Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Raven

The first Monday in the month is given over to poetry appreciation at Eden Court.  A small room's worth of people share their favourite poems and poets.  The topic for the next meeting is "Love" seeing as it will be February then.  I think the hope is not for too many sentimental slushy poems because of Valentine's Day.  I have had a quick google around and found nothing I would like to share with anyone.  I had a go at producing my own non-slushy love poem.

The Raven

The raven dressed in dapper black attire
Takes to the wing in dizzying display
He flicks and flips always climbing higher
And dances in an aerial ballet

Vaunting his plumage dark beneath the sun
Above the naked bones of winter trees
His choreography a poem spun
That nourishes the heart of she who sees

He has no music in his voice to sing
No notes, no melody to win her heart
He scribes his love note with each shifting wing
Boldly declaring they will never part

Long ago years they met and they mated
A bond of commitment they created
Built nests and laid eggs, nurtured their offspring
Thus celebrating - he takes to the wing

I have been reading the RSPB magazine "Nature's Home". I didn't get around to signing on for the Big Garden Birdwatch on account of not having a BIG garden.  Having been kidnapped and consigned to bed by a really bad cold I had not been able to fill the bird feeders.  Seeing there were no peanuts, seeds or suet balls to stuff their faces with the birds went elsewhere - a BIG garden, perhaps, where they were properly counted.

The "bird behaviour" article is about spring aerial displays and setting up territories and singing love songs across the wood to attract a missus. 

In amongst them all are the ravens.  The blurb reads, "Ravens pair for life, so their displays are aimed at nourishing an already established relationship."  I am sure there are quite a few species that pair for life and we all go "Ahhhh". "For life" means they stay together when his feathers go grey and her waistline expands a little.

I loved the idea of the male raven doing his aerial acrobatics not to impress a younger bird (note that I used the word "bird" in its correct context!) but to honour the one he has paired with. 

We could learn something from the ravens.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reclaiming the Surrendered Places

“They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him…” (Mark 5:1)

“They” were the disciples, “the sea” was the Sea of Galilee and the “He” that got out of the boat was Jesus.  “The man” who met him was demon possessed, living in the tombs and tearing away the chains from his hands and feet that had been used to restrain him.

Just before Christmas Joe and I had spent a few days with family.  It was the thirtieth anniversary of my brother-in-law’s fortieth birthday and there was a party.  We can’t always get to these things in term time, but I was recovering from medical treatment and had a sick line off work.  There was also a new great nephew to meet.

We stayed in a pub in the village. The window of our room looked out over the wall and onto the gardens of the village Manor House.  I remember that they used to open the gardens every year for the village May Day celebrations and dancing around the Maypole. The back wall of the pub carpark overlooked the cemetery.  Every day I intended to take a walk through the cemetery to pay a visit to my mum’s grave.  The family have plans for a proper gravestone, but right now, which row she and my dad, David, are buried in – my sister knows, but I would only be guessing.  I didn’t visit the grave and it’s something I regret.  I didn’t have any flowers to leave so I just chose not to go.

Had I been Jewish I wouldn’t have needed flowers – just a small stone to place somewhere to show respect.  Better if the stone had come from my garden or was some coloured pebble to mark the person’s life.  Jews tend to be infrequent visitors to graveyards.  Bonding with life is more important than dwelling with the deceased.  Some days are just better suited to visiting graves than other days.

In the country of the Gerasenes there were no better suited days – no days at all for visiting graves. “The man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. He had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet.  No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” (Mark 5:3-5)

It appeared that the nearby villagers had simply surrendered the cemetery to him.  They had tried to restrain him but he broke free.  He lived in the tombs and they let him.  Perhaps the thinking was if they left him alone, he would leave them alone, so they gave him the cemetery and stopped visiting to place their stones on the graves.

Sometimes the path of least resistance comes when we surrender something.  “For the sake of peace” we tell ourselves.  Or we convince ourselves that what we surrendered is something we don’t really miss, or it’s not really that important.  We can live, we tell ourselves, without placing our stones on their graves.   And we do…

When Jesus casts out the demons and leaves the man sitting, dressed and in his right mind, He doesn’t just restore a man. He gives back to the community a man in his right mind and He gives them back their cemetery.  The place they had surrendered to a demon possessed man has been restored to them.

It’s not just people that Jesus restores but it is the places that these people inhabit that also get restored.

Sometimes we get used to living with areas of our lives surrendered, not to God, but to other things.  We adjust to accommodate things when we shouldn’t have to and we slap a “No Entry” sign on to a door.

Maybe it’s time to ask Jesus to restore those things and those places to us so that we may live life to the full.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing Poetry With the Experts (Eden Court Writing Master Class)

John Glenday, the guest tutor, began with a quote.  “Poetry is never finished, only abandoned.”  He compared writing a poem to working with clay.  If you leave a poem overnight, like clay, it hardens a little.  Sometimes it is all about accepting the faults and moving on.  He talked briefly about poetry and writing before setting any tasks.

All writing is difficult.  Words only rarely flow onto the page.  Just because it is hard, it doesn’t mean you stop doing it.  It’s a way of telling the writers and the non-writers apart.  Writers keep writing.  Non-writers stop writing.

Poetry has a way of taking the BIG ISSUES in life and writing them in smaller, more accessible ways. The human brain baulks at big numbers.  A nuclear explosion somewhere in Europe is written in pressure cooker terms.

Poems might be intensely personal, the poet’s own experience, but they make a universal connection. 

Very often a poem describes a physical object or something tangible or concrete, but often speaks about something abstract or spiritual.  Shrek pointed out that onions have layers and so do people – but so do poems. They resonate on a multitude of layers.

Task 1 – Opening and closing lines are important in poems.  (My first encounter with Dick Francis novels involved first lines.  He used to do a brilliant job hooking me in as a reader.  The first line was always compelling.)  The first line does most of the work in a poem.  It has to engage the reader.  The last line of a poem is also important.  It concludes the story, ties up all the knots and leads us back to the beginning.

Given a poem, minus the first line, we were tasked with supplying it.  We had a title and the rest of the poem and looked for clues.

“Love Poem” by Louise Gluck

Your mother knits.
She turns out scarves in every shade of red.
They were for Christmas, and they kept you warm
while she married over and over, taking you
along. How could it work,
when all those years she stored her widowed heart
as though the dead come back.
No wonder you are the way you are,
afraid of blood, your women
like one brick wall after another.

I come from a household of knitters.  I am not sure if my mum ever knitted scarves in endless shades of red.  Many of the writers in the class picked up on a winter theme and cold weather and equated it with the mother’s apparent coldness.  The knitting seemed to represent the mother’s non-participation in real life.

“There was always wool on the needle” was my opening line. Some people don’t like to be on their own. They want someone around regardless of how deep or shallow the relationship. 
Someone else had come up with “Like Madam Defarge…” She pictured the women knitting while the guillotine did its messy business. I liked the image.  I shall leave you, dear reader, to make your own stab at a first line before googling it to find the right answer.

John talked about the misconception people have about any kind of writing.  Where you are the reader, you begin at the beginning and work your way through the middle to the end.  The writer is like the parachutist dropping into the middle of something and working their way to a beginning and an end.  You write, not according to intention, but according to the few words you start with.  You begin with the words and, as you write, you discover what the poem is about.  It’s possibly not the only way to write a poem – it’s not my way, but then is there ever a right way?

Andrew Motion, a past Poet Laureate was asked about how he deals with writer’s block.  He didn’t really admit to having writer’s block but said he simply wrote.  Much of it might be rubbish, but in the process of writing something would emerge.

Task 2  - Listen to a poem being read.  Write down 10-15 words that strike a chord.  Use some of these words in your own poem.
The poem was something to do with cartography and how to draw maps. 

I found this to be hard.  To be given the words that had to be included was a challenge.  I probably wouldn’t have written the poem I wrote.  I am choosing not to share it as, having listened to all the other poems sparked by a similar list, mine is definitely on a different planet.  They used images and deep stuff and mine was silly in comparison. It was one of the many times in the evening I felt really out of my depth and in the wrong class – a foundation pupil in a Higher English class.

You can have my words though and see what you make with them:- choose, blue, remember, elect, recommend, symbol, paths, questions, shoes, deciding, lost, submerged and utterly.  The poets among you have probably located the poem they came from in your mind.

John ended the class by reminding us that sometimes writing anything is not about the end product.  It is the process we use to get there – the doing of it.  He freed us to revise the poem, or not.  As we revisit and revise the poem changes as we lose things and we find other things.  Pick up any poetry book, indeed any book at all, and what you have is not a draft copy.  You never get to see the first draft.  By the time we read the poem in the book it is the finished product.  We only ever see our own first drafts.  It’s almost foolish to tell ourselves we will never be able to write good poetry like Carol Ann Duffy or Wilfred Owen.  Their first drafts probably look just like ours and nothing like the end result.
I enjoyed the class.  Although I might have felt out of my depth, no one made me feel that way.  John’s responses to every shared line and whole poem, no matter how rough the draft, was encouraging.  He took delight in everything and was impressed at how we all jumped into unfamiliar waters so enthusiastically.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Coprinus Domesticus

I have been quietly sitting, reading the Spring edition of the RSPB magazine “Nature’s Home”. There was an interesting letter about a bee orchid found in an uncut patch of lawn in a previous edition.  I don’t know whether bee orchids are rare. A letter writer in this edition lives in Edinburgh and has acid soil.  She found a heath spotted orchid and an early marsh orchid. Uncut lawns, apparently, are great for wildlife.  I shall have to remember to inform the neighbours on either side of me when they start to get tetchy about my plot of wilderness.  I don’t know if I would recognize a bee orchid if it popped up in my uncut lawn. A number of years ago an exotic looking mushroom appeared.  A friend of mine took too much delight telling me that the particular species grew best on rubbish tips.  It inspired a poem.

I leaf my way through
Pages of suspects
I scrutinise
Colours and shapes
Size and spore
And then
I see you
Bell shaped and smooth,
Pale and white tinged,
Black gilled and odourless
A mushroom
Can I eat you?
Chop you up
Fry you in butter
And add you to my
Bacon sandwich?
I guess not.
I toss you
On to the compost heap
Where we will
No doubt
Meet again next year
And have the same conversation.

The Hole Truth...

I woke up on Saturday morning and, even before I climbed out of bed, I fell into a hole.

It’s not a new hole, but one I have fell into on more than one occasion. Most times I have the sense to step around it.  I think I have even filled it in once or twice but it still keeps re-appearing.

It’s the hole of negative thinking!  It just took me by surprise.  It’s not an easy hole to climb out of.  The sides are very slippery and sometimes the hole is very deep.  Not much sunlight reaches the bottom.

I won’t bore you with a detailed description about the downward spiral of my thinking.  My thoughts are probably not your thoughts.  What trips me up probably doesn’t stick out its foot to trip you up.  Sometimes I do that ENVY thing and think of all the things I don’t have that someone else does have and perhaps doesn’t deserve to have.  The list is a long one.

I didn’t hit the bottom of the hole. Maybe God tossed a rope in or something.  I was aware that I didn’t have to reach the bottom before I could start hauling myself out. I could stop sliding into the hole of negative thinking by bringing to mind all of the things that I did have, regardless of whether someone else also had it. Whether they deserved it or not was irrelevant – I know that I didn’t deserve it.

God’s mercies are new every morning! His grace is poured into my life with absurd abundance! It was not enough just to list the mercies or point out the grace in my life but to be grateful and to say thank you for them.

“…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10:22

What a precious gift I have!  Jesus has dealt with all the separates me from God.  I can draw near to God confident that there isn’t a lightning bolt headed my way – not even when my actions fall desperately short of what pleases Him.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

The enemy has a quick hand and snatches the hope we have and steals the promises God gives if we do not hold them tightly.  Better to claim them that to leave them to lie forgotten in some dusty corner of our hearts and minds.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Hebrews 10:24

How much better to stop worrying about we have or do not have and do something to ensure that someone else has what they need for life! Turning our gaze outward happens properly when we have turned out gaze first upward to God. 

I love the order of these truths in Hebrews.  Drawing near to God is the priority. It’s through drawing near to God that we find a more confident understanding of the hope we profess.  He speaks His promises to us and we share what we know of God with other people, not merely talking a good talk, but walking a good walk.

I am not the only one who falls into holes.  We all do.  Part of walking a good walk is about seeing people and the holes they fall into and doing something to help.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Prayer and Worship

I seem to remember years ago completing an online test to discover my spiritual weakness.  It was something a little more challenging than the host of Facebook ones that tell you your country and western name or what Disney character you are.  It was BF – Before Facebook.  I’m sure there are people out there who would disapprove of such a test.  They heartily approve of identifying strengths – a positive and encouraging thing to know, but knowing where the weaknesses lie is also essential.  If you know where the holes in the wall are, you know where to deploy your soldiers, and where the enemy is likely to strike when the battle comes.

It turned out that my weakness was ENVY.

I wish it wasn’t true.  I wish I could say that I don’t envy anyone.  It wouldn’t be true. 

Take Monday night for instance or rather events over the previous two weeks leading up to Monday night.  Many of the ladies at the Women Aglow meeting are members of the same church.  In inverness there are a half a dozen or more non-traditional, independent, charismatic churches.  They are all the result of a church plant, some decades ago, from mother churches in other parts of the country or the world.  Vineyard, Destiny – I don’t know how much they differ in doctrine and practice.  More recently there are a number of inter-church ministries and activities of which Women Aglow is one.

Anyway, this particular church has organised a month of prayer, meeting in people’s homes throughout the week.  There are so many times and so many places open for people to meet that no one had the excuse they couldn’t make it.  Every day, mornings, afternoons and evenings are covered and the homes opened up are so varied that many are within walking distance of wherever a person happens to live.

That’s a lot of praying.

It’s not a matter of how often they pray, but also the quality of prayer. I have known prayer meetings that are quiet affairs. There is a comfortable quietness, but then there is a too-quiet quietness.  These meetings are not of the too-quiet variety.  Something has been ignited.

There is a pattern that the Women Aglow meetings follow.  There is a meal followed by a time of worship followed by a visiting speaker and ending with an opportunity for prayer.  There are other bits in between.  The numbers change month to month.  The menu stays the same.  The speakers might be from the group rather than visitors.

There wasn’t a visiting speaker on Monday.  The meeting was set aside for bringing testimonies and saying something to encourage and build one another up.  There were no awkward pauses.  No one was drumming up witnesses to share their stories. 

One lady spoke about having a right heart before God.  She linked it into sleeping well at night.  If we had the right heart before God and were not fussing over the day’s challenges or fretting about tomorrow’s burdens because we had given them over to Him, there should be nothing keeping us awake at night. I am not a great sleeper at night.  I don’t think I am fussing about things.  I read somewhere that a lack of sustained sleep can be something left over from the menopause.  It certainly made me think about involving God into my sleep preparations.  I am not an insomniac, and I am getting sufficient hours – but it is the brokenness of the night that gets to me.

I digress.   

Part of the evening involves worship – an opportunity to sing together. I love to hear women worshipping together.  I don’t always know the songs, or sing a particular song to a different tune – but I like the worship part.  The worship leader is a lovely woman.

On Monday night the worship was wonderful.  There was a different spirit about it.  Did we sing louder, or were we more in tune? Perhaps.

I think it was more to do with the prayer meetings.  I think that the prayer meetings had allowed the ladies to really move close to God.  That’s not to say they strangers before that.  For many people meeting together as Christians is a Sunday morning experience, and one or two evenings during the week.  Morning, afternoon and evening chances to come together to pray – every day – has to change a person.  And I think it showed in worship that evening.

Which brings me to ENVY – I want to be daily encountering God and changing.  I can do it on my own – yes.  And I do. But there is something special about a communal act, something focussed and sustained. I can see only blessings for a church community doing that.

There’s nothing to stop me joining in!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Snow Business

I was hoping to wake up to snow this morning.  I saw a picture on Facebook of an upside down snowman which I am just aching to make! It is windy outside, and cloudy, but there is no snow yet.

For five years of my teaching career I worked in a small private school in Cyprus.  I lived in wall to wall sunshine and hot temperatures for most of the year.  I don’t do so well in warm climates.  I seem to have more than my share of sweat glands.  Where most ladies glow and manage to look cool doing so, I pour moisture from every pore of my body and look most uncomfortable doing so.  It was the lack of rain and clouds and low temperatures that finally drove me back to the UK – that and the fact that I was growing out of the school and the Brethren Church and into something new and Holy-Spirit free.

The school ran a boarding house for overseas pupils.  Some parents were on the mission field in the Middle East and wanted their children near.  Other parents wanted their children disciplined – and we ran a very disciplined school.  Some parents were obscenely rich, mostly Saudi Arabians with oil wells. Others were poor and their children benefitted from our scholarship programme.

I spent a couple of years living in the boarding house being a pretend parent.  On Saturdays we tried to take the pupils out on excursions.  Sundays were days of rest.  Rest meant rest and playing football in the neighbouring field was not permitted. 

One year we took the pupils up to the Troodos mountains.  We all piled into the minibus and headed for the hills.

Such was the topography of Cyprus that down by the coast a person might lie almost naked on the beach and soak up the rays while another person in the mountains might be layers deep in clothes skiing in the snow.

There were significant feet of snow when we arrived in the mountains.  We had pennies warm in our palms to hire skis and…t-shirts and sandals?  Some of us, not all of us, had never seen snow before.  Living in Saudi Arabia they knew all about sand and hot temperatures – but snow was a mystery.  They had seen the pictures and knew it was white and covered everything in a pretty blanket but they didn’t know it was cold, and that when it melted, it was wet. It wasn’t irresponsible of us not to warn them.  Like most kids do – they ignored the warnings and we shrugged our shoulders and thought – they will learn.

It didn’t take them five minutes to work that out but more like half an hour.  There was a giddy half hour of making snowmen and throwing snowballs before the cold took hold.  While the warmer dressed of us took to the hills in skis, the wet and cold stayed in the warm minibus and watched out of the steaming up windows.  (One of us, me, didn’t really take to the hills – the skis were there, but the skills were absent.  I soon joined the wet ones in the minibus) The next time we went up into the mountains they were properly attired.

How do you tell people about snow when they have never seen it before?

You can show them pictures, of course.  Snow capped mountains, snowmen, snow ploughs on the motorway.  There is an endless supply of pictures.

In this day and age you can show youtubes of dogs running about in the snow, toddlers wrapped up in a hundred layers, falling over in the snow.  Yet again, another endless supply of home made movies.

You can dig out the encyclopaedia and look at the structure of a snow flake and be amazed at the sheer variety.  You can analyse temperatures and ratios.

You can even make your own snowflakes with a few folds of a page of white paper cutting out bits with a pair of scissors. Unfold the paper and there is your snowflake.

What do you really know about snow after all of that?

My pupils knew a lot about snow after playing in it for half an hour.  Experience become the real teacher.

Makes me wonder about God.

How much can a person know about God outside of a personal experience of Him?

My experience of God has gone well beyond the half hour.  After nearly forty years of walking with him (with more than a few days off) I know only a fraction of what can be known – but what I know has been life changing.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Contineo – the Sequel

I resisted the temptation to dive into a new set of Bible notes until the New Year began.  There is a sense in which I think God almost sighs, even yawns perhaps, when I dig these things out. I have a ticky-box gene along with all the other interesting genes.  I am not saying that quiet times are a bad thing because they are not but sometimes they can become part of a routine – something you do because you have always done it and there may be this vague idea of a bad day ahead if you don’t.  When it ceases to be life or stir your innards and becomes words just tossed about in your head maybe it’s time to do something else instead.

The opening studies are all about Nahum.  I wonder if, in heaven, there are many people that go up to Nahum and say, “I really loved your book, by the way.” Perhaps he is one of the book writers of the Bible who heaven dwellers avoid because they know they never read his book. I am reading it.

It’s about Ninevah.  When I think of Ninevah I think of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah warned the inhabitants of Ninevah about God’s coming judgement upon them.  They repented, seriously so, the king coming down from his throne and tearing his clothes, and the punishment was averted.  Jonah sat sulking for a while under a vine.  Jonah spoke his warning one hundred and fifty years before Nahum began prophesying.  You’d think that having come so close to being obliterated by God the people would have been a lot more careful about how they treated God and God’s people.  A slow slide away from honouring God over the next one hundred and fifty years led to them being told that the end was coming.  One hundred and fifty years of forgetting how close they came to destruction. There was going to be no mass repentance this time and no king climbing down from his throne.  This time there would be nothing left of them. Nahum was no Jonah. This time there would be no escape.

The name Nahum means comfort and consolation.  Nahum was not there to comfort or console the inhabitants of Ninevah.  His words of comfort and consolation were for God’s people who had been mistreated for years.

“The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” Nahum 1:7

How much more comfort do you need? It must be hard to hold on to such words when life all around you seems to be saying that God isn’t good, that he can’t help you and he doesn’t care what happens to you.  Life says it.  Nahum said otherwise.  We need, sometimes, to stop listening to life and pay attention to Nahum.

There is another verse that I really connected with:-

“Now I will break their yoke from your neck and tear your shackles away.” Nahum 1:13

What an incredibly strong picture that presents!  The yoke broken spoke to me about release, complete and lasting. The yoke is broken so that it can’t be used again. The shackles are torn away.  They are not placed in a storage box to be taken out at a later date and put back on. God comes across as angry that His people have been enslaved.  Throughout the Old Testament God uses other nations to punish Israel for their idolatry, but when the nations he uses takes the opportunity given them to have victory over Israel and take it too far, becoming too cruel, God gets angry.

What particularly came to mind was a yoke of sickness and shackles of illness.  Many of my friends are involved in Healing on the Streets.  I saw them in my mind breaking yokes and tearing off shackles.

I shared all this in our meeting this morning.  One of my friends had been off work for quite a while struggling to overcome a virus. He needed to be back at work. A move to a lighter task in the workplace was a possibility but not guaranteed. My friend wanted his health back.

Contineo – my Latin word, “to hold together, to keep together, to connect or to join.” I had connected with a word spoken by God to Nahum. I had connected to a word about breaking yokes and tearing off shackles.  I had connected that in my mind to victory breaking a yoke of sickness.  The circuit was almost complete.  

Praying scripture is amazing.  It’s God’s word on the issue, not mine.  It’s God’s power on display, not mine.  I prayed for friend, speaking out the words of Nahum into the situation.

Yes, perhaps God sighed again.  There were no yawns this time.  The connection between His word and his healing touch had been made. 


The adventure continues