A delightful rebellion.

Tonight my house smells of rebellion. Delicious rebellion. A rebellion as loud as my bright, defiantly pink front door and as silent. A solitary, strangely serene rebellion safely tucked away behind a solid door.

What’s the smell of rebellion? Easy – newly baked cake, red wine and cigarette smoke. A good Christian aroma.

This morning I was a bit late on the stormy beach, past 8. We dodged the rain and I enjoyed a wonderful hour and a bit trudging between the trees and flotsam brought in by the storms.  Trudge and pray. Prayer can become a refuge that we don’t want to leave but I’ve learned that my prayers can slip into self-indulgence, and then they stop being about God, and become all about me and how I feel. And anyway, I had a few bits and bobs to do in church.

I should explain that there are a few things weighing heavy on my soul just now.

I went into town but ran into two people and my voice was strangled and I couldn’t even crack a smile, so I quickly got away from them, ran an errand and then – furious with myself-  hurried home to  …..

nothing.

What had I hurried for? Nothing to write, nothing to do, no one to talk to, everyone too busy, no purpose. And having no purpose is crap, my chicks, especially when you’ve just stood by the crashing dramatic waves, committing the day to God, surrendering the big worry consuming your thoughts, asking only that the rest of the day will glorify Him

Home again, home again, jiggetty jig. It’s a real pain in the neck when the door closes behind you, and you’re all alone and wham! all the neatly packaged surrendered stuff comes crashing back, uninvited, onto your fed-up shoulders.

What will I do with the empty hours?

I could go to bed. No one would care or know. I could!

I could dwell on how rude I was to those two people, and how useless I am, and get sucked into the old familiar bog of self-hatred…..

I could wallow in misery and really enjoy it. Or…. or…..

Not.

So I gave myself a sharp dig in the ribs and started to make a cake as I listened to David Suchet reading the book of Esther. Esther… have you read it recently? It’s my first time and I learned a few things, and puzzled over a lot more things, and then David’s reading  ran over from Esther into Job and I was busy clearing up so I let him carry on and then wham! (again). There it was! Luce’s lesson for the day: Eliphaz the Temanite said to poor old Job

“Think how you have instructed many,
    how you have strengthened feeble hands.
Your words have supported those who stumbled;
    you have strengthened faltering knees.
But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged;
    it strikes you, and you are dismayed.
Should not your piety be your confidence
    and your blameless ways your hope?”

And I stood there, with my hands in the washing up water (my old cookery teacher drummed into us to clear up as we go along and I am obedient. Haha) and I thought about the people I’ve spoken to this week, people in trouble, people who are very sick, people who are lost, and I remembered how I listened, trying not to be a Job’s comforter, not offering facile ‘wisdom’, instead trying to be a peace maker, unshocked by what they said, not judging, or disapproving. How, hearing them, I remembered the words of Jesus ‘In this life you will have troubles.’

As I listened to David Suchet reciting the empty platitudes of Job’s trite friends, it was as if God Himself was saying to me ‘But now this trouble comes to you and you are discouraged?”

And you know what? I thought “Sod it. No. I am not discouraged. I am ENcouraged. I am encouraged because I am a child of God and every day He is my companion, every day He teaches me more and more.”

Once a year, probably, I buy a pack of 20 fags and keep them in my baking drawer, and they last the whole 12 months  (OK, I might bum one occasionally but so few people smoke these days, it’s hardy worth mentioning). Today there were none left in the drawer so I walked down to the village shop and paid far too much for some tubes of dried and shredded leaves.

When I came back, I took the cake out of the oven and left it to fill the air with its sweetness, I poured a glass of red wine, I lit a fag and I said to myself (said I)  “In this world I will have trouble, but I can take heart because Jesus has overcome  the world. Even my world.”

The Bible is enough, always enough, but sometimes God adds a little mini-sabbath to recover our strength. Sometimes it’s a pious and serene sabbath, but sometimes it’s a tiny surprising delicious rebellion of a sabbath.  For me, today,  God’s words, via a long dead Temanite (a chap from Temania?) some cheap wine, a couple of fags, and a lump of cake have helped to mend a bruised heart. At least for today.

Yesterday  I had a great, wonderful, rousing email from a friend, and I would like to share it with all of you who have troubles of your own. Whatever those troubles are, whether they’re from outside you, or a struggle with addiction or illness, or temptation… whatever your trouble is, here’s a wonderful prayer, and I’m saying it right now for you, all of you. You ready? Step into this golden prayer with me. Here we go:

May you know the Prince of Peace in this moment

       and may His Holy Spirit bring you strength and comfort.

             This is out of your hands, but not out of His. 

 

 

Is the band out of step again?

Arthur and Martha were getting to a certain age when things start to go wrong, and Arthur realised that Martha was growing increasingly deaf, “Martha, my dear” he said (being a Beatles’ fan) “time you went to ear savers to get yourself a hearing aid.’ But Martha, being female and always right, would not go. In fact, she told him that there was nothing wrong with her hearing. But life in their little neat bungalow (pale green carpets and eau de nil walls) was becoming decidedly tense, silences were prolonged, and Martha was growing more exasperated, just as Arthur was growing more exasperated. There were quite a few clattered saucepans and slammed doors.  One day he decided to show her how bad her hearing had become and when he returned from walking the dog, as she stood at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes, he stood at the front door and said “Martha, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”

There was no answer. So he walked into the hall:

“Martha, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”

There was no answer. So he walked halfway down the hall:

“Martha, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”

There was no answer. So he walked to the kitchen door:

“Martha, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”

There was no answer. So he walked right up close to her and said into her ear:

“Martha, I’m home. For the fifth time, what’s for dinner?”

For the fifth time, Arthur, sausages and mash.”

I’ve been Arthur for a couple of weeks. Blaming everyone but me, sure that I was right and they were wrong, determined to set things straight, to get stuff sorted. And just like Arthur I was looking in the wrong direction, outwards not inwards.

Funny, eh? Bonkers, human, blinkered.

My church had a decision to make and although the outcome was never a sure thing, I felt that it would go one way, and so glorify God, leading to a great harvest and new spiritual life in this little town. Because, hey, I know what’s what.

The decision went the other way.  Never has my flabber been so gasted.

I was battered in a storm of disappointment and sadness. I realise now that this came at a time when I’m already distressed about my family,  already on the brink of tears, and so a bit more vulnerable than usual. The decision made me very concerned for friends, sad for my church, certain we’d missed a blessing, defeated and …. well, sort of winded. It hit me hard.  But, you know, instead of taking it whole heartedly to God and laying it all at His feet, knowing and trusting that He was Sovereign, I reasoned with Him, pointed stuff out to Him, battled and swore and fretted and pleaded and cried. Stamped my feet. Spoilt brat. That God of ours, you know, He just needed me to sort Him out.  Obvs. Where had He gone wrong? How could everyone be so wayward? How come we hadn’t managed the whole thing better?

My state of mind and the bruises on my soul were everyone’s fault but mine. I sat on my prayer rock for so long in the freezing wind one morning that when I stood up I couldn’t walk for several minutes. I was with God but I wasn’t with God. You know?

Anyway, I’m back. Three weeks of reading Joshua and John, and listening – even  through waves of misery and rebellion – to the patient voice of God, and the good teaching of my church, and here I am. Older and a tiny bit wiser.  A whole lot humbler. About time.

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And you know, He never let me go. Even when I wanted to charge off, shouting and blundering into the dark, I knew He had me and that was a deep comfort in all the tumult. In a way, and this will sound perverse, I knew I could rebel because I knew He wouldn’t let me go. Does that make sense? I doubted everything but His love. I could still pray and marvel and write about His love, the birth and death of Jesus, the goodness of God the Father, I could still open the Bible and find those precious words. By His Spirit I knew I belonged to Him, even when I wanted to run away or poke someone in the eye, in the absence of a machine gun.

My prayers may have been confused and rambling, but the Bible was always crystal clear. Whatever riot was going on in my heart, the writer in me creating scenarios that never happened, there was sanity and peace in the Bible.

The Gospel of John is all about knowing God. The red letter words excite me. The writing excites me. It’s a conversation with Jesus and who wouldn’t be excited by that?

Then, Joshua is a wonderful lesson. Just wonderful. A strong leader, willing followers, a prayerful man,  miraculous provision, many obstacles, and a strong clear theme, ‘God leads, man follows’. I’ve read a few commentaries and they put it slightly differently but for me, right now, the living word in Joshua is that God leads and man follows. And yes, it’s heart breaking when it seems that God’s will and mission have been thwarted, but that’s just my cock-eyed thinking. Nothing can thwart our Sovereign God. Nothing. The miracles in Joshua are amazing, huge big booming glorious miracles – the River Jordan held back, armies routed, nations conquered, the sun standing still…. but in just the last two days I’ve seen… let me count them… 5 miracles. Tiny to some maybe but each of them beyond the capability of man. In the last two days 5 miracles of God’s saving grace, of His timing, of His love. Pulling me back, balm to my soul.

I’ve learnt this last three weeks that prayer is more than love and passion, it’s total submission, total trust. And I’ve realised at last, really fully realised and known in the marrow of my bones, that I can’t hope to submit fully on my own.  ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh but Spirit gives birth to spirit’. (John 3:6 ) That’s why I can’t even begin to submit as a created being should submit to its creator, for that I need God’s grace and enabling.  That means getting down on my knees (metaphorically, don’t be silly!) and daily, hourly, always, accepting Him as the Lord and Master of my life.  With God we find God. By His grace and by His grace alone, we pray.

A hell of a lesson. One I thought I already knew. I bet I have to learn it again and again….. and if so, that’s OK. I’m ready to learn, however long it takes, however many times I fall flat on my face, because I don’t want to be so busy sorting out the deafness of the world that I don’t recognise my own, so distracted by the missed steps of others that I wander out of line, so lost in my clamour of prayer that I never shut up to listen.

Tell you what, though, this learning lark is bloody exhausting. I’m really glad that when we get to glory we’ll be finished and perfect.

Hah! And that means none of you will recognise me. A win-win situation.

God is good. All the time He is good.  His compassion pours over us, engulfs us, like the endless power of the ocean it lifts us, buoys us, carries us, comforts us, endless.

If you don’t yet know the love of Jesus, look for Him. He will change your life and your eternity.

 

 

 

 

Lemon drizzle

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Bitter sweet. Lemon drizzle cake and a God of opposites.

Even the best life is bitter sweet. If you’re very fortunate it’s sweet bitter. But it’s sure to be both – for everyone – no exceptions. You don’t get one without the other.

‘Joy unconfined’ doesn’t exist in this world, at best it’s sorrow denied and dismissed. There is never, in any life, an absence of sorrow so to talk only about peace and joy, and an untroubled existence, is to present a lie.  Too many churches and philosophies do that. A life in which we would never worry, or grieve, or fear, in which we would never be torn apart by regret or longing,  would not be a blissful state, a Nirvana for super-Christians. It would be hypocrisy or delusion, or at its worst, smug self-satisfaction. One of the three. The person who claims that he or she is never fearful or distraught because they have complete faith in Jesus is not telling it as it is, or they’re emotionally crippled. I simply do not believe it.

Jesus Christ didn’t come to bring perfect peace in this world to those who love Him. He left those promises to Buddha, whose followers strive to attain ‘a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self….’ I don’t think that’s what Christians should be striving for. We strive to be Christ-like.

What was Christ like?

Jesus Christ brought His humanity and His divinity to fallen man. His humanity had him weeping, angry, sorrowing, fearful, full of dread. His divinity had Him triumphant in submission, powerful in weakness, victorious over death. Bitter sweet.

Today I’ve made lemon drizzle cake for a very sick friend, and as I mixed sugar into lemon juice, smelling that wonderful citrus zest, I thought about the Christmas story. Bitter sweet.

Advent begins on Sunday 29th November, just over a week away. I know that I’ll be swept up in the Christmas pattern, the tree, the mince pies, gift sorting, all the familiar rituals. Christmas will be strange this year, a friend dead, family miles away and even then split up into different households, a family member lost to us, but I know that the miles between us  will be filled with love and joy. So, why am I banging on about bitterness?

The dictionary definition for the word bitterness, in this context, is “a sharp, pungent taste or smell” because of course I’m not talking about sourness, a sense of resentment or hatred, but of something we appreciate and balance against the opposite.

Life is sharp and pungent, sweet and gentle. Life is balance.

Think of the child Jesus, a perfect child, born to an obedient, Godly woman, a baby boy with a new born baby smell, unfocussed eyes, grasping hands, sweet, sweet sweet. And then think of that same child, born into poverty in an occupied land,  to a young virgin mother, an outcast, into a strained and new family, forced to walk a hundred miles to fulfil the census of a powerful and brutal conqueror, bitter, bitter, bitter.

And looking beyond that night of His birth, looking to the future of this child, what do we see?  A child born to die. A child whose whole purpose in being born was to die in pain and shame, betrayed, alone and torn from fellowship from His Father,  torn from the light and lost in the dark. Laid in the tomb, alone, abandoned. Bitter, bitter.

Whose whole purpose was the saving of mankind. Sweet, sweet.

Because the tomb isn’t the last scene of our story. In the promise of that child’s birth, we  find an eternal and overwhelming sweetness, sweetness enough to that kiss all tears away, mend all grief, a sweetness that’s so breathtaking in its majesty, so compassionate in its power, so majestic and sovereign in its humility, that we fall to our knees in wonder and delight. Our God is complete and whole,  our God of opposites, of all things,  without beginning or end, who created space out of unthinkable nothing, our God who spun the all the suns and the stars and the moons of the cosmos from His breath and spoke time into being. That God, that God is love. Creation is love.  He is love. Love so fierce and so gentle, so righteous and so forgiving, so immovable and so compassionate, that He – the mighty I AM – became flesh. Became muscle and sinew and weak, vulnerable, flesh. Our God of opposites.

Who else could have righted the wrong that man had become? Only God. And so He did.

Who is good enough, loving enough, sacrificial, submitted and pure enough to save me and a whole history of fallen irredeemable souls? Only God.

Sweet, sweet God. In all our bitterness, sweet God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Our Pastor, over the last 5 years that I’ve known him, has often spoken to us about 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and Philippians 4:4

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

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!

Not an easy teaching, but he plugs on, faithfully, doggedly, and finally, I think, I get it. Bitter sweet.

You know when there’s a certain phrase or image or memory that just wrings your heart so that you have to bite back a gasp? When we share communion in my little church, and the Pastor holds up the bread, I’m lost in wonder.  ” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19)

That’s a breath taking momement in every communion service. The sight of that bread, the hands breaking it apart, the imagery of a body broken, for me, for me…. The thought of my God saying those words on that dreadful night…. Every single time I’m overwhelmed by the realisation that these words were spoken by Jesus, who was already – at that very moment – being betrayed to the thugs of the synagogue,  knowing fully what was in front of him, and still He gave thanks.

My God gave thanks that He was about to die in agony, for me. He loves me so much that even as He faced that ordeal, He was thankful for my redemption even at that terrible price. Thankful that He would save me. In that bitter sweet moment, as He broke the bread, He loved us all, and gave Himself. Just as He gave Himself when He came into this world, a baby.

That’s Christmas.

Bitter sweet. We do our God a dis-service if all we see in Christmas is the sweet, failing to see the sacrifice, the cross and the tomb.

Bitter. Sweet, sweet, sweet.

 

Burning boats

I love the image of burning boats. Burning boats is  what I’m good at, and what I long to do. The phrase  means you deliberately create a situation in which you have to move forward, and can’t go back.  There’s absolutely no way back once you’ve done it – it originates, supposedly, from Cortés  who burned his boats when he reached Mexico, so that his men would be totally committed to his expedition and their new life.

But I just love the image and the idea of it because it means freedom from the now of my life, it means I could deliberately blank the whole damn story-so-far out of my mind.  I’m aware that I might waver at some point, being weak,  so I might need to disgrace myself completely to be sure of never being allowed back – and if that’s what’s required, then, what the hell, I’ll do that too. Imagine that. How liberating to burn your boats in defiance.

How liberating to say ‘to hell with the whole damn thing’.

That’s the wrestle I have at the moment. There. I’ve said it. Please don’t send me your wisdom and your solutions, I don’t want them and they don’t apply. They’ll just make me  swear a bit. As I struggled with and prayed about this huge temptation yesterday evening, I found, I think, maybe, a sort of key to this self destructive, defiant  ‘up yours!’ instinct: By the age of 16 I had lived in 12 different places, and if I bring that forward to today… well, in my 70 years I have lived in 36 places, and that’s not including those where I spent less than a year. I am almost rootless.

My only root, my tap root I suppose, going down deep into the earth, is Christ.

And as for people giving us roots, I don’t remember my Mum, my dad was a stranger, my only close adult relationship was with my husband and he died after just 14 years.

So I am not good at roots. Or to put it another way, I don’t find it easy to belong. I long to belong. But it’s a foreign concept really.

Why is burning my boats such a tempting idea when belonging is so desirable too? There’s an upside to being rootless (almost). Let’s say ‘rootless in this world’ and forget eternity for a moment. You can burn your boats very easily when you’re no one’s priority. There’s a sort of freedom, as well as an ache, in knowing that you will never again be anyone’s priority – that there will always be really valid reasons why Arbuthnot can’t visit, and Clementina hasn’t rung – after all they have wives to romance or husbands to dance with or families to nurture. All these reasons are good and they’re even demanded in the Bible. Husbands, cleave to your wives! Wives, be faithful to your husbands. Fathers, provide for your families. So in a Biblical setting, in sermons and readings and prayers, these great strictures just underline that you’re on your own, matey.  You’re on your own with a million others.

Weird, eh? Me and a billion million others. And what you don’t have, you long for. Thus I long to belong. To just about anyone, really. I’m not proud.

When I think of  devoted couples, and I know several, I feel a painful sort of tenderness. One day one of them will die and leave the other where I am now. That’s a sad sad thought. Of course they may have family, and that will be some consolation, but they will be alone, without their other half. They’ve become one and one day they’ll be split apart. They don’t yet know how hard it will hit them, they have grown into each other’s skin, melded into each other’s bones, share each other’s dreams. One day, boats-burnt amputation.

But oh, if I could just turn back the clock five years, ten years, grow a thicker skin, a carapace… if I could just shrug off the situation I’m in right now. What a temptation.  I so want to burn my boats, to regret the last few years, the commitments I’ve made, the belief I’ve embraced. But I can’t. Try as I might, God won’t let me go. I can’t unknow what I know. I can’t deny what I’ve realised. I can’t say I have no Saviour when He’s right here, holding me tight.

But apart from God… everyone else? I want to upset everyone so they’ll never talk to me again, and then carry on my merry way, knocking over icons and trampling on kindnesses. I want to be selfish and blithe and, most of all, absent.

And then, yesterday, just when I needed it the most, I heard a sermon about surrender. I heard that belonging is a two way thing. It’s not all sentimental and lovey dove and make-belief. It’s more than my beloved pendant bearing the word ‘belong’. I don’t only belong to God, I belong to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s a bit of a bummer when you’re in the mood I’m in.

I belong to them? “If your life is surrendered to the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to God and to the other members of the body.”

So, I can’t burn my boats or my bridges. Pretend indifference. Whistle into the wind. I have to stay and learn, and submit, and rejoice and grow.

Bummer.

As the lyrics go in poor old Fagin’s song… “I think I better think it out again!”

 

Not one wet foot….

‘And there they stood; those priests carrying the Chest of the Covenant stood firmly planted on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground. Finally the whole nation was across the Jordan, and not one wet foot.’

That’s how The Message translates Joshua 3:17.

I love it! Not one wet foot.

When God works a miracle, he works a miracle. He doesn’t half-do the bizness, nearly accomplish his wonders, almost achieve the impossible. HE DOES IT.

If you were sitting with me over the last day or so, you would have heard little yelps of delight, and small noises of wonder and surprise. I’ve been reading the book of Joshua. I mean, come on, you lot – have you read it recently? It’s amazing! Joshua, what a man! Not without his complications (but that’s men for you) and some of his story is gory in the extreme – rated 18 and over for definite sure – but what an amazing witness to the faithfulness and power of God.

Now I discover that I have to go back and read Numbers to get the whole picture, so I think that will be next week’s ‘job’. But, listen, “Not one wet foot.”

This crossing of the Jordan was the second ‘parting of the waters’ that we read about – the first (Moses pursued by the Egyptian Army) is presented with huge drama and tension, it’s nail-biting, edge-of-seat stuff as the waters of the Red Sea were held back. This one, the River Jordan, is altogether more low-key. But it’s still a miracle! It’s still a bloomin’ miracle, innit?  And then.. and then…roll of drums….  we get the whole damn universe  standing still in chapter 10 – or just the sun – or maybe we should say more correctly that time stood still – who knows? Listen:

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

You know what grabs me in that? Joshua said those words to God, in the presence of the Israelites! He had such faith in answered prayer that he openly, vulnerably, put his prayer out into the world, to his followers, to the rabble that was Israel. He didn’t mutter the prayer quietly to himself, just in case it wasn’t answered, just in case he’d got it wrong and God wasn’t going to answer. He KNEW what God could do and he believed that God would do it, and he put everything out there, on the line.  He knew that he was praying in the will of God and he knew that God, our God, is a great great God, and that his power and his faithfulness will never fail.

He didn’t give himself the insurance policy of secrecy, he didn’t think “If I pray it out loud and everyone hears, and then God doesn’t come through, I’ll have a riot on my hands, I’ll lose face, not only will we lose the battle, but I’ll be a disgraced laughing stock.” Those Israelites were a tough crew , and he knew there would be no mercy from them, you just have to look at what happened to Achan (the thief who plundered) to see that; not only was he stoned, but his entire family was stoned, even his animals were stoned! And then they went to the battle of Ai… So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.  He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”

Tough blokes, them Israelites.

He knew that to put one foot wrong with his followers would result in mayhem, in the most brutal of revenge punishments, but he had faith in God, and he prayed aloud, for all to hear. He wasn’t praying for the life of a loved one, or a new church, or Brexit to be sorted, he was praying for a universal cataclysmic weird and once-only miracle. To have that much faith you have to be in tune with God, filled by the Spirit of God so that you know His will for sure, and so that you pray in complete submission, complete and utter humility, the words given by God, heard by God, fulfilled by our wonderful God.

Joshua, my man! Wouldn’t you want to follow a leader like that? You’d say “On you go, Macduff, I’m wi’ ye.”

It strikes me that Joshua had lived so faithfully in God’s will, serving Moses first of all, even acting as a spy, and then accepting the role of leader, and having the faith to cross the Jordan, and doing all the hard stuff (the blood thirsty battles, the deaths and sufferings) in obedience, that when it came to asking a huge huge thing of God, he was able to step into that prayer in complete faith. The daily round of his life, the holiness he practised, the obedience that must have become a second skin to him, they all made that command “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, ” something he could say with total faith. 

Total faith.

We have our Joshuas today. God appoints leaders to shepherd his people, to shape his church. Sometimes we can be so busy clamouring for our own preferences to be heard, rather than the preference of God, that we shout them down. But they are our Joshuas. We shout them down at our peril and it doesn’t please the God who placed them there. Our role is to have faith, to listen, to pray, to ensure that the leaders are Bible based, and once we know they are, then our mission is to follow. Not to lead. Not to put our preference first. Just to check the commitment and faithfulness of our leaders and then to be led.

Simple.

I believe that if our leaders are trusting God, and we are trusting God, and being guided as He leads us all, there will not be one wet foot. God will do all we ask of Him, if we ask in humility and in His Spirit. Nothing is too big for God to sort it.

Yesterday I wrote about a tiny group of believers raising the huge funds needed to serve a neglected community. I had a great email from a bloggite in America, and I quote “My wife and I have been working for the last five years to help lead our congregation to transformation”. When I read that I sort of crowed. To think of all these people, in every corner of our world, seeking God’s will, diligently heading towards the goal He holds out…. it’s a fabulous thought. His work is being done. ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our amazing God. Really, truly, wonderfully present.  And yes, there are knock-backs, and sometimes it’s hard, but lead on MacDuff….  all you Macduffs, here and in the US and in SA and everywhere. “On you go, Macduffs, we’re wi’ ye, so we are.”

*Am I burbling? Sorry.

      Not sorry.

           A bit sorry.

I feel God’s hand on this world. I have a sense of great things rumbling under and about to erupt. And it’s really hard to keep that quiet. 

 

 

 

 

We need to need a bit more

We are far far too snug, smug, sheltered and warm.

A neighbour has lent me an old booklet and it’s amazing. It’s marvellous. It has me wondering and dazed. The chap who wrote it occasionally visits my village and I am desperate to meet him. It’s about the ancient area of Penrhys in the Rhondda,  and it charts the work of God in the lives of a small – tiny tiny – Christian community.   Penrhys, once a place of pilgrimage, was originally an estate of 750 council houses, built in the 1960’s on a high ridge between the two mining valleys, so high that it’s often shrouded in mist, buffeted by the wind. Bleak and inhospitable. This isolated and poverty stricken estate was built to attract new miners from Durham to work in the pits of South Wales, but of course that work was short-lived and very rapidly the soulless lines of concrete maisonettes and basic houses became neglected and desolate. The last pit closed in 1990 and by 1996, when our story really starts,  90% of the estate were eligible for housing benefit, and unemployment stood at 93%. There were single families, isolation, depression, crime and need. Desperate, desperate need.

In 1986 John Morgan came to Penrhys, searching for God’s will in his life. Two years later he was invited to become the minister  to a congregation of ten adults and twenty children. He and his wife and children felt called to do this work by God, not an easy calling by any one’s ideas… social workers said that Penrhys comprised 2% of the valleys’ population but 40% of their case load… what madman would want to work there, among the hastily thrown up, badly designed minimal housing , on featureless streets, exposed to the winds and rain of a mountain top, serving a hostile, disillusioned and deprived population? A population written off by the rest of the world… read this, written later…

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and this;

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OK, chicks, to cut a long story short, John and his wife Norah started a new church community, now called Llanfair Uniting Church. It seems that several denominations came together to pray and believe,  campaign and plan and finally the council gave them a  dilapidated maisonette block (I so want to see this place!) and they refurbished it. At the time of writing this book, which was 1994, this is what God had achieved in that lost and lonely place:

1994: On the top floor of a maisonette block is a flat which serves as the Manse (minister’s home), under this a flat for a worship leader, another for an education worker, and a large flat for student volunteers. The next floor down is a community centre including a cafe, laundrette, nearly-new shop, crèche, music and education rooms. On the ground floor is the chapel and its necessary offshoots.

All this came with no money. It came to a modern slum, to broken uneducated people, and it came from God.  Initially, although ‘given’ the maisonette block by the local council, the ten worshippers (all unemployed) and John had to raise £375,000 to refurbish the dilapidated building. Ten unemployed people! £375,000! On Feb 23rd 1990 John wrote in his journal ‘Yet I believe we will achieve the goal and develop the church’s mission in this community. That would be the greatest gift of God’

Two weeks after writing that statement of faith, John was told he would receive £45,000 from a charitable trust and an equal amount would be made available as a loan. He writes “I was staggered! What rejoicing!”

And so it goes on… wonderful surges of provision, but just as many knock-backs. The Welsh Office at first refused to help in any way, claiming it was ‘too religious’ and it was months before they received any help from the government.

By the end of 1990 the church membership had swelled to… well, no loud cheering just yet…. just twenty.

But twenty was enough, with God on their side. In March 1991 this tiny group of worshippers instructed the builders to begin, to fulfil their tender now standing at  £413,000. That day John writes “We have witnessed many miracles during this past year and our expectation is that God will guide and bless.” 

By 1994 there were 50 adult worshippers, and 100children. ONE HUNDRED CHILDREN!

I sometimes, quite rarely, tell the children’s story in my church. We have maybe 7 children on a ‘good’ week, but I have sometimes told the story to just two. How I would love to tell a story about God’s greatness and goodness to a hundred youngsters!

It took God’s miracle and power, plus prayer and commitment and vision from its tiny start-up congregation, help from charities and local businesses, and as time passed it was boosted by the unity between it and other local (equally tiny and struggling) churches.

I’m struck again and again, reading this small booklet, between the difference between the community at Penrhys and me. They realised that they needed more than their windswept ghetto up there on the hillside, they needed more than their own barren resources, and so they turned to God and to each other other. They saw their own need and the need of those around them.

We may  know that the people around us are bleak, lost, lonely abandoned and in need but somehow we haven’t realised it. We may say piously that we are in need of all God’s grace, but actually we feel quite OK and comfy as we are….. We are snug in our little red brick church, and here we’re bloody well going to stay, come hell or high water. We will sing about stepping out into the storm but we’ll sing it only as we batten down the hatches and cut another piece of cake…..

Jesus said that if His disciples remain silent the stones will call out.  I believe that the stones  are calling out. Stone upon stone, calling us to step out, step away, demanding that we leave them to slowly sink back into the earth while we move on, taking the Gospel with us, wherever God may lead us.

It’s staggering, challenging, exciting, TOTALLY AMAZING!

I keep seeing an image that’s awful in its simplicity. I close my eyes and there it is. I try to pray about something else, and there it is. My millstone.

A millstone around the neck was a punishment. A millstone drowned the sinner. I wonder if a millstone can also drown a congregation?

I think I’d better shut up now.

 

 

 

 

 

‘What if?’ A love story of sorts.

I’ve been thinking today about the best laid plans of mice and men, examining some of the ‘what ifs?’ in life. It’s something I have never really allowed myself to do – it’s mostly a waste of time to regret what hasn’t happened. But today I’m in a summarising, thoughtful, weighing-up mood.  So here’s a few what ifs;

What if George had not died when he did, when I was 42 and just two years into my writing career? I wouldn’t be here in Wales, that’s for absolute sure. I wouldn’t be attending any church, because my lovely and prayerful husband didn’t like churches. I would have been less alone making all the decisions a free lance writer has to make, and I would have made less, or different, mistakes. My life would have been richer, deeper, different.

If George had not died when our daughter was 14 years old, her life would have been very different too.  They were close, father and daughter, they did so much together from archery to drawing to ganging-up on me. When he died she lost her rock and her guide.

But what of him? What if he hadn’t died, was still with us? He would be well into old age now, no longer able to row or scull, or aim for the gold on the archery field, or run his beloved 18kms a day (his knees were already beginning to fail). He would be finding that his joints ached in the mornings, his memory was slipping, his friends were dying, his wife was old (I am!)

Let me tell you about George when I first met him. He was a Scot, broad shouldered, stocky, blond haired, blue eyed. He walked with a sort of bounce, an irrepressible energy that he took into every part of his life, whether it was work or home or sport. He was an engineer, deep in the sciences, in facts and figures, the laws of engineering, equations of energy, power, mass and effect. He didn’t have much time for emotion, too much a stoic Glaswegian, and we rarely did anything romantic. But we got on very well, we liked each other, made each other laugh, talked non-stop. We couldn’t go into a pub without him remarking on the structure of the vaulted ceiling and explaining why there was a cross bar, and musing on the downward forces that were exerted, or … you know… bloke stuff. We were opposites but  we just ‘got’ each other. I thought he was bloody marvellous and he was.

George was a sportsman, a rower, an archer, a runner, a table tennis fiend. He drank quite a bit, smoked a hell of a lot, and so did I. A match made in heaven. When we met I had fled from a violent marriage and he was going through an acrimonious divorce and we took all that baggage into our relationship. We were both in a mess for the first 5 years of our marriage, and we made mistake after mistake, ending up alienated in South Africa,  distraught to realise that we were heading towards another divorce, guilty about all that would mean for our 4 year old daughter.

And then there was a knock on the door of our bungalow and a new neighbour, a Pastor’s wife,  brought us a plate of brownies. For something to do on a Sunday (George would be sleeping off Saturday night’s whisky) I started to go to her husband’s church, and yes, I did so with an air of ‘You God-people are all wrong but I’ll humour you’. I didn’t need Christianity. I’d grown up Catholic, nearly become a nun at one point, I knew everything there was to know about everything and life was bad enough as it was without adding a whole mountain of guilt. But it would pass the time on a Sunday morning.

God has been very very good to me. He has sent me to two churches where the teaching is not just true but also arresting, intriguing, diligent, revealing. I think the word I’m searching for is ‘good’.

A few months later, shedding the weight of a troubled childhood and adolescence, I became a Christian. A few months after that, George came to Christian faith, all alone, reading a book and sipping his beloved whisky (Laphroaig – ghastly stuff! If you’ve been imbibing Laphroaig do NOT try to kiss me afterwards. Refusal often offends) and he – overnight – became a new man. I can’t describe it any other way,  overnight I was given a gentle, warm, strong, supportive husband. The battles were done. A few skirmishes remained, but we were on the same side, growing together, maturing, and learning to be tender with each other, to let go and forgive and enjoy.  The next 8 years were like the first years of a marriage, and always a kind man,  now he became a thoughtful, prayerful man, who could still reduce me to tears of laughter (as his daughter and grand daughters do now). His humour and his lovely personality remained but over it all there was now a deep peace and trust and warmth. He was a good bloke. I miss him, even after 27 years.

Life with him by my side through all the years as a writer and mum would have been very different. I can’t turn to God and tell him that I wish it had been different because, you know, in my heart, I don’t. I think that George had the best years, and he left this world before his hard years arrived.

I am glad for him. God gave him a great gift when he died as he did, suddenly, dead before he hit the ground, gone. Brilliant way to exit this life, but he missed our daughter growing up, and for that I am so sad, to see her grieving for her daddy was a terrible thing. And that grief remains and has coloured our lives.

Today it’s our daughter’s birthday.  He thought the world of her. He called her a lioness. When she excelled at rounders he dubbed her ‘slogger Marshall’. He was into women’s lib long before I gave it a thought.

This blog is my thanks to God for the husband I had, and the daughter I have. This blog is giving God all the praise and all the joy of my life. And it’s thanking Him even for the hard cold time of George’s death, because that was His gift to George, and I am so grateful that my lovely man didn’t have to face old age. So I suppose I’m also thanking God that I’m alone now.

There’s a turn up for the book!

Happy birthday to our daughter. A father’s love is outside of time and place, so I’m sure that the particles and atoms and the heartbeat that made up George’s love are still all here, in the air we breathe, and that they are reaching her today.

She’s not here today, and he is long gone, but love unites us. Our love to our daughter, his love and mine.

 

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