Mackerel ahoy!

This is one of those blogs that isn’t really a blog at all. It’s just something that happened to me today, something that holds significance for me, but something you might just shrug at and say “Oh. So what?”

Before lockdown came along, Sunday was the highlight of the week – walk the dogs (an hour or two), shower the sand off, arrive at church at 10.30 and get home just after mid-day, usually friends would arrive as I cooked lunch, we’d chat through the afternoon, and I’d kick them out in time to get ready for the evening service, be back home in time for a glass of wine or two. Lovely! A full day of praise and talk about God, and friendship.

Now, it’s walk the dogs, make coffee, listen to the service on youtube and then…… nothing. Zilch. So today, being hot, I basked in the heat for an hour until the sun went behind the building next door, and then I ….. erm….. I sort of… erm…. what did I do? In the shade, what did I do? Out of the sun…. Anyway, whatever I did, which was absolutely nothing, the day passed. The contrast with our old Sundays was striking and a bit dismal. If you can be striking and dismal at the same time.

I knew the sun was shining on the High Street and the beach and all parts in-between and I could hear distant busy traffic, but in here, silence and peace. Not a lot happening. I put on a cardigan and thick socks, in my shady cool house, and I think I may have done a crossword. Or half done it. I saw a few people passing by, watched a family loading paddle boards and surf boards onto their car, enjoyed their excitement, the nostalgic sight of rolled up towels and picnic gear. Then, shaking myself, speaking sternly to me-myself about my propensity for making a really uncomfortable bed and then being grumpy about lying in it, I had some thoughts about a distance learning course I’ve foolishly embarked on, and about age, and about the church…. and the day sort of swithered past me. Did I pray? I think my thoughts are prayers. I think if we live with God then he’s always there, we’re always leaning on him, all our meditations are conscious of his presence. But did I actually say “I need help here?” No, because I didn’t know I did. I’d slipped into the shadows, wrapped myself up tight, closed myself off, observed the world but then retreated from it. I do that. It’s really annoying and I wish I’d stop it.

And then, late in the afternoon, came a little tap on the door – human contact! Real human contact on my doorstep.

There, on the pavement, were two lovely young friends, full of energy and joy, glowing with youth. Being Sunday their family hasn’t been working today (they run a dolphin-spotting, seal-espying boat trip company) so instead they had gone fishing and now they were delivering two freshly caught, cleaned and gutted, fat teenage mackerel. How lovely! How kind.

Sometimes we don’t know we need rescuing. Sometimes we step into the shadows in more ways than one. Sometimes we lose the warmth of life. Sometimes we are alone. That’s when the smallest things take on a powerful meaning.

So I emailed a very dear pal and shouted ‘Mackerel ahoy!’ and he’s on his way over for tea. Salad, new potatoes and grilled mackerel with the salt of the sea in their deep fat flesh.

Thank you for that knock on the door. Thank you for a miracle of fishes.

A miracle of fishes

He will care for you as a shepherd tends his flock,
    gathering the weak lambs and taking them in his arms.
    He carries them close to his heart
    and gently leads those that have young
.

Isaiah 40:11 (TPT)

POST SCRIPT….

I’ve never had such fresh mackerel before. They were simply delicious. We made small delighted piggy snorts and grunts as we ate.

Ah, yes, I remember it well….

I am not a great one for marking special days, for anniversaries and the like. It’s part of my rebellion against my Catholic upbringing (when it was always someone’s bloody feast day, so there was always some pressing obligation to light a candle or say a decade of the Rosary, or remember some gruesome martyrdom and feel suitably sorry/rebuked/penitential) Enough already! Today is today and the past is over and done with.

But I’m surprised to discover that today is a day for remembering – remembering so very much! It’s a day of nostalgia! Whether I want it to be or not. And it’s OKish because it’s a gently happy sort of remembering. 28 years ago today my husband died. and I find that I’ve spent quite a bit of prayer time thanking God for him. His name was George, my blond haired, blue eyed, broad shouldered, Scottish, quiet, funny and really infuriating bloke. I miss him when I think about him, so I don’t often think about him these days. It’s deliberate – there’s enough pain without volunteering for it. He was here, he was lovely, and he’s gone and so I don’t dwell on missing him, but he’s also a part of my history, he’s a part of who I’ve become, and in a way he’s always with me. If I saw George walking down the High Street towards me, I wouldn’t really be surprised. He is still very much alive in my memory – his energy, his bouncy walk, the great smile. I know that time is an illusion, and we are already in eternity, so when I go to glory it will be as if he and I have been parted for only a breath, as if he was at my side a moment ago and now I have turned around to find him just a step away, waiting. And I won’t be too interested in him, anyway – I mean, c’monnnn…. he’s lovely and gorgeous but I’ll have God to look at! Blinding. Amazing. Wowser. All that and more.

George wasn’t a flowery man, but he did like sweet peas. At his funeral we found a florist who could get a huge box of them, although the season was almost over, and we scattered them all over the coffin. A neighbour has brought in a bunch of sweet smelling sweet peas today. How lovely! Maybe that’s what’s taking me back 28 years, making that terrible day as real and as clear as the present. Damn it. I was determined not to weep. I have to shake it off, there has to be a sort of gentle discipline to mourning ; I can remember, I can love, I can regret, but there’s an end to it to – wallowing ain’t good, morose-ing ain’t good, certainly not after 28 years. It’s self indulgent. And I know that morose-ing isn’t a word, but it should be.

The strangler

I have a few friends of my age, and we’re all adjusting, lumpily, to being in a new phase of life. I say ‘lumpily’ because that’s what it feels like – some days are smooth sailing and balmy – we say daft things like ‘The world is for the young’ and we almost fool ourselves that we are serene and untroubled, and then a damn great clot of memory or uncertainty, or realisation comes along and … yeah, it’s lumpy. Life as an oldie is…. different.

In the good old days, in Derbyshire, my life was very different. Mostly I began the day with a short drive to the David Lloyd Centre to swim for an hour or more in lovely clear water, with sparkling tiles, the sun streaming through the windows if we were lucky, and if the sun really was up to the mark I’d swim outside, up and down, lazily, and it was just wonderful. Then, a leisurely shower, and a long coffee and maybe toast in the cafe, drive home, walk the dog in the local park, be sitting down at my desk by 10am, when my London colleagues were also arriving at work (after a much less refreshing start to their day). Then I would work through to about 4 or 5, and to the next walk with the dog, maybe around Markeaton Park, past the lake, watching the boats and the children… or maybe we’d drive to Carsington Water for a much longer walk through the Derbyshire hillsides. Then back home, supper and work, work, work, work, writing until the wee small hours, falling into bed at about 2am and up again at 5.

Some days, of course, the routine was broken – we’d have a production meeting in the house, or pals would come for the evening, and we’d while away the hours. Some days it was a London trip, and I would be in St Pancras by 9.30, ready for meetings and all the noise and horribleness of a stinky exciting city, meeting friends who were also colleagues, sorting problems, maybe sitting in an edit suite, or over in the now defunct BBC Centre on Woods Lane…. I even remember when Central TV was in Portman Square! That’s how old I am! Central TV which is no longer, the concrete doughnut of the BBC that is no longer…. apparently it’s now luxury flats and I bet they cost a fortune.

So! What do I want to say? Listen, this is what I want to say. Today I’m not in Derby with pals and life and busyness and all that, today I can’t glide up and down, up and down in a sparkling swimming pool, and chat to my dear friends, and sit in my garden with my dogs. I have no swimming pool to go to here, and my friends are two hundred miles away, and there’s no garden… Today I have no George… but this is what I did this morning; I stood in the sea, up to my knees, as my dogs played in the waves, I gazed at the blue sky, I basked in the sun, I walked on the warm sand with another good kind friend. I came home and listened to a joyful life-affirming sermon, I took part in a Zoom call with church people as we said a heartfelt ‘fare well’ to one of our church family who’s going back to Canada. Then I went into my courtyard and realised that the sun was still reaching it (it goes into the shade around mid-day) so I sat there for a full 15 minutes just BAKING! That was lovely. When the sun went behind the chapel next door I came in and now here I am, snug in a cardigan and thick socks (my home is cold) talking to you.

Not a bad day, eh? How much do I have to complain about? Totally, absolutely, completely NOTHING.

If the Grinch is reading this, or the Grinch’s sidekick, down there in the hospital, in the clatter of a busy ward, this is for you, my dear friends: God is with you, God loves you. Through all the twists and turns of life he has you, tight. Even today. Especially today. Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn. That’s Isaiah that is. Surprise, surprise.

And this is David in the Psalms. He knew a thing or two as well. Psalm 121

He will not let your foot slip –
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and for evermore.

Absolutely you

A week ago, I asked a 13 year old, on her birthday, what she would like to do as an adult, and she answered “I would like to be an influencer.”

I asked her what sort of influence she would wish to have and, remembering that this was her 13th birthday, I’m sure you can imagine what she said; she would like people to be kind and good and gentle, not mean or judgmental. She would like to encourage them to like themselves, to know that they’re lovely, whatever they look like or sound like, or however they feel and whatever their lives are like. She would like to influence them to be kind to animals and to be careful with the environment.

Not a bad ambition. It beats “I would like to be a pop star” but it did feel like a conversation with piety personified. Perversely, I wanted to ask “Why don’t you want to be a formula one driver? Where’s the ambition to glide over the Alps with a jet pack strapped to your back, or to camp out in Antartica, or to sit in the rainforest with gorillas? How about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? ” I even bit back the more personal (attainable) ones “Wouldn’t you like to live on a boat, as I did, or camp out on Christmas Eve in snow, as I did, or come off a motorbike going down Charing Hill, or be in a plane as it crash-landed, or fall out of a sculling boat on a freezing February day (yeah, yeah, as I did), or lose power in a motorboat in a busy shipping lane, or meet the Queen or…” She would have looked at me as if I was mad.

You know, my life has been wonderfully mad. You might think that it’s hard for me now to slip into a life that’s sane and sensible. Too right, mate, it is! Often, often, it really is. But my life is still strangely and wonderfully – and quietly – exciting. No barrels required, no motorbikes or boats or planes. Sometimes the smallest things are more thrilling than any death defying parachute jump;

I came back from my dog walk and paddle yesterday with very sandy feet. I’d already showered when I woke up, so while the dogs wolfed down their breakfast I stepped into the cubicle and directed the shower rose at just my feet. It made me think of Jesus, washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:10 ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean…’ and I remembered a sermon I heard probably some months ago, and in that moment, washing the sand of the Irish Sea from my feet, I was there, with Christ, two thousand years past. And I absolutely understood! I had understood the sermon on the day, and benefited from it, but maybe it hadn’t quite ‘hit home’. And now it did. And how!

What did he say to the disciples? ‘And now you are clean…’ I watched the sand swirling away and felt a growing elation. I’m having a few spiritual tussles right now and I know that I’m not always making the right choices, not always turning to God as I should… but I watched the sand as it was washed away, and for that moment I really was standing there, with God.

I’ve embarked on a distance learning course on the Bible, and the very first module warns against adopting a Bible verse out of context and claiming it as uniquely or specifically relevant to our lives today. Warns against putting a bias on it to suit our own desire and to make it all about ME.

Was I guilty of this error? I padded, wet foot, to my desk, and looked up the whole incident… Jesus teaching a life lesson in a simple act of service. The reading, together with the sermon I remembered, came together. Fabulous realisation, wonderful, life-giving truth! If we belong to God, if we have already gone to him with all our brokenness and sin and humanity, and asked sincerely for forgiveness, claimed his sacrifice, submitted our lives to him… we are clean. Clean as clean. Head to toe, clean. Forgiven. Our faults and sins gone, as if they never were. But then we live on.. we wake up the next day in a bad mood, or feel unloved, or are no one’s priority, or we’re short tempered or selfish or … a thousand other human flaws…. and we are no longer clean. Our feet have stumbled. We’re in the doo-doo. So then we step out of that and into …. contrition. We turn again to Jesus and we ask his forgiveness, and we learn by the experience, and we are clean…. until the next time.

I get it. Daily humility. Daily reckoning. Loved and owned and claimed, however faltering. And his love more than compensates, his forgiveness heals, cleans, restores. And we grow more and more humble, more and more thankful, more and more assured. Paradox, eh? The weaker we are, the stronger God’s influence becomes in us. I really did understand it when I heard the sermon, but sometimes it takes time for a truth to inhabit us, heart, mind and soul..

Isn’t that paradox exciting? Isn’t that more breath-taking than some crashing, pounding, soaking, shattering plunge down a waterfall in an old beer barrel? It is! Isn’t that more exciting than crash landing at Orly airport with a wing on fire? It is! Isn’t it more life-affirming than trotting to Buckingham Palace to queue up for a handshake and a pink medal? It bloody well is!

God makes me spanking shiny clean every day. I wasn’t just dipped and rinsed and made squeaky clean 30-something years ago. I am new every morning. I am new every time I falter and realise and turn to God in submission and a kind of joy. ‘Joy’? When I’ve sinned? Paul would have something to say about that (Romans 6:1) but you know what I mean – sorrow that I’ve stumbled but fabulous joy that God is waiting to welcome me home. Relief and gratitude.

God’s love is unending, unvarying. Your life might be dull and lonely, you may feel that no one cares, that you are no one’s priority, you may struggle with mental health or marital or financial worries…. all these things are real. Horribly real. But more real, more powerful, more immediate than any of these emotions and thoughts, is God. He holds all things together, and that’s ALL things. He holds the Moon and the Sun and the Earth, and you and me. He is omnipresent and timeless, he is here and now. With me as I sit in the lamplight at my desk, with you wherever and whenever you read this. Know that God loves you. Now and always.

God is love. He loves you. Regardless of your circumstance, regardless of your role in life, regardless of the lifetime of sin behind you and the sin you just committed, and whether you’re 90 and ready to bow out, or 13 years old and up for a lifetime of adventure, He loves you.

You.

Absolutely you.

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

On a day like this

I live in building that was once a church vestry. It’s not quaint or pretty or even particularly old, built in 1926 on the side of a big chapel, a utilitarian building really, bare bones to serve the congregation. It amuses me that before they built the vestry they had to knock down a pub! Strange neighbours, eh? I wonder if there was ever a time when both the pub and the chapel were active? When the fishermen and labourers, wending their drunken way home in the wee small hours, crossed paths with the church deacons who were opening up for a day of worship? I like to think so, and I hope that sometimes the doughty church men might have paused in their Sunday chores to lead any lost sheep safely home.

I do like my once-vestry. It’s just two bedrooms, a bathroom and the living room, which is an open plan kitchen and sitting room. The high ceiling gives a great sense of space in what is really a small home. There’s no garden, no drive, no views – the front door opens onto the pavement on the busy main street of my village, so there are lorries and vans and cars, bikes, people, dogs…. life. It’s been a comfortable home and I know that when I move I will miss the sense of air and light and space.

When decorating isn’t a DIY job

We’ve been happy enough here, me and my dogs, a few wood lice and some spiders. Some really big spiders. I like spiders. I don’t understand why most people don’t – they’re usually harmless, always quiet and unobtrusive, they do their job without complaining, and you don’t have to feed or insure them. Or take them to be groomed. What’s not to like? But at this time of year they’re busy catching flies and although I don’t like breaking entire webs, if they’re old and broken, clearly abandoned, I do try to clear them. I have an extending feather duster but it doesn’t reach quite far enough, and no matter how much I rax to my fullest extent I simply can’t get anywhere near them. Even my granddaughter, standing on the worktop, stretching as high as she can…. no way. I’m adept at deliberately forgetting things that would otherwise clutter up my head, and I have happily forgotten these webs for quite a few months but I thought of them again today, as I drove to the beach in the early morning. In the early sunshine I was sharply aware that all around me, all around me, seen and unseen, there was abundant, vibrant life, and I was thankful for it, for all those scurrying, hurrying, peaceful, restful, feathered, fanged, claw and beak lives.

Come with me? The lane to the beach is narrow, and just after dawn the road is alive with birds, squirrels and rabbits. I drive with more care than is usual for me, slowly and guiltily, aware that I’m disturbing the peace, and trying not to harm any of them. Once I saw a fox and once a badger, the fox standing stock still in the dappled light where trees overhang the road, and the badger trundling, scurrying fatly, up a farm track. In the last stretch of road, past the mouth of the estuary there are flocks of Canadian Geese, a few swans, little fat ducks. In the dunes there are unseen adders, voles, mice, and rats. On the beach the gulls wheel and the swallows dart, gannets dive out at sea, little flocks of chirpy things (I’m no ornithologist) skim across the breaking waves, sending Pip into a frenzy. As she races to and fro, hopelessly chasing these tiny murmurations, I paddle at the sea’s edge, past all the different kinds of jellyfish washed up on the high tide mark. We crunch – the dogs and me – through the discarded shells of crabs (and, once, a lobster) Two or three times a year curious seals pop up to stare, and sometimes to shadow us, as we walk from one side of the sands to the other. A few times I’ve seen dolphins. Under our feet are the tracks of pea crabs, and worm casts and leaping sandflies. Under the sand, ominously, there may be weever fish, unthinkingly toxic.

This is my world. Dogs and spiders, fish, fowl and rodents. On a day like this I think of Genesis 1:

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”  So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.  God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 

On a day like this it is as if my skin is alive and electric, my eyes peeled, every sense raw. The miracle of life is too much to grasp, that all this should have come from nothing… from nothing. That I exist, and have thought, and have had life, and known so much joy and so much grief, and lived so fully and so long….and all of this a gift. From nothing. We are bacteria, we are virus, we are cell, and fibre, bone and iron, we are pulse and breath and thought and fear and love. Everything we are, we are because it has been given to us. Freely given.

We are loved and precious, and claimed. On a day like this I know it to be true. God loves me. God loves you. We live because he loves us, we are created because he is love.

On a day like this, I know God’s love.

On a day like this, I listen for his voice. There he is. In the birdsong and the waves, there he is. In the wind, in the silence, there he is.

He is.

Blackberry fool

We used to live next to a large area of wasteland, left to grow wild and messy and really rather glorious. All across this wasteland there was an intricate web of pathways created over the years by dog walkers and those taking a short cut from one side of the council estate to the other, and this is where we would take our Great Dane, Daisy, on her daily ‘short’ walk . The long walk was altogether more gracious, but this rough’n’ready amble was interesting enough, enjoyable enough in its own way; two dew ponds hidden by a great billow of blackberry brambles could be sheltering a heron, or a family of ducks, or an old bathtub, complete with taps. The dips and turns of the pathways would suddenly reveal a new feature of urban life – a burnt out stolen car, an abandoned old motorbike, or maybe an entire 1960’s Habitat wall unit, standing stark and upright, waiting patiently for artfully arranged vases and knick-knacks. Maybe the estate children had remembered where a roll of carpet had been dumped and had gleefully recovered it, mildew, earwigs and all, and placed it by the wall unit, and then someone had rescued an old rotting armchair from a ditch and dragged it onto the stinking carpet…. and voila! a Salvador Dali sitting room, there under the Derby sky. A playground for a generation of children and you can forget health and safety. They all survived.

We liked our wasteland. That’s where, when we were both unemployed and willing to do anything legal to save money, we spent a whole season picking blackberries, bottling and jamming and baking with them. The brambles were great tumbling clouds, high mountains of wildness, and it was frustrating to be able to pick only what we could reach, and to see the biggest fattest juiciest berries always just too high. It was tempting to reach and reach and overreach, on tip toe, to get just one more, and just one more. That’s exactly what I was doing when I lost my balance and fell slap bang into the middle of the thorns. If you’ve ever done the same you’ll know it’s not funny. It’s like being flayed by a hundred whips, grabbed by a thousand nasty little claws, and they won’t let you escape – they snatch at your clothes, pierce your skin, wrap themselves around your legs. However you turn, pain and blood, nowhere to put your hands, nowhere to kneel…. wow, it’ so unfunny.

Fortunately I was with my strong, blond, blue-eyed, Scottish, dependable and broad shouldered husband, and my lovely caring daughter.

Unfortunately they were too busy, doubled up with laughter, crying with mirth, to be any bloody use at all. Eventually, eventually, George managed to wipe away the tears and choke back the laughter, and wade in to pull me out. Eventually. Blackberry purple, blood red.

But on the whole I have very happy memories of that scrubby old piece of land. When it was time for Daisy’s walk, George would say to Lou (6) “Come on, Wheezie, let’s go exploring.” and off they’d go. As she ran ahead with Daisy she would choose the turn to the left or the right, past the pond or up the muddy track, calling back “Come on, Dad! Here’s a path no one’s ever been on before!” and he would follow faithfully, intrepid explorers. It was some years before it occurred to Lou that if there was path already, then she wasn’t the first to walk that way.

That’s like being a Christian. Well, for me, anyway. I keep discovering stuff and shouting ‘Look! Look what I’ve found!”

There’s one person in particular I shout it to, often. Someone who’s walked those paths long before I did, and gone further and explored them deeper. But I’ve chosen well, this patient soul lets me charge off, and shout back, and jabber and jump up and down, and explain how it was just sitting there… this knowledge… that I’VE discovered… this path… this realisation… THAT NO ONE’S KNOWN BEFORE! And I’m never made to feel foolish, however foolish I am.

You know, it’s great realising stuff, it’s wonderful seeing how perfect God’s truth is, and how comprehensive and complete, it’s so exciting to happen upon some beautiful jewel of God’s love – all that is adrenaline filled delight! But it’s also pretty amazing, gently reassuring and encouraging to know people who have been on that path before, to see where it took them, who they’ve become, and to know that the way is safe and proven.

Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls
. Jeremiah 6:16

Faithful Love

I heard an interview today with a neurologist, a clever man with a PhD in neuropsychology, and a BA in Psychology and an MA in Theology. His name is Dr Jim Wilder.

I have O levels in Needlework, Cookery and Art. No degrees or diplomas or anything else, but I understood him. He also calls himself a neurotheologist, because he uses his scientific training to explore the thought processes of the human mind as it seeks or rejects God. The talk was good and thought provoking. And it made me cry. Me, grizzled old me.

Dr Wilder says that the OT commands to ‘cleave’ or ‘glue ourselves’ to God are calling us to develop what psychologists today would call ‘passive attachment’. He had my attention as soon as he said the word ‘cleave’. I love the OT verses about God being our Rock, that he is the quarry from which we were cut, I love the imagery, longing to be at one with him, and in the old King James version, I just gloat over all the ‘cleaves’ of Deuteronomy (4:4, 10:20,11:22 and so on). If you haven’t read that version of Deuteronomy, I recommend looking up the word ‘cleave’ and making a bit of a study of it.

I so want to cleave to God, to be subsumed by him, to be overtaken and enveloped by him, to be unshakeably grafted onto him, to be transformed in his image so why aren’t I? Why am I still so very much me? Eh?

The question posed in the interview was more or less just that! Here it comes again: Why, ‘when Western Christianity emphasises the need for theology (knowledge) and the practice of Christianity (obeying), and we follow that teaching, do we fail to be transformed ?’ Because, he said, we miss out one very important aspect: our attachment to God.

We all need love from a very early age, and this need shows itself and is satisfied by our attachment to others. Psychologists call it ‘passive attachment’ and ‘faithful love’ (How wonderful that sounds!) Our characters and personalities are formed by who we are attached to. Any development or transformation depends on that attachment.

As a writer I see a clear delineation between character and personality – character is who I am when no one’s looking, a result of my thought processes and experience, and the values I hold, and what I do as a result. Personality is who I am when others see me, often a mood response to stimuli. Who we are attached to, shapes both. Who I have been attached to has shaped me so far, and who I attach myself to today will shape the person I will become tomorrow.

Who I have been attached to, loved, is reflected in my life and behaviour, in both who I am in private and how I act in public.

This is when it started to sting me…. I haven’t been attached to anyone since I was about 7 years old. I had attachment as a very young child, because I had a mother, but I don’t remember her now of course. Was the attachment good? bad? Indifferent? I have no idea, I think that by the time I was a teenager, desperate to love and be loved, the damage was done. I didn’t have a permanent figure in my life until I was 27, and by that time I might look for laughter and wit and kindness and fun, but I no longer looked for attachment. It was a boast of mine that I loved moving, loved leaving people behind to meet new ones, however much I enjoyed my friends, I never missed them. And here’s a terrible but very real confession, when my husband of 14 years died I hardened my heart and decided, yes, decided, not to miss him. Of course I did, and still do, but all my energy was turned to being free of attachment, and to cold survival. I turned all my emotional energy into denial. I had never learned to be attached and -surprise! surprise!- yet another person had left me, so I wasn’t going to learn attachment now, was I? I have left people behind all my life, those who didn’t die or walk away from me, I walked away from, whistling a jaunty tune.

My family, my daughter, my granddaughters, they are attached to me and my heart responds in huge love for them. But I understand now that this is because they, unlike me, have formed the attachment. I respond to that. I love only those who love me. I haven’t learned to love the unloving or to willingly attach to anyone else.

I may manage to love you when I’m with you, but when you’re not there… you’re not there. That’s still who I am. Hard hearted Hannah, eh? My heart will never be broken.

So, what made me cry today? As if my heart was breaking?

The interviewer asked “So… it is what we love that ends up shaping us and transforming us?” 
And I started to weep. Is this why I am not experiencing the full richness of transformation? Because I don’t love God with a cleaving love, am not fully attached to him? But what can I do about it? It seems hopeless.

As I listened I remembered ‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.‘ Yes! Yes! I do love him, I love him loads… but not with the wholeness of me. And the other great commandment ‘Love one another as I have loved you.‘ Oh, boy, that one I fail big time. It’s much much easier to not-love someone than to love them. Less work involved! I know it for a fact! Loving is hard labour and it’s going to hurt, one way or the other. Comes a time when they will die or walk away, or I will.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” What? Volunteer for all that heavy lifting? With my bad back? That’s bonkers. How the hell can I love everyone? I know me, and I tell you, I simply can’t.

Here’s something about attachment theory that psychologists have shown to be true, when we are attached to (love) someone, we are also attached to what they are attached to. When we cleave to them (faithful love) and others are cleaving to them, we become, all of us, a whole. When I love God, I love those who God loves. It’s an inevitable part of the process of loving him. It’s a biological fact, established deep in our cortex. So, who does he love? Everyone.

Everyone. He is love. And to be one with him, to cleave to him, means loving those he loves. Every blinkin’ one!

I realise now what I’ve missed out on, that great deluge, flood of love. For me the corollary of attachment transformation is that if we are not transformed, or being transformed, then we are not attached. We may think we are, but we aren’t. The simple biological fact is that what we are attached to influences our development. If Christ is not influencing my development, it is a sure indication that I am not attached to him. The estimable psychologist isn’t saying this, it’s me saying it – this is the conclusion I’ve reached.

That’s the thought that made me cry – I can’t love you, and you, and you, and that shouty bloke on the beach, or shadows from my childhood. I can be nice to you and to them and forgive and smile… but I can’t love others as I love myself. It isn’t in me. That’s why the tears started to flow, tears of sorrow and joy intermingled, as I realised that for this, as for everything else, I must depend on God. Tears of gratitude that it’s not hopeless because I CAN depend on him. That even this sad realisation is his gift. A lesson that must be learned after a long lifetime unattached.

If I am faithfully attached to God, it is inevitable that he will shape me, he will transform me. He will fill me with not my love (flawed, temporary, messy, conditional) but with his. HIS! The God who looked on Jerusalem and wept. The God who died for us. Each one of us. A billion deaths in one.

In a year’s time I am moving on, leaving friends here. I know now that – after today’s lesson – this will be painful. Love is painful, ‘parting’ old Bill Shakespeare said, ‘is such sweet sorrow.’

But I am always truthful in these blogs, I don’t sugar coat anything, and this means I have to admit to you, right now, that I’m still fighting this. I will be dragged into the state of cleaving, kicking and screaming. I am stubborn and slow and bloody-minded. You know it’s true.

So I say, do I really have to volunteer for all that malarkey? Is there no other option? Loving people? I mean, people? Smelly, messy, flawed, chaotic people just like me? Can’t I pick and choose? Did he say ‘Love a few people a little bit like I’ve loved you’?

Apparently not. ‘This is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you.’

I can’t do that on my own. I’ve failed miserably for 70 odd years. So I’m desperately dependant on him to enable me. Desperately dependant. It’s a phrase I’ve heard often over the last few years but until now I didn’t realise how comprehensive, how relevant, urgent, sharp and painful and wonderful it is. Knowing now, at last, understanding at last, that for everything, everything, I am dependent on Him. And that’s the very best place to be.

I will fail. He will not.

Giving thanks for ALL things.

My village is built on the shore of an estuary. On our side of the estuary is a wide beach, sandy and gentle, skirted by dunes, and on the other side is a smaller, rockier, more workmanlike shore with a jetty and boats and a caravan park and boulders dumped there to keep the winter tides at bay. The two estuary shores have friendly, welcoming names – the beach is Poppit Sands, and the rocky shore opposite is Patch. Poppit and Patch. They could be detectives in a tongue-in-cheek TV series, or dogs in a children’s cartoon.

Poppit thinks she’s a cut above Patch, because she comes under the aegis of the the Pembrokeshire National Park Authority, while Patch sniffs dismissively and says that Poppit is all fur coat and no knickers. They glower at each other across the shallow water. You’re either a Poppiteer or a Patchist. Some people try to love both but you can’t serve two beaches. Fact.

I usually stick to Poppit, but recently, feeling very much alone in the long lockdown days, I’ve been getting into the car and going a bit further afield just to give my bored eyes something different to see, my brain something to actually think about. Mostly, because I’m alone, I don’t get out, just drive around, but yesterday we went to Patch in the afternoon, and I took the dogs for a leg-stretch. It was a real shocker! I was shocked to my core. I thought that I was, in spite of weight and arthritic spine, a fit kinda person. OK, I can’t walk fast, but I can walk far. Very far. OK, I can’t jog but I can swim. And I love the water. OK, I can’t do stairs, but I don’t want to anyway. Who does? OK, I’m deaf but it isn’t the deafness of old age, it’s the deafness of something else. Yesterday it all got serious. I discovered that I can’t walk on pebbles! My ankles turn, I lose my balance, I feel disoriented and sick if the scree moves beneath my feet, my tri-focals confuse me…. I felt, suddenly, about 90! I managed to get to the top of a steep incline and there I stood, shakily. Paralysed. Retreating was as dodgy as going on and, reasoning that there might be another way around the promontory, I eventually continued down the scree on to the less pebbly shore. There I discovered that there was no other way back to the car except the way I’d come. Stranded. I sat on the rocks for simply ages trying to pluck up the courage to return over what now looked – to my chastened courage – like a sheer cliff face.

As I sat there, with Pip madly chasing birds over the slimy rocks, and Percy glued to my side, worrying (he’s an empathic dog) I found myself saying “This would be an adventure and something to laugh at, if I was with someone. ” and a small filling voice (the only way I can describe it) said “You are with someone.”

And I was. I was with God. So we sat there, me and Percy, and I knew that God was with us. And you know what? The scree wasn’t so worrying, I didn’t fret about falling, and I did laugh at the silly bloomin’ woman who managed to get (almost) stranded on a perfectly ordinary seashore, a seashore where toddlers clambered happily and couples strolled romantically.

And I got back to the car without calamity.

What a twit. Aren’t we a funny lot? You may not be a daft old bat yet, but one day, if you get to your three score years and ten, you will be! Here’s the news… it’s not so bad. Yeah, yeah, sometimes you’ll think it’s the pits, deep deep cesspits, but most of the time it’s not so bad.

Get ready to laugh at yourself, if and when the time comes. And remember you won’t be alone. Even when the world turns away, when the most ordinary day becomes a worry, God will be right there with you.

Even to your old age and grey hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you. Isaiah 46:4

Today, just now, (don’t know how long it will last) I am giving thanks for all things. Even wonky eyes, hearing, ankles, back….

Red letter day!

It’s always been a bit of a ‘thing’ with me that I don’t lock my front door in the daytime, that my home is open to anyone who wants to come in for a chat, a moan, a shout, a dance, whatever. My happiest times are when it’s party time, or when the group of Young Adults from church come for the evening, or when there’s music playing in the kitchen, and a conversation by the fireside and kids mucking about in the hall, and a teenager demonstrating how to do a somersault on the sofa. I probably won’t be able to hear any of it – in my ears it’s always chaos… and I love it!

I think it comes of growing up in a house where no one was welcome, where the marriage of my dad and stepmother was so passionate that it was exclusive. No room for anyone else. You would think that such passionate love would create warmth, wouldn’t you? It didn’t. It created a smug little, mean little, serene and impregnable castle, with the draw bridge always up. A perfect home arranged just as it suited them, every room pleasing to their eye, work tops uncluttered by life, table tops empty of work, colours muted, days ordered… two people devoted to each other and utterly selfish.

Probably reacting to that beginning, I’ve always wanted my home to be a place where anyone can enter and relax. You know? Relaaax. When I lived in Derby we had a mad woman (truly bonkers – truly) living opposite, and a chaotic woman just a few yards away across a patch of grass, and next door was a lovely man, a widower, with two great hulking sons and a garden full of motorcycle parts and old cars… and they all came in and out, and were part of our lives. George wasn’t quite so happy about the comings and goings but it’s important to me that friends know they’re always welcome, no appointment necessary. And yet, this year, for nearly four months my front door has had to be properly, solidly closed. So horrible.

Ancient Roman documents recorded special and significant events in red ink. Nowadays calendars do the same. In Bibles the words of Christ are often shown in red. Well, today is a sort of red letter day for me… look….. my kitchen is busy, I’m going to actually hoover later on today, I may even polish the furniture…. LOOK! Fish pie is in the making, roasted peppers, and Madeira cake with raspberries, to be followed by Scrabble and wine and chocolate and… PEOPLE! Two whole people.

Two whole lovely people.

Oh. Listen, just as I finished typing ‘whole’ I looked up and I saw a woman running down the hill, throwing her arms around a laughing man, and they laughed and laughed some more, and she swung him around and he swung her around… elderly, rejoicing, delightful! I had to go out and tell them how lovely it was to see a real live hug. Separated households, separated souls, coming together, uniting in a great big joyous hug. How wonderful. Wow. I didn’t know how deeply I had missed seeing normal human interaction, friendship and love.

About three weeks ago there was talk about people in the UK adopting the ‘bubble’ system of coming out of isolation. It didn’t transpire but on the very day it was mentioned in the press I had a knock on my door and the couple who are coming tonight were there, asking me if we could ‘bubble’ together. Tonight, three weeks later, we are finally getting it together! I am so very, very happy. And I’m gonna beat them both, soundly and roundly, at Scrabble (my love doesn’t quite reach scrabble level)

This book I’m writing, about love… it’s sort of pole-axed me. I can’t see anything without recognising either love or the need for love or the absence of love.

Love, eh ? Someone should write a song about it.

Hey, do you want to see something beautiful? Turn your audio off and cop an eyeful of this:

‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’

I bet you a million squillion quid

Were you going to do great things in lockdown? Maybe you were going to learn a new language, or a new skill – morris dancing or brain surgery – or maybe you set your sights on creating the perfect gateau or starting a micro brewery? Did you dust off your old guitar and search online for how-to-play videos? Or did you set your sights on reaching peak fitness and running ten miles a day?

I’d be willing to bet a million quid that you did none of these things (if I had a million quid). I bet your days meandered by.

I also did none of these things, but then, I never intended to anyway. I am, by nature, a sloth. I did unpack my patchwork one day, and I started to teach my granddaughter how to knit (we managed just 12 rows) and … well, that’s it, really. That’s not to say I haven’t learned anything at all in this last three months, I’ve accidentally learned loads; I’ve learned that banana bread is a doddle but lemon drizzle cakes sometimes dip in the middle, and I’ve discovered things about the house drains that I really didn’t want to know (a horrible flood) and how much it costs to have a dry stone wall built when the hill is sliding into your property (another thing I didn’t want to know) and I’ve learned that when your tyres are a bit soft the car gets VERY noisy and when the garage doesn’t put the seal back on the oil pump everything grinds to a very messy halt. It’s been an eventful and panicky lockdown – quite scary at times! I’ve even found myself wishing I was a blokey bloke so that I’d know how to deal with all these things. They just do, don’t they? Weird.

More happily, I’ve learned that God is beyond good, and that I am no earthly use, and that this is OK. I’ve learned that the Bible is alive and relevant and piercing – and not always the most comfortable read. And I’ve learned that God is to be trusted and that with trust comes real solid pinch-me joy. Pinch me hard, and let me know I’m not dreaming.

This blog is read in 37 countries – not by hundreds of people, but by a few every now and then, so I’d better bring you up to date with where we are just now with our lockdown here in Wales. We are edging very very very slowly towards a lessening of regulations. We are confused, a bit bored and tetchy, our thinking is growing circular, muffled and blunt, and, speaking for myself, being a selfish shellfish, I’m not always aware and focussed on the fact that this is a time of acute pain and loss for so many. In this part of the country the restrictions have been followed, there have been few deaths, and it’s a shock to turn on the tv and to see the mass graves in New York. It’s a wake-up call to think of and pray for friends in South Africa, in Italy, in London, in the Midlands, in the USA.

We have to make an effort to remember, when we are so far apart, that there is real grief in a world of mourning, that yes, we’re human and flawed and so we make jokes about lemon drizzle cakes and drains, but this is a time when our priority is to pray, and to extend love those who are suffering deep loss. A time for prayer. A time to grow.

Lockdown has had its small triumphs and good lessons well as floods and landslides…. I’ve learned a lot about love, and about friendship.

“A friend in need” the saying goes “is a friend indeed.”

A more colloquial rendering of that wisdom is “A friend in need is a bloody nuisance.”

Many of us have discovered friendship in this time of real need. The supermarkets are full of people who are shopping for those who are self-isolating, and there are stories of kindness and selflessness running alongside all the stories of stupidity and greed. In my village people are baking for each other, checking that the elderly are OK, showing real care and concern, not just clapping the NHS . How I hated that little ritual…

But I do appreciate the real kindness I’ve been shown and, as I can’t go on the street and applaud my friends, I’ll tell you about them instead:

With no outside space of my own, I’ve appreciated being invited to join neighbours in their gardens – in fact just four homely low-key visits have been life savers. True friendship isn’t about shared belief, or age, or gender, or nationality. It’s not talking about love. Friendship is a rickety chair on uneven ground and a mug of tea and the sun overhead, and laughter. These friends are as different from me as anyone could possibly be, different beliefs, lifestyles, ages, nationalities, sexualities, histories, we have nothing in common at all. At the start of lockdown I was studying James and I’ve just closed the commentary on it, sated and happy. In the second chapter there’s a warning against saying the right and ‘kindly’ thing but then doing nothing – James tells us that it’s no good wishing someone was warm and fed if we then walk away, leaving them cold and starving. Saying the right things to ease us through the moment, giving false hope and empty comfort, is hypocritical. It’s also something that us people of faith do quite a bit. But James warns us that when do this, our faith is dead.

These neighbours of mine who have offered friendship, are not the ones who say all the right things at all, it would never occur to them to say “We love you.” Instead they say “We’ve got the kettle on so come round right now, we’ll sit in the garden and we’ll see how much nonsense we can come up with.” I am so appreciative – they’re all partnered, they have each other, they don’t need my company, but they offer theirs.

Here’s another pertinent saying; “They put their money where their mouth is.”

I thank God for my non Christian friends. Pagans, agnostics, atheists all. They are a gift from God. He loves them. They are amazing.

Jaw dropping

In the middle of the night, scrabbling around sleepily for a piece of paper and a pen (writers do that sort of thing), in the drawer next to my bed I found a tiny red book that I’d forgotten about. I started it about 6 years ago, jotting down some things I heard that just ‘stuck’ and I didn’t want to lose.

I left the notebook out and as I flicked through it this morning, I found a simple phrase from 24th May 2015 which has held me captive ever since ‘submission is a universal Christian obligation.‘ It made me smile because that phrase changed my life. I remember hearing it so very clearly and I promise you, my jaw did truly drop. I don’t think I will ever forget it. I hadn’t known until that moment that jaw-dropping was a real thing! I actually mentioned that phrase in a face-time conversation on Friday. It’s become a part of my internal world.

Our pastor does a lot of careful studying before a sermon, and praying and thinking and all that stuff, so that by the time he speaks to us he brings clarity and simplicity to even the deepest truths. That day I learnt that submission is a way of life, not just an act, not a doing, not just a thing a wife offers to her husband or a husband offers to his wife. It’s a universal obligation. If we all do it…. if we all do it… oh, man! Think, if we all do that! I know that here and now the phrase won’t mean as much to you as it did to me back then, when it came as a building block in the sermon, but it bears repeating.

We are all to submit. The command is universal. That means we are all servants of each other. No exceptions. There is none raised high, and none laid low. I wish I could give you that sermon, I wish, I wish, but I can only … here… hang on…… I’ve just scrabbled around and found my sermon notes going back to 2015 and here you go…

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.‘ Ephesians 5:21,

Page one of three, and some afterthoughts.

It excites me all over again to read ‘No matter where you go, this word and command is for all of us. None of the other commands (love, live in the light etc) are possible (attainable) if we don’t first live a submissive life. That makes me long to live that way, thrilled at the idea of it.

And of course, the submissive life was defined further in the sermon- the submissive life is one surrendered to God. Our greatest priority and our greatest joy is submitting to God. It’s good submitting to Billy Bloggs, and as an act of obedience it has its own quiet reward, but submitting to God! Submitting, as the verse says ‘out of reverence for Christ’. That’s a whole other ball-game and it brings huge sweeping joy and laughter and delight because submission isn’t servility, Uriah Heep bowing and scraping. It’s a strong and peaceful way of life. It’s a joyful life choice. We decide to submit to God and to one another – freely – not in slavery.

Sometimes our pastor’s definitions are taken from other speakers and writers, but sometimes these aphorisms (concise statements, sharp observations containing truth) are his. These are the ones I get worked up about because they shouldn’t be lost. I love words, communication and learning and I hate the thought of these carefully distilled concepts not being written down, to be treasured and explored by people in the future. What a waste! I can chew on these simple truths for days, weeks, months. How wonderful if others could do the same. He’s spent hours crafting them – what a waste if they’re lost! And you know, biased as I am, I believe that the written word is even more powerful than the spoken word – because it can be visited and re-visited.

Books. That’s the answer.

BUT here’s the thing – there are so many millions of how-to books that you’d think the world doesn’t need any more. We have how-to be happy/content/thin/successful/beautiful/funny/fit and even how-to pray. Enough already! But when I look back and see my life shaped by good teaching, oh, man! I so long for these words to be wondered at. I want jaws all over the world to drop. Our sermons used to be recorded on cd’s, and then went online, but the online platform makes them available for only two years, so their life is short. Maybe now, on youtube, they’ll last longer, be heard way into the future, but there are so many things to look at, to listen to, to be distracted by, will they still be lost? There’s no other form of teaching as sturdy and long lasting and focussed as a book.

Are my horrible scrawled notes, the only record we have of that wonderful sermon five years ago? What a waste! Of course some patient and wiser soul will email me now and tell me that God will use the spoken word, that those who need to hear will hear. Yeah, yeah. I know. Of course. And the pastoral role is to the people who hear, the people of the community, and God’s work is done pastorally. Yes! I get it. I still reckon there should be a written record. So shoot me.

Hey – yesterday, or the day before (lockdown… all the days blur into one long yawn) I was asked ‘Is Covid from the devil or is it God’s judgment?’ When I’d stopped laughing at the idea that anyone would ever ask me anything theological, this was my answer: I don’t trust my judgment and neither should you, but we know where to find the answer. Here are some thoughts from a much greater authority than me or any other human being:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:16&17

‘All things were created’ and the ‘all’ includes Covid as a virus. The world is full of viral life, teeming with it, and with bacteria too. They are created life forms, just like the elephant, the flea, the amoeba and everything in-between. But it was man who created the disease/pandemic. It was man who, by his greed and corrupt systems, created a poverty ridden underclass, ignorant of hygiene and desperate for food, any food. Man caused the pandemic but God has allowed it. There will be lessons for us in it. 

I form the light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.’ Isaiah 45:7

That’s hard to fathom, but just as I’m wondering about justice in any of this, a verse later we read: 

Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, 
those who are nothing but potsherds
    among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
    “What are you making?”
Does your work say,
    “The potter has no hands”?

That brings me right back to a place of calm surrender. He’s right! I’m a potsherd (a shard of pottery, a broken vessel) That’s me! These verses and loads of others tell us that God is sovereign and nothing happens unless he allows it. And they put us in our place. And how. But then just as things look a bit bleak, I think of: 

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Psalm 100:5

And the lessons we learn in Covid will be good ones because:

we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

And finally
God is love.  1 John 4:8

Hang on… one more… just before I go….

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

Now , that’s what I call jaw-dropping!

(and it’s written in proper booky book, so it’s lasted 2000 years and reached even us)