For crying out loud!

Sometimes, like a really surprising and delightful gift, we find a new insight into something we thought we already knew. It’s as if an unseen companion whispers to us “But, wait… have you not realised…. think a little more about this……” and then we find a new thought or a deeper understanding of an old thought, and the moment makes us chuckle aloud, or catch our breath, or stand still in a busy street, lost in wonder.

Here’s the thing that made me stand stock-still in awe this week (I may grope around a bit trying to explain it, so be patient). It’s something you will already know, but it won’t do any of us any harm to be amazed by it all over again. So, like I say, be patient with me:

Jesus the man knew what it was to live in total submission to the Divine, Jesus the man was totally one with God, filled with the Holy Spirit, perfect in his humanity and perfect in his divinity, perfect in submission to his future, his sacrifice. ‘Submission’ is a wonderful word to describe this moment – Christ was under his mission, sub-mission, and his mission was the Gospel, his mission was to show the love of God by dying for humanity, and the power of God by defeating death.

As he rode a donkey’s colt towards Jerusalem, he was aware of the politics, of those who wanted him dead, and of their power and malice. His disciples and his brothers had warned him often enough and he knew at first hand how the Jewish leaders schemed and tried to trick him into what they would call blasphemy. As a good Jewish rabbi he knew the prophecies about those next few days, his death. As God he knew that he would be betrayed and killed. As man he knew that his mother and his friends would be distressed, lost, broken hearted. Jesus the man knew only too well what execution meant – the savagery of it, the brutal scorn, the blood and pain and the lingering agony. The mockery, the spitting, the jeers and the humiliation. He had seen many crucifixions – the common currency of Roman power in that occupied territory.

That day, as he rode towards his death, we can have little understanding of the emotions and thoughts and prayers that must have crowded his mind. All around him were his followers – a motley crew of vagabonds and shepherds, samaritans, healed cripples, cured lepers, those who had begged for years, the once-mad, the tax collectors and, of course, some pious men and women who had waited for the Messiah faithfully and saw now that Jesus was indeed the fulfilment of all that had been promised…. and I’m sure that alongside and mixed in with these disciples was a great crowd of needy, noisy, misfits. Like the very worst English football fans, a mob of fickle rabble-rousers, hotheads, ready to shout his praise one day and bay for his blood the next. No wonder the religious leaders were offended by all the enthusiasm and clamour.

Luke tell us that ‘ When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

When I’ve read that in the past I’ve read on, unthinking. But this last week or so the words of Jesus have taken on a whole new depth and reality for me. If that noisy mob had fallen silent, if his disciples had stopped claiming him as Messiah, would his story have been lost? Would he have slipped into history unnoticed? No, because Jesus knew, even as he was facing the terrors of torture and death, that this was the greatest story that will ever be told. He understood as both a man and as God that this was a story of triumph and joy, that as he rode to pain and disgrace he rode to glory.

I think that as Jesus said those words “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” there was laughter in his voice, there was energy and defiance in his words, restrained excitement… this was it.. this was it… in a few short days the story would be done…. bring it on!! There was more than submission and obedience, there was the joy of submission, the power of obedience. Those words were a declaration of the power of the Gospel, that it cannot be silenced.

It cannot be silenced. After two thousand years or a million thousand years, it cannot be silenced. The stones will cry out. What a triumph! What an amazing heart stopping, mind blowing triumph!

Go, Jesus, go! Tell ’em! If every single one of your disciples falls silent, the stones will cry out.

I suppose that’s what we are trying to do, isn’t it? We’re telling the story, singing the praise, shouting out in adoration, because it’s a story that can’t be silenced. And even when it’s just too glorious for words, and we’re lost and dazed and unable to voice his goodness, no worries, Luce, because the stones DO cry out… they do! The sea praises him, the sky, the hills, the air we breathe…

Psalm 19:1-4 (TPT)

God’s splendour is a tale that is told,
    written in the stars.
    Space itself speaks his story
    through the marvels of the heavens.
    His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky,
    showing his skill in creation’s craftsmanship.
Each day gushes out its message to the next,
    night by night whispering its knowledge to all—
without a sound, without a word, without a voice being heard,
 yet all the world can hear its echo.

I can hear its echo. Can you?

At times like this

At times like this, when my heart is feeling a bit sad (allow for British understatement) it’s all too easy to keep sliding down, down down down, in the belly of the whale (that’s a saying I’ve adopted from one my most treasured lessons of all time, Jonah). And that’s a tad boring. So when it all looks bleak and lonely, and lost, I intentionally find pleasure and peace in the little things. The precious little things.

I have a friend who, like me, loves coffee, but while I toss a capsule into my humming, snarling, clunking machine and bung some milk into the noisy microwave, he has a proper and altogether calmer way of doing things: he enjoys the gentler, more thoughtful ritual of making his morning coffee properly, grinding the beans, boiling the water, and then, in the peace that ensues when the only sound is the faintest trickle of coffee filtering through the beans, he savours the aroma. And, of course, to continue the theme, he drinks it black, unsweetened, like a proper grown-up, probably gazing out at the sky and the fields, while I add a spoon of sugar and a dollop of cream to mine and slug it down as I gather the dogs and try to remember where my car keys are. Coffee isn’t one of my rituals but there are others….

I bet we all have our little rituals, those special parts of the day when we relax into the moment, appreciating it fully, savouring the simplicity and the familiarity. I think they’re more than moments of peace, they’re moments of prayer, when we can slip sideways into a holy space.  

One of my rituals (I don’t have many, too scatter-brained) is the simplest of all; peeling an apple. 

It takes me back, every single time I do it, to an understanding of God’s amazing plan of renewal for all living things, to wonderment at the perfection of an apple, to gratitude for lunch (it’s usually lunch) and to a visual sort of ‘ahhhh!’ as I see the peel curling and falling and twisting. Lovely! 

And then I get to eat it … and then I eat the peel! So why do I peel it at all? Just for the moment. Just for the tiny tiny pause and the delight of that curling pink peel. Just because. Just as my pal could make coffee more speedily if he chose to, and just as I could choose to bite into the apple whole, these little moments feed our souls, slow us down, opening another tiny chink in our day to remember God.

Another satisfying ritual for me is putting on a new pair of socks. It is! I savour the moment as my friend savours his coffee. Feel that lovely cool cotton… or that cosy wool…. There’s something about new socks, fresh from their packet, that is very very satisfying. And we don’t have to say a formal ‘thanks for this food and drink and these socks’, because the ritual has become our Grace. The ritual places us where we want to be, in a pocket of time and space when we can remember, by God’s grace, that this is a gift from God, that he has given us this moment, whatever it might be for you. 

Whether we live in a palace or a tent (or, temporarily, the belly of a whale), these little moments are there for us, they may be in the tearing of bread, in reaching out for the hand of someone we love, in sewing the perfect seam. Our lives are sprinkled and sparkled with these moments, we just need to  slow down and savour them, to remember who gives them to us. Then we will find joy.

Allsorts

I finished reading the Gospel of Luke yesterday and started on John this morning, maybe my favourite and most often prayed verse in the whole Bible ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’

What a first line! Boom! Take that! Sock it to ‘em, John! 

I wonder if we can see a hint about the personalities of the writers in the way they begin their accounts of the life of Christ? Matthew has the most exact and dutiful beginning to his history – a beginning that reveals the genealogy of Jesus, painstakingly proving who Jesus was before anything else at all! I can imagine him thinking ‘This might be a bit boring – but hard cheddar – they need to know!’ I think he might have been an exact sort of person, a book-keeper, someone who would catalogue a library, weed a flowerbed, iron a towel. And then there’s Mark who sets the whole thing off with a reminder that Jesus’ coming was already foretold, and that John the Baptist was his herald. I think Mark was an engineer at heart, satisfied when a machine worked as it should, contented when a process was complete, and so delighted that Jesus was the perfect fulfilment of prophesy – showing it clearly in those first few words, staking a claim to Jesus as the promised One. Both Matthew and Mark make their first statement a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Strong, eh? 

On we go into Luke who kicks the story off with quite a long explanation of who John the Baptist was and why he’s important to the understanding of everything that followed. Maybe Luke was a teacher at heart, wanting to do more than just tell a story, to lay the foundations for that story, to cement it into a context before anything else, so that his pupils would not just have a vague ‘kinda-knowledge’ of Jesus, but a complete understanding.  A bit like hearing a sermon in the middle of a sermon-series, when the sermon starts with a re-cap of what we’ve discovered so far, and a summary of what we’re going to look into today. Clarity.

And then we get to John’s Gospel with the most wonderful opening of any story ever. I think John was a single minded, dedicated, focussed, determined, probably quite scarily intellectual, sort of thunderer. I quite like John. I get him. Or I get who I think he might have been. A solitary soul maybe, not great at small talk, the sort to speak the truth bluntly. No pussy-footing around. I can imagine the others thoughtfully working out where their audience (us) would need to join the story, and John not even having to give it a thought. Bang! Take that! Straight in!  Of course John, too, goes on to tell the story of John the Baptist, acknowledging by its inclusion its importance but first he goes straight to the power and glory and the magnificence of God. I love that! Spot on, John – first the praise. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus, the Word. He was in the beginning. That’s the start of the story. 

When the Cosmos was breathed into being, Jesus. When our small Universe was spun out of space, Jesus. When the world was created, Jesus. Before he was conceived in Mary, Jesus.

Each one of the Gospels begins long long before they all begin. Out of time. The story of Jesus begins before there was a beginning. John, thank you, I get it.

And now from the sublime to the ridiculous – I have a lovely pink fridge. It’s one the simple things that makes me smile. Here it is:

When visitors see it for the first time they either wince (mostly the blokes) or they are amused, or they say “I want one!’

I do love it! But when I move house I have to leave it behind so yesterday I cleaned it. Oh, boy! Talk about judging a book by its cover and all that. Inside, when I’d taken out all the food and bottles and jars, it was shocking! I was very glad I was cleaning it on my own because I would have been mortified for anyone else to see the grubby innards. And as I sprayed and washed and wiped and struggled to get the damn glass shelves back in (there’s a knack, and I am knack-less) I remembered that phrase from Jesus to the Pharisees ‘whitened sepulchres’. I think my fridge was a pink sepulchre. I wondered if that’s what life is… looking one thing and being another thing entirely.

My house isn’t clinically clean, and I’m not house proud, but it’s… you know… OK. But still, when it went on the market I somehow knew there were jobs to be done… wash this and wipe that and clear out the rammel, and tidy the odds and sods and extend the feather duster to reach up into the high high ceilings, and hose down the tiny courtyard, and… and… and… I realised that my home always looked cleaner and tidier than it really was. Like me.

Hah! Good job God loves me. Good job he can see all my grubby messy corners and loves me anyway. Good job we can come as we are. That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? It’s not from the Bible, but it’s been adopted by churches all over the world. This is a photo I used in a magazine I used to edit….

But ‘Come as you are’ can be misunderstood. That’s why I love the phrase underneath that image ‘Real people, real God, real life change.’ (although I think the God bit should come before the people bit, just to be picky)

God brings change. We come to him as we are, and then he works his wonderful miracle, and bit by tiny teeny bit, we learn what it is to be Jesus. We don’t transform. He transforms us. No bleach required! No scrubbing. Just God.

Imagine what a mess I would make of it if I had to transform myself. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I look back and see what a mess I was without Jesus. Week by week I scrubbed away in the confessional, I bleached with Rosary beads, I scoured and scrubbed. And all I ever needed was Jesus.

Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28 

Oh! Hang on! Listen, no – really, listen. It’s just occurred to me to include this; I long to pray with other people, but I find it very difficult. I long to praise God and to just share my great happiness, but there’s no one to do that with, and I just find the inability to speak out his praise frustrating! Really really frustrating. I can’t do it to a church and I live alone… so what will I do? Well, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about Luke (yep, reading the book three times in three weeks has an effect!) and one incident keeps coming to mind – we find it Luke 19, verses 39-40

When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

And thinking about what Jesus meant when he used those words, I came to the conclusion that as he was going down into Jerusalem, towards his death, Jesus was telling us that this is the story that cannot be unspoken. It’s a truth that can’t be silenced. It’s the greatest and only truth we need to know and all his creation declares it. Two thousand years later, here we are still telling that truth, still shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Or we should be. I should be. And I know now that I can’t be silent. I’m still not sure what the next step is, but until I find it, I’m inviting you to join me in prayers on a YouTube channel. It’s not fancy, I’ve given up trying to cope with iMovie editing after two weeks of trying, so it’s just a simple prayer, a couple of minutes long, maybe once or twice a week, or as God leads. I want to joyfully praise God. Nothing clever. Just the sky and the sea and a few words. You can find me and join me on

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEnwIDv9YzgA5FhaT4pwKyg/featured

But even if you never join me, I have to praise my God. I have to speak those words into the world, and if only the sea hears me, or the sky, I still have to praise him. Or I’ll burst. And no one wants that.

You have been warned!

Before dramas are shown on TV there are often warnings to us tender and delicate viewers about the content, so that as we settle down gleefully to watch the latest mutilation of a gangster, or a terrified woman being chased through a dark forest, or the slow strangulation of a blackmailing villain by some other villain, we can judge whether or not we might be ‘distressed’.

Hmmmm. It’s a joke, surely? When that drama is about to revel in the portrayal of murders, or rapes, assaults, torture, cruelty, dishonesty and betrayal, how cynical is it to broadcast this meaningless warning? When they are about to treat us as if we are hardened psychotics with no tender sensibilities at all, why do they first nudge us coyly, as if we were sweet little old ladies who have never stepped beyond our lacy boudoirs? 

‘This programme contains content some viewers may find distressing.’

No kidding? I don’t tune in for these things any more. Unless I can see the purpose and point of a drama, I don’t want to waste my time with it. It’s a bit like books – there are too many of them! It’s a bit like words – there are billions of the damn things (and here I am adding to them. Oops) There’s only a short life to be lived and I’ve already had my fill of crap films and pointless books. I need to know the motive and the moral behind the stuff that I allow to enter my head because I know that what I hear and see influences me, whether I want it to or not.

Even when the motive behind an image or story is clear and worthwhile, and I maybe need to take it on board, the poignancy can be unbearable. It might be a sign of my age that I find even mildly distressing scenes too much to bear – those ads for the donkey charities in the Middle East? Too distressing. The realisation that Wally the Walrus is only three years old and is bewildered and lost, rather than funny and extrovert? Too distressing. 

When my husband, a quiet and macho Scot (made in Scotland from girrrders) became a Christian, he turned overnight – literally overnight – into a great big softie. It happened one night as he slept and it took us both by surprise. We used to joke that afterwards he could weep at the puppy on the Andrex advert, but that was a bit of an exaggeration. He certainly wept whenever an athlete stepped up onto a podium to receive a medal, when the news showed a child rescued from a burning building, when a friend was diagnosed with cancer. And he wept to think of the death of Christ. I should add, for the sake of openness, that George was not a silent weeper. It was not a dignified experience for him or those who were with him. He was snorter and a choker, an enthusiastic nose-blower. He wept like the wind section of an orchestra tuning up.  

This morning, for the second time in two weeks, as I listened to David Suchet reading the book of Luke, I stopped the recording at chapter 22, verse 53. I hadn’t intended to stop it there again but I couldn’t bear to go on. To read how Jesus was bullied and beaten, spat upon, tortured? After reading about his life, and hearing his voice, wondering at his steadfastness and kindness and his uncompromising truth, after just plain enjoying his company for weeks…. to see again all those terrible scenes? My Lord and my God going through all that? I’ve loved reading Luke so much that I’m about to start it again for the third time in as many weeks, but I didn’t want to go beyond Gethsemane. Coward, eh?

Just a few minutes later, having put my phone away, as I was praying, I found myself saying ‘Thank you that you died for us’ and that brought me up short.

‘Thank you that you died for us.’ What a glib and dutiful thing to say. What a recital. I think that sometimes I need to listen on as the terrible story is told, to think about Jesus walking through that olive grove to meet his brutal death, knowing absolutely what that death would be. I need to think about these things.

But that’s hard. Yep. No one said that Christ following would be easy. The story of Jesus Christ is not a cosy and comfortable one. It’s a stirring, rousing, edge-of-the-seat thriller, a heartbreak and a triumph. We need to embrace all those aspects to understand how great our God is. How precious we are to him. The price he paid for us. Non Christian sceptics and cynics will sometimes call our belief ‘a fairy tale’. Oh! If they only knew! Of all the stories in the world, of all the histories of man, the true story of Jesus Christ is the most heart breaking, the hardest and the most wonderful. And it costs us to embrace it, it costs us to read on. There is a cost to belief. It ain’t no fairy tale.

Step into the pages of the Bible, that wonderful and life-giving miracle, but be warned, it isn’t a story for the faint hearted. Don’t think that it’s going to be easy. It will bring you to tears, but they will be wonderful tears of gratitude and praise and indescribable longing for the God who died for us.  

He was oppressed and harshly mistreated;
    still he humbly submitted, refusing to defend himself.
    He was brought like a gentle lamb to be slaughtered.
    Like a silent sheep before his shearers,
    he didn’t even open his mouth.
By coercion and with a perversion of justice
    he was taken away.
    And who could have imagined his future?
    He was cut down in the prime of life;
    for the rebellion of his own people,
    he was struck down in their place.
They gave him a grave among criminals,
    but he ended up instead in a rich man’s tomb,
    although he had done no violence nor spoken deceitfully.

Isaiah 53:7-9

1966 and all that….

In 1966, when England was in the final of the football World Cup, I was an 18 year old lance corporal in the Royal Military Police. There was only a handful of women in the unit (150 Provost Company) and many more men, gnarled and experienced, having served all over the world in the theatres of war. I was the youngest member of the company, newly arrived from training, after 5 years at a convent school. Not your average MP!

Guess who was on duty that afternoon, all alone, the only super hero maintaining law and order in Catterick Garrison while the match of all matches was played? Yep. Of course…. who else but muggins? There was no internet in those days, no TV in the duty room, just me and a bank of phones and my tiny tinny transistor radio to keep track of the score. The whole of Catterick was deserted, roads silent, our car park mysteriously emptied of its usual Land Rovers and staff cars…. but of course the duty roster was full….. so where were they all? They were crowded into the Military Police mess (a sort of bar and club house a mile away) noisily watching the game. Where else would they be?

Just before the end I gave up trying to follow the commentary, the radio reception too poor, but I soon knew when it was over; All over Catterick, a military township of thousands of squaddies, there were horns sounding, cheers, drums beaten, cars bedecked with flags came roaring past the unit and a steady stream of police vehicles returned full of my triumphant, noisy, flushed, ecstatic colleagues. Bunny Hare, the duty sergeant, came in banging out a tattoo on the high custody desk, and behind him the rest of them crashed in, in a Congo line, chanting ‘England! England!’ and other slightly ruder chants.

It’s a lifetime ago. So much has changed, the world is unrecognisable, and so am I. Of course on Sunday it will be only the Euros final, not the World Cup, but I’ll be there, glued to the telly, alone again but hearing and shouting and fretting with the rest of them, and texting my Italian friend, Salvatore, who will be watching it in Rome. Tonight he texted me ‘Is football coming home or is it coming Rome?’

He’s such a funny guy. He even makes jokes and rhymes in English. The bloke’s a priest so I know he’ll be offering up prayers, but then again, so will I.

Let’s see if God really is an Englishman!

Tonight I have a terrible tension headache.

But it was worth it.

Something like this!

I don’t know why….

but this cartoon tickles my funny bone;

How am I? Oh, filled with hopeless longing… and you?

I do love the silly world-weary bleakness of that caption.

Maybe I’ve thought of that today because it’s grey and wet and cold here in West Wales and on a day like this it’s so easy to be filled to the brim with hopeless longing. But we have a choice. We do have a choice.

 Keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always. Phil 4:8 (TPT)

Easy peasy, eh?

No. It’s not. It takes some small degree of humility and a dollop of trust, and a smidgeon of discipline, and a whole HEAP of grace to fasten your thoughts on God when your mind is wandering off on its own sweet way. I know, my friends, because I am that soldier!

I’ve been clearing out a load of old paperwork ready to move house and this afternoon I came across a bulging envelope and I tipped it out onto the table, expecting to see ancient receipts or bills and invoices. Instead there was a small mountain of condolence cards sent to me after George died. Frankie and I sat and read through them, and I could see that she was fascinated, trying to make a connection with the grandad she never knew. I was about to write that it was ‘a bitter-sweet’ experience but there was no bitterness at all – although the sweetness was there in plenty and of course it brought along with it some sadness, a reminder of grief.

It’s nearly 30 years since I read those notes; some were from friends who knew us both and they were full of humour and fondness, remembering us together, and then there were notes from people who knew George but not me and they told me what he meant to them, to his team. And then there were the notes from my colleagues, who didn’t know George at all but knew what he meant to me. All of them, of course, written in shock because his death was so sudden and unexpected, and as we read card after card, letter after letter, the echo of that shock crept into this room, so many years later. It was as if George was there, or maybe his hologram, with all who knew and loved him walking around him, their words and affection bringing him to life again. And there in the middle of all the notes was his passport, his Army records, his CV. , even a treasured cassette tape with his voice, waiting for me to find some way to play it. Or will I? Ever? Will I ever be able to bear the sound of his voice again? It’s in my head as I write this, his broad Scots, his energy and lilting laughter, but could I bear to hear it again, in this world when he is in another, unreachable?

Nope. I reckon I’ll not be listening any day soon. But I’m glad we had those few minutes, Frankie and me, confirming who George was and what he meant to the world and a reminder too, of where he is now. It made me think of those Andrew Gormley statues on the edge of the sea up there in wherever-it-is, poignantly titled ‘Another place’.

So, the choice is simple – to wallow or not to wallow? That is the question.

I choose to think of the authentic and real, not on the sentimental and lonesome. I choose to think of my life with George, the life that God gave us, of our laughter and our nonsense. With God’s help, I’m thinking about the wonderful work of creation that was George Marshall. And I’m giving thanks. He was just the best and I miss him still.

Moments of grief are good. They are! No, you don’t want to slosh around knee deep in tears, but when we lose someone we love, we can be honest when sadness floods in. Even after half a lifetime, grief can take us by surprise but it doesn’t have to overwhelm us or drag us down. Grief is beautiful. It’s a confirmation of love. And even in grief we can know joy. Joy that we’ve known love, that we know eternal love, that love reaches down to us… and we can be filled to overflowing with joy because we know that one day

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ Revelation

The tenses used there are important;

‘He WILL wipe away’ future tense.

‘There WILL be no more …. crying’ future tense.

‘for the old order of things HAS PASSED away’ past tense.

We are already in a new reality, George and me, and the chasm between us is an illusion. Death is defeated. Time is in this world but we are in eternity, we are in God. And who could be sad for long knowing that?

Bless the little children.

In a couple of months, if all goes ahead with my house sale, I should be moving. Last week I began the great sort-out. This is the 5th or 6th ‘downsize’ and you would have thought by now that there wasn’t a lot of sorting left to do. But there is, and I quite enjoy the process in a silent and determined way.

Every day I go through a cupboard or a couple of drawers, and today I was sorting through small pile of photograph albums. I have a couple of photos, black and white of course, of my mother and they always pull me up short, slow me down. Was this really my Mum? Can I see any shadow of me in her eyes? What did she sound like? What were her gestures – and have I inherited any of them? The other photographs that make me catch my breath a little, lingering over them, are of my husband; walking the boxers, building a clock, playing swingball in the garden, rowing on a Scottish loch two days before he died. And then it hits me like a sledge hammer blow – you really are alone. I wonder what he would think of this latest move? You really really are alone, Luce. In this world you are alone.

In this world.

I have many married friends and as I sit here I can think of several couples who are finding it hard to feel happy about their marriages. They’re not on the brink of splitting, or warring or even miserable, but they are just… you know… struggling to feel happy about their married state. It’s not easy being married, not all the time, and there are seasons when it’s just plain difficult – even lonely – I get it. I really do. George and me had our lean and struggling years, we were on the brink of splitting up, but gradually, painful bit by painful bit, we reached a place of loving and liking and appreciating each other, all the time, not just when the mood took.

Here’s a little true story for you: on the day he died we were returning from a holiday in Scotland and in separate cars. I was driving my dad and step mother and he was driving our daughter and her friend. George was not a great navigator and so when we stopped for coffee I said to him, loud and clear ‘Don’t come off the M1 until junction 25. If you come off before we’ll have to drive through Ripley and Kilburn and it will take hours.’ (we were trying to get my frail dad back to Derby before he pegged it) George dutifully nodded. As we travelled down the motorway in a convoy of two, I couldn’t contain my exasperation when he indicated left at Junction 27 and then exited. I was bloody furious! I flashed my lights and eventually, a couple of miles on there was a lay-by and he stopped. As I got out of the car, and he got out of his, and we met on that busy lump of tarmac, with lorries and cars whizzing past us, I somehow knew this was important. All the frustration I had felt, all the words that had sprung to mind, died away. George looked tired and I loved him. He came towards me apologetically and I found myself saying something like ‘Never mind. Not the end of the world..’ and we had a quick peck on the cheek and returned to our cars, this time with me leading the way. What a gift that was. What a blessing that was. We arrived home probably a couple of hours later (the road was awful!) and I didn’t even get out of the car but drove on to the hotel where my dad would be staying that night. Half an hour later George was dead. So the last words I spoke to him were soft words, the last touch we had was a kiss. A gift from God.

I do understand that every state we live in, married, single, widowed, they all have their difficulties, but right now my solitary state is just exhausting. I long to have someone who knows me, who knew me a while ago, who is facing the future with me, who will talk and discuss, and weigh up pros and cons, who will share the decisions, and come off the motorway at the wrong junction but it won’t matter because we’re heading towards the same destination, someone who will pray with me, and help me to know what to do and where to go. Someone who will make mistakes with me and share the picking-up-and-dusting-down afterwards. I would give my right arm, my left arm, my legs for that. My heart for that. I have friends, good friends, but they have their own difficulties, their partners, their own responsibilities, and there’s, quite rightly, no space for mine. I wonder, is this the time when the presence of Jesus Christ is made even more real, when my dependance on him and my trust in him will save me? It’s certainly a time of humbling. As a writer I learned that no experience is ever wasted, and I think that’s true of the Christian life. I’m going through this for a reason, having these thoughts for a reason, for a purpose, to teach me what I need to know.

Anyway, anyway, whatever your state is, married and murderous or single and lonely,

‘In this life you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

I know I quoted those words of Jesus in my last blog, but they’re in my mind a lot just now.

Think of me and George, there in that noisy wind-battered lay-by, in our last moment together. It could so easily have been very different, I could have exploded with “Bloody hell! Typical! You never listen to me, you great Scottish twit.’ and he would have replied (quiet but withering) and I would have replied (hot and hasty) and… and… and…. I would now be living with regret. Don’t explode. Instead look at your partner and thank God for them, for the future you share however short or long. For all their lovely flaws and annoying habits.

That’s reminded me to thank God, right now, for the years I had with George. To close the lid on the old photos and get on with this new adventure.

Hey, talking about losing an arm and a leg or two, I’ll tell you a funny story; when I lived in South Africa I knew a very kind and gentle Afrikaans woman, a sort of cross between Laura Engels and Patience Strong, if that means anything to you. She was Sweet with a capital S and very lovable. She had a little boy who was just about as tender as he could be. She told us one day, chuckling at the memory, that when he said his prayers one night he had said “God, please bless all the children, and all the little children who have no mummies and all the little children who have no daddies…. ” somewhat impressed with the tragedy of his own prayer he went on earnestly “and please bless the little children who have no…..” he struggled to find something they really needed to be blessed about and found it…. “the children who have no arms… and the children who have no legs… and the children who have no….” he thought for a moment and finished triumphantly ” and please bless the little children who have no heads.”

No ‘eads? Wot, really?

Not all beer and skittles.

This is just going to be a ramble because I have no one to talk to so you’ll do. I didn’t mean that to sound quite so rude. You’ll more than do. You’re perfect.

This morning I found myself singing a daft little song to the dogs as we walked on the beach, and one of my fellow dog-walkers turned, hearing me, and spread her arms wide to the sky, a gesture of happiness. No words were needed, we shared that magic moment and it was great. Where did that unexpected dollop of unalloyed joy come from? My life at the moment doesn’t look, from the outside, like it’s all beer and skittles, so what’s going on? I’ll tell you what’s going on – I’m struggling. Occasionally really struggling. And then I’m soaring, really soaring. I’m two different people just now; happy and expectant as I step into my next adventure, not knowing what it will be, where I will go, how I will live. That’s the me who knows peace and certainty that God is working all things to the good. Then comes another me, and this me doesn’t want to leave my lovely beach, my good and loving friends, this funny house with its high ceilings and good neighbours. Sometimes I think I’m praying but then I realise that I’ve been distracted for a while, slipping away from prayer into fear about going into an unknown future alone, starting all over again, walking into a town I don’t know, friendless. That’s when my prayer turns to a sort of strangulated “What the hell am I doing?”

This is a huge moment of change; not only am I moving on to (literally) God knows where, but my granddaughter who has lived with me for three years is also moving on, to Uni, and in the same month very dear friends are returning to Canada. Each of these changes is completely independent of the others, I knew I was moving before I knew about the Uni, before I knew about the Canada move…. it brings an acute awareness of the earth shifting beneath my feet…. I walk towards August 2021 with that expectant but unsettled feeling of walking towards a roller coaster… will I dare to get on it? Won’t I? Should I? Will it be thrilling or will I be sick as we hurtle earthwards? Watch this space.

It’s very easy to feel alone and totally insignificant and never more so than when you’re a tiny speck in God’s grandeur, aware of the height of the sky, the depth of the ocean, the vastness of space.

This morning

And when we’re in ‘tiny speck’ mode we can easily become overwhelmed. Some overwhlemings are great, fabulous, full of grace. To be overwhelmed by God is just the best experience, but to be overwhelmed by loss and grief is a different kettle of fish. One morning last week it suddenly seemed too much to deal with on my own, and I came off the beach drained and weary, defeated by the too many unknowns in my life. To be heading towards my 73rd birthday with no security in the world, no partner, no family life, no obvious purpose, facing a lonely old age, that was hard and my thoughts were racing and a bit (!) fearful.

Oh, boo hoo…. boo blinkin’ hoo…… I am so sorry for myself…boooo hooo. Gosh, it’s miserable being miserable. Can’t stay there for long.

I know when I’m on a bad track of thought and we’re told

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’

I knew where to look for the excellent and praiseworthy… so I piled the dogs into the car and went to the Bible app on my phone because I wasn’t, at that moment, even up to starting the engine and driving home. Flattened. I turned to the ‘red letter words’, the words of Jesus Christ, starting with the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke, knowing that I had to make to make a real connection with the God of love, but before I could find that section, as I sat there, fighting tears, feeling so alone, my eyes focussed on these words,

Soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother,
and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’

Of all the verses in the Bible…. just when I couldn’t hold back the tears, just when the enormity of everything I was losing seemed too much and the void I was stepping into seemed too wide… ‘his heart went out to her’. I knew his heart at that moment. And I wasn’t alone.

I knew his comfort. Even in the darkest hour, there is joy and comfort in Jesus. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

He has overcome the world. He is in control. Him, not little old me, with all my plans and bright ideas. Not this tiny speck in a vast universe. I can’t even add one day to my life, or by force of will change the colour of one hair on my head. What a waste of time to fret, and scheme and doubt about the unknowable future. And what a miserable way of life that would be. Why would any sane person choose that when joy and peace are waiting?

So then, aware of God with me, there in that scruffy old car, I sniffed away the snot and wiped away the tears and engaged gear….. he has overcome the world. It’s done already. Don’t let appearances fool you.

Here- do you want to have a little smile? You’ll have to concentrate… it’s a moment caught on camera before the lack-lustre England/Scotland Euro game…. look for the bearded guy with glasses and a tam o’ shanter…. he goes down like a domino, taking the next chap with him. I wonder how much of the game he remembers? My bet? Not a lot.

A thought about prayer

The Oxford Concise Dictionary contains over 240,000 words. And that’s their ‘concise’ version. You would think, with all those little pearls of communication at my fingertips, I would be able to string a few of them together, in the right order, to make sense of what I’m feeling and thinking today, wouldn’t you?

Some chance. But I keep on trying.

This isn’t Biblical – it’s just a thought, and you know how unreliable my thoughts are; we talk a lot, us Christians, about God being active in our lives. Sometimes, to hear us, it’s as if we expect God to be hovering in the shadows of every scene we enter, ready to do our bidding, a celestial attentive butler. “Oh” says the God of the Universe “Luce needs a parking space by the chemist. I’ll look away from the millions who are in desperate need to sort that out for her.” Sometimes non-Christians really do think that we’re that … what’s the word… idiotic.

But praying and trusting in God, relying on him, isn’t demanding or infantile. Although I want to turn to God for every need in my life, however small, I don’t think he is conscious of my petty requests in the same way that our cognitive processes work. Rather, I believe that if I am living in Christ, and if Christ is living in me, then it’s a law of nature, of cause and consequence , outside time and space, that ‘All things work to the good for those who love the Lord.’ If I am obeying him, and living in his will, in the peace and joy of Christ, then everything that happens as a consequence of my submission is part of his will. Laid down in eternity, before I was born. He’s not moving that big posh 4×4 out of the parking space so my eight year old Volvo can clank its way in, because I can cope with or without that parking space, and maybe it’s better for me to park somewhere else anyway. A parking attendant? That’s not who he is. And the bigger things, too… he is working in them. When I move house he does more than find me the next house I want, because he knows the end of the story and so he gives me the next house or van or boat or tent that I need to get to the end of that story. I don’t know the end of the story but he does so why would I prefer my bright ideas to his? He’s working his own laws of cause and consequence to bring us to the point where we can glorify him and be fulfilled in him, not fulfilled in ourselves.

He has given us a way of life, a joyful rich way of submitting our lives to him, so that as a consequence we will always be following him, led by him, and will never lose him. I want to think of him when I drive into town, or make a phone call, or bake a cake, or decide to move house. Big or small. Always. I want to live in his will, aware of him, and depending on him, already living in eternity, being with God.

In 1 Thessalonians we’re told:

Rejoice always,  pray continually,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’

Hmmm. Pray continually? Some translations say ‘pray without ceasing’. Oh, boy, think about that… a continual conversation, word after word , an internal monologue without ceasing? Is that what this means? Really? No. I don’t think this is what this instruction means. These are the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:7

‘And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

Prayer is not only words. it isn’t framed or limited by language. Sometimes it turns into words, and sometimes we need words, but prayer is a state of being. If I am in Jesus and Jesus is in me then every breath I take is a prayer, every small act is a prayer, my attitude turns from self to prayer, that parking space I wanted is filled by someone else? Good. They needed it. The house sale goes through? Thank you, God, this is a gift. The house sale doesn’t materialise? Thank you, God, I’m content to stay put. Your will, not mine.

In the Old Testament, when Israel had turned away from God to worship pagan gods in addition, turning to the true God only when the mood took them, we read in Isaiah 1:12-15

When you come to appear before me,
    who has asked this of you,
    this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations –
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

So, prayer is more, much more than words, than pleas and bargaining or magical thinking. We can’t fool God with words. Prayer is a way of life, a state of being, a total submission, a love affair.

How can I stop my heart from singing?

A cut and paste jobbie

Some of you have pointed out that it’s over a week since I posted here. Sorry. There’s a whole to going on in my life at the moment – both in the physical world and in my head, in life and in real life (prayer life). But you are so insistent….

I know that if I told you all the thoughts buzzing around in my scatterbrain brain, you’d be puzzled and also – because I’m still in the process of clarifying these thoughts – you’d very soon be bored and disengage. So, I’m not going to tell you about my thoughts on Genesis (a little more developed than my last blog) or a sudden memory I had that illuminated God’s trustworthiness, or a step of faith I’m taking with a great sense of wonder that so much trust is possible… and I’m not going to tell you about a heart ache and a loss because you have your own…. and I bet you’re all fed up with photos of the beach…. so what will I do in this blog? I’ll cheat. That’s what I’ll do.

This is a writing blog, stolen from my editing website, lucygannon.com

It comes with a warning – don’t bother with it if you have no intention to write, ever! But some of you may be mildly interested, so here goes:

Is there anything new under the sun?

There really isn’t.

That’s quite a short blog, isn’t it? But there really isn’t. Yesterday a would-be script writer asked me how she could be sure she was writing something new. My answer was ‘You can’t.’ The Book of Ecclesiastes, written over two thousand years ago, was spot on… there really is nothing new under the sun. They didn’t know about the internet then, or phones, or powered flight, or the combustion engine, or nuclear power, or even pedal power, but that ancient writer wasn’t talking about things, he was talking about emotions. And none of them are new. Ever. 

Good writing, and certainly good drama, encompasses more than the narrative of experience or event, it explores the emotions springing from that event, and so yes, every story that could ever be told has already been told. Every emotion that could ever be felt has already been felt. That might seem disheartening to the aspiring writer and there are moments when I, too, feel a bit glum – especially now when every home is able to access dozens, maybe hundreds of TV and YouTube channels, with podcasts and blogs and radio and Ted Talks and all the rest of it. It can be daunting to consider a world already full of clamour – a million people blogging at any one time (I’m gaily making up the numbers), another million tweeting and posting images or videos, a thousand gurus and teachers and rabbis and philosophers peddling their wares on the internet – and none of it new. 

Some numbers people will tell you that there are seven basic stories, others put it at seventy, Aristotle said there were only two, but the important truth for any writer is that whether there are ten or a thousand stories is irrelevant because mankind’s appetite for engaging narrative is insatiable. The danger of an insatiable appetite, however, is that we begin to eat any damn thing, producing all sorts of low value ballast to fill bellies, we create a marketplace that values indulgence over nutrition – to strangle the metaphor a bit more, we fill our kitchens with quick and easy-to-eat rubbish. Our problem is not a lack of drama, it’s a lack of good drama. The new young writer should not have been asking ‘How can I be sure I’m writing something new?’ but ‘How can I be sure I’m writing something good?’ 

(this is a new thought, for you and not from the writing blog) Maybe there’s an ever present danger with our appetites. Give us a room and we will fill it with the things we want around us. They seem adequate and the space is acceptable. Give us a bigger room and we’ll soon have that filled too, and then if we have a house we’ll fill every room, and look for a bigger house, and so it goes on. The principle seems to extend to time as well as space; We had two main TV channels and they transmitted for a few hours every evening, it was OK. Then we had afternoon broadcasts too, and then lunchtime news, and morning TV…. and we found enough ‘stuff’ to fill all those hours. We realised that we could fill another channel and another and another…. and then we had the internet and multi-channel broadcasts…. and still we are looking for more, caring less about the quality and more about the quantity. Maybe that’s one of the things the church is struggling with- centuries of Sunday morning and Sunday evening sermons, hours that had to be filled, and so they were, week after week, year after year, and if the sermons weren’t seeming to nourish the church, never mind, keep on filling them hours, them pews….never mind the quality, feel the width (an old British joke)

Sorry. Back to writing:

The first question I would ask any writer, as they set out on the first scene of a script, or the first page of their book, is “Do you feel compelled to write this?” If you have a story that’s intriguing you, and exciting you, one that you’re desperate to tell, then your reader or audience will be equally desperate to hear it. If you just have a vague notion of ‘wanting to be a writer’ but don’t yet have a story bubbling under, the time is not yet right for you. Chill. Think. Develop the story. Explore the characters. Spin the possible outcomes. Live a little. When you can’t keep the story to yourself any longer, that’s the time to start writing. Until then, it’s just yet more words in a world already too full of them. Until then, you will be frustrated and dissatisfied, maybe spending hours at your screen or notebook, working, working, working, but at the end of the day, when you read back all you’ve written, you’ll find that it bores even you. That’s when writing is a slog. That’s why so many people give up.

Timing matters. Don’t start until you’re ready to dive in, don’t start until you’re bursting with the story, until you can walk around your characters and see them from every angle, don’t start until you believe in them. Then, then, you’ll discover the joy of writing. Don’t rush to the screen or the notebook, savour the prospect, the theme. Discover why you want to write. Write notes, jot down ideas in the middle of the night, talk it over with your friends, notice behaviours and store them up, delight in all the possibilities.

I didn’t start writing until I was 39. By then I had death and loss and life, adventure and stupidity, a pile of bad decisions, a whole load of unhealthy friendships, a failed marriage and a few abandoned jobs behind me. I had seen life. The stories were all there. A play writing competition was announced with a prize of £2,000 and we really needed £2,000! I was going to give it a shot. At the time I was a support worker for people with learning disabilities, and once a month we would travel to my father’s home in Norfolk. On the way we passed a small bungalow, and several times I had seen a young man in the window or the garden, sitting in a high chair, with a fixed table, the sort of chair I was familiar with from my nursing days. Seeing this strapping youngster I recognised how little mobility he had, and that he was intellectually impaired, and I would think about his life in that cramped home, and the lives of his parents – who could sometimes be seen tending the garden, or as shadowy figures in his room. My life and my work had already given me the insight I needed to spin a story out of those brief glimpses, to create characters and then to explore their love and their commitment, the strains and griefs and joys of their lives. I was intrigued by this young man and his family. Desperate to tell ‘their’ story. The time was right for me to start writing. Would I have been ready as a twenty year old, in the thick of all my mistakes and nonsense? Maybe I would have had a great vocabulary and could have turned a phrase or two to keep the reader engaged for a while…. but what would I have written about? Where would the reader find insight when I had none? 

What I wrote in that first play, ‘Keeping Tom Nice’ was nothing new. It was the age old conflict of love and loss, man’s kindness and selfishness and compassion alongside his cruelty. Nothing new. It wasn’t well crafted and beautifully presented because I’m not the end product of film schools and creative writing classes. I’m not educated beyond the old ‘O’level GCE stage. But the one thing I had to my advantage, the thing that interested the judges and then the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company, was a story with a ring of truth, a story bursting to be told.

First things first. Find your story. Care about it. Eat it, breathe it, sleep it. When you’re bursting to tell it, tell it. It won’t be new. But make it true.

There. That’s plagiarised from me by me. If you stuck with it to the end, well done. If you’re thinking of writing, think about the greatest story ever told before you think of anything else. Will you echo that great story? Will your words add to the fund of human kindness? Will they reveal some truth about man and maybe even about God? Is that where your passion lies? If so, write. Write and write. Never stop.