Grey haired loons

I appreciate the website rightnowmedia, and I go onto it probably every day. There’s always something to grab my attention, and I’ve worked steadily through courses on the books of the Bible, and on themes like prayer, peace and mission. It’s a great site.

Are you waiting for the ‘but’? Here it comes: there are courses for children, teenagers, schools, young people, advice on dating and marriage, there’s a great plethora of courses for parents and, because it still takes two to make a child there’s load more advice for fathers, and then for mothers, there are courses for men (always square jawed and outdoorsy in the illustrations) and for women (always energetically sweet and winsome in the pics) and for leaders. Not one, not one, ministering to the elderly, addressing our spiritual and emotional lives as we age. Not one challenging us to go deeper, stretch further, look higher.

Maybe they think that we don’t need a bit of a helping hand and teaching as we enter our latter years, that we know it all by now and are just amazingly gracious. Hmm. They need to get real. Think about the old people you know. Some great and some not so great. Some peaceful and some seething. Some kindly and some, quite frankly, criminally self-obsessed. We are old but we are still human. We have experience and knowledge and we can pass these on, and we may have a particular perspective on life that can be useful….

BUT

… old people get stuff wrong. It’s not the prerogative of the hale and hearty. Everyone’s a sinner. Old people linger on for bloody years getting things wrong (I know, I am that soldier). We cause more trouble and division and conflict in the church than any one else. We can be just as foolish as the college kid, as stubborn as the new dad, as self-righteous as the successful business owner. And we have had a long lifetime to perfect our faults; I am more perfectly faulty now than ever before, every shiny fault is honed and rounded, obvious to everyone (except me). While age can bring wisdom and experience, peace and contentment, it can bring complacency too, and judgmentalism (is that a word?) and unteachability (pretty sure that isn’t a word). Us grey haired loons in the church, any church, every church, are the ones most likely to say we can’t change routine, or location, or reverse old decisions. We are the ones most likely to give the leadership a great heap of trouble because – guess what – we’ve been giving the world a heap of trouble for a lot longer than the youngsters have and we’re jolly good at it.

You want to reinvigorate your church? Start with the old people. We will be around for a long time yet and when we go, there will be others in our place, and they will be just as awkward. Start with the old people. If we oldies are lively and involved, if you include us, and enable us, so that we can enable you, then – hallelujah! Stand by for miracles. If the old people get it right the youngsters will feel loved and supported. If the oldies care more about the future than they do about the past, church life will blossom. But part of including us is holding us to account. Part of us being included is us taking responsibility, being open and honest, humble. All that. It’s a two way street.

My point is serious and personal. There are shocks in old age – when we get a diagnosis that spells a slow decline, or wake up to a new ache, or see our family and friends dying, leaving us behind…. this is all new territory and we sometimes react badly, misunderstand our role in the church, and – feeling vulnerable – we dig in, instead of reaching out. When we go from a life of family and employment and being relevant to one of long days with no one needing us, we can feel lost and afraid. We’ve never been here before. Is it any wonder that we make mistakes in the long shapeless days? Does it surprise anyone that sometimes our thinking is circular, stuck in the past, when we have no one to bounce ideas off, no one’s enthusiasm to share? But that’s not what God wants of us.

God doesn’t intend old age to be a period of selfishness and self preservation.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
 planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock,

and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92

None of that happens magically. God doesn’t wave his magic wand and zinnnggg! we’re all fresh and green and weighed down with luscious spiritual fruit.

Sin doesn’t fall away when we hit 70. We may not be up to robbing a bank or seducing anyone, but we have our own secret sins, resentment, gossip, self-pity, fear, manipulation, self-righteousness. Think about your local church, think for a moment about those who complain about the music or new forms of worship, about the youngsters, or the financial management, or the direction the church is taking, or the clothes people wear… the moaners are mostly the OLDIES. That’s our little litany of sin. They don’t make headlines, or reach the criminal courts, but these things don’t just damage the individual’s walk with God, they hold us back as a people, as a family. They hinder the Kingdom of God.

My point is this: old people don’t want to hold anyone back. Like everyone else we want to move onwards with God, doing his work, being relevant and loving. And because we are human, and very often alone, we need a bit of help along the way. I am so tired of hearing that old cliché ‘young people are the future of the church’. The future of the church is everyone, right now, going from this moment into the next and the next and the next, with God. It’s not as if the Bible disregards old people, assuming that we’re beyond help – there are so many wonderful verses showing us the way to go. This is one of my favourites and I do try to remember it every now and then when … well, when I’m feeling a bit old and grumpy and wishing that everything could be as it once was…

Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’
    For it is not wise to ask such questions.

Ecclesiastes 7:10

Life, now, today, this minute is wonderful. Whether you’re 20 or 90, this is the moment God has given us, in the place he has brought us to, and our job is to be teachable, receptive and surrendered. We don’t get an excuse slip when we hit 70.

There’s a catechism answer I remember from my RC childhood
‘Why did God make you?’
“God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next.”

How ever old we are, we are here to praise him, to bring him glory, to be filled with his Spirit, Love and Joy. That’s why we’re still alive! That’s why I’m still here, impatient for glory, when my husband is damn well dead (how come he gets all the fun?) No, listen, seriously. We are all here, whatever our age, in order to magnify the name of God, to bring his light into the world, to show his love to those who don’t yet know him. We can still do that. We can. But sometimes, even when we’re old and in some ways wise, we need help to do those things, to be that follower. The church can wash its hands of us when we’re dead and gone but until then we are part of the action, and like everyone else we need to be held accountable, to be encouraged and taught.

When you’re old, and finding some parts of life difficult, and you’re alone, and a bit ‘left behind’, it’s easy to slip away from God, to see the sin of others and recognise it while being blind to our own.“Oh the gift that God could give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” to quote Robbie Burns (translated). We need others to show us who we are, to lovingly help and guide us, so that we in turn can lovingly guide them. It’s called unity. It’s called fellowship. That’s God’s way.

Even when I am old and grey,
    do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
    your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Psalm 71:18

Joy

Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice,
and no one will take away your joy.

John 16:22

We were talking about happiness yesterday, Jenn and me. She is a bit younger than me (quite a bit) and she’s still working, but she’s been poorly, and it’s January, and it’s cold, and we’re all fed up with the Covid stuff, and she’s a bit broke, so she was feeling blue. We’ve all been there. As we spoke, something seemed to interest her, a definition that I heard a couple of years ago, from a wise Pastor, about happiness, and it went something like this: happiness is fleeting, affected by our circumstances – when everything is going well we are happy but as soon as our circumstances take a dip, so does our happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is with us whatever our circumstances. Joy is not dependent on our environment, or the weather, or success and wealth or any other external influence. It isn’t even dependent on health (one of the most joyful people I’ve spent time with recently was dying).

Jenn couldn’t name something that gave her joy and even when she spoke of happiness she struggled – she just shrugged and said ‘I just want to be… you know… happy.” I said that I’ve been happy and it doesn’t last. Now I look for something calmer, deeper, and that’s called joy. Christ is my joy. No-one and nothing else ( I can be quite annoying like that, but it just popped out. I wasn’t in a pulpit wearing a surplice) .

Joy is deeper, truer, sturdier than happiness. I would even say that we can be unhappy and still joyful. I’m sometimes sad and often lonely but there’s always a core of joy and wonder, keeping my head above the waves. Jenn isn’t Christian and I wondered if I was making any sense but she was interested. Her head went on the side, as she explored the ideas, following her own train of thoughts. After a while, of course, we turned to other things but when she left to go home she said ‘Going to think about joy. See if I can find what you have.’

I’ve just looked up a few definitions of joy, and Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Concise are both inclined to tie joy in with happiness, link it to success and all the rest of those happy-making things. Who is right, them or my Pastor and me? Well, come on, folks. It’s obviously him and me, innit? Are we ever wrong? (Shush, now)

But listen, if joy was the same as happiness and the two were tied in with success and money, mansions and luxury, how is that so many millionaires are miserable, dissatisfied with what they already have? Why do successful people commit suicide? How come private clinics are full of wealthy cocaine and alcohol addicts, of millionaires struggling with depression? If joy and happiness are both connected to our environment and our success how is it that so many wealthy couples end up in acrimonious divorce battles? How on earth is that the harder we strive for happiness the more desperate we are and the further away it seems?

I was supremely happy yesterday, driving up the coast to get my car serviced. The sky was an amazing blue and as the car crested a hill a great murmuration of starlings flew across the road, seeming to rise from the hedge on my right, almost surrounding the car. It was a wonderful moment of almost-flying and I was SO happy. Thirty minutes later I was at the harbour and in the café where I had planned to have lunch and read my book while the car was serviced but the kitchen was closed and the proprietor was grumpy. I was not happy. Half an hour later I was in another restaurant, my lunch was being cooked and I was happy. An hour after that I heard that I needed two new tyres and I was a bit glum again. But through it all, happy or less happy, I was living in joy. I was. Don’t look at me like that. I was.

I think my wise Pastor has the truth, not Merriam-Webster. There is a difference between feeling happy and knowing joy. I make the distinction deliberately; we feel happy and we know joy. Because, (and I have only just realised this, as I write) joy is Joy. Joy is a person, a truth, a reality. Joy is Jesus Christ.

Jesus, known and experienced as our God and Lord, is our constant joy. Just as he brings his love into our lives because he is Love, so he brings joy because he is Joy. There is no other way to an unshakeable inner contentment and peace, except through him. He is the only eternal. The only ‘always’. Whatever else we feel (or see or touch) it will not be eternal. Sad today, cheerful tomorrow, weeping tonight, singing in the morning, sober at noon, drunk by ten, married at twenty, divorced at twenty five, a millionaire one year and bankrupt the next – all these things come and go. Joy remains.

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18

When the person of Jesus comes into our lives and becomes our everything, he brings joy with him. Inescapable. Joy is not about a fleeting sense of pleasure, an orgasmic experience on the top of a mountain with a healthy bank account and someone I love at my side. It’s not about us and our achievements or even our potential. It’s about God, it’s the gratitude and wonder that we feel, and assurance too, when we look on the character of our creator and realise that he loves us and will always love us. That is joy. How can I feel anything other than joy when I look at the one who loves me without end?

If we know Jesus but today our joy seems to be hidden (and we all have those times) then maybe we’ve wandered away, slip-sliding into our own plans and schemes and not his. Fret not! He’s there with you, Love eternal, Joy unending. Our part in this story is simply to receive, to submit, to accept.

‘Simply’? Sometimes it doesn’t feel simple, but we’re not alone. Even when the joy is hidden, we are not alone. Prayer and reflection, reading the Word, and asking for help… Joy will never fail us. .

Quite late last night, reflecting on that last thought, I realised something else: joy can be a sign of God’s leading. If we feel a deepening and increased awareness of joy when we undertake some activity, having surrendered our actions to God, prayerfully, this is an indication that we are following him. If serving in a particular way, in a particular ministry, fills us with a new or renewed energy and passion, selah – pause and think – what is God telling us?

If we are not sure which way to turn, or where God is leading us, look for the joy. Look for the Joy.

Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.
Psalm 47:1

With that in mind: here’s a few minutes of joyful worship for you all. I have a soft spot for all the many Blessings videos that went online during Covid, but this one (even more than the Irish Blessing) has me up and dancing, singing, praising. It’s the World Blessing, 154 nations singing in 257 languages. EnJOY!

You have no flippin’ idea!

Next week I’m going to talk to a small group of students about a film I wrote several years ago. As I was talking to their teacher he asked me ‘Why did you write this film?’ He’s a bloke with a habit of asking searching questions that demand an answer.

The film we will be discussing is about Ludwig Guttmann, the German doctor who revolutionised the care and rehabilitation of paralysed patients, and who became the founding father of the Paralympics. The simplest answer to the question would have been ‘Because I was asked to’ but of course I’ve been asked to write many true stories and have said a firm and rapid ‘no’ to most of them. So, why did I choose to write this one? What made this story worth telling? I’ve enjoyed exploring the answer.

When Paul wrote his epistles, he had no idea of the history-changing effect his words would have. He was one of a handful of believers in a world of pagans and heathens and Christ-haters. He was ridiculed, imprisoned and beaten, but he kept going. When the early church fathers got it all down in writing, they weren’t given medals and awards for their work, but still they told the story that had to be told. Painstaking work, penmanship on parchment, copied again and again by others who were equally hard working, read aloud in meetings, carried to the next town, hidden, read in secret, written from prison. No great success for these people. Their peers were better off than they were, and I bet they looked down on these daft deluded men who had given everything up for God. They could all have been on their boats, bringing in a harvest of fish, or up in the hills with their flocks, or down at the temple collecting taxes, they could all have been earning money, building up wealth, untroubled by persecution, but they chose another way. And they had no idea what the end result would be. They didn’t do it thinking ‘this will make the 21st Century sit up and listen’ Paul didn’t say ‘If I write this now, it will be an encouragement to people in West Wales in two thousand years.’ They had no concept of the future as it has unrolled. They just did what their faith told them to do.

Listening to the Gospel as I walked on the beach today (wet and windy and grey – like walking through cloud) I thought about that handful of men and of their legacy. What would they make of me in 2022? These were men who didn’t know the British Isles existed, who knew nothing of the combustion engine, of technology, of modern communication. They would look at my waterproof jacket and wonder what animal had been skinned to make it… at the glowing and speaking phone in my hands, and – hang on – I’m a woman! And I’m a widow unsupported by anyone, living and walking alone, free as you like, and shouting hello to blokes, and I have cropped hair and I have three dogs with me – dogs! Unclean dogs. They would be horrified, bewildered. And how is it that I’m able to hear the words they wrote two thousand years ago in a language that didn’t even exist then, while, half a mile away, my car is waiting to skim me home, to a brick built house with underfloor heating….. and a gas fire…. and TV and… a Bible on my desk, a sturdy block of wonderfully thin paper, covered in an alphabet they wouldn’t recognise?

They had no idea, no inkling at all, of today, of the effect that their writing and lives would have on the future of a world they couldn’t comprehend. They had no blinking idea!

We all have no idea how the things we do today will affect tomorrow. Sometimes the small lives we lead can change the world. That’s why I wrote about Ludwig Guttmann.

He was a German Jew, from a religious family, and he came to England just before WWII as a refugee from Nazism. Already highly respected and very successful, he was welcomed to the UK but, as a German, he found it difficult to fit into the medical hierarchy here. After a few years trying to establish himself, he ‘washed up’ at Stoke Mandeville, a hospital with just one ward for the soldiers who had been paralysed in battle. He was appalled by the basic but well-meaning care they received, appalled that they were written off, that their lives would be short and painful, that care for people with spinal injuries was pain relief and that was all. And he set about, one patient at a time, to create new lives, to assert the humanity and dignity of all people, however seriously injured. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He did it in the back rooms of a hospital, unseen and unknown. He did it when he had to battle for every nurse and every drug and every piece of equipment he needed, when his colleagues laughed at him. He did it because he believed it to be the right way to go. And he did it in a workmanlike, unshakeable way.

He didn’t know when he walked into that neglected ward on his first day of duty, that one day the Paralympics would be a global event, that disabled people would excel at sport, that strength and health and vigour would be the result of his work. That wasn’t a part of his vision. How could it be? He didn’t know that his ethos would lead to disability rights, to independent living, to restored lives and even to physical healing. He had no way of knowing that one day he would be seen as a hero and a revolutionary.

Quiet lives can be epic lives and they should be celebrated. As we worked on the script we knew that we would have the tightest of tight budgets but that was OK – we didn’t need crowds of extras, or a dozen locations, we didn’t need special CGI, and we had a fabulous cast lined up because they, too, wanted to tell this story. The script went to the BBC and the woman then in charge of BBC2 drama commissioning said she liked it, but it wasn’t ‘epic’ enough. We were so taken aback. Epic? This was the most epic story I have ever been asked to tell. The very fact that there are no palaces, no guns, no spies, no mobs, no sexual conquests, no battles, no out and out villains, no space ships, no vast panoramas, the very fact of its smallness makes it epic! This woman in her moneyed ivory castle couldn’t see beyond the bedpans to the courage of a small and quiet man. For the first and only time ever, in my 35 years of writing, I refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. I sent the script to her boss, the head of drama commissioning, for the whole of the BBC. The next morning I had an email from him – the film would be made.

And it was!

I don’t know if Ludwig knew Jesus. It’s none of my business. But I know that he was a man with a great heart, a quiet and humble man who did great things, and he didn’t do them to be seen as epic, but in doing them he became epic. And it’s a damn good story.

While I’ve been thinking about that original question ‘Why did you write this film?’ I have visited so many ideas and God has revealed so much to me. Mostly I’ve realised that even when we’re banging our heads on a brick wall, and maybe when we think we’ve taken a wrong turn, made a bad decision, we still have no earthly way of knowing what the outcome of anything we do or have done will be. We’re not meant to see the future. That would put everything in our hands and we would be chomping away on the fruit from the tree of knowledge, vying with God, our original sin.

All we can do is listen for God’s leading, do our level best to hear him, follow him, and simply trust in him. He knows what’s coming up… he knew what Paul would mean to me as I walk on the beach. He knows the beginning from the end. All we have to do is trust and obey, like good steadfast foot soldiers.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
Proverbs 19:21

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Col 1:17

I declare from the beginning how it will end and foretell from the start what has not yet happened.
    I decree that my purpose will stand and I will fulfill my every plan.

Isaiah 46:10

Think you may have made a wrong decision even as you were trying to follow God? Think again. You’re not in charge. He is. You have no flippin’ idea where he’s taking you. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

It’s going to be epic.

PS The woman who turned down the film never made anything of mine ever again. Ooops.

This isn’t a blog

Because I have a dozen little things to do which must be done now, or yesterday, and I must get to them, but this is something – a little something – that I thought you might enjoy with me:

When I drive to the beach in the morning, with the dogs in the back of the car, I try to be aware that I’m not just driving to a lump of sand and an expanse of sea, but I’m heading towards a time of reflection, a time of prayer. Sometimes I am less than aware – on a Tuesday the rubbish trucks are out, filling our narrow lanes, and everyone has to pull in and wait, and there are often tractors, or ancient old men who drive in the middle of the lane at ten miles an hours (feels like!) – so there are distractions. But, on the whole, the drive to the beach is a time to get ready, to settle the thoughts, to remember who God is. I sometimes imagine that I’m walking into a temple, or a cathedral. And as I get to the top of the hill leading down to the water’s edge, it does indeed feel as if I am under a vaulted roof, under the great dome of God’s sky.

Anyway, anyway… there I am this morning, skimming towards the hill and, as we reach the crest, I glance in my mirror and I am suddenly overwhelmed with the provision and the power and the love of God. Look at this! Look at this… God’s world, his sky, his cloud, his sun, and all reflected in that little mirror glinting in the cold morning air… and my thoughts are a miracle… the human mind a wondrous thing…. and the sea is a miracle with its tides and its dolphins, its whales and teeming swirling life, and the car – that’s a miracle! – and the blue sky ahead of us…. how wonderful to have a car and to enjoy driving as I do… and the road is empty for a few moments, long enough to stop and take this… and share it with you.

O Lord, our God, no one can compare with you.
    Such wonderful works and miracles are all found with you!
    And you think of us all the time
    with your countless expressions of love—
    far exceeding our expectations!

Psalm 40:5

I think we forget, minute by minute, that we are God’s greatest miracle. That he has given us not just our senses, but our thoughts, understanding, imagination. He has given us our appreciation of beauty, our hunger for truth, our need for love. He has given us every heart beat, every breath, every blink of our miracle eyes. And that I can share this moment with you, well, that’s a flippin’ miracle, isn’t it? It is. We have so much. Even when we have nothing, we have so much.

You see, it isn’t a blog. It’s an exclamation.

Introducing…..on my right…..

This is a sort of guest blog, introducing you to someone new;

During lockdown I met, virtually, someone who has become a dear friend. We haven’t yet met in person, but we email almost every day, sometimes with very little to say, but just for the joy of connecting. In the middle of last year, when we were just getting used to the restrictions of Covid, this woman, younger than me, became suddenly and seriously ill, and after tests and hospital the diagnosis came –  a life-changing and limiting disease. It would be a shock for anyone but she’s always been an active and busy person, looking after family, working with animals and loving her garden, busy, busy, busy. Almost overnight that came to a stop, or maybe, hopefully, a long pause….

I would like to show you some of our conversation yesterday, with my pal’s permission. 

From the beach, I sent her a photo of the year’s first Sabbath on the edge of the Irish Sea.

and I wrote 

Thinking of you, on a silent beach. My meditation this morning was on contentment and it occurred to me that contentment is sometimes very very easy. Right now on this lovely mild morning under God’s great sky, it is easy to be content and thankful. But then I think of those poor people in America whose homes have burnt down, of those starving in Afghanistan, of so many places in the world coping with floods and I wonder where the contentment is in these places. And then of course I think of my friend, who is facing illness and difficulty and an unknown future. That made me smile because of course every future is unknown, but you know what I mean. So today I am sending a special prayer right up to heaven for you, for your peace and contentment whatever comes your way. I can’t look it up now but it reminds me of that verse “though there is no fruit on the vine and no cattle in the stall, yet will I trust in the lord.”

And just a few hours later I had this reply, and it took my breath away with its joy and radiating thankfulness – tumbling, lavish joy and thankfulness – in very difficult circumstances: 

“I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to find contentment in the grim situations you mentioned but I do know that it is given as a gift in a situation like mine. The “unknown future ” becomes much more important , much clearer. When you realise how short life is, the appreciation of every minute increases hugely. Not in a “bucket list ” of must-do things but rather a feeling of gratitude for the opportunities in each day.

Opening my eyes in the morning… wow ! A new day.

Small things increase in value. Your walk ahead becomes focused, timescale and priorities have changed. And with that, there is a wonderful peace and contentment I’ve never felt before. Faced with a situation that I can do nothing about, I know (not just intellectually ) that God is Almighty. I don’t have to be. He is in control and I have to trust Him. Life experience has shown God to be utterly trustworthy. Eternal life and a resurrected body with no more frailty, pain and tears, become nearer and clearer and something eagerly anticipated.”

How amazing that someone in those difficult conditions can radiate such joy. And how amazing that God gives us the strength we need, when we need it. 

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

What’s so great about New Year?

I wrote a New Year blog yesterday. Took hours over it. It was full of good stuff, bright ideas, wry observations, a bit of self-mockery, a couple of pertinent quotes…. and then, just before I went to bed , ready to post it to you all, I read it for typos. Those sneaky little writing gremlins had been at it while my back was turned and had turned it into a preachy, opinionated and frankly dense essay on nothing in particular. By someone I didn’t like.

It was the sort of blog this bloke might have written

I deleted it. My frame of mind, as I trotted off to bed, could be summed up in one small word, ‘bum’.

I don’t really get what’s so great about New Year and why we make such a big song and dance about the second hand clicking onto 12 and the minute hand moving on. But of course we are surrounded by New Year wishes and articles and TV programmes so I’d been affected by Hogmanay nostalgia like everyone else I suppose. And I had been marvelling at what’s happened to me in the last few months and grieving for what has happened to the world, asking God for his perspective on this strange time so that my writing would be calm but relevant, joyful but aware, content but not complacent, assured but not entitled. Dead easy, eh? So how come, at the end of all that thinking and praying, that the blog I’d written was a hotch potch of me, myself and I with quite a lot of worldly advice chucked in, a few random judgments about others, and a skipload of wisdom left out?

It sort of shook me. Not to my core, and not irretrievably, but it was a salutary little ‘watch yourself!’ whispered in my ear. A reminder that if it comes easily, it’s probably facile. These blogs are the only things I can give to the world, because this is now the only way that I can use words to encourage or come alongside others, and when I see one as useless as that one was…. well, it’s a bit unnerving.

While we slept, or maybe while some of us raised a glass, the old year slipped away and the new began. With no help from us! My last conscious prayer was for a new insight into blogging, a new understanding of how to use words to reach others. To be relevant, damn it, for the last years of life. It was a desperate and glum sort of prayer.

With my first cup of coffee this morning, not in any particularly devoted frame of mind, I read the Book of Acts, chapter 2:2

On the day Pentecost was being fulfilled, all the disciples were gathered in one place. Suddenly they heard the sound of a violent blast of wind rushing into the house from out of the heavenly realm. The roar of the wind was so overpowering it was all anyone could bear!  Then all at once a pillar of fire appeared before their eyes. It separated into tongues of fire that engulfed each one of them.  They were all filled and equipped with the Holy Spirit and were inspired to speak in tongues—empowered by the Spirit to speak in languages they had never learned! 

Now, at that time there were Jewish worshipers who had emigrated from many different lands to live in Jerusalem. When the people of the city heard the roaring sound, crowds came running to where it was coming from, stunned over what was happening, because each one could hear the disciples speaking in his or her own language. Bewildered, they said to one another, “Aren’t these all Galileans? So how is it that we hear them speaking in our own languages?  We are northeastern Iranians, northwestern Iranians …………both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.  Yet we hear them speaking of God’s mighty wonders in our own dialects!” They all stood there, dumbfounded and astonished, saying to one another, “What is this phenomenon?”

I sat there for a long time, just lost in thought. The dogs wanted to be off, the rain clouds were gathering, but I needed to hear what I was being told. I find the Book of Acts, maybe more than any other book in the Bible, pretty hard to engage with, and I’m not particularly prayerful as I read it. The early church was a right old mess – women seemed to do all the financing and organising and men got to do all the glory stuff, then later there was that old couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who were less than truthful and who paid for their sin with their lives and then (even worse) the church father, Peter, gloated as Sapphira discovered that her husband as dead  “I hear the footsteps of those who buried your husband at the door—they’re coming here to bury you too!”  Peter, Peter, where is your milk of human kindness? On hearing his words she dropped dead. Poor old girl, have some pity. Peter, were you struck dead when you denied Christ with a lie? Not once but three times? No? Then pack it in with the cruelty. Grrr.

Sorry, that’s a bit of a segue. It just irks me. I know it’s there for a reason, I know it’s a historical truth, but it really just itches where I cannot scratch. Anyway, back to the point;

Here at the very beginning of the Book of Acts, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in languages that anyone and everyone could understand, so that everyone heard the Word ‘because each one could hear his or her own language.’

And I realised , with my coffee cooling, and three impatient dogs at my feet, that the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the gift of tongues as some call it, was absolutely and completely what I need in these blogs because it’s not about the language, it’s about reaching out and connecting. And it doesn’t have to be clever or witty or any damn thing – it just has to be the good news. The good news of Jesus. Simple and clear. I need to remember that it’s his news, not mine, that it’s his mission not mine, that he will guide if I walk with him. I need to remember that the gift of the Holy Spirit pours from him to us and out of us to others. The gift isn’t mine to give, it’s his. If I get my part in it wrong sometimes, he will be enough, and he’ll sort out the message for the reader. In him all things hold together, including the words I write.

Still couldn’t quite understand what I was being told. It didn’t gel, you know?

I went to the beach and saw the New Year’s Day swimmers, and met with friends, and the sky was huge and the sea was wet and all that stuff…. lots of laughter and chatting, dogs chasing and barking, but through it all I became conscious of a new and still emerging understanding of words, and tongues and the work of the Holy Spirit, and a new hopefulness. Is that what was stirring? A new hopefulness? I couldn’t wait to get home to finish reading that chapter of Acts.

When the dogs were fed but before coffee, before waffles, before anything else, I went straight back to it, and there I read, quoting a psalm of David

‘I continually see the Lord in front of me.
    He’s at my right hand, and I am never shaken.
No wonder my heart is glad and my glory celebrates!
    My mouth is filled with his praises,
    and I have hope that my body will live
because you will not leave my soul among the dead,
    nor will you allow your sacred one to experience decay.
For you have revealed to me the pathways to life,
    and seeing your face fills me with euphoria!’

That’s me told! The Lord is leading, the Lord is at my right hand, and seeing him will be my everything. This year, last year and for ever.

My prayer for all of you today is that you will continually see the Lord in front of you, and that everyone who reads these funny old mixed bag blogs will come to know the pathway to life, and be filled with praise.

2022, eh? Who would have thought we would be where we are today, with such a strange past behind us and such an exciting future ahead? God took my fat old shoulder by his hand at midnight and gently steered me into a new understanding and hope, and he can do the same for you. He will do the same for you. He’s guiding us all.

He is unchanging, constant, and he loves you with an eternal and sacrificial and jealous love. Think of that for a moment. That’s how much you mean to him. That’s why he lived and died and rose again. So that you would be in him and he would be in you. So that you would be everything to him and he would be everything to you. That’s what ‘jealous love’ means.

Amazing! With every New Year, every passing day, we come nearer to eternity when

‘They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

Maybe that’s what’s so great about New Year. It reminds us that with every tick of the clock we draw nearer to timelessness and God.

A poem for boxing day

A friend has sent me this, it made me smile and I hope it does the same for you;

T’WAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (sent to me from a friend in South Africa)

T’was the night before Christmas, but Covid was here,
So we all had to stay extra cautious this year.
Our masks were all hung by the chimney with care
In case Santa forgot his and needed a spare.
With Covid, we couldn’t leave cookies or cake
So we left Santa hand sanitizer to take.
The children were sleeping, the brave little tots
The ones over 5 had just had their first shots,
And mom in her kerchief and me in my cap
Had just settled in for a long winter’s nap.
But we tossed and we turned all night in our beds
As visions of variants danced in our heads.
Gamma and Delta and now Omicron
These Covid mutations that go on and on
I thought to myself, “If this doesn’t get better,
I’ll soon be familiar with every Greek letter”.
Then just as I started to drift off and doze
A clatter of noise from the front lawn arose.
I leapt from my bed and ran straight down the stair
I opened the door, and an old gent stood there.
His N 95 made him look pretty weird
But I knew who he was by his red suit and beard.
I kept six feet away but blurted out quick
” What are you doing here, jolly Saint Nick?”
Then I said, “Where’s your presents, your reindeer and sleigh ?
Don’t you know that tomorrow will be Christmas Day? “.
And Santa stood there looking sad in the snow
As he started to tell me a long tale of woe.

He said he’d been stuck at the North Pole alone
All his white collar elves had been working from home,
And most of the others said “Santa, don’t hire us!
We can live off the CERB now, thanks to the virus”.
Those left in the toyshop had little to do.
With supply chain disruptions, they could make nothing new.
And as for the reindeer, they’d all gone away.
None of them left to pull on his sleigh.
He said Dasher and Dancer were in quarantine,
Prancer and Vixen refused the vaccine,
Comet and Cupid were in ICU,
So were Donner and Blitzen, they may not pull through.

And Rudolph’s career can’t be resurrected.
With his shiny red nose, they all think he’s infected.
Even with his old sleigh, Santa couldn’t go far.
Every border to cross needs a new PCR.
Santa sighed as he told me how nice it would be
If children could once again sit on his knee.
He couldn’t care less if they’re naughty or nice
But they’d have to show proof that they’d had their shot twice.
But then the old twinkle returned to his eyes.
And he said that he’d brought me a Christmas surprise.
When I unwrapped the box and opened it wide,
Starlight and rainbows streamed out from inside.
Some letters whirled round and flew up to the sky
And they spelled out a word that was 40 feet high.
There first was an H, then an O, then a P,
Then I saw it spelled HOPE when it added the E.
“Christmas magic” said Santa as he smiled through his beard.
Then suddenly all of the reindeer appeared.
He jumped into his sleigh and he waved me good-bye,
Then he soared o’er the rooftops and into the sky.
I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight
“Get your vaccines my friends, Merry Christmas, good-night”.
Then I went back to bed and a sweet Christmas dream
Of a world when we’d finished with Covid 19.

Hush now…..

Christmas Eve. I’m listening to carols from King’s College, the village is silent, the lanes are deserted, Christmas lights twinkle in the windows and above us the darkness stretches deep, beyond sight and sound and knowledge. Hush. All around us, hush. The clamour of everyday fades away, the lists are finished, the planning is done, and now….. peace. Moments of peace.

Infinite, and an infant. Eternal, and yet born of a woman. Almighty, and yet hanging on a woman’s breast. Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms. King of angels, and yet the reputed son of Joseph. Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.‘ Charles Spurgeon.

Know what I’m going to do now? I’m going to bed, to set my alarm so that I will wake up in time to take part in a live streamed worship service thousands of miles away in South Africa. What a wonderful world we have been given.

Look for the cat

Happy Christmas, loads of blessings, to you all.

I’m sorry. Not.

I’m sorry, but I have to say this…

I’m sorry, but I’m going to tell it as it is.

I’m sorry, but this is the way I am, like it or lump it.

I’m sorry, but you know what I think?

If you have to start a statement by saying “I’m sorry but….” you probably should look at what you’re about to say with a cautionary and honest eye, take a breath, count to ten, and then see if you still want to say it. And then don’t. Even if you’re in the right, absolutely and perfectly right, and amazingly honest and insightful, the chances are that no one needs to hear it. Chances are there’s not a lot of humility in the air. Save your breath and use it instead for a bit of joy and love, a joke, a song, a prayer, a piece of nonsense. Anything. Because anything’s better than “I’m sorry but….”

If you find that little sneaky phrase on the tip of your tongue (and we all do), close them lips.

If you’re really sorry, you won’t say it.

Sometimes silence is golden.

There. I feel better now. On with the blog!

Christmas is coming. There won’t be a lockdown, Boris says so. Or, hang on, there maybe a lockdown, but shush, cos we’re not going to call it a lockdown. We are going to call it a ‘plan’. Not Plan A, because that’s already come and gone and been discarded. Maybe it will be a Plan B, or C, or D.

Plan Z has a certain ring to it.

Who knows? You know what? No one knows! We are not in charge. It turns out that mankind is not in charge of the Universe. For all our knowledge and science, on our spinning lump of rock and mud, we have no control over something so tiny that the eye can’t see it without a massively powerful lens and some chemical dye. The best we can do is either hide from it or coax some partial immunity into our bodies .

Who would have thought it? There are forces beyond our ken. Whether it’s Boris in London or Macron in France, or Putin in Russia…. no one knows the sure fire way of dealing with this latest threat. No one. All we can do is blunder along, doing our best.

I have a very glum friend. She’s a trudger, a head-down and shoulders-hunched Eyeore. Twice now she’s said to me “No Christmas this year.”

Wrong! Whatever happens, however the restrictions and the vaccine roll-out progresses, however often the virus mutates, cheer up! Christmas is coming. It’s coming as it’s come for the last two thousand years, as it’s come ever since Christians first felt the desire to remember the birth of Jesus, the miracle of Emmanuel. In the First World War it came to men in the trenches, it came in the Middle Ages when plague wracked the Western World, it has come in war and peace, in plenty and in famine, drought and flood, the rejoicing of birth and the grief of death. And it’s coming regardless of its commercialisation and cheapening and the garish ads on the telly and the Black Friday sales and all that nonsense.

Whatever is going on in the world, all around us, once a year we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. That’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Even when everything seems glum and down down down in the belly of the whale….. we celebrate.

I’m reading the first three chapters of Luke every morning and today I was struck by something when John the Baptist was born, and his old father spoke for the first time in months, and everyone was so amazed and happy;

Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” 

and it occurred to me that if you’d said to them “Oh, this baby? Well, he’s going to wander through the wilderness eating honey and locusts and he’ll never drink wine and he’ll thunder against the Pharisees and Sadducees and denounce Herod and then he’ll be beheaded.” it might have cast a bit of a pall on the celebrations. But that was John’s life. A life proclaiming that Jesus is God, a life of worship and service, and a martyr’s death. Fabulous.

Eh? What? Hang on a cotton pickin’ minute – that still doesn’t seem too great to me, even now, looking back. John had a decidedly rough deal, by all accounts. As far as the world is concerned he came and went and it was all pretty shabby and low key and a bit disastrous. But for all our cleverness we don’t see the whole picture. We look at what happened to John and see how tragic it was, and miss out on how stupendously wonderful his life turned out! Imagine being John and seeing Jesus approaching and knowing, just knowing that this was God. Wow. Wouldn’t that cancel out all the crunchy locusts and the bee stings and the blunt axe? I think it would. To see Jesus and know that he is God, before just about anyone else did! It might seem to us in 2021 that John had a rough deal but maybe he would say he had the best life, in spite of everything. He had the joy of knowing Jesus.

Imagine him, seeing this man walking towards him on the banks of the Jordan, this travelling Rabbi with a rabble following him. A dusty, possibly tired and hungry, young and poor itinerant teacher.But is that who John saw when he looked at Jesus?

John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’….   I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

What can anyone want in life but that? Everything else is less, less important and less relevant than knowing God, knowing Jesus. Nothing is as wonderful as looking on Jesus and seeing God. John could have lived like a king, and missed out on that greatest joy.

I thought about how knowing God strengthens us, the great consolation of knowing him, as I drove away from a friend’s house today. Her lovely and cherished husband has died, her loss is heart-breaking, and yet her trust and her thankfulness to God never wavers. She’s an inspiration to me. My husband would have called her ‘a doughty wee wimman’. There we sat, two widows – one still stunned by loss and one grown used it over 30 years, sharing our experience of bereavement. There was laughter and chatter and not too many silent moments. Not quite ‘Merry Widows’ but certainly thankful ones.

But it’s hard. No escaping it. If you’ve lost the love of your life, it’s as if you stand on the edge of a desert, with nothing before you except wasteland, nothingness. Yesterday there was a familiar scene of towns and trees and a road to take, and a hand to hold, a sense of going on together into the future, and today there is nothing. Desolation. No good trotting out Patience Strong sentimentality. It’s bleak. But even as you stand there, gathering your senses and adjusting to this new reality, turning (when you can, as you can) to God, shoots begin to appear, slowly, and tiny at first. A sort of miracle. You can’t quite see what they are, blinded by grief, but as the desert begins to change, the view becomes clearer, and there’s a suggestion of a tree, a mere wisp but becoming solid and sturdy… and in the distance the shapes and shadows of a village… a different village…. and a path gradually comes into focus before you, and there’s a hand to hold. There is. The hand of the God who never leaves you. The landscape will never be what it once was, but you can walk into it, gaining confidence, finding your way. And where there was bleakness, there will be a new and different beauty.

Where there is God, however life unfolds, there is peace and joy. And God is everywhere, even in the storm and the inferno. If we have Christ, we have peace and joy. Even in tears, we have joy. Strange, eh?

That’s why we celebrate Christmas, no matter what. That’s why my glum Eyeore is so wrong. There will be Christmas this year, because light has come into the world and darkness has not overcome it. Covid has not overcome it, death has not overcome it. Come plague or fire or Covid, Christmas is our source of joy and celebration.

PS.

When I was thinking about who John saw on the banks of the Jordan, I remembered this passage

He is the divine portrait, the true likeness of the invisible God, and the firstborn heir of all creation.  For in him was created the universe of things, both in the heavenly realm and on the earth, all that is seen and all that is unseen. Every seat of power, realm of government, principality, and authority—it all exists through him and for his purpose!  He existed before anything was made, and now everything finds completion in him.‘ Col 1:15-17 (TPT)

Get ready, get steady….

Two weeks to go. And already cards and gifts are arriving. You too? Lovely, isn’t it? But now I’ve reached 70 plus, I really don’t want stuff. Not stuff to put on a shelf or on a table, or in a drawer… not a new purse or a scarf of anything that’s loosely described as a ‘thing.’ It might give you great pleasure giving it, but really….. please don’t. ‘Surely books are always welcome?’ you say. No. No and no and no. I like trash at one end and really good stuff at the other, but nothing in-between. You don’t have a hope in hades of knowing what I’ll enjoy. A silly joke? Yes, please. That’s more like it. A visit, a shared coffee and chat, a laugh and a hug? Yes, yes, yes.

That’s Christmas, the company of friends, shared nonsense, prayers, cooking, eating, more prayers, a bit of praying, a glass of wine (or three) and then some prayers. Last year Christmas Day was solitary, but this year is promising to be different. Friends came yesterday, four of us sat down to lunch but, apart from giving thanks for the company and the food, did we pray? We didn’t! We were too busy catching up after weeks of being apart. Ah well, we’ll remember next time.

Many of you reading this are miles away, South Africa, London, Italy, Ireland… all over. I can’t give you a hug and you can’t pop in. So, here we go.. let’s defeat space and time…. come into my home…. there are fruit cakes in the oven and more mixture waiting to be baked…. 10 cakes to finish because this year I’m giving fruit cakes to friends, not books or jigsaws or scarves. Cakes! And native wild flower seeds.

December 11th in Wales. This corner of it, anyway.

Sorry about the abrupt end – I may be better at writing a scene than filming it!

I’ve decided that for me today is all about Christmas so on the beach I read the start of Luke’s Gospel, and when I came home I made a coffee and delved into this marvellous passage in Isaiah, in Chapter 9

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” 

If that doesn’t get your heart pounding you must be dead already (what’s it like up there in Glory?)

I’m beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! I am. Really.

What a story! What an amazing mind blowing story! Are there too many exclamation marks in this blog? Maybe I’m in an exclamatory frame of mind. I heard something that amazed me this week, something I had never realised before, maybe that’s when the exclamations started; we are familiar with the story of Zechariah going into the sanctuary to burn incense when an angel of the Lord appeared to him (chapter 1 of Luke). In our Western way, with all our New Testament knowledge, I think I’m probably not the only one who failed to realise what a great, amazing day this was for Zechariah, even before the angel appeared. It wasn’t just one more Sabbath and it wasn’t just ‘his turn’ to lift and waft the incense as it might be your turn to greet people at the church door… no, this was a highlight, maybe the culmination of his life in the temple. A priest would be drawn by lot to burn incense only once in his lifetime, and many were never chosen, so if his name was drawn, it was a huge, awesome duty. He was to offer prayers for the well being and the future of his whole nation, a sacred task. To go into the sanctuary was both a daunting and a thrilling prospect for any man, sinful and weak, daring to stand close to the presence of God, just a few feet from the Shekinah Glory, the Holy of Holies. Who wouldn’t have their knees trembling and their teeth chattering? Wowser. So already Zechariah was at the very edge of his composure.

There he was, all alone, in front of the golden altar of incense…. did his hands shake as he lifted the flame to the incense? A single lamp burned to throw its shadows in that sacred place….. just a heavy curtain between him and the forbidden Holy of Holies. Outside, hundreds or maybe even thousands of worshippers waited…. kneeling in worship, breath bated. The weight of their silence must have seemed palpable, no babies crying, no children playing, just the cloak of silent prayer, the breath of a crowd, the soft movement of heavy robes.

Enter into the story: Think of Zechariah, an old man, eager to serve God, all alone, wanting to get everything as it should be, humble and afraid… ‘let it go well, Lord… let me bring an honest open heart before you… let this incense rise before you as pure prayer from this weak- ‘ and then, maybe opening his eyes to light the incense – an angel! A gret big shining real angel. A powerful mighty creature like he had never seen before, or dreamed of, right there, in front of him…. I think his stomach must have turned to water, his thoughts to mush, his legs to jelly. ‘Zechariah was shaken and overcome with fear’ I bet he was! He must had the frantic fear that he had enraged God, that he was going to be punished with a mighty thunderbolt, banished, vaporised, or the temple was going to be brought down around his ears…

And the angel said “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.”

You’re kidding? Don’t be afraid? Just like that?

Poor man was witless.

Then came the news that he was going to have a son. What a day! All he could do was gabble and protest and ask daft questions. Come on Zech, God has sent you an angel, not an email, a shining fearsome mighty angel, so common sense would tell you that if God could make that happen, God can do anything. But Zechariah was so shaken that he couldn’t think. He didn’t react as Mary did a few months later, he didn’t say ‘My heart does magnify the Lord.’ No, he was too busy shaking and gabbling and sort of explaining why it couldn’t be. ‘But hang on, I’m old, she’s old.. does God know that? Have you got the right bloke?’

Poor Zechariah. And for that he was struck dumb. What a day!

Listen, listen, I don’t know what I’m trying to say in this blog except, ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ and ‘Isn’t this story just the most dramatic, heart wrenching history you’ve ever heard?’

Isn’t it amazing that an angel appeared to Zechariah, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and so the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah came true, and all the other prophecies that I don’t know about, and that just as God sent an angel to Zechariah and to Mary, in just that same way he has sent his Son to us. He wasn’t there and then he was.

That’s our miracle. Our miracle. Isn’t that amazing and wonderful? Doesn’t that deserve a few exclamation marks?

The history of the world spins on the moment of Jesus’ birth. There is ‘before Christ’, and there is ‘after Christ’. Before hope, and full of hope. Without love and love overflowing.

However good we are at painting, or sculpture, or music, or words, there is nothing we can do to adequately worship God as he should be worshipped. Like Zechariah, we are in the sanctuary and we are filled with awe, but if we open our eyes, we will see our angel. Our angel is the good news of Emmanuel.

This morning. Two weeks to go.