Reaching out

On the edge of the Irish Sea, this morning

Why write a blog? Beats me.

My last posting was read by people in the UK, America, South Africa, Holland, China, HK, India, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea. Russia, Australia, Canada, Cameroon and Pakistan. That’s unusual – although I have readers in 43 countries, mostly I reach people in the UK, and might see visitors from 3 or 4 other countries on any one day. So why were there so many overseas bloggers on that particular day? Did I use a word that some nosey algorithm recognised, some phrase that cropped up in google searches? Who knows?

Writing a blog is fascinating, and the intrigue doesn’t start and end with the writing – who are you all? How do you live your lives? Where do you read these words,? Are you in a bedroom cosy and sleepy, or maybe at a desk? You could be on a hillside in a tropical storm, or in the shade of a palm tree overlooking a sparkling bay, leaning on a kitchen counter waiting for bread to prove,  rocking a child to sleep lit only by the glow of your screen, or maybe you’re reading this in Africa, on a stoep, serenaded by cicadas, or in Canada sitting in a car waiting for snow on the windscreen to clear.  I don’t know. And I wonder what you make of me and my life? Can you imagine life here in the UK, in this corner of West Wales? Would you like to see my street, the view from my front door, yesterday morning just after a light fall of snow? Here you are; 

Shoes, scarf, hat…..off we go.

Are you a person of faith or anti-faith? What do you make of my ramblings? Why do you read them? It’s a mystery. Because I’m a writer I don’t quite fully understand anyone who isn’t. I mean, what do you non-writers do with all your thoughts? Seriously, what do you do with notions and ideas and questions that need exploring and sharing? I know that most of you will be in a relationship so there’s another mind reaching out to you as you reach out to them, but still… don’t you want to write stuff down, to get it out into the world, to test it and weigh it against other thoughts from other minds? Other cultures? If not, why not?

It would be so good to know you. We are all so wonderfully different, and surely it’s a great gift to desire to know more and to tell more? To be both giving and receptive? It’s difficult right now to communicate properly, one to one, in lockdown but doesn’t that make reaching out in any way we can even more important?

I heard, from two different speakers this last week, that God’s deep longing, is to reach us. That really hit home for me. I understand the longing to communicate. We are created in his image, so just as he reaches out to us, so we are made to reach out to him and to others. When we do that, we find fulfilment and meaning. When we know that we are loved and when we love, we are at peace. We come to rest in the place we were always meant to be. Wow! I just smile when I think of that. God intends a loving relationship, the deepest most loving most personal relationship ever, with those he has created. You and me. He longs for our love so deeply that he gave up his only Son, to torture and death, for us. He could not love us more. He is love itself, personified in Jesus.

God doesn’t change. He is constant. Complete and perfect. So just as he loved us in our moment of creation, so he loves us now. Whatever we’ve done, whoever we have become, whether you’re wrapped in the velvet warmth of Africa, or sheltering from the icy blast of Canada, surrounded by the roar of traffic in New York, or lying in a hospital bed as you read these words, God wants you to know him. God loves you with a lavish love. Whether you’re Miss Prim and Proper sailing through life untroubled by disaster, or Mr Bit of a Mess with a great swathe of bad decisions and broken hearts in your wake, God loves you with his lavish love.

Why do I write this blog? Because God loves you. Because God reaches out to you. That’s how important and precious you are! And when you know the reality and love of God, as I do, by his gifting, oh boy!!!! You’ll be like me, filled to overflowing with too much good news to keep it quiet. You’ll want to speak, blog, video, tik-tok, write, sing the great news. You can’t help it, wherever you go, Canada, Taiwan, down my little road, on the front line of every violent demonstration, in the Covid wards, on the surface of the Moon, in a rocket ship to Mars….

Now I’m just being silly. Time for a cup of tea.

You can know him. He stands at every door, waits at every moment of every life. He reaches out to you. Always. Always.

The Lord your God is with you;
    his power gives you victory.
The Lord will take delight in you,
    and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you, (Zephaniah 3:17)

And Yet……

Last week I was overwhelmed. Everything suddenly – quite suddenly – seemed undoable. A friend was seriously ill, the national news was unremittingly grim, the TV bombarded us with weeping newly-bereaved people, honing in on close-ups of exhausted NHS staff, sweating and tearful behind their masks and visors, and this brought my poor ill friend to mind over and over again. Helpless. Her devoted husband couldn’t go in to see her, there’s a grandchild she hasn’t met because of Covid, all we could think of was our dear friend surrounded by strangers in a noisy crowded ward, beeping monitors, gloved hands…… Other Covid updates took us into a mortuary where staff were defeated and wordless. I understood the motive for these images, to persuade covid deniers that this is real and the human cost is huge and heartbreaking. I understood, but by heck, it sent me toppling headlong into the depths, down down into a whale’s belly, as deep and as dark as I could go. Running suddenly from trust in God. Oh, intellectually I trusted him, I knew him to be faithful, but emotionally I was alone and shaken. So sudden.

And I missed my God, I missed knowing the immediacy and reality of him, it was like a sort of mourning, a sort of drowning, so I decided I’d pull myself up by the scruff of my neck… clamber out of that smelly belly, and swim with strong calm strokes towards the daylight. Superwoman. I would work out what was stepping between me and the peace of God and I would sort it. I forgot this one simple fact:

I knew my problem was one we all have – how to deal with life under lockdown. I’m no different. You’re no different. We’re all facing a new way of life and it’s gone on for much longer than we expected. The days are pretty empty, eh?

I’m not the only one to have been trying to fill the long shapeless days with stuff, give-us-some-any-old-stuff sort of stuff, so many are struggling with what the media likes to call ‘mental health’ (but I prefer to call it our spiritual and emotional well-being). We are not sick, or deluded, or psychotic, and our grip on reality is unchanged, but we are sad, reasonably sad, reactively sad, because of the new demands on our emotions.

And then comes the guilt – what about the NHS workers and the drivers, the paramedics, chemists, people who are working flat out? They don’t have time to moan, the luxury to be sad. What about the people struggling for every breath, you whining woman? But they were fleeting pangs of compassion – most of the time I was thinking about me, and how to fill the hours.

Here’s an image that I think reveals how I went about that: On Tuesday last week on my desk I had three books open (an NIV Bible, a Study NIV and a Wiersby Commentary), and my constant companion ‘Shaped By The Word’, plus Strong’s concordance on the Mac screen. Beside the books was a magnifying glass so that I could read the tiny teensy teensy cross references in the study Bible, a notebook for each separate study, pens and markers.

Remember the film Jaws? “We need a bigger desk.” I studied and read and planned and all my thoughts returned, relentlessly circling, I was exhausted, tearful. I sent an email to a trusted friend, someone wiser than me but kind enough not to call me an idiot  “But I could spend all day like that and at the end of it not remember a damn thing! Aware of God’s grace and presence? Not really, no. Too busy for that. Longing for him, thirsting for him, thinking of him? Not really, no. Heart breaking. “

So, finally, realising I hadn’t taken this to God, at last I prayed. You think I’m going to go all victorious now and say that the answer immediately dropped down from heaven, don’t you? Hah! This is me we’re talking about, not Laura in Little House On The Prairie. I prayed and handed it over to God… gave it, ooh, thirty seconds or so… then I grabbed it back and started again, searching for the answer…. and when you search you can sometimes grab hold of stuff shouting “Eureka!” and kid yourself you have the answer to everything. I thought THE answer had arrived, dew-drop fresh from heaven… All I had to do was drop my blog from the daily round and my mind would be uncluttered. I would then turn my newly minted and receptive mind to the study of God’s word and I would hear every single thing he had to say to me and be filled with inexpressible joy. Obvs.

I wrote a farewell blog, spent all day on it, and within two hours of posting it I had been persuaded and scolded into taking it down. It seems that I am to continue blogging. I can’t argue with pals from South Africa (fancy calling me selfish! Me! As if!) and Wales and America and Holland, and strangers (now friends) from England, and my lovely daughter who even told me what my husband would say (“Och, Luce, sleep on it”) and I think maybe they were right. Maybe their responses were the answer to my prayers. Maybe seeing that I wasn’t listening to him, God sent the message through them. They’re a lot ruder than he is, and I listened. The blog lives to fight another day.

I still need to find a way out of this Covid maze I’ve wandered into, some way that will glorify God, and I’m still praying for guidance, but I’m not counting off the hours quite so much, and there’s a big hole in the belly of the whale so that I can see daylight sparkling high above me on the ocean waves.

So, there you go. Humble pie. I was wrong. If you read that farewell blog in the two hours that it was posted, my apologies. Here I am.

I’ll finish with a quote from an email I had from a church friend “So often your blogs reminded me of psalms where David has a right moan and then comes around to praising God for his unfailing love and faithfulness.”  And that made me smile, because when I first started this Luce Thinking blog I was going to call it ‘And Yet ‘ or ‘Nevertheless’ because of the verses in Habakkuk 3

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 sheepfold
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

But I decided against that title because I wasn’t sure that every blog would follow a pattern, or end up victorious – and yet, and yet, and yet, this one does. Which is amazing because nothing has changed except my heart. 

We are still in the grip of the pandemic, families and friends are grieving, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, this is a sad time for everyone, and a hellish time for some, we see no end, we still don’t understand the enemy we face, and yet and yet… I will be joyful in God my saviour. 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38

Welcome to my world.

Most of you have no idea who I am, and will never meet me, and can never test the truth of anything I say. I can present myself as a shining shimmering angel, a warm and cosy granny, or a grouch, a saint or sociopath. I can dissemble and fantasise. If I said that this morning, with the beach crusted by snow, I had broken the ice and gone for an early morning swim, some of you would believe me.

You have no way of knowing. And yet, you read on. Isn’t that strange? Do you read trustingly, or cynically? Is your claptrap-radar working overtime? I hope so. I hope you’re not reading uncritically, soaking it all up, unseasoned by discernment.

In lockdown I turned to reading contemporary novels. After scrolling through articles like ‘The 100 best books of 2020’ I chose six but they’ve been so dire that I’ve deleted them all. What a waste of time that was! There was something dishonest and formulaic about them. I want a writer to make me say “Me too! Me too!” with the excitement of recognition, or gasp with delight at an unexpected thought, or lose myself in a heady new world so that I step out of mine and into theirs. None of them got anywhere near.

And now, of course, I’m trying to remember the last time a novel did this for me; I think it was ‘The God Of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. In her writing I discovered a childhood in Naipaul, the delightfully complicated personalities of two young sisters, their family, the smells and sights of India fifty years ago. I think the first paragraph of that book is the best I’ve ever read in a work of fiction, ‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’

How I wish I had written ‘fatly baffled in the sun.’

Arundhati Roy showed me a world I don’t know. That’s magical.

There are about 8 billion people on this planet right now. In our daily conversations we talk about our world as if it’s simply that – one world – when it’s really 8 billion worlds, 8 billion experiences of life. Writing is our attempt to share our experiences with others and to catch a glimpse of theirs. When writing succeeds, it’s thrilling. Skin on skin, visceral belonging, like waking in the night and feeling the presence of another soul, unseen in the dark, somehow sensing another heartbeat. Good writing can take us almost there, good writing says ‘You are not alone. Reach out a hand. Here I am.’

You’ve seen QR codes?

Well, the most complicated of these can store 15,000 pieces of information, according to the arrangement of black and white spaces, and this means that this one QR code can have 2.817960879631397637428637785383222308241674912977296×104515 applications. I don’t even know how to say that number (but thank you, google!) although I think the x means multiplied and the tiny numbers mean multiplied several times. With a huge number like this, does it matter?

So, one small lumpen block of black and white squares has millions upon millions of ways to arrange and rearrange itself. How they are stacked and placed, and the shape and size of the spaces in-between, makes each one recognisable and unique. Amazing. Now think of the 8 billion human souls in the world at this moment, and consider all their different genetic and physical, racial, cultural, sexual, environmental, medical, familial and political influences… each one unique, each internal understanding of the world shaped by so many different external factors…. don’t they all add up to 8 million different worlds? My husband and his siblings were all born in the same house to the same parents but George remembered childhood as cold and stern, Jean remembered it as warm and lovingly chaotic, Billy considered their parents to be perfectly correct and saintly, and John felt the family was claustrophobic. Why such different memories? When Jean was born their parents were young and hopeful, excited by parenthood, but when George was born their father was a big fish in a small town, too busy to be a father, their mother was worn out, and by the time George was a teenager one brother had died, their parents were grieving, disappointments had soured small triumphs, money had become master, life had changed. Which view of the sibling’s world was the true one? All of them and none of them.

That’s what writing should reveal to us – that we are all subject to a thousand influences and so we are all wonderfully the same and all amazingly different, that life is dazzlingly rich. There’s a saying that we shouldn’t judge someone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but the truth is that we never have the right to feel superior to anyone at all, because we cannot ever, ever, walk in another person’s shoes. You cannot ever know what has made me who I am today. You might have a few ideas, and if you’ve read my autobiography you might have some insight, but you can never see the world as I have seen it, just as I cannot know your world as you know it.

But writing can bring us closer. That’s the thing, that’s the great exciting possibility for any writer to keep hold of; whether it’s fiction, biography, scholarly thesis or poetry, good writing will always bring the writer and the reader closer. I can give you a glimpse of my world so that maybe you will feel less alone in yours.

Is that why I write this blog? For the illusion of closeness? Possibly. Do I write it because I am (shush, whisper this next word) lonely? Yes. Absolutely. Listen, my life is full of joy. Underpinning everything, like a rock-solid foundation of pure gold stretching down to the very centre of the Earth, I have joy. But there are tough days too, rough days, when the loneliness seems unbearable, just too much to live through, bleak and abandoned days, when there’s no one to talk to and no one to understand, when all I want to do is stop the pain, any way, absolutely any way. When no single sod cares and all this ‘brotherly love’ stuff seems an empty mockery, and I am so angry and alone.

When I stand in the dunes some mornings (and boy, it was like being carved in ice today) I’m able to thank God for the earth beneath my feet, the sea, the grasses, the sky, space, galaxies… the mind goes on and on… I thank him for time, for eternity out of time, thank him for thought, thank him for love and laughter and friends… and seeing Percy and Pip and Pico chasing birds I thank him for small dogs scampering after sleek crows. And on other days the beach walk is like trudging down a wind tunnel while being sand blasted by an industrial turbine, and then my gratitude is in a different key, but somehow it’s still there, uppermost… thank you for the breath that’s being whipped away from me, for the air that’s choking me, the salt that’s blinding me, the wind that’s fighting me…. thank you that when I sing your name into the roaring air it soars up and up and no one hears my cracked old voice but you and me. Exhilarating. Some days I’m not tuned in and then I just womble along, peacefully enough but empty headed, watching the waves and thinking nothing, aware that God loves me even on these woolly days, barely dreaming a sweet half-prayer here and there. Some days there’s pain and I’m dizzy and clumsy footed, and the tinnitus is unrelenting so that all I can manage is a desperate plea for help. And sometimes, my friends, some mornings I’m wrestling with feelings and thoughts that are nowhere near God, critical, frustrated, depressed, rebellious or more often… here comes that word again ‘lonely‘. Yes, often lonely.

If I can fool you all and be the person I want to be when I write, why am I admitting that sometimes I’m defeated? Why don’t I present myself as successful, victorious, surrounded by like minded souls? Because good writing is honest. And because, like me, many of you are lonely, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be ashamed. You’re in good company. Jesus experienced everything that we can experience in our lifetime, and that includes loneliness; No one knew what he knew, no one faced what he faced, he was a leader and leadership is lonely, he was forever teaching and guiding and that role is lonely, he climbed the mountains alone, he prayed alone, he knelt in Gethsemane alone, he was alone on the cross. Our God, our perfect God was often alone and I believe that often he was lonely. Led by the Spirit, forever united with his Father, even for him there were times when he wept, and on the cross he called out ‘Why have you forsaken me?”

Loneliness is not numeric. It can thrive in a crowd, a church, a family, a marriage. The busiest people can be lonely, the funniest liveliest people. Alone-ness is geographic, but loneliness is not.

But enough of bleak, bleak, down and down because loneliness is also a choice. If you’re lonely you have a special place to stand, and that’s with God. And he is the answer to loneliness. Relax, I’m not turning into Pollyanna and I know you may not have a beach to thank God for, or a sea to paddle in, but maybe you have a kitchen sink to stand at and a window to look through, a picture to gaze at…… so focus on some small thing and thank him for that. It won’t be easy but the thought will grow. You know those days when I can’t thank God, when I can’t praise him? I don’t leave the beach until I can. I don’t leave the beach until I can thank him for the day he has given me, whatever it holds. That’s something I’ve learned in just this last few months. If we turn to God, we discover that we are not alone. No magic wand, we might still feel alone, but we know that we are not. And there’s comfort in that. Turning to him, especially when we least feel like it, confirms our knowledge, confirms our faith, reminds us of who he is and who we are. Thanking God dispels loneliness. It does. It doesn’t come easily and it can be a bit exhausting, so that when I get back in the car to drive home I sit there for a few minutes to recover…… but

Yet I am always with you;  you hold me by my right hand.
 You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion for ever
. Psalm 73

I hope that a glimpse into my world has shown you that if you’re lonely you aren’t alone. You’re not peculiar or unwanted or a failure.

I hope you know that God loves you, whoever you are. Right now.

Peace

I love the sound of silence. My days would seem, to you, to be mostly silent, no radio or TV, no conversation, just the occasional sigh as a dog moves in his sleep, the creak of my old favourite wooden chair as I sit at my desk, the heavy-fisted pounding of my fat fingers on the key board…. but maybe once or twice a day I click onto the videos of The Irish Blessing, or the song ‘Oceans’ or a Bach Mass. There I can share in an act of worship, become conscious of other people all over the world praying, remind myself that I am not alone. I miss praying with others – nothing do with Covid but with deafness. And people do mumble so when they pray! That’s made me laugh – it reminds me of my Dad, who had a similar deafness and blamed the whole world but never his own ears.

Silence is good, so good. It means there is no straining to hear, no distraction from thought. Much of the time I have tinnitus in one ear, little yelps of noise and squeaks and low rumbles, distant hissing. It can be quite annoying. Sometimes, to be a bit more honest, it’s bloody annoying. It even wakes me up in the middle of the night with some half-heard sound that my brain conjures into an unlikely event – a horse clip clopping towards the bathroom, or some angry memory yelling my name. So, whenever the white noise stops and silence descends…. ahhhhh. Lovely. That’s why I said “My days would seem, to you, to be mostly silent”. As I write this, tonight all is silence. Thank you, Lord for the wonderful gift of stillness, peace.

I’ve been watching, through my high windows, the daily dance of a hundred crows silently circling and gliding in the twilight, preparing to roost. If I was under them I would have heard them cawing, but here at my desk they seemed to gather and soar and swoop in silence. I love their daily dance. Now it’s dark and the blind is down, and I’m simply revelling in this early evening peace, loving the light bulb glowing behind my Mac, the shadows, the idea of talking to you, the fabulous privilege of this simple life that has, after 72 years, come to make such perfect sense. Like a jewel. Like a pearl. Like a perfect shimmering drop of crystal water, gathering and about to drop… to be no more.

There, now you see what I see.

I rarely talk about my own death, but when I do my grandchildren are indignant, as if it will never happen and it’s ludicrous to imagine it, but it’s coming… as surely as a drop of water must fall, so a life must end.

I’ve reached the age when I hesitate to buy new coat. How much use will I get out of it? If I only have a couple of years left, won’t the one I’ve got be OK? I could be gone tomorrow and then, think of of it, 50 quid down the plughole when it could have been of real use to someone. There is an impermanence in life that’s plain exciting. That droplet of water, the waves as they hit the shore, the tide as it ebbs and flows, the sun as it rises and sets…. there’s beauty in impermanence. When my husband died, our 14 year old grieving, shocked, weeping daughter said something that was true and wise and a deep and real comfort to me. Still is. The undertakers were taking George away and we sat in the front room, trying not to hear the footsteps and the murmurs, not to look out and see our lovely man being taken away from us, and I said something foolish and wrecked like “He died too young.” and Louise said “No, he had the life he was meant to have. He had his full life.”

I don’t know why I feel the need to tell you all this tonight, but I do, and I’ve learned to listen to these promptings: life is precious, because it ends. That droplet of water, captured in that moment, is beautiful because it will fall and the moment will be gone. Every morning I watch the waves crash or creep, whisper or roar on the beach and I marvel at them, wave upon wave, million upon million, every one distinct, every moment particular, and then they are gone. But another and another and another. Rolling in. Each one beautiful, distinct, and if just one wave wasn’t there, the world would tip, the ocean would slip, the rhythm of the sea would break. Every life and every moment, however short or long, is beautiful and precious, and irreplaceable. And meant to be.

I look back on my life, the people I’ve loved and lost and the people I’ve found and will lose one day, and I’m filled to the brim with wonder. Life. Bloody wonderful, isn’t it? Even when we’re knee deep in trouble and grief and confusion… it’s wonderful.

Why would God make us with such imaginations and intellects, such a facility for memory and love and longing, such delight and silliness and greed and plain old wrongness? Because he loves us. He is for us. Because life is precious. He is for life, for life. That’s why he made the world, that’s why he made day and night, you and me. Because he loves us and rejoices in us and desires us.

It’s taken me 72 blinkin’ years to see the shape of my life. To see that when I was away with the fairies, reeling from one disaster to the next, ricocheting from one poor decision to an even worse one, God was bringing me to this evening, to those wheeling crows, to this desk and lamplight and silence. The white noise, the tinnitus of the world has died away.

Peace.

If you long for peace, here’s the news for today…. peace is found in only one place, in the knowledge and love of Jesus. He offers that peace and joy to everyone.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

When it comes….

When I first knew him my Scottish husband celebrated Hogmanay far more than he celebrated Christmas. It was just one of the many many differences between us. If he was wished Happy New Year even on New Years Eve he would reply, “Aye, when it comes.” His firm belief was that the greeting was appropriate only at mid-night and then for a few days afterwards, and he just couldn’t see that his reply seemed a bit parsimonious, sort of rationing the good wishes. He was a Glaswegian and one Christmas, in Derbyshire, he introduced me to the practice of first-footing, or the version of it that he had grown up with (customs change slightly in different areas); at midnight the first person to enter the house should be a man, dark-haired (not essential – he was blond) and carrying a bottle of whisky, with a coin in his pocket, a twist of salt, a piece of shortbread and a lump of coal. These things are supposed to bring financial and physical health, warmth, good food and good cheer for the coming year (dark-haired because that signified a Celt rather than a Viking). At a minute to midnight some one would leave the house and at the stroke of midnight return carrying all these goodies. The other hogmanay first foot tradition is to then go out and call on neighbours and friends, to share a drink with each one before going on to the next house with your bottle of cheer. Well, we were broke, but knowing how important it was to him, I had bought a bottle of whisky and produced it just before midnight, to his delight. We shared a tot (I hate the stuff) and then George said “Right, away we go, hen.” I wasn’t sure that anyone in Derby would understand this next bit of Hogmanay tradition but George was adamant “everyone knows about first-footing” so off we went to share the cheer with our neighbours.

Our immediate neighbour was Bill, a sweet widower, and when we knocked on his door he and his huge adult sons crowded to the doorway, full of laughter and beer, kisses and huge hugs. “Happy New Year!” said George, holding out the bottle. “Happy New Year” said Bill, and he took the bottle, gave George another big drunken kiss and then shut the door in our faces. The whisky was gone. We looked at each other, stunned. His lovely whisky! Gorn.

We returned home. Had a cup of tea. The next day Bill called over the fence “That was very generous of youse, George. Thanks a lot, mate. Happy New Year.” and my poor bloke smiled weakly and just about managed an unconvincing “Yes, good…. Happy New Year, Bill.”

I liked George’s toast at New Year “May the best of your old year, be the worst of the new.” but I’m not a fan of the celebrations. Tonight my bubble friends will come with an Indian meal, and they’ll be going early because they have dogs who hate fireworks so they want to be with them. I don’t want to see the New Year in, I’d much rather be tucked up in bed, but like my bubble pals, I have dogs who will be distressed, so I’ll stay up, have the music on loud-loud, hoping to drown out the racket as the sky explodes with colour and lightning bolts and all manner of whizz-bangs.

Warning: Tomorrow I will be hung over, not from booze but from a sleepless night and dog worries. Probably wise not to wish me Happy New Year in the morning, as a smack in the mouth often offends.

Hey – I was given a book for Christmas and it’s good stuff. Want to hear my favourite bit so far? No? Well, stop reading then, because here it comes:

‘..the image of Christ is the fulfilment of the deepest hungers of the human heart for wholeness. The greatest thirst of our being is for fulfilment in Christ’s image. The most profound yearning of the human spirit, which we try to fill with all sorts of inadequate substitutes , is the yearning for our completeness in the image of Christ.’ That’s from Invitation to a Journey by M.Robert Mulholland JR, expanded by Ruth Haley Barton

I love it when a writer is so desperate to get something across that they say it three times. I love preaching that says the same thing three ways, so that we walk around the subject, as if we’re walking around a person, we look at this way and then that, seeing this shadow and that plane, seeing it sideways, above, below, face on… we listen in 3D. I know just such a preacher and his stuff hits home, not a word is wasted, nothing -I think – forgotten.

I read that Mulholland text just last night, and this morning I had an email from a friend who has just finished reading my book. She was particularly pleased by how it ended (some wit out there is already changing that to ‘she was particularly pleased when it ended’). The last page covers the moment when, at 35, I suddenly, painfully, longed to know God, so her email and the Mulholland excerpt came together with real power for me this morning. This is the (shortened) email I sent in reply:

“That moment at the end of the book came just before we left for South Africa. When we arrived in Durban I went to the local Catholic Church but still I couldn’t reconcile my thoughts of God with the bribable god they seemed to promote. George could see this was important to me and we went together to meet the Catholic priest. This was a big big thing for George, who hated all religion and really couldn’t understand why I needed this crutch (as he saw it) but being a kind man he wanted to understand. Our marriage was very strained and maybe he just thought if I found a church to distract me things would improve! The priest was hopeless! Both George and me had a fit of the giggles as we left. At one point one of us had asked him a question that he couldn’t answer and instead he said something like “I have books about it, I have a book in the other room, it’s a very big book.“ That became a family saying for us, whenever we realised that we were making a statement that we couldn’t back up and might be wrong we would say “I have a book about it and it’s a very big book!“ And then we’d  both fall about laughing. I still couldn’t worship a God who was bribable, and I couldn’t pray to the dead or trust the confessional and I wouldn’t pray to Mary… So I was a bit lost. Anyway, shortly after this a Canadian woman came into our house bearing a plate of brownies. Her husband was the Baptist Minister and they lived a few houses away.’

That’s where I heard the Gospel for the first time, in a simple Baptist Church. What a great memory for New Year’s Eve. What a great reminder that the most profound longing of the human heart is the longing for God. And what a great reminder that when we look for God, we will find him. Even if he has to take us halfway across the world to make it happen. He stands at the door and knocks.

A few months later I accepted Jesus Christ as my God and my saviour. A few months after that my scientific, engineer, ‘no crutch needed here’ husband was also bowled over by the goodness and reality of God.

Happy New Year.

(when it comes!)

The me I didn’t expect

My church sent everyone a book of mediations for Advent, and the book was called “The Christmas We Didn’t Expect.” It’s not a great title but it’s a good book, a thought provoking read.

On Christmas Day friends came for dinner, friends who haven’t come into my home for months, due to Covid. One asked, of a picture, “Who painted that?” and said he couldn’t remember seeing it before, although it’s been up on my wall for the last 6 years. Another noticed a small ornament, a Derby Ram (I am, by adoption, a Derby woman) and asked if it was new. It, too, has been on its shelf in that same position, facing the same way, in splendid isolation for 6 years. Nothing has changed, but my visitors had a new awareness of what was once familiar. I wonder if we will see the world with new eyes when life returns to normal and I wonder, too, if we will be more appreciative. That would be a good outcome, eh? To return to normality really enjoying what we once took for granted – a hug, a hand squeeze, a meeting, a meal, singing together in worship, just being together. A crowded church, that’s one of the things I miss. I didn’t think I would, and I’m still a bit surprised that I do. Lumpy, bumpy, loud, shuffling, crowding, blocking-the-way-out, caring, kindly, hugely annoying people. I’ve always loved the sermon, and the worship, but not the stuff before the service and the stuff afterwards, the filling up of the pews and the noise….. and now I find, I miss it all.

I miss people. I really, really miss people. I was once called a ‘recluse’ by the lovely Melvyn Bragg, who must have met a few strange writers in his time and, although my friends all fell about laughing, I recognised there was a smidgeon of truth in the description. I was a solitary kind of character, on the outside looking in, living alone, sociable on occasion but self contained and distant most of the time. I didn’t then seek out the company of others as much as I now miss them, and I certainly didn’t appreciate people as much as I do now. I don’t know, of course, how long that will last and I hasten to add that I haven’t turned into Saint Theresa of Liseux, all upturned face and piety… I’m still disappointingly me. But softening around the edges a tiny tad.

Have you learned anything unexpected about yourself during this last strange year?

Now here’s another way in which I have changed recently, and something I certainly didn’t expect; I am, all of a sudden, nobility. I am, in fact, entitled to call myself Lady Lucy. I’m sure that you’re absolutely free to call yourself Lord Snooty or Lady Godiva, or even Count Dracula, so it’s no big shakes but I have an actual piece of paper saying that I have the right to use a noble title. Which you don’t have. So there.

Mad pals (the best sort) knowing that I refuse to have any more clutter in my life, decided I could tolerate a piece of paper. So now I have a piece of fake parchment emblazoned with a hokey coat of arms, and a certificate…. all procured from a website. These mad pals (the best sort) paid a few quid, and along with the title come 5 square feet of English soil (the best sort) in Cumbria. I don’t actually, I discover, own anything at all, but the plot is dedicated to me. Hmmm. Still, never mind the technicalities – this could prove to be a little gold mine, albeit a tiny tiny one. It’s on the shore of Coniston Water and I reckon that there’s gonna be a steady stream of income (pun alert) from the many walking parties who trek through those wild and wonderful fells. There’s nothing worse than desperately needing the loo in the middle of a loo-less land and I, Lady Lucy of Hougon Manor, can relieve (sorry) their dilemma. For a mere ten quid, they could use my porta- loo! All sorts of even more horrible puns are jostling in my head, but I’ll spare you.

That’s a Christmas gift I didn’t expect. And now I’ll spend the next year trying to explain to the gifters that no, it wouldn’t be fun to drive up there (5 hours?) and stand on the brackeny, uneven, probably soggy lump of mud. No, it wouldn’t be fun to stay in a B&B and trudge through driving rain trying to make sense of a very vague map. No, girls, listen to yer old granny, it would not be fun. But it’s great fun looking through the brochure, and a whole lot drier.

This is a strange week, isn’t it? Christmas is fading into the past, New Year is not quite here, we’re in lockdown and when you live alone there’s no set meal time, no conversation, no agreement that ‘we’ will do this today, or that we’ll consider doing that, the day stretches ahead, no one at the door, who cares if the washing-up isn’t done? I think if I didn’t have the dogs I could slip into lethargy very easily but they need their hour (minimum) on the beach, and feeding and watering, and games and the occasional cuddle. And I need my time with the Bible and my time in prayer and I really really need a sense of God’s presence but sometimes all these good things are a bit of a slog. You know?

On Christmas Day I listened to two married couples talking about their lives and as I listened I realised, with great clarity of thought, as if someone (!) was whispering it to me, that I could choose to feel horribly alone and lonely as they chatted, or I could choose to enjoy their obvious love for each other and thank God for their friendship. It was an important realisation and reminded me forcefully that my state of mind and my spiritual life always involve choice. Not always easy but God helps, God enables even at the hardest moment. It’s my responsibility to opt for joy, rather than the glums, so when the day seems shapeless it’s my responsibility to give it shape, when the hour seems empty, I can choose to give it meaning. It’s my choice to focus on the truth that God is in control, and God is always with me whatever my circumstances. That thought stayed with me, and resonated again yesterday when someone on Masterchef said “this is the most important day of my life” and I thought “that’s what every day should be for us – the day we get nearer to our God than ever before.”.

I realise now that we can’t be amazed by God and conscious of him in our lives, and yet be bored and aimless at the same time! It’s my choice which way I look, to the dark or to the light.

With all that in mind, it’s occurred to me tonight that I’m going to use this next 5 days, up to New Year’s Day, as a personal retreat time.

Immediately, I mean really immediately, I’m excited at the idea. All sorts of opportunities spring to mind – I’ll listen to David Suchet reading Isaiah. Oooh, and as I listen I’ll get out that adult colouring book and shade in the intricate patterns and lettering. Absorbing and peaceful. And I’ll play Bach’s Mass in B Minor as I make soda bread (and try not to cry at the Kyrie Eleison). And I’ll bare-foot paddle with God and my dogs and listen to the Psalms, in the rain and wind. I’ll make a daily study of Hebrews, following the Wiersbe commentary which I’ve had for a couple of years and never opened yet. And in the evening I’ll watch Fargo again for balance.

And suddenly I can’t wait for tomorrow. I might even go to bed now, at 11.25, so that I’m up bright and early.

This morning on the beach I sang “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will be glad and rejoice in it.” Isn’t it great when all your thoughts collide and you find a new reason to delight in God? To quote Hannibal Smith “I just love it when a plan comes together.”

Wonder of Wonders

This photo was taken in 1960, by the late Stanley Devon. I have it as my desktop picture and in that size, even more than here, it’s stunning. The shadows and the tenderness of the Child at Mary’s breast, the fascination and concentration of the two little boys…. there’s no artifice or glitter, just Christmas wonder.

It’s Christmas Eve! Tomorrow there will be actual people, actual friends, actual real flesh and blood people, actually walking into the house (and talking and laughing and all that stuff) to have their Christmas dinner here! They’re so brave (I am not a great cook) and I’m so happy. I have lovely, funny, dear pals who have formed a bubble with me for the last few months and we meet once a week but on Christmas Day we have permission to break the pattern and spread our wings a little and that’s exactly what we’re doing! Yay!

Right now I have all my old favourite Christmas songs playing – from Eartha Kitt to Perry Como, to Chris Rea. I’ve polished the table and dusted and hoovered, and chopped veg and worked out roasting times, and now I’m looking around for some other bigger and more … you know… heroic thing to do. If this was a 1950’s Hollywood film, I could shovel the snow off the pavement and build a snowman. Or chop logs or go ice-skating. But this is West Wales, and we don’t get snow very often – I can remember just two snowfalls in the 15 years I’ve lived here. Today it started off damp and stormy but now the sky is blue, with big billowing clouds, and there’s a nip in air, sharpening our senses and putting spring into the arthritic step. I’ve just delivered some goodies to a friends’ house and on the way drove past the supermarket – past all the packed cars queuing to go in and gridlocked cars waiting to go out. Madness. Lovely madness.

Does that sound as if I’m above it all? I’m as subject to Christmas excitement as anyone. I did all my food shopping on Tuesday but one of my guests tomorrow likes fish so, to make sure it was really fresh, I went back last night, at 9 o clock, when it was wet and windy and dark and only idiots would be out shopping (me). Where was the marble slab we see in the adverts, piled high with sea bass, mackerel, monkfish, scallops, prawns and lobsters? It was empty. The only fresh fish available was salmon. Bother, bother, bother. I wanted to do something special. But you know what? I enjoyed the experience of shopping in the dark, of feeling Christmassy, watching the woman in front of me with her trolley piled high, wondering who would chomp through the two very large boxes of cheese crackers and the three huge panettones.

A couple of years ago, in a sermon at our little red church, our Pastor mentioned that at the birth of Jesus, human history was split in two, that it was the essential fulcrum to everything that went before, everything that followed on. It was an aside, not the main point of the sermon at all, but that thought stayed with me, and I still marvel at it! Just think… he’s right…. even our calendar marks the birth of Jesus. All over the world we will write 2021 on January 1st, and that’s 2021 years (give or take a couple) since the birth of Jesus. (OK, in some parts they don’t use the Gregorian calendar but you know what I mean).

The more I think about Christmas, the giddier my thinking becomes. Wonderful giddy I mean, vertigo giddy, amazed giddy, not silly-ass giddy. Today I read something in a book by David Mathis that has me stunned;

“Jesus is forever the God-man. To put it in the apostle John’s language, the Word became flesh (John 1:14). His humanity isn’t a costume. The eternal, divine Son didn’t simply make a cameo appearance in the created word. He forever joined our humanity to his divinity and for all eternity will be fully God and fully man.’

The italics are in Mathis’ original text, but they’ve made my thoughts italicise too! He quotes several other Bible texts to support his statement and they are completely confirming – for example 1 Timothy 2:5 ‘There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. ‘

That jolly well excites me! It’s a bit like the moment when I realised that Jesus wasn’t created, but always was. The realisation that the second person of the Holy Trinity is fully human, even now, as well as fully God, is just mind blowing. Our Tridentine God, the divine LORD, his precious Son, and the Holy Spirit – do you get what that means? That means that we have a flesh and blood man waiting for us, a man who is love, a man who is God, a man who is sinless, who understands us totally, sharing our humanity, and loves us anyway.

It’s so lovely to think of the Christmas story, but our joy and gratitude goes much further than Bethlehem.. The nativity is not a sentimental fable that starts and ends in a stable with a mother nursing her baby – that’s just the first scene in a three act play. ‘the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.‘ The child became a teacher and leader, powerful and uncompromising, followed by thousands, feared by the authorities. He wasn’t soft and warm and fairy-tale sweet – he was revolutionary, an honest voice in a corrupt world. He turned accepted teaching on its head, trampled on hypocrisy, spoke for the poor, spoke against greed, faced the might of Rome and the jealousy of old men steeped in religion, and then he died for love. He died for love.

And one day we will be with him, in all his Godliness and all his humanity. What a wonder that is. Jesus is our Wonder of Wonders. I feel like those little boys gazing at the manger… rapt.

Happy Christmas. Here’s a little fat angel for you, from the top of my tree.

She’s been with me so long her leg is falling off, but you don’t need two legs when all you do is hang around. .

Handy tips for stockpiling lettuce

Just jesting.

There ain’t no lettuce? Does this mean certain death? Apparently so. Tell you what, I’ll get in the car and drive to the supermarket and queue up with a hundred others, breathing in their viral loads in exchange for mine. Lettuce, lettuce, we must have lettuce. What would Christmas be without it? Forget ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ because horses are everywhere. There’s three just down the road and a whole stables full of them up the road and two donkeys (which are nearly horses) live in a paddock overlooking the beach. Bill Shakespeare? What rubbish! He might have known all about battles and kings and that sort of stuff but where are his salad tragedies? Or even his salad comedies (because being British we smile through our tears)? Or his salad romances? Foolish Bill.

Are you as fed up with the hysteria and melodrama as I am? If I see another critique of the Government, one more word of whinging protest, one more ill-informed expert chuntering self-righteously on about conspiracy and the tier system and mutations….. I may have to kill someone. That would involve breaking social distancing so, to avoid the blood and mess, and some busybody reporting me to the rozzers, I’m not going to watch the news, or read the paper from now until Boxing Day.

There! Let’s see how long that resolution lasts.

Hey – it’s nearly Christmas! It’s jolly nearly Christmas! Yesterday was the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere, or maybe just in this bit of it. I can’t work these things out. Does that mean it was the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere? Who knows? But never mind all that – the point is, it’s nearly CHRISTMAS!

I watched an advent talk on RightnowMedia the other day, and it was very good – a clear and personable speaker with some inspiring thoughts, but he kicked it all off by linking the time we celebrate Christ’s birth with the fact that it’s winter. The speaker stood in front of a classic North American barn, in snow (maybe fake), and said “Winter is the time we set aside for our celebrations… the darkest part of the year… and this is intentional because …..” What? Intentional? We chose to celebrate the nativity in December because we get snow? Hang on, Sunshine, think about it – you’re speaking to us from Canada or America, where the snow may well be falling, but it’s also Christmas in South Africa, where it’s the hottest time of the year. We can be very parochial here in the northern hemisphere, as if there is only one culture – ours! I look at the countries where this blog has been read (39 so far) and I wonder about you all, from the US to China, Nepal, Bangladesh, The Philippines…. all over. What do you make of my burblings, I wonder? Are my English idioms strange and sometimes unfathomable? Or is it just that the British people are strange and unfathomable? When you read that there’s mass panic about lettuce, do you roll your eyes and shake your heads at our stupidity? If so, good for you. We’re a daft lot.

When I think of you, I pray for you. Sometimes I pray over one country, sometimes over my older readers, sometimes I pray for those of you who read only to improve your understanding of the English language, but mostly I pray for all of you because God loves you. I’m praying now.

Today I started my Christmas countdown. Each morning this week I’m going to read Isaiah 53 and then turn to one of the Gospels for the Christmas story. I think that this will be the perfect balance, joy but not giddiness, sorrow but not despair, birth and death and resurrection, prophecy and glorious victorious fulfilment. Today, after reading Isaiah and thinking about ‘a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’ (sometimes you can’t beat the King James translation) I went to the Christmas story in Matthew. I like the way he puts his cards on the table right away, saying “This is how the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, came about.” It’s a chatty sort of introduction, isn’t it? It invites us to mentally pull up our chairs, pin back our lugholes and drink it all in. And right there, at the top of the story, we have the statement ‘Jesus, the Messiah‘ and I sit at my table with my bible open and I just marvel! Isaiah and Matthew, 800 years apart, both witnesses to the greatest story ever told.

That’s a good start to any day. Isaiah and Matthew and me.

If I look back to the year when I came to faith in Jesus, I remember the two huge steps leading me to him – one was the thought of Jesus in Gethsemane and the other was the inherent oneness and authority of the Bible. When those two thoughts came together, I surrendered and by his grace believed. It was life changing to realise that, as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, everything that was about to happen to him, the arrest and torture, his death and even the post-mortem piercing of his side with a spear, was all foretold. But the heart breaking thought that links these two truths together, the Bible and the crucifixion, is that it was with a prophecy from Isaiah that Jesus began his ministry. He quoted Isaiah directly 8 times, and indirectly many more. A good Jew, Jesus knew the prophecies, he believed them, and still he walked towards the temple guards that night in Gethsemane.

He walked towards them for you and me, just as he was born, the Creator of all things, helpless, for you and for me.

How worried should we be?

I was struck by a headline in The Times today- “How worried should we be about the new strain?” and it seems to me we shouldn’t be. Worried, I mean. Being worried doesn’t do anything helpful at all. It simply exhausts us, drives us to bad and hasty decision-making, makes us tired and mean and self-centred. How worried should we be? Not at all. As an ordinary person living an ordinary life, not a scientist or a doctor or politician, my worry will achieve absolutely nothing helpful to anyone. We should be concerned, yes, and responsible, and listen with discernment, accepting the disciplines that will keep us as safe as it’s possible to be, and looking after each other, but….. worried? What’s the point?

Matthew 6:24, in the words of Jesus ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’

When does proper concern and responsibility turn into worry and anxiety? There are signs – continually thinking about the problem, unable to concentrate on anything else, talking about it over and over, guessing and calculating outcomes and strategies, circular thinking, finding sleep difficult, a raised pulse rate, headaches, tiredness, hopelessness. These are the results of worry, and all they do is weaken us – no wonder our Father tells us to STOP IT!

On the one hand we have God, the peace and trust he offers, and on the other….. we have 24hour rolling news, creating a perfect storm of rumour and conjecture, mostly born out of the need to get some new headline into every bulletin. It all conspires to give us the impression that the more we hear, the more we will understand, which is plainly ludicrous when even the expert’s understanding of this pandemic is changing almost hourly, when the restrictions change from day to day, and the confusion is global. There is so much communication now, so many people clamouring for information, so much changing data, that we are drowning in it. Our IT systems are alight with panic, Google went offline everywhere for four hours, the Welsh NHS statistics failed to record 11,000 tests, and conspiracy theories are raging. In Isaiah 8 God says

“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.”

He wasn’t referring to us in 2020 and the pandemic but the instruction holds true. Conspiracists create fear and suspicion and melodrama. None of those things are Godly.

What would this pandemic look like if we were not so devoted to the media and our screens? The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. On that very same day thousands upon thousands of children were evacuated from towns and cities, the areas most likely to be bombed, and sent to safer rural areas. In three days 1.5 million children were safely and efficiently evacuated, their records kept safe and their contact was maintained with their families, through letters and phone calls. Can you imagine that happening now? With all our fantastic instant communications, would we be capable of a consistent orderly and nationwide effort like that? Looking at our Covid response, I really don’t think so. Today’s culture, with its rumour mill, paranoia and fake news, produces only chaos and confusion.

I heard something this morning that resonates with me; God is in control of the people who are in control. Sounds simplistic? A bit Mickey-mouse? Like something out of Little House On The Prairie? Yep, but if we think about it, we discover at a deeper level, recognising the power and sovereignty of God, that he is indeed in control of those who are in control. That’s not to say that our leaders are always in the right, or that their systems are good, indeed some of them (naming no names) may even have evil or selfish intentions, but they are not in control of this world. Only God. Only God.

If we know that, really know it, and believe it, we won’t live in worry.

But we’re human and we slip into that anxious frame of mind sometimes, maybe experiencing a heightened emotional state, so that we’re soon fretting and complaining and dwelling on our own small disappointments. So how do we find peace when the rules change yet again and families are miles apart and their gifts are under the tree and the food we ordered is going to waste… when we’re missing the sight of those we love? How do we stop worrying when we think of our old people, and our sick people? How do we stop worrying once we’re on that horrible treadmill? We look to God. We look at God. We look to him for help, and at him for peace.

Really look at him. Look at his world, the gift of time – because this time will pass – all the gifts we have, the breath in our lungs, the sunshine, the rain, the gift of fire and the gift of water, the gift of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God! Think of the Holy Spirit, here, our Paraclete, with us, enabling us. That’s how we stop worrying, we turn to the Spirit of God and in him we put our trust. In Isaiah 51, the first verse, Israel is told

‘…look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn’

If you’re feeling swamped by worry, look to God. Recognise the difference between God and you. He’s in control. He doesn’t expect you to take over. He’s got your back. Nothing will happen unless he allows it, and he is for you.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Psalm 40:1&2

That’s when it happened!

I’m not moaning (read on) but Francis of Assisi never had to cope with this. Or the Desert Fathers… or Therese of Lisieux. They had other problems, I suppose. They lived before the world was full of jingles and YouTube and people who keep sending you daft jokes…. they lived before their heads could be crammed with uninvited clamour and crap, distracting them from lofty thought and deep contemplation.

When I was on the beach this morning (stifle that yawn) it was raining and blowing a hoolie and it was just magnificent! I stood there, leaning into the wind, bare headed and soaked in seconds, deafened by the roar of the sea, marvelling at the excitement, power and noise of the storm, and I shouted to God, there all alone, unheard by anyone but him, “Look! Look! And yet somewhere, in your fabulous world, there is sunshine.”

That’s when it happened! Into my head, completely uninvited, the Seekers came, all the way from the 1960’s, singing that most annoying, trite, silly song “Morningtown Ride”

“Somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is day
Somewhere there is Morningtown, many miles away”

You try getting rid of that simplistic la-la-laaaah when it’s in your head. Almost impossible. With it came the mental image of Judith Durham in her flowing boho dress, all smiley-hamster jolly…. surely enough to wipe the beatific smile off the grizzled face of any Desert Father? But the plinky-plonky song was such a surprise, there in my prayer time, that it made me laugh aloud. What should have been an annoying distraction was just delightful. I almost capered….

An unusual entrance to prayer, but it worked. It illuminated the bigger picture, so that I was somehow conscious of the experience of all mankind at any one moment in time – and aware that I couldn’t even begin to understand the miracle of this life. Somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is rain, somewhere a baby takes her first breath, somewhere someone takes their last, fortunes are made and lost, love is vowed and hearts are broken, the tide comes in, the tide goes out….

Wouldn’t it be great if we remembered that, when our shoes leak and the world seems to be against us? Life is change. The balance of love and life, good and bad, is beyond our management. Life shows us, daily, that we are not in charge, that a greater power than we can imagine holds all things together, but we struggle to realise it, and some of us never do. It’s taken me 70 odd years (some very odd).

Seasons come and go. It’s too easy to believe that where we are just now is where we will always be, but if you are down this Christmas, at the bottom of the sea, in the belly of the whale, you could be bubbling over this time next year. I hope you are. And, of course, because we are emotional creatures, I know that there will be seasons ahead when I’m the one groping around for joy, knowing it lies there, but struggling to grasp it, or submit to it….

This is a season of plenty for me. I am so grateful for it. I don’t own anything lavish, just a little house without a garden, with no views, sandwiched between others on a busy street, but I have plenty. I don’t have money in the bank, or a spanking limousine at the kerb, jewels or antiques, but I have plenty. I have moments on the beach, I have moments at my desk, I have friends and laughter, and oh, my friends, listen, listen, I have prayer. I have God. What more could anyone want? My life is so full of love, and humanity with all its faults (all my faults) that I just want to shout with joy and gratitude. How have I ended up here, approaching my 73rd Christmas, so very very joyful? By the grace of God. Nowt to do with me.

I’ve just this minute – promise, promise – had a text from a friend in Italy with a photo attached – Rome is bathed in golden light! Somewhere there is sunshine. Do you think God is reading this as I write?

I read the Gospel of Matthew last week, from the genealogy of Jesus at the start, to the words of Jesus at the end, “And surely I am with you to the very end of the age.” The part that grabbed me and kept me still for a while, was the Sermon on the Mount, and I am – again – so amazed that today, even today, you and me can hear the words of Jesus, we can enter into this great comprehensive massive mind-blowing sermon just as if we were there, at the time, listening, listening, wondering, in the dusty heat of the day….

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

How I love that. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” If you go to Matthew 7 and read that whole chapter you’ll see that this promise covers so much – God’s love, and his grace, his forgiveness, his lack of judgment (acceptance), his provision, and the gift of eternal life… poured into your lap.

I know I will sometimes forget to be joyful. But maybe if I take this day, and commit it to my mental hard drive, I’ll remember to think beyond my circumstances, to be more aware that God is in control and that when life is difficult he still is in control, and when grief threatens to overwhelm us, he is still in control, and when the day is dark and the storm is defeating us, he is still in control. And that somewhere, there is sunshine.

I hope that you are all full of joy as you read this, but if you aren’t, don’t give up. Even the hard times are good. How amazing is our God that not only did he create mankind, but he gave us minds that are capable of reaching beyond space and time, he gave us imaginations and a hunger for knowledge, he gave us the ability to love and care. He gave us the ability to understand that when it’s raining and we’re drowning, God is good and he holds all things together, where there is rain there will be sunshine, where there is night there will be day.

I’ve told everyone that I don’t want any Christmas gifts. Positively not. Absolutely not. I’m determined that when I die my house will be cleared in one morning, so I don’t want any more clutter, Nothing. NOTHING. I have everything I need and more. So no gifts.

Except, perhaps, one of these…

It’s a photo nicked from The Times