Saturday, March 18, 2017

Praying the Pauses

Yesterday had all the potential to be a great but it didn’t turn out that way.

I like things like Lent – that preparation time of the heart before Easter.  I’m not so bothered about fasting, or giving up chocolate for forty days. Yes, it’s a challenge but with my built in brownie-point mentality it becomes something far too external and physical rather than something inner and spiritual. This year I bought a book “The Little Book of Lent: Daily Reflections from the World’s Greatest Spiritual Teachers” edited by Cannon Arthur Howells. The one contributor who I have recognised so far is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s like sitting with the sages and drinking in their wisdom.

Back to yesterday. I like my quiet times in the morning. I am not more alert then than at other times of the day, but I know the day ahead has challenges and I know that the best way to deal with them is to be armed with everything that God puts out on the table. I admit that many of those things are not picked up. They are left on the table and perhaps later on, after some event happens that I could have dealt with better, I rush back into the room to pick it up rather aware that the horse has left the stable and it’s too late to close the door. Yesterday I didn’t make time for my morning quiet time. I didn’t pick up the Lent book. The day would have been so different if I had,

Another contributor I didn’t know was James Catford, Group Chief Executive of the Bible Society among other things. Yesterday, he wrote about William Wilberforce and his intention to “make goodness fashionable” and about how he wanted to begin with his own heart, transforming his thinking, not just his action. James called it “making virtue possible”.

He went on to talk about spiritual disciplines and prayer. Prayer can be slotted into so many small pauses throughout the day. Waiting for the kettle to boil can be a minute or two spent in prayer. Walking up the stairs rather than taking the lift, or even standing in the lift if the walk is too demanding, can be times of prayer. He called them short prayer walks.

Like anything else, this way of praying, catching those pauses during the day, doesn’t come naturally. We don’t drag our attention away from other stuff always to focus on God. That’s why James called to discipline I suppose – because you learn to do it and make it a habit. Three months, apparently, it takes to make a habit. I am almost three months into a Scottish Slimmers diet. Can I presume that healthy eating will become a habit?

Yesterday my day was littered with prayer pauses – or, rather, the potential for prayer pauses. Because I didn’t read the book, it never occurred to me to live my day any differently to any other day. I should be praying my pauses anyway – but sometimes we need to be taught to do these things and I wasn’t taught. The day wasn’t a disaster – don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t a bad day as days go.  I have had bad days and I know what they are like. Yesterday was not bad but it could have been so much better.

I could have picked up the book later on in the evening but I was reading something else, some fantasy fiction adventure involving dragons. There was a nudging inside from the Spirit – “Read the Lent book! Read the Lent book” and my answer “Just the next chapter! Just the next chapter, please.” So I read the fantasy fiction adventure and not the Lent book.

I took the Lent book to bed with me. I read the chapter and I mourned for my lost day.

Today is a new day and I am praying my pauses – but yesterday is lost to me. All the distractions of the day, the usual and the unusual, robbed me of the opportunity to live a different kind of day.

I am challenging myself, and not quite succeeding, to write a Lent poem a day. This is yesterday’s poem (written today).

My foe proposes
To snatch every moment and
Fill with diversion
Wake up, dear heart, rise
Take back each and every pause
Therein look for God

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Putting Pen to Paper with Claire Askew

I was promised “the time, space and support to tap into the writer" in me. I joined a dozen others for a relaxed and informal writing session expecting “some top tips and simple techniques" to get me writing.  I armed myself with a couple of note books, a dozen scraps of paper with half written poems on them, a selection of pens and a determination to leave the biscuits alone.

It was not quite what I expected. I thought I could drop in, focus on the half written poems without the housework lurking in the background, and drop out when I had had enough. I hadn’t planned for a full on creative writing class complete with exercises to do - not that I didn’t totally enjoy it.

Task 1 - We began with a list poem. I have never written one of those before. Claire had written a poem “Catalogue of my grandmother’s sayings”. It was precisely that – a list, alphabetic in nature, of things her grandmother said. The idea that any collection of lines of text can be a poem – I don’t know about that. There are times when I yearn for something more structured – but I’m not the boss of these things.

One of the lines, “Twined as a bag of weasels” was an interesting one. I think that could have been said about me earlier this afternoon – I was very wound up about stuff that had happened during the day.

We worked in small groups to come up with our own list of sayings. Our list was not that inspiring apart from a Gaelic insult that sounded good. I added a couple of my mum’s favourites – “When it’s gone it’s gone” and the whole line of names “Carla, Linda, Sharon, Mel” she addressed me with. Another group came up with “hard as a whore’s heart” which I found appealing but will never use.

Task 2 – the challenge was to pick a saying and use it as a prompt for writing something. I don’t often perform well in these kinds of things. I need an hour or two to simmer the ideas.

“Fly with the crows; get shot with the crows”

She doesn’t approve of my friends. She lives in a world where people wear smart stuff.  She thinks because we wear baggy black jeans, T-shirts with swear words smeared across them and tattoos marching up our necks that we are trouble.

The police cars with their strident sirens are out to hunt down the real criminals. The man at the end of the road, him with the posh car - I know for a fact that he bashes his wife about.  He doesn’t wear baggy trousers or offensive T-shirts.  If he had a tattoo it should be in brand form across his forehead – “wife beater”.

She sees crows where I see eagles. She knows nothing about my friends and doesn’t ask. Take Mickey, for instance. She doesn’t know about his music. Not the boom-boom base stuff I listen to.  He plays proper music on a violin. He can read music. He knows composers and he plays in an orchestra – baggy jeans and everything. She listens to the stuff he plays and she thinks he’s a crow and he’s going to get shot one day.

I blame Clive for all of this.  You’ve probably never met Clive. He goes to some public school and plays cricket. She thinks the sun shines out of his arse but I could tell her a few things about Clive. But I don’t, see. I’m not a crow. I’m an eagle and eagles are noble birds. What good would it do her or me? She wouldn’t listen anyway. She thinks I’m a crow, right?

I fly with eagles – not crows. Eagles don’t get shot.  They soar way above it all. That’s me and my friends soaring way above it all.

The exhibitionist in me couldn’t help but volunteer to read it out. It went down well. It was a complete story they agreed and they liked the juxta-positioning of crows and eagles.

Task 3 – yes, she managed to squeeze in another exercise. The rain was drumming on the roof and I was clock watching. I had long intended to be on my way, collecting the car from the car park before my allotted two hours was up.

The American Sentence is another familiar form of poetry that I have never tried. It is basically a haiku without the line breaks. Instead of a 5, 7, 5 syllable structure it is one sentence of 17 syllables and must tell a story.

Here’s why I was as twined as a bag of weasels.

He exits the room, slamming the door, leaving behind a stunned silence.

It was something I said earlier that day, something I shouldn’t have said, unkind even. I wish at times I hadn’t been taught how to talk. I abuse the privilege far too often. I am supposed to be building people up, not taking a hammer to what looks solid but is often fragile.

She munches on another biscuit choosing to ignore Monday’s scales.

So much for the determination to leave the biscuits alone.

Monday, March 13, 2017


I climbed on the scales at Scottish Slimmers earlier this evening.  It was a good loss. Two hours later I was eating my way through a bowl of Jaffa cakes! There was no sense of the restraint I had inflicted on myself all week.

Pol-UK should come with a warning – “Writing poetry can damage your health”.

It was my first time at Pol-UK, a writing group led by two Polish sisters which meets every Monday night in the Bike Shed on Grant Street. The Bike Shed isn’t a bike shed though it might have been one in a previous incarnation. It’s a community building for all sorts of groups. I had been in there once before for a Christmas carol singing event.

The group was small and friendly. There was tea, coffee and Jaffa cakes to see us through an evening of creative writing.

It turned out that I was expected. They had been warned I might come. A friend had been there last week and told them that I planned to come. It appears that I am a known entity in the creative writing circles of Inverness.

We talked books for a while. We all seemed to be published authors – although they had managed to break into the “Waterstones” market where despite many meetings with various shop managers, I never made it on to their shelves.

We got down to business.

The prompts were a series of random words – green, Thursday, sweet pea and steam train. What magic we chose to weave with the words was up to us. There was no word limit or apparent time limit – just the four words.

The steam train derailed me. I could work with the other words. I’d had a conversation earlier with my ex-next door neighbour about the conifers in my garden that were knocking down his ex-garden wall. Apparently they were a safety hazard and best taken down. Thursday was a good day for him. The conifers were green. Once the conifers were down I could plant sweet peas – but the steam train didn’t seem to fit into the narrative. Just in case you are curious as to why the ex-next door neighbour is worried about his ex-garden wall – his daughter and son-in-law are my new neighbours and he has a grandson he would rather not find under a pile of bricks.

I was more successful with the second set of words – fire, rowan, April and wardrobe. I wrote a poem.


New day dawning
Warm April morning
Sun fire burning
Pink sky turning
Winter’s grip fading
Spring wardrobe raiding
Green dress wearing
Round the garden tearing
Rowan tree waking
New leaves making
Light rain falling
Birds in trees calling
Blossom petals drifting
Dark mood lifting

It’s a first draft. The wardrobe is the awkward word. A poem about spring really doesn’t need a wardrobe in it. I didn’t have access to either which limited my creativity.

I was impressed with the quality of the writing the group produced. They had subtle nuances and imagery and layers – all the more impressive when English was not their first language. It amazed me how with an economy of words they had written such powerful pieces. There was enough of a narrative to capture the imagination, but enough absence of detail for the reader to fill in the blank spaces and reach their own conclusion. Very much “show not tell” stuff.

I really enjoyed the evening. I enjoyed the opportunity to write. I enjoyed the opportunity to critique the work produced. I really enjoyed the Jaffa cakes. My intention is to go back again. I shall arm myself with fresh fruit, or veggies and a savoury dip or something and sit as far away as possible from the biscuit bowl as I can.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born into Community

There’s a school on the other side of the road, on the far side of the field next to our house. Interesting things are going on. There are piles of soil, a temporary fence, diggers and bulldozers and a sign that says “Keep Out! Building Site!” The school is over-subscribed, I think, with more children than they have space to accommodate so maybe they are building an extension. If I was a pupil there I would spend far too much time watching the builders.

I walked past the fence and the notice earlier today when I went to fetch the Sunday newspapers. I thought of other building sites and other notices. The “Keep Out” sign never really did its job. As kids we pushed our way through hedges to get onto a building site. They were building the telephone exchange in a nearby patch of scrub land. We explored the pile of pipes and paddled through muddy puddles.

I am my own personal building site, a work in progress, not yet the finished product. I would love to put up a fence and slap on a notice that tells people to keep out. Weeks, months or perhaps even years later I would like to dismantle the fence and present the polished person that is me – no piles of bricks, no cement bags or scaffolding. I would like to testify that, yes, I had a challenge, and it’s all sorted now. Feel free to take pictures and admire to new extension!

But God isn’t like that. He doesn’t like the fence I have put up and tells me to take down the notice. He doesn’t want people to keep out. He invites them in – friends, family and foes. He gives them the keys to the bulldozer. He lets them operate the cement mixer. He rolls out the blueprints on a trestle table and directs their work.

He insists that they speak into my life and instructs me to speak into theirs. Sometimes I cannot see, or will not admit to, weakness and flaws. My perception of His truth is coloured and tainted by hang-ups and short-sighted vision. I don’t know everything I need to know – he gives truth to others to pass on to me.

He never intended that I should be the lone wolf or the solitary hermit I yearn to be. The Christian life is lived out in community.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are a body and that the “you” of scripture is plural, not singular. We need each other to grow and to flourish and the journey of faith can never be personal or private.

Gone -  the first person singular in me!
Renounced - the hermit I’m inclined to be
For “him” and “her”, and “they” and “us” I see
Yes, born am I into community

Saturday, March 04, 2017


first there’s Him,
mighty in the heavens
King on a lofty throne
revered by angels
Holy God
glory unconcealed
spilling everywhere

then there’s me
unpicked in His presence
dismantled beneath His gaze
a man undone
now purified by fire
purged of guilt
sin paid for

And last - there’s purpose
Who will He send?
Who will go for Him?
Without pause, debate or reservation
I step forward
Here am I 
Send me

And I go

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hand on the Plough - Eyes Looking Backward

“Listen, if your hand is on the plough but your eyes are looking backward, then you’re not fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:63)

I have had very few up close encounters with ploughed fields. I remember a cross country run. It was a real cross country run with fields and hedges and everything. The school I attended was a rural village school with all but a village’s worth of pupils being bussed in every morning. We had something like seventy minutes to complete the route but how many miles I have no idea. A ploughed field was part of the route. We didn’t run across it by any means but the plough had gone right up to the edge. It sticks out in my memory because somewhere in that field my trainer fell off. They were called plimsolls in those days. The plimsoll turned upside down and with the mud on the sole the same colour as the rest of the field I couldn’t find it. I limped the rest of the way home coming in a long way last. I limped alone.

The word yesterday in church was very challenging. It was about the excuses we come up with not to do the things God us given us to do. It was about putting things off to a more convenient time.  For me, tomorrow is the day when I will be busy doing things for God and “when I retire”. We have no sense of urgency and think there will always be another day.  We don’t live as if this day, today, might be our last day.

We think we are too busy. If we are too busy to do the things God asks us to do then, yes, we are too busy. We need to start shaving off a few things from the to-do list. There is always something that we allow to get in the way. The things we really want to do we make the time to do – it’s just that some of those things are not the things that God wants us to really do.

My top excuse is that there is probably someone out there who could do the job better. I expressed such a view to God once. His answer was, “Yes, there are a hundred people that could do the job better.” Before I moved on to suggesting He talk to one of those hundreds, God continued, “Yes, they could do the job better BUT they won’t do it the way you would do it and that’s the way I want it done.”

My second top excuse is “if I do this…I’m going to have to keep doing this…my life is going to change and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.” I love my comfort zone. It’s not that comfortable really but I fool myself. The boat in the storm wasn’t that comfortable, but the disciples fooled themselves that it was safer than the sea, where Jesus was.  I should know that it’s not really about me at all and what I can or can’t do, and how many times I have to do it or not.  It’s about what God can do through me.

My third top excuse is “If I do this and it all goes horribly wrong – then what?” The fear of failure is deeply ingrained. Better, it seems, not to have tried at all than to have tried and failed. We can swap stories about how many lightbulbs it took before Thomas Edison got it right – but such stories don’t always mean that we will chance it.  But if there are mistakes – they’re to be learned from and the mistake is never that big that God didn’t see it coming and He doesn’t have a plan to deal with it.

We rob ourselves when we find something other than the God-things to do. It is in the doing that the learning and the growing happens – not in the talking-about or the making-notes about. What did Peter learn about Jesus when he stepped out of the boat? What did he learn that the other disciples didn’t learn? What do we miss out on learning when we cling, white-knuckled, to the side of the boat instead of answering the call to walk on water? We squander the opportunity to learn a truth we never knew before – that truth we could have learned that would have set us up for the next challenge.

Together in the storm

Will you follow me
And walk on water?
Will you leave the security of the boat
Cast aside your comfort
And join me in the storm?
Will you believe
As you commit yourself
To the first step,
That I have called you
To walk beside me,
That the wind and the waves
Won’t swallow you?
Will you keep your eyes
Fixed on my face alone,
Not allowing your gaze to wander
And leave the boat behind?
For I will hold you
Firm as a rock
On the shifting waves
And I will steady you
Strong and confident
In the whistling winds
I have made the impossible possible
And as You and I
Walk together in the storm
You will demonstrate my glory
And the invisible God
Will be made visible in you
Walk on water
With me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017