Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Refugee Child

displaced child of war
ancient eyes and soured skin
fouled by smoke and sulphur,
faded, dull flower
drained of colour

precious to few
expendable to most
powerless to dictate
life’s direction

treading a long road
unkind beneath tired feet
head down
heart heavy
even the birds don’t sing

the monsters from
under the bed
now hunt in daylight

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

World Peace Day

Last night I went to a World Peace Day celebration held at the Breathe Chapel, just off Grant Street in Inverness.  The Breathe Chapel is where our writing group meet and where the River Connections Project have been carving circle poems into stone all week.  It’s a little island of peace in a part of town that isn’t always peaceful.

World Peace Day calls on all warring parties to lay down their weapons and observe a global ceasefire. It’s just for the one day.  If they can stop killing people and the destroying homes for one day maybe they can do it for another and another and another."

Warring parties don’t have about the big wars between nations.  It can be a small scale conflicts – neighbour versus neighbour. And perhaps the enemy isn’t other people but a person’s own personal demons or addictions, or the battle is all about making ends meet.  The weapons don’t have to be missiles but can be fists flying or insults hurled. Killing doesn’t have to mean a body to bury but can be the death of someone’s hope.  Love can be fragile at times. 

So, there we were at the Breathe Chapel talking about peace. It was a small gathering.  I only knew one person there.  We had come with poems and prayers, stories and songs to share. 

Peace took a battering. A bottle of whisky was pulled out of a duffel bag.  The man was asked very politely to put it away.  He complied but not before taking a swig from the bottle.  It’s possible he had been swigging long before he arrived at the Breath Chapel.

The chapel has been around for a couple of years now.  It is open for people to come and have a time of silence.  It’s a space where people feel the touch of God. There are no rules written down about what you can or can’t do – but then, they are not needed. 

Suddenly there was a warring party of one man.  He talked about his house and how he would never lay down the law about drinking in his house.  He thought people should have the freedom to do anything they like anywhere they were.  His house, his rules but this wasn’t his house. He argued himself into a place of no-way-back and left the room. The man with the whisky opted to stay and we continued to share our poems and stories.

We moved on to talk about forgiveness, talking our way through the story of the woman caught in adultery.  When Jesus says that only those who have done nothing wrong can throw a stone, He was challenging them to look at their own lives and realise they were not fit to judge other people. 

We talked about places in the world where forgiveness was not easy.  We talked about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  Forgiveness was the only way to heal wounds and move forward in harmony. 

The man with the concealed whisky bottle mumbled something. He wasn’t the easiest of people to understand.  Eventually he swore himself to silence. Was I just pressing the point about forgiveness too earnestly such that he felt picked on? I don’t know.

I am beginning to think that I’m at a disadvantage when talking to people who are knee deep in the mudslides of life, telling them about the love of Jesus.  I know He loves me, but I have been surrounded all of my life by people who love me.  I know what love looks like. Many of the people I meet in different ministries that I help out at are not like me or have lived my kind of life. 

The things that I have done wrong the world would say are small fry. They don’t rank very highly on the badness scale.  A combination of very loving parents, an upbringing in a quiet village, a healthy batch of chromosomes and strong and positive friendships have helped me to turn out to be a nice person. Even with my chances to derail myself with careless decisions and falling into the ditch every so often I have turned out fine.

Perhaps my expectations are too high and I overestimate the power of a poem.  I expect my words to be like a sword thrust to the heart, dismantling the hard shell people build up over the years.  I talk about the love of God and my listener looks clueless.  I say that God sees everything a person goes through and it breaks His heart and I’m looked at sideways. Just what planet do I live on?

The things I have done wrong are not small fry to God.  My sin is in trying to live my life outside of His control.  When I insist that I can do it my way it may not lead me to the bottom of a bottle of whisky but it doesn’t take me to where God wants me to be either. Turning out fine is not good enough for God, only humble surrender to His purpose will do.

“Maybe,” said God, as we picked over the evening, “it’s not about the words you speak, but about just being there and not getting up to leave when they dig out the whisky bottle.  Maybe it’s about listening to the stories they need to tell rather than telling them your own stories they don’t want to hear.  Sometimes the answer you have doesn’t fit the question they are asking. 

"And sometimes it does.  Sometimes a person leaves the room but takes the answer with them to ponder."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Psalm 139 contains the phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” – at least that’s the wording of the New International Version.  The Message reads “Body and soul, I am marvellously made!” The New Living Translation has it as “wonderfully complex”.

As I look in the mirror “fearfully and wonderfully made” isn’t my first reaction. There are some people who seem to have the right combination of genes that produce a beautiful face and an hour glass figure. I am not one of them.  I clean up nicely for weddings and funerals but the day to day me is rather blemished.

But that is OK. 

I know that when God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made He is not thinking about Fibonacci’s golden ratio.  He looks at my heart, and my soul, my strength and my mind – all those things He commands me to love Him with.  That’s the bit that is marvellous.

We were sharing favourite words and phrases from Psalm 139 with friends.  I talked about tattoos.  A while ago, I thought about getting a tattoo.  It wasn’t a serious thought.  I will die tattoo-less.  What might look good when the skin is young and elastic probably doesn’t look so good when things begin to sag.  And then there are the needles.  Need I say more?

The tattoo that I won’t ever get will not be pretty patterns around my arm, or a mural on my back, or love engraved onto my knuckles or “Joseph Forever” in honour of my husband.  I would opt for “Fearfully and wonderfully made” written somewhere. That will be the tattoo I will never get.

I looked across the table and said to one of my friends, “You are wonderfully and fearfully made.”

He looked back at me and replied, “No, I’m not!”

If it was all about that mental checklist that the world insists we use when defining something wonderful or marvellous then many of us miss the mark.  We strive to meet the criteria.  My friend didn’t come close to ticking many of the boxes. 

More than that, his life hadn't landed him in a good place.  His world was often one of thistles and stinging nettles. That man in the parable of the Good Samaritan that was beaten up at the start of the story - that's him.  Or the seed that fell among the thorns in the parable of the Sower - that's him. 

Life in all its facets tells him, “You are not wonderfully and fearfully made.”

The part of town he lives in tells him, “You are not wonderfully and fearfully made.”

The government that writes the rules tells him, “You are not wonderfully and fearfully made.”

People, the pretty people, the successful people, people with big cars and fat wallets, tell him, “You are not wonderfully and fearfully made.”

And the enemy sneers and says, “You?  Wonderfully and fearfully made? Really? You? I don’t think so.”

But when God says a thing it matters not what life says, or the government, or the pretty people or the enemy.  When God say you are wonderfully and fearfully made He means it.  And when you take Him at His word and believe His word…your heart, your soul, your strength and your mind are transformed.

And then you begin to live it.

Forgive Me Too

She wears her guilt for all to see
In tears of sorrow falling free
With scented hair she wipes His feet
Bestows her kisses soft and sweet

She owns her choices, doesn’t flinch
Excuses neither yard nor inch
Nothing hidden, nought concealed
Her sullied soul to Him revealed

He chooses not to reprimand
Compassion stirs to stay His hand
Instead forgives and sets her free
His words disturb the deep in me

Beneath a mask my guilt resides
Dressed in righteous deeds it hides
Those secret sins that weary me
I yearn, like her, to be set free

He looks and sees my naked soul
I grasp this chance to be made whole
Transparent, rid of all disguise
Forgive me too, my spirit cries

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

One Woman Drumming...

There was an invitation today to take a break from the usual work day tasks to attend a short concert given by a group of African drummers. The to-do list didn’t really have any space to accommodate them but it was an unlikely-to-be-repeated opportunity so I downed my tools and headed off to be drummed at.  Throughout the concert my spiritual synapses were firing – so many connections were there to make.

The group was made up of five Africans, one woman and four men.  There was another man who did most of the talking.  The men were all shapes and sizes just like the plethora of drums they sat next to. There was also a table full of shaky things and tappy things and knocky things and bangy things to create rhythm, but they didn’t hand them around. There was a workshop later on in the day.

The concert started off with some crowd participation.  In Africa there is an element of the spiritual involved in creating music.  They don’t presume that the gods (or God) is present or wants to be entertained or petitioned or wants to lift up downhearted souls.  Permission needs to be sought.  There was a prayer to be said or a song to be sung to ask permission. 

In the Christian worship meeting we don’t need to ask permission to worship God. We are commanded to do so!  We can come freely into His presence but I think it doesn’t hurt to have an internal check of the heart, spirit and soul to know we are ready to engage.  We are often told to come as we are, but how much better to come ready and equipped?  It never does one good to take a casual and careless attitude to worship.

Part of this permission-granting ritual involved a leader and response dialogue.  We were taught our side of the script. The leader shouted out his part and the congregation shouted back. It was conducted in an African language – we could have been shouting anything.

What came to my mind was Isaiah’s experience in the throne room of heaven.  Imagine being there to hear the seraphim calling to one another, “Holy is the Lord!” I preached about it once - that kind of worship excites me! There are churches that have a liturgy, words spoken by the leader and a response given by the congregation and it’s all written down.  The seraphim had no scripts.   It was heart to heart.  Would that not be something that transformed our often predictable meetings?  The writer in me wants me to compose a dialogue – and then I need the bravery to persuade the rest of the church to join in.  Speaking truth to one another, loudly, has got to be a very powerful tool that builds us up while at the same time pulls down the works of the enemy.

We were given a quick demonstration of the basic drum patterns using fingers and fists at the side or the middle of the drum face.  Never just about the one man and his drum, it’s all communal. It’s not a solitary performance! You learn with the intention of playing with others. Everybody plays together. That’s my kind of picture - worship being at its best when it’s communal.  It not about a performance by the musicians with the rest of us being spectators, but everyone joining in - everyone from the very young to the very old participating. 

The rhythm was set by someone with a bell – a clear note that stood out against the drums.  The drummers, as much as they listened to the other drummers, first listened to the bell.  As they kept pace with the bell, there were no awkward moments when someone was drumming to a different rhythm.  There was harmony.  With the volume they generated, they had to have their ears tuned to the bell first.

We live in a noisy, busy world.  I was reading a newspaper article some weeks ago about birds.  Some species of bird are finding it difficult to compete with the noise we generate.  They have learned how to turn up the volume of their singing if they want to attract a mate.

Tuning our ears to God’s “bell”, filtering out the distractions around us, is important if we are to live in harmony with Him and with each other. We should be teaching others not to play according to our rhythm, but to listen for God’s voice instead.

I challenge you to find a person whose toe didn’t tap, whose knee didn’t jiggle or whose head didn’t nod back and forth this afternoon.  The aim of some of the songs and their rhythms was about stirring the spirit.  People were not being given permission to “sit this one out”.  It was an almost unconscious response. There is power in music.  None of the songs we heard were dirges played at funeral pace.  They were lively jigs that almost pulled you to your feet. 

The songs they shared were also work songs.  They talked about the end of the day in a fishing village.  The nets needed to be hauled in and the boats needed to be pulled up on to the shore.  Why do it in silence?  The music made a difficult and tiring task easier to do.  How sad that we often wait until a Sunday morning when there is a band playing and the lyrics are projected on a screen before we begin to sing.  We toil through difficult days in silence, perhaps with a vaguely negative mental dialogue playing in our heads.  The answer is to sing! I think we rob ourselves of so much joy and so much victory when we choose not to sing.

I admit the concert has left me with fingers that can’t help but tap out a rhythm on my desk. When I get home, no doubt, I will dig out the pots and pans, arm myself with a wooden spoon and let my heart rise as I bang away.

One woman drumming!

Friday, September 04, 2015

The Suffocating Weight of Blankets

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)

There is a dream I remember from childhood.  I remember it because it was a recurring dream - the same dream night after night. There were two dreams, although the second one probably wasn’t a dream as such because I was awake at the time, or I had fallen into that place between being awake and being asleep, not quite one, not quite the other.

I’ll tell you about the second one first because it’s not really relevant to the rest of the story but it’s interesting.

It was in the days before duvet covers.  Blankets and sheets ruled the bed.  I liked to have my sheets and blankets very tightly tucked in – very tightly.  It was impossible to tuck them in tightly once I was actually in bed so I was very careful to slither in from the top and move as little as possible once I was in. I always slept with an arm outside the bed regardless of how cold the room was.  Not only was it in the days before duvet covers, but it was in the days before central heating.  There was a coal fire in the living room downstairs, but upstairs there could be ice on the inside of the windows.  Still the arm would be outside the bed.

I was convinced that the blankets were moving upwards.  Without the arm to stop them, I was sure that the blankets would move up the bed, cover my face and suffocate me.  

I hated to go to the toilet during the night because I was convinced that if I left the bed, the blankets would move upwards and tuck themselves in at the top and I wouldn’t be able to get back in.  I was always amazed that the blankets hadn’t moved an inch while I had been away.

The other dream, the recurring one, also involved blankets. 

The dream would start with me lying on the bed.  I was always cold because I didn’t have a blanket.  Someone would pass by the bed and spread a blanket across me.  It was just the one blanket, not a thick one, so I wasn’t that much warmer.  Minutes would go by and another person would pass by the bed and spread another blanket over me.  I was a little warmer, but it was a cold night.  When the third blanket arrived I was beginning to feel warm and cosy. Then there was another blanket followed by another and another. More and more blankets kept coming.  I could feel the weight of them pinning me down onto the bed.  I couldn’t move.  They were so heavy that I was struggling to breathe.  I began to panic and often woke up screaming.

I don’t have that dream anymore – but sometimes the reality that I live in feels a lot like it.

Not blankets this time, but the cares of the world pile upon me.  There’s a burden that’s given by God – the yoke that is light.  There's also the burden that we give ourselves – the not-so-light one. All it takes sometimes is an article or two in the newspaper, or some careless remark tossed out to the world by a politician or a picture of a three year old boy dead on a beach.  The “blankets” tossed over my spirit become heavy, one after another.  I am weighed down and struggling to breathe. 

Long before I get to the waking-up-screaming-stage I seek out God. I may not be able to take off the heavy load by myself, but in His presence I off load all my cares.  I tell him about the stories in the news.

I tell Him about people who are accused of petty crimes, who no longer qualify for Legal Aid, who have to defend themselves and can’t, who plead guilty to something they never did on the off chance that a guilty verdict means they only have to pay hundreds of pounds of courts costs rather than the thousands of pounds. 

I tell Him about the people who can’t work who get pushed through an assessment that insists they can to snatch back a paltry benefit and how the person they said could work when they really couldn’t…really couldn’t and dies.

I tell him about the boy on the beach.

Of course, He already knows these things but as we talk one “blanket” after another is lifted. The world and all of its bad news ceases to paralyse me.

I ask God to act and the government sometimes does its U-turns.