A friend came over today and we read The Sermon On The Mount together. I’ve deliberately capitalised those words because it always blows me away, stuns me. Perfect, complete, clear and loving. Stunning. I mean, really, I don’t have the words to tell you how loved and cared for and guided I feel when I read those words. Words from Jesus, two thousand years ago, to me and you and everyone right now.

Every single time I read Matthew chapters 5 and 6 and 7 (and I read them often) I’m reminded of a morning about 5 years ago; it was a bright day, the beach was quiet, just the usual doggy tribe dotted around in the far distance. I was walking towards the rocks, wondering if the tide would let me walk beyond them to the smaller ‘secret’ beach beyond. I wasn’t aware of feeling lonely or sad, but on that wide quiet stretch of sand I was very conscious of my aloneness. It’s not the same as being lonely, but it’s a strong image of oneself, a solitary figure in a big wide world, for ever and ever, and it can be a little unsettling. Daunting. We whistle in the dark and say all the right things and smile and quote cheering verses, but sometimes we are just a bit daunted.

As I paddled in the sea’s edge I was holding a sort of free-form prayer conversation with God and I said something like ‘I wonder how long it is since I last held someone’s hand as we walked along together?” and then, as I said that, the real loneliness washed in. It was about 27 years since my husband died and even I could do the maths! But just as all those bright and cheerful and hopeful verses fell from my mind and the aloneness washed in, someone slipped a hand into mine. It was so sudden and unexpected that I was startled and turned to see who it was. No one. No one visible. But the hand was in mine, and I could feel the warmth of the skin, the unmistakeable structure of the hand, the grip gentle but real. Unmistakeable. Breath-taking. The hand stayed in mine for maybe ten steps, or as long as ten steps would have taken, because I think I stopped walking, I think I just stood there, savouring the touch, that gentle grasp, the sense of another. And then it was gone. He was gone. My God.

The simplicity and clarity of that small miracle will never leave me. It carries the same eternal message as the Sermon On The Mount, and when I read one I remember the other. They bring with them the music of eternity, the knowledge of God, the certainty of his love.

Jesus told us everything we could ever wish to know about the nature of our God in that one sermon. The rest of the Bible is confirmation of those truths. And we can be there, with him, Jesus, on that hillside, listening and wondering and just loving, loving, loving him. We can! All we have to do is turn to the pages. How could anyone read those words, or hear them, and not feel his love? And listen, listen, how could anyone – having read them once – not return to them again and again? They are so entire, so complete, so… I don’t have the word …. so ‘other’ that they call to me, flow over me, through me, lifting and feeding and warming me. Just like that unseen hand.

That’s why I read them over and over again.

The Sermon On The Mount is my companion, another hand in mine.

It’s all them others, innit?

Have you noticed that when you’re driving, there are lots and lots of bad drivers? They’re everywhere – people who don’t signal, or exceed the limit, or pass cyclists too closely, or brake suddenly, or nip through when the traffic lights are turning to red. Hundreds of them! Not you, of course. And not me, obviously. Just everyone else. But when you meet a friend and you talk about driving they (and you) are never ever one of those bad drivers! You never meet someone who says “Oh, I’m a terrible driver, selfish and distracted.” So, where do they all live? Weird, eh?

I thought about that strange paradox this morning when we were on the beach. Some of us have perfect dogs, absolutely perfect. But there are lots of people who have badly behaved, uncontrolled, naughty spoilt pooches. Not me, of course, and none of my friends. Just like bad drivers, it’s “All them others, innit?”

Well, guess what? I’m fessing up. My dogs are not perfect. And I am not a perfect dog walker. And Percy is a small and very handsome dog but with delusions of majesty and invincibility. Here he is, keeping watch over his kingdom:

He’s usually as good as gold, but he does own the beach and occasionally he will take offence at the presence of a big dog on a lead. Children, people, dogs running free, horses, the RNLI tractor, gangs playing football, crows pecking along the water line, frisbees and the Sunday morning surf club….. they’re all fine. No problem. But if a Labrador or a German Shepherd is attached to his owner by a lead, Percy is going to be outraged, off-the-scale incensed. He stands stock still, his head swivels, eyes focus, his tail stiffens. I know the signs and I yelp “No, Percy!” but it’s too late – he’s off! Deaf to everything but his own indignation, he thunders across the sand and barks and barks and barks so that I have to flounder over, exasperated and apologising and trying (usually vainly) to get him away. Of course his mum, Pip, tries to join in, yip-yapping from a safe distance. Mayhem! For the big dog it must be like being buzzed by wasps. The chaos never lasts long because, being all mouth and trousers, he soon tires and wanders off, puffing his chest out and swaggering with masculine satisfaction.

So, confession time – sometimes one of them bad drivers is me, because no one’s perfect. And sometimes one of them bad dogs, is Percy. And sometimes one of them silly dog owners is me. I think it’s a huge relief when we can let go of the need to be perfect and admit that , like the rest of the world, we are not entirely blameless and wise and circumspect. Sometimes we fail at life’s mini challenges.

I thought about this when I came home and tuned in to the local church for the Sunday morning service. The person giving the announcements quoted from Colossians 3:13 and that made me open my Bible and read the whole chapter. What a gift! What a lovely, warm, and gentle guiding hand. Listen, listen, listen….. this is what I read as the sun broke through, in a wonderful Sunday morning golden moment

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

Wow. That’s more soothing than a day in a hut tub.

And as I pondered (isn’t that an old fashioned word? Makes me sound like a nun in a prayer closet) that little chunk of kindly wisdom, I realised again how liberating it is to follow Christ and to know, know, KNOW for certain sure that even when we stumble or fall, we are loved and accepted. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to present a flawless face to the world, we can be totally honest and know that however often we do the wrong thing, or however daft we are, we are loved. And this is the thing, listen, listen, it’s that love, which is God’s love, extended to us that enables us to extend his love to others.

But I often fail at the love thing. It’s not always ‘them others.’ Mostly, in my life, it’s me.

As I drove homewards yesterday, I pulled in to a passing place to let a whole stream of traffic come past the other way and as I waited there was a blackbird just a few feet away from me. He was beautiful! His feathers so black, his beak so yellow, his eyes so bright, his little chest puffed out, such a glorious little creature. That’s when prayer bursts out of us. Prayer and praise. And moments like this morning when we find the word of God alive and present in the everyday.

SOS Save Our Souls.

Two days ago, four experienced kayakers (is that a word? It is now) set off from Cardigan to go Northwards towards Aberporth. It was the Spring tide, probably the highest and most powerful of the year, and the waves were crazy. Where the sea meets the estuary there are several undertows or strong currents, and the weather, although bright, was unsettled with gusting winds. Regardless of all that, being well equipped and experienced, this little group set out. Within minutes, at the mouth of the estuary, all four were in trouble. The two women capsized, but managed to get back in their crafts and pumped them out. In the strong currents the men were taken out beyond the bar and unable to return to help them as one woman’s kayak was swept into the river and the other towards the rocks. One of the group, realising that no one could return to safety against the tide, sent out a Mayday and then our little lifeboat station came alive – this is a rural area so many of the crew have to travel several miles, driving down lanes and through the village, but even so it was only a matter of minutes before the two boats were launched. The smaller inshore boat rescued the women and the bigger boat (Atlantic 85) went out towards Cardigan Island to find the men. They had been swept way out, and were helpless. A helicopter was on the scene by now but wasn’t needed. The women were taken to hospital with secondary drowning and the men were brought safely ashore.

18 people were involved in the RNLI launch, there were ambulances, police cars, and of course the helicopter. The cost of that rescue ran into thousands, probably more than ten thousand pounds, but the RNLI will never rebuke anyone they rescue. They will never give them a well deserved lecture, or show any impatience with them. They believe that to do so would make people in dangerous situations hesitate before calling for help, and then they would be in even more danger. They don’t blame, or judge, they rescue.

Why does that remind me of Jesus? Why does it make me wonder about the attitude of us, the church? Are we too quick with disapproval? Do we risk making those who need rescue reluctant to call out for help when they need it? I wonder.

Anyway, thank you to the RNLI. To the ordinary men and women who turn out whatever the weather, whatever the situation, to save the lives of imperfect people.

Holy smoke

Here’s a short short story that takes about a thousand times longer to tell you, than it did back when it happened. Imagine it happening in, ooh, the time it takes you to blink;

One day, about twenty years ago, I was hurrying through Soho from one edit suite to another, head full of must-do and shoulda-done thoughts, when suddenly it was if I was transported back to Cyprus, to childhood and a long-forgotten little street in Famagusta. The moment stopped me in my tracks, it was so much more than just a memory, it was an instantaneous awareness of a place well known, but also – paradoxically – forgotten. As if I was there. Suddenly, the air was other, and I could feel the warmth of the sun, there in that shabby London Lane. I stopped walking. Just stood. Cyprus! Where had this come from after 50 years? I looked all around me; the usual London scene, too many cars, too many people, messengers on bikes weaving between traffic and pedestrians, wet pavements, the neon signs of Soho, cafes and restaurants, but certainly no hint of the Mediterranean, no olive trees, or gently lapping sea…. and then, I looked up…. above me there was another sign, a Greek bakery. That was it! Freshly baked Greek bread, maybe lagana or raisin bread. I felt a sort of exultation, a reconnection with the child I once was. The aroma of freshly baked bread and tahini taking me back to a time when I had a mother and a father and two brothers and innocence. It was a wonderful, poignant moment, bitter sweet. Shocking in its power.

In that moment there was eternity, longing for the mother I had long since forgotten, a sense of energy and possibility and soaring joy but also grief for a childhood lost. All at once! It was as if that 5 year old child existed once again, with the world in front of her, full of possibilities and enchantment. And then – as quickly as it had come – the moment was gone. Seeing that Greek sign both explained and ended the moment. I was back in the now.

A couple of years ago, when Covid meant that we couldn’t meet in church, I watched our Sunday sermon online and sometimes sermons just stick, don’t they? They spark a light, lodge in your head and never leave you, influencing the way you live and think, and so they become a part of your mental landscape.

But thanks be to God! For through what Christ has done, he has triumphed over us so that now wherever we go he uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume.
2 Corinthians 2:14

‘Like a sweet perfume’. Wouldn’t be great to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume in the world? That image is so strong that now the idea of perfume and incense (and even smoke rising) has become – for me- integral with the idea of the Gospel and of prayer.

May my prayer be counted as incense before You;
The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.

Psalm 141:

Does our prayer become a sweet perfume to God? Like baking bread, or Chanel 5, or incense? And talking of incense reminds me of a story my dad used to tell: when he was just seven years old, living in Lancashire (England), his father died and, being the youngest in a large Catholic family for some strange reason it was decided that he should be sent to a seminary to train as a priest. Seven! A little lad grieving the loss of his father wrenched away from his brothers and sisters and mother. That’s the childhood cruelty that enables me to forgive him for his terrible failures as a dad. What chance did he have? Anyway, there he was, seven years old, catapulted from the love and warmth of his family into a seminary in Aberystwyth in mid Wales. The rule in that strict school was that only the Welsh language was allowed, and of course he didn’t have a single word of it, had never heard it, didn’t even know that a place called ‘Wales’ existed. That first night he heard the boys and staff saying ‘Nos da’ and he was perplexed. There were stars, of course there were, he could look up into the sky and see them. What was the matter with these people?

But to return to the idea of prayers and smoke and incense; At Easter, the seminary would process through the streets of Aberystwyth, carrying a cross, with the boys and priests robed as if for Mass. One year, when he was about ten, my dad was ‘promoted’ to swing the censer at the head of the procession, with his best pal walking just behind him carrying the cross, and the rest of his class behind them, all in their altar boy outfits. Behind them came the priest, and the teachers and then the rest of the school. They left the church for the half hour walk, a circular route to bring them back in time for Mass.

In Aberystwyth the streets are narrow, and a bit winding, and although there were people standing on the pavement to watch them pass by, there were stretches of the town that were quieter, just the usual Sunday peaceful scene. They had been walking for some time with Dad so single mindedly swinging the censer that he wasn’t even aware of his surroundings, but his friend who was carrying the cross had noticed that there was absolutely no one lining the streets now, just children who stopped playing to stare at them in astonishment. And this street was unfamiliar. Gradually the boys behind dad began to break step, to mutter and turn around, and wonder what had gone wrong… and that’s when they realised that there was no one behind them. Someone grabbed dad, and he too turned and saw …. an empty street. The little gang stood there, bewildered. At that moment a priest came belting around a corner way behind them, running along the road, waving his arms and shouting. They had taken the wrong turn and the officiating priest, realising but intent on getting back to the church for Mass as planned, had decided to continue on the intended route! Dad and his pals had to hoik up their cassocks and run hell for leather back down the street, around the corner and along the sea front, to overtake the procession, and take the lead again to the cheers and applause and laughter of the watching crowds.

I wish I’d been there.

This week I’ve been reading Philippians and it just occurred to me this morning – the Epistles were letters, yes, but they were also early blogs. Paul the blogger!

Any Time, Any Place, Always.

That’s prayer.

It reminds me of the old Martini advert ‘Any time, any place, anywhere.’ It was a particularly annoying ad because what’s the difference between any place and anywhere?

Anyway, prayer: A friend has sent me a book her Catholic partner wrote about prayer. It’s a little gem, one of those rare books that speak to you as if they’re actually speaking to you, conversational, relaxed, enquiring, involving. Non-pompous and unlecturey. I started it yesterday evening and finished it this morning. Easily digestible but compulsive.

Now, listen, I recommend it to you with a gentle warning…. aware that the writer and me share an inheritance and culture that you may not. If I had to choose a denomination I would definitely say ‘Baptist’ but – like the writer of this book – I was brought up as a Catholic. I turned away from Catholicism but I can’t help thinking of Catholics and their traditions with affection. Maybe that’s why it spoke to me so clearly and had me chuckling and praying at the same time. Or, at least, chuckling and aware of God at the same time. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool protest-ant, a tad austere maybe, possibly someone who thinks that men in church should be suited and booted and women should make cakes… and if you prefer the King James Bible to the NIV, this is probably going to wobble your jowls. You may find yourself breathing a little heavily at points and wondering just how familiar we should be with the God of all creation. But bear with it. Take a breath and read on, in love. Relax. This guy is lost in wonder, love and praise, he just doesn’t hide his humanity. And God isn’t defeated by our familiarity with him. He can cope.

This is a bloke who prays. And he prays to my God. So we are in the same conversation, finding our way together, however far apart we might be at times.

There’s a Bible proverb I sometimes think of when I’m writing a blog: ‘A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.‘ I don’t want these blogs to be full of my opinion because we all know that I am wrong far far more often than I’m right. I really want these blogs to be another step towards some grasp at understanding the mystery of God, for me as much as for anyone else, and if my nonsense prompts a few questions and a bit of meditation for the reader, then that’s great. That’s what this little book about prayer has done for me. It’s not pious and doctrinally prim, it’s not even particularly scholarly, it’s a mate sitting chatting over a cup of coffee. It’s warm and amusing and insightful and it dares, at times, to be just a tad irreverent, knowing that God can take it. His love reaches all our parts, even our funny bones, even our flat-footed attempts to be gooder than good. It’s honest. Refreshing.

And I’m so chuffed to have read it. To be reminded that there’s a whole army of prayers out there. Here’s where I was praying this morning, a little corner that looks like something out of Narnia;

Narnia prayers


As I sat down to write this blog, I scrolled back to see how long it is since the last one – two weeks! A lot has happened in that short time and I’m not surprised that I didn’t have the creative energy and maybe not even the time, to set digit to key board; My eldest granddaughter came for a few days, and then I had a road accident (no one hurt but I was weirdly shaken up), and I was commissioned for a pilot script, another granddaughter won a scholarship to an amazing international college, and then, yesterday I said a sad farewell to a good friend.

Oh, shucks, that’s the dramatist in me laying it on thick – my friend is not going far, just moving about 50 miles away, and it wasn’t ever so sad because we’ll still meet up, of course we will, but it’s the latest in a relentless series of farewells, some to other parts of this world and some to the best part of the next world, and I am fed up with saying goodbye. Sod it.

But here’s the thing – for every ‘good-bye’ there has been a ‘hello’. So all things work to the good, eh? Maybe you can finish that verse yourselves?

Watching the sea the other day, I realised that the pattern of the waves is a reminder of eternity, of timelessness, and maybe even – sometimes – a way to enter prayer. That’s horrible syntax and doesn’t get anywhere near to what I want to say. I’ll try again, but forgive me if it’s clumsy. Here goes; it was a bitterly cold morning, with a flurry of snow too light to settle, and a biting wind.

We trudged to the rocks and I stood there for a while, watching the waves as the dogs snuffled around the high tide mark, eating sea weed (and things I’m happier not knowing about). My time on the beach is my quiet time. I meet up with a friend, true enough, and then there’s chat and laughter and friendship, but when I’m alone it’s my time with God. That morning it seemed as if the nature of the tides and the constant rhythm of wave upon sand, were an invitation to consider eternity, to look beyond the moment, and to step into the ‘other’, where we can find God. Or maybe where, sometimes, we can see ourselves more clearly, and our place in his creation.

The waves were gentle, the colour of steel, and it was as if they were praying with me, as if they too were praising God, a reflection and proof of his power. Sometimes, living alone, praying alone, instead of feeling solitary there’s a sense of being a tiny part of a wonderful whole, of being ‘at home’, of holding invisible hands, held in an invisible hug. An awareness of God.

The sea seemed to be speaking to me,

at first the gentle swell,

murmuring ‘Reach’ as the swell became a wave,

and ‘Rise’ as the wave filled and formed

then ‘Blade’ as the peak became a beautiful knife edge

‘Curl’ as the water surged forwards, rolling


‘Break’ as the roll shattered into jewelled surf

‘Sigh’ as the surf laced across the sand

and then, whispering, retreated.
















Since the beginning of time.

And that’s where I find the contentment of knowing God, in the understanding that all things change and all things stay the same. Some days are full of incident, scholarships, accidents and commissions. Some friends go. Some friends come. The sun rises, the sun sets. The tide rises and the tide falls. But God is constant, unchanging, eternal. And he is in control. ‘In him all things hold together’. (How I love that simple truth)

And all will be well because ‘All things work to the good for those who love the Lord.’ ( I couldn’t resist finishing it after all)

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has put thoughts of the forever in man’s mind, yet man cannot understand the work God has done from the beginning to the end.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New Life Version)

Post Script

My oldest dog, Pip, has always been a little bit needy and now she has started to object when my back is to her and I’m working. She paws at my leg until I pick her up and then tries to clamber on the desk, and so – of course- I’ve done exactly as she demands and put a wrap next to the keyboard for her. Now I have half a desk, a keyboard at a strange angle and no room at all for notes. It’s a little bit like my nights, when Percy is at my head, Pip is in the small of my back, and Pico is on my feet. Me? I’m the one clinging on to that piece of piping at the edge of the mattress.

With friends like that…..

A dear friend – well, hang on, let me amend that – A once dear friend, who lives many thousands of miles away, told me that she likes my blogs. Then she added ‘we like reading all the muddled thoughts from your little mind.’

Hmm. Well, stiffen the sinews Irene, here come some more;

Listen, listen, listen. This morning on the beach I wandered over to the rocks , where the sea laps up and creeps in amongst them, and we (me and the dogs) picked out way across the boulders and the pools of glistening water, and the rivulets reaching in and surging out, and I found a sheltered spot to take my brain out, and wash it in the salt water, and shake it dry in the fresh morning air…. because I had woken up glum. We all have days when we wake up glum. If you’re telling me you don’t, well, quite frankly I don’t believe you. You must have had at least one day in your life when the glums were waiting. And here’s the news – it’s no big deal.

Looks a bit grey, eh?

It’s no big deal and I don’t need sympathy or cheering up or a hug or any of that. The glums come and they go. Breathe in and breathe out. Tide in and tide out. Sun rises and sets. All a part of life.

I’ve learned to greet that feeling of emptiness and pointlessness head on. There are things we can do to clamber out of the gloom. That reminds me of a lovely morning a few weeks ago when I met a gentleman in the dunes, and I said something like ‘Isn’t it a wonderful day?” and he replied ” I hate that low sun – can’t see a damn thing.” It was on the tip of my tongue to say “Stop where you are, right now, and turn around to look the other way, at the blue sky and the scudding clouds and the sparkling sea, the birds wheeling, the dogs playing… ” but I didn’t. He was happy being so miserable, and when you’re a bit down the last thing you need is an elderly Pollyanna breaking into your thoughts and chirruping about God’s blessings. The cure has to come from within.

How do I greet that feeling of depression and hopelessness when it arrives, uninvited? The secret is not to panic, to remember that emotions are fleeting and influenced by a hundred internal things – what the night’s sleep was like, what my dreams were, what my hormones are doing, whether I have an infection brewing. And emotions are influenced by a hundred external things too – the news, the needs and illness of friends, the needs of my family, the weather, the bills coming in, old age and irrelevance, and so it goes on. And being fed up doesn’t help any of that, and anyway, it will pass.

We all get the down days and we can all do something about them because we’re not children – we’re not helpless. We can take some responsibility for the rest of the day and move on from where we landed. This morning I turned to my most read and most listened to chapter of the Bible, Isaiah 40. It’s not a jolly passage, not Hollywood laughter and rainbows and unicorns, but it’s real. It’s real and solid and life-affirming, and truthful, and hard hitting, and straight up, and no-nonsense and dense and personal and relevant and startling and full of praise, and convicting and encouraging and revealing and thrilling and it’s a battle cry and a love poem and a promise all in one. It is amazing. Taste it;

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
    for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
    for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
    and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
    and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
    The Lord has spoken!”

Isaiah 40:3-5

And there are tough bits in it too, concepts that make me hold my breath when I hear them, that bring a perspective to my world , shrinking humanity (and me) and magnifying God

Haven’t you heard? Don’t you understand?
    Are you deaf to the words of God—
the words he gave before the world began?
    Are you so ignorant?
 God sits above the circle of the earth.
    The people below seem like grasshoppers to him!
He spreads out the heavens like a curtain
    and makes his tent from them.
He judges the great people of the world
    and brings them all to nothing.
They hardly get started, barely taking root,
    when he blows on them and they wither.
    The wind carries them off like chaff.

Isaiah 21-24

It’s strange that being reminded that we are all so tiny and so powerless (which the world would say is a bit of a downer) should be so ultimately uplifting, but it is. Because when we recognise how small we are, we can really rejoice in, and celebrate, the power and magnificence of God. And whatever has been dragging us down is clearly inconsequential and petty, and God is in his heaven and all will be well. And all will be well. We are not alone and we are not defeated. The God of all creation loves us and knows us and strengthens us.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
 Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion.
 But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint.

Isaiah 29-31

Just a thought

I pulled out from a car park today and simply hadn’t seen another car pulling out a little way down the road, with right-of-way. It was no big deal, I waved ‘Sorry – thanks!’ and he waved back ‘you’re welcome’ and we drove on, smiling. I’ve no idea who he is and he has no idea who I am. Which is good, because nearly every bloke I know or have ever known, would feel obliged to make some remark about it the next time we meet. And I would then be obliged to step on his toe, poke him in the eye and push him over.

But it made me think: We are all idiots at some point in our driving lives. No matter how good you are at driving, whether you’re an Advanced Driver, or police trained or whatever, you will make mistakes. Everyone slips over the speed limit from time to time, or pulls out too slowly, or slams the brakes on too suddenly, or backs into a shopping trolley or… well, a hundred other misdemeanours are possible.

That’s why I have never been tempted to stick a fish symbol on my car. When one of those prangs, lurches or swerves occurs, why advertise to the whole world that the idiot behind the wheel is a Christian? Doesn’t the Gospel have a hard enough time getting heard without us chucking it in the mud and dancing on it?

And in much the same way, I’m a bit careful about how much and when, and at what volume, I lay emphasis on my faith. I know a lovely friendly lady who is full, full, FULL of ‘boasting in the Lord’ and it’s great to hear. It’s fab. She’s enthusiastic, and inclusive, and welcoming, and she shouts her faith from the rooftops wherever she goes. Her reputation goes before her. She grabs people in the street and invites them to church, which can be a bit bewildering but it’s well meant and warm. But listen, today she was in a bad mood, and she was complaining, short tempered, rude and dismissive. Everyone around her, everyone who has ever come into contact with her, knows her first and foremost as an evangelising, insistent, fired-up Christian, and today she managed to really upset everyone. Really upset them. Oops. We’ve all been there.

It’s all about balance (this blog is from the woman who keeps getting messages on her iPhone ‘Your walking steadiness is very low. You are in danger of falling.’) It’s always all about balance. Befriend and care first, bang on about the Gospel second. That way, when we snarl up – as we all do – our audience will see the person first, and not our faith and the God we follow.

The Apostle Paul talks a lot about boasting in God, but he uses the word in its ‘confession’ sense. (he boasts/confesses Christ) he boasts of the faithfulness of the church, or of his God, never boasting in the sense of elevating himself. His life is one of boasting – but I am not Paul, anointed as he is, living the life of an Apostle. I need to be careful that my life is in gear with my mouth. If I’m going to tell people about the love of Christ, I have to be ready to show it first. If I’m going to wear an ‘I’m a Christian’ badge on my car, I’d better not undertake on the motorway.

What good does it do to shout ‘Christ!’ in a crowded room? Or stick a poster in my window proclaiming ‘God came into the world to save sinners’? Who ever said shouting and block print achieve anything? There’s only one way to show people the love of `Christ… by showing them the love of Christ. When we are friends and spend time together, of course that’s when they will learn that all our motivation is Christian, just as we will learn what lights their fire, and gets them up in the morning.

If all they know me for is the clever way I can strong arm them, and march them into church, or harangue them about reality of sin, or promise them heaven if they take three simple steps, or hell if they don’t…. and if when they see me coming they inwardly sigh and hope to hurry past…. well, I might as well have a damn big fish on the back of my car as I mount the pavement and plough into every single one of them.

A footnote simply because I found this photo online, a poignant reminder of our history:

I wonder how many Christians have seen that, and felt encouraged, and found a warm welcome?

It wasn’t me!

From today’s BBC news page: ‘Art lovers in Miami looked on in horror on Thursday night, when a collector accidentally knocked a $42,000 (£34,870) sculpture by US pop artist Jeff Koons to the ground. She had tapped it with her finger, witnesses at the event said.’

I’m really good at being clumsy. If anyone is going to trip over a blade of grass, or blunder into a glass door, or get trapped in a turnstile, or drop a piece of crystal or break a plate… it’s me. But I know how awful that poor woman must have felt, I can feel her rush of adrenaline, embarrassment and regret, her blush of shame and apology, her appalled shock, as everyone in the room turned, as one, to stare at her. Aaargh!

The evening was the opening of an art fair, and the guests were all VIPs. I think that one of them is feeling a little bit less of a VIP today and I’m sure that moment will stay with her for ever, so that she relives it over and over again in her mind, growing hot and itchy with the memory. Or maybe cold and rigid. Something uncomfortable, anyway. Poor woman. Why on earth would anyone touch an exhibit? Apparently she was ‘just checking’ because she couldn’t quite believe that it wasn’t really a balloon!

How ridiculous that a piece of blue porcelain, simplistic and cartoonish, reproduced in its hundreds, should be considered so valuable. Bonkers. How obscene that while some people have no fresh water supply, some are dying of malnutrition and millions lack even basic medical care, lumps of silliness are presented like little porcelain gods, so that gullible people with more money than sense can stand around, sipping wine and worshipping them. Obscene.

Most of my pals are artists of one shape or another, and as a writer I know that Art is an attempt to reach out and make contact, to share a vision, and give insight and encourage empathy, but this? The balloon dog? The first one, yes. A few dollars. That was a concept from the artist’s mind, worth paying him for the time he took and the cost of the materials, and a margin on top to put bread on the table. The labourer is worthy of his hire. But let’s not get silly about this – one of his efforts, a 10 foot tall balloon dog has sold for 58million dollars, while a ten inch one will set you back 10,000 dollars, and that’s just the tip of the mountain – there are hundreds of the damn things! Hundreds! Red, blue, orange, big, small…. The artist, Jeff Koons, is unperturbed when one of them is broken – when one is destroyed the value of all the others increases. Yesterday’s shattered statue was one of 799 and now there is one less balloon dog in the world! The more we smash the happier the Art dealers will become.

Bonkers. What a world we make, us humans. What a mess.

Anyway, anyway, my friends, talking of the mess we make, I’ve been reading the news from Ukraine, anticipating the Spring offensive and trying to get to grips with the idea of loving our enemy. I find it needs some thought. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually boiling over with hatred – I can manage to have good feelings and wish only good things to most people, even the stinker who let his dog foul right outside my front door. Look how good I am at this loving lark, I can love even him (or her)!

Gosh, I am so good at loving, eh? I mean, OK, this dog owner isn’t my actual, gun-toting, blood thirsty enemy but they’re a bit annoying. I mean, I deserve a pat on the back that I even try to love them, eh?

But the Ukraine war. Real enemies. How am I getting on with loving them? The Russian soldier, advancing on a village where the young have fled and only the old remain. Can I love him? Not so easily. But I don’t have a choice. I must love him. How do I love him as he robs and kills and rapes? How do I love his officers who command him to do these things, who train their missiles on residential streets and hospitals? How do I love Vladimir Putin? Well, I don’t get to choose. I must pray for him … and for him … and for him…. and the prayers must be more than a form of words. They must be a form of love.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!

I confess that I find it much easier to pray whole heartedly for the Ukrainian soldier than I do for the Russian aggressor, but I know that, in the confusion of war, atrocities are committed by both sides. How then do I pray for all of them? Is that even possible? Will I end up babbling and muttering, while I think of other things? I’ve become aware that my prayers for the invading Army are sometimes (often) dutiful and meaningless.

So I’ve started praying for the mothers. The mothers. That’s the way I enter into prayer for the soldiers, whether they’re Russian, Ukrainian, mercenary, whoever. If we think of the mothers and the fathers, and the wives and children of these soldiers, we begin to understand their tragedy and to share it. It becomes possible, necessary, to pray for the soldiers themselves and to care. To feel pity for the young Russian lad sent to fight and kill in a war he is not even allowed to call a war, poorly and hastily trained, badly equipped, bewildered, lied to, threatened with death if he refuses, maybe away from home for the first time. The lad crying of the cold, terrified. And then his officers, how do we pray for them? The same way. Think of their families, of the lives they thought they would lead, the stresses on them, the propaganda they have lived with, the demands made upon them.

And then, think of the love of Jesus. That knowing all this, knowing all their weakenss and their dreams and ambitions, knowing all their cruelty and their vulnerability, their humanity, they are still and always precious in his sight. Precious Russian soldier. Precious Putin. So precious that God became man for them, so precious that Jesus died for them.

That makes it more attainable, the caring thing.

But here’s the truth – I’m split in two. I am a soldier’s daughter, and a soldier’s sister, and an ex-soldier, and I want Putin to be defeated. Gloriously defeated. I want him brought to his knees and I want that with a certain degree of relish. Oh, yes. I really really do. I scan the news every day for developments in the war, the land taken and re-taken, the casualties, the supplies, the weather. And sometimes, especially when the report is that Russia is advancing, prayer is hard.

So. I ain’t perfected this prayer thing yet!

I take comfort from Philippians 1:6 ‘And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.’

I am a work in progress. When that silly blue dog sculpture was shattered, someone gathered up all the fragments because even they are worth a load of dosh in this crazy world. When something is loved, even when it’s broken, smashed, it has value.

There’s an analogy there, if I could only find it.

Psalm 51:17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

What’s so terrible about Bognor?

George V was a dutiful king, did what he was supposed to do when he was supposed to do it, and that’s about it – there’s not a lot more to say about him. It’s sad that he’s mostly remembered for his last words, and they were hardly inspirational. According to the Britannica website: A pervasive rumour holds that, after being told he could recuperate in the seaside town of Bognor Regis, the King’s last words were “Bugger Bognor.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could choose our last words? But we can’t. Chances are that even if we came out with something notable and noble, ten minutes later we’d have to ask for a drink or a loo break. That’s life.

It reminds me of my Dad and his sister Nellie. They were the last surviving siblings in a very large Irish family, and they both lived to a good old age. It was sad for them to see their brothers and sisters slipping away one by one, until only they were left, the babies of the family. Dad lived in Norfolk and Nellie lived over the Penines in Lancashire, and once a year I would drive Dad over to see Nellie, a round trip of ten hours and a big undertaking for a frail old man. Every year, without fail, they would both tearfully say “Well, it’s the last time we’ll see each other.” and every year as I drove Dad home he would struggle to choke back tears, and Nellie, standing on her front step would wave and wave until we were out of sight, and we all knew that she, too, would be fighting tears. Well, this went on for years. Years and years. Every year Dad would say a grave, trembling farewell, and every year Nellie would hold his hand a little too tight and say bravely “We’ll meet in a better place.” Every year for ten years. Nellie died first and when I offered to drive Dad to the funeral he shook his head, he’d said all he had to say, ten times over. Nellie must have been about 98 because he died pretty sooner after, at 96. A good innings.

I’ve just finished reading through the Book of Joshua. That’s a man with a wonderful ending – I’d love to write those scenes. He says ‘Soon I am going to die’ and then he gathers together all the elders and leaders of Israel, and he has some last powerful words for them, giving it to them straight, and in return they make a solemn promise to him that they will never abandon their worship of the one true God (wonder how that will work out?). And no sooner has he sent everyone away than he ups and dies. That’s a lovely film ending. An old old man surrounded by his family and friends and followers, making his peace, giving his last teaching, and then – work done and all sorted – dying in his own bed at peace with God. It reminds me of a friend who died about 7 years ago; Michael was a great bloke, full of humour and kindness, with a few flashes of naughtiness, and he’d come to faith in the last couple of months of his life, ‘fessing up to it probably only a couple of weeks before he died. So, as he lay dying he was a brand new Christian. Brand spanking new. He’d come to church with his wife Jane for a few years and it was a church where there was good solid teaching, so he had some background knowledge of theology but still, he was a new convert. A few days before he died he was baptised, not by full immersion because he was unable to leave his bed, but baptised nevertheless. And then, with all of us gathered around his bed (like that old painting of Nelson’s death) he spoke to his adult son and his daughter and to his stepson (none of them Christians) and he told it to them straight. He had some great last words for them. He told them about the love of God, told them how good life is with God, reminded them that life is fleeting on Earth, don’t waste time, turn to the right way now… turn to Christ. It was amazing. His weak voice seemed to have grown stronger, his gaze was steady.

Was there a great, amazing, thunderbolt and lightning effect on his family? Did they rend their garments in repentance and look heavenward? Not at that moment, no. They shifted uncomfortably and nodded and looked down at their feet, and muttered ‘Yeah, dad, alright.’ But maybe in the years to come they’ll remember what he said, remember how he prayed for them, and they’ll take a shaky step towards God. Wouldn’t that be great? If the last words we said brought someone to heaven’s gate? Not a bad way to leave this world.

I wonder what our last words will be, you and me? Best start planning now…..

A soldier’s daughter.

I’ve just listened to President Zelensky’s speech to the House of Commons. Over and over again he said ‘brave’. The soldiers and pilots of Ukraine are brave. The history of the United Kingdom is brave. The mothers and fathers who wait for the return of their brave daughters and sons are brave. Brave. Brave. It’s impossible for me to listen without responding, without loving the very concept of bravery. It was a good speech, heartfelt, brave.

I am a soldier’s daughter, a soldier’s sister, and I was a soldier. I grew up with the ideal of bravery all around me. My dad was at Dunkirk, he served in Africa, in the troubles of Cyprus, and later one brother was an infantryman in Ulster, one was a gunnery officer on warships. Me? I just strolled around Catterick Garrison doing as little as possible.

But I grew up understanding the idea of service, of command structures, loyalty and discipline. It wasn’t the wallpaper of my first seven years, it was the stuff of life, the foundation. One of my few early memories is of playing at our Army quarters in Omagh, me and another child, with my mother (who died soon after) play-marching to an Anne Shelton song…. ‘March at the double down lover’s lane…..’ ending with a glorious crescendo ‘ lay down your arms, lay down your arms and surrender to miiiii….ne.’ and then, I’m sure, we finished with a salute. All of life was Army, the comics we read, the stories we heard, the sights we saw, and overlying it all was the concept of bravery.

To be brave is to serve an ideal, facing terrible odds, knowing and accepting that by doing so you are placing your own life in danger. That is, I believe, entirely admirable. There are not many states of human consciousness that I would say are entirely admirable – we’re a confused and conflicted lot when it comes to self vs others, but the very meaning of bravery is selflessness in danger.

But we are human and we muck up just about everything we turn to. I know that alongside the quality of bravery comes our frailty and brave people aren’t always good. That’s something I learned growing up in a family full to overflowing with brave people! They have their off days. My Dad was not a great dad (who is?) and my brothers were completely impossible. Fortunately I was perfect so…..

There are no perfect people, not one, and when brave people are exhausted, starving, cold, grieving, broken, they can do bad things. Cruel things. And that’s the reality of war. And if the very ideal we are fighting for is twisted and evil, what of bravery then? I’m sure that many who died fighting under the swastika were, personally, brave. I’m sure that many who serve the foul and murderous ISIS are, personally, brave. And many of those frightened young Russian conscripts, right now, invading a peaceful country, are – even as they kill and maim – brave.

So, bravery in and of itself is not enough. It can, with our help, go horribly wrong. It can tip over into hatred and persecution, machismo, misogyny, even genocide.

There is something even more precious than bravery, something more internalised, truer, more long-lasting, and that’s courage. What’s the difference? I think that courage is a way of life, bravery is an action. If a building is burning with someone inside it, and we run to the rescue, that’s bravery. When Ukraine stands up to Putin, knowing that this will require more than an act of derring-do, but months or years of unremitting slog and hardship and loss, accepting the cost, that’s courage. Bravery is now, courage is long term. Bravery is a flash in the pan, courage is steadfast and deep.

We don’t have to be in a war to be courageous. Sometimes the most mundane life demands deep courage. An unwelcome diagnosis, a poor prognosis, old age, or even poverty demand our courage. Standing up for a friend who’s being bullied, can demand it. Sacrificing what we have for those who don’t have enough, that can demand courage. Living with loneliness or depression, and somehow stepping out into the world day after day, takes a deal of real cold courage. Bravery may last only a minute or an hour or a day or the length of a war. Courage is something we hold within ourselves, for life. A pacifist can be a courageous, indeed many pacifists have faced death with courage rather than deny their faith.

Eleven times in the Old Testament the people of Israel are told ‘be strong and courageous’. In the New Testament Jesus encouraged us to take heart, not to be afraid. Someone with more patience than me has counted all the times the Bible tells us not to be afraid, to take heart and similar, and it comes to the grand total of 365. One for every day of the year. Have you had your daily dose of ‘take courage’?

OK, I’ll do it for you; Take courage!  

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9

They (the righteous) will have no fear of bad news;
    their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear
; Psalm 112:7

Courage is a way of life for the Christian, and it’s something even the most mouse-like of us can develop, because courage is a gift of God, and we can ask for it. It’s part knowledge, trust, faith, hope and love. Courage can run through us like blood, rich in iron. Rich and powerful and bringing life and renewal. And here’s the thing I realised today – if we really know the goodness of God, really understand who he is and what he has done for us, and how much he loves us, if we are immersed in the Word so that we live in and it lives in us, then courage is a natural result. Inevitable. From one comes the other. The Word creates it. If today you are feeling less than courageous, if you’re anxious or doubting the future, just read this little nudge and feel this arm around your shoulder:

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” Psalm 31:24

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my glorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7