Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Men of Ephraim

“The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle; they did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by His law. They forgot what He had done, the wonders He had shown them.” Psalm 78:9-11

I don’t think any of us would like that to be the way we are remembered. It’s the kind of truth that we would prefer not to be reminded of.

The weapons, apparently, were bows. The men of Ephraim were excellent archers.  Some commentators seem to think that although they had the bows to hand, they were not strung properly. There’s also a lot of speculation about which battle it was they turned away from or whether, in more general terms, it was about the split between the ten tribes (called Israel) and the two tribes (called Judah) and the lack support they gave when needed.

I knew someone who indulged in opposite truths. If one particular scripture had a very negative slant to it, he liked to work out what the opposite truth might be. If it was a positive truth, he liked to work out the opposite truth and be challenged.

God wasn’t impressed with the men of Ephraim. Their actions robbed God of the glory that He was due. Had they fought, and won, had they kept His covenant and laws, had they remembered His amazing miracles the word written about them would have been so different.

“The men of Ephraim, armed with bows strung firm and arrows sharp and true, stood unwavering on the day of battle; they honoured God’s covenant and refused to deviate from His law. They remembered and kept alive everything He had done, they never forgot the wonders He had shown them.”

That makes for a much nicer testimony!

It makes me think about the equipment God has given me. It’s no use having a sword if the edge is not sharp. It’s no use having a sword if I don’t know how to wield one. God does not ask me to do anything without first equipping me. If I feel ill-equipped and inadequate – perhaps I’m on the wrong battlefield. Or perhaps I am too lazy to allow the Holy Spirit to train me.

Last week Joe and I found ourselves in Pocklington, a pretty market town not far from the city of York. Joe was amazed that such a small town could have so many tea shops. There were only so many customers to go around – how could they stay open for business? They also had a theatre and the play that week was “Journey’s End”. It was about the trenches and World War 1. There was much glorification of war but the play was about the damage done to the young officers. On the day of battle they were frightened boys, not brave men, but they went out to face the enemy anyway.

It feels like lately I have been facing more than a few battles. Some of them are physical ones – my body is reminding me that I’m not as young as I used to be, or as well looked after as I could have been. Some of my battles are mental ones – I discovered a definite yellow streak in my mental make-up. I used to be quite courageous. I still am to some extent but it takes a lot of stoking up the fires to get there. I am determined to stand unwavering because to do anything else would be to deny the power of God to transform situations or to transform me.

At the heart of God’s covenant has always been God’s desire and intention - “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:27) The world doesn’t want to work on that principle. They want nothing to do with God – irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst. They don’t want to be accountable or answerable to anyone. When we do God properly, authentically and genuinely we should be creating in people a hunger for God. The trouble is that we don’t do God properly. Sometimes we do God very badly and people believe that God is cruel and judgemental because that’s the way His people behave.

In Psalm 74, the men of Ephraim forgot what God had done.  They forgot the wonders God had done. I like my opposite truth - “they remembered and kept alive everything He had done”. The reason I can remember how to make pastry the way Mrs Barton (?) taught me at school is not by reading through an old school notebook – but by making the pastry! Keeping alive is more than remembering – it’s doing. If we want to see God doing wonders today, in our sceptical world, we need to give Him room and opportunity to do them.

One of the reasons I started writing was to keep an account of the things God had done in my life. I leaf through old notebooks, blog entries, or poems and I am amazed how much encouragement I find in them. The insight I had then speaks to me now. I speak to myself and lift myself up. But then, as good that is, me speaking to me, me speaking to you and you speaking to me is so much better. I can only tell myself what I already know – you can tell me the things I don’t know, things I need to know. A good conversation is to the heart what a good meal is to the body. Heart-wise we exist on snacks and junk food and wonder why we are not people of character.

I would like God’s verdict on my life to be a good one. I don’t want to be a man of Ephraim – not the Psalm 78 one. God’s verdict on my life is already a good one because of Jesus. I have something that the men of Ephraim didn’t have – Jesus in me.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Day Without...

I am sure I have mentioned sometime in the past that I can remember getting drunk only twice – perhaps the fact that I remember it means that I was never drunk in the first place or that there are times that I did get truly drunk and I don’t remember! Actually I love my self-control too much to relinquish it. There was a time in my early days of teaching that a half pint of lager at the end of the week eased by troubles. Then one glass was not sufficient and it turned into two. I decided there were better ways to ease my troubles and began praying more!

Someone asked me at the end of last week, learning that's I was about to go on holiday, whether I was planning to spend some of the time, if not all of it, drunk. She was insistent that a good time could not be had whilst sober. I’m not teetotal by any means it’s just my addictions lie in other places. Give me a large slice of cake any day.

On Sunday our church hosted a lovely lady from the charity Hope UK, which provides drug and alcohol education and training for children and young people, parents and youth workers.

She talked about the week she spent at a Keswick Convention some years before. Hope UK had a stand and she spent the week avoiding going anywhere near. She didn’t want to get involved. God had other plans and when she wandered close enough to the stand, the woman manning it told her boldly that God had chosen her for the job. A card was thrust into her hand which she put in a pocket. Once home she put the card in a box under the bed, deciding not to think about it. The card kept finding its way out of the box and onto the bedside table, until she relented, filled it in and sent it off.

I have to say that I didn’t go anywhere near the woman after she spoke.  I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to tell me that Hope UK was my next placement. I have had my time with young people. And besides which, I really don’t have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, which might perhaps be an essential part of the story of what you learned through experience and would like to pass on to the next generation.

I have to say that I have heard it all before – identifying different drugs, the colours and shapes of different tablets and their effects. Have I heard it done better? The police did a good one years ago with a good visual aid. Was I just lucky that I never fell down that particular rabbit hole? God made me best friends with a wonderful girl who loved reading, and another wonderful girl who loved music and another wonderful girl who introduced me to tinned sweetcorn.  He then introduced me to His Son and I fell in love. He also introduced me to my brain, not the size of planet, but in good working order and I discovered I loved learning. Of course, then He also uncovered in me a passion for writing. Would I write better if I was drunk? It might work for some, but not for me.  I never was the experimenting type and nerd-like kept my focus on my degree.
As with other charities, Hope UK has its plastic bracelets in rainbow colours. Not a marketing gimmick the words on the bracelet are something along the lines of “an alcohol free day”. For friends that make the pub their meeting place, a man needs only to show the bracelet to his friends and they are supposed to respect his choice of having an alcohol free day and not push a pint in front of him. She talked about a man who was homeless who chose to put his bracelet on daily to remind himself that alcohol was not the solution to his problem.

A friend of mine was sitting next to me in church. We have known each other a long time and have quite a volatile friendship. We don’t just speak truth to each other, we shout it, standing on doorsteps, yelling at closed windows! It’s only just recently that my friend has started to come to my church. She has replaced the quiet contemplation of a small chapel with boisterous clapping and songs that make you cry. God is on her case and every meeting has touched her heart. She needed one of those bracelets and took away a red one. She couldn’t guarantee that she’d wear it every day, but she’d try.

She looked at me carefully.

“Everyone’s got their addictions, Mel.”

If I could have a plastic bracelet mine would have nothing to do with an alcohol free day. It might be “a day without cake”. I have a sweet tooth. Or “a day without chocolate.” Perhaps better it would be “a day without worrying”, or “a day without negative thinking”, or “a day spent saying thank you” or “a day singing God’s praises”.

So many days and so many opportunities to remind myself that this day can be different.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

What We Build

I came across these words in a poem I was reading this afternoon -“Was Blind” by Dave Harrity. It was a poem, for the most part, I didn’t really understand.

“There are words we haven’t ever made with our mouths,
But that we built with our hands.”

Earlier in the day I was flicking through Facebook as I was eating my breakfast. There was a youtube link. A very creative dad had built a ninja assault course in his back garden. I watched, and held my breath, as a wee girl hopped, skipped and jumped from one part of the course to another.  There was a row of every doll and every cuddly toy she possessed watching and cheering her on. A little clock in the corner registered her time as she made her way around the obstacles. There must have been a button to press at the end of the course and she jumped up and down with delight. It was amazing.

I thought of every child in the neighbourhood queueing up to have a go and a leader board being fixed somewhere.  Of course, health and safety issues would not permit that to happen.

I am sure that every day her father told her how much he loved her. They were words spoken with the mouth, but what he had built with his hands also spoke a message of love. Perhaps it put a little bit of pressure on all the dads in the neighbourhood to come up with something equally impressive.

When I read the two lines of the poem I didn’t think of the youtube clip straight away. I thought about the things that we build with our hands and came up with Auschwitz. What a horrible thing to build! And what it says about how we regard people who are not “us”. And how we don’t speak out loud about the incarceration and death of so many people, but we whisper. It was never a proud moment in anyone’s history – never something to cheer or to celebrate – though people did, and still do.

I went on to think about the other things we build with our hands, or plan to build - Donald Trump and his wall along the border with Mexico.

Or perhaps it’s to build a new road and uproot a row of ancient oak trees.

Or perhaps the things that we build are not physical things at all but made from words, not spoken but written – zero hours contracts that some workers prefer, but many workers dislike, that really favour the employer more than the employee. Or re-writing human rights laws because it doesn’t suit “us” to treat “them” with such respect that it costs us “too much”. Not so much building something but dismantling it.

There are just some things we shouldn’t allow other people to build.

Then I remembered the youtube clip – the dad building the ninja assault course for his daughter. It’s encouraging to know that there are people that are building a good things with their hands, or with their words, spoken and written. 

What are you building?

I am building my second book of poetry which makes it was to the publisher sometime this week! Thanks to all the people who have been a part of the project.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Micah 6:6-7

Yet again I find myself
In Your throne room
I have learned that my good deeds
Don’t grant me entrance
My brownie points mean nothing
To You
Jesus is my letter of introduction
The only key that opens the door

Sometimes I come
Empty handed
Not asking You to mend the things
I have broken
I am content simply to sit
To gaze upon You
To watch You and
And feel the thrill of knowing You
I bring only my adoration to
Place before Your throne

My hands are full
My heart aches
So many concerns
Burdens too heavy to hold
Where words refuse to be spoken
Tears spill
You listen
To my heart

You lift me up
And straighten the shoulders
That bear Your yoke
And I am strengthened

Friday, September 30, 2016

Fig Trees and Fertilisers

“Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” Luke 13:6-9
I read this story earlier this week. Fig trees always put me in mind of a lady called Dora, a friend of mine who taught with me in a school in Cyprus. She lived with her parents and there was a fig tree in the garden. I don’t recall ever having seen fresh figs before, certainly not as fruit on a tree. There are times when our local supermarket does a deal on fresh figs. I buy them only to be a little disappointed that there’s no juice to them to drip off my chin!

I had written a poem about fig trees earlier in the year as a part of a challenge to write a poem every day of Lent.

Soil Space

twelve million square miles
just thirteen percent
of the earth’s surface is
arable land
how much soil space does a fig tree need?
none at all if it bears no fruit
for all its leaves
for all its appearance of life
it cannot meet my hunger – it is
a waste of soil space

two point two billion people
thirty two percent of
the earth’s population are
how quickly can we turn the world upside down?
not at all without love
for all our buildings
for all our programs
we leave too many people hungry – are we too
a waste of space?

As I was reading the parable I had a picture – just an image. I imagined myself to be the fig tree. I looked down to see the roots had been dug around, the soil loosened a little and piles of manure being shovelled in. (I am assuming that it would have been manure the famer was using as a fertiliser.)

I remember looking up the man who took care of the vineyard. I was incredibly distressed.

“Am I not bearing any fruit?  Am I about to be cut down?”

The farmer laughed very gently, “Of course you have been bearing fruit! I want you to bear even more fruit – that’s why I am digging around your roots and piling on the fertiliser. Do you think I would do anything less for a healthy tree?”

I have to admit that I have felt challenged by so many things of late – a little unsettled and uncomfortable. God’s word, his fertiliser, has been demanding a richer, more defined response from me.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poetry in Motion - Autumn

Yesterday was that time of the month for spending time with my friends from Poetry in Motion. The plan was all set, a short walk somewhere, a coffee shop for tea and biscuits and something to write about.

I wasn’t that sure about a short walk. My usual walks anywhere are based on the availability of a toilet. And it looked like rain was about to spill. My brolly was in the boot of the car.

We decided it wasn’t really a day for walking. One of us was really not up to it so we drove the minibus up to the woods. Beside the woodland classroom, on the veranda, under a sloping roof, was a picnic table that we could all sit around.

The topic was autumn. The forest wasn’t quite there yet – just the occasional splash of golden leaves on an otherwise green leafed tree.

Autumn isn’t my favourite time of year.  I’m a spring girl at heart. Autumn speaks to me of short days, long nights and an absence of much required sunlight. It’s not the absence of heat that bothers me, but I need my dose of sunlight.

We listened to a few autumn inspired songs and there was a sheet of famous poems - Yeats and his season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. We settled into writing.  I made lots of notes but there wasn’t an emerging poem in the words or phrases. I had an idea of a just-before-bedtime feel about the forest.  The year of spring with its furious bursting of life, and summer with its enjoyment of sunshine and breezes was not yet at the winter sleeping under the snow blanket stage. It was as if the forest was in the time just-before-bedtime. There was a changing of the outdoor playing clothes of green, to the indoor almost-bedtime of something softer and gentler like gold. I know some children that resent going to bed and put it off, and put it off, and get grizzlier by the moment.  The forest seemed to embrace the winding down of the year.

Short poems are good, right? We sat around the picnic table and read the things we had written. As ever, I recognised that I was in good writing company.  There were poems and pictures of squirrels and the autumn scavenge for food to hide away. There were poems of blackberry picking and pie recipes to bake them into. There were childhood memories, and observations about the wood itself and the dogs and children we could hear exploring.

A forest drifts into rest
Bright green garb softens to gold
As birds sing lullaby songs

I liked my line about the birds singing lullaby songs. It’s a first draft.  I will plough through my notes to see if I can see some other gems in my scratchings.

We had been there no more than ten minutes or so when it began to rain. Such rain! It was the lightest sprinkling of raindrops. We were under the shelter of the sloping roof. The sun was shining on the rain creating what looked like as gossamer jewelled shawl.  So light was the rain and the so delicate was the sunshine hitting each tiny drop – it really was beautiful. Turn your head just a smidgen to the right and there was no rain at all.

“We’re in a rainbow!” someone declared. Had we been back in the town looking up at the forest, we would have seen the rainbow.  But we were too close to see the rainbow from the right distance and the right angle.  Apparently there is a way to see the rainbow you are in if the light comes from behind you at just the right angle.  I moved to stand in the shower to see if I could have my rainbow moment but sun was at the wrong angle and the curtain of water had moved on.

We headed back to a coffee shop to tinker with our words.

As ever, the afternoon didn’t disappoint. I might not have written my best poetry but I sat in the quiet with a group of my friends and we enjoyed the silence and the peace of a forest almost in autumn. There was, as there always is, a lot of laughter, a lot of teasing, a knitted bonnet that did the rounds of various heads and people enjoying each other’s company. Take away the poetry and I would still want to be with there.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why here? This Moment?

A friend posted a link on her website to a youtube where a poet, Dave Harrity, encouraged his viewers to take ten minutes out of their busy lives. They were to find a bench, to sit and observe people and traffic, and then write something about them. I think it was supposed to be a busy town centre where there were lots of things to observe. I chose a bench beside the river, not in the centre of town, not much traffic, but people strolling, and dogs, and bikes and pushchairs, and a river in full flow. The trees were in heavy leaf and the paving stones were damp with almost dried-up rain. It was nice to sit still and watch the water, and the people, and to be just an observer rather than a participator. It was restful, a space to breathe, to do nothing, to think. I made notes.

Afterwards I downloaded his book “Making Manifest” which promised a programme of meditations and writing prompts on bits of scripture. Apparently I was supposed to put away any other notes I was following and allow my writing heart to be exposed to the stirring of the Spirit.  I’m supposed to be discovering myself, peeling back the onion layers, as it were. I’m not sure that I’m doing it right. All too much of my thinking life is navel-gazing already.  I’d much rather think about God – which is probably where the book is heading!

At the end of every chapter there is a writing prompt.  Exercise 3 - What events led you to this moment? Take time to think about the recent epiphanies in your life – moments of awakening and realisation.  Pick one and reflect on in in no more than ten sentences.

It’s my notebook and no one is going to read it.  I can write more than ten sentences if I want to. No doubt keeping to the task is all about discipline and developing essential writing skills but it wasn’t a recent epiphany that came to mind. What events led to this moment? This living in Inverness as opposed to somewhere in the Midlands where I have my roots? This job that I do, teaching in a secondary school? This church that I go to?  This poetry writing vibe I possess? “This moment” is too vague.

I settled on why Inverness?  What event led me here? Nothing recent.

I went back to 1986 or thereabouts.

It was a letter written by the pastor of a church that my mum had started attending. I was working in Cyprus while she was living in Rugby. I was a member of a highly conservative Plymouth Brethren church and she has just joined a happy-clappy charismatic church planting project.

It was a neat letter, a very long letter, written by someone I had never met and had every intention of distrusting.  Plymouth Brethren and happy-clappy churches had little in common. Did I not know my 1 Corinthians 13 – the gifts of the Holy Spirit coming to an end now that we had the complete written Bible truth? It would appear not – that same Spirit and His gifts were soaked into every line of the letter. The pastor spoke of a way of living as a Christian that had little to do with the way I was living mine. A walk of faith went beyond following rules and regulations.  If the Holy Spirit was like the white rabbit, and I was like Alice, I was supposed to be on an adventure.

The letter provoked a response. A yearning, a hunger, a longing for the adventure. My mum had found a way of being a Christian that brought her joy. Now, I’m not saying I was not joyful. It just seemed that joy oozed out of her. She breathed joy, she sang joy, she prayed joy – she enjoyed Jesus in a way that I didn’t.

Somehow, in those pages of the letter, the Holy Spirit, leaked into me.

I still went to the Brethren Church on a morning and on an evening, but I went elsewhere in between – a charismatic church that met in a hotel somewhere along the beach.

The Holy Spirit settled and made Himself at home in my life. He rearranged my spiritual furniture and put His pictures on my wall. He was never intrusive.  I don’t think He ever needed to ask because He already knew I’d say “Yes”.

And then one day He asked me to make a decision. It was time to choose. My Sundays had become almost unbearable. I was finding it increasingly harder to live as a Brethren – the kind of Brethren in that place and at that time which is not everyone’s experience of the Brethren Church. The charismatic “me” was becoming hard to restrain. I was leaking in the Sunday evening gospel meeting. I became a woman who would not be silent.

So I gave in. I recognised the call and began an adventure.

I wouldn’t be here in Inverness without that letter, the words of the pastor, the hunger it created in me and my capitulation.

And the adventure continues.