Cherish the words

I heard such a good sermon today. Some words can limit our imaginations and feed into our prejudice and I think that ‘sermon’ is one of those words. It can bring to mind the image of a pulpit and a stern old patriarch, the distant memory, maybe, of a boring lecture in a dusty musty church. For me it used to conjure up memories of statues, robes and incense, candles and ritual, and of long ill-prepared tedious lessons on – usually – a parable, delivered by passionless men. This wasn’t that sort of sermon. Maybe that’s why nowadays we sometimes call the weekly sermon ‘the message’.

Anyway, this was a great sermon. Full of love. About love. A great message.

Sometimes the realisation that Jesus was all about love comes as a shock. I mean, I know it. I do know it. I really really – listen – I really know it. That’s what I believe. From my toes up to my greying hair, in every cell of my body, the marrow of my bones. But then I hear a sermon like this, thought out by someone else, with a new connection, or a new emphasis, or just the sparkle of life and love and truth in the speaker’s eyes, and flip me!!! I know it all over again and for fresh! It’s all about Jesus’ love, it’s all about God’s love, it’s all about his love in us, it’s all about… wait for it…. LOVE! A good message, or lesson, or talk or whatever the hell you want to call it, delivered with real belief and conviction creates newness and wonder.

I don’t care if newness doesn’t make sense. You know what I mean.

Wow. It really is all about love. No wonder the established religion of his day hated Jesus, and feared him, so much that they had to kill him! They were all about paraded hierarchy and duty and virtue and pride and they were all about the brash display of nobility and bravery and piety and they were all about carefully hidden greed and corruption and cruelty …. all these things they called the ‘law’, and this law had become their god. A hundred little idols of self had been brought together to create an unchallenged authority to hide behind. And the creatures who served this powerful authority came upon a new and very different sort of teacher so that they confronted him, and always striving to be the best of the best within the law, they asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Can you imagine the different attitudes as that question was asked? There were those who were secretly crowing that here was an impossible question for this young Rabbi, that he would trip himself up, that he would look a fool, that they would walk away sneering. And there were others who genuinely wanted to know the answer, who listened with sparkling eyes and eager hearts….  ready to obey. Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Hah! Jesus said that everything , everything, hangs on those two commands. Love God with your very essence, and love everyone else as much as you love yourself. Simple, eh? (No. But then he went on to promise his wonderful help, so fret not)

When that answer hits you, boy, everything else falls away. The politics, the illnesses and weaknesses and corruption of the world, a ghastly TV series I stupidly began to watch last night, full of amorality and revealing only spite and harm…. everything falls away. Family problems, heartbreak and grief, it all comes into a greater perspective, the perspective of God’s love. Because with God’s love comes God’s peace.

In our sermon today we were reminded about Psalm 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart
 that I might not sin against you.”
and that sent me to Deuteronomy 6 (one of my go-to passages for not only the truth but the commanding nature of the words, the directness, the poetry, the imagery. This is God. Speaking to little old me!)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.

And it struck me afresh that the word of God, the Bible verses, are God himself, active in our lives, taking us in hand, loving us and guiding us. The words of God, in the Bible, are God. So, yes, keep them in our hearts and minds, live for them and in them, celebrate them and honour them. It’s all summed up for me in a word I love but use very very rarely, because its meaning is so special –

CHERISH

Cherish the words of God. As we cherish those things which are very dear to us, for which we would die, for the truths we live by. Cherish our children, cherish our dearest friends, cherish life. But dearest and most cherished of all ….. cherish the word of God. And his word, above all others, is ‘love’.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the Word was God.

There’s only so much I can absorb in one day. Only so much I can understand and re-discover, only so much praise I can sing. One of my friends, the other day, said “My head literally exploded.” and I couldn’t help saying, a mite severely, “No it didn’t.”

My head is not literally exploding, my friends, nor is my heart bursting, but at this moment my love for God is overflowing. His love for me. My love for him. Our love in this fallen world.

Just LOVE.

Hey, as I sat at my desk, listening to the sermon/message/lesson, I opened my Bible and for the first time in ages I looked at the inside cover…. this is something I stuck in there a couple of years ago. It’s the words of a modern commercial song (slightly edited) but, as someone who has buffeted around the world and never really felt at home anywhere in it, it completely describes my feelings about the Bible, about coming home to the Word:

(it’s a bit skew-tiff because it’s on a bendy cover)

The Bible….. ‘Feels like home to me.’ Heals, restores, comforts, guides, shapes, guards, loves.

Can’t find a title for this one.

How the weeks slip by in this Covid time! Friday comes again, another week gone.

Today started off a bit later than usual, so it was well past 8 when we hit the beach, me and my dogs. It was raining and cold, but a pal was arriving at the same time and so we trudged along together. Then, drowned rat, I drove to the supermarket (hoping the dogs would shed a lot of their rain and sand in the back of the car rather than on my sofa). Just your normal morning. Dullsville in Normaltown. By the time we were unpacked, coat dripping and shoes drying, dogs fed and coffee made, it was 11am. Still Dullsville. At mid-day my Granddaughter wandered through, with no school today and a ‘Social distancing stinks’ attitude. So we watched King Lear together, one of her A level subjects. King Lear! On a wet Welsh afternoon.

Have you ever seen or read it? Flip me. It’s not at all what I thought it was. We watched a great 2018 version with Anthony Hopkins as the King and a whole raft of great actors, directed by Richard Eyre (and available on Amazon Prime). Hopkins was 80 when the film was made – and there he is, splashing through mechanical rain, filming at night, maintaining a great tour de force throughout, his lines faultless, his voice thunderous, his emotions stripped raw, his portrayal of senility and rage just heart-breaking. Man! What a weird Friday afternoon. It was Anthony Hopkins who handed me my first ever writer’s award (that lovely rich Welsh voice saying “Bloody good job, girl!”) and I was approached by him to write a film some years ago (but we could never agree on the core of the story so it never came to anything). And now, here he was, a raging, insane, vicious old man, revealing the worst of humanity in all our weakness and vulnerability, begging for love from daughters but satisfied by the pretence of love, needy and vengeful and raggedly human.

On a wet Friday afternoon in Wales. King Lear, a King Lear I had met. Oh! and I’d also met that actor… and that actor…. and there I was watching them when I should have been writing my own stuff. Strange old life.

Because I was in the ‘not everso bright’ stream at school, we read only one Shakespeare, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and when we produced it as the school’s annual play I was (of course) Bottom. That was my total experience of Shakespeare until the Royal Shakespeare Company took me on as their writer-in-residence and I trotted dutifully along to see ‘Titus Andronicus’, knowing nothing about it. I was stunned by the violence, cruelty, gore. It had just about every human perversion possible from murder to rape to cutting tongues out…. I drove home, numb, wondering what the hell I was going to do in the theatre if this was drama. Did I want any part of it? It was well past midnight when I slipped into bed beside George and when he mumbled “Was it good?” I just made a sort of ‘Mmmm’ noise and put my freezing arms around him (his was a hard life).

So, here I am again, stunned by Shakespeare. William, William, William… what are you like? One line struck me so powerfully, delivered as he gazed at death “Why should a dog or horse or rat have life, but not you? You’ll never come to me again, never, never, never, never.” and you know what that tells me? It tells me that William Shakespeare knew what it was to have raw, devastating grief, to look at the uncaring world and to scream “My love is dead! How is that you’re still walking on this earth? You great clunky stupid sods, how come you’re still here, when my dearest love has gone?”

Poor William. He’d known grief. You cannot write well what you haven’t experienced. That’s why there are so many crap romantic novels, stereotypical detective stories and unconvincing thrillers in the bookshops. How many of these writers have loved long and true, how many have seen the inner workings of a murder, how many have heard the step of an assassin on the stair? So they make it up. Good writing is not ‘made-up’, it is known. Of course all these genres can be written well, if within the detective tale there is truth, if within the romance there is sadness, if within the thriller there’s joy.

In one sense every piece of good writing is autobiographical, and revealing. I think that’s true of all creativity – whether it’s visual art or sculpture, writing or song. Good art is nakedly honest and reveals the artist to the world. I’m amazed by Shakespeare, but I’m also bowled over by great acting. From the moment Anthony Hopkins walks onto the set, there he is – King Lear! No longer the lad from the valleys, but a mad, vicious, entitled old despot. Amazing talent. His portrayal is honest, laid bare, his vulnerability confronts and challenges us – this is humanity. This is life. Where does such talent spring from? We can’t manufacture it, screw up all our effort and become an artist or a writer or an actor…. All this is God given, God’s act of creativity even as we are conceived. How do they do it, we wonder when we see a beautiful painting or hear a soaring symphony. How do they do it?

Talent has become a bit of a theme for me this week. I’ve been reading Chapter 9 in the Book of Acts and one of the verses really hit home. The story so far: Saul is a real hater of Christians. He simply loathes ’em! He’s the Richard Dawkins of his day, and as a Philistine he’s self-righteous, passionate and extreme in his hatred of this new sect. He’s the Persecutor General (if that isn’t a title, it should be) and has been sending followers of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem, for trial (and death/imprisonment, I suppose). Christians everywhere fear him. Then he’s struck down, sees a blindingly bright light, hears the voice of God… and everything changes for him. Dawkins becomes Billy Graham (sort of). But the Christians are understandably suspicious of this new convert. It’s as if Richard Dawkins walked into my little church claiming to have – literally – seen the light. We would wonder why he was really there; to write another book, this time about us and all our silly ways? Or to make a film? We might try to see if there was a hidden body camera in his lapel, if he was wired for sound…. and if he then started teaching and preaching we might just be tempted to throw a few rotten tomatoes. Back in Acts when Ananaias protests that Saul isn’t the obvious person to be welcomed into fellowship, God says “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the gentiles and the people of Israel.” In other words, everybody. The worst of the worst was God’s chosen instrument.

Was God making a point that he can reveal himself to anyone and everyone? Maybe that’s part of it, but the focus here is that Paul was the right instrument for the job. He’d shown his talent and commitment in the job of persecuting Christians. Those same gifts would be wonderfully powerful in promoting Christ. God is wise to our strengths and weaknesses, the talents he has given us, woven into our lives. If he chooses someone to lead his church, they are already his instrument, even when they seem to be far from what is needed.

When God brings us leaders, he brings the right ones. Not any old Tom, Dick or Harry. Yesterday I spoke to someone God is using in a very marked way, and it was exciting to realise that character, personality, talent, steadfastness and life experience, had all come together beautifully, to create an instrument of God. It’s all his mysterious doing. It’s his wonderful, surprising, breath-taking doing!

If you’re called to do something for God, trust in him. He is all you need. If today you feel that maybe God is calling you to do something that you feel a little bit scared of, trust him. You have his power and his love. He’s already alive and active in your life, shaping you, leading you, bringing you to this moment. Did you think you’d come here all alone? Think again. Think again. Did I come to this moment by my own ability? Did I make my lungs and my heart and my brain? Did I, by some super-human power, before I existed, give myself life? Did I create this moment? Or did my God?

He brought you this far. He will take you on.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

Life don’t get better than this

You can keep your Baftas (but I love mine) and your MBE’s (ditto) and all the awards and all the rest of the razzamatazz…. keep your ceremonies and warm champagne and all that stuff…. tonight is the night to remember! Tonight I found a new perspective – it seemed that tonight my story was told, simply because tonight my autobiography was ‘launched’.

Haha! What does that mean? I had no idea what it meant at all.

I’ve never written a book before so I had no knowledge whatsoever about launches. The whole publishing process had felt such a damp squib, a book published in lockdown, unavailable for weeks, confusion about the distribution, opening my own copies all alone, no one to share the moment with, no one to be excited with me, and then…. nothing. I knew there should be a sense of achievement and even fulfilment, but there was nothing. Because the launch was to be online, in a Zoom call, I thought it would be another non-event. How wrong I was!

There, on the screen, were dear dear friends from South Africa, neighbours from across the street and down the road, a friend in America, others in the Netherlands, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Bristol, London, Yorkshire, Cardiff…. and my own lovely grandchildren….. too many people for one screen so there were two pages of the little thumb print images… dear, lovely faces, some I haven’t met in person for years, friends, colleagues, actors, producers… all of them loved. And the warmth! Oh, man, the warmth and humour. It was just a perfect, wonderful evening. No razzamatazz, just people who wanted to be there, really wanted to be there.

How is it that I’ve ended up here, 71 years old, with friends like these? True friends, dear friends, funny, irreverent, affectionate, bonkers friends.

I thank God for this evening because all good things come from him. My life has come from him. My life belongs to him. And look how he has blessed me!

Writing this autobiography has filled me with surprise and wonder. How is it that this child with such a lousy start in life has had such a great rollicking , rich and ultimately happy life? How is that God has made himself known to me? I mean, me!

He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.

That’s Psalm 40:2 but it’s my story too. And whoever you are, it can be yours. God has no favourites – we are all loved perfectly and unconditionally and eternally.

To God be the glory, great things he has done! I nicked that from a hymn.

I may not be writing the greatest most sensible blog tonight, but I am writing with the heart and not the head (and slightly under the influence of a couple of glasses of red*). My heart is full of appreciation for everyone who came onto the zoom call, for everyone who shifted stuff around to be there, for the lovely bloke who read my poem, for the couple who tuned in from bed, for Amanda who got an hour off work, for everyone and everything.

That’s it.

Night night. God bless.

PS *Maybe more than a couple.

It’s church, Jim, but not as we know it.

Our church building lies cold and unused. Just a year ago its doors were open on Sundays, for two services and Junior church, tea and coffee and cake, chatting and laughter. On Mondays there was usually a deacon’s meeting in the vestry (or was that Tuesday? It’s all ancient history now) , and in the evening the Young Adults would meet for nonsense and study and food. Some Tuesdays there were house group meetings and some Tuesdays it was Bible Study in the church. Other, smaller Bible studies took place several times every week, and people would pop in to leave stuff for the FoodBank, or to leave a shoebox gift in the sanctuary, or for music practice, or quiet prayer. On Thursdays it was coffee morning. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings there were youth activities, then there were staff meetings and on Friday afternoons there was a wonderful sewing and craft session, on Saturdays the Street Pastors met in the Vestry to pray before setting off into the streets.

All that has gone, for now. But the church is more than bricks and mortar and wooden pews; We hear over and over again that church is people, church is family and I think this is mostly true. The Care Team is still in touch with people who are ill, taking meals when necessary, being with them when they need company, driving them to hospital appointments, doing what it says on the tin, ‘caring’. Friends are still able to study together on Skype or Zoom. And Zoom has come to the rescue again for our Sunday sermons, and for prayer meetings and a new course on Discipleship. When we see each other across the supermarket, or in the street, what happiness! Friends ahoy!

But here’s the thing – in lockdown, or covid, or social distancing or whatever assembly of words we choose to describe this strange time, the colder truth sometimes becomes obvious and we discover that those we thought were friends are just ‘people we know’ and barely more than acquaintances. That’s not a bad thing, because who wants to think they have friends when actually those people don’t give a hoot? At times of difficulty we discover those who matter to us and those who we matter to. Both are vitally important to our emotional and spiritual lives. Who you care about, and who cares about you – that’s your world. That’s your family. And that reaches way way beyond any institution or soft words. Real friends make time for each other. Real friends put you somewhere near the top of their priorities. Real friends will keep you alive and healthy and able to love. If you are loved then you will love in return. In turn, if you love first (there’s always one who loves first!) , you will enable others to love. That’s how we nurture each other, especially when the going gets tough.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Give me people who will dance in the rain with me. I don’t care if you’re churched, or unchurched, local, distant, old, young, man, woman… none of that matters. What matters is contact. What matters is that whatever the weather we find a way to show we care, we are interested, we enjoy each other.

I know this is a studio, but it looks like Wales

Bespoke words.

Sometimes a truth jumps up and socks you between the eyes. And it’s just exactly what you need to hear on just that day, at just that moment.

Listen to this little lot – yesterday morning I was talking with a pal about cabbages and kings, and I remembered a metaphor about the way we regard our own flaws and sins… something, I said, about ‘savouring them under our tongue’. But I couldn’t remember the rest of the metaphor so when I got home I looked it up – here goes – it’s from the book of Job, chapter 20

Though evil is sweet in his mouth
    and he hides it under his tongue,
though he cannot bear to let it go
    and lets it linger in his mouth,
yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
    it will become the venom of serpents within him.
He will spit out the riches he swallowed;

That says it all, doesn’t it? We love our own temptations and desires (evil is sweet in our mouths) so we savour them, and the more we cherish them and hide them, the more they poison us, the more they grow, fester…. and then they spill out of us, to damage others.

I was so pleased to have tracked down these great verses, and I was still chewing over them and sort of crowing about how wonderful it is that God offers a different way to live, when I saw a message asking me to talk more about Fargo, puzzling over what I found funny about it. As I tried to answer (it’s a bit like trying to tell someone why you like a flavour) I said that the most delighting aspect of the series (to me) is its truth, and I found myself again quoting that passage from Job. It absolutely sums up the destructive nature of evil, and that’s what Fargo reveals in rich, rollicking drama!

An hour or two later in rapid-fire email exchange with a TV producer (in TVland emails are answered immediately, efficiently, and informally, like a real live conversation) we were discussing a character, his ‘secrets, lies, betrayal, treachery, love gone to the bad…..’ and his headlong descent into deeper and deeper evil… and ‘blow-me-dahn-wiv-a-fevver’ if that Job passage didn’t say everything I wanted to say all over again! So in one day Job had come to my rescue three times – and been passed on to three others.

Happy happenstance.

The Bible, eh? The living Word, and a word for today. Its truth stands for ever.

A strange couple of stories.

My Uncle Frank was a loveable character. He married Frances, and his brother Gerard married her sister Mary, so two brothers married two sisters. Frances died young, in her thirties I think, and her sister Mary (my mum) died soon after. The two brothers were left with children to bring up and both married again (according to disapproving relatives they did so scandalously quickly) . But something had happened to Frank, something deep and chronic. Maybe he was shaken by the fragility of life or maybe he was just plain bone idle, I don’t know, but soon after his second marriage he took to his bed and stayed there for 30 years, as an invalid. One fine day he just decided that he had a weak heart, and that was that! Nothing was wrong with his heart, it beat steadily and strongly until he was an old, old man, but his belief was unshakeable. For the next thirty years he lived in comfortable luxury, upstairs, with a radio and – later- a TV, eating heartily as his wife waited on him from morning till night, entertaining friends and family regally from a mound of pillows. No one made a fuss about the wasted life, reasoning that it was his to waste, and his new wife thought he was a wonder, his charm and good humour winning her over completely. He was committed to being a helpless invalid and so he became one, wasted his life and wore out his family.

When I was a student nurse we had a man of about 40 brought in to our medical ward, a merchant seaman, who had decided to die and to die soon. There was nothing physically wrong with him – he was put through weeks of tests of every conceivable kind. His appetite was normal, he drank normally, he helped around the ward, we all became fond of him and he seemed to like us too, but he was convinced he was dying and he was certainly losing weight at an alarming rate. Fading away as we looked on helplessly. Here’s the thing – he wanted to die so resolutely that he did. In a couple of months this fit, youngish, strong man, was too weak to walk. He had already received psychiatric care, and no mental illness was detected, no abnormality, apart from this one delusion. He had no family, no long term friendships because of his life style, moving from boat to boat, so he had nothing to tie him to this life, nothing to lose but life itself, and although he showed no signs of being in a low mood, his commitment to dying was stronger than anything medical science could do. His commitment to dying never wavered, and so he died.

Commitment is powerful. It can transform life. Commitment to a lie is always destructive but commitment to the truth transforms lives for the good.

I’ve blogged before about the book “Shaped By The Word” but here I go again: In the Bible there is truth. Only truth. The Bible is the one source of guidance and wisdom that we can rely on, and it’s the only one. I mean that. However wise a human being is, however trustworthy a teacher is, however honest a politician is, however well-meaning a friend is, the Bible is the only source of wisdom that is forever and unshakeably true. The Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, alive and active in the the heart of the reader, is the only part of life that we can wholeheartedly commit to. And that commitment to the Word will transform us. We will be shaped by the Word.

For the last five years I’ve had my quiet time, sometimes my Bible reading, on the local beach. This week, when we were talking about prayer time and stuff like that, I was asked why the beach was so important to me. But here’s the thing: where I have my quiet time with God is not important to me. Last year when I had sciatica my quiet time was spent standing up and leaning on the back of a chair with my Bible propped on the cooker … and God was there. If I move back to Derby I may have my prayer time in Markeaton Park, or walking around the beautiful Carsington Water, or – who knows? – I may even have a garden to sit in! The ‘where’ is not what’s important. What’s important in our spiritual life is our commitment to seek God, and we know that when we seek him with all our heart we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13) . What is commitment? It’s exactly that, doing stuff with ‘all our heart’.

All our heart. That includes prayer. Prayer doesn’t just happen. Prayer ‘with all our heart’ is delightful, amazing, searching, revelatory, awesome, terrible and wonderful. You don’t get all those things by accident! Stepping into all those states of mind and submission and love, takes commitment. It takes all our heart. It’s creative and it’s a process, but it’s not hard labour. If it’s hard labour, there’s something wrong because when we pray we aren’t alone, we are with and in the Spirit of God, and he is in us. He is enabling us. He is taking us further than we go on our own. He’s the enabler, we are not the achievers! He makes our commitment precious and fulfilling and when we feel our commitment weakening, if we turn to him, he will strengthen us.

As I drive down to the beach each morning, a five minute journey of nearly two miles, manoeuvring around the milkman (he’s a crazy crazy driver), the school bus, the town bus, cars, bikes and dog walkers, I’m acutely conscious of where I’m going, and why. There’s no rush. I’m going to a quiet place, it could be any quiet place, to give the day fully to God. It’s a drive stepping into a vulnerable state, an open and ready state of mind. I love those minutes. As I turn the bend at the top of Webley Hill and see the estuary and the breaking waves below (and the rain and the trees blown flat by the gale), there’s a sense of anticipation and excitement but also commitment. This is his time.

I am stepping into his time. Vulnerable and ready. Committing myself to search for him, knowing that I will find him. Ooh, that sounds a bit mystical , and you know I’m no mystic. I don’t spend hours and hours in a state of heightened awareness. This is me, Luce. You know I’m not like that. But here’s the thing, because I commit that time -however long or short – to God, because I submit to him and only him, it doesn’t matter that I also have three dogs to keep an eye on, and people to greet, and swimmers to watch. None of that detracts from the commitment that this time, this day, this life, is his. Not mine. His. As friends walk away, and Pip chases birds, I turn to God, knowing that he’s there. Has always been there. I don’t always know it emotionally, but I have committed to the knowledge that he is there, and that he will never leave me.

Commitment.

My Uncle Frank and that merchant seaman both experienced the power of commitment and what they put their trust in destroyed them. I want to have only one unshakeable commitment in my life, and that is to God, so every morning, I snatch a few minutes to renew that commitment and the ‘where’ doesn’t matter, not one jot.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6

He will bring a good work to completion in me.

Aren’t you glad?

I’m not going to be like this for ever! There’s hope for me yet. With his help, I’ll get there. With his help, so will you.

Not another blog!

I know, I know… too many. I will tell you why I’m blogging again, but try to be patient for now, bear with me.

I’ve just had a revealing conversation with my granddaughter; we were talking about ‘I’m A Celebrity-Get-Me-Out-Of- Here’ and wondering what it’s going to be like this year, in North Wales rather than Australia. I wondered what strange and horribly nauseating things they would have to eat in the Bush Tucker Trials now that they’re more mundane than exotic, and Frankie said that apparently they’ll have things like black pudding, tripe and pig’s trotters. Flip me, amigos ! That’s a damn good supper where I come from. Get a few Derby people in there and they’ll lick the plates clean. Black pudding, bacon and grilled tomatoes… fabulous! And just the thought of tripe is making my mouth water, whether it’s raw in vinegar or cooked in onion sauce, tripe is great, packed full of protein (it’s the stomach lining of a sheep or cow). And as for pig’s trotters, in Lancashire we would collect them from the butcher’s, newly boiled and wrapped in newspaper, a real treat, sitting in the yard, gnawing away on them, winkling out the meat…. ahh. Southerners don’t know what they’re missing.

Maybe it’s as much about the distance in time as the distance in miles, and maybe, even in the north, pig’s trotters have been forgotten since the 1950s, and tripe since the 60s, but you can still find black pudding on the shelves of Tesco. It’s very anaemic and tame compared to the real stuff back then, up north, but it’s still blood pudding (which was its original name). When I lived in Lancashire our neighbour would collect scraps and a bucket of blood from the butcher’s every week and make the best pudding ever. Oh, and that’s reminded me about brawn… I’ve not seen brawn for years.

Sometimes it’s as if I was born not just in another century, but another world. Don’t you think it’s fascinating that we all carry with us our own worlds, our own interior landscapes, influenced and informed by the lives we’ve led and the people we’ve met? I wonder if there’s another single person reading this blog who remembers the things that I do? I wonder if any of you will ever let me have a peek into your past? Are any of you writers (apart from the obvious ones) and do you ever share your memories? So many people don’t. Why not? You’re interesting! You are!

Frankie is back with me for the second half of her school term and when I drove down to the M4 to collect her, the sun was setting behind me, the light was shimmering golden, the sky radiant, the whole picture both too delicate and yet too brash and gaudy for words, the image in my wing mirrors simply bloody wonderful. It was a breathtaking drive and I was filled with excitement and a sort of racing delight that the world is so beautiful, the sky so magnificent. It made me think of everyone I know and love, and wonder if they were seeing the same sunset where they were, and if it was as breath-taking, if their hearts were also lifting in praise of God’s great creation. It’s the last day of a mini-lockdown of two weeks. Doesn’t sound too terrible, does it, two weeks? But it’s come after 9 months of covid restrictions and for many it has been the hardest phase so far. Because of the restrictions there were few cars on the road and that reminded me that some of my friends were living in town, or isolating, and so not able to get out to see the autumn showstopper that I was seeing (mine was a permitted journey, before you dob me in). At midnight the lockdown ends, and I hope that this week they’ll celebrate by taking a drive,  up into the hills, or along the coast, enjoying a real change of scene…. and I’m going to pray that they all get a magical sunset too. Why should I be the only one with all the luck? 

Twice I pulled off into a lay-by to take a photo for you, but each time the road was too low and the hedges too high to get a decent picture,  so I drove on to the motorway service area and tried again. Doesn’t sound everso beautiful, does it, a Motorway Service Area? But this is the view as I waited for Frankie to arrive:  

How can we stop from singing, praising, praying?

I read an article today about the problems of depression and isolation after this long nine months of restrictions and uncertainty and I was shocked to read that there are 60,000 people living alone in Wales alone. A swathe of aloneness and a peak in mental illness. Speaking to another single person this week , I confessed that I just longed for another hand to hold, someone to share my life with. Tears came to her eyes as she said “I just want to be held.”

That’s why I’m writing this blog. I’m writing this for anyone out there who is alone, and lonely, fed-up and anxious. Longing for a human touch. Or maybe you’re not alone but still lonely. Or in a huge family and weighed down, stressed and just plain tired. Whoever you are, whatever your world, I want to include you in our conversation about black pudding and pig’s trotters, and I’d love you to see the sunset I saw, and I want you to know that this hard time will end. You already know that, of course you do, but sometimes it’s good to hear someone state the bleedin’ obvious.

This will end. Hold on. Know that tonight someone is praying for you, know that God loves you, and know for certain sure that he holds all things together. He is where you are, and he is where your need is. No need is too great for him, no depression too deep, no fear too overwhelming.

So now I live with the confidence that there is nothing in the universe with the power to separate us from God’s love. I’m convinced that his love will triumph over death, life’s troubles, fallen angels, or dark rulers in the heavens. There is nothing in our present or future circumstances that can weaken his love. There is no power above us or beneath us—no power that could ever be found in the universe that can distance us from God’s passionate love, which is lavished upon us through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One! Romans 8:38-39 (TPT)

This silly blog can’t mend the pain of loneliness, or hold you, or give you peace, but I know someone who can:

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ John 16:33 (NIV)

In praise of dogs

I’ve had a whole lot of dogs in the last 40 years or so, and they were all loved, but some were special. Very special.  Mr Punch was a dog in a million, he was the cleverest, stubbornest, gentlest, most companionable bulldog the world has ever known. When my husband died, and I was putting on a front for the rest of the world, with him I could be openly and brokenly me,  he was always there for a hug and he was the one beside me as I walked through my grief on the Derbyshire hills. And he was funny. Dogs really can be funny. We only had to pull a face at Punch and he was ready for a game, when we sang a silly song he joined in the nonsense, and we had to stop spelling out w-a-l-k and d-i-n-n-e-r because he was surprisingly good at spelling. He was full of derring-do, sometimes alarmingly so. It was adventurous Mr Punch who fell into the River Derwent in Darley Park, needing me to wade out to him, waist deep, feet sinking into who-knows-what, my skirt billowing out around me. I managed to heave his sturdy unco-operative body onto the bank and then to clamber out (I couldn’t do it now) and as I lay exhausted on the grass, recovering, a chap walking past, oblivious to my muddy soaking clothes and breathlessness, nodded pleasantly and said “Lovely day for it.” It was Mr Punch who clambered onto rocks chasing a bird and then couldn’t get down. It was that same stalwart soul who decided, aged 10, to chase a fish in my Koi carp pond…. another near drowning. 

Mr Punch and the Derbyshire Dales

Right now I have three dogs in my care and I’m fond of them all, but one is decidedly special:  Percy is  a sturdy, handsome little dog, brave and deluded enough to take on even the most murderous (he says) Rottweiler, but gentle at heart, home-loving, immensely embraceable, well behaved and faithful. He doesn’t charge away into the distance after seagulls and sandpipers (Pip and Pico), he doesn’t eat rabbit droppings (Pico!), he comes when he’s called (Pico!!), after a walk he goes back into the car without complaint (Pico!!!), he doesn’t chase sheep, cats or cars (Pico!!!*!) and he doesn’t run hysterically into the road every time I open the front door (Pico! Pico!! Pico!!!!**!)

He has his tiny flaws of course; he refuses to be towelled when he’s dripping with sea water and caked with sand, hides when the grooming scissors and comb come out, howls heartbreakingly at some of my favourite music, and sleeps all night in the crook of my knees so that I hobble for the first ten minutes every morning.

Poppit Percy

When I get to glory, I hope there will be a Percy and a Mr Punch waiting, tails wagging, eyes bright. And it wouldn’t be too terrible if there was also a bewildered Pip and a naughty Pico.

This morning. Prayer buddies.

Gunpowder treason

What does the 5th November mean? Well, here in my village it means a huge and seemingly never ending fusillade of thunderclaps, noise bombs, stun bangers…. and two terrified dogs plus one slightly bewildered one (Pip isn’t bright enough to be afraid). It means screaming rockets, whining Catherine wheels, lightning flashes, explosions, whole firing squads of air bombs…. it’s a very silly way to waste a lot of money and to send too many people to A&E departments.

I am not a fan.

And what’s it ‘celebrating‘ anyway? Ostensibly it’s a celebration that the gunpowder plot against the Houses of Parliament, way back in 1605 was foiled. It was scheme by a group of Catholics, including a bloke called Babington, to sabotage Parliament and assassinate the Queen (Elizabeth I) . Now, I’m all for sabotage generally, but a few casks of dynamite under the great edifice of Westminster? Hardly going to do more than aggravate a few rats. And anyway, I feel a certain sympathy because I once owned the house that had been built by the Babington family and when he was arrested and executed the house was confiscated from the remaining family members. I don’t know if the guilty Babington ever visited the house I later owned but it’s nice to think that he might have, and maybe he enjoyed the lovely Derbyshire air, sat at the hearth and dozed, before losing his head.

I have a story about fireworks, are you sitting comfortably? When my Mam was very ill we lived in Northern Ireland, and the Army agreed to fly her in a hospital plane back to England to die. But her children couldn’t travel with her – the plane was like a flying intensive care unit- so two aunties came over to take my brother and me back to England by boat. When we arrived in Lancashire, I suppose wanting to make us feel better about everything, in the way that grown-ups did in those days, we were given ten shillings. Now, ten shillings was a fortune! Unbelievable! It was like £20 now! We were stunned. My brother Peter, was a very unhappy lad, an angry young man. He was 13 and I was nearly 8. And he loved whizz-bangs. He told me that we had been given this money for fireworks only. I was upset because there were so many other things we could have done with it, like dolls and stuff… and I have never ever liked bloomin’ fireworks… but “Aunty Nellie said it’s just for fireworks.”

Peter told me that by happy happenstance there was a huge glorious big box of fireworks for sale in Woolworths, and it was exactly ten shillings! Exactly! Almost like it was meant to be.

And of course, Peter was in charge so…. on 5th November we were going to have a fabulous, fabulous time.

Mammy was in bed in the front room, exhausted after the journey, my Aunty Nellie was with her, so it was just Peter and me and a few of the local kids in the back yard, with a box of matches and the biggest most thrilling box of fireworks you have ever seen. Black and gold with red lettering, a picture of a really evil looking Guy Fawkes…. Peter was wild with excitement. He did all the right things… set up stakes for the rockets and the Catherine wheels… had us all at a good distance… warned us all severely about not moving from our designated spots… and then he lit the first rocket. I think he probably lit two or three fireworks, as we “Ooohed’ and Aaahed”.

13 years old and very very important, orchestrating the show of all shows.

And then a match burnt down too far, scorching his fingers…. he dropped it … and it landed right in the middle of the big glorious box of fireworks.

Mayhem!

Crash, whizz, bang, spin, wheee, zzzoooom!

All hell broke loose. Thunderclaps deafened us, screams of panic, rockets lit up the tiny yard… too bright to see, silhouettes strobing, the world gone mad, screaming missiles rising ten foot and nosediving down to the cobbles, sparks and smells and …. Terrified, blinded, deafened, stumbling, pushing, panicking…. We scattered… I ran back indoors followed by Peter, now screaming with terror…. we slammed the door and stood there, while the world outside exploded into a thousand colours… and we couldn’t see any of it. Weeping, snotty, coughing.

And since then, quite frankly, fireworks haven’t improved their reputation. When our daughter was about 7 we took her to Markeaton Park in Derby for the usual magnificent firework display, for a lovely evening out and hot dogs etc… all safely distanced from the hot stuff. We were watching the rockets and making all the right appreciative noises, her little expectant face turned up to the sky… and a spark from a rocket went in her eye.

So. Fireworks? You can stick ’em!

The Fargo creep

I can feel Fargo creeping up on me again. I’ve watched it four times already, but it’s months since my last visit and I think I’m going there again!

I have a habit of reading a few pages about monasticism and sanctuary, every night, before I sleep. Last night I read this, dealing with the thorny question of humility: ‘a sense of humour is essential if life is to be taken seriously, but the humour must be directed at our own folly not at life itself…. if we can see how serious life is and laugh at our own foolishness, then we will have made a start (towards) humility’ . And that’s when I thought “I must watch Fargo again!”

Remember when you had to complete a sum at school and to show the workings? This blog is going to show my workings. It’s going to work out why those words made me think of this crime series, why Fargo is watchable over and over again and why I admire this series so much, more than the original film, more than ‘Das Boot’ and ‘West Wing’, even more than (hush, dare to whisper it) ‘The Sopranos’. Just more.

When I talk about Fargo, I’m talking about series one only. Have you seen it? If not, why not? It’s biblical. It is, flip me, listen, BIBLICAL. Capital letters and italics, and I’m tempted to make it bold…. but that might be over-egging the pudding. (a little segue; when I offered my granddaughter an omelette she replied “Sounds nice, Nana, but it might be a bit eggy”)

Fargo is about the smallness of man’s mind, the pettiness of his appreciation, the venality of his ambition, the narrowness of his vision, his self obsession, his relentless greed and his paucity of joy. Grim, eh? It’s also about simple, gentle love, commitment, compassion and loyalty. And, hell, it’s funny. Maybe the humour is understated and quietly absurd rather than hilarious, but it makes me crow aloud, exclaim with recognition at the metaphor and truth of the fiction. All alone in my little house, I hoot with derision and delight, loud enough to wake the dogs and make them look up, alarmed.

Imagine the scene: a snow covered nightscape, devoid of features, a road snaking towards us, the sky dark above. And then, two tiny pinpoints of light, a car on the horizon, drawing nearer, drawing us into a gripping story of greed and murder, deceit and conspiracy. The camera takes us into the cab of that car, to the driver, eyes glued on the road…. a man in silent turmoil…. his mind full of the next step he must take, the next lie he must tell, the people he must deceive, the profit he can make, the sins he must cloak…. in his wake are ruined lives, frightened people, dead bodies, tortured souls… but he drives on, intent on this moment….. on the road ahead…. spinning a world of his own making… while all around him nature is wild and empty and ready to swallow him up. He’s a speck of dust on the world’s surface but in the protection of that cab, under that wonderful sky, in all that beauty, he lives the illusion that he is in control, master of his fate, that the future can be skewed his way, the past can be re-written. How absurd he is. And in the shadows of this man’s story is a stronger, calmer, implacable presence of evil. Another man, but this one without conscience. No need for lies in his life. Evil feels no shame.

There you have it. The power of evil and the weakness of mankind.

That’s us. That’s humanity. And that, my chums, is why I love Fargo! A small life, a sympathetic everyman, not any more cruel than you or me, and a series of events, each one worse than the last, each one hidden, demanding lie after lie and scheme after scheme… but this everyman is up to the job! Always thinking, planning, ready to take the next step, he excuses this small selfish impulse, celebrates this tiny achievement, knows some other small satisfaction, covers up this lie with another lie, and this stab of fear with a new and different plan, and when that plan fails he covers it with another and another, with a flight, with denial, with anger, with victimhood…. with a smile. What a metaphor! You don’t think that mankind is by nature sinful? Read the Bible. Watch Fargo. Watch this man as he hurtles, headlong, into a nightmare of his own making.

In fiction there can be startling clarity and truth. To tell a story well, to be a good writer, there must be – above all – truth.

That’s why I love Fargo. It illustrates the truth so clearly. The characters are so immersed in their own story they have no time for God, no time to ‘stand and stare’, always moving on….. Oh, mates, our lives, without God, are futile. They can be full and action-packed, they can surround us with luxury, but without God it’s all futile. It won’t last. Only God is true.

I read a terrible, terrible news account of two real lives this morning, the lives of multi millionaire global celebrities. Lives of cocaine and alcohol and rage, manic drunkenness, excessive self-harm, fighting, punching, slashing, swearing, betrayal and hatred. Two beautiful people, created by a loving God, but hell bent on self destruction. Two lives with everything this world can offer: fame, wealth, adulation but without God … hell in a handcart.

The absence of God in any life shows the reality of God, the goodness of God, the truth of his Word.

As for God, his way is perfect:
    the Lord’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 18:30

Life without God is life wasted. Truthful writing will always reveal this. Fargo reveals this. That’s why I love Fargo.

OK?