Sunday, November 29, 2015

Have Mercy On Me

“He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Luke 18:38

When the blind man begging beside the roadside in Jericho heard a commotion he wanted to know what was happening.  He was told that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.

When he called out to Jesus, the blind man swapped titles. He called out to Jesus, Son of David, not Jesus of Nazareth. And that caught Jesus’ attention.  Jesus of Nazareth is just a geographical title, pointing to a place on a map and carrying with it assumptions people thought they knew about people that came from there's.

The title “Jesus, Son of David” points to a place in time, and a promise made by God. It was a Messianic title reserved for the long-awaited Deliverer and the fulfilment of many Old Testament prophecies. By choosing that name, the blind beggar was expressing a longing for God’s kingdom to be established – a longing for God’s rule through His King and a kingdom that wouldn’t end. He was looking for a Kingdom where there was wholeness and completeness, a kingdom without tears and without pain.  This was the cry of his heart.

When the crowd tried to silence him, he shouted all the louder.

It makes me wonder if my own heart has a cry that will not be silenced by the crowd.

Jesus had the blind man brought over to him.  The title “Jesus, Son of David” had caught His attention and mercy had been asked for.

I have been thinking a lot about that phrase “have mercy on me.” A plea to God for mercy is asking Him to withhold the judgment we deserve and instead grant to us the forgiveness we in no way have earned. It came to my mind after I had been catching up with Facebook posts.  The bombing of Paris had been followed by posts announcing how gun-ready and armed people were getting in some parts of America.  There seemed to be no safe places and terrorists lurked behind every Burka clad Muslim woman. Japan, it was posted, had it right by banning Muslims from a whole host of human rights. There were a few lone voices appealing for calm. 

I sensed an anger in me that Christians who speak about the love of God could be so lacking in compassion for the Muslim majority who have nothing to do with ISIS or terrorism. 

In the middle of a divine encounter, when God is talking about the destruction of Sodom, Abraham stepped into the conversation:-

“Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

It seems that we are not willing to be like the Judge of all the earth and do right. To ensure the end of the minority, we are willing to sacrifice the majority, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. If we are so swift to defend ourselves and so savagely, when do we allow God to fight on our behalf? When do we step aside and let God fight for us? Is this too big and issue, too important a battle to leave it up to God? Perhaps we are just not interested in God showing any mercy.

The cry of my heart?  I think I have discovered it.  If Jesus asked me what I want Him to me to do for me it would have nothing to do with ISIS at all.  I want to be always tender-hearted, giving and embracing. I want to be always able to show love.  His mercy towards me would be in His intervening in my life to stop me following a path of hard-heartedness.

Jesus gave the blind man what he asked for. He restored his sight.  Loud again, he praised God.  This time there was no crowd telling him to quieten down.  They joined in.  The blind man was a catalyst, a pivotal point in the community.  The crowd who had had no personal interest in Jesus turned from being interested observers to active worshippers.

Amazing things happen when we cry out to Jesus, Son of David, and ask for mercy,  Not for someone else, but for oursleves.  Not pointing out what is wrong with the other person, but what is worng with us.

"Have mercy on me," is becoming the cry of my heart.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Warm-Up Act

He stands centre stage
dressed in an echo of another man
He knows his lines and
delivers them with authority
to a packed crowd

He names those in the gallery
who peer down from lofty heights
fools that think they are near to God
They bear no fruit of repentance

To those in the stalls
he sets the challenge to sacrifice 
spare shirts and
scrap all their schemes to swindle
Savour contentment instead

He tosses water
into the audience
cold and clear, bestowing on them a
clean slate start

Of course, he’s only the warm-up act to
the man with top billing who waits in the wings
He knows he’s being
written out of the drama

Will he surrender the stage,
gracefully step aside and
take his final bow
before the curtain falls?
No lengthy encores?

Jesus of Nazareth arrives
He sees him and declares,
“The Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world.”

An aside to the audience
Last lines spoken humbly,
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The spotlight shifts as
a dove flutters down

Sunday, November 15, 2015

To Summan...from Rebekah

According to a newspaper article I read last week research has shown that children from religious backgrounds are more likely to be selfish and less inclined to share than children from secular homes.

Children were given stickers and encouraged to share them with others in the room.  How giving the children were was calculated according to how many stickers they gave away.  The religious kids were not generous.

I read through the article hoping not to see Christianity listed as one of the religions.  It was there. Along with Islam.  They took the lion’s share of selfishness while those children from secular backgrounds were hailed as more giving.

I’m never sure that I like these kinds of reports in the sense that they really don’t tell you all the details. They cherry pick the juicy bits. Secular households will nod their heads sagely and say that they knew that religious people were not nice. It confirms what they already thought they knew. Religious households will look for something to explain the results.  I did it myself – there are nominal Christians out there, the ones that are not practising Christians.  They tick a box that really says they are not Muslims or Hindus or another religion, but it’s just a label and not a lifestyle.  I’d like to think they are not the real thing at all.

It saddens me to think that they were the real thing so I tell myself another story. I am disappointed that we have failed to be Jesus in the room.

Then, as if to prove a point, last Sunday happens.

I had a row of children sitting in front of me.  Unsupervised children. They chatted through the worship time and did silly things with their arms inside their T-shirts. It was a distraction but I didn’t feel I knew them or their parents well enough to put a stop to their nonsense.

The real test came later on.  One of them had pad of blank paper and a pen.  They sat heads bent over the page drawing things and giggling every so often.  It was an improvement on the arms inside their t-shirts. There was a girl sitting with them.  She wanted to have her turn with the pad and the pen but the boys hogged the paper. I felt her frustration.

“Give her your notebook and a pen,” said God.

I turned a deaf ear as I do at times.  God nagged me as He does at times. I tapped her on the shoulder and surrendered my notepad and pencil into her hands.  I thought we were just minutes away from wrapping up the song part of the meeting and then the children would head off for junior church. Her first picture was labelled " To Summan...from Rebekah". "Summan" is "Someone". She doesn't know my name.

Did I count how many pages she used? Yes! It was not a large notebook, just A5 in size.  She flicked from one page to another, drawing pictures. The boys suddenly became interested in the notebook she had and abandoned the one they had.  My notebook was passed from one to another as my precious pages took on an art gallery of scrawlings.  

“You have plenty of notebooks,” said God, “Stop fretting.” 

He was quite right, of course. I have lots of notebooks squirrelled away in drawers and on shelves.  So I stopped fretting and relaxed.    

I discovered that like these children in the report, the religious ones, I also had a hard time sharing.  I am not a nominal Christian.  I practise hard and I am improving.  My tick in a box isn’t to say I’m not a Muslim or a Hindu or another religion. It’s not a label but a lifestyle and I’d like to think I am the real thing. 

The report went on to say that it is the adult in the home that provides the role model.  If we want our children to be generous and giving throughout their lives as parents we need to set the example. That applies to more than just generosity.  If we want our children to be courageous – we have to demonstrate courage.  If we want them to be adventurous – we must live adventurous lives. If we want them to know God answers prayer – we have to start praying the kind of prayers God likes to answer.

We must be the demonstrators showing the way.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Silencing Hope

A different take on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:-

There was an Islamist soldier dressed in explosives and armed with a machine gun. He prowled the streets of the city looking for someone to kill. Having a quiet drink in downtown pub sat a man named Dave.  He was watching extra time in a football match on the large screen.  He was thinking about going around the corner to the chippie for a fish supper. He had a heart of gold and wouldn’t harm a soul.

The Islamist soldier detonated the explosives and the pub went up in flames. 

There wasn’t enough of Dave left to bury and nothing of the soldier remained to identify him.  He could have been any man’s disenchanted, radicalised son. Angels carried Dave to Abraham’s side. The Islamic soldier found himself In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Dave by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, what is this atrocity? Where are the virgins I was promised? Why am I not in paradise?  Did I not fight for Allah and bring honour to his name? I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, you chose an evil path. Knowing the difference between right and wrong you allowed yourself to be seduced.  You suffocated all compassion to live a dream of death and destruction. You have stained your soul so deeply that the blood of those you killed cries out to God.  They are all comforted here in heaven.  And you are in agony.

“There is no place for you here.  Hate does that to a person.  It separates them from the one person who truly loves them.”

The soldier answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Dave to my family in Syria for there are many Jihadi soldiers and their wives. Let him tell them the truth, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”

Abraham replied, “They have minds that have known reason and hearts that have known compassion - let them listen to them. And they have heard a message of love preached by the men, women and children they have captured and executed.”

“No, father Abraham,’ the soldier said, ‘their minds are corrupted and their hearts are cold stone. They will not listen to the words of infidels.”

Abraham said to him, “Then they silence the hope that would save them.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Inner Peace In-A-Box

It began with just me in a room with four course tutors.  They had thought about cancelling the event.  I didn’t seem worth the attention of four people.  I wasn’t a class of primary school children, just one individual.  Four other people walked in in the room and we all sighed.  I was now one of five and there were four of them and the event was on.

Inverness Museum was hosting a creative project called “Making Peace”. The series of morning and afternoon workshops were geared around Remembrance events.  I had managed to enrol for two afternoon sessions. 

There was a bit of “permission” giving at the beginning – us giving them permission to take pictures and videos of us working and to have our work presented as part of the exhibition later on in the week. We were also required to give ourselves permission to have fun, make mistakes and work with others or not. The “or not” was the only one that really appealed. Having fun, making mistakes and working with others isn’t really how I operate!

The plan was to produce a peace box – an Inner Peace In-A-Box. The box was the size of a large matchbox, complete with a drawer that pulled out. The plan was to decorate the outside of the box with coloured paper and ribbons and fill in the drawer with “treasures” or reminders of peace.

They catered for every creative thought we could imagine with pens and pencils, glue and glitter, coloured and patterned paper, sequins and shells, feathers and ribbons, sparkly stickers and little pom poms, leaves and pine cones and more.  The choice was too much and the inner Mel panicked thinking they were expecting me to use everything!

We began with a discussion about peace.

“What is peace?  Freedom from….” Fill in the blank space. Fear, perhaps, or anxiety.  Someone said, “Having boundaries encroached.” She was the daughter of a conscientious objector, a Quaker in her own right. I suggested that maybe it wasn’t so much “freedom from…” but rather “freedom to…”

“A feeling of…” Fill in the blank space. Stillness, calm, balance, being present in the moment.  All good ideas, apparently. What came to my mind was “a resting heartbeat” – the poet in me rising to the challenge.

Is it possible to disagree with other people and be at peace? How? We talked about respecting the rights of others to express opinions.  We didn’t have to agree with people, however, we acknowledged that we have a tendency to obsess about who is right and who is wrong.

If every person could find inner peace, they would be more peaceful towards other people.

I have a feeling it’s probably not true. The path to inner peace, the how-you-get-there, has divided people of various religions and of none for centuries.

Enough of the talking.  We were there make to a peace box.

No one said it was a competition but there is just something in me says I have to make something better than the next person!

I spent all too much time looking at what the others were doing with their boxes. The lady sitting next to me was making a production line of them for various relatives.  I didn’t know you could make more than one.  Another lady had carefully made a tiny doll out of craft bits to go in her drawer.  Someone else had filled her drawer with sequins because it reminded her of dancing and she loved to dance. It seemed as if everyone was making a nicer peace box than mine – I was not at peace with that! 

The boxes, once completed, were going to be framed for the exhibition.  We were photographed with our boxes and a comment was written down explaining how the box and its contents reminded us of peace. I’m not even sure what I said.  I shall read it all when the exhibition opens at the end of the week. 

I have a feeling that I will be disappointed both with my box and with the comment.  It might not be an accurate picture of what inner peace means to me at all.  Inner peace doesn’t come from long woodland walks collecting leaves and pine cones, listening to bird song or collecting sea shells along the shore – all those things I put into the drawer.  Slowing down and taking time to listen – that resting heart beat idea – is still a good one, though. Peace for me, isn’t really about where am or what I am doing but about who I am with.  I am at peace when I am with God.

But God will not fit into a box.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Telling Tales

“Once upon a time…” – four words.  Human beings - something happens in the brain.  Some part of them, that inner child, sits down on an imagined carpet in some infant classroom and the story begins. We are hard wired for stories.

Last night I was accosted by a storyteller.  He didn’t take anything of value – a little time, perhaps, but it was going spare. He filled my head with stories of bees and hares and witches and spells and thumped out a rhythm on a drum.  He dragged me into a chorus - “He walked for a day.  He walked for a week.  He walked for a month.  He walked for a year…and a day. Then he stopped.”

“No, there isn’t any poetry tonight,” said the lass behind the counter as she took my order for a mug of hot chocolate and a large slice of cake. “We’re launching the Festival of Storytelling.”

I didn’t know anything about the Inverness Storytelling Festival which kicked off at the Velocity Café in Inverness.  The first Thursday of the month is usually a poetry and a pint night.  I had a bag of poetry books and a bottle of pear cider. The usual crowd of people were absent.  An unfamiliar lady sat in my seat and a man with dreadlocks placed a drum on the floor.

The unfamiliar lady was the mother of the man with the dreadlocks.  Her other son was sitting a few seats away.  I smothered a prickle of jealousy.  She had two sons she was immensely proud of.  I wished, for a moment, that I was her, that I was there to cheer my lads on.  

If you put aside the sons and the grandchildren, the lady and I had a lot in common.  Neither of us are particularly happy in a crowd.  We both fight the hermit gene.  She probably told me her name but, sadly, I already have too many names to remember.

Dougie, the storytelling son, wanted to create an atmosphere from a distant past.  In days gone by when people lived quite isolated lives – the distant past?  That sounds like life today.  You don’t need to live in a lonely croft house in the middle of nowhere to feel isolated.  In those days people were hospitable to strangers.  A hot meal and a warm bed could be bought for a song or a tale and news of what was happening somewhere else.

So he opened up the night to stories and songs. He told the first story about an unlucky man on a journey to find God.  Only God would know why he was so unlucky.  I’ll not tell you the story just in case you meet Dougie MacKay someday.  He tells it well – with his drum and the chorus, “He walked for a day.  He walked for a week.  He walked for a month.  He walked for a year…and a day. Then he stopped.”

Another storyteller, a lady this time, told a tale about a girl and a frog.  Scattered throughout the narrative were songs that she sang with a lovely voice. Yes, the frog turned out to be prince – no surprises there!

Maybe there is a difference between a told story and a read story.  The next story was hot off the press, written earlier that day by a woman sitting in a café, drinking coffee. I confess I wasn’t rally listening.  I was looking through the documents stored on my kindle wondering if I had a story I could share. So, yes, I wasn’t paying attention. Hypnotise me if you will and I doubt if I can tell you any details of her story.  It could have been a ghost story perhaps or something of a Halloween nature. No, sorry, it’s like my Chemistry classes from school – a real blank.

I didn’t find a story on my kindle, but the next best thing was a narrative poem – “Rosie Baxter's Legacy”  - that I had written many years ago.

I read it and did my best to inject a little drama into it with expansive hand gestures and an attempt at varying the voices of the characters. I figured that I would never see these folk again, these storytelling people, and acting was part and parcel of the evening.  It went down well.  I got a round of applause.  The poem has a really gentle message.  I wasn’t out and out preaching – but truth was slipped in quietly!

Dougie did another story about bees and a blue eyed hare.

The evening ended with a song.  The man was a little wild looking.  He has an amazing bushy grey beard that made me want to search it to see if there was bird’s nest lurking inside.  He had been sitting at a table with a pile of leaves, berries and nuts – a forager’s treasure. He explained later that everything on the table was edible.

He unslung a ukulele, not to my ear tuned properly.  He himself wasn’t tuned properly either but he belted out a song about a soup-stone in a pot and a family that never went hungry.

The evening came to an end.  I left with a smile on my face, feeling that my soul had supped well. I imagined Jesus walking through the door. The master storyteller would have been right at home.

But Rosie Baxter and I didn’t do so badly either!

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Invitation

Father…I hesitate to call you Father, but He said I could.  Of course I’m not really one of His followers except for just now.  I am trying to follow, just this one time, but I feel like it might be more than I can do.

I wish, just for once, not to be on the receiving end of His censure. I have listened to Him and His words have slipped into my head.  I have sat at the feet of my mentors and have soaked up all their teaching.  Arguing verbs and tenses and the nuance in a sentence has not prepared me for such a man as Him. He deals in practicalities and throws out a challenge like a fisherman tosses out a line.

He dares me to hold a lunch or a dinner and not to invite only my friends, my family or my rich neighbours. All I am asking for, he says, is an invitation in return. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, he says, and I will be blessed.  They have nothing and cannot pay me back, but there will be a reward in the next life.

He knows, of course, that I don’t mix with those kind of people.

Father…I am afraid.

What if by holding this lunch or dinner with these people I become defiled? Surely they are poor or crippled, lame or blind because of their sin? I have been so careful to steer clear of these people, to keep myself separate and pure. Strange that I don’t worry about what my friends might think.  They will put it down to a foolish boy mixing with the wrong crowd, a minor rebellion perhaps, something I will doubtless grow out of.

I worry, Father, about what You might think.

His words will not be ignored.  I want to prove Him wrong, to show Him that I can act out of compassion.  Deep inside, however, I think he has described me well.  He knows me to be a selfish man and the heart in me would agree. His very presence shines a light upon me and I feel exposed.  Even one of his own disciples said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”

Of course, He didn’t go away at all. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a man who goes away no matter how much we want Him to.  He stays and pokes and prods, and stirs a man to distraction.

So, Father, I am going to do what He says. I’m going to hold this lunch or dinner.  Not to prove Him wrong about me, but to see if He is right and if there is something I can do to change. I will invite my friends and family, though they might not come once they know who the other guests are.  I’m not planning anything elaborate, just something simple. 

Father, help me.



Sunday, November 01, 2015

Reclaiming the Kitchen Table

“Then Jesus said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite only your friends, your family, your other relatives and your rich neighbours. At another time they will invite you to eat with them, and you will be repaid. Instead, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they have nothing and cannot pay you back. But you will be repaid when the good people rise from the dead.”
Luke 14:12-14

This particular story has wrapped itself around me.  Not just the outside me, but the inside me.  It has smothered my heart.  It appears to be stalking me.  It doesn’t hide behind lampposts or show a keen interest in a window shop display as I turn around.  No, it just shows up.

Take yesterday, for instance.

I had responded to an invitation to a morning’s discussion on “A Good Society” hosted by the Inverness Cathedral. It came with a promise of soup and a sandwich lunch.  There was a good crowd, enough to make for a game of sardines in the room set aside for the meeting.  Most where church people though not from the same church, or even the same town.  Sprinkled in the crowd were a couple of Muslims, a couple of community councillors and a few not-yet-faith people.

The starting point was a youtube clip of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community in Inverness and winner of the Templeton Prize 2015 and “What it means to be fully human.”  Listening to him, I came to the conclusion that I am not quite fully human, but on the right path. 

Somewhere in his speech he talked about the Bible verses above.

Nowhere in the story does it say that you invite people – the poor, the cripples, the lame and the blind – so that they will get fed at least one good meal.  The point of the story is not about dealing with the hunger of those in need, although that happens. It says “you will be blessed” – the meal provider, not the meal eater. There is a blessing to be bestowed by becoming a friend of the rejected.

It was never about what you ate, but who you ate with. The meal was just the backdrop for fellowship – for listening and telling stories, your own stories and the stories of others.

Certainly in Jesus time there was a set of expectations about who was invited to a meal and where a person sat at the table.  There was a pecking order.  Your place at the table told you where your place was. It was important to know yourself better than others and for others to know that too. The rules might not have been written down, but everyone knew them and lived by them.

Jesus didn’t adhere to the rules.  He ate and drank with the wrong kind of people.  He would not allow other people to govern the kind of man He would be. He was always seeking for ways to connect with people. 

The people in our group, yes we were in groups, talked a lot about making connections with people in the context of a shared meal. Somone made the point that without the shared family meals, we are failing to teach our children how have a family meal with their own children, and how to provide that necessary background for sharing our day's stories.

We live in a world where making and maintaining connections is not easy.  Family meals with everyone sitting around a table are not common these days.  Quick microwave meals sitting in front of the TV are more common, perhaps a different meal to cater for different tastes or meals at different times to make the most effective use of time in a busy schedule.

There are only two of us, but we have fallen into the TV dinner habit. It may be a cooked-from-fresh meal but we rarely eat it around a table.  It never seems worth it to lay a table for two.  And the kitchen table has become a dropping off point for all things cluttered – empty boxes, old newspapers or plastic bottles for the recycling bin, fruit still in their packaging waiting to make it the fruit basket, toiletries bought but not quite in the bathroom yet, egg boxes of various dates with one or two eggs in them, pens and notebooks, shopping receipts, pans and casserole dishes washed and not put back into cupboards…I would like to think everyone lives this way, but I’m probably wrong.

We are not just robbing ourselves of the meal time stories, that unique opportunity to connect – we connect at other times and in other places – but the cluttered table means we don’t invite people around as often as we could.  It’s a major clean-up job.  We actually invested in new crockery a year or two ago with a view to hosting meals – but life got busy.

It really isn’t enough to say to myself “How sad!” or “What a missed opportunity”. I have a tendency to learn truth but not always to practice it.

“Let’s start by reclaiming the kitchen table,” said God. “Start small – choose a couple of days in the week and eat at the table, just you and Joe.  Take the time to eat slowly, undistracted by the TV and share the day’s stories with each other.  Then, after a while, put out a few more plates and invite some people.”

We’ve started.  The kitchen table is almost reclaimed.