Friday, May 27, 2011

Envy and Ergonomic Pillows

A while ago I completed one of those on line tests. It was Christian based, designed to identify things like gifts and talents and areas of ministry you should be involved in. I should be a teacher – gosh, how surprising is that? (I actually took the test twice, deliberately changing my answers and I still ended up as a teacher.)

The test results also revealed areas of weakness. It didn’t make any suggestions of what you needed to do about it – just that you should be aware of it. My area of weakness was envy.

Most times I snort and scoff at results. Computer programmes are only as good as the designer. I would like to think that the computer got it wrong – that I am not envious at all – but that is not true. I spend far too much time comparing myself with other people and fail to measure up. Yes, there are good role models around and I am spurred on by what I see in others, but often I just want what someone has regardless of the sacrifices they made to get them. I want to take a short cut where no short cut exists.

Weeks ago I saw an advert for an ergonomic pillow. It was a television advert, one of the “you can’t find this item in any shop…phone this number now…have your credit card handy”. The pillow had different coloured layers of shaped foam that moulded to the shape of your head. According to the man in the advert, who had just woken up from the best sleep possible, he wouldn’t go back to ordinary pillows.

I will admit to a stab of envy. I liked the coloured layers, but more than that I liked the promise of “the best sleep possible”. I am not sure when I last slept the whole night through. There is something about three in the morning when I wake up, mind alert with obvious solutions to problems I have been churning over throughout the day. Neurons have been firing and the part of the brain that wants to go back to sleep has been singing lullabies to soothe the wide awake side! I seem to remember reading that Margaret Thatcher existed on three hours a sleep every other night. I don’t want to turn into Margaret Thatcher. If the ergonomic pillow could stop that from happening - I wanted one.

I had the opportunity to buy an ergonomic pillow. It was plain white, but the same shape. The hole in the box challenged you to “see for yourself” the dent you could create by prodding the memory foam the pillow was made of.

I was hooked and bought two. One for me and one for Joe. He has never really had the kind of sleep issues I have, but I didn’t want him to envy my pillow and talk me into giving it to him. I don’t think he quite understood the principle as the pillow was carefully placed on top of the pile of pillows he already had.

I evicted my pillows and replaced them with the ergonomic one and lay back waiting for it to do its stuff – herald me into “the best sleep possible”.

I might have been wide awake at three in the morning but not because of any eureka moment. The ergonomic pillow lay like a brick between my head and the mattress. It was not soft, and not that yielding. The memory part of the foam must have been someone else’s memory because it really wasn’t mine.

I retrieved my old pillows and promptly fell asleep.

It’s a learning curve. The body needs time to adapt. Old habits of sinking into soft pillows, doing who knows what damage to the position of the spine, die hard. I am not yet ready to abandon the ergonomic pillow.

However, the things we think we need for a better life do not always turn out to be the things we need for a better life!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Brown-Leafed and Plum-Shrivelled

It irritates me just a little when the presenters that sit upon the sofas on breakfast TV programmes talk about the driest May, not quite since records began, but in a while. They show you graphics of little jars almost empty of contents and label them with percentages of rainfall at disappointingly low levels.

They go on to take you on a tour of a plum orchard somewhere in the south west and run fingers over dry brown leaves and stunted shrivelled plums. They remind you that most of our fruit is imported anyway, but with a likely poor harvest this year we can expect prices to go up.

I look out of my window. I would gladly sweep up the puddles outside (into a jar perhaps – a few jars even) and send them down to the farmer and his orchard.

This has not been a dry May where I live. It has been a very wet one. And, certainly for the last couple of days, a very windy one. There are few breaks in the clouds and no sunshine to bask under.

Over the weeks I have crawled back into the winter wardrobe – the sandals swapped for shoes, the bare feet covered in thick tights, the T-shirts exchanged for warm jumpers and the spring jacket replaced with a heavy winter coat!

I am sunshine-starved!

I was reading Jeremiah 17 this morning. Heat and drought isn’t something that the trees around us are suffering from. Everything is green and thriving. The picture that comes to mind, however, is those trees in the farmer’s orchard, brown-leafed and plum-shrivelled. The farmer, unable to rely on natural rainfall, irrigates with a hose and gallons of water. He scans the skies looking for rain clouds.

I wonder, sometimes, if I am more like his fruit tree than I am like the picture Jeremiah paints with his words. I am bothered by many things and worries buzz around my head like flies.

It’s time to trust in the Lord and to make him my hope and confidence.

“I trust in the Lord and have made the Lord my hope and confidence. Like a tree my roots are planted along a riverbank, roots that reach deep into the water. I'm not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. My leaves stay green, and I never stop producing fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8 personalised)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Camel Stew

God propelled Peter and the early church into new pastures. They were thrust into unfamiliar territory.

The church was growing nicely.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47.

They’d had their fair share of miracles, stirring sermons and prayer meetings that shook the foundations of the house. They’d also negotiated the white water rapids of arrests and executions, of leaders and liars put to death, and Saul switching sides. A small dispute about neglected widows was dealt with and men were set aside to meet specific needs.

Yes, the church was growing nicely.

It just needed something more.

It wasn’t intended to be an updated version of Judaism with all the bumps and bruises smoothed out.

Peter got the first glimpse of God’s intentions. Peter on the roof, praying, had a vision.

“He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” (Acts 10:11-13)

The animals, reptiles and birds on offer were not the usual things on the menu. Since for ever they had come with the label “unclean”. God wasn’t just talking about new recipes for camel stew. He is talking about people.

Enter Cornelius, stage left and the Holy Spirit, stage right and things begin to get really interesting. Nothing cryptic this time – the Holy Spirit poured out upon the Gentiles, and Peter as God’s witness to see it happen. God doesn’t always work behind closed doors.

It was all very new and the details of what happened filtered down to Jerusalem. Peter was called to give an account of his actions.

Yes, there was a lot of celebrating and praising God, but I think when the dust settled there was a lot of unease and discomfort. They had been so used to excluding the Gentiles from their faith. Asking them not just to open the door but to actively seek them out was a big step.

I began to wonder what would be in a net dropped down from heaven for me. What would God ask me to do that would have me saying “Surely not, Lord!”? It doesn’t take too much thought to come up with a few “net” items.

New adventures happen to us all. A number of years ago God asked me to join a gospel outreach team. There was definitely a “Surely not, Lord!” response. I wasn’t being asked to eat camel stew…but it was way out of my comfort zone. As much as I praised God for choosing me, I also fretted that the task was too big and I was too poorly equipped for it. God assured me that I wasn’t alone, and He wasn’t asking for the impossible…just for me to trust Him.

Broad sky above her
Peppered with stars
A road winding northwards
Empty of cars
Uprooted and moving
To pastures unknown
Friends left behind her
Feeling alone
She traces the patterns
Of stars in the sky
Fixed in their places
Shining so high
Some things are certain
They always will be
Like sunrise and sunset
And tides of the sea
God never changes
This much she knows
Fixed to this truth
Forward she goes

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Swans, Dogs and Happy Babies

Seeing as I have started to put the brain cells through some challenging moves with the web site design course, it seemed only fair that the body got its fair share of challenging moves.

An invitation came through the work’s internal email. The health and well being group had invited a keep fit instructor to come in one night after hours to lead people through their paces. No high impact jigging about and star jumps, but gentle stretches. I have always wondered what pilates are – now I know. It’s very yoga-ish.

Bare feet were required, and loose clothing. And a mat. And a very pliable body! And the ability to balance on one foot for long periods of time.

As we moved seamlessly and gracefully from one yoga position to another, the instructor called out the names of the various positions. The other people in the class might have been swans but I was definitely still the ugly duckling. My dog just couldn’t get its tail up far enough and the baby at the end of the routine was anything but happy!

It has been a long time since I have asked my body to perform interesting contortions. I either read or watched something the other day about someone with an obsession for standing on his head. I used to do that for hours on end.

There was a full length mirror in the dance studio where we were, but the instructor made the wise decision of covering it with a curtain. I think that watching myself trying to make the right shapes would have been too funny to watch. As it was I snorted at one point, on the brink of hysterical giggles. Someone thought I had sneezed and said, “Bless you!” I swiftly pulled myself together!

My over-riding concern throughout the whole hour was not really about making the shapes. I am not flexible. I looked like a comical parody of the real thing! There is a memorable episode of The Vicar of Dibley where Dawn French performs a ballet dance with Darcy Bussel. It was just like that. It brought to my mind a conversation I had with a neighbour many years ago. We were both involved in the village amateur dramatic society and regularly turned out for the annual pantomime. He was always the dame and he was often required to do some dance routine. He said that he never danced for the laughs. He never deliberately messed up his steps. He tried to learn the choreography as best he could. It was his very seriousness that made it so funny. Effort does not make up for the lack of ability.

My over-riding concern was that somewhere in the twisting of the arms and the manipulating of legs, and finding my centre, excessive air inside might find its way to the surface! My buttocks were firmly clenched not just for developing muscle tone!

The instructor made a point of praising me at the end of the class – not for my grace and beauty, but for staying the course. She assured me that in time, and with practice, I would improve.

Isn’t that what so many things in the Christian life are all about – staying the course and allowing time and practice to improve us in some way?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Closing tags

My dreams of late have turned out to be rather interesting. I will be mid-way through a scene when all the various players will simply stop whatever they are doing. It’s a bit like playing a game of statues, stopping mid pose.

A voice will then shout “Closing tags! Closing tags!”

Two minutes later the same voice will shout “Opening tags! Opening tags!” and the scene will move on.

A week ago I started an evening class on an introduction to web design and I have been learning how to write web pages using HTML. There may be web pages already designed and waiting in cyberspace to be filled with interesting content and hyper-linking to other already designed web pages, but we are being taught from scratch. Like most people, what is on my mind comes out in some distorted way in my dreams.

I confess that I don’t know enough to explain what HTML tags are or what they do, only that you need them if you are designing web pages from scratch. They can open and close over a whole document or just one single word and govern what happens in between in terms of colours and fonts and all sorts of interesting features. You can soon tell if your closing tag is missing. The gobbledegook remains on the webpage and your instruction for font colour or the size of the border goes ignored.

To make sure that we don’t forget the closing tag, our instructor insists that we get into the habit of adding in the closing tag straight after the opening one and clicking in the middle part >< of the two tags to add the instructions.

If God used HTML to organise my life I think He would operate in the same way, that His closing tags are already in place and I just haven’t got to them yet.

Here’s nice closing tag to God’s intentions, not just for my life, but for us all. We sang it in church this morning and touched my spirit.

When I stand in that place,
Free at last, meeting face to face,
I am yours, Jesus, You are mine.
Endless joy, perfect peace,
Earthly pain finally will cease.
Celebrate, Jesus is alive,
He's alive!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Those Final Fifteen Mintues

It seems that as far as writing goes I am a little constipated! There is stuff in the brain ready to be disgorged but there is a bung up in the system. There is a box of (unused) Senokot in the medicine box for the physical kind, but nothing that aids the written kind!

May Day has, in the early days, always been about May poles, May Queens and pageantry. I am sure there are lots of pagan rituals embedded in there if you go back far enough, but our village was ignorant of them. It was just a day off school and a chance to poke around the Manor House gardens once a year.

More recently, May Day has been our sailing weekend. My boss used to hire a sailing boat on the West Coast, cobble together a crew of friends and associates willing to help fund the adventure, meet together for a few nights to practice knot tying and assign chores and then head off into the sunset leaving the port behind. Sometimes, because of calm seas we didn’t actually do much sailing and merely bobbed about keeping out eyes peeled for evidence of a breeze somewhere else on the water. We recited the phonetic alphabet in case of emergencies. (That skill comes in handy for quiz nights, incidentally).

This year, May Day found us back on the water. Not on a sailing boat this time but a ferry. It was the last of my birthday treats – a proper day out, preferably not taking the car (but we did) exploring some of the places we had not yet been. Someone said Mallaig and we found ourselves on the “Road to the Isles”.

We had two hours on Rum. It’s not a very big island but when one walks as slow as we do, size doesn’t always matter. At one end of the bay is the ferry terminal and at the other end of the bay is the village and somewhere in the middle, closer to the village than the ferry port is Kinloch Castle. It has been restored some five or six years ago and there was a tour laid on. Our slow walk meant that we wouldn’t have had time for our picnic lunch if we went on the tour. We decided to eat our lunch at just take slow walks around the place. The village hall was set up to serve teas and coffees.

The trouble started about halfway back to the ferry port. About half way back round to the ferry port, I discovered I hadn’t got my jacket. It had been looped over my bag, thrown over my shoulder. It could have fallen anywhere.

The voice in my head did a quick inventory of things in the pocket. The car keys were not in the pocket, or the keys to the hotel. My school keys, usually cocooned in a nest of tissues, were definitely not there as I had deliberately left them at home. That left just the tissues – I could live without them. But could I live without the jacket? My mother, on our recent visit, liked the jacket and harped on about how she would like a jacket just like it. She was put out, perhaps, when I didn’t magnanimously hand it over. I felt that I had battled to hold on to the jacket, that to leave it abandoned somewhere on Rum was not an option. The voice in my head said, “Leave the jacket – buy a new one!” Instead I left Joe to make his way back to the ferry port and I headed back to the village hall.

There must be a rule somewhere – the distance between one place and another expands according to the time required to travelit! The ferry port seemed a lot further away and from the village end of the island I could see the approaching ferry.

Jacket retrieved, I headed back to the ferry port. I ran, I hopped, I skipped, I slowed down for a bit, I walked quickly, I trotted for a while, I stopped to let the heart beat slow and I sweated. I heard the ferry signal as the car ramp lowered. I had just passed the castle and I was…not going to make it.

The inner voice chastised me for retrieving the jacket and for believing that I had had enough time to do so.

Salvation came in the form of a car. Up went the thumb as I flagged it down. She stopped and I explained that…well, I didn’t explain anything. The red face, the sweat, the heavy breathing said it all. She invited me to climb in and drove me to the ferry port.

Joe was rounding the final corner so I asked the kind lady to drop me off next to him. I wasn’t in a fit state to hold a conversation so we walked the last hundred yards in silence.
He told me later of his plans to hold up the ferry until I arrived. We sat quietly in the cafeteria reading books and papers while the sun set on Rum.

My quiet time reading yesterday was…

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? (Matthew 6:25)

I was reminded of Rum, and the jacket, and how different my last fifteen minutes there could have been.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Virtual Farms

On the BBC breakfast programme earlier this week they had a story involving a virtual farm in Cambridgeshire. For a modest fee a person with no experience of farming gets to make decisions about what crops to grow, what food to feed to pigs and all sorts of interesting things on a real farm. The idea was inspired by Facebook’s Farmville.

Obviously you are one of ten thousand or more people who have paid the fee, so it is not down to one single person making the decisions. It is a community vote. I am sure that the community will be given sufficient information to make a sensible decision – but even so, the fate of a farm in the hands of a non-farming community doesn’t sound so good to me.

The farm is owned by the National Trust so perhaps they can afford to underscore possible losses where a single farmer can’t afford that luxury.

The farmer and some prospective on-line investors were interviewed. It was all very noble – they both wanted people to get their hands dirty (or just their virtual hands) and learn where their meat comes from and where the wheat comes from to make the bread. A connection to the soil, however remote, would be made. Being involved in the decision making of the farm would make people better shoppers perhaps and more appreciative of the food chain. The farmer promised to abide by the decisions of his on-line community, and encouraged his investors to visit the real farm and see the cows they had fed.

I am glad that I am not a farmer with 10,000 people making my decisions for me about what I plant in my fields. It is all down to trust. Do the investors trust the farmer to guide them towards the right decision? Does the farmer trust the investors to make the right decisions based on the guidance he has given?

I got to thinking about other people making decisions on my behalf - telling me what to do and I do it. Could there be a Virtual Mel?

I don’t have 10,000 people emailing me, or voting on a list of moment by moment decisions – the clothes I wear, the food I eat or the way I spend my evenings. Actually, now I think about it – I could do with a few people at least doing so. They might make a better job at living my life than I do!

It did occur to me that I have one person – not a virtual team – to help me. God helps me live my life the best way that I can. He doesn’t make all the decisions for me demanding my obedience to His orders without allowing me to think for myself. Rather, He works with me and I work with Him in order to make decisions about living the best life that I can. We are in partnership.

He is wise enough to know what decisions I can make without too much supervision – the clothes I wear, the food I eat etc. He also knows that there are some decisions that I need to make where I don’t have all the information I need. He is the expert and in those times He asks me to trust Him.

When it comes down to trust, God is trustworthy.