Sunday, May 20, 2018

Safe Places

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” And so begins the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I’m not going to chop up the story into little bits or dissect it with the sharp knife of culture, suffice to say that the journey wasn’t a safe one. It wasn’t often a journey made by a single person. One tended to go with others. Bandits then, like now, tend to go for the isolated man or woman rather than the group. It saddens me that too many people end up making journeys on their own.

I was talking about safe and unsafe places with a group of young people. They were happy to throw out names and places where it wasn’t safe – war zones mostly. Some of them had parents in the army that had been sent to some of the unsafe places around the world.

We came a little closer to home, to places in Inverness that they considered not safe. Sometimes it was linked to just a certain time of night. Other times it down to certain streets or alley ways. We nodded sagely as we ticked off the no-go areas in our heads.

Then the bomb dropped.


I’d read earlier about places in some city centres where owners of grocery shops were part of a scheme to provide young people, any people, with a safe place to be. A sticker in the window told a young person that the owner of the shop would phone someone if you felt you were being followed or at risk. You could wait in the shop while a parent came to collect you, or a friend, or a police car. The shop with the shop owner was a safe place.

Schools don’t have a visible sticker anywhere giving a person reassurance that it’s a safe place.

School of me wasn’t a safe place for just the one year of my life. The school was a rural secondary school. Pupils were bussed in from surrounding villages. Much like the certain streets and alleys my young people had named, there were certain villages that were labelled as unsafe. The bullies came from one of those villages. Had there been mobile phones in those days, had the bullies possessed them or had I, there might have been the one going cyber hate spilling across the screen. At the end of the day, we headed for separate busses and they couldn’t touch me until the next day. Thank heavens for small mercies.

It was never that bad, she says, looking back. It was all verbal and done at a distance. The pencil case tossed to the floor, the face up close to mine, the whispers and giggles as I walked by. It was intimidating. There were threats to fight me at the end of the school day – an empty threat seeing as we all had busses to catch.

What struck me then, and still gets to me today, is how the un-bullied never stepped in. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." so said Edmund Burke.

It was visible day in day out. My misery was there for all to see and they never stood up for me. I wasn’t one of the pretty people, one of the popular ones. Maybe it was the glasses with their plastic NHS lenses that did it, or the overbite of my mouth, or the skirt level that stayed stubbornly just below the knee, of the face void of make-up, or the eyes that didn’t ogle boys but read books instead.

It was just for one year. I worked myself into a better class and they lost interest.

Safe places are fast disappearing.

“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” Psalm 125:2

If the person I am now was poured into the person I was then I wonder whether I would ever have become the victim of bullies. Then I was a quiet girl – now? Still quiet but full of confidence. The confidence is not Mel-manufactured but God given.

I consider myself very blessed that God has taken away the “unsafedness” of places for me. That’s not to say the place is safe where I’m called to go, but in that unsafe place I am safe because God is there with me.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Psalm 124

The Lord is on my side against
The foe that would devour
The waves that seek to overwhelm
Are stilled by His great power
Without Him on my side I would be
Trampled down to dust
I call Him and He rescues me
This God in whom I trust


Monday, May 14, 2018

Putting the Cowpat into Context

I got told off last week. Well, maybe not so much told off as told to explain myself.

I had been accused of calling someone, maybe more than one person, a cowpat. Did I? Actually, yes I did but the context is important. It wasn’t a word I had conjured out of thin air on the spur of the moment and the insult wasn’t personal.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:38-42)

I was discussing the whole slapping thing with a group of young people. There is a perception out there in the world that the slapping thing is about not retaliating and not standing up for yourself. You are not allowed to hit back but you “take one on the chin for Jesus”. That is not what it is.

A slap in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus had a very specific meaning. It was a deep insult. It wasn’t about physical violence. It wasn’t a challenge like throwing down a gauntlet. A slap was deeply insulting. It was about showing contempt. How you slapped mattered. Using the palm of your hand was a slap delivered to an equal. Using the back of your hand was delivered to someone you considered to be inferior – the person equivalent of a cowpat.

With a back handed slap to the right cheek, not only are you insulting someone, you are also telling the world you think they are inferior – a master to a slave, a husband to a wife, a parent to a child.

OK, so we pretended to slap each other’s right cheeks with back handers and just in case we didn’t know we were being insulted we called each other “cowpat” and laughed a lot. It’s quite possible that some weren’t laughing. They stopped at the cowpat and didn’t move on. The next bit of Jesus’ teaching didn’t sink in.

Jesus went on to say “turn to them the other cheek also”.  He didn’t say you just “walk away”. When you turn the other cheek you are inviting a second slap. However the person who is slapping is dealing with a left cheek, not a right cheek. It’s almost impossible to backhand someone’s left cheek with the right hand. The person slapping, if they want to continue slapping, has to use an open palm – a slap between equals. What you are saying, by offering the left cheek is “You might consider yourself superior to me, but I don’t accept that. I refuse to live your way.” It doesn’t really matter what someone else thinks of us – we are not going to define ourselves in their terms. We are not going to return the insult either or involve ourselves in a tit for tat scuffle.

So much of Jesus’ teaching, whether it comes in thirty second sound bites or in fully blown stories or parables, come with a context. We don’t always know the context. We interpret the teaching in the light of our own culture and experience and miss what Jesus rally meant.

We don’t often get insulted with a slap to the right cheek. Our insults come in other ways. I was watching “Room 101” a week or two ago. Celebrities were asked to identify things that they didn’t think people should do, explain why and then, if they have convinced the panel host their irritation was shovelled into the bin – the metaphorical bin.

It wasn’t a celebrity that I could put a name to. He was complaining about aggressive atheists. These people are not content to live and let live. They insist that the believer is always wrong and see it as their duty to drag the believer into a reasonable and a scientific world. There are not gentle people. They don’t always use reason, or intelligent debate but often throw insults around like “stupid” and “moron”. He didn’t like that aggressiveness. The panel host agreed and the aggressive atheists were disposed of.

We don’t seem to have worked out how to respond to the insults that come our way. I think we go on the defensive or we whinge a lot about the unfairness of it all. We tell ourselves that we are being targeted – and we are. We mutter and we grumble.

If this is the promised persecution then we should be rejoicing. We should be claiming all the resources God gives to respond with kindness - part of which is not allowing them, the aggressive atheists, to continue their mockery and the ridicule.

I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.
(Psalm 123)

The Psalmist shows us how – powerful lives lived with open eyes fixed on God and with His mercy poured upon us and through us.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Slowing Down

What was I doing at 4.00 am yesterday? Go on, take a guess. Asleep perhaps? Actually, no. I was sitting outside on the garden bench listening to the dawn chorus.

Where did I intend to be at 4.00 am yesterday? Go on, take another guess. Asleep for sure. Actually no. I intended to be down by the Caledonian Canal with a bunch of other people, listening to the dawn chorus with an expert telling me which birds were singing. Apparently it’s not an every-bird-at-once-top-of-your-voice celebration of a new day. There’s an order. The blackbirds tend to be first up and then some other bird’s next and then another one and so on until eventually every bird is singing. I wanted to be there with the experts but driving with eyes half open and body half dozing didn’t seem a safe option.

“They’re claiming ground, Mel,” said God. “Why don’t you claim some ground too?” I don’t sing at 4.00. I snore perhaps. I wasn’t about to wake up the neighbours with a loud, off tune warble but I did pray. I don’t claim that my prayers shook the gates of hell. Eyes half open, body half dozing – it didn’t match up to that generation of powerful men of prayer who also prayed at 4.00 am.

The Dawn Chorus thing at the canal was one of the opening events for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival Highland. They had pancakes afterwards.

What was I doing at 6.00 pm today? Go on take a guess. Watching TV? Tackling the ironing pile? Actually, no. I was down at the Bike Shed in Grant Street at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. They were hosting an art exhibition on the theme of New Beginnings. The people who produced the art were mostly beginners, and mostly
using art to express feelings and emotions.

There were one or two people that I knew. Creativity in Care have been involved in the project and it was good to catch up with folk. I also bumped into a writer friend whose opening conversation starter was “Have you done your homework?” Eh? The homework might refer to homework given at a Thursday creative writing class which I sometimes go to.

There was coffee to drink, pictures to look at and people to talk to. I did all three but not in equal measure. I brought my empty paper cup home seeing as it’s the first time anyone has written my name on a paper cup before. I’ve seen it in adverts but never thought cafes did it for real. The pictures? You know, I have one picture that would have fitted in. One wall was dedicated to people’s Picasso portraits. Maybe I ought to frame mine I did years ago. There were other paintings too. Some real things like lions and tigers (and bears), and some landscapes, and some other stuff and I really don’t get.

Having done the socialising, we were invited to listen to a few speeches. Nothing long. Just information really about what different groups did about mental health. As ever, the hearing aids were left on the sideboard at home so the head was tilted slightly to favour the good ear.

A man was invited to give a longer talk about mental health. He was fiddling with something the whole time as he read his speech. There wasn’t much in the way of eye contact.

He was talking about the need to slow down our lives. The stress that we deal with is often as result of the hectic pace of living.  We are like those pinball machines – like the bouncing around, pinging this or that, lights flashing, sirens going off, levers pulled and snapping and everything frantic. We need to slow down.

His first suggestion was learning how to juggle. It’s apparently a Samurai thing, the hand and eye co-ordination and concentration. I once tried to learn to juggle with a trio of apples. The apples got bruised but there was a wonderful apple fragrance in the room afterwards.

His second suggestion was fishing. It’s not a Samurai thing this time and has more to do with quietness and peace and watching the water for evidence fish presence than anything. This I have done twice. The second time I caught a fish – it was a baby fishing pool, so crammed with fish for beginner fisher-people, and sweetcorn on the hook rather than anything exotic, that you would have to be very unlucky not to catch anything.

His final suggestion, and what he had been fiddling with the whole time, was making flies for fishing. Somewhere in this house there is a box – a red plastic box divided into little compartments. It contains flies for fishing – hooks, feathers, wires and stuff. The speaker made a fly by twisting fine wire, snipping here and there and adding strands of colour. It was pernickety stuff and not something you could do while watching an episode of Coronation Street. A friend of mine is learning the skill of paper folding. Not origami. Flower and stuff. It is mind-focussing. She also knits jumpers with complicated cable patterns. I write poetry.

It’s not that the problems go away, the man said. It’s just after this time out spent juggling balls, or fly fishing, or making flies for fishing – or paper folding, or complex cable knitting, or writing the poem – afterwards you come back to something fresh. What you couldn’t seem to do before you did the juggling, you can now seem to do much more easily.

The slowing down – if only the world would let us slow down! The world doesn’t have time for the time-wasters.  It’s all about setting and meeting targets and filling every second of every minute with activity.

Jesus went fishing. Perhaps he knew how to juggle. Mostly he just left the crowd behind, climbed a mountain and spent time with His Father.

We need to learn some slowing down strategies. For the sake of body, soul and spirit we need to learn some and put them into practice.

Prayer – 4.00 am with the dawn chorus playing at full volume? Maybe not.