking secrets but this man’s very youth and enthusiasm seem to have a special appeal.

I know there is a distinction between religion and faith, that one can have a name tag of “Christian” or “Muslim”. It is just a name tag and no indication of a vibrant faith walk. That kind of religion was never alive to begin with. Most people don’t really make my kind of distinction. Religion is just religion. I can also appreciate that when people talk about religion it is often prejudice speaking, uninformed and without the relevant experience.

The final cloud in my sky came through yet another article. I would stop reading newspapers but I happen to think it’s important to know what is out there, so I know what to pray about, and perhaps respond to.

This was about Religious Education in schools. Apparently there has been an increase in pupils taking certificated courses. Something at last to applaud! Read on, sir. The slant of the article was not so uplifting suggesting that RE was an easy qualification to get. The only reason it pupils opted for it was because they would get an A without the same effort as History or Geography. It was a soft option and the qualification gained wasn’t on par with the other subjects. I won’t go into detail on the comments posted about that.

So…that’s my cloudy day! My faith being diagnosed as terminal and my vocation labelled as “the soft option”.

A choice or rather a number of options present themselves. To swallow the spit balls and choke on them. To consign them to the waste paper bin where they belong! Or because I have already done the former – to take it to God, vomit up the spit balls and let Him douse me with disinfectant!

I am doused!

I think I see some blue sky!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On Yer Bike!

This morning while eating my breakfast I caught the tale end of TV programme where a 53 year old musician was challenged to participate in a cycle race in America. It was something he always wanted to do and now he had the chance.

The point at which I joined the programme the narrator was explaining the dangers of the race. It wasn’t about doing a million laps around a velodrome circuit, but a route that took in over a thousand miles of normal US highway. Apparently one could get knocked over by a huge truck that came up from behind.

The RAF team consisted of four riders. I’m not sure if they each did just a part of the route or they did the whole route together. The musician was part of a cycling club, so it wasn’t like learning from scratch how to ride a bike, but his cycling club were perhaps not so driven as the RAF folk. They wanted to win – as did the musician – but it was apparent that he wasn’t anywhere up to their level and there was a man waiting for a call to step in at the last moment who would “bite your arm off” for the chance to be in the race.

A lot of the film footage was men on bikes going up hill or down hill or along canal paths – lots of bikes. There was also a lot of interview footage commenting on the progress of the musician. Certain phrases were repeated about his motivation, ambition and desire – mostly not in the positive. He had done one time trial of how many minutes it took him to ride a certain distance and he was slower than the other three riders who were probably half his age and couldn’t play a musical instrument between them. He was required to come back in six weeks and do the trial again to see if he had improved or not. He had improved a little bit but not a lot – but they took him on because he showed promise.

Once they got out to America and started training to get used to the heat it became apparent that he wasn’t coping with the heat, or the hills or the pressure of knowing that he was slowing the team down and there was a man willing to bite off his arm to take his place.

The rest of the team put in extra hours to help with training and motivation. While they were with him shouting instructions and bullying him onwards, he was fine, but left on his own, he would just put in his 100% where they were looking for 150%.

One thing that struck me was the level of their commitment – they lived and breathed the race. They pushed themselves to the edge of injury. They were focussed on the route, the uphills and downhills and adjusted their life accordingly. Every aspect of their being served the race. The musician wasn’t at that place. He didn’t want to push himself to the edge of injury.

I was thinking of Paul’s comparison of the Christian life being like a race. I am not sure that he had bikes in mind and open roads with trucks coming up behind you. He did make the same kind of points about motivation, perseverance and training. I find that I am not one of the three RAF men on the team – I know people who are like that. I am much more like the musician. I don’t want to push myself to the edge of injury. I want to be like the three RAF men but I also want to play safe – two incompatible standpoints. I know that I AM safe because I am in God’s hands throughout, but I also want to FEEL safe. Knowing should be sufficient but feeling seems to hang on and drag along too. I know that the race matters. And is there someone out there who would “bit my arm off” for the chance to do what I am commissioned to do?

I admit to being convicted about playing safe.

My life luke-warm, no power or clout
So God in Heaven spits me out

I am encouraged that God has not yet reached the stage of spitting me out! He knows my life’s path and while I might not think that I am making headway right now, His perspective is not mine. It is His work – not mine. He just asks me to cooperate with His Spirit.

I will be there at the finishing line – and not pushing my bike.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Song In The Night

I’ll tell of a song that I heard once
A song to make prison walls fall
I’ll hum you the melody gladly
And tell you of what I recall

I’ll tell of a man in a prison
The darkest and deepest foul place
He sat in the stench bruised and battered
Shrouded with shame and disgrace

I’ll tell of a night and the stillness
And into the silence a song
He sang of his precious redeemer
His shepherd so gentle and strong

I’ll tell of the longing that stirred me
A light in that dark place blazed bright
I glimpsed unseen worlds, things eternal
And I who was blind gained my sight

I’ll tell of the prison walls crumbling
Of chains that were severed apart
But whilst in the midst of the maelstrom
A peace settled over my heart

I’ll tell why I stayed, did no running
No walls and no chains kept me bound
The words of his song had ensnared me
A treasure eternal I’d found

I’ll tell of a vision so glorious
A kingdom that outlasts them all
A song that the saints will be singing
Of the King before whom all men fall

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Beautiful Place

I was in the Christian bookshop yesterday. I had a half hour to kill before meeting up with the husband. It was cold and wet and window shopping didn’t have its usual appeal. I had spent a quarter of an hour putting a salesman through his paces. It’s my birthday tomorrow and an e-reader hadn’t quite made it on to the birthday list but I have been flirting with the notion of possessing one for quite a while. I am still flirting.

The Christian bookshop had moved premises last week and I had bought a book then – it was on sale. “God’s Gentle Whisper” – with the tag “Developing a responsive heart to God.” So, yesterday I was back in the shop, checking out the shelves just n case I had missed something from my last visit.

“Why are you here?” said God. We both knew the answer to that one – I was sheltering from the rain and the wind.

“You are not planning on buying anything?” It was less of a question and more of an instruction. At the time I was holding a book in my hand and reading the back cover.

“There is nothing in THAT book you don’t already know the answer to. In fact, there is nothing in any of these books that right now you will find the least bit helpful.”

God knows, this is not a ban on all Christian bookshops – this is a very individual “Mel” ban. It’s not a for-the-rest-of-your-mortal-life ban either. I have a habit of assuming that because it is written in a book, the contents on the pages have a special authority about them. I think that the author of the book has some special revelation on a subject – that they know more about it than I do. In some cases that might be true. The assumption that what someone has written it in a book has more authority than the notes that I write in a jotter is flawed.

Take “God’s Gentle Whisper” – the book I bought last week. I settled down to read the first chapter this morning. It was about someone else’s grandmother’s prayer life. Right from the start I am making no connections – I never knew either of my grandmothers – not deeply.

The author’s grandmother had a beautiful garden. Even less connection – my garden could not be called beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. In the book people passing by the garden stop and smell the fragrance and feel their spirit lifted and their world is that much brighter for listening to the birds in the trees. That doesn’t happen to people who pass by my garden. They probably mentally mow my lawn and do the weeding and the word “eyesore” features somewhere in their mind.

The author’s grandmother is often seen walking around her garden praying. OK – I stopped at this point. This is not a woman I know…This is not me. If I have to have a beautiful garden and walk around it praying in order to develop a responsive heart to God I am a lost cause. No doubt as I read further I will find something that connects – but from the start there is nothing that says to me “That could be me…”

This is entirely God’s point. I bought the book thinking the answer was somewhere in the pages – that someone else had done all the research and knew the answer, and all I needed to do was to read it and follow the instructions.”

“If you want to know how to get a heart that is responsive to Me – ask Me!” said God.

My heart is my heart – it’s not author’s heat, or her grandmother’s heart – it’s mine.

I think about my prayers. They are not spoken as I walk about a beautiful garden smelling flowers and listening to bird song. Most of the time they are fired from the battle lines of my work place. Sometimes they are poured out over a cup of tea when I get home from work. Or while I am clanking pans in the kitchen as I wash up. They are busy, part of life, on the go, moving about, filling in the empty spaces of a full up day kind of prayers.

I thought for a moment that one of us – the grandmother or I – had got it wrong. I don’t live in a world that has the beautiful garden. I’m not even sure I have the time or the skill to create a beautiful garden that I can walk about and pray in. Maybe when I retire…

Then I realsed that it may not be a garden but I have created a beautiful place to pray. It’s not a physical place at all. It is my relationship with God that is my beautiful place. I talk, He listens, He talks, I listen – sometimes.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Any Questions?

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)

He hadn’t just heard them debating – he had listened.
He hadn’t just listened - his heart was stirred.
He walked away from his friends.
He walked away from the trick questions.
He walked away from the suspicion and distrust they told him to harbour.
He had listened.

He knew a good answer when he heard it.
He knew truth when it was spoken.
He drew near.

He asked his question.
He asked the question that had burned like a fire in his heart for so long.
He wasn’t seeking a word battle or a debate or an interesting discussion.

He needed the answer.
He needed to know.
He wanted to know how to please God
He wanted to know his part in it all.
He wanted to be able to tell the difference between what mattered and what didn’t.

He wanted someone to tell him the answer.
He wanted to know.

He asked his question
He received his answer and
He discovered
He wasn’t far from the Kingdom of God

Any questions?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Little Bits of Something

A little seed
A little soil
A little sweat
A little toil

A little waiting
A little weeding
A little compost
A little feeding

A little sunshine
A little shower
A little miracle
A little flower

It was such a lovely day yesterday – sunshine without the threat of clouds or rain so I did a little bit of gardening – it was a little bit! If one were to walk around the garden, one might not be able to spot what little bit of gardening I did do – but I did.

I think it was The Great Gardener that chivvied me outside. It had been a difficult week and I had been feeling quite low. As a Christian I felt I was making a mess of things – I hadn’t quite reached Elijah’s low point and his “it would be better if I died” speech, but things hadn’t gone well. I was paying more attention to the wrong voices than the right one.

As I dug, weeded and filled up the brown recycling bin the Great Gardener gave his assessment – not so much on my garden but the state of my inner man.

On gardening He had two things to say.

“It’s good job you are tackling this now, Mel. In a week or two, those dead grasses and dandelion leaves would put up more of a fight. The snowdrops might have worked out that it’s spring and are thriving so well…but these weeds haven’t caught on yet!”

True. I had been surprised out how easy the weeds had surrendered to the mighty garden gloved hand. I had anticipated much more sweat and a few blisters. The weeds are still in sleep mode. Now they have moved to dead mode and about-to-be-recycled mode.

“This is looking all good. I can see the rhubarb now! You need to plant something into all this weed free soil. It’s not enough to get rid of the weeds…we need to replace them with something you want to be there. Empty space doesn’t stay empty for long.”

True. I had enough history of weeding and clearing ground to know that dandelion seeds, airborne, like World War 1 parachute troops dropping on French soil, would be tugging on the ropes to land on my patch of cleared land. There was only a rhubarb plant to contend with. A few inches and they would land next door where they would be hunted down and eliminated.

On me and my current state of spirit He had a couple of things to say.

“Get out more.”

My world is slowly getting smaller. Keeping on top of housework is proving time-consuming. Actually it has been a long time since I have been on top of anything! I think I will invest in paper plates or something. Work takes a big mouthful of the day and tends to follow me home. I just need to sift the must-do from the ought-to-do and need-to do from the would-like-to-do and so on.

Having messed about in the garden for a couple of hours, I feel the benefit of being outside and doing something other than the usual.

“Sop trying so hard.”

I am sure that just as you can put too little effort into the Christian walk, I am as equally sure that you can also put too much effort into it. Maybe it’s not so much too much effort as effort into the wrong things. Maybe not even so much as the wrong things, but not the right things – the better things. There are good things and then there are better things – I might be doing the good things but I am not always doing the better things.

So, getting out more and pursuing and directing my energy towards the better things should see a turn around in my current frame of mind.