Sunday, July 29, 2018

What is God?

I read this in church this mornng. A number of years ago a friend led us through a Sunday mornng meditation that was based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism - delving deeper into the line "What is God?". Speaking aloud the attributes of God is a powerful thing. I wrote the poem based on the meditation.

 What is God?

He is “I am”
Unchanging in essence
Never ceasing to be

He is wisdom
Marking every good path
Building houses on solid rock

He is power
Laughing at impossibilities
Dismantling the storm

He is King
Sceptre secure in hand
Increasing His government

He is love
Laid down life
For His friends

He is truth
Word in flesh dwelling
Sharp sword cleaving to core

He is “was, is and is to come”
Without parallel in the universe
Everything bearing His fingerprint

Alpha and Omega and
Every letter in between
Yesterday, today, forever

He is mine

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Transit of Hermes

I kicked myself out of the house the other day. It seemed that no matter how much I tred to clean the house there were just bits that I had not yet garnered sufficient courage to tackle – so I caught the bus into town.

I sat at a table in the museum café and wrote an overdue letter to a friend. Years back we corresponded for a while. The letters got longer, the envelopes larger and the stamp moved up the weights. It was nice to start over with something small and light.

The art gallery at the museum is always worth a slow walk around. I find that museums don’t tend to hold my attention well, but give me a picture to look at and I get lost in the brushstrokes. That’s not true of all pictures, mind you, and I do have the voice in my head that sometimes tells me “You could do that!”

The particular exhibition, in the Inverness Imag Gallery, is called “The Transit of Hermes” and it appealed to all the senses bar one – I suppose I could have chewed on a piece of straw.

On entering the gallery there was a strong earthy smell. Right in front of me was a pile of hay bales and in front of those were a large screen and projector. I carefully sat down and waited for the show to begin. It was a horse, close-up head and shoulders (?), the background was a city with evening lights and cars trawling along the road. The horse occasionally gave me the eye. The camera panned out a bit and then zoomed back in at a slightly different angle. My sister would have been able to tell me the breed of horse – but it was just a horse, standing still.

“Scottish artist Ross Birrell’s 2017 documenta 14 projects, Criollo and The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, including new film and installation works conceived specifically for this exhibition.” – the blurb.

I suppose that as a writer and poet, visiting the houses where well known writers lived and looking at the writing desk where they penned a great novel or an unforgettable sonnet – that ticks a few of my boxes.  As a rider other things tick boxes and this might be one of them.

“The projects were inspired by Tschiffely’s Ride, a 10,000 mile journey from Buenos Aires to New York (1925-1928) by Swiss-Argentine Aimé Félix Tschiffely on two Argentine criollo horses, Mancha and Gato. The criollo horse is a mixture of Arab and Barbary breeds, the name stemming from ‘creole’ with associations of social and cultural mixing.”

The solitary horse on the big screen, the background might not have been just one place but three different places - beside three identical equestrian statues to the Argentine leader, José de San Martín, in Buenos Aires, Washington D.C., and New York. There was a rumbling noise in the background.

The rest of the exhibit consisted of photographs from the Athens-Kassel Ride, a 3,000 km trail through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany.

The riders were accompanied by a Greek Arravani horse ‘Hermes,’ named by Birrell after the Greek god of border crossings. The Transit of Hermes is the journey of a Greek horse which also becomes a mythical messenger of the Gods, constantly in motion between two worlds.

The journey, as much as it was a literal one was also a heart or a soul journey. The scenery was stunning. There is an endurance aspect to the ride, no doubt. Finding the physical reserves has to be a challenge. Being confronted by such beauty surely has to change someone too.

Not every great journey is 10,000 miles or 3,000 km. Not every journey takes you through mountain scenery. Not every journey involves a horse called Hermes. That doesn’t mean that there’s no endurance needed or physical reserves to draw from. Journeys come in all shapes and sizes. Challenges come in all colours and hues. Sometimes we are called to walk with someone for a while. We learn from each other as we travel together, and then we go our separate ways.

Treasure the times when you get to walk with someone. Count precious the times when someone chooses to walk with you for a time. Learn together. Laugh together. Hold them in an open palm.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Highalnd News - Words and God's Embrace

The people whose apartments surrounded a courtyard, strangers to one another, drew closer through shared curiosity. Night after night, an English voice in one of the flats could be heard whispering urgently. As they listened, they realised the whispers were prayers. A woman was asking God to heal her cancer-ridden brother, and at times raging at the silence of heaven.

A poem describing these events, by Melanie Kerr, the woman in question impressed me when she read it at a recent HighlandLIT open mic night.

Last month Melanie retired from teaching Religious Education at Millburn Academy, where she helped young people explore the claims of major world religions, encouraging them to keep their minds open to the possibility of a spiritual dimension to life.

Melanie herself is a Christian, a writer of poetry, devotional meditations and short stories. She posts frequently in her blog, and has two books of poems to her name, published by For the Right Reasons. The cost of issuing the first collection, Wider than the corners of the world was met by the church Melanie attended - a lovely way of encouraging her, and her talents.

Many of her poems are religious in theme. Some indignantly highlight social injustices. Melanie has the gift of forging powerful phrases. Someone holding the baby Jesus muses ‘To think that I am holding the God who’s holding me,’; to the terrified refugee child ‘the monsters from under the bed now hunt in daylight.’

We talked, Melanie and I, about the milestones on her journey. The teenager, who had lost her father as a young child, and believed in God, but reckoned she ‘didn’t measure up’ found Jesus inviting her to trust him, promising forgiveness and love. 

The young teacher in Cyprus, who knew the Bible intimately, but discovered to her joy that God, through the Holy Spirit, could make faith live in her heart as well as in her mind, dropping thoughts and ideas into her consciousness. Her relationship with God became a lived experience.

The 30-something, taking time out from teaching to come up to Inverness to help a new church grow.  In keeping with the meaning of her name which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘dark’, she has been shy and reserved, a closed book. But she discovered that real change in her personality is possible. The book is opened, Melanie becomes Mel.  ‘Write your tender words in me, wholly new,’ she prays.

The woman, a year or so later, signing up to a writing course, ‘rediscovering the writing side of me’ which she’d left behind in childhood. ‘The sense of coming home, that first lesson!’ she exclaims.

The prayers in that Spanish apartment were not answered as Mel had wished. Her brother died, the second sibling to pass away that year.  At times in our journeys it seems the monsters hunt in daylight, but, Mel has never doubted that she was secure in a loving, divine presence.

The Spanish neighbours ‘wished someone would pray for us the way she prayed for him.’ And they too turned to prayer.

(Kindly granted permission to include the interview from the Highland News)

Friday, July 20, 2018

Highalnd News - the Prequel

I will post the Highland News interview in a few days but just in case you were wondering about the poems John Dempster referred to, I have posted the links for you.

The poem was written a few years after the event. My brother< Michael had been diagnosed with a vicious from of cancer. He lived in Spain and I had it was my third and final visit.

The first time over, in the spring, he was in hospital having tests. A small tumour the size of a pea had grown to the size of an egg in a matter of six weeks or so. He still had his flat at the time so I’d stayed there, catching the bus to the hospital every day.

The second visit was in the summer. The pastor and his wife had a time share apartment and kindly gave us their slot. It was along the bus route to the hospital but my brother had been moved to the hospice for what was intended to be a rest, He never left. We visited every day in between trying to be tourists – albeit very unhappy ones.

The third visit was in the autumn, a week or two shy of his 50th birthday. The doctor at the hospice informed us that Mike didn’t have long. I had run out of compassionate leave, but not compassion itself. There was no brother’s flat and no time share slot and a friend of Mike’s had a friend who had a small flat a few hundred yards from the beach. It was small and basic, but the closeness to the beach made it a lucrative buy. Just opposite the flat and down to the left, in a courtyard was a café that opened only in the mornings and the only thing on the menu was churros.

The block had three floors and four flats on each floor. There was a courtyard in the centre, small and inaccessible, more the size of a large chimney. Sounds echoed, smells drifted and you couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

I kept my praying for when I got back to the flat on an evening. Mike was so fragile. There was no flesh and he wore the skin like a shroud.

There was a constant argument, conducted in whispers, between Mike’s friends and the pastor of a church. Mike had been updating their church website and blog, listening to and transcribing the sermons. The pastor believed that Mike had asked Jesus into his life. His friends thought Mike was, as he had always been, atheist to the core. Mike wasn’t yet dead but they were wanting to arrange the funeral.

So I saved my prayers for night time. They were whispered before an open window and I there were times I wondered what the other residents would be thinking. Mostly though I was in too much distress. My brother, Richard, had been staying with Mike in the hospice, the week before I arrived. Whatever distress I faced, his own was worse. I had God to fall back on. Richard…he phoned home to his wife and cried down the line. She pleaded with me to swap places with him – for Richard to stay in the flat, and for me to stay at the hospice – but Richard would not surrender. He bore so much in those two weeks.

So that’s the context of the poem. Some of it real. Some of it imagined. No one spoke to me. It really was a lonely time – but I felt God so near.

I’m not sure how this one came about. I think this was the time when the picture of the child on the beach was published. Refugees, for as long as I can remember, have been taking to boats to escape poverty and war. Somewhere lodged in my memory are the Vietnamese boat people, refugees who fled Vietnam by boat at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The death of Alan Kurdi – the powerful image provoked a whole finger-pointing row. The government should be doing more to help, said some. The boat owners should be stopped from making so much money out of the suffering of others, said others. The refugees should go through the proper channels to get to safety, said another group.

It was the last line that was written first and the rest of the poem later on.

There’s a wonderful poem in John Glenday’s collection “The Golden Mean” - “The Walkers”. I think that was perhaps my inspiration. I felt some response was needed – something more than the pointing fingers and the blame shifting.

We have no idea what f=refugees face. No father commits his family to the uncertainty of an unsafe boat on turbulent waters, knowing all the tales of people who don’t reach that promise of safety without being convinced that to stay where they are is certain death.

We deal with our own children’s fear of the imagined monsters under the bed at night. Their real monsters hunt by day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Horse Sense

Rumour has it that I’m bored. I haven’t officially entered into retirement yet but I’m in need of something to do. Rumour isn’t quite truth. It’s the routine I’m missing more than anything.

My sister has offered me a job – kind of. It’s the unpaid variety and involves updating the Horses for Causes social media outlets.  She and Malc help people of all ages, abilities and disabilities to deal with difficulties that life throws up. They have a happy herd of horses to help them.

I kind of know what she does. What I used to do to some extent in the classroom using a laptop, a whiteboard and a row of desks, she does in a field or a stable with a horse and a person the world has knocked the stuffing out of.

I kind of know why she does it too. There is a compassionate streak that runs through our family. We want to help people. We want to make the world a kinder place and we want to use the talents and gifts we have to do it. There is nothing more encouraging than putting someone back on their feet and teaching them strategies to cope with the world.

What I don’t really know is why it works. My experience with horses is limited. Saturdays see me coughing up a little money to put a lucky fifteen on a few horse races. I have been to a few race courses – won a little, lost a little. My sister assures me that if a horse really didn’t enjoy running around a course and jumping over a few fences they just wouldn’t do it.

I really don’t know how horses can help people – not the way my sister knows. I found an article on the web that had this to say:_

“Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behaviour. Being herding animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within four feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings. When people are introduced to the herd environment for therapy, horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behaviour, allowing therapists an insight into the inner psychology of the client.”

I wondered whether we as a species ever had the ability to hear a human heart beat within four feet. Were we ever able to synchronise our own heartbeat with the beat of another person? Did we lose it all when we left our caves and trails, and built houses and roads? Did we just lose connection as we became more sophisticated? Could we, by becoming still, rediscover these things?

I’d love to think there is a sense that every good friendship, every good marriage has a tiny bit of that talent somewhere. Maybe it’s not so much an obvious ability that can be tested in a laboratory. There a lot of unexplained stuff about the world – intuitive rather than a taught thing. I’d like to think that - but it’s probably not the case. Maybe with twins perhaps, but not the rest of us.

I suspect that we never had the abilities in the first place. There is such a variety of life out there and it makes sense that not every species on the planet can do everything.

There is no denying that for most of us the connection to the planet and the variety of life out there is almost second or third hand. We live vicariously through Blue Planet 2 and such like. Another newspaper article I read, before I got the job, was about the lack of connection to nature. The suggestion was made that if we walked barefoot on grass, through the soles of our feet we could access microbes and stuff that help and heal. We chase our children around with a wet-wipe and deny them the chance to connect with the natural world. Not everything out there is out to get us. Johnston and Johnston have trained us too well. We are taught to fear nature and trust their products for a healthy life. I’m not saying that we abandon essential medicines, but nature was there long before a bottle of pills appeared. We have just lost our nature-knowledge.

We like to think that we can do anything if we try hard enough. I think it takes a little bit of humility on our side to admit that there are some things that others do better – not just other human beings, but in this case, horses.

Choosing Grace

“He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” John 21:6

There is a question that gets tossed out every so often when one of us cooks the meal whether it’s a roll and sausage for breakfast or something that follows a recipe for dinner. “Does it taste grudged?” – as if the attitude behind the cooking somehow weeps into the meal itself. It is always said in jest because neither of us resents cooking something for the other. When neither of us feels like cooking there is a selection of take-away leaflets in the drawer.

After the big catch of fish, Peter jumping out of the boat to swim to Jesus on the shore but before the conversation of love, Jesus asks for some of the fish from the haul to all to the meal. There is already fish baking on the coals and plenty of bread but Jesus still asks for some of the fish.

Jesus had every justification to be miffed at Peter and the rest of the disciples. They had let him down badly. The last few days before the crucifixion had been one disappointment after another. They had fallen asleep when Jesus had asked them to pray with Him in Gethsemane. When he was arrested they had scattered in fright. Peter followed at a distance but later denied that he even knew Jesus. When it came to eh examination at the end of a three year course, they failed miserably.

Jesus on seeing his disciples with down-cast shoulders could have smirked a little – but He didn’t. He could have kept quiet – but he didn’t. He could have withheld the word that would have brought them abundance – but he didn’t. He could have dipped every word he spoke in “grudge” – but he didn’t. He wasn’t a less-happy-with-them Jesus. He wasn’t anything other than the Jesus they had followed for three years. He wasn’t a different Jesus – harsher somehow, frowning more than he used to, a Jesus without the usual smile. He was their Jesus.

And he asked for a fish to add to the ones he already had. He didn’t say, “It’s OK, I have it covered. I can make breakfast for you all by myself.” He didn’t ask the disciples as they ate breakfast whether it tasted grudged or not.

I know how I tend to treat people who have disappointed me. Mostly it’s the silent treatment, the withdrawal of fellowship at least for a while. There’s a lot of internal mumbling going on, a polishing up of resentments, the building of a wall, the constant replay of events with the assurance that I am in the right and they-deserve-every-bad-thing-that’s-coming-their-way attitude. I’m human.

The way that we deal with the people who disappoint us can sometimes be the way we think that God deals with us. It is because we are human that we mess up. We should mess up less as our friendship with God deepens – but messing up happens.

The way that Jesus dealt with his disciples that morning tells me so much about how God deals with me.  All the “could-haves” that Jesus could have done but didn’t do – God doesn’t do them either. There is no smirking at my failures. There’s no closing down of His word. No closing the door of the throne room. Just as Jesus called the men in the boat friends, God doesn’t cross me off the friends list. We never get to be defriended.

I suppose that any messing up we do makes it hard sometimes to come into God’s presence. We feel as Isaiah did when he found himself in God’s throne room:-

 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah 6:5

God’s grace is there for moments like that. Isaiah wasn’t kicked out of the throne room. He was cleansed and commissioned for a renewed calling.

Because I have been treated with such grace by God I am able to show that same grace to other. Maybe I don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t. It is certainly not an easy thing to ask or do, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t.

Grace or grudge? We get to choose. Choose grace.

Saturday, July 14, 2018


I had my eye on the book for a while. Every time I was in W H Smiths, trying not to buy yet another notebook, I had picked it up and read the blurb at the back. Apart from being labelled “magnificent” and “sublime” by the top newspapers, it was also described as “a poetic investigation into what it is to follow a path”. I’d not bought it before because I felt I didn’t have enough time to follow paths. Now I do. My official papers came through the other day confirming that I really had retired from work, how much of a lump sum I could look forward to and when the money would start appearing in my bank account. I’m still not worth mugging or anything.

The book, “The Old Ways – a Journey on Foot” by Robert MacFarlane, appealed to me because since getting the fitbit I have been walking a lot more. MacFarlane combines walking with writing, The premise of the book appealed to me..

The first chapter began with a man standing by a window watching the snow falling. It was winter. He took a whisky flask with him and ventured out. I like the shift from a bottle of water or juice to a flask of whisky – yes, I might try that!

Untrodden snow doesn’t stay unmarked for long in what seemed to be countryside but tuned out to be a golf course. A fox crossed his path. He began to follow and identify the tracks left by various wildlife – deer, rabbits and pheasants. A larger animal loped between trees and his first thought was “wolf” accompanied by a prickle of fear. It was British countryside and no one has yet been granted permission to introduce wolves into the wild, but the brain, at night, on a golf course, with the moon, and the snow, the imagination lets loose.

I wasn’t reading the book in winter. There was no snow. There is a golf course nearby and I have walked around it. The golf course owners had, at one point, planned a nature trail, but it never happened. I remember walking around a golf course in Durban, South Africa. It was relatively new and they were also building houses either on the course itself or near the edges. They were big houses, the kind that only very rich people could afford. I suppose you’d have to be rich enough to be able to replace the windows on a regular basis. Big houses – I was working with a missionary organisation. We were working with an orphanage in a black township. Over sixty children living in the space of a double sized garage. The big houses on the golf course seemed almost offensive. How much land does one person really need?

I thought about the trail I regularly walk – the path that circles the estate where I live. The only evidence of some other life form passing by is litter. Yesterday I walked the path trying to drum up 10,000 steps. There were giggles and laughter just up ahead. I thought at first it was the other side of the burn, someone’s backyard. It hadn’t been a hot day compared with previous days. Not warm enough for paddling pools. It was my side of the burn – four children hanging on various branches of a tree. The tree wasn’t one of the older trees with sturdy trunks and branches, for the most part inaccessible. It was a young sapling and they swayed quite dangerously – four of them in one small tree. It looked fun. Had I been younger…

I remember a sermon a long time ago about Abraham and the trail that he left behind. His landscape was littered with altars and empty patches of grass where his tent once stood. He left behind a testimony to his walk with God. Every altar was a reminder that God was to be praised and consulted. Every patch of empty grass spoke of a sojourner’s heart.

I have to say that as much as I tell people that I have no worries about retirement and how I will use my time, and how I will not miss work – I really feel a little like Abraham called to move into unfamiliar territory. I would like to leave behind me as I pass, a sense of worship and looking to God - not that I don't try to do that anyway - I would like to think that I can uproot myself from a life lived according to bells to one less straight jacketed.
A while ago I was reading the challenge God tossed into Abraham’s life –

“Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you. I’ll make you a great nation and bless you. I’ll make you famous; you’ll be a blessing. I’ll bless those who bless you, those who curse you I’ll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3 The Message)

I’d always focused on leaving the familiar things behind, the family and friends back home, to go to somewhere new. I am more focused now on “you’ll be a blessing”. It’s not so much the altars or the patches of the dead grass where the tent stood that grips me but whether I can, on a backward glance see the people who I have blessed. Can someone walk in my footsteps and meet people who will say, “Mel blessed me!”?

A better challenge than marking out 10,000 steps.