What is love?

Two unexpected and warm notes have pinged in, from friends I haven’t seen for ages. I do love it when this happens – when I know that someone has thought about me and taken the trouble to write. It makes the miles between us melt away, and it’s almost as good as a chat over a cup of coffee, a shared time. Almost. Oh, OK, that’s a porky, it’s not nearly as good as that, but it’s at least an attempt.

I really love receiving emails and texts but I send loads, and rarely get more than a vague bit of well-wishery in return. Maybe we’re losing the ability to write letters, or perhaps the email mindset has clipped everything to the bare essentials so that it’s a message rather than a correspondence. And anyway, other lives are busy and I have little to say when it all boils down to it and so maybe… whisper it… maybe my emails are boring. It’s not a big deal if they are – it doesn’t upset me. You have permission to find me dull and unexciting. It’s not one of the world’s worst sins. And I have been much worse than boring.

I know I’ll keep on emailing even though few people reply in full. Some leave it a couple of days and then answer dutifully, but most whizz a one liner back at me ‘Thank, Luce. Wonderful.’ or some such say-nowt acknowledgement. If it’s a Christian they might bung me a quick “God is good’ which makes me smile (or is it a wince?) but I do know that other lives are busy and anyway, my friends come in all shapes and sizes and colours – and the gift of friendship is like every other gift, some have it in great skiploads, others have a tiny ingot that they guard jealously, self-protectively. And many reserve true honest friendship for their partner or family so that everyone else may receive courteous consideration, but nothing lavished or free flowing or rich and wild and reckless and generous. Their love is limited, measured out carefully. Measured love is the opposite of God’s love. ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ 1 John 3:1 

Ah, well. Some people don’t lavish. Isn’t that a lovely word? It reminds me of Luke 6:38 ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.’ What an image! How fabulous!

If you send me a chatty email, I know you have time for me and that warms the cockles of my heart, but if you don’t, do I take this as an insult or do I understand instead that your life has other priorities, other demands? I choose to do the latter and keep you close to my heart anyway.

I used to befriend people on the basis of mutuality, but I’ve realised over the years that this is not helpful. I have some dear friends, the dearest, who really just don’t have the gift of friendship, but that doesn’t stop me loving them. They would never just pop by, or FaceTime unannounced or send a ‘thinking of you’ message, or a silly gift, or a bad joke. They just don’t do these things. They are formal and reserved. But they don’t have to be super warm for me to love them, any more than they have to be super-brilliant or stunningly beautiful or mega-rich. And they can’t help their temperaments and their experiences or the culture they grew up in – friendship is forgiving and accepting. Forgiving their lacks as they forgive mine, accepting their personalities as they accept mine. When you love someone it’s a great feeling – and they don’t, they really don’t have to love you back in the same way.

Here’s a funny story, about someone who measures out her friendship in careful 5ml doses; I had been in a small community for about two years, slowly getting to know people, not making friends particularly easily, but trying to find my feet there. One of the matriarchs, very respected, told me that she hadn’t been able to visit her family for two years (this was before the limitations of Covid) and that she really missed them. She was crestfallen and yet sort of ‘brave’ about it and I could see that, at her age, it meant a lot to her. Even the shortest visit would mean a two night trip, a ferry, four or five hours driving, me staying in a B&B while she caught up with her siblings and their families, but it was no big deal. I put my dogs into kennels and took her. We had a good trip, lots of laughter on the way, and I had a couple of days pottering around this new area while she visited. It was no great hardship for me – absolutely not. On the drive home she looked at me thoughtfully and said something like “You know, Luce, I have a lot of friends and I don’t have time for another one. I know you won’t mind me saying so.”

That’s me told! It made me chuckle that she waited until the journey home to tell me. Did she think I wouldn’t take her if she had said it beforehand? It wouldn’t have changed anything at all. One response to her lack of love is to love her for who she is, and one response is to withdraw love because of who she isn’t. I choose to love her anyway.

Loving is not all emotion. That’s a mistake we make, especially in the Western World. Love is a choice. Love doesn’t look for reward. Love is. Love is a noun and a verb. I choose to write this blog, I choose to love. The same part of the brain is involved in both!

I’ve been thinking about love a whole lot – God’s love. We so glibly say ‘God is love’ but do we really understand what we’re saying? I’ve been following a series of talks and videos on rightnowmedia, a series called ‘Life Explored’ by Barry Cooper and I’ve really enjoyed it, been intrigued and engaged by it. It’s just a fab series. The second talk, titled ‘The Good God’ has given me a more complete view of God’s love than ever before. Not complete, because this is me with my myopic eyesight, but more complete than it was. It’s opened my eyes so that I understand why – although it doesn’t make sense in a worldly way – I love people who don’t love me, how I am able through Christ to love people who don’t love me, why they are loveable even when they don’t love me, why God loves us even when we don’t love him…. why God loved me even when I was against him….. it illuminates the thought and truth that God is love. And when we follow God, when we want to be like Jesus, love is a choice we can make. If he lives in us, his love is in us, and if his love is in us we can’t withhold it from anyone. His love envelops everyone.

What is love? God is love. Who does he love? Everyone. You. You and you and you and even, wonderfully, me.

In case you want to look up that righnowmedia series, here’s a link that might help:

https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/481578?episode=2

This is not a blog

But I can’t resist wishing you all a belting and joyful Easter. May you all, every single one of you, know that Jesus is risen, he’s alive, that he’s in our lives, with us in our waking and our sleeping, active all around us and that his reality is undeniable to those of us who know him.

They can write a thousand historically accurate books proving that the Resurrection was documented at the time, proven at the time, a pain in the neck for the Roman authorities, a source of delight to the early Christians…. they can make a hundred videos taking us to modern day Israel, to this site and that site… they can do all this and more, but ….

BUT

if we know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour we need none of that. Once we did. But not now. That’s for those who are still on the journey.

Those who know Jesus have no need of external reassurance about the Resurrection.

Jesus is risen. I know because he is alive and with me. With you if you call on him. In our lives, active and present and full of love.

I wish I could post a surprising picture to lighten your hearts, but guess what? It’s the beach again! The wonderful beach. The lockdown beach. The Easter Sunday beach. I haven’t been anywhere else for what feels like half a lifetime but see how beautiful the day is….

He is risen!

Easter Sunday

Is it a bird, is it a plane……

I am not great at formal prayer and I’m getting worse! God is with me, and I live in his presence, so I’m finding increasingly that words are not helpful, that he knows my fears and longings and praise and accepts my thanks. He is here in my heart and head, and words just clutter up that unity, dispel it…. I dunno, diminish it. Having said that, I do find myself saying some odd things to the creator of the world “Oh, look at that amazing sky!” and “Don’t you love to hear that sort of throaty laugh?” as if he had not created the sky and given us the gift of laughter. I think of it as a sort of close marriage, one where a couple don’t have to continually put into words their hopes for the day and for the future, or their love for each other; their hopes and love are still there, primary, central, essential and the two hearts beating under one roof share a consciousness. And sometimes the words just have to spill out. Sometimes silence, sometimes laughter, sometimes sharing the deepest, hardest thoughts, two hearts beating as one (and all that). .

Anyway, I want to talk about prayer. I think. Today, Good Friday, I decided to mark the day by really really, no, really, getting into the gravitas of remembering the death of Jesus on the cross. Me and my decisions. I would be there in Jerusalem, conscious of his fear, and his resolve, his great courage, and I’d meditate on the sacrifice and the humility and the cost and… well, you get the idea. The best laid plans of mice and men, eh? 

On the way to the beach I followed my usual pattern, getting ready for prayer, reminding myself intentionally that this was a huge privilege, one hard-earned by the death of Jesus, a privilege the patriarchs of the OT couldn’t even dream of… walking with God, being with Jesus, the one who is mighty and righteous and pure. No barriers between us. A gift from him and nothing to do with me. Freely given, gratefully received. That five minute car journey each morning is a discipline, a stern reminder, a call to attention (well, I was once a soldier).

 As I walked onto the sand I brought to mind, as usual,  all those I love and pray for, thinking of the prayer in Ephesians, thinking of a few Psalms, but mostly simply bringing them before God, or my mental image of them, longing for their even closer walk with him. My prayer is short on words but rich in imagery,  as I think of each loved personality, quirks and all…. each of you…. bing… bang… bong. “Lord won’t you please let him know he’s loved and so precious? Bring him nearer to you today, even nearer? Fill him to overflowing with your essence, truth, vitality, resolve and steadfastness. ”    “See her, Lord? She needs you so much right this very minute, to know you and to love you and she can’t do it on her own, the world is tugging at her – go on, Lord, please, grab her tight.” 

Is my mood annoying you? Sorry, I can’t shake it off. My heart is just full of joy and my soul is dragged down with sorrow. How can I walk a sensible line of moderation with all that going on? I’m babbling.  

Anyway, listen. This was the beach I took you all to, all you people I love. Look at that! No filters needed. 

And then, I thought, time for the serious stuff. The meditation. 

And I couldn’t do it. Yes, even though I was so aware that this is Good Friday, the day to remember, to prepare for the agony of a brutal death, the sadness of the body abandoned in the tomb, all I could think and feel was joy. I was bung full of joy! I looked out over that whispering silver sea and I said to my Lord “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see a seal now? That would be such a confirmation of everything.” And as I looked… a disturbance on the surface, a dark shape…. A seal! A seal!!! 

A seal! 

A s- …. oh, no…  The shape moved strangely… lifted…. And the ‘seal’ flew away. Not a seal but a cormorant, followed by another. I laughed aloud. There on the sunny cold beach, God and me laughed at my bonkers mind. 

Did I need the miraculous appearance of a seal to let me know that God was with me? Nope. No no no. Faith doesn’t rule out miracles but it doesn’t demand them, either.

It was a funny and delightful moment but it was enough to remind me that sometimes my mind is a clamour.  Sometimes I am so busy being with God and marvelling and shouting my bright ideas at him, studying this and looking up that, and having a lightbulb moment….  that I don’t listen. So, I listened. I listened and there was perfect silence. Even the sea was silent. But I knew his presence. It was enough. 

Good Friday. You think I’m alone? I’m not.

And as I came off the beach an hour later, I met someone I’ve known for 5 years. This blog is where I write my beliefs loud and clear because I have to do it somewhere or I’ll burst… but in everyday life I don’t carry a Bible around with me, or give out tracts, or try to convert people, or throw Bible verses at their heads…. I don’t hide my faith and joy, and sometimes my pain, but I don’t proselytise either. That’s for God, not me. I just try to be honest and open, a good friend.

But this bloke, a deffo non-believer, funny and rebellious and cheeky, someone who delights in being that bit contrary, walked across the strand to talk to me about Easter, and then about the Bible. I really didn’t have to say very much at all. “It is” he said ‘the best book in the world.’ I was too stunned to say much. And he spoke with knowledge and understanding about eternity, and death, and I recognised thoughts from Ecclesiastes and some from the parables. What was my role in that conversation? To be wise and clever and come up with fabulous insights? To teach and enlighten? No, my job was just to listen. To give him someone who would pause and be still, with him. To recognise that God was there before me. I think God had prepared me for that exact moment, just an hour earlier. 

A couple of years ago our Pastor had a little saying, a saying that I and a late dear friend, Jane,  just loved. He would say “Jesus is brilliant. He says the words our hearts need to hear.”

I would add to that, “Jesus is brilliant, he silences our clamour so that our hearts can hear.” 

Lost in wonder.

Percy, Pip and Pico greeting friends

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.

Job 12:7-10

No one calls their baby ‘Ozymandias’

The storms and floods of winter have brought a whole load of forestry and detritus onto the beach;

And it didn’t take many days before someone had found a washed up pallet and made a bench, a coffee table and a sort of (inefficient) windbreak. Home from home.

And then came the first beach sculpture, or is it a tipi, or a mermaid’s lookout station?

But that just seemed to whet the appetite for a bigger one and a bigger one still, until there were five dotted along the dunes and the Daddy of them all was this great edifice, 10 ft tall;

It hasn’t, apparently, ended there. This morning there’s a distinctly phallic beastie rising up from the sand, firmly dug in (which must have taken some hard work) a monument to man’s need to muck about with what is already beautiful and perfect, and to have some fun, and to achieve great and wonderful things that will last five minutes and soon be forgotten. Look at the base and you’ll see one of the dogs, to give you some idea of the scale and girth of the thing. What will it be? A simple totem pole or maybe the centre support of a grand marquee?

It reminds me of the summer when we sit on the rocks in the mornings, and so often see a carefully built pile of stones, left there until a dog gallops through them, or a child gleefully kicks them over, or maybe until someone tries to carefully add yet one more stone and sends the whole lot falling….

I have mixed feelings about the stones. Some days they’re just an annoyance, intruding on the natural scene, reminding me of man’s sense of self-importance, of his need to make his puny mark in all that splendour, state his claim, leave a sort of pious graffiti…. “This is my soulful work, and I was here.” I really don’t react well to that sort of naval gazing striving for serenity. Bloody hell, get over yourself.

But I know too that my attitude is not great, and that stacking stones is a meditative and benign practice, so I leave the tottering piles alone, tell myself off for being such a mean minded old trout, shuffle my bum so I’m pointing another way and bingo! They no longer intrude on the wonderful scene that God has given me.

I do, however, love the washed-up shanties of sticks, the scattering of strange quasi-buildings, the promise of that huge pole pointing up to the sky. They remind me of the fun to be had discovering and collecting driftwood, deciding where to build, how to build, running across the beach, shouting to each other. Little monuments to a day’s fun, to mankind’s love of challenge and work, and a celebration of being a part of a team. And maybe if the weather is fine, and the wind is blowing all day (as it is today) those sticks will dry out, and someone with a wood burner will be able to gather them once more, and take them home for kindling. I hope so. A crackling roaring warming fire.

It’s all about balance. Not balancing stones but balancing the joy of the day with the sadness of the world and the promise of eternity. Not always an easy feat, that. The tightrope between hope and trust and sorrow.

My return to care work reminds me, almost constantly, of the book of Ecclesiastes. Here we are, caring for men and women who were once top of their game, capable strong fathers, loving mothers, farmers and businessmen and women, nurses and doctors, people who travelled the world, who spoke several languages… and now? Now they remember none of it, or sometimes they half-remember a fleeting image, or a phrase, and respond to some imagined question as if they were still living as they once did, and as if I am a person they knew back then, a daughter or a friend, or even a mother. Where are yesterday’s triumphs now? How did all that ambition and work end up here?

Oh, I did great things: built houses,
    planted vineyards, designed gardens and parks
        and planted a variety of fruit trees in them,
    made pools of water to irrigate the groves of trees.

Oh, how I prospered! I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every taskmy reward to myself for a hard day’s work!

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.

Ecclesiastes 2 (The Message Translation, edited by me!)

Because of Covid these elderly people, already imprisoned by dementia, are kept from familiar faces and the love of their families. Yesterday a husband came to see his bedridden wife and all he could do was look at her through a double glazed window. That’s surely the cruellest cold blow at the end of life? Today I found myself cradling another sweet face and looking into her twinkling but uncomprehending eyes, overcome with love for her (anyone would be. Anyone). “Hello there, sweetheart” I said, and she smiled back at me and said with such tender longing “Ah, Cariad, I’ve missed you all these years.” I think that’s what yesterday’s visiting husband would love to do, look into his wife’s eyes, and hear those words from her lips. I think it would ease his pain. Now, seeing this cruel separation first hand, it’s become more than a regrettable reality; ‘social distancing’ has taken on a new and heart breaking meaning for me. I long for the day when we can embrace again.

Strange that with all of human history behind us, we still find delight in gathering and building, in fleeting success and achievements, in reputation and fame, in money and possessions – piling up stones, propping up sticks – even though we know that all this will soon be gone. Everything we achieve and value will be gone. Statues will topple, people will be forgotten, history will be warped, the mists of time will close in. The only real and lasting things in life are God and the human soul. Wonderful to take delight in sticks and stones and laughter and fun, but the only true treasure is knowing and loving and belonging to God.


Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!  To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. Philippians 3:7-9 (TPT)

Ozymandius

by

Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

PS: Two days later…. the builders are becoming more sophisticated. Now there’s a doorway, a threshold…..

Onwards and upwards, no rush.

At the grand old age of 72 I’m starting my fourth (or is it fifth?) career. Tomorrow I will wake at 5, be on the beach by half past, back home by 7 and at work by 7.50.

Cripes. Flip me. Bother. Ouch. I must be mad. This can’t be right. What? Will I manage? Will I seize up? And similar explosions of mild worry, slight dread, and a sense of inadequacy. Covid has done many terrible things and I know I’ve got off lightly, not having caught it, but it’s meant that I’ve earned not one penny for 9 months and thus…. something has to be done. The bills aren’t Covid shy, they keep coming in, so it’s back to hourly pay at the basic national rate for me. Hurrah!

But hang on – I’ve been stuck at a desk for the last 36 years, with brief forays onto the set, quick trips to London for meetings, or Manchester for script conferences, or Bristol for storyline chats or all over the place. I’ve been to Reykjavik and Hong Kong and Ireland and a few other places through the years but I haven’t been helping old people to get up, to get dressed, to eat and remain interested in life, I haven’t been helping them to shower and bathe. In fact, I haven’t been at all useful to anyone at all, at all, at all. And, shockingly, this week I’ve realised that, as I live in a single storey house, in lockdown I haven’t walked up a staircase in over a year! Me, with my sciatica and funny left leg… no stairs for a year! So yesterday I went to friend’s house (yeah, yeah, socially distanced, both vaccinated, necessary work etc etc) and walked up her stairway three times. It nearly bloody killed me!

I don’t even know what the stairs are like in the care home where I’ll be working – Covid restrictions mean that I haven’t been inside it yet, even my interview talking place in the garden. I did warn them, when I applied for the job that I’m not great on stairs, will be slow, but back then I didn’t realise just how slow that would be! So, if you have a spare moment in your prayers tomorrow, please pray for my gammy left leg. I’m telling myself that although the residents are not much older than me, they will be even less fit, and so if they can manage the stairs, so can I. If you think I’m joking…. I am, but it’s only a very little joke with a whole lot of truth in it.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been aiming for 7000 steps on the beach each morning, and trying to do it in a brisk and no-nonsense fashion, swinging the arms (ouch, my shoulders) and placing my feet firmly on God’s good earth (swimming shoes help). Do I feel fitter? Just a bit, and a few other walkers have said things like “We didn’t think it was you. Got a bus to catch?” and that’s given me a little lump of hope that I’ll be up to the job. I know that tomorrow, at work, I mustn’t slow down at all in case I’m mistaken for one of the residents and lovingly led to a chair overlooking the gardens and given a crossword to do….. oh, hang on…. that sounds OK actually. That could be Plan B if the stairs defeat me.

Let me tell you a secret – life under lockdown when you are single and unemployed is BORING. It’s mind numbingly, bloodcurdlingly, sanity eroding, BORING. So, although telly work has dried up, and the BBC seems to have stopped making radio drama, and I haven’t got any more ideas for a book (or none that I’m ready to share) a fifth career is just what I needed and I am so grateful for it. In so many ways.

Old age ain’t easy, my friends. We talk about being fit and active and all that, but you know the greatest fear? The greatest fear is that we will be unloved and irrelevant. And when you’re single and old, you can feel completely both of those things all the time! Take it from one who knows. Over the last year I’ve recognised that what I’m doing is working hard, really hard, to remain relevant in a world that doesn’t need me. I am so conscious that as I work with the residents tomorrow, their greatest need is to feel loved and relevant, and valued. Appreciated. And I can do that even if it takes me half a day to get up them bloody stairs. We’ll get up them together and have a laugh on the way. We’ll compare aches and pains and I’ll tell them about my dogs and they’ll tell me about their lives, and we will pass the time together. I know loads of old songs. And I can tell some terrible jokes quite badly. They deserve better, I know, but we’ll rub along OK.

We’re reading 2 Corinthians in online church and I must have read this next verse a dozen times in the last few weeks…. Paul had some trouble of some kind, we don’t know what, probably not stairs in an old people’s home, but we know it was physical, and this is what God said to him ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12:9

That’s what I have to remember on the fifth stair when the 90 year old overtakes me. God’s grace is sufficient. I am not alone.

The spice of life. Zzzing!

I’ve got a job! When you’re 72 and you’ve felt increasingly useless for 6 years, with no relevance to the world at all, getting a job is a huge, glorious, giddying thing! There are forms to fill and clearances and references to get, but I should start in the next couple of weeks.  It’s a simple enough job, a care assistant in a home for the elderly, but it’s work I’ve done before and which I find satisfying and challenging and I couldn’t be happier. 

I hope I get some night duties. I love working at night, when all the world is silent, and peace wraps around us, when I am the only one up-and-doing in the whole of the United Kingdom (yeah, yeah), and there’s time to hold a hand, or to make a cup of tea, to whisper to the restless and to reassure the anxious. Night duty is fab. But whatever hours I get, I am so grateful for this answered prayer. 

While I’m on that subject – I’m discovering some unexpected aspects to prayer. ‘Aspects’ isn’t quite the right word but it will have to do. I’ve come to realise that prayer isn’t about words, or requests, nor is it only about longing, or our love (well, not just our love). It’s far more; it’s the wallpaper to our lives, the oxygen, the water, the lifespring…. It’s vital and constant. Prayer is a committed way of life appreciating the goodness of God, all his gifts and all his accessibility, and all the hours he has given us. Breathing can be prayer, a constant awareness of God’s presence and his part in our life, whatever we’re up to – laughing with friends, cheeking the milkman, putting out the rubbish, writing a blog, opening a bottle of wine, ordering a take-away (which I’ve just done – Yay!) …. all these things can be prayers when we do them in the awareness of God, his goodness, his generosity, his kindness, his guidance,  his presence. I think that prayer has to stop being something we do, and become something we are, or the place where we live, or the time zone we’re in. Or the blood in our veins. Too many metaphors and none of them quite work. Ah, well. 

Let me tell you about the takeaway I’ve ordered for tomorrow… it’s Mexican street food, authentic and wholesome and so very very tasty. I can’t abide spices but it seems that everyone around me loves them so I’ve ordered burritos and spicy chicken and something-or-other pork, and chilli something-or-other and nachos, all for my spicy friends and then I ticked the box for lovely naughty loaded (no spice) chips for me.  Yay! Roll on Friday night. Scrabble night with our bubble friends. All good things come from God and this take-away is going to be very very good. 

We are gradually emerging from lockdown, poking our noses out into the new day dawning, trying to remember all the things we used to do, looking forward to so much. It’s great to see the school buses trundling along the country lanes again, wonderful to see the littlies running down the hill towards the village school, great to hear the plans of the teenagers for University and holidays and meeting up….. not long now. Please, Lord, not long now? 

That’s made me smile. My confident ‘Not long now.’ followed by ‘Please, Lord, not long now?’ Because if we’ve been taught anything in the last year it’s surely that 

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!
 
That’s Rabbie Burns, and a dialect-light version might read: The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, leaving us only grief and pain instead of the joy we had expected. 
 
We are not in control of the world. Our plans are hot air and nonsense. And I’m so glad! God is in control and he has it sorted. His love is all we need, in it we can rest, in it there is no fear, or anxiety or uncertainty. He has us. 
 
Later: I wrote all that this morning and this afternoon I have been kicking my heels in the cold drizzle, waiting two hours for my car to get its MOT test. I sat on a bench, walked up a slight hill, sauntered around the huge town (two streets), sat on another bench, walked through a churchyard… and there I found a gravestone that took my breath away. In February 1820 a young woman died two days after giving birth to a boy. Three days later he died. There they lie. So very sad. I was pondering this, and the death years later of her husband, imagining his life without her, as I wandered back towards the MOT garage and saw this new mural: 
We are the otters who live in the river

What a great image of joy! All credit and thanks to the artists, @peaceful_progress, and the patrons @WWFCYMRU

And then the garage owner took pity on me (I was sodden by now, much like an otter but not as graceful and certainly not a protected species) so he led me to a cramped and messy but very homely cubbyhole, out of the rain, where I could sit and listen as three Welsh men chatted and exclaimed, gossiped and roared with laughter. It was music to my ears. I didn’t mind one iota that they were doing all this instead of inspecting my car. I love hearing male voices and these three were deep and very Welsh, and wonderful. Totally unintelligible to my English ears, but that didn’t matter. Rain, and death, and laughter. Not a bad afternoon at all. The spice of life, laughter and tears, side by side.

And the car passed its test. Phew.

And everything I’ve taught you is so that the peace which is in me will be in you and will give you great confidence as you rest in me. For in this unbelieving world you will experience trouble and sorrows, but you must be courageous, for I have conquered the world!”

John 16:33

Newsflash

The beach is an amazing place to be, the freedom and space, the sun, the wind, the ozone, the sights and the sounds…. every day a gift and every day different. This was one such day last week. I was in a sports car, handbrake turns, nought to sixty in a the blink of an eye, beating up the sand, roaring and soaring, foot down on the accelerator….. the engine surging…. naughty old me… dodging the plods… scaring the birds… breaking the law with glee…. parp parp!

World speed attempt?

Just kidding.

I was standing still. Only my hands were moving, holding my phone, slowly tracking from right to left. My feet were planted fair and square. The sense of movement and speed came from the wind and the world , nothing to do with me. Engine power not required. I didn’t have to do anything except marvel.

Because things are not always as they seem.

Last Spring the weather was wonderful, we could spend time with friends, dine out and go on holiday, visit family, all that. Although there were rumours of some sort of new infection which was puzzling scientists and worrying politicians, it seemed a long way off…. maybe it was all a piece of flummery nonsense, maybe it would respond to existing anti-virals… this is the 21st Century after all and we control all that sort of stuff, don’t we? Clever scientists and (mostly) benevolent governments, a pill for everything, it’s not the blinkin’ Middle Ages for goodness sake….

Back then, I would look out on the sunny street and the world was a smiling friendly place. Today, as I sit here at my desk, it’s pretty miserable weather, with rain and storm, grey sky, passers-by trudging against the wind, jaded after a year of staying-put and missing normal social life. And it’s easy to feel glum (isn’t that a great word? Sounds exactly what it means) but last Spring when all seemed simply swell, the Covid 19 virus was secretly going unchecked, silently multiplying, mutating and adapting, deadly and mysterious, permeating every culture. Today, when all seems grim and hostile, it’s a different story – there are vaccines, and fabulous programmes for delivering them to the whole population, there’s a drop in the rate of infection, the death rate is falling alongside the ICU admissions, there’s talk of decommissioning the emergency Nightingale Hospitals, discussion about easing restrictions, the schools are slowly going back, shaggy heads may soon be shorn, shops may soon open, pubs too, and even the greedy selfish western world is rolling out the vaccines in poorer countries.

Here’s a newsflash: the virus will not win.

Nor will despair, or grief, mourning, confusion, or evil. However bad life seems, there is hope ahead. Sometimes it will seem that all those things have already won, and sometimes it seems that in our own small life stories they have already won, that we are defeated and hopeless, but it’s not true. Our senses so often deceive us. Our intellects, too.  Maybe you think that we are scientific beings now and so we get stuff ‘right’ but mankind has always believed that, even in the Dark Ages. We have always accepted the scientific fashions of the day, whether they say that the world is flat and balanced on the backs of turtles, or that it’s hurtling through unimaginable space in an explosion of immeasurable power. When I was a student nurse our tutor told us to remove flowers from the ward at night because they ‘used up the oxygen’. He said that to us because someone had said it to him, when he was a student nurse. We believed him. It was nonsense but we are easily persuaded. Put a white coat on a man, a pair of specs on a confident woman, stand them at a lectern, and we are putty in their hands.

We’re an impressionable lot, we believe what we are told and what we see and what we feel, and sometimes, when life hits us hard, we believe that there is no hope, and no future. But that’s nonsense. Evil will not win, destruction will not win, and why? Because the battle is already won. The Kingdom is already established. There is a greater power than us, the power that keeps the world spinning, the sun in its place, the moon in its orbit, the tides breathing in and out, the winds flowing, the clouds scudding, our hearts beating. 

“He existed before anything was made, and now everything finds completion in him.” Colossians 1:17 (TPT)

I love the thought of completion. When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, ALL was completed. All the story of God and humanity was completed. To you and me the future seems uncertain, but it’s already gloriously fulfilled. God is complete. Whole. Everything he is and does is complete and whole, accomplished. So he is Love personified, complete and whole. Mercy, personified. Purity personified. Power, righteousness, eternity, forgiveness, personified. Victory personified.

Maybe you look around the world right now and don’t see proof of this? Look again. Test it.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

You know, I’m not a sunny Pollyanna. In 72 years I’ve seen a hell of a lot of life from bereavements and child rape to violence and widowhood. There have been times when I’ve shouted to the sky (and God) “Enough! Why is it always me that gets the crap? What about all the smug bastards who have never lost anyone… never suffered anything… married and cosy and secure and clean cut and arrrrgggghhh! Why not one of them this time?” And then I remember that in those 72 years there was also a husband I loved, a daughter I love, laughter and success and nonsense and sunshine, friends and then…to crown it all…. the greatest gift of all, the joy of knowing God. So I’ve fallen silent and looked around to see that there is more to life than meets the eye.

There is God. God who loves you. You. Whoever you are, wherever you are. Your future with him will bring joy and truth.

Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,’
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
Isaiah 54:10

And the word for today is….

English is a mongrel language, borrowing from just about every other language in the world, and from every other culture and age. We are a rollicking, messy old peoples and our language is a rollicking messy old language, but it’s alive, ever changing and inventive, so hurrah! But in all the white noise and babble of the modern world, there are some words that have a special quality, and they make me pause and take them out and look at them, slowly turning them over, wondering at their brilliance, at the way they manage to be both unsettlingly intangible and undeniably real. Will O’ the Wisp and yet brick solid. Here’s one of those words…. ‘ineffable’.

I don’t think I’ve ever used it in conversation, but I thought of it this morning, walking with a friend on an empty (ish) beach under a perfect dome of sky. We were mulling over some deep sadness, praying, and looking up at that sky I was struck by the thought of God’s power, the God who created and rules the Universe, this one and only God who we were talking to right then!  Two tiny people in a tiny corner of his world,  conscious of his love for us in our tiny everyday lives, when suddenly, for me, the double whammy of his power alongside that love was startling.  That’s when the word came to my mind. Ineffable. I was too hesitant to use it, unsure if it was the one I was seeking, and the thought “God’s power and gentleness are ineffable” was left unspoken. When I got home, intrigued by this beguiling word, I looked it up. It means, apparently, “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.”

 Ezzackly, my friends! God’s power and gentleness are too great to be described in words. And the dictionary gave this example of how to use the word in a sentence:  “the ineffable Hebrew name that gentiles write as Jehovah” How amazing! That example was given not in a Christian context, but by grammarians and wordsmiths. It was the most clear and concise example they could find. 

God really is ineffable. Too great to be captured by words. So great that the God in the Old Testament was never called by his name. But now Jesus has come, the story is told and he comes to us wherever we are, whoever we are, if we only call on him.   ‘Call me and I will answer you’.  (Jeremiah 33:3)

He’s waiting for us. Think of that, the God of all creation, waiting for us!  ‘Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.’ Isaiah 65:24   

What will happen then? In the words of Jesus “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls ” Matthew 11:28&29

Our ineffably gentle God. I’m just me and I have no words to take you to him, but my words aren’t needed. He will find those who long for him. 

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13

The beach. How I love it. But I love the God who made the beach even more.

You’re a brick, so you are!

This morning as I walked on the beach with the dogs, under a cold and leaden sky, there was a little chirrup on my phone….. a text… “I think I see you.”

On the other side of the estuary a friend was also walking, and she had spotted my red jacket and three little dogs. We waved and texted, and I walked along and she walked along, walking along together(!) separated only by the river and the sea.

There she is…. the focus enlarged until it goes blurry… forgive the lack of colour, a woman in grey against a grey sea under a grey sky and in front of a grey house….. but you know what? It was so lovely seeing her! This young woman is just the best, she’s a youth leader at church, and a good friend, great fun. We texted and waved and as she walked to her edge of the water and I walked to mine we were even close enough to shout”Hello-ah!” I think this could be called ‘extreme social distancing’. It was just so great to see someone from my church there in the middle of my silence, interrupting King David’s psalms. Fellowship of a strange and unexpected kind that left me buzzing!

Yesterday I had a similar experience when I was delivering something to friends and the husband came to the doorstep. We could have exchanged no more than a dozen words, the briefest of brief encounters, strangely awkward, but as I drove away I was elated. Yes! People matter. People are simply delightful.

I didn’t know that we mattered to each other so much.  Did you? I wonder if you have also found this new and very real affection when you come across people you haven’t seen for a while? It’s so good seeing the face, hearing the voice, sharing the smile, and so much better than a screen presence. I didn’t think I would ever miss normal society as I have – I’m not one for the coffee and chat after Sunday Worship, because I don’t do small talk, and I’m anxious and physically uncomfortable in crowds. I avoid coffee mornings, and even struggle with prayer meetings and Bible studies because of all the chit-cat involved. Deafness has made me even worse of course, so that even on a one-to-one I can flounder. So, this new sense of missing folk, and the swell of joy and gratitude I feel when I see them, is a real revelation to me! It makes me think all sorts of new and sometimes confused things about church, about what we are and what we are meant to be, and what I am meant to be as a part of it. It makes me think about the love of God, and how he brings us to a new and softer place, a warmer and stronger place, sturdy in our affections and not so self-aware. And he’s brought me to this place without me even knowing about it! It’s a complete surprise. He’s softened my heart in spite of the stubborn me-ness of me. 

One of my favourite thoughts about the church comes from William Tyndale, a stalwart Prottie who had his head chopped off for his faith in 1536, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it. ”

Well, in a way we are all outside it just now. I know this isn’t what he was talking about – his was a loftier thought; the church exists for those who are not yet followers of Christ, but there are echoes of his thought in the Covid world right now. We are all outside the church in a way. We are outside the buildings, and the meetings, and the forms of worship we have adopted. We are outside the friendship groups, the house groups, the petty politics and the ups and downs of any community. But we are still the church. We are still brothers and sisters, family, and we long for each other’s company, for shared ideas and enthusiasms, prayer and laughter. That’s why for a few brief minutes yesterday and today, on a doorstep and on the beach, I was just bung-full of thankfulness for brothers and sisters, for the church family, apart and together, distant and yet so close, alone and eternally united.

Church drives me mad. I hate it. I love it. I long for it. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back when this lock-down is done. Can’t wait for it to start up again. Hope it never does. Blah. Who cares? I do! They’re all nuts. I’m nuts. The boring old building. The lovely familiar old building. Bloody tea and coffee! Oh, but sometimes we have cinnamon buns. And the teaching… ah, the teaching. Nothing can better that teaching. And yeah yeah, I know, just like there is no perfect family, so there is no perfect local church.

Paul uses a metaphor, the image of each of us as part of the physical building:

You are rising like the perfectly fitted stones of the temple; and your lives are being built up together upon the ideal foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, and best of all, you are connected to the Head Cornerstone of the building, the Anointed One, Jesus Christ himself!
This entire building is under construction and is continually growing under his supervision until it rises up completed as the holy temple of the Lord himself. This means that God is transforming each one of you into the Holy of Holies, his dwelling place, through the power of the Holy Spirit living in you! Ephesians 2:20-22

God is transforming us, eh? Must be why my hard old crotchety heart is missing everyone. Surprises me, but I bet it doesn’t surprise God. It’s what he’s been doing in me for the last year.

Amazing God!