He boldly went, and now he’s back, safe and sound!

But how can one man get it so right and then go ever so slightly skew-whiff, to end up missing the whole damn point of everything?

William Shatner – aka Captain Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise – went into space today, on a Blue Origin flight, and he experienced 3 minutes of weightlessness, saw the Earth from 66 miles into the vastness of the Universe, and returned home safely, tearful and overwhelmed. I’m sure the tears were a sign of the fear and turmoil he had been through. It’s a fabulous achievement for any man, let alone a man of 90, but when he came back, elated and – no doubt – relieved, what had he learned? This is an excerpt from The Times online this afternoon:

Shatner held forth in emotional terms, wiping tears from his cheeks as he spoke of seeing his home planet with its brilliant blue hues wrapped in the white “comfort” of the cloud layer, and then the thinning line of the atmosphere that protects Earth from the sun’s deadly radiation. Pointing to the ground and then the sky, he said: “This is life and that’s death . . . that’s what I saw.”

I completely understand that he was truly overwhelmed, and that he was trying to put into words his realisation of the vulnerability of the Earth as global warming takes its deadly toll, and maybe his gratitude that he had survived, but he went off-course somewhere along the way. Off-course like a rocket that leaves the launch pad and deviates the tiniest fraction of a degree from its true path, so that as the journey grows longer the altered course takes him further and further off beam, until he overshoots the moon, overshoots the edges of the galaxy, and is lost in space. (That could be another series entirely. Hmmm)

But we keep doing that. All of us. We lose ourselves in emotion, and miss the centre , the heart, the essence of what is making us feel so awestruck, so astounded, so inspired. I watched and enjoyed a concert a few days ago, with a choir singing a wonderful hymn. All the way through God was referred to in the third person , as ‘him’ or ‘he’ and the song took the form of a prayer of praise and longing. A man in the audience was in tears, others were visibly moved, and I was so touched both by the words and by the tears. Afterwards, some of those we had seen were interviewed and not one of them had realised that this beautiful singing and the words, were an act of worship, a prayer. Not one of them referenced God. In their minds the words had merely pointed to emotion, to longing, but God didn’t come into it. It’s the same tribal experience of hearing the great old Liverpudlian anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ or the song ‘Jerusalem’. We feel a great sense of belonging, of loyalty, nostalgia, warmth. A huge surge of love for the person next to us, for the lives we lead together. But when the song is done, the emotion goes, because it has no centre except ourselves.

William Shatner saw everything, the Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, the darkness of space. He broke the bonds of Earth and soared with the stars, for just a few precious minutes, a few heart hammering minutes, a few minutes crowded and bombarded with fear and elation, excitement and wonder. But he missed the centre, the one who created all this, and who holds it all together. He missed a wonderful opportunity for a moment of complete adoration of our God. Missed.

 For in him was created the universe of things, both in the heavenly realm and on the earth, all that is seen and all that is unseen. Every seat of power, realm of government, principality, and authority—it all exists through him and for his purpose! He existed before anything was made, and now everything finds completion in him.
Col 1:17&18 TPT

And now everything finds completion in him. Go, Paul, go!

Bill Shatner is a great character, I simply love the man, and he’s led an amazingly full life, battering around the Hollywood of TV and then slipping into films. There’s something so touching about this trip into space – yes, it was a clever marketing and PR exercise, yes, it lasted only ten minutes, but it was an act of bravery and derring-do for each of the four passengers, and we can only marvel at their courage and … listen…. listen for the human aspect of this great feat; the Blue Origin project, a multi billion dollar enterprise, is the dream child of Jeff Bezos, a man who started life with no silver spoon, brought up by a single mum. As a child he watched the Star Trek series and like many a 9 year old, he made some crude replicas of phasers and other Trekkie gadgets. Today that little boy, now the richest man in the world, walked Bill Shatner to the New Shepard Capsule, and helped to strap him into his seat, and guess what – those little shabby toys from so long ago were tucked in alongside Captain Kirk. What a story! What a tremendous story that is.

When he looked at the Earth William Shatner was overcome by its beauty and fragility, but he saw only life down here and death up there. He didn’t see the gift of a great and powerful God. He saw impermanence where there is eternity. He saw death where there is rebirth and rejuvenation. He saw only man’s vision, not God’s. He gave the glory to the Universe and not to its creator.

I think we get it wrong all the time. Even when we think we’re getting it right, we can be that tiny tiny bit off-course, missing the central truth, that it’s not about us, it’s not about our tears or our joy, our overwhelming, our appreciation, it’s not even about beauty, it’s about the greatness and mercy and love of God.

When we sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ we don’t think of Psalm 23, and when we sing ‘Jerusalem’ we don’t reflect on the final, defining verse, the one that puts the others into perspective:

I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword rest in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem,
On England’s green and pleasant land.

But I do love William Shatner! He’s perfectly imperfect, a working actor, not great but good enough, in his real life full of chutzpah, rattling around the world, up and down, sometimes foolish but always the showman (yes, I’m a Shatner expert). His partnership with Gene Roddenberry, the true genius of Star Trek (yes, I’m a Roddenberry expert) , inspired a little lad called Jeff to look up at the stars ……

Have I told you about Gene Roddenberry? Maybe I will, one day.

PS Gene’s ashes are in space.

Chicken and salad and laughter

The great thing about my house is that the front door opens onto the pavement (sidewalk, you Americans) on the busy village high street, and so as people walk past to the shop or the market, or walking their dogs, they can open the door and walk in, unannounced. Everyone who knows, really knows me, will not knock first. I love the idea of an open door, of a constant welcome, of a quick ‘pop in’ or a more leisurely coffee and chat. I have a much loved neighbour who will occasionally come swinging through the porch to enjoy a minor rant, and -on one occasion- to roar with frustration, but more usually to bring me a song (he’s a musician) or a story, or a cake from the Farmer’s Market. That’s maybe why the lockdown was particularly hard for this singleton, having to close that door, put the snib on, knowing that no one would be coming through it. That’s why, on the very first day that bubbles were suggested in Parliament I was so delighted to hear feet on the pavement and a rat-tat-tat on the pink wooden door, and to see Anne and Helen, excited and happy, saying ‘Shall we bubble with you?’

Since then, once a week we have had a weekly supper together, followed by a game of Scrabble. For some of the lockdown I’ve had my granddaughter living with me, but they saved my failing sanity in the months when I was alone. Restrictions have eased now and it’s almost as if we’re back to normal, but social life has been slow to return; I’ve been out for a few meals in restaurants, and pals have popped by for catch-ups, but apart from my bubble friends I haven’t invited anyone for ‘proper’ dinner when, pre Covid, I had people over at least twice a week. Tonight, for the first time in 18 months, we are having a grown-up ‘guests for dinner’ evening and I find that I am all fingers and thumbs.

When should the chicken go on? What will accompany it – is a bowl of new potatoes and a salad enough? Or should I roast some tomatoes? And if I roast tomatoes does that turn it into a gravy and sprouts kind of dish? If so, how many sprouts per person? And why have I got only one bottle of wine in the whole damn house? And what about pudding? How come there are ice crystals on the ice cream and does it matter? Shall I start on the apple turn-over now or this afternoon? Maybe I should do a bread and butter pudding instead? Flip me, I can’t remember how to make custard.

Where once it all came without really thinking, now it’s all a bit daunting and frantic. “For goodness sake, Luce,” my inner sane voice says “bung the chicken in the oven, bung some lettuce in a. bowl, whisk a dressing, boil some spuds, cut some basil… job done. They’re friends, not Michelin judges.”

Today my thoughts are with a new friend, someone who can’t be here because she’s in hospital. When I give thanks tonight, before we dig in, I will be thinking of this absent pal. And I’ll be thinking of others too, people who have moved away in the last lock-down period, and of a friend who has died, and I’ll be thanking God for the years when our doors could be open and our evenings full of laughter. And I’ll be thanking him especially that those days are slowly returning – Oh! Oh! Oh! As I wrote that look what happened –

A walk-in!

The days of family and friends are indeed returning. That’s how it’s meant to be. Church has never gone away, fellowship has survived, but now meetings are again possible, and we can once again enjoy each other’s company.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Today I’m thanking God for those who are around to help if and when I fall down. And I’m thanking God for chicken and salad and laughter. Oh, and wine.

Touching me, touching you (ahah!)

Two or three, or four, times a year I smoke a cigarette. I’ve never felt addicted to ciggies, and even when (in my 20s) I smoked maybe 10 a day, I could always stop smoking if there was something special to save for, or if the mood just took me. Now, when the opposite mood takes me, I love the heady effects of inhaling deep and long. When I have a fag, it’s a special savouring of something that’s just a bit naughty but not actually a sin. Fabulous.

Today a bonkers friend in London has sent me two ciggies in the post. They’ve arrived a bit flattened but perfectly smokable, and as I write this I can feel the nicotine hitting my blood cells, quickening my heart rate, and I fantasise that the wraiths of smoke are magically curling around my cerebral cortex, writhing and eddying between the folds of grey matter, sparking this neuron and deadening that one… delicious. Thanks, nicotine pal, that’ll do me for a few months, or maybe even a year. Some of you will be deeply disapproving, some will be indifferent, and some will be reaching for a packet of twenty but whatever you think, this is how it is. Unapologetically, that’s how it is and who I am. And unapologetically it’s how my daft friend in London reached out to me, with two flattened fags. Mad man! Delightful mad man. People are lovely.

I’m writing this in a cosy fug of nicotine and tar, a mug of strong coffee next to the keyboard, the dogs snoozing after two hours on the beach under a wonderful autumn sky… here, I’ll show you.

Today, reading Isaiah 49

And once again I find myself wondering about you, blog readers, where you are, who you are, how you are. Some of you have introduced yourselves via emails, some of you live locally and we have a regular online conversation, but most of you… from 39 countries…. 34 of which I’ve never visited…. who are you?

I gave a talk to a group of entrepreneurs, hipsters and creatives at the weekend, and as I walked into that room (a lovely old barn, rough and ready and rather beautiful) towards 80 strangers, most of them young and go-getting, waiting to hear whatever I wanted to say, it struck me that this audience is just the same as the readers of a blog. Just the same, but different. Just as they didn’t know what I was going to say to them, so you have no idea what I’m going to blurt out today. Come to that, I have no idea what you need to hear, or where your head and heart are just now. Would you like me if we met? Would I drive you mad? Probably. But for now we take each other on trust.

After the talk, I chatted to some of the audience, including a story-telling performance artist, an engineer, three industrialists who came all the way from Denmark, a marketing exec and a poet. It was a wet and windy day here in West Wales and as we took shelter, eating a delicious lunch, the sea was in the distance (if you ducked down, put your head on one side and ignored the trees in-between), the sky above us was a tumbling maelstrom of cloud and wind, and we were snug and warm in a wash of good will, acceptance and creative thinking. Writing a blog is a bit different – I am all alone, and you may have come to it with a jaundiced eye, wanting to find fault (you’ll have a field day!), or you may be looking for something else entirely. If you don’t find what you’re hoping for, because we are not in that beautiful old barn together, your eyes can’t meet mine and I can’t apologise for falling short and you can’t laugh and say that’s ok …. but…. but … here we are, anyway. You and me. Strangers. I think that’s worth a moments pause. Selah*.

This morning on the beach, sitting on an uncomfortable log and watching the tide turn, I was overcome with the realisation that God loves the world. He loves us and all our daft ideas, he loves me even when the top of my head is lifting with the unfamiliar rush of nicotine, he loves us whoever we are, whatever our lives have made us. How can that be? And then I remembered the audience on Saturday, and the warmth of that little crowd, and I realised – he loves us because we are lovable. He made us to be loved and to love. Just as God is love, we are lovable.

It’s taken me 72 and a bit years to realise that. God made us to be loved and to love. Which means that I am lovable. After all I’ve lived through, and done and failed at, I am still loveable, because that’s how I was made. In love.

Isaiah 49, down there on the beach, helped me to come to that earth shattering conclusion,

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.

Maybe those words hit me like a sledge hammer because I have a young friend who gave birth to her first child last week. When she talks about her baby she’s near to tears, shell-shocked by the depth of her unexpected emotions, overflowing with thankfulness for this wonderful miracle, full to the brim with love for her child and her God. I see the joy and beauty of motherhood and I know why God loves her.

I’ve another friend who has, in the last couple of weeks, received what could be a devastating diagnosis and she’s suddenly very ill and in a lot of pain. When she writes about her long and painful days her love and faith shine through, her humour and humanity too bright to be extinguished. I know why God loves her.

In the last four years I’ve been with three friends on their last day alive, and each one has found warmth and humour even in their last hours. I know why God loves them.

We all know people who are obviously loveable but I think that we often put ourselves outside that group. It really has taken me 72 years to realise that it’s not good to feel unlovable. It’s not true that we are unlovable. We are all lovable, because we are made by love, of love.

Thats why people touch us. And it’s why we need to touch others. That’s why this blog is written, that’s why you read it, and even if you don’t find what you want here, you will keep on looking in other places. Because we need to touch each other.

So. here’s a cheeky thing to say but I’m going to say it; No wonder God loves us. Really! No wonder! He made us out of love, his love, and his love is unending, perfect, unshakeable. If I was God, which I’m not (!) and I’d made something out of my perfection with my perfection, I would love it too.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, however low or sad or desperate, however succesful, however whatever…. God loves you. This is how Jesus put it:

So this is my command: Love each other deeply, as much as I have loved you.
John 15:12 (TPT)

And in the Old Testament, which we can sometimes think of as all blood and thunder….

The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.
Psalm 33:5 (NIV)

The hand of God, giving life (Michelangelo)

*Selah. ‘Pause and think’ or ‘Think on this’.

Shucking my skin

I have a five piece corner sofa in leather. It’s been a great piece of furniture, and has welcomed the bottoms of all sorts of people. Every Monday for several years there would be a handful of teenagers from a local church, bouncing, lounging, mucking about, cosying on it. Then there were the grandchildren who soon realised that it was big enough for somersaults, and there were often pals sitting demurely with coffee (until the dogs leapt up and the coffee was sent flying). It’s been great. My granddaughters took turns to sleep on it when they came to stay and I slept on it for 3 months when a friend was in my bed, recuperating after an operation. In turn it has been a sofa, a bed and a trampoline and it’s as good now as the day it was bought.

A few weeks ago, feeling a bit sub-par one afternoon, I stretched out on it and it was lovely… until I tried to get up. It’s so soft and so low and billowy that I couldn’t budge. The years have been kinder to the sofa than they have to me and my elbows sank into the upholstery, my knees lacked the oomph to propel me upwards …. the more I tried the more stuck I became… there was nothing to hold on to to gain purchase…. my shoulders are shot having both been broken years ago and I was a beetle on my back with my legs waving in the air. When the dogs tried to help they just made everything even funnier and messier. I heaved and grunted and swore and laughed and gasped for air, swatting the dogs away. If there had been someone with me we could have made a small fortune posting a video online. Eventually I gave up trying and toppled slowly off onto the floor, where I lay helpless and giggling, staring up at the ceiling with dogs sticking their faces into mine, tails wagging, until I could right myself onto all fours and stagger upwards.

Today I pulled the five parts of the sofa apart so that it could go to its new owner and I knew there would be a few things stuck between the units, maybe a tissue or a pen, a note… you know, a few things. Here we go: 11 ice lolly sticks (that’s granddaughters for you), two biros, seven hair bobbles (deffo not me) an earring, a bracelet, two old £1coins, a yoghurt lid, a squeaky toy, a key ring, an SIM card, a sock and a battery. And enough Shitzu wool to knit another two dogs and enough sand to fill a small bucket.

Shameful! Made me think of that verse ‘… there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.’

This is what seems odd – I can tell you all about the mess but I’m very glad that I was the only one to see it! What’s the difference? Why is it ok to tell you about it now, and to gleefully list the detritus, when it would have been mortifying for you to see it for yourselves?

I dunno. Funny, us humans, aren’t we?

Now that the biggest piece of furniture has gone, my living space is going to feel empty and strange until I move; there will be just an odd mix of occasional chairs dotted around, while the spare bedroom is already bare, its desk having been taken away last week, the bed stripped, wardrobe doors open wide, packing begun. I love it! I just love the idea of losing stuff, of stepping away from the familiar, free of mementoes and souvenirs and the clutter of life. I cannot wait to get a skip outside and throw into it all the stuff I have no need of – in will go all my awards and theatre and TV posters, old scripts and books of plays that I’ve never read but have dutifully kept because one of mine is in those collections. The stuff that others might be able to use will go elsewhere but the skip is the bit I’ll relish. Can’t wait!

I look forward to walking around this house when the removals van has gone, revelling in the restored spaciousness, and the echo, enjoying the height of the ceilings, the expanse of the wooden floor, uncluttered. I think I will wander around this lovely old building for an hour or so before leaving, to enjoy it as it is, and to say ‘thank you’ to it.

I’ve never quite been able to do this before, let go of everything I don’t personally want, I’ve always had a husband or a daughter or granddaughters, or work, or … you know, someone or something to accommodate. Now there’s just me, sliding happily down to the end. Yes, it’s bloody lonely at times but this is the upside of it and I will be delighted to take what I need for the journey but no more. (Oh, ok a few bits I don’t need but do love, like my dogs, my coffee machine, a few tug-of-the-heart ornaments, some books, and some silly bits and bobs like Christmas decorations).

beginning to echo!

There is a wonderful freedom and lightness in shedding what we don’t need.

I think that this is what a ‘good death’ will be like.

Just saying.

In this life you will have trouble

A couple of hours ago I read a comment from a 26year old, on an online forum ‘Covid, my furlough has ended and now a fuel crisis. What next?’

She sounds a bit battered and bruised by the lockdown, the vaccine controversy, the M25 protests (apparently she was stuck in the tailback caused by the first one and missed a morning’s wage) and now the gas shortage and price hike. Maybe she needs to stop the watching the news for a few days, give her heart a rest. I think she feels as if the world is spiralling out of control, as if chaos is just over the horizon, and she is helpless. I added a comment to her comment but I don’t know if she’ll read it, so this is my reply to her now. Here it comes, it’s hardly news but; The world has always seemed to be spinning out of control. That is the way of the world.

I look back on my 72 years and this is what I find:

A couple of weeks after I was born, China was taken over by the communists (wasn’t me, honest!). A year later came the Korean War (btw the Pope was busy claiming infalliblity and declaring that Mary was assumed into heaven and didn’t just die like the rest of us) then came the Nuclear bomb, and live testing…. then smog in London killed 12,000 people in just a few weeks… and forget our miserable whinges about empty supermarket shelves – food and fuel rationing continued in the UK for 10 years after the end of the war. I don’t remember any of that but it’s in the history books.

Fast forward to the years I do remember and let’s see if things became calmer and altogether more stable… surely there were no shortages in the fabulous 70’s, the years of kipper ties, platform boots and flares? Yep, that was the decade that saw massive inflation, poverty wages, and the railways and miner’s strikes. All this resulted in the government declaring a 3 day working week, caused by the fuel shortages, closing production in industry and limiting transport, TV broadcasts were curtailed, products were unavailable, pubs were closed. After all this, unsurprisingly, the Tory Government lost the election and Labour came in.

‘Ah, I’ imagine my left wing friends saying with relief ‘and then it all became more stable?’ Not quite, because then we promptly tumbled into the ‘Winter of Discontent’ with more and more radical strikes in just about every industry – car manufacture, miners, road hauliers, NHS workers, rubbish collectors and even grave diggers. Rubbish piled up in the streets and bodies rotted in mortuaries and in unrefrigerated containers. Not surprisingly there was another General Election and the Tories see-sawed back into power.

So, do I fret and fume about the state we’re in just now? Not really. Do I trust any one lot of politicians to sort it all out? Not really.

And as for Covid! Let me take a breath and dive back in – I grew up when people vanished for years on end into TB Sanatoriums, when children died from Polio, when smallpox was rife in the third world.

And yes! There are a dozen wars and the news is full of death and fear and desperate refugees…. I know. When I was a few years old my Dad was fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya, part of a Colonial Force opposing freedom fighters. We called them ‘the enemy’, we called them ‘terrorists’ but whatever they were, whatever we were, it was a brutal fight on both sides. And now the Middle East is in a terrible state, yes, I know. This is not new. Jesus was born into the poverty and pain of the Middle East, into an occupied land, ruled by the savagery of the Roman Empire, torn by tribal conflicts, crippled by religious bigotry. His parents fled into Egypt with him when he was still an infant, a family just like the refugees we see stumbling out of Afghanistan, out of Syria, fleeing across the English Channel. He was born into a time like ours. The Middle East is a troubled place. I lived there, in Egypt, and we went to school in an Army ten-ton truck with machine guns mounted and manned fore and aft. I grew up in a world of enmity and fear. My Dad was run down by Arabs, and then to make sure he was dead they reversed over him (he wasn’t dead, just had a metal plate in his head for the rest of his life). It’s the same old, same old.

I lived through years of trouble in Northern Ireland, society so divided and so bitter that when my mother was dying she had to be flown back to England because no Omagh hospital would take the Catholic wife of a British soldier.

The world has always seemed to be spinning out of control, mankind has always been a mess, a broken , angry, barbaric mess. But in that chaos there is kindness too, and amazing acts of bravery, there are organisations like the Red Cross, Medicine Sans Frontiers, a thousand NGOs. There’s the love of Christ, the presence of our merciful God. And the world will survive. Even in the chaos there is joy and new life, kindness, truth and mercy.

Maybe you have to be 72 to have the perspective that I have. But even if you’re only 26 and can’t yet see the wider picture, you can listen to the words of Jesus

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

And just today I read in Colossians , describing Jesus,

‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

He holds all things together. The world is a beautiful place, and for all the wickedness and greed of man, we travel from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, just as we always have.

You gotta do what you gotta do

My home is looking a bit empty. There are three boxes packed, a load of stuff dumped already, another box will be sealed up this morning, the sofa is sold, etc etc etc… it’s even beginning to feel a bit echoey. And I have no idea where I’m going.

It’s a chilly, dull and wet day, but we dodged the showers and had a great walk on the rocks and along the shoreline, there were no sandlings for Pip to chase today so she didn’t need rescuing from the sandbar, and we all returned home fairly dry. For once. It had been an ordinary sort of walk, prayers for family and friends and for Afghanistan and for a solution to the Covid pandemic, for … well, you get it, all the troubles of the world. They seemed to crowd me this morning, and my words seemed too simple and banal to encompass even a tiny fraction of the fear and chaos of the world.

Making my coffee, choosing some music for ‘Alexa’ to play, I became aware of a growing excitement, an eagerness to be at my table reading the Bible. I’d finished reading Mark’s Gospel yesterday and I’d decided on Colossians today, feeling a strange urgency to ‘get at it’.

As I began to read I found the most wonderful few moments of clarity. I’m still there. That’s awful syntax, mixing up time and place, but you know what I mean. The wonder of that reading is still with me. I felt compelled, really, no – really – compelled to share it with you. So here it is, drop in with me for a coffee…. sit with me at my table… forgive the empty shelves and the echo, this my life just now;

Welcome!

Where will I squeeze in?

AKA Bread and circuses

I was looking online for a church in an area I may be moving to. I found one that looks OKish – Bible led, prayerful, a good photo of a cheerful crowd on the website, old and young, male and female…. I listened to a few of the sermons on YouTube… it all seems interesting and welcoming so maybe this is somewhere I can grow, build up some friendships, join in thoughtful worship, reach out into the community, find a place to belong….. But then, but then, scrolling down, I noticed something a bit shocking; they have 94 messages available online, and 91 of them come from men. So, in a UK population which is, typically, 51% female, this Christian church hears the female voice just 3% of the time.

The church I once belonged to here (a great little church) rules out female elders and it was only a few years ago that they accepted women as deacons. There have been murmurs about admitting women to eldership but the subject is so controversial, with such vehement beliefs from the ‘old timers’, that the (male) leadership – not wanting to foment trouble – has put off the debate, twice. I understand the problem – we all want peace in the church, we just disagree about the price we’re willing to pay for it! Women aren’t totally verboten, indeed I’ve given the message four times in the last few years and (good news!) a woman is on the rota for sermons right now as the Pastor has left and the next chap (it will be a chap, obvs) isn’t yet appointed. But I know one thing for sure, the men have a disproportionate say in all things churchy.

So. Where, if anywhere, do I fit in? Where do my three granddaughters fit in? What about all the joy and hunger, thirst and talent and enthusiasm and hope and love for God that’s in their hearts? What will they do with it? Does God truly want to write off over 50% of the population? What future for the church? I’m so glad I can blog at least. What about women whose gift is not writing but speaking? Shouldn’t we hear from them?

But I wasn’t going to talk about wimmen and blokes. I promised something about bread and circuses. Here goes:

About 100 years before the birth of Christ, the Roman poet and playwright Juvenal wrote something alone these lines: ‘the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’ To put it in the 2021 colloquial he was saying ‘The people who once elected strong and just leaders, now elect anyone who promises low tax and 24hour entertainment.’ I thought of this when I was talking a woman walking past my house. She paused to ask me to translate the inscription above my front door

it simply says ‘Built 1926’

and after a little potted history about the building (built before 1926 but remodelled then and opened as a vestry to the neighbouring chapel) we went on to village life (she was on holiday here from Croydon) and we arrived at the ‘trouble with the world today’ via the caravan she was staying in, the 9 or 10 TV channels she can get here (at home she has hundreds apparently), and the programmes she likes to watch.

The next day we happened to meet on the beach and the conversation continued. Mrs Grimly-glum, who’s quite a bit younger than me, puts the TV on as soon as she gets up, before anything else and it stays on all day. If she goes out she leaves it on as company for the cat. She gets the daily paper, a couple of magazines every week for the showbiz stuff, listens to the news maybe three or four times a day, and she is full, full to overflowing, with gossip, opinions (often contradictory but held with deep -if fleeting – conviction), rumour, conspiracies, scandal, cynicism and condemnation. The government is self-seeking, she says, not one of them has a genuine heart, they’re all in it for the money…. and as for the opposition! They’re incompetent and communist. The local council is a shambles, elected councillors are part of the old-boy network, the NHS is going down the drain, the vaccine’s not all it’s cracked up to be, she’s had worse bouts of flu than this Covid nonsense…..everyone’s gay or transgender just because it’s fashionable…. Croydon used to be a great place to live but now… Oh, the outpouring was deafening. I was reduced to an occasional ‘Mmm-hmm’ or an ineffectual bleat of protest as the sea curdled, the birds fled, the dolphins headed off for the Faroes, the dogs found things to do half a mile away, and she sucked the joy out of the air and wrung life from the human heart. As she left to return to her caravan in the nearby park she called back “Have a good day. See you tomorrow.”

It’s not exactly Christian of me, but my silent reply was ‘Not if I see you first, love.”

Her life, I think, is all bread and circuses. Too often we live for bread and circuses. These are the things that sate us, the things we feed off, build our lives around. To some extent I think that we are all like Mrs Grimly-glum, maybe not as deeply entrenched in modern myth and conspiracy theories and judgmentalism as she is, but we’re on the spectrum! Yesterday I was strangely and unusually tired, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and just enjoy being old, but friends were coming for a scrabble evening so I prepared the meal and tried to stay awake. Thinking of Mrs Grimly-glum, I put the tv on at about 3pm. I’ve never done that before (barring International Rugby) and I’m here to tell you that it’s rubbish! On every single channel (except for Film 4) there were varieties of reality TV, cheap programming, garish studios, weak ideas, loud presenters, corny formats, repeats of trash, repeats of repeats, and -of course – every ten minutes or so there were 4 or 5 minutes of adverts. The ads were for showers for the disabled, stair lifts, reclining chairs, lifting chairs, funeral plans and donkey sanctuaries. The message of the broadcasters was loud and clear “You may be old, but we that won’t stop us getting your money one way or another.”

And Mrs Grimly-glum watches these! Day after day, she absorbed the dross of the screen, the papers and the magazines. They fill her life and that’s all she cares about. Is it any wonder her life is so empty of joy?

It made me so grateful for the Gospel, for Kingdom life, for books and friends and laughter. And it made me sad that Mrs Grimly-glum has found none of them. I think we’re failing the Grimly-glums of the world.

I went to the beach the next day but she wasn’t there, and I drove to the caravan park but couldn’t see her.

The Gospel is full of joy and hope. The Gospel can change the world. Life is more than bread and circuses.

Loud and clear

Stand by for an outpouring. I have a load of stuff in my head just now. It has to go somewhere so it’s going into this blog.

First off, some of you will know that my life verse, my favourite chunk of my favourite book in the Old Testament (don’t purse your lips like that – you can’t stop me having a favourite book, however wrong it is of me) is in Isaiah 43

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

I am in limbo at the moment – not the Catholic nonsense about an in-between place, somewhere south of heaven and north of hell but just in-between houses – so I’ve been thinking about these words quite a lot over the last few weeks. It’s a time of endings and beginnings in my life, a whole new, unknown and solitary life opening up. It could be hard, and at times it is, just briefly, like a sharp pang, but I love the conversational style of this word from God, like he’s nudging me in the ribs, saying ‘Listen up, open your eyes, look around, see what I’m doing, trust me.”

This week he’s nudged me, good and hard, several times, so that I can’t ignore him, can’t pretend I haven’t got the message:

On Fridays I meet with a pal and we listen to a talk on rightnowmedia together and this week – lo and blinkin’ behold – those favourite life verses were quoted. One section of the talk was titled ‘The In-between‘!

On Sunday I went to a local church, one I don’t normally attend, and blow me down with a feather if the message didn’t also focus on those verses! It was all about new beginnings, a time of change, the in-between time when the Jews were wandering in the desert. I so wanted my old friend Jane to be there with me, how she would have laughed at my amazement.

This morning on the beach it was one of those quiet days when the water seems to be heavy, the waves like folds of velvet, the air warm and gentle… you know? I took a photo and posted it on Instagram, quoting that same chunk of lovely truth. Then I listened to the daily meditatation and it featured… yes! You guessed it. Them same verses.

Amazing. I mean, mind boggling. I googled it and there are over 31,000 verses in the Bible. Quite a lot to choose from.

A few minutes later I was listening to the waves as I sat on a log, the dogs were watching the shoreline for oyster catchers and it was a moment of contentment. No past and no future, just God and me, Percy, Pip and Pico. And then there was silence. Total silence. It was that lovely moment when the tide turns, when the rhythm of the waves pauses, and for a few seconds the sea makes no sound at all, as if the world is holding its breath. So I held mine. Wonderful….. And then a gentle wave ripples, no more than a whisper, and again a few seconds of enfolding silence… savour them…. and another wave, a little louder this time, and so we gradually return to the steady heartbeat of the tide.

As I walked off the beach I met a friend and neighbour and we stood together gazing at the silver sea.

This morning

He told me that I am the most surrendered person he knows. It made me smile. He isn’t a Christian. He knows that I am surrendered but he doesn’t know who I am surrendered to. It must seem to him that I’m slightly crazy, a few weeks off moving, nowhere to go to, no anxiety, not even any concern. But somehow he sees that the word ‘surrendered’ means something, or maybe everything, to me.

When God is taking me by the hand, revealing himself in so many ways, over and over again, so clearly, so undeniably there…. what a fool I would be not to surrender. Surrender to the one who loves perfectly, cares completely, protects totally. What a fool I would be.

And, alright, I’m a bit of a fool, most of the time, but c’m’onnnn…. I’m not that big a fool! Even me!

Even to your old age and grey hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isaiah 46:4

And in the words of Jesus:

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

John 16:33

I wasn’t going to write about that. That blog just sort of happened. I was going to write about bread and circuses. Maybe next week.

PS I love you

I’ve had a conversation with two friends today, all about the books we read, and the therapies some of us believe in, and all the theories out there about mental health and self-realisation and mindfulness and all the rest of it. We talked about that old idea of REM sleep therapy, we mentioned all sorts of things from happy pills to ‘talking more’. We touched briefly on millionaire preachers who live in walled compounds to keep the riff-raff out and employ bodyguards while teaching a simple lifestyle and peace of mind. The conversation was, as you will have gathered, a bit scatter-gun and no conclusions were reached.

I think we were talking a bit too much about us and not enough about who really matters. Three Christ followers babbling away, and we barely mentioned him. If I replay the conversation in my mind, I don’t find the name ‘Jesus’ in there at all.

That’s the trouble with the busy world and with navel gazing. All we see is the busy world and our navel. We don’t look up to see anything that might bring real enlightenment. Today we didn’t remember Paul’s advice to the Philippians “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.” Oh, no. We just splurged about cabbages and kings and let all our random thoughts tumble out.

Here’s a confession – no hair shirt and ashes, just an admission that I don’t think about Jesus nearly enough. Which is strange because when I do, there is excitement and peace and happiness right down to the marrow of my bones. You’d think that those two emotions, excitement and peace, would be incompatible, wouldn’t you? But when I think of Jesus Christ, I find both, just as I find two other opposites; contentment and impatience, not impatience as in ‘hurry up, hurry up’ but impatience as in ‘I just can’t wait for the next chapter!’

I think that with age we come to accept that we can’t neatly tabulate our thoughts to create a flow chart that would make sense to anyone else. With age and wisdom (!) we begin to accept that some aspects of our relationship with God just can’t be shared because we don’t have the words. And it’s only when we get over the frustration of that (I’m frustrated only 99% of the time these days) that we can reach real intimacy with our Creator, God, Father, our everything. And then …and then… forget the books and the gurus…. look up and beyond, and realise that we are not important, that we are not unique, that we are not special…. that we don’t have to have all the words and all the answers because we’re only us…. we are less than specks of dust in a million deserts in a vast panoply of universes. Now, all that could be a bit of a downer, it could send us into a dark corner with a tub of ice cream and a Leonard Cohen song, but gradually we come to realise that this is all good. It is! It’s good because in God’s eyes whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, however grumpy and grungey we are, we are all he longs for, we are the apple of his eye, we are the desire of his deepest longing. Warts and all. He looks at us with the eyes of love, because he is love personified.

Hah! Even me.

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about God’s love. I love the Song of Solomon in the Bible. It’s also known as the Song of Songs, which I translate as ‘the best of all the songs that were ever sung’. And for me it is absolutely the best song ever, just as the Gospel is the best truth ever. It’s the closest we can get to portraying the unending perfection of God’s love.

The Song of Solomon is the most passionate poetry – I hesitate to say it’s erotic but dammit, it is! It’s the truest account of pure love. It speaks to us in both the male and the female voice, and so it embraces everyone, full of longing for fulfilment, desiring only your love in return, whoever you are.

The bride speaks …..

‘My beloved is mine and I am his;
    he browses among the lilies.
Until the day breaks
    and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved,
    and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
    on the rugged hills.’

And the male voice answers….

You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;
    you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
    with one jewel of your necklace.
How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride!

How wonderful. I want to live in those verses. I want to turn down the white noise of this world , to quieten my mind, to talk less of daily troubles and more of God.

And after a conversation like the one I had today, I’m so happy to turn to God to whisper,

“PS Lord, I love you. I meant to say it, but I didn’t, so I’m saying it now.”

Knitted in our bones

This morning I listened to a meditation on Isaiah (surprise, surprise!). In Chapter 2, verses 3-5 when Isaiah is talking about the eventual rule of God he says ‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.’

The meditation touched very lightly on that phrase ‘nor will they train for war any more’ and in it I heard an echo that, at first, I just couldn’t place. Then it came to me… an old old Nat King Cole song ‘I ain’t gonna study war no more’ which went on to be covered by Pete Seeger, Louis Armstrong and a dozen more. So, of course, I had to sing it to the waves. And now it’s an ear worm. Bother.

As a teenager in the fabulous 60’s, I must have heard that banal song a hundred times, but I had never realised that this phrase was from Isaiah. I think that we in the West have forgotten how privileged we are that the Bible has become part of our culture, sown deep into the tapestry of every day living, so deep that it’s almost indiscernible. So often a Biblical truth is repeated by people who have no idea that it’s from the Bible, and if asked they might say ‘It’s something my Gran always said” or “Is it Shakespeare? Yes, I think it must be Shakespeare.” And yes, of course it’s sad that the Bible is not widely read and that these truths are not attributed to God, but an understanding of goodness has become an integral part of our society, in a way that just hasn’t happened in non-Christian environments. There is a deep and lasting understanding that kindness is good and cruelty is bad wherever the Bible is read, while in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, where the Bible is forbidden, the atmosphere is one of hatred, brutality and bitter merciless rage, beastial fury feeding upon itself, spreading ever further, ever deeper. And this is seen , by the religious leaders, as a good thing, a sign of devotion to god. Young people aspire to be angry, hate-filled and murderous.

Without God, this is what mankind looks like.

But the Bible is powerful, its influence is – to continue the fabric analogy – woven into the weft and weave of our lives. It cannot be silenced, God will not be defeated, and one day God will be triumphant. The gospel of love will win. Thank God. Thank God, because although we are a million miles from perfect, although we fail again and again, in a system that’s too often corrupt, without the influence of the Bible we could be where Afghanistan is right now.

Try to imagine the West without the Bible. I can’t. Imagine that there was no Holy Island, no Patrick travelling from Greece to Ireland, no Augustine, no monasteries caring for the poor and sick. I think we could have survived without all these things but then the question looms large – what would have replaced them? Something, for sure, to fill the ‘God shaped hole’ in man, but what? The world is a brutal bloody place, even with the influence of Christianity and indeed Christians have often been among the most brutal, but Christ was always there, to reprove and guide, our example and teacher. Without him, without his Spirit… what?

I cannot imagine this country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give it its full title) without the historical influence of the Word, which is Jesus. What political system would we follow? Who would have created our government? Would we have despots or committees, would we have been secretive and authoritarian or chaotic and anarchic? Who or what would we worship? Think about that with me for a moment; without Christ what would you or I worship today? I heard this in a great sermon a couple of years ago; “If God is not the centre of your life, something else will be.” What would we worship without the guidance of the Spirit? What sort of society would have shaped us? How would we view death? Would our men follow a list of arbitrary rules to ‘earn’ the 70 virgins so obscenely promised by some beliefs? Would we sacrifice to idols, desperately searching for meaning, consumed by fear? What would our world look like?

Thank God for God, indeed.

Even the most rabid anti-Christian, brought up in a society influenced by the Bible (someone like Richard Dawkins) has been shaped by the Word of God, powerfully influential over centuries. It is knitted in our bones, coursing through our blood, imprinted on our DNA.

But before we get complacent, us cosy people in the West with our ‘civilised’ values, maybe we should step back and look at the awful failings of the society we have built, even with the Bible in our clumsy hands… and we should have some compassion for those who have not had this great privilege. We are not so different. Our hearts should go out to those fierce, hate-filled men carrying kalashnikovs, beating the crowds at Kabul airport with lengths of hose. Our hearts should reach out to them in prayer. Each savage man is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father. They are not so different from you or me. Some are loved, some are sick, some are maddened by the things they’ve seen and done. There, but for the Grace of God, his Word and the faithful teaching of so many generations, go I.

Right there, but for the grace of God, am I.

What would the UK look like if it really was a Christian society, if we truly turned to God? We are told the answer in Galatians 5: 2&23

But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions:
joy that overflows, peace that subdues, patience that endures, 
kindness in action, faith that prevails, gentleness of heart,
and strength of spirit.

That’s the Passion Translation. Lovely, eh?

Peace, patience, kindness, faith, gentleness and strength. That’s my prayer for the Taliban. Forgiveness and love.