Stop me, for pity’s sake, make me go to bed.

Yesterday there was a huge problem here in my little house – in the middle of a monsoon-like downpour, with the water flowing off the hill like a river, the drains backed up, blocked, overflowed. I had 4 men in wet weather gear splashing through the house, rods, jet washes, a huge lorry blocking the road, vans… a machine sucking up water… towels down to save the house… all that stuff. It was an afternoon and evening of Biblical proportions. I’ve had the flood, now I’m waiting for the locusts (just joking, God!). The men were brilliant and kind and sort of gallant, soaked to the skin but they saved the wooden floors and carpets from the flood and even did their best to clean up the worst afterwards.

What can I say? Dramatists find drama.

When we finally got to bed it was midnight and I lay awake until 1pm, just full of relief that it was all sorted and so grateful for the day, and then I got up and made a cup of tea and read some funny stuff by John Mortimer and finally turned the light off at two. Annoyingly I woke early and was on the beach well before six. I’m telling you all that to explain why I really shouldn’t be writing this blog with just three hours sleep to my credit in the last 40 hours. But you can’t go bed when you’re on the top of a mountain overwhelmed by the view, dizzied by the height, and shouting into the wind. What am I shouting ? Just this;

Then he said to them, “Be diligent to understand the meaning behind everything you hear, for as you do, more understanding will be given to you. And according to the depth of your longing to understand,much more will be added to you. For those who listen with open hearts will receive more revelation. But those who don’t listen with open hearts will lose what little they think they have!”

(Mark 4: 24-25)

That’s in the Passion Translation. It’s fabulous. I must have read it a hundred times in the NIV and I reckoned I understood it. Didn’t have to think about it. I knew it. You know? And then I heard it read from the Passion Translation this afternoon and one sentence has socked me hard between the eyes, and makes me want to shout “Yes!” and do a jig there on the mountaintop “And according to the depth of your longing to understand, much more will be added to you.

Yes, yes, yes. Oh, yes!

This is my story, this is my song – the more you long to understand, the more you understand. The more you dig, the more you find. The more you listen the more you hear.

Amazing! Takes me right back to Jeremiah 33:3, the verse that grabbed me last year and threw me against the wall and gave me a great big smacker of a kiss – “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

Amazing Word, amazing God.

And there’s another verse that’s meant so much to me this week, again a new thought about a verse I’ve read a hundred times. In Mark 4, giving us a simile for the kingdom of God, Jesus compares it to a mustard seed, the smallest seed which grows to be the largest of all garden plants. Yes, he was talking of the kingdom of God but he was talking about himself, too. It was a perfect simile for Jesus Christ, the most insignificant of men ( “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Isaiah 53:2) the seed of truth and beauty who grew to shelter the whole world. One simple man in a dusty and arid landscape, but that one man altered the course of history and eternity.

And here’s a thing that made me laugh yesterday in all the muck and mayhem – the chap who came and sorted everything out was a burly Welsh man called Mark Jeremiah! I tried to tell him, but above the noise of the machines and the thunderclap and the downpour, I don’t think he heard me.

What a name. Mark Jeremiah. If, all those years ago, Mr and Mrs Jeremiah had added a middle name, Mark Isaiah Jeremiah, how great would that have been?

Banana Bread

There was an almost audible sigh of peace on the beach this morning. If a sigh could be tangible, this was. For the first time in nearly three months the car park was open, so there was no one parking illegally on double yellows, or sneaking guiltily into the lifeboat carpark. Fellow dog walkers who had been unable to come because of the lockdown were strolling across the sands, full of quiet delight – Christine and Ken, Andy and Julie, Helen and Anne, Sue and Peter, solitary Alan, the woman in the orangey top and man who waves but never speaks, there was the girl with the puppy and an old bloke walking with sticks, and all the dogs of course, Murphy, Faith, Rufus, Toby, Nina, Marcie, and on and on and on… a steady trickle of dogs and owners stepping onto the wide sands, quietly thankful. Three horses, two ridden and one, a Welsh cob, unsaddled, trotting along for the company. A gentle morning of smiles and greetings and catching up.

We are learning to live with Covid, as we’ve already learned to live with ‘flu, the common cold and measles… maybe we will never eradicate it as with smallpox, or vaccinate against it as with TB, but we will live with it. We won’t hide away from it for ever. It’s hard today to be exuberant when over 40,000 people have already died in this overcrowded little country, but we can allow ourselves peace and contentment, thankfulness, a quiet joy in friendship. And we can make this a day of prayer for those who are in mourning, especially those who couldn’t be there as their loved ones died; praying for sisters and lovers and brothers and children and friends who couldn’t hug each other in grief, collapse into each other, prop each other up, give comfort. Praying for everyone left behind.

Beauty and joy walk hand in hand with sorrow.

I’m not known for gushing sentimentality but emotions will have their way and as I sit here , in sunlight, typing this, I am glad of other people. Today isn’t about only sadness, it’s also a day of remembering that people are born to love and to be loved, that they are worthwhile. People. Awkward, self-absorbed creatures who walk upright and do terrible things and love with ferocity and reflect absurdity and stumble and soar in turn. Them. Us.

How can I reflect my delight in people? How can I thank God for them? How can I offer this day to God in gratitude? Saying “You know what, Lord? I never ever realised how much I enjoy being with other people until I was no longer with them. I didn’t know they were a gift, even the difficult annoying aggravating ones, until they weren’t around any more.’ How can I give my day of quiet joy to God?

Well……

So far, I’ve read Romans 8, and James, and done a tiny (teensy weensy) bit of homework for tomorrow’s Bible study (Mark), I’ve done my crossword and quintagram and Lexica, I’ve handed a jigsaw to friends at the door, had an email from someone I haven’t seen for 63 years (63! Bloody facebook. It has a lot to answer for. And I’m not even on it any more), I’ve made banana bread for my granddaughter to take when she meets her boyfriend (yay! Another cause for celebration) and there’s a second one in the oven for me to take this afternoon on a visit to friend in her garden (yay! Ditto) and it’s not even 11.30 yet!

There are two things I’m really really good at – scrambled eggs, and banana bread. I won’t have a gravestone but if I did I would like it to read “She was loved by God and she made a great banana bread.’

My favourite sort of day. Just… you know… what’s the word? Content. That’s it. ‘Content’.

Delighting in the ordinary.

It’s been horrible for some people, this last 11 weeks, or 12 weeks, or whatever it was. Horrible. Even those who hug their solitude to themselves, like me, have begun to miss human contact. To be completely honest with you strangers…. it’s driven me half mad. But it’s done! We did it. And now we all hold our breath and hope, hope that discipline will continue, that crowds won’t gather, that we’ll keep on keeping each other safe, and looking after the most vulnerable. Freedom with responsibility.

I’m reading the epistle of James. I think that if I never heard another word of teaching or preaching, never had another moment of friendship with a fellow believer, never had a word of advice or was ever held to account again in my Christian walk, as long as I had the book of James, I would have all I need. In there we have honest, no-holds-barred pastoral care, guidance and honesty, acceptance and love, the way to live. God spoke to me in the Book of James this last week, scooped me up and put me back on my feet. I’m a bit slithery still, not totally upright and steady but, hey, this is me.

The book of James, divine, loving, accepting, uncompromising, the God of the daily, the patient father, God of lockdown, of the grieving, the God of friendship, the God of today, Tuesday June 9th, 2020, the God of banana bread bakers.

I wish I could sing. I would sing of the goodness of God.

Oh, what a perfect day

This last fortnight has seen such fierce and glorious sunshine that the paint of my new front door has split, so much sunshine that when I took a book outside to sit on the pavement, perched on my wall, I was blinded by the glare off the white page, and had to retreat indoors, peeved and defeated. No grass, no shade, no view, no breeze. Proper peeved for days on end. Grump. I moved to this house with the promise of a garden but the promise evaporated and now I am stuck. Proper stuck.

‘Rejoice in all things’. Yeah, OK, Paul, but when the sun is shining and I can see only a patch of sky…. give it a rest, eh?

Lockdown is a little less restrictive now but with no outside space I can’t invite anyone to my house, for a catch up and a coffee, so you know what’s happened? After ten weeks I have begun to withdraw, to decide again that people are not my thing, that chatting is not my strength, that the world is agin me, and I hate it anyway… that I must sever all ties and be glad to do so….. and I start to dream a Yeats dream;

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Hah! Bonkers! I couldn’t grow a row of beans to save my life and as for building a cabin – I can’t even put up a tent. All nonsense.

But here’s the good news: Today it’s cold. The weatherman warned about a cold front moving in, but he didn’t say it would be bloody arctic. The beach this morning was a howling wilderness, the sky silver, and my feet are freezing. It’s four hours since I came off the sands and I am double socked, the fire is on, the underfloor heating is on, and my feet are still numb. And it’s fabulous. A cosy winter day and just what the doctor ordered, snug as a bug in a rug. It feels a little more normal to be alone, it feels OK, it feels… wait for it…. good.

You know what’s kept me on the no-strait-jacket-required-just-yet side of sanity? My mornings. An hour or so each morning on the beach where I can walk with a friend, the poet and me, standing together in silence or in nonsense or ambling along calling on God, exploring cabbages and kings and Covid regulations, his latest poem, my embryonic second book, his Mum, my husband, and always, always the dogs, Percy and Pip, Arthur and August (my dogs have names of music hall entertainers, his could be romantic heroes and ancient scholars) Those walks, given to me by my good God, have kept me sort of safe. My lovely Christian agnostic pagan poetic gay and pastoral friend.

And here’s what’s giving me such an overwhelming surge of happiness on a cold grey day – I have been lent a commentary on the epistle of James, and it’s absolutely magnificent. After being sand-blasted and turned inside out by the wind, I took my cold feet to the fireside, I sat on the stool as near to the roasty flames as I could be, the dogs at my side and I read and read. Just wonderful. You know, when I think of the Gospels, of the red letter words, of Isaiah and of James… what need have I of sunshine? Or, come to that, fireside, or society, or church, or anything? Aren’t these enough? These are enough.

The red letter words, the words spoken by Jesus Christ; I know they’re not the sounds he made, I know he spoke another language, that every translation bows to the language of the country and the day, but these are his teaching, his truths. Wherever they are read, however they are served, they bring God to us. That arrests me, stops me in my tracks. His words. Jesus teaching me. I mean, me!

And James – I learned today that this is probably the first writing in the New Testament, written just a few years after the crucifixion, maybe only two years after Christ died and rose again. I learnt that they were written by James, the half-brother of Jesus, James who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah until he saw him, resurrected. This epistle is raw and fresh and practical. It isn’t packed full of theology and doctrine, it’s just bursting with a new fresh way to live. Luther despised it – cheeky sod – because it’s not ladened down with the teachings of the developing Christian doctrines. It is, like the preaching at my church, profoundly simple, unwaveringly true, compelling, demanding obedience, offering love.

James who didn’t follow Jesus in his lifetime, but who met with the resurrected Jesus, and became an apostle, and was stoned to death for preaching the gospel. James, here, at my fireside, with grumpy old me.

How can I want for anything, anything at all, when I have this?

Oh, and I’ve started writing book number two and that’s just a delight.

Sunshine? You can keep it.

Today is just perfect, and tomorrow is Sunday. It just gets better.

God loves the middle classes too.

This week I was asked to read a first book and to give some reaction to the idea of adapting it as a drama. I like this task – it gives me the opportunity to speak to a fellow writer, returning to my old life where stories are sparked and spun and made if not quite beautiful, at least interesting. The book I read this week should have been gripping. It’s about a successful woman’s terrible life-changing dilemma, a story of institutional prejudice and injustice. But there are just three dramatic sock-you-in-gut scenes. The rest is anti-dramatic. The writer, I think traumatised by the events, can’t step outside herself to find insight, or to give the other characters depth. It’s a book that shouts for help from the bottom of a deep ravine where the sun never illuminates the scene, a book that shouts about self and injustice, but never dares to look at the wounds, or to learn anything from them. The villains are wholly villainous, and the writer is virtuous.

I spent a few hours speed-reading it, and then twice as long wondering what the kindest and most constructive reaction would be. I gave a pretty safe and cowardly first response. Woke up this morning to an email asking if I would endorse the book. Damn! Too safe and cowardly. Now how do I decline without hurting an already hurting individual? Well, I’ve tried. And as I write this blog I am concerned about how this would-be writer is reacting. Drama is a construct and even the best stories in the world may not always lend themselves to it. It’s horrible when you have to tell someone that, and in a way I hope that this writer doesn’t believe me, that they keep on, keeping on. But it’s a hard slog for even the most gifted, and I tried to tell her that without squashing her dreams.

That’s the first ‘tale’ in this blog.

Here’s the second tale: this week a trio of us have been reading the Gospel of Mark and meeting (zoom) to discuss what we’ve learned or wondered. The words of Jesus “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” are so very familiar that I almost didn’t think about them but the study guide we’re following asked “Why did Jesus reach out to the outcasts and not the leaders?” and I became very very excited! The question was all wrong! The supposition was totally skew-whiff! It assumed something that isn’t stated in the Bible. Jesus did not reach out only to outcasts or sinners. He never says that! He never does! He actually started his preaching ministry among the leaders, in the temple, he went to rich men’s homes, he reached out to everyone, because that’s who he is, he is Love. Here’s how I see that incident in the second chapter of Mark now. Feel free to disagree and throw rotten tomatoes, I don’t mind: Mark 2, just my interpretation

Jesus has just begun his ministry, already he’s the talk of the town, wherever he goes crowds flock to hear him, to catch a glimpse of him, this strange young man who comes with such authority out of a carpenter’s home in a poor village. A cousin of the ‘madman’ John who preached repentance, and ate locusts and wore the skins of unclean animals.

The houses he went to were besieged by Israel’s version of paparazzi, people who heard and saw and hurried off to tell others about everything he said and did. A roof was demolished to lower a paralysed man into the room where Jesus was speaking, the road outside mobbed, people straining to hear, asking each other what he said, Chinese whispers…. and there, among the followers, were the church leaders, ‘thinking to themselves’. I love that detail, the rabbis sitting there, silent, thinking their own thoughts. Did Jesus see a look of disdain, did he catch a shared nod of “Ahah! Now we have him!” passing between the teachers of the day? It would have been impossible for these scheming men not to reveal themselves, if I was there, or you were there, we would know exactly why they were hanging around. I’m sure they were transparent.

Jesus heals the man. That’s his answer to their contempt and doubt. He has authority to forgive sins and he heals the man. Unapologetic, uncompromising, simple. The God of no compromise.

And then, walking on, pursued still by this mob, Jesus sees a tax collector. A man not much worse than a thief, someone who took what little they had from his own people and gave it to his masters, the occupying force. And Jesus went to his house, and had dinner with him. Had dinner with him! Can you imagine the disdain of the rabbis? They asked his disciples “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Maybe they thought that the disciples would be indiscreet and give them the excuse they needed to denounce Jesus to the authorities. But Jesus knew what was going on, and he said to them “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

I think that when he looked at these scheming rabbis his heart went out to them. Pity for them in their blindness. I think that maybe as he said the word ‘righteous’ they squirmed under his scrutiny, I think that he was not calling them ‘righteous’ but rather acknowledging that they called themselves righteous. He wasn’t saying that because they were righteous he would not reach out to them. We know that even when we’re in our deepest sin Jesus loves us. Why wouldn’t he also love these men? When he said that he came to call not the righteous but sinners he was giving to those who would hear an invitation to acknowledge the truth about themselves. We are all sinners, thus he came to call us all. The tax collector, the Apostles, the mob, the rabbis, the women, the children, the thief on the cross, the rich young man, the Centurion, the woman with a haemorrhage, Pilate, you, me, all. No one was excluded. Not even me.

And here’s where – in my head at least – the two tales meet up, the new story that someone wants to turn into a drama, and the ancient history that is already the greatest drama ever played out;

When we had that Bible study, I found myself saying something that was a new thought to me. Does that happen to you sometimes? As you develop a conversation you find a new thought, like a small gift dropped onto your lap? (that’s one of the drawbacks of being single, you rarely have a conversation long enough to discover new thoughts) We were talking about the love of Jesus and I said that we love what we’ve created – even when it’s something as banal as a character written by a hack like me, the creator loves what he or she creates. One of my ‘zoom’ friends asked if I really did love all the characters I write, and as I answered that yes I did. I might heartily condemn their actions, but the job of a dramatist is to explore, understand, to forgive and yes, to condemn too. Condemn the action, not the soul. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I’ve created some terrible ‘bad’ people in my time, but if I didn’t try to understand them, if I had held myself apart from them, they would have been cardboard cut-outs strutting across the set, monsters.

Somehow the experience of reviewing that new book this week, and then reading the Gospel of Mark, has given me a new thought;

We are, each one of us, the spoken words of Jesus, his creative act. Just as he created his apostles, so he created the rabbis who persecuted him. Created in love. I never set out to write badly, a painter doesn’t dream of churning out rubbish, a baker hopes for risen bread…. an act of creation is an act of love. Jesus loved the rabbis who were dogging his every step and waiting to pounce, just as much as he loved Peter, or you or me. They were made to be his.

It came home to me, forcefully, that in day to day life, the daily round, meeting others, interacting with them, I should feel and know the love of Jesus for everyone. Flip me! Everyone? Yes, because God has breathed life into all of us. Whoever they are, they are here because he loves them. Already loves them. His love is not waiting for the moment when they turn to him. It’s there already, from the moment of their birth, before their birth, in the very idea of them, in every breath they take, every cell of their bodies.

My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139)

I have a book coming out this year about my first 17 years of life. I can’t call it an autobiography because it’s coloured by a child’s flight of fancy, nor can I call it a novel because it’s solidly rooted in my own experience. Maybe it’s best described as a fictionalised autobiography. We all see the world with ourselves as the central character but that is never how anyone else sees us. Each person is their own central character, playing out their version of the narrative which will differ from every other, even when the story is experienced side by side, like conjoined twins.  Good writing honours all lives with equal respect, and thoughtfulness. Good writing honours God in its honesty. All writers fail at this most of the time. Some writers manage it, fleetingly.

When I first started out as a dramatist, I worked very closely with a great young couple, producers who loved drama and understood writers. I was living in a council house, I wasn’t educated, they were super-bright graduates, they were from the Middle Classes, they spoke the Queen’s English, knew every book in the world (it seemed) and they were just the sweetest pair I could have met. They spent the first years of our working relationship patiently pointing out that even posh people have feelings, even aristocrats, even brassy millionaires. I eventually learned. It was a great lesson and it’s stayed with me – I have friends who are rich and friends who are permanently and hopelessly broke. No probs.

I think it was no probs for Jesus.

When the Christian sees clearly the nature of God, and her own nature, when she understands that grace is unending and lavished upon us, she sees that with God’s help it is possible to love everyone she bumps into, all through her long and messy life.

Wow. How I’ve failed at that, my friends!

When the Christian sees clearly the nature of God, and her own nature, she longs to step down as the central character of her life, for Jesus to take her place.

Wow! How I’ve failed at that, my friends.

I think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who were torturing and killing him. I think of people who have given me a rough time. And I realise that God created all of them in love, and his love never falters. Never. He didn’t wait until they were sorry for what they’d done before he loved them. He loved them even when they were deep in sin, and giving me a pretty lousy life. He wasn’t in communion with them, but even then, right then, in my childhood, he loved them as much as he loved me, as much as he loved anyone. All of them? The Uncles and the father and the aunties and those who looked the other way, the brothers and the drunks? Oh, do give over! ALL of them?

Yes, seriously Luce, all of them. Try it in italics, bold, written in blood. His blood. All of them.

God breathed us into being, spoke us into being, wrote us into being, and whatever we have done, whoever we are, we are precious in his sight. No villains. No one righteous. All loved.

You see? I thought I knew what forgiveness was, but I’m still learning.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow… must be lockdown

Yesterday’s walk.
A bit duck-like? Well, that’s how I roll, my friends.

When I have my quiet time I often take photos of the sky and dream of where one day I might be. In eternity. Yesterday I looked back and to the ground to see where I’d been, to see if my walk had left any impression at all in the sand. I felt a tiny surge of satisfaction to see those perfect imprints (for once not scampered over by dogs). So! That’s what the last moment of my life had been… a solitary amble by the sea. Luce was ‘ere.

I don’t know why I feel a need to capture daily images on my iPhone or why they are so often of the rising sun and cloudscapes. I certainly don’t imagine the sky as ‘where God is’, nor do I think of eternity as a place or a time or a knowable concept; I don’t imagine myself angelic and on a cloud, or floating serenely between the planets, or purposefully soaring heavenward with muscular wings…. nor do I imagine being all too human up there in the thin, thin air, fighting for oxygen as I plummet earthward to certain death (screaming). I just gaze and wonder, wordless, revelling in the enormous miracle of existence, and then, inevitably, in the ephemeral and trivial nature of my life. My grand and important life.

But I liked the image of those footprints. Half an hour later as I walked back along the sea’s edge, all my perfect footprints had gone. As if I never was. ‘My grand and important life’ ?

Nothing.

When I opened my Bible this morning, heading towards the Gospels, it fell open at Isaiah (I wonder why?) and I skimmed the first few verses of Chapter 66. Then I read them properly. And then I looked them up in The Passion Translation. Wow. They’re good. I mean, ‘seriously gooooood.

The heavens are my throne
    and the earth is my footstool.
    Where is the house you will build for me?
    Where is the place where I will rest?
My hand made these things so they all belong to me,” declares Yahweh.
    “But there is one my eyes are drawn to:
    the humble one, the tender one, the trembling one
    who lives in awe of all I say.

It reminds me of another verse, in Psalm 51

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

What great good news that is! What fabulous news. When we are feeling our at our smallest, most inconsequential and feeble, well, hang on… here’s how the Passion Translation puts that last thought:

You will not despise my tenderness
as I humbly bow down at your feet.

Why is it good news? It’s good news because it means that we can be honest, that God really does take us as we are, where we are, warts and all.

When I look at the sand washed clean, as if I had never been that way, that’s when I know who I am and who God is. When I really know.

I’ve found this lockdown time horribly and surprisingly difficult. You would think that someone who has lived alone for 28 years and worked mostly from home, someone who is not by nature a crowd loving, party going extrovert, who doesn’t easily unbend for hugs and emotion, who had a loveless youth, would find lockdown a doddle. Not so. Really, really not so.

There have been days when I felt so alienated from the world, so full of loneliness, so sure that my friends were not my friends any more, that my church was insincere and pharisaical (forgive me, church!), that everything was nonsense, that life itself was futile and everything I knew and trusted was… hang on, Shakespeare’s Macbeth put it much better than I ever could:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Days when I could barely drag myself from one moment to the next. And lockdown really does ‘creep in this petty pace from day to day’, doesn’t it? Days when the pain was so much I would have done anything for respite – sell my soul, gouge my eyes out, anything. But I knew that there was no peace in any of that.

What? That’s not what you were expecting from someone who calls herself Christian and has the Christian tag on her blog?

I think we have to be honest. If we are to reach out to each other and say “You’re my sister, you’re my brother, we feel the same sorrows and joys” then we have to be honest, and share them. Own them. I have an advantage over many in that I’ve not been in the church a whole long lifetime, I’m a Johnny-come-lately and for most of my life I’ve been a half-hearted follower of Jesus, or not followed him at all. So, you’re not getting an expert here. Why is that an advantage in this instance? Because it means that I can look at the spiritual footprints of my life and see that they’re shallow, and they’re not beautiful, and they have had no lasting effect on the Kingdom of God. I have a contrite heart because I have a whole load to be contrite about.

We don’t have to hide that from God or from each other. I think sometimes we are ashamed of our contrition, but we shouldn’t be. A contrite heart pleases God, not because he wants us grovelling in the dust but because when we are contrite we are turning to him, loving him, seeing ourselves and him as we really are. Reality. We are never closer to God than when we have the deep deep joy of contrition. I want to own it.

Honesty is important. If we present a smooth untroubled face to those around us, we are not just deceiving and hiding, we’re also holding them at arm’s length. Not letting them in. If we aren’t honest about the struggles we have (a fine balance between honesty and dragging everyone down, I know) then how can we expect our sisters and brothers to turn to us when they need help? If we say to the world that we never need help, then the world will never understand that we have help to give.

This is the time, more than ever before, when we need to turn to each other, talk and listen to each other, care for each other. And take responsibility for encouraging each other. This is a time for listening, keeping each other going. Unbending.

I’m so glad that we have had this time. It’s bludgeoned me, humbled me. Wrecked me. Cleared a film from my eyes. It’s hard and horrible and I hate it. It’s killing me. And I am so grateful for it.

Weird, eh? And yet, God loves me. And however you are feeling right now, however weak and lost and flawed and quite-like-Luce you are, God loves you, accepts you, will do great things in you.

Whatever is lovely, think about such things

I would give everything I own just to hold this in my hands for a few minutes.

Screenshot 2020-05-19 at 11.21.54

That’s an odd statement, but a true one, and it has the advantage of being a very safe  (if sweeping) statement to make, because this chalice is in the British Museum, secure in a glass case, and there’s no way I’m going to be told “Go on, Luce, help yourself”. But I do mean it emotionally. Emotionally, I really would give everything I have in exchange for a few minutes cradling that wonderful chalice, warming its gold in my hands, tracing the battered rim with my fingertips.

Why? Beats me.

I saw it about 6 years ago, when I took my granddaughters to London, and it made me want to weep. Because I’ve always been fascinated by monstrances I was drawn to this glittering cabinet, and there it was, just one work of art among many. I don’t know how long I stood there. Not long enough.

Is this next photo blurred, out of focus, confusing? That’s what the sight of that chalice did to me. I was drunk with delight.

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I don’t know why the chalice overwhelms me with emotion. The blurb on the British Museum website doesn’t offer any clues either: circa 1380, a gift from Juan De Velasco to Christ the Peacemaker, and it has something to do with  James I of England (I know, I know, James VI of Scotland, my Scottish friends). The engraving features St Agnes, and there are the emblems of all 4 Gospel writers, but, you know, I don’t care about any of that church stuff. I don’t think it is any more sacred than anything else made with love, any other article in this world, I don’t revere it because it once held Communion wine. Those things don’t matter one jot. I just love this beautiful, beautiful work of art because I love it. I do.

Over 600 years ago some craftsman (probably not a woman) was commissioned to work in gold, to create something fit to give to a king. Not King James, but the King of Kings.

What a commission! What a commission! Imagine the goldsmith hurrying homeward to tell his wife, to tell the apprentices, to start planning and drawing and dreaming… imagine his excitement, his passion and love. I think that’s what I’m responding to.

I know that he was filled with love and awe as he weighed the gold and stoked the furnace and filled the crucible, and filed the mould, to the days when he engraved and painted and burnished, and right through to the last day, and maybe his last loving touch, placing those pearls around the base, precisely, thoughtfully. Nothing too good for our good God.

Isn’t that what every Christian sets out to do, every day of our lives? Make something beautiful for our Love with our love? And all he wants, we know, even as we craft and polish and shape our days for him, all he wants is just that – our love. I think that when God sees that wonderful chalice, he sees only the commitment and longing that made it.

That’s what this chalice is, to me. The proof of one man’s love for Jesus. A craftsman I will never meet in this world. But I know him well. I really do.

‘And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.’       Psalm 90:17

Times are hard. Many of us are really struggling with mental health issues, our spirits down and battered. These are the times when we should deliberately, intentionally, stubbornly, fill our minds with good things. 

If you’re struggling, you are not on your own. Don’t be ashamed of being sad, lonely, afraid. It’s understandable, human, and there are things you can do. Maybe take a few minutes to think about these words, and remember that God loves you. 

Look at that chalice and think of all the people who have gone before us, loving and worshipping our God. Join them. Step away from self and look to God.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Philippians 4:8

Let joy be your continual feast. Make your life prayer.  And in the midst of everything be always giving thanks, for this is God’s perfect plan for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

 

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…..

On Wednesdays, after lunch, we have a Zoom call, me and Lynn and Lynne, intending to explore the Gospel of Mark together, following a study guide. We agreed, when we started this, that each session would probably last about 40 minutes, so there was no need to pay for the full Zoom – which would give us as long as we liked in each meeting. Week one, we had a break at forty minutes and finally managed to get back on together. Week two, the same break but this time we all got back to the meeting a little bit quicker. On week three I realised this was going to continue and maybe even get more disjointed, so I paid up. That week our meeting lasted 2 hours ( but on the good side we got half way through the planned lesson)

We are so studious, eh?

Well, yes, but mostly no. We spoke of cakes and bread, and family, and chickens, and covid (of course!) and prayer and vegetables and incubating eggs and – oh yes, the Gospel of Mark. The lives of Lynn and Lynne are very very unlike mine; they have real live husbands, and gardens, and chickens, and they grow green stuff and eat it, and they talk about sourdough (Lynne is good at it, Lynn is not)  while I have no husband, no garden, and quite like eating weetabix and doughnuts (not together. Although….) . They’re simply lovely. I feel as if I am in a Lake Wobegon story as I listen to them skipping back and forth, their images freezing a bit now, wavering a bit now, and then back with us, peering up Lynn’s nose, seeing Lynne’s husband wandering past in the background, Lynn’s grandson gesturing for a cup of tea. I am largely a spectator to this domestic stuff but I love listening, just as I love reading Garrison Keillor’s gentle stories as I wait for sleep to come along.

So, that was week 7 of lockdown,  a quiet week in Lake Whereweare. Lynn and Lynne on Zoom. Coffee and cake on a delivery run. Sermons on youtube. A few texts. A couple of emails. A lovely surprise delivery. A quiet week.  Silence and loneliness and long long days enough to drive you mad if you let them. I nearly let them. I so nearly let them. Dark thoughts, lost thoughts, a bit of despair. You know, a few minutes.

But.  BUT

The Gospel of Mark is really interesting. In that first study, three weeks ago, when our homework had been only to read the first chapter at least three times, we each gave our reactions. We hadn’t read any commentaries, we had just read it. My immediate reaction was that this first chapter read like the opening of a drama. As a screenwriter and playwright I’m familiar with the need to set the whole story up, engage the audience and make them care right from the very first image. TV is merciless. TV producers are brutal. Set it up, set it up, set it up! And that’s a big ask, when the writer is also wanting to deliver shade and light, tone and texture and character. But Mark does it! Mark absolutely does it. Mark, as the screen writer with Jesus as the action hero. Fabulous.

In that first chapter, listen, we open with the prophecy about Jesus, so we know who he is even before he steps into shot… there’s John the Baptist, a strangely dressed, wild figure, waist high in the River Jordan… there are the reeds and the bushes at the rivers edge, there are the crowds, jostling to be washed clean (but not clean enough) … we see all that in 20 seconds.

John speaks, the crowd listens, another twenty seconds… and behind him, maybe out of focus but drawing near, Jesus is already approaching…. John speaks of the Holy Spirit. Right then, before Jesus arrives, John speaks of the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus nears, John sharpens, focuses… heads turn to see who he’s looking at.

Cut to Jesus entering the water…. 20 seconds…

Underwater shot, swirling water, cut to a startling close-up, Jesus coming up, breaking the surface of the water, as the sky is ripped apart, and a voice “You are my Son, whom I love”

Wow, what a set-up. A minute. At the most.

And then the rest of this short chapter? Wild animals, mysticism, John imprisoned (later to be beheaded, do we hint at that, do we  allow the menace to creep in?) , Jesus proclaims “The time has come”, he gathers his first followers, dazzles the accepted authorities of the time,  heals the mad and the sick, takes his message all over Galilee, is mobbed and pursued and driven into the hills for prayer and peace.

Oh, man, I want to write that film.

But the wonder of it, the reason my eyes tear up when I think about it properly, is that in that short chapter of just 840 words, we see so very much of the mystery and the wonder of God. And the more I look into that simple action packed sequence of amazing scenes, the more profundity I see. Take a tiny phrase from the very first dialogue in our film;

‘but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

It’s so easy to skim over these words. We are so familiar with the concept of the Holy Spirit, and looking back we see Pentecost, we know the work of the Holy Spirit, those of us who are Christians know his presence daily… but listen, listen, the Holy Spirit was a strange concept to John and to his followers, crowded there on the banks of the river. Why did he use those words when the concept of the Holy Spirit was barely known? He’s mentioned only 3 times in the Old Testament – Genesis 1, Psalm 51, and Isaiah 63:10.

Why did John the Baptist – how did John the Baptist – talk to the crowd about the Holy Spirit? And then, then, listen, right then, the sky split open and God spoke and ‘the Spirit descended on him like a dove’.  The timing blows my mind.

Do you think that maybe the Gospel writer Mark was bunging stuff in to validate his beliefs, to somehow twist the truth and pre-empt and ‘justify’ the claims he was making about Jesus? Rewriting rather than recording? No, he wasn’t doing that. Mark wrote this gospel about 40 years after Jesus’ death.  I remember clearly what was going on 40 years ago, and everyone I knew then will have their own memories. I have recently written my autobiography and I know that old friends and acquaintances will recognise the events I wrote about and will soon yelp and protest if I have made up any of them. Mark was writing a history, not a story. A true drama, not a fiction. If it had been a fiction it would have been ripped to pieces by his contemporaries and enemies.

So, there we are, for thousands of years, in our sacred writings, there are only three mentions of the Spirit of God. They are passing mentions. There is no devotion or commitment to the concept. When Jesus walks into the scene, the sky splits open, the Spirit comes down, and God speaks. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, there in our very first scene.

It blows my tiny mind.

Yes, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Whereweare, but there’s a raucous celebration going on in my heart.

More wise words. Or not.

I am not a humble person. Show me a writer who’s a humble person and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a writer. We are interested in only two things when we write: first off,  exploring and ferreting out the truth (we like to shout “Eureka!” as if we are the first people ever to know what we’ve just discovered) , and secondly communicating it to others. The first part, exploration, is more important to us than being right, and sometimes that’s mistaken for humility, but it isn’t. It’s just a single-minded, bloody-minded obsession with writing, as if what we write is important, even when we know that we’re blundering around in the dark and crashing into walls.

Writers are rubbish at most things. Most have lurched through a painful life and even those who seem to have led privileged lives have too-tender skins and too-acute vision, and often too-sharp tongues to be good company. Good writers are not saintly.  So should a writer  decide to add the ouvre of Christianity? Bonkers, difficult people like me? Really?

I’m a bit (very) conscious of prayer right now, very grateful for it, with a head full of half thoughts drifting in and out of focus. I recognise this as the first step in the writing process, but I’m not sure I should write about prayer.  Does the world need any more printed word, or ‘Christian’  videos, or Tedtalks? Really?

In an effort to answer my own question, I went onto a Christian website which offers all manner of teaching resources to look up “Prayer” just to see how well this topic is served and guess what? There are 364 different resources about prayer on that one site, from videos to books, to children’s lessons to training courses. Training courses! When they said to Jesus  ‘Teach us to pray” he did so in 53 words (I don’t count the doxology the King James version chucked on the end). Fifty three words!

Flip me. 53. And now a whole prayer industry, sorry, ministry.

It reminds me of something my husband used to say to our daughter; there was a patch of wonderfully wild waste ground right next to our house, a piece of land intended to be just another part of our council estate but never developed. George and Lou would walk our Great Dane there, following the tracery of paths that had been created over the years.As they came upon a crossroads of paths he would say “Oh, look – let’s take that one. No one has ever been down here before.” and Lou would caper on ahead, delighted at the thought of being the first human being to step onto that path. It was only some years later that she realised many people must have been there before her if there was a path to follow.

That’s very like me when an idea fires off and I shout “Eureka!” “I have it!”  I may, indeed,  ‘have it’ but a million billion other minds have discovered it first.

Maybe I shouldn’t write about prayer as so many better thinkers and writers and teachers have been there before me. Whaddya think, thinkers?

Hey. Talking of  teaching… listen…. recently I spoke to a sweet natured, gracious woman who loves God and has had a difficult emotional life. She is reading and listening to, and being affected by, the teachings of a woman she has never met, a woman who owns not one lush mansion but several, who preaches to packed stadia, who heads up a corporation distributing videos and publications all over the world, a woman who is a multi millionaire regardless of the world full of need all around her, saying that her immense wealth and extremely lavish life style is God’s ‘blessing’.  She teaches thousands upon thousands of followers, a tiny figure strutting across a large stage, surrounded by an army of security guards and acolytes, as unapproachable as the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament. My sweet, gracious friend who lives a simple life will never see how this ‘teacher’ lives, will never know her motivation, or be able to gauge how deep her sincerity might be.  Her talks and books are peppered with sound bites, ‘take-aways’, like “Have God make a message out of your mess.”  When you break that down, yes, there is meaning there, but it’s meaning the reader brings to it, it’s our human desire to make sense out of even the most banal statement that gives it any meaning at all.  But my friend, who is so thoughtful and so loving, reads and listens and is often rebuked (and made to feel less-than) by this so successful millionaire businesswoman. Dragged down by her certainty and dogmatism. How sad. I would like to fight my way through her security squad, or scale her electronic gates in her millionaire’s row, or barge my way onto her private jet, grab her by her designer jacket and tell her to leave my friend alone.

I know some Godly teachers. I know they are Godly not just by what they teach and their close adherence to the Bible, but by the way they live their lives. They teach from a very small stage, reaching out to the small communities they live in, living out the words they preach. The transparent way they live is a teaching more valuable than any amount of clever words, fanfares, fame, fandom.

In the very marrow of my bones, when I thank God for these wonderful teachers, I know that they delight Him. They delight God. Wowser. I know that for certain sure, in the very marrow of my bones. Seeing how they live, and cope with the ups and downs of real life,  I can happily and with deep excitement, listen to their teaching, knowing that it’s true, sincere, integrated with the Word. Shot through with God.

You know when you read my blog? That’s not what you’re getting. These are not words to live by. They are just words from a stumbling, bumbling writer-in-the-dark. A happily bumbling writer.

Thanks for listening. You’ve persuaded me. I am not going to write about prayer.

 “Constantly be on your guard against phony prophets. They come disguised as lambs, appearing to be genuine, but on the inside they are like wild, ravenous wolves! You can spot them by their actions, for the fruits of their character will be obvious. You won’t find sweet grapes hanging on a thorn bush, and you’ll never pick good fruit from a tumbleweed. So if the tree is good, it will produce good fruit; but if the tree is bad, it will bear only rotten fruit and it deserves to be cut down and burned. Look at the obvious fruit of their lives and ministries, and then you’ll know whether they are true or false.”  Matthew 7:15-20 (TPT)

PS. Just had an email from another pal, suggesting some other Christian women for my friend to read…. Elisabeth Elliott, Edith Schaeffer and Corrie ten Boom. Good point! And none of them lived as millionaires, none of them preached prosperity, they would all have had time and compassion for those who sometimes weep.

Prayer in the time of plague

At the end of this blog is something that makes me feel a bit queasy. Don’t go there if, like me, you tend towards vertigo. This ‘thing’ I’m posting (a gif) has the same effect on me as looking down from a height.  You have been warned. But it makes my point. And now I’ll waste some of your valuable lock-down time trying, and failing, to put that point into words.

Look away now if you have a life to live.

Pooh Bear was a wise bear. He knew that he was a bear of little brain. He understood that this didn’t make him less than others, and that it was no reason to be ashamed. It was simply a fact. He didn’t make the mistake of Adam and Eve who valued knowledge more than anything else, more than peace and plenty, more than the presence of God, more than obedience. Pooh was a stout little soul who knew his place in the Hundred Acre Wood. When I pray, that’s who I want to be. Pooh Bear.

And if I really am Pooh Bear –  OK, I’m getting a bit tired of the metaphor now. Start that para again:

If I know my place in the world, accepting that I will never out-think or out-know my creator, and understanding his nature and mine, happy with the revelation he gives me, then I will never have to step into the place of prayer,  I will already be living in it.

Maybe without words.

That is my desire. To live in silent prayer. To always be aware, intentionally, of who God is and who I am, to always be in awe of who he is, to live wrapped in that thought, and the joy and peace it brings. And silence.

That doesn’t mean that I aspire to be forever on some higher astral plane, living only on the nutrients floating in the air around me, above all practical and emotional aspects of life. It simply means living in this fallen world always aware of his presence and reality, his guidance and care.

If you’re married, you are not forever paying obeisance to that marriage, courting your partner, romanticising every moment, yammering on about love, of course not. That would be exhausting – your partner might have to kill you just to shut you up. But you are always aware of each other. Always faithful, always caring, always conscious of where your partner is.  If she is reading in the garden, she knows that he’s making his fifth coffee of the day.  If he is cutting the grass he knows that she is on the computer pretending to research covid while watching  cat clips on youtube, conscious of each other. If they are sitting together, walking together, the silence is comfortable.

I want to be conscious of God in that way, moment by moment. Not holy-holy pious forever banging on about him, prattle and nonsense (like this). Just, you know, married to him. Walking with him.

And that doesn’t mean forever asking him for stuff, telling him stuff, reminding him about what Bill Bloggs needs, and how sick Salamander Simpson is, or how Boris Bumblechops needs to understand this or Trumpetty-Trump needs to get a grip of that. I just want to walk with my God, knowing he’s there, knowing he loves me, being guided by him, listening for him.

That’ll do me.

I don’t need to have a deep deep understanding of man’s doctrines and histories in order to pray. I don’t need to know the difference between one theological term and another, I just need to wait on the God who is here with me, in this room, now. The creator of the Universe, the ruler of eternity is here with little old me in my crumpled yellow cardi and my sandy barefeet. (Pooh had bear feet. Just saying.) And prayer is accepting that Jesus is the most important presence and truth and the central core of my life.

I’ve lived with words and earned my bread with words, but here, where it really matters, words are redundant. He knows what’s in my heart, the people I love, the cares I have, the desires I lay at his feet, he doesn’t need it printed out or written in the sky, or tripping off my babbling tongue.

He wants me. Not my words. Words are blah-blah hot air. I sit in silence with my God.

I bet some of you are thinking ‘You could have fooled me. How long is this blog going to be?’

Now, in Covid time, more than ever, I am grateful that I can sit in silence with my God. Silence with him, surrendered to him, is prayer. Lost in wonder. Sometimes lost in sadness or confusion or  feeling unsettled, but always with him.  Knowing that he rescues, that he is enough, that all is well.

‘Look to the rock from which you were cut, to the quarry from which you were hewn.’

Last week I heard about an elderly woman who is obsessed with the Endtimes (is that one word?Is it capitalised?) and who thinks that Covid means that God’s plan is reaching its end on Earth. Maybe it is, but we won’t know until it happens. Maybe it isn’t and if we keep obsessing about it we could waste an awful lot of time looking for signs and arguing and justifying our beliefs. There are some things we are not meant to know, and somethings we know but can’t possibly understand. The world will end one day, as all things end. It will die as all things die. And no one has a clue when that will be so why waste valuable prayer time, niggling away at it? All that will do is make us unsettled and tetchy and dizzy.

If this is the end times, or Endtimes, what better way to spend our time than in prayer? Not in questions, or demands, or arguments, or research. Prayer. Covid time is a time for prayer.

Our daughter was little, probably about 6 or 7, when we were downstairs one evening and we heard her crying. We went to the bottom of the stairs and she was above us on the landing, wailing, inconsolable. All she could say, between hiccuping sobs was “I don’t want to think of eternity… it just goes on and on and on and it never stops and I can’t stop thinking……it makes me feel dizzy.”

Lou learned right there and then, that there are some things we will never be able to fully understand,  like plague and suffering, like the end of the world, like eternity.  And when we waste time trying to, we just get dizzy. Like this:

 

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Is it too early to go to bed?

I’ve read a Psalm and been to the beach, and we’ve walked the length of it, and even up into the rocky hidden beach because the tide was right out. I’ve talked to God about being alone and I’ve  sung a few half remembered hymns really badly and laughed at myself. And I think He did too.  I sat on a barnacled rock and read Isaiah 4 in the Passion Translation because I knew that was what I needed to hear (well,  David Suchet read it to me on Biblegateway, so I just listened) . Then my phone battery gave out.  I’ve fed the dogs and had a shower and baked some stuff for a friend, and visited the  chemist (no queue! Bother. That would have used up some time) and delivered the baked stuff with the bonus of a short distance conversation over the doorstep and yards of open space. I’ve done the  Times Crossword (not the clever cryptic one) , and the Lexica and the Quintagram and two Codewords. I’ve read Mark 1 and answered a study book question about my response. I’ve re-read DH Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ because I remembered it with fondness yesterday. I’ve had a late breakfast of scrambled eggs. I’ve cut my fingernails, which didn’t need cutting.

And now… it’s 11.15am and I have nothing else to do. The bed is made, the loo is clean, the rubbish is bagged up for tomorrow.

All over the world lock-down people are looking at the clock. Time, eh? It’s a bugger.

I lied this morning. When a friend (on my bakery delivery) called that we could have a virtual hug,  I replied “Yes, the best sort.” But that was an unthinking lie. A quick automatic make-you-smile, whistle-in-the-dark reaction. Virtual hugs are rubbish. Fact.

I so desperately want to be with someone, to be physically close to someone, to have someone sitting at my table, their hands cupping coffee, our voices soft, not calling across a lawn, a drive, a pavement. I want a hug. I really do, today, want a hug. Me. A person who shies from hugs.

My front door is only locked at night, last thing. Every morning, before I make my coffee, it’s opened. My house is a house of welcome,  but it hasn’t welcomed anyone for weeks and weeks. 7 weeks. I still unlock the door every morning, but of course no one can come in. There’s no dogs barking a welcome or an alarm, there’s no scuffle in the porch, no shadow on the glass, no laughter, no catch-up, no prayer.

Bum. This is a time when I need to say rude things quite calmly. It might just make me feel better.

No, it doesn’t.

I can write to them, can’t I? The friends I miss. But it’s not the same. And zoom and FaceTime are not quite the same. They’re more of a performance than a sharing. I want time to talk about how they’re feeling, and what they’re learning, and what God is doing in their lives, and I want time to tell them what He’s doing in mine. I tried to voice my thoughts, in writing, yesterday to a trusted wiser head than mine, but sometimes you just need the space, the time, the presence, to find the words you need. Typing them out…  it’s not the same.

I need more than three dots when I’m searching for words. When I find a phrase I need to see how you listen to it. I need to hear your breath. See your patience, or your impatience. See where I’m not making sense and clarify… and I want you to be part of it. Whoever you are. There’s a real danger with writing that it’s always one way. All about me. I’ve had enough about me. I want to know about you. I want to share ‘me’ with you. I want to hear you say stuff – any old stuff will do!

Boris, Boris, when can we stop hiding?

And at 11.37am is it too early to go to bed?