Saturday, December 03, 2016

Facing Up to the Enemy

I didn’t plan to watch the whole Matrix trilogy last night. Our paths crossed. It was a planets-lining-up-moment and I went with it.

I have seen them all before but not recently, and not one after the other. I understood the first one and thought it was very clever.  And then it gets all too philosophical. A group of young people and I were debating the whole issue of free-will and came to the conclusion that we are not really free at all because, even taking away all the rules we live by, we are surrounded by the fitting-in thing and a list of what society expects and rewards and punishes, not by prison, but by ostracising us.

That said, I sat down to join Neo on his journey through the Matrix. I have probably mentioned before that I am not a film watcher that keeps a respectable distance from what is going on. I have a joining-in gene when it comes to watching stuff. Sometimes it is kept in check.  At other times I let myself off the leash.

So last night, I sat on the sofa joining in. I did all the martial arts poses as best as I could, sitting down. I did the swirly arms thing and the arm blocks and the chopping motions. And I made the right sound effects as I watched. There was no point where Neo was ever fighting on his own – I was there. Can I just tell you how cathartic that whole first film was for me? Every real and imagined foe I had encountered during the week, I thought about, and I chopped them to bits. And did I laugh? Absolutely.

The second film began. I opted not to try to figure out the philosophy. Remember, it was Friday night and I was rather brain-fried. I was looking for fluff and nonsense. I wasn’t really getting the finer moments of the story line – just continuing my seated Kung-Fu poses. There’s a bit in the film where Neo and his friends are in a tunnel, being chased by a lot of sentinels, squirmy robots with a gazillion tentacles. They are running, the sentinels are hot on their heels. Neo turns and lifts his hand and the sentinels explode in a fire-work flash of lights.

“St Columba!” I roared.

This is not a new swear word. I had been exploring the life of St Columba with a bunch of young people – a different bunch from the ones who had the free-will discussion. In the story of St Columba, he and his friends have an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster. The monster was terrorising the people who lived near the River Ness. One man has been bitten and had died. Columba had buried the man.  Later he told one of his friends to swim across the river to fetch the boat. (Oh, yes, St Columba – of course I’m going to swim across the river to get a boat, even though the monster had just bitten someone – sure, no problem – NOT) Well, without hesitation the man began swimming. And yes the monster appeared. St Columba made the sign of the cross and commanded the monster to “Go no further!” and it turned tail and ran.

St Columba wasn’t a man to shrink back. He faced up to all sorts of scary things. There are so many stories of him and his men going out of their way to confront the things that scared themselves and others. We had a great time swapping stories of our phobias and trying to work out why we held them. We also talked about how to deal with them. One girl talked about her parent’s friend who worked with spiders visiting them with a whole collection of stuff and teaching them how to handle hairy legs crawling over them and to not feel alarmed, giving them information about habitats and lifestyles and, in the process, pulling out the little splinters of fear that had become embedded.

St Columba was a man who took God at His word. The opening chapters of Genesis contain the creation story. People are made in the image of God and given dominion, power to rule, over the birds of the air, the fish in the sea and every creature that moves over the land. Columba took that to heart. God had given him that power and he used it. I know that one day in the near future I am my free-will discussion young people will be discussing these opening chapters and dissecting them – but I want to have a St Columba spirit about the authority we have been given. I want to face my own Loch Ness monsters fearlessly and command them to “Go no further”.

St Columba and the Loch Ness monster! Neo and the sentinels! The brain made the connection. Neo’s hand raised became my hand raised too. Both of us raised our hands against the sentinels.  Both of us witnessed victory over them. Neo collapsed and I roared out “St Columba!”

In my quiet time this morning – well, it wasn’t really quiet at all, a hand was raised and authority was taken and a few monsters commanded to “Go no further!”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Jericho Man

What’s yours is mine
Says the bandit hiding behind the rocks
As he hits the Jericho man on the head

What’s mine is mine
Says the priest hiding behind his holy vocation
As he passes the Jericho man leaving him for dead

What’s mine is yours
Says the Samaritan not hiding at all
As he wraps up the Jericho man and puts him to bed

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

His Way

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

It’s a familiar passage and I know a song about the verses that follow on from it. We have a tendency to isolate verses from their context. Thoughts about what? What particular thoughts here are not mine? What ways are higher? Pretty much every thought is what you might be thinking – but there is a specific thought in this case.

There was a programme on BBC on Sunday night. It wasn’t on that late, but late enough for me to decide to record it and watch it the next day. “The Selfless Sikh: Faith on the Frontline” is one of those programmes that RE teachers feel obliged to watch. So I watched it yesterday. Spoiler Alert! It was about a Sikh putting his faith on the front line! The front line he was putting it on was in war torn Iraq. He didn’t tell his mother where he was headed because he didn’t want her to worry. He provided aid to Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS.

Ravi Singh talked to women and young boys about life under ISIS rule and it was uncomfortable stuff to listen to. Families were broken apart, husbands killed, wives and daughters sold as slaves and young sons drafted into the army and given guns to shoot and lessons in how to behead the enemy. The women telling their stories wore headscarves and covered their faces – but their eyes, uncovered, showed how much they had suffered. They wiped away tears – and so did I.

As Ravi listened, he dropped his head. As he listened he admitted to being angry about what men has done to other men, to women and to children. It was all too easy to focus on the bad actions and harden his heart to the culprits, but he didn’t want to be like that. He wanted to stay soft hearted and compassionate and reach out to their victims instead.

Let’s head back to Isaiah and to God’s higher thoughts.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” Isaiah 55:6-7

God will have mercy on the wicked and the unrighteous. He will freely pardon them – if they seek him.  If they turn to him.

I am not sure I want to have any mercy for those who raped the women in the programme. I didn’t want them to be pardoned. They didn’t deserve mercy or pardon. I know…I know…I didn’t deserve mercy or pardon either but in comparison to the crimes they have committed, mine is just little forgivable stuff.

That’s how God thinks differently and acts differently to me. I think in terms of justice, of revenge perhaps and of people getting exactly what they deserve. God thinks in terms of mercy and pardon. My ways are the ways of the world – they have got to pay for their actions. God thinks – “I have already paid.” God challenges me to think and act the way He does.

“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.” Isaiah 55:12-13

God has created me for joy and for peace. He wants me to inhabit an environment where hills and mountains sing and trees clap their hands. That doesn’t happen when I choose revenge. I have the choice to grow the juniper and the myrtle and walk away from the thorn bushes and the briers.

I had a picture in my head. I was standing with a machine gun in my hand. The gun summed up my heart reaction to all the stories I had heard in the TV programme. These men of violence understood only violence. The way to defeat them was by using greater violence. Then a man came along and took the machine gun off me. He pushed into my hand a pile of bandages and a first aid kit. Nothing was said.

This is His way and it has to be my way too.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Generation Snowflake

The Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times a year – in March, June, September, and December. As some of the words we don’t use anymore get kicked out, new ones take up residence.

Not so long ago BBC Breakfast TV introduced its viewers to a selection of the new ones. They took a camera out onto the streets, stopped members of the public, quizzing them on the definitions of the new words. The only entry that stuck in my mind was Generation Snowflake.

One of the first women they asked described Generation Snowflake well. They are the generation of young people who are wrapped up in cotton wool by their parents.  They are the “little treasures” that must be protected and defended at all times. They are surrendered to at the first hint of a tantrum. If a teacher gives them a row or complains about homework not done, the parents take up the fight on their child’s behalf. What they don’t teach their children is about how to fight their own battles and how to be resilient. Their sons and daughters don’t know how to prevail, to stick at something and see it through to the very end. They simply cave in.

One of today’s papers picked up on the idea of the snowflake generation. The journalist wrote about being a Brownie and going away to camp and sleeping away from home for the very first time. They were out there, in the wild, with their tents and their Brown Owl learning how to cook sausages over a camp fire. When it came for the time to go to bed, the girls had not realised that the tents they had put up were for them to sleep in. They expected a parent to show up and take them home. There was a lot of weeping and wailing and sobbing and very little seeing the whole adventure thing. One lassie wanted to be dropped off at the nearest police station where she could call her parents to come and get her. This was in the days before mobile phones.

The Brown Owl was a no-nonsense woman. She just told them to deal with it. It was the tents or nothing and no one was going home. The girls eventually climbed into the sleeping bags, fell asleep and woke the next morning feeling they had done something very brave. They were not allowed to be snowflakes – people that melted at the first sign of a scorching challenge.

Part of the resilience found in the brownies at camp was in their shared experience. They discovered that other girls shared the same fears and anxieties they had.  They were not alone. Part of the problem for the current generation of young people is their isolation. They don’t always do things with others. Computers, I-phones and game-boxes mean that they are often on their own. Meal times might often not be a family affair, but a variety of meals taken upstairs or eaten in front of a TV. There is too little interaction with others without that opportunity to develop a “we-are-in-this-together” mentality.

Resilience is becoming my favourite word these days. I am surprisingly resilient. I’m not sure that I can hark back to my Brownie days and say it happened then. I came from a large family and lived in a street where every house had its offspring and everyone playing together all the time. There was no computer tech then. I am not sure that’s where my resilience has its birth.

My early days in the teaching profession were not successful ones – I am not that sure about my current day either. I had spent four years getting my teaching qualifications and was determined to give teaching four years before coming to the conclusion I wasn’t cut out for it. That was some thirty six years ago.

My resilience comes from my relationship with God. He doesn’t really allow me to back down from a challenge. When things get tough He directs me to all the resources that I need to triumph. I have always believed that an important part of those resources come from the church family that God has built me into. Yes, we are in this together and we share life together, the joys, the struggles, the defeats, the victories, the tears, the laughter, the battles we fight side by side and the lessons we learn along the way. There is no room for isolationists in God’s kingdom. No one gets to grab a meal and take it up to the bedroom to eat whilst texting a mate.

I would like to think that to the new generation of just-surrendered-to-Jesus Christians I can be a little Brown Owlish. I am thinking not so much of telling the new generation to “deal with it” or declaring “It’s the tents or nothing”.  I would like to live resilience in front of them in a way that they can learn and live it for themselves.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Dreamed In...

Yesterday morning I was dibbing into a book “Restoring the Woven Cord: Strands of Celtic Christianity for the Church Today” by Michael Mitton.  It has a great chapter on creativity and highlights the life of Caedmon, “the earliest English poet whose name is known”.

He worked in a monastery in Whitby, which wasn’t called Whitby at the time, tending animals. At the end of the day when the dinner was done and everything was washed up and put away, the community dug out the music and everyone was required to do their party piece to entertain. Caedmon wasn’t a singer, or a poet or a storyteller, and always left the room.

One night he had a dream. Someone, presumably Jesus, stood before him and told him to sing a song. Caedmon confessed he couldn’t sing, but the man insisted and told him to sing something about God and His creation. Caedmon sang a beautiful song, and he woke up the next day remembering all the words and the melody.

In those days, dreams were taken seriously. He went to the abbess and told her about the dream and she called a meeting of the high-ups in the monastery. They needed to know that it was a genuine dream and not just a side effect of too much cheese. They agreed it was genuine and called on Caedmon to become a proper monk and put the Bible to music. And he did that.

I’d read the chapter because later on in the morning I was meeting with the Breathe writers, a small creative writing group. Our usual venue, the Breathe Chapel just off Grant Street, wasn’t available. We did think about just cancelling – some of the usual crew were not going to be there. I didn’t want to cancel. Marking off time to write – yes, I could do it by myself anyway, and as it was we didn’t actually write – I just like being with like-minded people. We met out near Moniack, a lovely converted barn, surrounded by fields and trees at the end of their autumn days.

In among the conversation we talked about what got us into writing in the first place. One of the women present talked about being called in a dream – much like Caedmon. She had been writing throughout school but got caught up in the busy stuff of family. She was a part of a church that had been re-discovering art and poetry and music as part of a church worship meeting. There wasn’t the man, in the dream, standing in front of her telling her to speak a poem, but there was a directing towards writing and sharing poetry in church. She talked about a painting, and dreaming of being in the painting and writing a poem the next day. She is well in there, now, sharing poems, prophetic, forceful poems at various events and planning a book of photographs and poems.

I wasn’t dreamed into poetry. I was standing in front of a desk about the sign away my Wednesday evenings for the next twelve weeks learning how to counsel people. I thought it might be a useful thing to be able to do in a church setting. On the table next to the counselling register was one for Creative Writing. My heart, my spirit, God, nothing to do with any dream, tugged me to the Creative Writing register. I had this thing in my head that I was being selfish – what good would creative writing do in a church setting? But I couldn’t stop myself. The first meeting, the first encounter of pencil on paper, I was home. I was in the so-right place and I discovered a gift. The poetry part of it came later.

So, I read all about Caedmon – dreamed into poetry and song-writing. I met a woman also where dreams also played a part in her poetry calling. If you know me you can take a stab at what comes next. Yes, the little voice, possibly the enemy, or my likely all me – “Father, why wasn’t I dreamed in too?” – as if not being dreamed in was a spiritual handicap in some way.

“Did you need to be?” came the answer, “The two registers next to one another on the desk.  Not coincidence but plan - you followed the call.”

It matters not the manner of how God calls you to Himself or the job He has designed for you. What matters is that you answer.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bard-antics in the Botanical Gardens

Poetry in Motion this month, this afternoon, the last meeting of the year, met at the Inverness Botanical Gardens.

I am not sure that I am a fan of the hot-house, glass house part of the gardens. I am aware that it’s possibly the closest I will ever get to visiting a rainforest environment. I’m a cold weather girl. Heat sets too many sweat glands working.  It’s a very green and lush place and it seems as if they ought to issue machetes as you walk through the door. I felt I was about to come upon a lost tribe of pygmies just around the corner.  Naturally, being the height I am, I would have been invited to dinner, not as the main course, of course, but as an honoured guest. That’s not to say they wouldn’t have eaten Stevie or Colin.

We were issued with a slip of paper with a prompt. 

“Gaze into the pond and watch the koi fish.  Notice one in particular - it’s markings, size, shape and character.  Listen with your mind.  What does the Koi say?”

Koi carp, or in Japanese “nishikigoi”, are "ornamental varieties of domesticated common carp (Cyprinus carpio) that are kept for decorative purposes in outdoor koi ponds or water gardens."  There were one or two big ones, big enough to feed a family of eight easily, and some medium sized ones and some tiny ones. They seemed not to eat each other but swim around and quite often bump into one another.

This is what one of the medium sized ones, a fish with an orange band worn around it’s middle like a Miss World sash had to say to me:-

i’m a
koi fish
a scales and fins real fish, not a
toi fish
not a girl, but a young growing
boi fish
i’m a leave me alone, don’t
annoi fish
an each and every day
enjoi fish
a no-wish-to-harm-the world, or
destroi fish
can I answer your questions about
the meaning of life?

The fish were talking to most of the group. There was the distinct feeling among the big fish that they were fed up with the small pond and the other fish. They were fed up with being stared at by onlookers. One fish was heard to say, “Bloody pond!”

We moved on to the cactus part of the botanic gardens. The topic was about endurance with the idea that it must be hard to live in dry desert conditions. For me it was like walking into the Wild West. Cacti tall and prickly marked the curves of the paths. Just as the pygmies might have been in the rainforest bit, I imagined Indians lurking and fires sending out smoke signals. There was a notice, not about any Indians, but warning parents to mind their children. No one worried about them touching the prickly cacti and getting needles embedded in fingers. They wanted the children to leave the gravel alone.

I am aware that I can be quite prickly at times. A short poem popped out:-

Have I found my home here with the cacti
In this dry, harsh and arid place?
Can I in this hostile environment
A prickly existence embrace?

Paper filled with notes and pictures we headed to the café for a spot of tea and cake. The staff kindly let us have the overspill room all to ourselves. I think they had just finished cleaning it and had pulled the doors close to discourage anyone going in.

We talked about the things we had seen, sharing pictures, observations and poems-still-in-the-womb-stage. Sadly, it is the last meeting of the year and we will have to wait until March. Perhaps, poetry, like the birds, flies south in winter!

As a parting gift we were given an endurance prompt to do something with or not. My prompt was of a small man pushing a very large rock up a steep slope. What came to mind, at first glance, was not a man pushing the rock up the slope, but trying to stop it from rolling down the hill. That’s possibly a telling glimpse of how my life feels right now!

As ever, it was good to deepen friendships and make new connections, to write poetry and to laugh!

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.