Wednesday, June 21, 2017

This Do I Know

Lord, I am crushed, I am ground down like dirt
Day after day, I am wounded and hurt
Fists strike my face and words fracture my heart
Lord, show me mercy, Your aid now impart

My enemies wink, they want me to fall
I’m pushed to my knees but to You I call
Be my strong tower, the place where I hide
The anchor I cling to till troubles subside

What can men do? I have nothing to fear!
Men who conspire, who scoff and who jeer
Lord, in your anger, cast down every foe
Triumph and victory upon me bestow

You know well my path and catch every tear
The praise on my lips You bend down to hear
Of one thing I’m certain. This do I know
That You walk beside me where ever I go

What can men do? I have nothing to fear
God, the Eternal, will always draw near
I offer my life, with its minutes and days
Always to walk in the light of Your ways

(Psalm 56)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Parable Walking

A friend of mine shared an article with me about parable walking. It was about how Jesus used the everyday things around him to teach people about how they should live their lives and what they should know about God and His Kingdom. We are used to learning in a church setting through someone’s sermon spoken at the front of the church, or in a home group setting – again, inside a building. We don’t have someone who waves an arm at a flock of sheep and tells us a story about a man who had a hundred of them and lost one, and what happens next.

Being outside, walking through a wood, or along a beach and allowing God to speak through these things is something that I do. Usually it’s more to do with stirring up a poem than a parable, and more recently it’s about trying to earn a few Scottish Slimmers “checkercise” points having eaten too much cake, or wolfed down a sharing sized packet of crisps without the sharing part happening.

Yesterday I purposely parable-walked along part of the South Loch Ness Trail. It’s not an ancient path. It’s possible that some form of the path existed ages ago, and just maybe St Columba trod the forest trail in his journey from Iona to Inverness.

Armed with sturdy trainers, a notebook and pen and a copy of the instructions I headed off, stopping off every so often to list the things my senses detected.

Tall trees, straight trunks swayed above my head. Shrubs, ferns and thick bunches of flowers and moss covered fallen logs bordered the path. Pine cones were scattered everywhere, open and empty of seeds. A few lines from a Martin Luther King Speech came to mind

"If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. But be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are."

The route was marked by posts. It’s always nice to feel secure that you are on the right path. One part of the walk takes in a minor road and a hill into another patch of forest. It’s a long stretch without any posts. It was easy to convince myself that I had somehow come off the path.  Passing beside a couple of houses, a barn, a field or two of crops, a tumble of stones, a field of horses, and climbing a steep hill that became less of a minor road and more of a grassy path I saw the marker post in the distance.

A couple of bike riders erupted from the path and wheeled down the hill gleefully. They were the first people I had seen. The parable walking sheet had said that it could be a communal thing – walking together, in silence, then comparing notes at the end. There were prayers to be said and readings to read aloud – but I skipped that. I like my own company, my own pace of walking and the conversation I have in my head.

The wind was quite brisk. I stopped to admire a tall tree with branches and leaves that bent with the wind. I took on a tree-bending-with-the-wind pose and felt a little silly. It was Theresa May who came to mind this time. I thought about how difficult the last week has been for her and the barbs in the newspapers I have read. There may be a time for being strong and safe but there’s also a time to bend. Without the bending comes brokenness. Bending is not compromising. I might not be a people person either, but I’m not a prime minister, I don’t need to turn up and give comfort to survivors but I would have done. She needed to and didn’t.

I made it to the marker post, looked at my watch and the grey clouds gathering. I had walked further than I intended to. Turning around I retraced my steps. Why is it that the homeward journey always seems to take less time?

I stopped beside the field of horses. Had I been my sister I would have made encouraging clucking noises and held out a hand. The horses would have recognised a friend and ambled over. She would have said, “Who’s a lovely boy?” and they would have exchanged mobile phone numbers. I am not my sister.

I was back in the forest,  It was a quiete, peaceful place. I daresay it’s not so peaceful with one bug eating another and plant life jostling over ground for sun-space, and underground for root-space. The trees had enough room to grow. It was a managed forest – some trees felled to give others the room they needed. I thought about my life and whether it was managed enough. Was there too much crowding going on? Did I need to get rid of a few things to allow the planting of new stuff?

I have often had a picture, on various forest walks, of Jesus walking beside me. He would stop at one particular tree and run His hand down the trunk, feeling the contours. He would look upwards, shield his eyes perhaps from the sun, and notice the absence of branches most of the way up and top of the tree with “beanie hat” of life. He would remind me that He was once a carpenter.

“This is a lovely tree,” He’d say. “So straight and tall! What could I do with the wood from this tree? I could make a door or a table. I could frame a window or make a shelf. I could make a baby’s crib or a boat with it. I would craft it to my purpose, smooth it down, polish it and run my finger along the clear grain.”

He didn’t say it, but I knew that he wouldn’t make it into a cross to nail someone to it. The picture usually stops at that point.

Yesterday, I had that same picture and conversation. Then came the next part of the conversation.

He’d touched my arm, and look into my eyes.

“This is a wonderful woman,” He’d say. “So upright and full of integrity! What could I do with a woman like her? I could make a teacher or a preacher. I could make a prophet or a healer. I could make a warrior and a worshipper. So much I could do but I choose to make her a poet and through her words she is all of them. I will craft her to my purpose, smoothe and polish her and as I run my finger along her clear grain I cannot help but smile.”

What a conversation to have!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Finding "Home"

“Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” Thomas Merton. 

I read this in a chapter of a book I am reading at the moment as part of an online book club. The book “Booked: literature in the soul of me” by Karen Swallow Prior, is a kind of life story traced through the books she has read. The chapter is based on the play “Death of a Salesman”, a play I have not read. It is about not living your life trying to be someone you are not called to be. Someone else’s path to success and happiness is not our path.

I was thinking, as I was reading, of those moments when I knew for certain I was on the right path.

When I first came up to Inverness in September 1989 as part of a Gospel Outreach team I really wasn’t certain of how much the decision to be there was mine, and how much the decision was made on the basis of trying to please other people.  We had travelled up over one very long day. The journey to Inverness is not a short one. I remember we stopped, in a large layby, possibly at the Drumochter Pass, somewhere along the A9. It was dark and the sky was heavy with stars. I had a sense of God telling me that just as those stars in heavens were always there in the night sky, He would always be with me. It wasn’t confirmation that I was supposed to be on that team, but that His presence was assured. We continued the journey to Inverness, arriving late, and tired enough to leave the unpacking till the next day, to simply fall on a bed and sleep.

The next morning I ventured out to see where I had landed. Inverness has the magnificent River Ness running through it, spanned by a number of bridges. There’s a couple of footbridges, little suspension bridges that cross the Ness. The Grieg Street Bridge is one of them and one lurches from side to side in a drunken motion when there’s people crossing in the other direction. I stood in the middle of the bridge looking down towards the castle and I knew I was where I was, for want of a better word, home. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I settled down to business.

The second of those certain moments was when I signed up for an evening class at Inverness College. I had intended signing up for a twelve week counselling course, believing it to be a useful skill to contribute to the church I was a part of. Next to the singing-up list was another list signing up to Creative Writing. My hand shifted across. Maybe my heart shifted too. When I sat down at the table in the class and wrote a story about a missing girl, prompted by a school photograph, I knew again that sense of coming home. Words and I had once been lovers in my teenage years and we rediscovered each other.

I have often questioned whether the vocation calling me to be “the person I was born to be” was really teaching. I can’t think of a time when I opted for it or made a conscious decision. Mum insisted that I lined up my dolls in the bedroom, all of given a name that began with the letter “R”, and taught them whatever I had learned at school. I don’t remember doing that – but I have a lousy memory anyway. I know that my choices of who to be were limited by the stream of schooling I had. The English class was deemed not bright enough to read some of the classics that Karen read. My “A” level, just the one, was Religious Studies – so I became an RE teacher.

If a vocation is something that comes easily to a person, then I wasn’t supposed to be an RE teacher – or any kind of teacher. I’m not, nor ever have been, outgoing. But that is not entirely true – put me on a stage, give me an audience, words to speak and I love the performance. I am a closet exhibitionist! I worked my way up the casts of numerous pantomimes in our local village. I never made it to principal leading lady.  I like to think it was my lack of being pretty that stopped me.

My first teaching job was in London, in Walthamstow, where they went through RE teachers like pints of cold Guinness on a hot summer’s day. I vowed that I had given four years of my life to get my teaching degree that I was going to stick teaching out for four years, then, and only then, if I didn’t like it I would throw in the towel, the red pen, the stick of chalk, the piles of marking, the report writing, the parents evenings, the answering-back pupils and everything else.

I stuck it out for four years, plus another thirty one. Whether that was out of fear of admitting I had got it wrong or out of finding another “home” is sometimes not clear. I loved the interaction I had with most classes – I had my stage, my audience, my words and the opportunity to perform every day. But it didn’t come easy.

When words and I re-united after all those years I did wonder if I had been on wrong path. If my ability to earn money had rested on my ability to use words, would I have lost my joy in writing?

Karen, towards the end of the chapter, looks at the reason behind work. Martin Luther once said that before the Fall God created both men and women to work. We work not because work saves us or gives us a sense of “home” but because work meets the needs of our neighbours. We work because of an in-built, God-purposed need to serve others. There is enough of the narcissist in me to wonder if in teaching I am simply serving myself rather than others.

I am into the last few metres of the teaching race and see the finishing line of retirement ahead. I had cherished in my heart the notion of a part time job behind the counter of the local Co-op. I recognise it as something I want to do rather than something God has called me to do – but the one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other! I think of it as something easier than teaching but it might not be.

I also think there might be something that makes better use of the love between words and I. Perhaps it is there that I will find my next “home”.

God knows.

(Not the “God knows” that translates as a shrug of the shoulders and an I-have-no-clue tone of voice, but the “God knows” that is confident that God really does know and will share it with me when I ask Him to.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Re-connecting With Nature

There was an article in the national papers this morning, just four small paragraphs or so, about a recent poll involving young people and nature. It seems that only 51% of young people can identify a bluebell and just 4% know what a red clover looks like.  The over 55s did better – 83% knew their bluebells and 45% knew red clovers.

This lack of knowledge about nature was blamed on the growth of technology and safety issues.  Concern for children’s safety means that wandering across fields and wading through minnow-rich ditches is a thing of the past.  I remember school days, afternoons, of walking out of the building and through a couple of fields down to a bridge crossing the Grand Union canal. We poked cow pats and watched a flurry of flies. We picked rosehips and sent them off somewhere to get made into rose-hip syrup. We kept a beady eye on frogspawn waiting for tadpoles in a pond.

Maybe the makers of the games that they play on computers need to decorate the scenery with trees and wildflowers. Rather than skirting around buildings and scaling rooftops armed with automatic weapons to kill people, they should move it into the forest. People perhaps should get shot not on the basis who has the biggest gun or the fastest reflexes, but according to how well or not they can name the wild flowers and insects around them!

Last week on a walk along the river I visited the cathedral. I like the quiet space inside and time to sit and be still.

Part of the space was taken up with an exhibition “My Ark of Nature”. An artist and environmental conservationist, Jonathan Sainsbury, had set up the exhibition. His artwork filled the small chapel space. He is based in Perth and has received a number of awards for his work in protecting the environment. His pictures are amazing. There were a number of very big charcoal sketches next to smaller, painted versions of the same thing. The scenes, of highland landscapes, trees and wildlife had an almost “middle earth, Hobbit look” about them. It’s not New Zealand at its most fantasy-landscape best – but just a few miles down the road, or up the road, or along the way from where I live – the rivers, the forests, the mountains and the deer that appear on my horizon.

Interspersed with the artwork were poems:-

I caught this morning morning's minionminion favorite, darling; also, an underling or servant, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphindauphin prince; a French historical term, along with “chevalier”, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimplingwimpling rippling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing…

(from the The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

And Bible verses:-

Just as the sparrow seeks her home,
    and the swallow finds in her own nest
    a place to lay her young,
I, too, seek Your altars, my King and my God,
    Commander of heaven’s armies.
How blessed are those who make Your house their hom
    who live with You;
    they are constantly praising You.
(Psalm 84:3-4)

And along the walls at various intervals there were child-level bird boxes to peer into and see pictures of birds.

And there was a wooden shelf stuffed to spilling over with books and feathers and little wooden birds.

And in the background was the sound of bird song.

I think if I had inhaled deeply enough I could have been breathing in a forest fragrance.

It was a delightful exhibition. The artist and his wife were there and talked through some of the pictures. One of them was of sparrows hopping around a blackberry bush. Jonathan explained that it was just the one sparrow that had posed for him, a sparrow that they had nursed as a baby, who lived in their house and ate at their table and really thought itself to be a person rather than a sparrow.

I was reminded of the few nature poems I had written over the years. I shared the poems with them. The last line of a poem “Abriachan” ends with this verse – which brings me full circle to the newspaper article this morning:-

Shame on me I cannot tell
The names of trees some know so well
Hazel, downy birch and yew
A tongue now spoken by so few

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

50 Word Flash Fiction

After watching my boys play the first half of their match in the street league, I headed off to Pol-UK, the creative writers’ group that meets at the Bike Shed on Grant Street. Earlier in the week the Scottish Book Trust had posted something on Facebook about their monthly 50 flash fiction competition – a prompt to write something about an enchanted wood along with a picture of trees in the mist. I thought it might be something we might try.

We didn’t do the enchanted wood theme. We thought we’d save that one for real! A practice go or two was needed first. The first was based on a phrase:-

The Future Will Take Care of Itself

A man on the doorstep. Smart suit and tie. An Identity badge flapping in the wind. A clip board. A pen poised in hand. I squint at the badge. Sunny Horizons Insurance. He smiles. Even white teeth gleaming. I close the door, a winning lottery ticket clenched in my palm.

Impressed that I nailed the word count, I was ready for our next prompt – four random words.

Thursday. Brown. Cat. Seven.

Where is a black cat when you need one? Where are my seven years of good luck? On Thursday I saw a ginger cat on a wall, a brown tabby hiding under a car and a Persian blue staring through a window. I didn’t see the kerb I tripped over.

Bring on the enchanted forest!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Preaching to my Soul

I eat tears for breakfast
And sorrow for lunch
Grief slow cooks my evening meal
The enemy adds lies to the pot
God seems silent
And the lights have gone out

I preach to the downcast soul in me
This soul tethered to the floor
Half rebuke, half encouragement
I declare
That God is my shelter
That I lean on Him

I will open my eyes wide
And seek Him out
I will go to His house
And I will serenade Him there
All of my dreams I have placed
In the basket of His hope

Life may look bleak today
Yet I know He saves
He is my life, my joy, my rapture

So I will keep singing

(Psalm 43 paraphrased)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Things I Did Not Say

I was trying to think how many times I have given my testimony to a group of people rather than just sharing my faith walk on a one to one basis. I definitely spoke at my baptism and I was invited once to talk to the Scripture Union in school. Yesterday I shared my testimony in church at our monthly feast day. What could be said in five minutes you can guarantee I will spin out to half an hour! You can also guarantee that what could be quite a boring story I can make a good tale out of. I added in a few poems to keep people entertained. That said there were so many things I didn’t say…

I have always believed in God. What I believe about God has changed over the years. As I talked about my experiences growing up in a Roman Catholic household and the way church I attended created the distance and the black book mentality, I looked across the room at little Mia Crossley. Did I envy her just a little bit? She is growing up with parents and an extended family of aunties, uncles and grandparents that have really vibrant relationships with God. She will never pick up the idea that there is a black book, that God doesn’t like children and that, yes, although she can never measure up to God’s standards, someone will tell her that Jesus is there to bridge the gap.

Eric Von Daniken might have been an interesting rabbit hole for a while but he never scuppered my belief in God. It is all too easy to avoid the Erics in life. As Christians we need to know not just what we believe, but also why we don’t believe the other stuff. If we don’t know the flaws in other philosophies and ways of believing, because we have never looked for them, we deprive ourselves of ammunition to fight the enemy.

I talked about coming to Jesus when I was eighteen at a house party in Wales. It was one of the hottest summers on record, still spoken about by weather people, 1976. We talk about making decisions to follow Jesus but I think it’s Jesus that does all the deciding to claim us as His. Something that important shouldn’t really be left to us. There was no hallelujah chorus, no sense of planets aligning, peace flooding in – I felt no different, but, you know what, it didn’t matter. I knew, without all of that, that something had happened. God is a God of His word – if I cry to Him, He responds. Maybe it was those memory verses from Sunday School spilling truth inside.

I wasn’t birthed into or nurtured by a church. I fell into the Plymouth Brethren, but they didn’t know what to do with an eighteen year old, new born, spiritual baby. They presumed a church history and experience that wasn’t there. It’s a long time ago now. Maybe they did things and I can’t remember. Not being mothered or fathered made me very independent and self-sufficient. I grew up solving my own problems and not needing people which was never God’s plan. And that has been one of my biggest struggles – to allow other people to come alongside and help. I don’t trust the knowledge that someone else might have, that I haven’t found out all by myself. I do rejoice when I hear testimonies about people spoken to, healing that happen and people coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus, but I go into worry mode. Wil they be like I was – new spiritual babies left without the planting in a church that needs to be there? Will they become self-sufficient and think they can go it alone?

When I was introduced to things like singing in the Spirit and the obviously supernatural side of faith, it wasn’t common stuff at the time – not in my church. The Toronto Blessing was a long way off. It was at the very edge of mainstream churches, perhaps it still is. People talk about the fear of God and swapping words around and calling it respect. What I felt that night at Spring Harvest, in that marquee with thousands of Spirit-singing people, was fear – scary fear. It was Isaiah chapter 6 encounter-with-God fear. It was trembling, pushed-down-to-my-knees fear. It was nothing diluted down to respect. There were other things that I was running away from at the time when I headed to Cyprus – but running from such a tangible experience of God was at the top of the list. I was also running to something. The school offered me an opportunity to teach in a primary school – which it never delivered!

Mum’s letter, or rather her church pastor’s letter following hot on its heels, was a life turner. The Brethren church in Limassol has been bitten badly by the charismatic movement and left with scars. They were deeply suspicious of any movement by the Spirit – which didn’t stop the Spirit moving, just made it that much harder. I was living on a battlefield of what the Spirit seemed to be saying and what was allowed. I was stamping on sparks, trying to toe the party line, but the fire of the Spirit wouldn’t let up.

When I finally left the church, and the job, seeing as I couldn’t have one without the other, it broke my heart. Leaving is not part of my DNA. I have purposely left two churches to date and neither decision to leave was an easy one. It was never down to personality clashes, arguments that I would not resolve or perhaps even doctrinal differences. There were no bitter divorces, just a recognition that our paths were going in different directions. There was a letting go on both sides with a blessing. There was never a gap between one church left and another one entered. I didn’t “church-hunt” and I didn’t take a break from church. I just happened on the next church family and joined in. 

There’s no truth whatsoever in the notion that you can be a Christian and not be planted in a church. God chooses not to make Himself enough in that situation. As much as there is a God shaped hole, there’s a people shaped one too. The body of Christ is so called for a purpose. Maybe the reason why I have not fallen by the spiritual wayside is because of the church families I have been a part of over the years. I don’t claim that they are easy people to live with. No one is easy to live with.

Do I really want to add to anything I said about infertility and barrenness? As a church we don’t do childlessness at all. We fling prayers at it, and prophecies and pictures of mothers and prams, and expectation, and accusations of a lack of faith, and a heavy sense of failure, and compassion, and helplessness, and embarrassment in the end – but very rarely acceptance and a good path forward. Yes, it still hurts but I have found my peace in it all. God is not some heavenly vending machine where we push His buttons and the right stuff comes to us. Sometimes the wrong stuff comes – the rain that falls on the righteous and the wicked alike. How can we come alongside a suffering world and speak to their afflictions if we have been shielded from it all? God wants real life in His people, not the Disney endings we think we are entitled to.

I don’t know how to thank God enough for leading me into the writing world. I confess that I don’t write enough and perhaps I only focus on the Disney endings when I do write. There is a writing journey that I have yet to take.

I love my walk with God. Maybe the road hasn’t always been to my liking. Sometimes the company stinks. Sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a road I don’t want to leave, don’t want to be lured away from, because it heads to the one place I want to go – to the embrace of my Father.