Do you play ‘go to sleep games’? When I’m awake at three am and as far from sleep as anyone can be, I play all sorts of mental games. There’s the ‘Choose ten ideal guests for your last supper’ game. And ‘Ten people you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with’ and the less loving ‘Ten people stuck in a lift plummeting down 100 floors’ game and ‘If you can have only three meals before you die, what will they be?’ and… well, you get the idea.
The other night, as the hours ticked by, the game morphed into something a bit more arty ‘If you could hear only one song ever again, what would it be?’ (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes) If you could have only one book (apart from the Bible) until you die, what would it be (The Complete Works of PG Wodehouse) ‘If you could have only one picture on your wall as you died, what would it be?’ and that’s when I remembered a silly little image that means the world to me. You can keep your Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Lowry, Manet, Stubbs, the whole marvellous lot of them. If I had only one image on which to feast my eyes between here and eternity, it would be this.
OK. As you’ve asked, I’ll jolly well tell you why:
In 2015 I entered a little red church in a spirit of happy rebellion, just to prove my point that church is crap and no one ‘gets’ God quite like I do. If you’d asked me then why I was bothering I’d have told you that I was going to stop friends nagging, so that I could turn to them and say ‘Tried the church lark yet again! No good, yet again!’. Because God and me, we’d come to an understanding. Way back I’d invited God into my life and since then we’d rubbed along OK and I didn’t need anyone else telling me anything about Him because, hey, I’d been there and done that and I knew everything that the church and its sheep were ever going to bleat. Everything. Cliché ridden simpletons. Bless.
Yep, my dumplings, that’s how arrogant I was (am?). But that morning there was a sermon and it was thoughtful and thought provoking. Which really annoyed me. It was almost as if this bloke knew more than I did, understood more than I did, had something I didn’t have. Crikey. How could that be? Tsk.
What did I hear in that sermon that changed my life? Why did that Sunday mark a new start? It’s a very simple little church, a bit shabby, a bit crowded, the pews are old, the people look ordinary… really, no big shakes . I didn’t get the feeling that these people were going to change the world but neither was there anything I could object to (much as I wanted to). Thankfully there was no huge ‘come to the front and be saved, you sinners!’, no showmanship or showbiz charisma to make my tight English heart squirm, just a simple sermon, clear and strangely compelling, and at the end, as the people stood to go, came a benediction, not a priestly bestowing of a ritualistic form of words, but an encouraging reference to the sermon we’d just heard: We are called to live a holy life. Are you living a holy life?
It was almost like this bloke cared. As if !
As if !
Are you living a holy life? The sermon was so fresh in my mind; God’s way the best way, the best way to live, a holy life is one dependant on God, desperately dependant. Was I living a holy life?
That question changed everything. I heard my thoughts answer ‘No, but I want to.’ and at that moment I did want to, I wanted to with all my heart and soul. I hadn’t known about the possibility of living a holy life. I thought that was for all them others. Yes, you lot out there. Everyone but me. My past was stained and broken, and had been stained and broken since I was 7 years old and helpless to escape it. I had always believed that I would carry that damage and shame into eternity. I believed in God, I knew that I was saved by the sacrifice of Christ, but as for being holy…. nah. Not me. It never crossed my mind.
I’m a writer. I can’t hear any conversation without looking for the subtext, seeing who’s playing what role, what’s really going on, sensing the emotional currents, the political dances. It makes for cynicism, for black humour (ten people in that plummeting lift), irreverence, rebellion, stark and uncomfortable honesty. I don’t believe even half of what I hear and I don’t waste time pretending to. Wow. What a difficult personality.
I had written myself off, that’s the truth of it, because of who I had chosen to become. I had chosen to be an observer of life, not a participant. It kept me safe. Isolated and safe. Two fingers up to the world.
Christian friends told me that I needed the fellowship of church, but forget it! I was doing OK. I prayed a bit. On and off. I told people I was Christian. I even glanced at the Bible occasionally. And for crying out loud, I’d been brought up Catholic – I knew so much! Can you recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Credo in Latin? No? Well, I could (still can). So what could any church tell me that I didn’t already know? Keep your rotten old boring church. Who needs it? But I knew I needed something. What a mess. And so I ended up in church that day.
When I heard that holiness was possible, my life changed. But how? I mean, what? I mean… I was bemused and intrigued. All these ordinary people in these ordinary uncomfortable pews, they were holy, were they? Come onnn….
Wanting to hear more, I started to attend church week in and week out. Over some time I began to understand that God is love, that He’s straight and pure and uncompromising but He’s love. And I wanted to turn away from the person I had made and become the person He wanted me to be. The process was painful and 2016 became a time of real upheaval and distress. This church thing, far from making my life easier, was turning it upside down.
Should I continue working? Writing? Was this what God wanted me to do? It didn’t seem like it because I lost the desire to write almost overnight After 35 years of feverish creativity! So should I do something really different? Many years before I had gone to Bible School for a term but I was just accompanying my late husband who was the full time scholar, and all I was able to do was attend one study a week. I had loved it! Loved it! I’d loved the study, but also the worship, the discipline, the ethos, the structure, the culture of the place. When my husband left the course I was heartbroken. Now, in this fresh start, was God telling me to go back to this environment? How lovely that would be! I started a distance learning course but right at the start I was told that at my age this would be difficult, that the other student, at 18, would find it much easier. I was defeated and discouraged. I felt slow and stupid, no longer a writer, no longer a Mum and Nana, suddenly I was old and past it. Until that day I had never felt old. Now, thank you, church, I was ancient.
When you’re not working, and you don’t have a boss or a timetable, and no one needs you, there’s nothing to shape your days. That should be liberating but it meant I had nothing to keep me here and nothing to send me anywhere else. Real freedom is bewildering. When you can go anywhere but there’s absolutely nothing to point you in any one direction and nothing to hold you back either, and no one who gives a damn, the next step becomes nigh on impossible. So many possibilities, and no direction. What was I to do?
I wanted to understand and be filled with the love of God, to have that one-to-one relationship with Him that the word promised. But I’m not a churchy person (you’ve noticed?) and I have a whole load of baggage, and I don’t do social occasions, or crowds, and I don’t get this ‘say the right thing anyway’ thing. They weren’t my kind of people, these Baptists. They’re not writers or actors, or can-do producers, or eccentric directors, they don’t sit up into the night drinking and smoking and talking and laughing. They don’t live hand to mouth, filthy rich one week and broke the next. They don’t hoot with laughter at some absurdity, they’re not flamboyant and bonkers. They don’t play with words and act out anecdotes. They’re sane. Sane. They’re not my sort of people. I was a stranger in a foreign environment and I couldn’t do this. And I had never felt old before. Never. And suddenly there I was, treated like a 97 year old, and when I wondered what I should be doing now I was advised to bake cakes. Something, I felt, had gone drastically wrong with the me-ness of me. Who the hell was I?
And that’s when, in all this turmoil and uncertainty, I downloaded the cartoon image of someone digging a hole.
Because my Pastor had suggested reading the story of Elisha.
I didn’t know. I read the story of Elisha and puzzled over it. Where was the parallel? What was he going on about? Why all the riddles? I wanted to give my life to Christ – just tell me what to do, someone!
Do you know about Elisha? Israel (the people, not the country we know now) were marching towards a distant land and had run out of water, the whole army dying of thirst. As they camped in a dry valley they were surrounded by a subjugated peoples, the Moabites, who saw their chance to defeat Israel. But Elisha was with the Israelites and he was a man of prayer, and it came to him (God told him) that they should fill the dry valley with ditches, saying that although there was no rain, those ditches would be filled. Elisha, being a good and obedient bloke, told the king, and the ditches were dug, all over the valley. These ditches didn’t make sense, even Elisha didn’t know what God was going to do, but he listened and was obedient to God’s prompting. That night God filled the ditches with water, the people and the animals had their thirst slaked and in the morning the Moabites were defeated.
Elisha was an amazingly obedient and faithful man. He lived by faith. He obeyed. He trusted. He dug ditches. As I looked up his life story in commentaries, I began to understand that the first thing I had to do was listen. Listen for God and to God. And the second thing I had to do was trust Him. And then the third things I had to do was obey Him. Hah! Easier said than done, my little fruit loops.
What would be my version of digging ditches? It’s taken me some time to understand, fully fully but I’m getting there. The ditches I have to dig are in the Word of God. That’s where I will find guidance, and obedience, and holiness. Not in me. Not in my fabulous cleverness and ability and me-ness. In His Word. In Jesus. Not in the church or the geography of where I live, not in head knowledge, not in being needed and relevant and capable, but in simply loving the word of God. Opening myself up to it. Surrendering to His teaching. And He will do the rest.
Be still and know that He is God. Open the Bible in expectation, knowing that right here there is living water, eternal water for the soul. And maybe, just maybe, when you wake up, the valley will be filled.
I started to read the Word expecting to hear the word of God. And slowly but surely….. life giving, free flowing, cascading water. Enough to slake my thirst for ever.
A week ago I was given a book, and it’s all about how we approach the Bible, how we submit to its teachings, how we begin to understand, fully comprehend, that it is a living and fiercely relevant intrusion into our life today. Today.
Here’s a fabulous sentence from it: The Word of God is the action of the presence, the purpose, and the power of God in the midst of human life. (Shaped By The Word, M Robert Mulholland Jnr)
As I thought about that this morning, reading and re-reading, I saw again this image, the comical image, of someone in way-deep, in over her head, still digging… it makes me smile every time I see it. I think of Elisha. I think of God. And I see me, deep in the mud, digging and digging. In over my head.
Humbled, digging deep, digging for treasure. And every day, every blinking day, I find it.
Here’s that pic again, because you can never have to much of a good thing.
God is good. Together we are discovering who I am and who He intended me to be.
God is good.
PS I still play the ‘ten people in a plummeting lift’ game (not ever so holy yet, then).
PPS And I still don’t bake cakes.