Saturday, August 19, 2017

Running Into the Fire

It has been a troubling time. So many skirmishes across the globe. I don’t suppose it is any worse than it has been in the past, it’s simply easier to share the information on social media and the like. It feels like the world is in freefall, tumbling over a cliff edge of sorts, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

I have been reading Psalm 74 over the last few days. Asaph compiled a list of all the things that the wicked were doing to God’s place of worship. It was as if they had taken axes and hatchets to the walls and the ceiling and set light to it all.

Asaph was talking about the temple or the tabernacle but he could have been talking about people and communities today. God’s apparent inactivity bothered him, enough for him to declare;-

“Why don’t you do something? How long are you going to sit there with your hands folded in your lap?” Psalm 74:11 (The Message)

This is sometimes where we stop. We have said our piece. We have waved our fist at heaven and, for some, we have thrown down our faith. There cannot be a loving God in all of this.

Asaph didn’t let the wicked get the last word. He didn’t hand the victory over to them. He began to list the mighty deeds of God. Maybe some of the things on his list were not current victories – but they were great and magnificent ones.

God doesn’t need to know about His victories. He doesn’t need to be reminded of them – but we need to be reminded. We need to know that we follow a God who crushes the head of his enemy. We need to know that He stops floods and dries up rivers.

The word “Leviathan” means “twisted one”. Satan in his conversation with Eve twisted the truth. I suppose he was the original “twisted one”.

People have been acting on twisted truth. Whether that leads them to carry a torch and chant Nazi slogans, or hire a van and intentionally drive into a crowd of people, wounding and killing so many – they have twisted the truth.

It seems like a deluge or a flood. It is relentless. No sooner has the boat been righted then another wave hits. It would be nice to have the wild floodwaters dried up (v15).

I was reminded of a poem I wrote a while ago. The topic given was “Fireman”. I had been reading the accounts of Moses, Aaron and the Israelites journeying through the wilderness.  It wasn’t an easy journey. There was a lot of twisted truth being hurled about. The fireman I pictured was not running into a burning building but was a man running into different kind of fire.

There is a sense in which when we truly grasp what prayer can do we can be like men and women who run into the fires that hot words and heated arguments can create. We take with us love and compassion, and the certainty that God is there in the midst, and throw these things at all things ugly and hateful. The last few lines of my poem end with a promise - “And the fire stopped burning/The plague ceased/And all wounds were healed.”

A Glorious Fire

You should have seen the fire
It was glorious!
Blazing with a blistering heat
Furious flames
Choking smoke
And all it took was
Just a small spark

An abundance of
Driftwood in the wilderness
Exploding out of Egypt
Tumbling around barren places
Rebellious attitudes
Rumbling complaints
Dry spirits
Parched hearts
And arid souls

And I lit my match
As I whispered in the shadows
“Why him? Why not you?”
And their covetous eyes
Gazed lustfully on Aaron’s staff
“Why him? Why not us?”
Their shout echoed among the sand dunes

The ground split
The earth opened its mouth
And swallowed the jealous ones
And fire roared from heaven
Consuming men who envied
And people ran from the flames
Screaming

Embers glowed dull red
Sparks quietly hissed
Not extinguished
The fire smoldered
I whispered again
To twitching ears
 “They were the Lord’s people…
And Moses killed them.”
And they gathered
And they grumbled

God’s wrath was ignited
Flames of a different kind
Licked at His stiff necked people
Disease crawled over their faces
Gouging holes
Ripping flesh
Weeping blood

And I danced
Among the fallen bodies
Skipping through the flames
Laughing riotously
“Did You really think
You could do it, God?
Take a sin-stained people
And find your image in them?
Look at them!
Look at you!
Yet again I win
You lose!”

Then I saw a man running
Aaron
Armed with incense
And fire from the altar
Ran into the plague pocked crowd
Making atonement
Standing between
the living and the dead

And a shadow fell
Hinting at
Another time, another fire
Another place, another plague
Another man
running into the crowd
Making atonement

And the fire stopped burning
The plague ceased
And all wounds were healed

It was a glorious fire
While it lasted!


Friday, August 18, 2017

Treasure Consigned to the Archives

A while ago I joined on online book club.  The focus tends to be Christian literature and perhaps not the kinds of books I would naturally turn to. They can be quite academic and challenging and usually highlight how little I know about most things. The opportunity is always there to contribute to a discussion on the current chapter but I am content to merely read. I don’t feel equipped for anything more.

The current book is “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should know” by Terry Glaspey. We are over half way through and I can count the masterpieces I have known on the fingers of perhaps one hand, certainly not two, and definitely not counting my toes as well. I have loved the sigh of familiarity as I have come across a known poem or book or painting. The sighs have been few and far between.

The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is a series of over 400 pictures recording the life of Jesus in the gospels. Every story, every miracle, every encounter Jesus had is drawn and painted. James Tissot, in his early days, painted scenes of life in Paris and women dressed in the fashions of the day.  I googled his name and some of the pictures were familiar.  I’d seen them somewhere, posters on walls of cafes, perhaps. They had the “Oh, yeah,” factor but I’d never known the artist’s name.

He looked for interesting settings for his women and in on one place, the Church of Saint-Suplice, he had a religious experience, a revelation, a vision. He had been a Roman Catholic Christian, a lapsed one. You can always take the boy out of the Roman Catholic Church, but taking the church out of the boy is different thing entirely. He painted a picture of his vision.

He went on to paint a series of pictures based on the gospels.  He travelled to the Holy Land and made sketches of the landscape and people. He wanted to provide a visual guide to the life of Jesus, from a kind of eye witness viewpoint. He wanted his pictures to be realistic and not idealised, sentimental or sanitised in any way.

People queued up to see the series of pictures when they were shown in galleries around the world. They would stand before them in hushed silence or kneel weeping in front of them. This was exactly the response that Tissot was looking for. He wanted to evoke a personal response in people, help them to imagine the scenes they had read in the Bible and make it real to them. They were published in book form which proved to be a best seller. Obviously not everyone liked what they saw. They had, perhaps, been brought up on the equivalent of the series “Jesus of Nazareth” with Robert Powell and his blue eyes. Now they were confronted with the equivalent of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” with all the blood flying everywhere.  Sometimes there’s nothing compelling about Jesus’ serenity amid horror, but people choose the serenity because it doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

The chapter in the book ends with these lines:- Once a large draw to the Brooklyn Museum which raised the money to buy the complete “The Life of Our Lord Jesus” series through enthusiastic public donations, the works are now rarely exhibited and are stored in their archives.”

I read those words with such sadness. I imagined Tissot looking down from heaven with tears in his eyes. The very purpose for which he created them – to be seen and the power of them to bring Jesus alive to them – was no longer happening. Consigned to the archives and very rarely seen is not the end he was looking for. Yes, I appreciate these things need to be protected. Art deteriorates, colours fade, frames buckle and time dismantles treasures if permitted. I think it’s just sad. In today’s world there’s a hypersensitivity to being offended and no doubt some people would be offended and the exhibition taken down. I still think it’s sad – archives and some temperature controlled cupboard somewhere and a powerful tool for bringing some people into contact with Jesus is switched off.

I wonder if Tissot would have been happier knowing his paintings were falling apart through age, but being seen, rather than being protected with no one to look at them.

It makes me think of all those other powerful tools that could bring people into contact with Jesus being hidden in drawers and cupboards. It’s like the man with the one talent burying it.  He thought it was too precious to risk losing but it did no good buried under six inches of soil.

I’d like to think that I was making the best use of my gifts and talents to make Jesus come alive for people. Faith is a risky business. There are things that are supposed to out in the world and seen. I’d like to think I have assigned nothing to the archives.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Friendship...

friendship begins when
I know myself alone and
I cannot keep breathing if
no one knows my name
my face and frame or
the thoughts I think or
the things I hold dear

a birth certificate with fading words
on folded yellow paper
records time, place and parent
nothing to tell of
the candles on my birthday cakes
my love for James Arthur
or the tears I shed when he left

you know those things – my memories shared
you know I exist
because I reached out and
entrusted you with “me”
and in the touching and embracing of you
and him and her and they
I became something more than just “me”

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

An Abuser? Not me!

Confession time. There is abuse happening in my house. It’s not an everyday occurrence but became sufficiently bad at the weekend that we called in an expert to deal with it.

I am not the victim. I am the abuser. My husband isn’t the victim either before you start matching up any bruises you might see to any comments he made about walking into a door.

Sunday afternoon the washing machine stopped working. We won’t go into why I was breaking rules about the Sabbath. I understand entirely the fact that I have a whole week in which to do the washing and I shouldn’t be doing it on the Sabbath. It’s just that I like a full load and sometimes that doesn’t happen until the Sabbath.

The door wasn’t closing or locking. There was no satisfying click. No button pushing. No gurgle of water. No gentle turning of the drum. Nothing.

It wasn’t an old washing machine. The sticker on the machine assured us that we could expect 10 years’ worth of washing. We hadn’t had it 10 years although time seems to flash by sometimes. On a previous machine we had replaced the door at least twice so the problem wasn’t new to us. Apparently, so I read somewhere, doors on front loading washing machines were always needing to be replaced.

I once stayed with my brother in Spain. I wasn’t actually staying with him as he was in hospital and I was staying in his flat whilst visiting him. He also had a broken door on his washing machine. A screwdriver rested on top of the machine. There was a knack to manipulating the screwdriver to close the door.

The expert, an earnest young man with a very large tool bag, and no replacement door, diagnosed the real problem – abuse!

“You’re slamming the door” he accused. He swung his arm in a short arc, acting out the offending action. “The inner mechanism of the lock is made up of plastic. The plastic bits can take only so much abuse before they break.”

Dis he actually use the word abuse? I think so.

I felt very ashamed.

He repaired the door in five minutes but the lecture lasted considerably longer. I could see he was a man who cared about appliances. His touch was gentle and his voice, addressed to the machine, not me, was soothing.  He was less so when he turned to me once the task was done. He gave me a tutorial on how to open and close the washing machine door, watching me with eagle eyes, and hovering nervously in case I got it wrong. Satisfied that I knew how to so it properly he added a sticker to the washing machine door. It wasn’t a five step reminder of how open and close the door properly but his name and number if I should resort to my abuser habits and break the little plastic bits again.

Later, I told my husband about the young man, the fact that the washing machine was working and passed on what I had learned about washing machine doors and the right treatment of them.

“Abuse, huh?” he said. He has bushy eyes brows, my husband. They danced a little before settling down.

There was clearly an implication being made. It would seem that the washing machine wasn’t the only object of my abuse. That’s possibly true. I promised myself when we bought a new cooker a couple of years that I would never let it get to the baked-on spilled messes of the previous one. TLC – tender loving care could be applied to any number of gadgets about the house – actually the house in general.

But what about people? Am I a people abuser? Do I slam the door on them and break what’s fragile in them? I worked for a while as a waitress in a local hotel. The day I left the manager said that it had been a pleasure to see a gentler, more patient side in me develop.  What? Was I that bad?

I confess that many of the conversations God and I have are about my people skills. They are not absent by any means. I’m not always gentle. The actual interaction I have is mostly gentle, but there’s a not so gentle mental commentary going on. One of these days the mental commentary is going to cease to be merely mental I fear. Something will slip out. How I think about something or someone will affect what I do or say.

Kindness to washing machine doors is one thing, but kindness to the people around us is something else. People also need that gentle touch and that soothing voice. Yes, sometimes they need to face up to realities but they don’t need to be slammed. The world slams people. The media slams people.  Social media slams people. And sometimes the church slams people. And what’s fragile in people breaks.

Is it really that hard to be kind?

We have an expert at hand who doesn’t just tell us to be kind bit, through the life of Jesus in the gospels, shows us how.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

I am Usain Bolt

I didn’t watch the race. It was Usain Bolt’s last race and a final opportunity to gain another gold medal to add to the collection he already had. The script didn’t go as planned and Justin Gatlin won the race.

I know little about the world of athletics. It has been hampered, as many sports are, by performance enhancing drugs and Justin Gatlin doesn’t have clean hands, or clean arteries, where drugs were concerned. My husband wasn’t happy that Gatlin won. He chuntered on for a while about athletics being reduced not to good runners, diet, exercise, hard graft and the will to win but down to which drug company does the better job. In a world where coming in second is not celebrated the pressure to resort to something other than talent and hard-work must be a temptation.

The husband chuntering continued for quite a while. He didn’t have a good word to say on Gatlin and he wasn’t alone in that. That Usain Bolt was beaten was not the issue.  Being beaten by Gatlin was a big issue. I’m not sure why life time bans have to be overhauled, or how eight year bans can get reduced to four years. Do the goal posts of banned substances shift and change so much that athletes get caught out? Does the cough mixture they used to deal with a tickly throat contain the wrong combination of chemicals? I can’t believe that it’s all accidental.

“Let’s be Usain Bolt in this,” I said to the unhappy husband by my side.

Usain Bolt was the real winner not of the 100 metres, but of something of greater value.  Beaten into third place he found the time to give Gatlin a hug and congratulate him on the win – and not through gritted teeth or with a mental image of running the man down with a big lorry. 

"He [Gatlin] is a great competitor. You have to be at your best against him. I really appreciate competing against him and he is a good person." 

The general reaction of the athletics world was something other than Usain Bolt.

"Why should we celebrate Gatlin's win? No-one wants to see someone in their mid-thirties who has had two drugs bans win the 100m. We don't know what lasting effects the drugs he has had in his system have had. It makes a mockery of the sport for me," said one three-time bronze medal winner.

“You can't sweep things under the carpet. The people who run the sport have to sort things out because we are not supposed to have moments like this,” said another Olympian.  

I know where they are coming from. I have a real problem with Christians letting the side down. I think because of their faith they should above things like adultery or abuse – but then I’m not above the smaller abuses. This morning God and I were talking about my lack of self-control.  I’d been playing around on Facebook and done one of the quizzes.  Morgan Freeman was about to tell me the truth. Apparently I don’t have to lie down and surrender when faced with a chocolate bar, I don’t have to cram it into my mouth and claim I coudn’t help myself. Self-control, God reminded me, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – I am without excuse!

There is a generosity that seems to be absent from the world these days. I remember reading this verse many years ago from Psalm 20. 

“May we shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God.” Psalm 20:5 

It shouldn’t matter that I was not in a good place at the time. It seemed that just about everyone I knew was succeeding in life, flourishing and blessed. I was crawling through my days, barely hanging on by the fingernails. To celebrate their victories when I was living through failure seemed a big ask. It was a big ask to demonstrate generosity when I was living in poverty. I think I chose to shout for joy convinced someday I would have my own victories. My life and times then. as now, were firmly entrusted into God’s hand. 

Sometimes it's not just the victories of other people that we don't celebrate - it's our own victories too that we fail to shout joy over. We stain them with "Yes but, I could have done better".

Was it a big ask for Usain Bolt to hug and congratulate Justin Gatlin? Bolt didn’t think so.  If anything Justin Gatlin showed courage in facing s hostile crowd. That could not have been easy. To know that this time it is just you and your hard training, without the artificial stimulants, that also takes courage. To I know that you are running against everyone’s hero and will perhaps end his dream that takes courage. To reclaim what you once tossed away – that takes courage. Maybe that’s what Bolt saw and congratulated.

I would like to say “I am Usain Bolt” but I have a long way to go.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Power in a Poem

I reunited myself with the Velocity Café Poetry night yesterday. It had been a while since I was last there. We had a falling out, Velocity and I, although they were probably unaware of it, over a poetry event I tried to organise with them and they double booked the night and I had to find another venue at really short notice. Deeply stressed by the whole thing I swore never to cross their door again – you know, as you do. So I didn’t, that is until last night.

I had stopped going for other reasons – our church prayer meeting is on a Thursday night and I love the fellowship and family bonding that goes on. Some people have moved on to other places taking their poetry with them. One woman used to present, not poetry, but some kind of short story prose thing she claimed to written in the hour or two before the poetry night began. The stories were often on occult themes and seemed to go on forever.

Of course, there was the whole guilt thing about bikes! The café’s main business is bikes. There is a workshop at the back and an Information notice on the wall about prices for mending your bike on your own or getting someone else to help you. They have a ladies cycling club too. I feel I ought to have a bike tied up to the railings outside rather than flat-tyred and abandoned in the shed.

Listening to the poetry can sometimes be a challenge. I don’t listen well to poetry that I haven’t written myself although I am improving. The cafe has wooden floors which really doesn’t help. The noise of the coffee machine is distracting.  It’s not a physical environment that is conducive to poetry readings.

One man read a funny poem, a first draft he insisted, imagining what life would be like if we were like spiders. To have the capacity to pull string out of our bottoms might be helpful. Perhaps if we had some spider qualities, we might have a better understanding of them and there would be fewer spiders washed down plugholes.  

Another man read a poem, first draft he also insisted, about living in Inverness. Once upon a time, the city used to be a place you stayed one night on the way to somewhere else. It doesn’t have its own attractions. There is no busy city nightlife – or busy city day life, come to that. The poem was about all the things you can’t do in Inverness.

Another man read six poems about Donald Trump. He sent his younger daughter out to check on the bikes for some of them. He was not a fan and the poems were scathing of Trump’s presidency – amusing, but scathing.  

As I was listening I thought about freedom of speech. Another country, another leader and the scathing poem read out loud would put us all in prison, listeners and readers alike. Poetry and song has the ability to carry a strong message and is viewed as a threat in so many places.

One of the many books I have read over the holiday was a science fantasy written by George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series. The storyline was set in a world where the lines of society are clearly marked out. People follow the occupation of their parents regardless of talent or ability. A famer’s son can only be a farmer, not a doctor. The people with the privileges and wealth maintain it and the people without those things struggle day to day. That sounds all too familiar! A fisherman’s daughter breaks with tradition and the book is about the how and the why and the consequences.

Throughout the story poetry and song are used to pass on a message of victory for the down-trodden and defeat for the ruling classes. The poets tap into the mood of the population and stir emotions. Put their words to music and sing them over the world and they become as powerful a weapon as any missile. The ruling class threaten to pull out the tongues of the singers and chop off fingers of the musicians. Censorship doing its worst. Someone steps in to save the day and the changes happen and every lives happily ever after. We are still waiting for that to happen for us.

When I enrolled a creative writing class at the college many years ago, one of the assignments was to write on event in three different genres. I wasn’t sure what a genre was. The event I chose was an alien occupation. One of the pieces was a short story on the theme of the body snatchers. The second piece was a diary entry of a burglar breaking into the clinic where the body swapping was going on and making the discovery before being caught and body swapped himself. The third part of the assignment was a poem from the perspective of a fly on the wall. I discovered quite early on that by changing a line or two, or a name, I could make my own political statement with it. I posted it onto s poetry forum way back when George Bush was president. Someone commented that the FBI had probably opened up a file on me and I was now considered a threat to American democracy. I dug out the poem last night and did a name change. 

The Fly

I am a fly, I am a fly
And I spy with my million faceted eye
That the American president is an alien spy
And the earth’s population is going to fry

I am a fly, perched quite high
I see everything with my million faceted eye
As I watch and I see events pass by
I know Mr Trump you’re an alien spy

I am a fly, a tiny sly private eye
I know and you can’t deny
That I’ve seen everything with my million faceted eye
My, oh my, what secrets I could spill to the FBI

I am a fly, just for you I’ll turn a blind eye
For in my own way I am an alien spy
The world and I don’t see eye to eye
I know they’re out to get me as I fly by

Monday, July 31, 2017

God of Victory

Rise up, Oh God, yourself reveal
Let all your foes before you kneel
Let them like breath be blown away
Like wax be burned in fire’s fray

Let those who love You celebrate
Sing songs of joy to God so Great
Who breaks through bars, sets captives free
Makes lame men walk and blind men see

Who holds the fragile in His hand
And walks with us through barren land
Who soaks the ground with needed rain
So life anew can thrive again

Who speaks His word to those cast down
Who’ve lost their joy, in sorrows drown
“The enemy is put to flight
Shrug off your fears, embrace the light”

Who then unveils His dwelling place
His mercy seat, His wondrous grace
God in our midst, triumphant He
Sits crowned through all eternity

Our King has come, He’s drawing near
His song of victory now we hear
We sing, we dance with hearts ablaze
Our lips declaring highest praise

(Psalm 68)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Dolphins at Carnac Point

It looked like the day was brightening up. I had itchy feet and the need to take them somewhere and walk off the itch.  I needed not to find myself in the middle of nowhere if it rained and chose a short walk along a path from the South Kessock turning point to the Caledonian Canal.

A very young and boisterous dog hassled me, demanding I play with him. His owners were not so young and boisterous and wanted the dog to be polite and well mannered. They dragged him away. Following them along the path, with the dog straining to get back to me didn’t seem a good idea. Besides there were spots of rain. The itch in the feet hadn’t really been walked off but, even though, as my husband tells me “You’re no made of sugar, you’ll no melt”, a walk in the rain didn’t appeal.

It is along that stretch of the road where the circle poems are. A year or two ago they built a wall along the river, part of the scheme to prevent flooding. I was involved in a poetry workshop to create circle poems – written in the form of a circle with two or more staring points. My own creations never made it on to the wall, but I decided to check is see if weather wear and tear or vandalism had destroyed the poems. Five feet thistles obscured most of them.

 Not too far from the wall and the poems was a trail leading to Carnac Point. I have seen the trail before and dogs and people disappearing down it. Carnac Point is a small navigation light tower situated on the bit of land that juts into the Beauly Firth. To the left stretches the Kessock Bridge, right in front is the harbour and to the right is Inverness City.

I had pulled into the parking space near the wall and poetry and glanced over to the harbour. I thought I saw fins – dolphin fins or porpoise fins – fins!

I took to my heels and scooted down the path to Carnac Point. It’s only a few hundred metres, not a long enough distance to build up a sweat or to satisfy the itch in the feet. I got to the little light tower, and a bench and sat staring at the harbour wall. I dug out the camera from the bag, put it into zoom node and scanned the water.

I began to question whether I had seen fins. Maybe it was a trick of the wind on the water. Dark ripples rather than fins.

Years ago, when I first came to Inverness, the gospel outreach team I worked with had headed out to the turning point at South Kessock. We were doing spiritual things like praying and seeking the Lord. We sat at a picnic bench. Some of us had our backs to the water, others faced the waves. Was it early in the morning? A Sunday perhaps? Suddenly a fin lifted from the water followed by a black body and a tail. It was the first time I had seen a dolphin not in an aquarium. It was impressive. I suppose whenever I go back to that place it’s always in the hope of spotting a dolphin – but I never do.

Then, there they were – two of them. They were not playing games, or leaping out of the water or splashing about. They were swimming, fins, bodies and tails, lifting above the water and then sinking.

Then rain fell. My jacket proved not to be rainproof. I was wet in a matter of minutes. A couple of boats left the harbour, churning up the water, and the dolphins disappeared. Much as I wanted to stay and see if they surfaced, water was dripping from my hair, seeping through the jacket and through my t-shirt and plastering my jeans to my legs. My glasses were wet and I could see nothing.

Do you believe that I saw dolphins today? Is my telling you enough for you to believe I saw them? Have I convinced you they were there? There were other people standing at the same spot, taking pictures with their cameras.

I haven’t quite worked out how to download the pictures from the camera on to my PC. I have two pictures and you can clearly tell that there are fins in the water – two of them. Would my pictures be enough to convince you I had seen dolphins?

What I would really like to do, but can’t, is take you by the hand and lead you along the path to Carnac Point and let you see the dolphins for yourself and take your own pictures. Then you would know I was telling the truth – assuming they haven’t swum away.

I was reading Psalm 66 this morning. David puts out an invitation:-

Come and see what our God has done, what awesome miracles he performs for people!”(Psalm 66:5 NLT)

What I’d really like to do something more than taking you by the hand and leading you along a path and showing you the dolphins in the firth. I too would like you to come and see what God has done, the awesome miracles he performs for his people.

“Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see”

That’s my miracle. I try to live my life in such a way that you can see how that miracle pans out day to day, moment by moment.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Friday Fishing

We are a small church.  We don’t have a ministry team that adds up to hundreds, or a whole host of projects and programmes for all aspects of life spiritual or not. We meet to pray once a week and on Friday we fish.

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

On Fridays a group of us head out to the streets of Inverness and other towns nearby. The offer is there to pray with people, sometimes for healing, sometimes for a blessing and often sharing a gospel message or a testimony.

I am not good at fishing. The times when the enemy would whisper in my ear about being a waste of space because I rarely initiate conversations, I tell him that someone needs to be praying. OK it sounds like a cop out, and it often is, but I figure if I hang around with the evangelists long enough something will rub off.

Last time out I prayed a curious prayer. Rather than me approaching the fish with the offer to pray, I asked God that the fish could come to me. The day progressed very much the way it usually did and no fish swam over.

This Friday was different. The fish headed my way. I had made a date with a friend to meet for coffee and cake in town. It had been his birthday. He had been down to Edinburgh to spend the day with family.

“What did you get for your birthday?” I asked.

“Nothing,”

There gets to be a time in everyone’s life when birthdays get overlooked. It might not be appropriate to take over an indoor playpark, send out invitations to friends, eat jelly and cake and take a bag of stuff home when you are into your fifties, but I felt there should be some acknowledgment of the date. I bought a card, and a hat from a second hand shop – he collects hats.

I’d forgotten the time we planned to meet so I turned up early at the rendezvous place. Another friend was there waiting by a bus stop. We talked. She said she had a sore back, so I offered to pray for healing. I didn’t ask her to bend over or twist this way or that, or anything. I just presumed the prayer was answered. She told me about the church on Academy Street that had a coffee and cake afternoon every Friday and I might find my friend there.

These people that I know, I know from volunteering at a Sunday soup and sandwich project. They are the people who have fallen through the cracks. Most of them live one step up from homelessness. They are bounced around between social workers, doctors, the police and court system. They swap stories of who is in prison and who has just come out. There are occasional fights, mostly verbal, but for the most part it’s a nice way to spend a Sunday evening.

We found each other, my friend and I. and sat in the Sunset Café, which wasn’t quite open for business but Marcin made us coffee as he set out the chairs and tables.

“No one will help me,” was a phrase that cropped up often in the conversation.

Someone once had a picture in a church meeting of little boats tied up to big boats in a storm. He said the big boats, because they are big are steady and less likely to be battered by the wind.  Maybe because they are big boats they have a stronger anchor. The little boats are more vulnerable so they tie up to big boat to weather the storm. There are people, he said, who have a strong Christian faith. They don’t sink in storms. Other people, perhaps lacking any faith at all, tie up to them. They recognise a steadiness in their lives, maybe not making the God connection that’s there.

I thought about that and felt the tying up process of his boat to mine. I wasn’t sure if I could help, or whether I actually wanted to help, but in the end I realised that God was answering my fish prayer. I could help if I chose to. I made notes - I’m a note maker – it helps me to target my prayers. I don’t know if my friend has ever had the kind of conversation we had before. He talked about his loneliness, about being bullied, about sometimes having money and sometimes not. He scorned the money the council spends on silly stuff when it could be doing something to help people who have fallen through the cracks.. There was no clock watching, no sense of how-soon-can-I-leave. I made no offer to pray, but I was praying all the time. He’s heard a gospel message before from me, and from others. I took all the burdens he chose to give me and later that day I gave them all to Jesus.

I left, heading back to the car, carrying the weight of all of his sorrows. I passed the church on Academy Street. They were opening their doors for coffee and cake and, yes, another friend I knew, another Sunday soup and sandwich man was waiting outside. I didn’t need coffee or cake but I went in to sit with him. Another small boat, tying up. He’s not a man that talks much.  I’m not a woman that talks much either so we sat in comfortable silence.

Another small boat tied up, not a familiar face although he claimed an acquaintance. He had been to the Sunday soup and sandwich once and not enjoyed the experience. Perhaps the soup was not up to scratch, or perhaps he didn’t like the “religious bit” or perhaps it was the other people around the table. It might have been one of those fight nights. My quiet friend assured him that lately it had been quiet, no fights, just good food. The unfamiliar face talked about moving to another town. There was an offer of a house with a garden. Did I think it was a good idea? My quiet friend said there was an empty flat near him. A flat, not a house, no garden. It was OK there. The unfamiliar face looked at his watch, said he needed to go. He lived in supervised accommodation and his time limit out was expiring. He’d see me on Sunday night.

More people filtered into the church hall. Some I knew. Most I didn’t. Some like small boats, tied up. They ate their way through plates of cakes and had endless coffee and tea refills. I sat and chatted.

God and I had words when I got home. Prayer – if prayer is someone launching an angry tirade at an omnipotent God and demanding He wade in and make a difference – I prayed. I poured out all the burdens I had collected off people onto his lap – that place where I normally sat. I wasn’t sitting there but pacing the throne room.

I'd picked up a book from a second hand bookshop. I thought it was a poetry book but it was a book of prayers written by inmates in a prison.

“Sometimes, dear Jesus, we wish everything was cleaner and not so dirty.
Sometimes we wish we was real strong when people bug us.
Sometimes we wish we was brave when we is scared of the big kids.
Sometimes we wish we had a bigger house.
Sometimes we wish You were around here more often, Jesus”


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

God's Poetry

God writes his poem not with pen in hand
His ink is nature drawn across the land
His words are there to read in light and shade
In stillness of a wood, a quiet glade
He whispers on the breeze through tree tops high
In leafy summer boughs that shift and sigh
He spells out moss in myriad shades of green
And sings His rhymes through every bird that’s seen
He shapes His letters, paints them with the sun
And crimson brushstrokes as the day is done
Each facet of creation is aware
In every heartbeat, every breath – He’s there

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Friend Is…

I don’t like bacon flavoured crisps because they repeat on me - the taste of them comes up again into my mouth long after the crisp packet has been consigned to the bin. I am finding the same thing with athe taste of it comes up again into your mouth: poem I read a couple of weeks ago. It has lodged somewhere in my thoughts and keeps coming back to mind.

Since joining with the writers at Pol-Uk I have been hunting down Polish poets and writers.

a friend is someone who comes round to
your house with a stack of books
and cares for nothing least of all
themselves when you ask after their health

a friend is someone who at some undefined
hour comes round your house
and does not leave you with a stack of five or
six books but gracefully
recounts where they've been and by whose grave
they first learnt the truth about themselves

by Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki

If a definition of friendship rested on who came around to visit, either at some arranged hour or an undefined one then I would have to say that I have very few, if any, friends. I am not a “visited” person.  It could be down to people never finding me in when they have come on the off chance.  However, I could claim a friendship with people if it was down to popping round on the off chance.

If a definition of friendship rested on bringing stuff with you – a pile of books for example, then again seeing as I don’t have people coming around in the first place, much less bringing a pile of books with them, I would have to say I have few, if any friends. My husband is of the firm conviction that if we visit people we should take something with us, a packet of biscuits rather than a pile of books.

It has really been the second verse that has done the repeating. I’m not really that good at analysing poetry and looking beneath the metaphors and images to dig out truth, but the line about gracefully recounting “where they’ve been” has hit a chord. It can be an easy option to bring the books and shrug off the question, “And how’s life?” by a casual reply, “I’m fine.” We leave their home with the taste of tea and biscuits in our mouth but nothing much has changed – we have not given anything significant away in terms of where we’ve been, and we’ve not taken with us anything from the other person about where they have been.

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I am perhaps more of the bringing-the-books person than I am of the recounting-where-I-have-been person. I guard my privacy tightly and I dole out “myself” with a lack of generosity. If I am a stranger to too many people, it is my own fault not theirs. Perhaps the lack of people popping in is in direct correlation to that lack of generosity in giving myself to others.

I was challenged to do something about it. A young man sat down next to me at church the other week. It was the usual “And how’s life?” opening. I chose not to go with the response “I’m fine” and talked about some of the challenges I was facing and the need to make wise and loving decisions rather easy ones. We talked at length, him giving me his perspective on things, listening to my concerns, re-thinking his response in the light of them and so the conversation went on. I don’t think he was expecting something other than “I’m fine”. When it came to me asking the question of him “And how’s life?” he would not have chosen the “I’m fine” line anyway. He talked about his plans for college and balancing that with a job and looking after his family. 

It was a conversation without a book exchange, but an exchange of life, truth and experience. 

It was a good conversation. 




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Anagach Wood

forest green, quiet scene
pines straight, majestic, great
bark grey, peeled away
ferns tall, flowers small
air still, bird song fill
breeze stirs, kiss confers
time slows, peace grows
heart at rest, soul blessed


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

One Thousand Dulux Shades of Life

Christian poetry has within it an almost default setting where people tilt their heads away from this world with all of its injustice. The goodness of God is not up for debate and we choose not to look too closely at our damaged world.  Melanie Kerr opens her second collection with poems to prick our sense of what’s fair and make us say “Ouch!”

The world can often be a hostile place but Melanie reminds us that God is faithful. Inspired by the great hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” she draws out delightful truths about God and His stepping of Hs throne, putting on our dust and choosing to enter into His creation.

Honest poems, beautifully written reflect a heart that is fascinated with God. Never keeping us at arms-length He invites us to draw near.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Prophetic Pictures

Our midweek prayer meeting is never dull. It’s never about praying through our own shopping list of concerns but about seeking what’s on God’s heart – the two are not mutually exclusive. There’s time for worship, for speaking in tongues, for listening and for sharing our thoughts with others.  I can sometimes find it difficult to be sure whether what I hear is my own inner voice or His. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Very often I will share and allow others to tell me if there is truth in my words or not. There’s always paper and pens for the more artistic of us and here are a selection of pictures I have drawn, not always then, but later.

Stirring up the heart

One summer I worked with Mission Ablaze in Durban in South Africa.  We spent a lot of time with one orphanage in one of the black townships. One rather unpleasant job was clearing out the cistern and replacing the toilets in the block. The council were quite happy to bring a tanker and suck out all the contents but we had to be sure that the sewage would flow easily. There is always a reason why certain things don’t get tossed down the toilet bowl. Someone had to “go down there” and pull out things that shouldn’t have gone down there in the first place, and stir up the rest with a stick so it moved easily. I didn’t volunteer for the job. God must have a very special crown for the people who did!

I had that memory in mind when I drew the picture. I thought about the need to stir the heart. Perhaps there is too much junk deposited there that the spiritual heart beat slows and the oxygen of God’s power in our lives doesn’t flow so easily through our lives. We have become a little sluggish in our faith walk. Perhaps too little excites us or we've lost the ability to embrace new challenges and all the resources that come with it.

We need to stir our hearts by overhauling our quiet times.

Growing out of our skin

Our church has recently moved venues.  We don’t own our own building and hire rooms in other buildings. When I first joined the Journey we met in music venue in the city. There was plenty of space, but the rent was more than we could easily afford. Big bands played on the Saturday night and very little was done to make the venue suitable for a church meeting on a Sunday morning. Too much time was spent clearing up and setting up afterwards, and paying through the nose to do so.

We accepted the invitation to use another church's building in the afternoon. There were time constraints. We never had enough time to hang around and drink coffee and chat afterwards. There was no time for individual ministry time. We are an outreaching church inviting new and soon-to-be believers and the time to be really welcoming was not there.

So we have moved again. Closer to the town centre, with none of the time or rent constraints. We saw the need to grow and not just number-wise.

Snakes outgrow their skins and shed them. The snake is still the same snake.  It hasn’t become something other than a snake. The old skin is just too small for it.

We wanted to outgrow the old ways of being and doing church – not becoming something that isn’t. Without the time constraints we can embrace more freedom, take time for fellowship before and after the meeting. We have the opportunity to try new things and breathe a little.

Not about to crack

This was a word of encouragement for a friend at the meeting. We all have our own pressures to deal with and our own reservoir of resources to meet the need. There are times when the pressures accumulate. It is one thing piled upon another, piled upon of pile of other things. There is no time to right the boat before the next wave hits. Under the heat of the hard times, the river seems to have dried up and we are struggling with life.

Am I one of the lucky ones? A friend and I on a car journey yesterday were exchanging life stories. It seemed as if we began the race at very different positions along the track. Even before birth we are saddled with a genetic code that writes a narrative before our story begins.

People crack. We can only put up with so much pressure before fractures appear.

I have heard about birds banging snails against a stone. Perhaps it’s sea birds banging mussels to get to the flesh inside. It can’t be a very secure time for anyone feeling knocked about by life, feeling the fractures and fearing the cave-in. It is perhaps more so when you area a person of faith. You think you should be able to endure it all, smiling, praising God and sharing powerful testimonies. It doesn’t work out that way in real like.

I had the picture of the shell of the snail being so hard that it would not break. When God is our refuge and our strong tower there is little harm the enemy can do to us.

When I'm at cracking point – and I do – I run, or crawl into God’s presence. He can hold all the broken bits in His palm without losing any of them.  Who better than the One who created me in the first place to know how the things in me best fit together?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Lessons from the Street League

It was Friday evening. It was a little bit damp and drizzly. And it was not warm – perhaps not cold enough for a hat, scarf and gloves and thick fleece – but cold enough to stamp ones feet and turn ones back against the wind. It was the final football match of the season.

Months back there had been a request, a plea perhaps, from a young person that I go out and support their team in the Inverness street league. They play football on the pitches at the back of the house. My car had been spotted in the community carpark so he knew I lived nearby but not specifically which house. I agreed to go. They were the boys in the blue and white stripes. I actually knew many of the boys on both teams. They didn’t win that game and, sadly, no one expected them to. Another young friend, pulling up beside me on his bike, informed me that they were the worst team in the league and there were better teams I could support – his own team, for instance. But the
first boy to ask got my support.

The days they played, Mondays and Thursdays, were not the best days for me. I could usually only commit myself to a first half before heading off on the Monday to a creative writing group and on the Thursday the church prayer meeting,

I usually stood on the wrong side of the field, the opposition side, not because the other side was too far a walk to commit myself to, but because at that time in the evening the sun was quite low in the sky and shining on me, hindering my view. I shrugged my shoulders apologetically when my team scored a goal and I cheered and the parents, girl groupies and other parties interested in the fortunes off the opposition frowned at me.

There are a couple of outstanding moments in my supporter first-halves. One of my lads, with a free kick from way back, kicked a magnificent shot that spun high and over the defence, over the stretching goalie and landed in the net. It was a shot worthy of any professional player in the premier league. I told him so later when I saw him next and he smiled. Another shot, there was another boy, a corner kick this time, perhaps just intending to make a good cross. The ball soared and curved and slipped into the net in a really tight angle. I was the nearest supporter. He was delighted and our palms met in a high five!

Becoming the pro-supporter that I was I came to know the offside rule well. I used the jargon like an expert and was able to converse intelligently about the highlights of a game. I shouted the usual “blind ref” comments from the opposition side of the field and nobly applauded the opposition goals if they were good ones.

We were becoming difficult to beat and working our way up the league. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to find a web site that had the current results and league positions. One of my boys told me they were third. This was a week or two ago.

“But you are usually at the bottom!” I blurted.

“I know. Last year we were really bad.” He replied.

“What has changed? What has made the difference this season?” It would have been nice to hear that my support was making the difference, but it wasn’t a realistic explanation of their improved performance.

“We are taking it seriously,” he said, “We train hard and we don’t mess around anymore.”

The last match of the season we didn’t win. The opposition were better and my boys were outclassed. Our goalie was superb. There might have been seven goals that got by him but the tally could have been much higher than that. Yellow cards were being thrown at my boys like confetti. The opposition had got themselves a penalty (for what I considered to be a very mild and harmless challenge). Another goal to add to their tally they thought, but our goalie was magnificent and punched the ball away.

I can think of a whole host of things where “taking it seriously, “training hard” and not “messing around anymore” could make the difference between lingering at the bottom of somewhere or climbing to near the top.

Churches and Christians take note!

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Prayer

The challenge was posted on the Pol-UK facebook page yesterday. “Just to remind you that I am still waiting for your poems / flash fiction inspired by Polish culture.” I seem to remember a Saturday night at the Sunset Café dedicated to Polish Poets. The task was to read a poem by a Polish poet and use it as a springboard to writing your own poem on the same theme. It was all too late for me to write anything but I hunted down a poem or two – not for reading out loud, just to say to myself I knew a Polish poet.

I imagine myself sometimes on the TV quiz show “Pointless”, at the last hurdle, with the topic “Winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. I hope there are no Polish people in the hundred people surveyed. I pull the name “Czeslaw Milosz” out of the hat. A pointless answer. I walk away with thousands of pounds! Czeslaw Milosz – please don’t ask me to pronounce his name – “ranks among the most respected figures in twentieth-century Polish literature”.

I read “On Prayer” and wrote this:-

On Prayer

You ask
You plead
You insist that I pray
For your mother
For your friend
For your sick child
A tricky operation
A job interview
The saving of a hell-bound soul

What is prayer anyway?
Not a spell
Not the wave of a star tipped wand
Not a twisting of the arm of the Almighty

I have to warn you
I’m not sure He listens to me
My knees are not bruised enough
My heart doesn’t burn
My words are too pale
I’ve forgotten how to weep

Sleeping Jacob saw a ladder and
Angels and
God
Active in a world that has closed its eyes
Wide awake
I see a ceiling and
Hear only silence

I pray anyway
I pray for the healing of a broken world
For shattered people to be repaired
Make it better, Lord

The answer comes all too swiftly
You make it better, child