Thursday, January 30, 2020

That Is Who I Am

“Way maker
Miracle worker
Promise keeper
Light in the darkness
My God
That is who You are”

We sang this song in our midweek meeting last night. It’s a reminder of just who God is. Sometimes we forget, or we add something or take something away or dilute something. We end up with a picture of God that isn’t the real thing.

I shared a poem I wrote years ago based on question 4 from the shorter catechism. If we don’t know God or know the promises He makes in His word, we never grasp and lay hold of them and we fall short of accomplishing all that God has asked us to do.

Knowing God and His word is only half of the equation. We also have to know ourselves. I pictured the disciples with Jesus as He asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They threw out a few suggestions until Peter revealed the answer God’s Spirit revealed to him.

“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29)

Last night I pictured a different direction for the conversation. In my version Jesus doesn’t go on to talk about His death or rebuke Peter. This is what happens next in my version…

“That’s me sorted, then,” said Jesus, “My identity is settled…but what about you? Who do you say you are?”

Over the last few weeks I have been watching a TV series called “Cobra”. I like Robert Carlyle. I liked him as Hamish McBeth, the policeman in the fictitious town of Lochdubh on the west coast of Scotland. In Cobra he stars as Prime Minister Robert Sutherland, leading the nation through a crisis. The sun emits a solar flare that causes a geomagnetic storm. The electricity grid is overloaded, planes crash as their navigation systems stop working and the lights go off.

None of the politicians that make up the Cobra team are squeaky-clean, but that’s nothing we didn’t already know. What really alarmed me was how quickly the nation descended into anarchy. Decisions were made of which bit of the country to sort out first and which to leave for later. No guesses that south of Watford gets their lights back on swiftly. Northumberland is on the waiting list.

There was no Dunkirk spirit. There were no stiff upper lips. Not fortitude at all. Robert Carlyle promised to get the lights back on and they were cheering for barely one episode before protestors erected barriers and demands were made for the hospital to hand over its fuel supplies. Lorries with bottled water were hijacked. I thought, at this point, people should have been unblocking wells or something, or sending dowsers out to find hidden springs. I talked it over with a taxi- driver and he agreed. Bottled water? The taxi-driver scorned the need for bottled water in a country like ours.

The programme got to be a hard watch. The politicians I expected to be making secret deals and garnering stuff to blackmail Robert Carlyle with. But the population in general? I did not expect such a quick capitulation to their baser natures. It made me wonder how thick, or thin, the veneer is that keeps us from letting the lizard brain take over. It seemed as if grievances were so close to the surface of the skin that all it took was a scratch for the vileness to pour out. Are we really that bad?

“Who do I say I am?” I am not them. I am not the conspirator trying to bring down the prime minister. I am not the whisperer sowing dissent and division. I am not the builder of barriers or the man who makes threats to get his way. I am not them. I know this. My grievances have been forgiven and there’s nothing just under the skin waiting to leak out.

God took hold of me when, yes, maybe, I was one of them. But He has worked on me and with me and through me to transform me. I’m not done with being transformed yet. But…

I am one of His now. That is who I am.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


Quiet and resolute
From groomed borders and
Forgotten corners of tangled roots
Green shoots rising

Warmth stirs as
Sun strokes morning grass
Drawing, enticing
Green shoots rising

New born, fresh green
Pushing upwards
Declaring spring’s advent
Green shoots rising

Sombre shadows lift
Heavy clouds shift
Peeling away to sky and sun and
Green shoots rising

Winter makes its bow
Pockets its icy frost
And bequeaths the stage to
Green shoots rising

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Siding with Bergoglio

So I give you a new command: Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways.” John 13:34 (The Voice)

Not so long ago I watched the Netflix film “The Two Popes”. I don’t think it’s biographical by any means but more a vehicle for exploring opposing views of how the Roman Catholic Church should operate in a changing world. Benedict XV1 adheres to the traditional teaching of the Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio who eventually becomes Pope Francis seeks to find ways to make church accessible to ordinary people. He seeks to pull down walls. Part of the narrative is about Pope Benedict plans to retire, something that Popes don’t tend to do. He is looking for Pope Francis to take over. I suppose he wants to find out the quality of the man he wants to pass the baton on to. They lock horns.

After Benedict’s election, Bergoglio flies from Argentina to Rome to meet with the pope, It’s not long before Benedict calls Bergoglio’s words and actions into question.  

“You’ve been one of my harshest critics, and there’s a lot of competition for that title,” the pope growls.

“Never directly,” protests the cardinal.

“Married priests,” barks the pope.

“I was misquoted,” Bergoglio replies.

“You openly give sacraments to those who are out of communion — to the divorced, for instance.”

“I believe that giving communion is not a reward for the virtuous,” counters Bergoglio, “it is food for the starving.”

“Ah,” clucks Benedict, like he has the cardinal in a trap. “So what matters is what you believe and not what the church has taught for hundreds of years.”

The Argentinian coolly counters with Mark 2:17 — “I came to call sinners” — which, he notes, “the church has taught for thousands of years.”

In making church accessible to people, in breaking down some of the walls, Benedict accuses Bergoglio of compromising truth. Is he balancing truth rather than compromising truth?

We live in a minefield. We are vilified by some if we take one course of action and vilified by others if we don’t. The phrase “coming out” seems to apply not just to individual’s declaring a certain orientation or preference, but church leaders or denominations expressing support for the diversity of decisions people make on a whole range of issues. Bible verses become like the ball in a tennis match in long and brutal rallies. There is always a loser, sometimes there’s no real winner, in the exchange.

I have sided with the Benedicts of the world. I wish I could say it bought me peace in doing so. I have also sided with the Bergoglios too, with that same uneasy lack of peace. I am a great avoider of controversy, but that brings me no peace either. I am aware just how uncomfortable sitting on a fence can be.

Love. Jesus’ response to people he encountered, the good, the bad and the ugly, was always one of love. For some, like the rich young ruler, it involved pulling no punches and telling the truth to someone who had a distorted version of truth. For others it was not telling a truth, because the person already knew it, but needed compassion instead.

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;” Isaiah 42:3 (NIV)

If Jesus can live this way, Jesus in me, through the Holy Spirit, can ive this too in today’s often hostile world. I just have to follow Him closely.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dick Francis and the Virtue of Temperance

I’m ready for the next units of my degree course. One of them is on poetry so there’s mostly no worry on that score. Hopefully I get to meet poets new to me and to experiment with poetry forms. The other unit is titled “Reading for Writing”. Yes, I get to read books without the guilt factor creeping in and informing me about the ironing pile or the washing up. The unit assignment on this one is choosing an author and identifying writing style, vocabulary choices, common themes and such in their books. The end produce is a unit of work to teach others what you have learned. I can churn out units of work no problem, with pictures and questions and spaces to write answers. I can even produce and interactive powerpoint to accompany my unit. Choosing a author? Not so easy.

Decades ago I discovered Dick Francis books. He sets his stories in the world of horse racing. I suppose if I ever wrote a series of books they might be set in the world of teaching. It’s an environment I am familiar with. The first book I read featured Sid Halley as the hero, a once-time jockey who had a bad fall that left him with a disabled arm. He floated around doing nothing until his father-in-law pushed him into the private detective arena. In a later book, what is left of the arm is removed and replaced by a prosthetic arm.

I went on to read and hold onto every Dick Francis novel I came across. They were mostly gleaned from second hand bookshops. My favourite by far is “Nerve” which features a jockey who appears to have lost his nerve after a particularly bad fall. He descends into an appallingly bad run of form. Favourites that should have an easy win trail in last or near last. Trainers drop him from their lists. It turns out that the problem doesn’t lie with him at all. He hasn’t lost his nerve but someone with a grudge is getting to the horses. Oops – if you want to read the novel and you don’t want to know the ending, just pretend you didn’t read that.

I had the whole collection. There wasn’t a Dick Francis book that I had read and wasn’t proudly stacked on the bookcase in year of printing order. I didn’t read his autobiography.

Then I moved to Cyprus to teach. I took my Dick Francis novels with me and proudly placed them on the bookshelf. The school was church-related and the church was the Plymouth Brethren. They were a lovely group of people but there were rules, strict rules.

A book I’m currently reading is “On the Shoulders of Hobbits” by Louis Markos. He is tracing various virtues through the writing of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”, and C S Lewis’ Narnia novels. I have got to the chapter on temperance. It’s not about compiling a list of all the things you shouldn’t do, but about living a balanced life between two extremes – indulgence on the one hand and strict denial on the other. There are plenty of scenes where Gandalf or Pippin or someone else lights up a pipe. Smoking? That’s something to be frowned on surely? Louis Markos makes the point that enjoyment of life is essential,  but the secret is in not going over the top – making something enjoyable an addiction or an obsession. I think I have an addictive nature so I tend to avoid things I know I could get addicted to. I rarely play computer games and the just-one-more-go side of them.

Back to my bookshelf in Cyprus and my Dick Francis novels – a church friend saw them and lines of disapproval creased across her brow. Did I not know, she pointed out, that they were not godly? She didn’t quite say they were written by the devil but that was where she was heading. My bookcase should be full of godly literature and the works of Christian writers. I didn’t ask God what He thought but put all the books into a bag and hauled them off to a second-hand bookshop. I confess I went back numerous times and hovered over the shelf they now inhabited, just to look, you understand, not to buy – that came much later.

It was a step along the path that saw me becoming increasingly critical of others that were not into self-denial in any big way. I remember one Monday morning looking through wedding photos from a staff member. I hadn’t been invited. There were no “don’t you look lovely?” or “love the dress” comments. Most people in the staff room, Plymouth Brethren stalwarts all, were looking at the bottles on the table. You see, we frowned on alcohol. The idea of drinking champagne? No way. Looking back, it fills me with sadness. Life was dictated by a list of rules and a person’s holiness was judged according to how well they kept them.

Back home, settled in Scotland, my husband has discovered Dick Francis and he now scours the second-hand bookshops to buy them. The new ones, the hardbacks, he buys me for Christmas or birthday presents. I’m not so sure the newer ones co-authored with his son Felix are up to the grit of the older one. But, even now, holding the books, there is a little shiver that I’m holding something illicit or forbidden. The echo is there from words spoken decades ago.

Just because I have read the chapter on temperance in the book, it doesn’t mean I am about to start smoking or go clubbing at the weekend. I know my limits and I will not exceed them, but I will enjoy life and joy and Dick Francis novels, but not to excess.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Verbs to Live By

I seek
I thirst
I long
I see
I behold
I praise
I glorify
I am satisfied
I remember
I think
I sing
I cling

(Psalm 63:1-11)