The Quiet Man

George was an engineer, a man of science, and he was my husband. He had been brought up by strict Presbyterian parents, his father a lay preacher, but the home wasn’t a place of acceptance and love, far from it. His family was all about appearances, doing well, and achieving some standing in the community. He was a kind man, but stoic, taking the ‘strong silent type’ concept very seriously, which is probably why I fell for him initially – I too had grown up in a world that valued men of steel, men who would never weep, or bend. My dad was a Sergeant Major, and even when his wife and then his two sons died, he showed no emotion. I thought that was how men should be.

So George met all my criteria – intelligent, smart, capable, steady. Handsome (it helps). Athletic. He was witty and quick thinking, and he could reduce me to helpless laughter with a quiet observation, or a silly quip. He was great company. But we both had one failed marriage behind us, and we carried the faults of those first marriages into our second. I was too young for him, too impractical, and far too impulsive and selfish. He loved rowing and running, judo and archery. I loved books. We fancied each other like mad, we told ourselves that this was love, and we plunged in, regardless. It’s no wonder that the brand new marriage was falling apart just a couple of years later and so – ludicrous decision!- we moved to South Africa, because that was going to sort it, wasn’t it? Looking back …. what twits!

After his childhood, cold father and dreadful Sundays (church three times and no amusement allowed) George had no time for church, for personal religion and he didn’t believe in God. I believed there was a God, I even believed that Jesus was God, but I didn’t think much of him, I thought he was arbitrary and capricious and I could do without him. Why on earth didn’t we pause and look at our lives and ask “How’s that working out so far?”

You know that terrifying winter sport, the Skeleton? As we flew out to South Africa that was us, hurtling down the hillside, eyes closed, holding on to each other for grim death.

In Johannesburg George was a project engineer constructing sugar refineries. It was a high-pressure but fulfilling life for him and hellishly boring for me, stuck at home in Bezuidenhout Valley knowing no one. Within a year he had been head-hunted so we uprooted and moved to Durban to improve his prospects. More stress for him, more boredom for me, in a shabby bungalow with a three year old child and nothing much to do (reminds me of lockdown!). When you live with someone you see their vulnerabilities as well as their defences and while, to the rest of the world, he appeared confident and high-achieving, he was plagued by stress-related psoriasis and smoked constantly – from his first breath in the morning to his last gasp at night. Tough guy. I had married a good, old fashioned sturdy Glaswegian, someone I could (selfishly) lean on, but now I discovered that all was not as it seemed. The harsh truth is, I know now, that he was plagued with guilt and grief for his first family and he felt responsible for bringing me and our daughter half way across the world only to fail again. I was a huge disappointment to him, life out there was not what he had imagined, and so he immersed himself more and more in his work.

This blog isn’t about me so I won’t go into how I came to faith (at Durban North Baptist Church) but he was pretty disgusted and it made our shaky marriage even shakier. He tried to understand but couldn’t, and I was far from wise and gracious in my new found happiness and purpose! I know I was a real pain in the neck. My enthusiasm and happiness infuriated him. My determination to ‘make a go of it’ seemed childish, simplistic and arrogant. I’m sure I was all these things. Within weeks he said that this was never going to work, and he didn’t want this marriage any more, so as my only income was from a part-time job in a children’s nursery, he ‘suggested’ that I should return to the UK with our daughter. So I did.

A few weeks later, sitting all alone in a hotel room in downtown Durban, with his cigarette and a whisky nightcap, he looked back on his life and realised that he wanted more than this. That his Godless life wasn’t doing much for his heart and his soul. That none of it made sense. And he turned to God in anger and honesty, and he said that if God was there, if God existed, this was his last chance to make himself known. He said something like “If you exist and if you care, show me.”

I don’t know what else was in the prayer, in the anger and sadness and desperation. All I know is what he told me… that he went to sleep that night and when he woke up he was a new man. That’s how he put it, and that’s what I came to know for myself. When George woke up he knew that there is God, that God loved him, and he knew that he wanted to follow Jesus for ever. That day he called me, for the first time in weeks, and asked me to return to South Africa. When he told me that he had given his life to Jesus I was so stunned I said “Sorry, I don’t understand” three times – which is not the reception you want when your life is saved and rainbows are forming all around you, and the world is new and wonderful, and all the angels in heaven are blowing trumpets and throwing a shindig and dancing a jig.

And we all lived happily ever after? Not quite. There were struggles and mistakes and we had a lot of mending to do. But we did it with Jesus. We did it in obedience. George never softened to church but he was no longer the unbending man of steel. That night George was made new. Truly new. The man we flew back to was warm and tender, a man who could weep. He could forgive and repair. He was still my quiet man, still witty and quick thinking, and he could still reduce me to helpless laughter with a quiet observation, or a silly quip. Now his heart was lighter, and many of my most vivid memories are all about laughter, not stress; the time we had to walk around the block before going into our hotel because our laughter and snorting and nonsense would wake everyone up, and as we approached the entrance doors for the second time we erupted all over again and had to do the circuit again and again, getting more and more exasperated and helpless, and then there were all the times our daughter plaintively called from her bedroom “Stop laughing, you two, I’m trying to sleep”, and (less funny for me!) the time I fell in the brambles and both of them were laughing so hard they couldn’t pull me out. But for all that, his soul was quiet and prayerful. He was steady and measured and refused to argue (so infuriating!) and he was a peaceful partner. .

We had another nine years together. And we grew closer, and closer, and closer.

Here he is, the day before he died. It’s my favourite photo but I made the mistake of having it printed on a special backing, so it looks a bit like a canvas, doesn’t it? I made quite a few (and much bigger) mistakes in the months after the shock of his death. Ah, well. It’s still my favourite.

We were on holiday when the photo was taken, on a motor cruiser on the Caledonian Canal. I was two years into my new career as a script writer so life had been exciting and hectic, and we really needed this wind-down time. Our daughter was 14 and she had brought a friend along, Amanda. It really was an idyllic two weeks, slowly cruising across Scotland, all the way from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the north east. We day dreamed across the lochs, laughed and chivvied through the locks, drank wine on deck in wonderful sunsets, moaned a bit in the morning rain…. and George was in his element.

The Captain of my ship. Or dinghy.

George had lived in England for most of his life, and he hadn’t expected to be moved by this Scottish holiday, but he was. He just loved the whole experience. Although he wasn’t a bird watcher, he had always wanted to see an eagle flying wild and the day before we left for home, a huge golden eagle soared above us, for all the world like a gift to George Marshall and no one else!

The next morning as we prepared to leave the boat, drinking our last cup of coffee before heading off, I took that precious photo, George, happy and relaxed, rested. And about to go to glory.

Now, if anyone is enfolded into Christ, he has become an entirely new creation. All that is related to the old order has vanished. Behold, everything is fresh and new. 2 Cor 5:17 (TPT)

Oy! Benedict, you’re ‘avin’ a laugh….

I can no longer find the YouTube video taken by a man who was on the observation platform at the Kennedy Space Centre, waiting to record the launch of the shuttle. He had his camera carefully trained and focussed, the picture was clear and steady, and behind him, out of view, we could hear all the others who were also waiting to film the launch. It was a bright day, a big open sky, not a cloud in sight, but nothing much to watch either. Then we began to hear the murmur of the crowd, and the murmurs grew, along with a few excited yips and sharp intakes of breath… “Yeah! There she is!” … the oohs and ahhhs became sharper… was the camera shaking a little bit? But still nothing was happening in our lens… and then the murmurs became a crescendo of excitement, of yipping and whistling and hooting with delight… still nothing to see… no smoke, no movement, no nothing…. and then we heard a soft exclamation of dismay and the camera swung around and … yes! It had been pointing the wrong way. The cameraman was there, primed and ready, with all his enthusiasm and good intentions, on the observation point, but the shuttle he was looking at wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. All he captured was the tail end of the smoke and steam, the shuttle just a distant dot.

Poor bloke! But it seems to me that’s what we’re doing too – the majority of us anyway – in lockdown. Looking the wrong way. Missing the stuff we really need to see.

Apart from an hour on Sundays, and a couple of Skype calls each week, my home is silent all day, every day, until the evening. And although life just now is too solitary and the days can seem pretty pointless, I still love this silence. A few years ago I listened to the radio just about all the time, or playlists, I never missed Ken Bruce on Radio2 in the morning or the afternoon drama on Radio 4, and of course there were always people coming by and conversations to be had with friends. The days were so busy I wrote at night. Now, just silence.

Silence. Ahhhh. I heard last week that the word ‘shalom’, usually translated as ‘peace’, can also mean ‘whole’. That makes perfect sense to me – the silence and peace of my home is complete, it’s unbroken, like the surface of a deep clear pond. Whole.

Silence is a little breath of heaven, and when the clamour of the world is hushed we can calm and settle and listen out for God.

Good, eh? Dead pious, what? Hang on while I polish me halo.

But – hey – this is me. A ripple on the surface of the pond has its own beauty too. I like ripples. By late afternoon I’m ready for a bit of a laugh, or a bop to Tina Turner, or a silly dance to ‘I would walk 500 miles…’ around the kitchen, with the dogs barking at my sudden spurt of energy, and I’m longing for a conversation with someone, anyone (almost anyone) …. to tell them what I’ve discovered today, hear what they’ve discovered, argue and laugh and all that…. You know? Annoy each other. Enjoy our differences. I’ve just worked out – it’s five days since my last conversation.

It’s all about balance. The silence is lovely but we are also meant to be in contact with others, we are meant to be part of something bigger. We need the human voice or the human heart beating beside us. You can have too much of a good thing.

Anyway, by late afternoon the silence is getting a bit stale even for me so I stick a playlist on too loud and when 6pm comes around the telly goes on and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Almost literally. Have you noticed hell in lockdown? Almost-literal hell piped into our sitting rooms? Have you clocked how many killings and how much grubby voyeurism there is on the box? Think about it, my friends. There are docs and dramas about serial killers, homicidal psychopaths, drunken killers, greedy killers, sexual predators, missing children, missing adults, child abuse, drug overdoses, cold cases and forensics, drive-by shootings, interviews with lawyers and psychiatrists and plods, and there are dramas that glorify insanely blithe fictional people whose life is one big killing spree, or re-enactments raking the coals over some shabby murder half a lifetime ago. Some of these dramas are well crafted and there’s superb acting, great production values, and just like everyone else I get suckered in. I loved “Killing Eve” which is just about the most preposterous series ever (oh, no, hang on, first there was Dexter…) And just like everyone else I find myself on the side of the killer… just like I empathised with Tony Soprano….

As a sort of segue, that’s what makes Fargo so good. We never side with the two killers, we see the weakness and pettiness of one and the evil of the other, and we are allowed to see the consequences of small lies and petty deceptions. We are taken down a road clearly signposted “There but for the grace of God….”

At the start of lockdown I watched many of these murderous offerings and was glad to, but after overdosing on this unbalanced diet for months on end, I can’t help muttering as I flick through the schedule “Enough! Enough with the raped/tortured/tied, enough with the throttled/shot/kidnapped, enough with the poisoned/knifed/drowned… enough!” Last night I saw someone being suspended from a ceiling, upside down, manacled and hog tied, ready to have his throat slit. At that point I stopped searching for something watchable and turned off. Went back to reading a book.

I’ve been part of the TV industry for nearly forty years, and written well over a hundred prime time hours of drama but only 3 of them featured murders. Why so few? Because I have always understood – like everyone else – that murder is evil and wrong, but as a dramatist I’ve also always understood that murder is peculiarly banal and mindless and futile and grubby. And murderers are weak, boring and sad. I’ve met a few, so I can say that with some confidence.

The documentaries we’ve had over the last year demonstrate the truth of this, over and over again. Murderers are dull and broken people, weak and often stupid, sometimes deluded and narcissistic, and their stories just pathetic tales of wasted lives, to be pitied. So why have we spun a whole damn industry out of them? What is the fascination? I just don’t get it. And when we are so busy looking in their direction, what delight and depth and colour are we missing in the other directions? Isn’t the fullness of life more interesting than bloody old murders? The battle between good and evil isn’t restricted to homicide; the desire for love and understanding, the pain of loss and the struggle to recover, deceit and painful honesty, the emotional damage we wreak on each other, these are more intriguing surely? Murder can never be put right, never be undone, but the small and thoughtless things we do to each other, the betrayals and hurts, they are the dramatic stuff of real life, they can be resolved or abandoned… forgiven or revenged… that’s where conflict lies, not in a bullet or a knife. And btw, in these thrillers it’s nearly always women who are the most tortured victims. Funny that, in a world of mostly male writers, eh?

Grrrr. Someone help me down from my soap box. Thanks.

But we don’t have to watch the dross. I should have stopped watching it weeks ago. There are great films available too, there’s one called ‘All The News Of The World’ (with Tom Hanks) and there’s another called ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ but in addition to Hollywood films there’s fresh home made fare to be had! We have something else to look at, so swing that mental camera around and look the other way. The BBC have visited three Benedictine monasteries and have made a film in each of these prayer saturated communities, two in England and one in Scotland. I’ll talk about the Scottish one, because that was the contemplative, calmest, most beautiful (to me, anyway). There’s no voice-over, no music, no speech within the film, nothing but the life portrayed, and so it’s an hour of gentle contemplation, balm to my soul. The silence of the cloisters melding with the silence of my fireside so that I seemed to be sharing their sunlit gardens and misty orchard, it was as if I was there with them, and not here, alone. The film was shot by static camera , to reveal life as it’s lived out not performed, and there is no camera or sound crew in the scene. As always, the Rule of Benedict was followed as it has been for well over a thousand years and we saw it as it always is. The only decisions to be made were made in the positioning of the cameras and then the editing. The only sounds in this Scottish film were bird song, the scrape of a chair on a stone floor, the soft clack-clack-clack of a loom, the buzz of bees, and then, as their evening fell, there was Gregorian chant sounding as if filtered through muslin, or carried on a hallowed breeze. In this monastery the simple rituals are spoken in Latin and the sound of it fed my soul when, at the very end, we heard the Gloria Patri (Glory be to God) sung, or chanted. My soul did a little jig of joy as it heard the last words of that familiar doxology ‘in saecula saeculorum, amen’

I’m as far from Catholic as I can be, I don’t share many of their doctrines and practices, but there are some Latin phrases that are forever in my bones – ‘in saecula saeculorum,’….. the true translation is ‘into the ages of the ages’ but as a child I understood it as ‘for ever and ever’ and that takes me right back to the Mass, to Benediction, to the years when I wanted to know God but kept missing him!

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
Both now and always, forever and ever, amen.

Mind you, the Rule of St Benedict is just man made so there are some less than impressive bits…. quite a lot of ceremonial robes and ritual in the other two films, the English monasteries, rosary beads and kissing icons…. Oh, and St Benedict left a rule stating ‘we absolutely condemn all talk leading to laughter’ and he’s deffo on his own there. Remind me not to sit next to him when we get up yonder. What a pain! It’s all about balance, Benedict!

And here’s the view from my window, not a monastery, but certainly peaceful.

A bit blue ?

Why not? Sometimes we all feel a bit blue….. but blue can be beautiful

Like yesterday.
And today

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some wonderful mornings here in West Wales. Days to ponder and paddle, wander and wonder. But this is an unprecedented time, and it’s not necessarily a constantly happy time, and nor should it be. That’s the thing – happiness unalloyed is not good. It’s a daft thing, a pretend state of mind, a sort of mild insanity. Happiness is a reaction to circumstances and when circumstances change, it slips away. Of course it does. If a friend is dying in front of me, or I’ve just been made bankrupt, or my house has fallen down, I’d be insane to be happy. A blithering senseless idiot. If I was happy to be in the middle of a pandemic with millions dying… that would be madness. Joy, on the other hand… ah, joy is wonderful and faithful, steadfast, and it stays with us and in us whatever our circumstances. Joy is integral, it’s knowledge and trust, it’s an awareness of God’s goodness, whatever is happening around us.

Sometimes this last few weeks I’ve had to remind myself not to look for happiness, not to be surprised or disgruntled when there isn’t any, and to look instead for joy. And joy has always been there.

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

I like the way the Passion translation treats that verse:

you bring me a continual revelation of resurrection life,
the path to the bliss that brings me face-to-face with you

When the lockdown seems never ending, and every day is long and empty, I’m often not happy, but I can be joyful, because joy is a gift from outside of me, not of my doing ; God brings it to me, and – as in that verse – his continual revelation of life with him is my bliss. Knowing him is bliss. Understated bliss. I mean, you won’t find me capering on the sands throwing my arms up to the sky in a state of soaring euphoria but that’s pretty much how the core of me feels, the innermost parts of me, the bone and gristle of my soul. And it’s a gift from God. All I have to do is accept it.

The daily challenges, of course, remain.

I had to go to the Post Office this morning, after putting it off for a week, and there I met a friend I haven’t seen for ages so we tried to catch up on the last six months as we stood 6 feet apart on the pavement in a freezing wind. As we spoke about planning for the future (when it comes, as I’m sure it will, this too will pass, the sun will shine again, etc etc etc) I observed that I’m becoming a bit agoraphobic; I avoid going into the neighbouring town just two miles away, I’m wary about visiting friends’ houses even just to drop off shopping on the doorstep, I fret and plan even the simplest trip to the bakery or the supermarket days ahead, and I don’t think I’ll ever go on holiday again. I’m not afraid of the virus, not at all, or of people, I’m just….. unsettled. Lacking confidence. Too long alone. The pal I met at the Post Office is a very active and inquisitive soul who, pre-Covid, went to London just about every week, booking for every new play and exhibition, meeting up with colleagues, wining and dining, nipping over to Germany and then Russia and holidaying all over the world, so that even a conversation with her was exhausting, but this morning she shared my agoraphobia, saying “I just can’t imagine ever getting on a train again!”

Is this what lockdown has done to many of us, or is it just her and me?

Tonight we have an online bible study and the screen will be full of smiling faces. Not mine. I will disable my video and just listen because, while I love seeing everyone, I don’t want to be seen. It’s a strange and unsettling shyness, and although I know where it stemmed from in the past, I’m struggling to understand why it’s re-emerged now and so very powerfully. Maybe having been solitary for so long, seeing a crowd of other people is a bit like stepping out from the twilight into a world that’s suddenly floodlit so that I’m blinded and disoriented by the contrast. Maybe.

But you know the absolute unvarnished truth? Ready for it? I think that maybe, just maybe, while I’ve been living quietly in my solitary twilight, my hair has become matted and my nails have grown into talons, and there’s hair between my toes, and carbuncles are sprouting on my nose, there’s seaweed in my ears, and all my teeth have fallen out. Maybe by turning off the video option I’m saving the world from a terrible sight. Which is jolly good of me, actually.

How nutty is that?

I think this is a funny old time for any of us to be making much sense. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, and a bit odd, if you’re battling with ennui (isn’t that a lovely word?) please know that this is normal. You and me both. You are not alone.

And here’s some advice from the Word:

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

And what is totally pure, true, noble, lovely and admirable? Or rather who is totally pure, true, noble, lovely and admirable? Only Jesus. If you’re down, down, down, so far down you can’t lift your head to see the sky…. turn to him. Trust him with your sadness, trust him with the world.

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
Matthew 11:28-30

The Big Bang

I had the strangest and sweetest experience today. Very unexpected. The vaccine roll-out is progressing well in the UK, so well that already there’s talk about helping out countries who haven’t got the supplies they need. But because of the lock-down and limited social chat, I don’t know anyone who’s been called for their jab yet and I’d thought maybe this little rural region was lagging behind a bit. It didn’t worry me, I knew the roll out was going to the very elderly and the care homes first, and I’m pretty robust apart from a few wonky bits so I thought that maybe in a month or so, it would be my turn. No rush. Then I had a phone call, from a very jolly woman, inviting me to get the vaccine. You know, it made me feel very … actually I don’t know how to describe it… sort of grateful and moved and humble. It was a strange prickly feeling! In a strange prickly time.

We’re struggling. We are, even those of us who are used to living alone, or who say stoutly that we’re introverts so it’s not so bad for us. It’s a year now, lives have been disrupted, loved ones have died, some homes are wrecked by grief, children are isolated, families separated, old people die alone… flip me! Where’s the good news in all this? Well, there it is. In the vaccine roll-out. Maybe that’s why I felt grateful and moved and humble. A reminder that this too will pass.

Maybe it’s also just plain good to see that the UK can get something right. And incidentally, listen, just an observation… who is in charge of this massively successful national procurement and roll-out? A WOMAN.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject; while many Christian churches won’t even allow women to be elders, the Muslim Council of Britain has appointed a new Secretary General – a woman! Weird times. Topsy turvy times.

Something’s been niggling away at me for days, that vague feeling that I’ve forgotten something. I couldn’t work out what it was. After all, in lockdown very little is happening, so surely I wouldn’t have forgotten it, if it was important? But I had the sense that it was. And then, in the car wash (of all places) as I used the five idle minutes to delete a few junk emails – there it was! An online Writer’s Evening when I’m due to read from my book for 15 minutes (which seems like an awfully long time) to be followed by some sort of interview and an open mic session…. and it’s in three days. I’m so glad I washed the car! It would have been galling to miss the one social occasion of the whole month.

My brain has shrunk in lockdown. I’m sure of it. I’m working on a TV project but the producers have had Covid so everything’s happening in slow motion accompanied by apologetic emails. Little do they know that my brain is as slow as theirs but without the Covid excuse. I have to make notes and leave them prominently displayed so I don’t miss them “Tax due 31st” and “Nancy’s birthday!!!!” and coded scribbled ones that it takes a while to understand “Book poo bags.” But rather wonderfully it’s also been a time of breaking old habits, my mornings are slower and more relaxed, we go to the beach much later than we always did, I sometimes change into my PJ’s before bedtime (unheard of!). There have been new thoughts too, and even new ways of thinking and reading. Yep, I’ve had some proper down days, right enough, but I’ve also been stunned by our amazing Bible so that I can’t help trying to communicate just how fabulous it is. I mean, I always knew it was good but this takes ‘good’ to a whole new level.

The Bible tells just one and only story from beginning to end. Unerringly. And that story is God. That’s not bad syntax – I really mean that the story is God.

I see stories and histories as dramas, and if you were to ask me what ‘drama’ is (go on… ask me) I would define it as the portrayal of  intentions, motives, actions and consequences, revealing truth. Dramatists are very practical people, we look at the games people play, the results of those games, the damage or the good that they do, and we retell it. There’s an awful lot of drama just now that’s dishonest, people-pleasing, sensational, melodramatic,  psychotic rubbish, ‘How perverted can we be?’ ‘How much can we get away with?’ ‘How gruesome can we make this murder, how vicious that rape?’ That’s not  good drama – it’s 21st Century penny dreadfuls.  But shock brings diminishing returns so what once held us appalled but gruesomely fascinated is now banal, and so the broadcaster’s need to shock us goes on and on, delving deeper and deeper into the midden.  

The first thing I look for in writing (of any kind) is honest revelation, the discovery of truth. It might be a tiny glimpse into a puddled mind, or it might be intrigue played out on the global stage, but it will always tell me something about the nature of life. In the Bible I find amazing truth, crafted and integrated, the same true story over and over again, the story of Christ, his nature, his purpose. His story is there thousands of years before he was born in Bethlehem, it builds inexorably all through the Old Testament, written over nearly two thousand years (maybe more) by writers who were poets, prophets, fishermen, scholars, nomads, it was written in deserts, in prison, in three languages… and it’s been translated into 1300 languages since then (are there really that many?) and now I can hear it on my phone, when I go for my daily permitted walk. No man could write the Bible. No team of men. Only God. God breathed.

And it’s exciting! Somehow that’s what we Christians fail to get across to the world. This book is so exciting it can make my head spin, my heart race. The expectation builds as we realise, page by page, that here and here and here! it’s all about Jesus… it’s all leading to Jesus. You know, when I read the book of Isaiah, written 800 years before Jesus came into the world, I meet him on every page. That’s amazingly exciting. There are no words bold enough to do it justice. In all dramas the climax is anticipated eagerly, and reached only when the central conflict has built expectation and jeopardy to a point of such intensity that the truth is at last revealed and then on that truth, the world of the drama pivots. The last act was always there, waiting.

So where is the climax of the Bible?

The climax of the Bible, its irreducible theme, powering through every page, the final conflict and victory is Jesus. The Bible brings us Jesus. The Bible is Jesus.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

But the drama doesn’t end with the death and resurrection. Rather it explodes there – lighting up our existence, banishing the dark, sending a shock wave through history and into the future, reaching back into the past, making everything, beyond existence, beyond thought, about Jesus. You know how scientists talk about the Big Bang, and the expanding universe? I don’t have any problem with that. The Big Bang is Jesus. His power expanding to encompass all of time and space even as he creates it.

The explosive power of Jesus reverberates even now, his truth working today, his living word changing lives, transforming our understanding, bringing repentance and love and hope.

The echo of Jesus will never fade. When all is told and all is done, and every tear is wiped away, his life will permeate eternity. His purpose fulfilled.

Answers in the night

Yesterday I was given a gift so rich and enriching, that I’m left desperate to tell you about it, and horribly aware that I can’t do it justice. I wish the whole evening had been recorded, filmed, and I could pore over it again and send you a link so that you could wend your own way through all the depths of it. But I can’t.

It was an example of great teaching that makes you sit forward and stop breathing (then start again, hopefully!). Great teaching, like great writing, brings revelation and confirmation, and a longing for more. There’s no way I can do justice to that evening – be like trying to write a drama taking place on three continents over three time frames, encompassing all human history, but with the central dramatic drive unfailingly compelling, integral, building purposefully towards the final glorious act.

How can I ever hope to do that?

It’s hopeless, Mum. This blog just won’t come right.

Oh, hang on, Luce, hang on a cotton picking’ minute….. it’s already been done. Look….

It’s called the Bible.

Phew. That’s a relief. God got there before me, so instead of telling you about everything we talked about yesterday, I’ll just hone in on a working man who lived two thousand years ago, a bloke called Peter. Or Simon. Or Cephas. Three names, one geezer. Last night we were studying a passage from a letter he wrote. You’d have liked him.

Peter was a fisherman but when Jesus called him to be a disciple he “left his nets and followed him”, although he must have returned to them occasionally because in the Gospels there are several references to him fishing from his boat. I think of our local fisherman, Len, living just down the road from me, who’s governed by the weather, the seasons, and – here in Wales – the tides, and I imagine Peter as someone very like Len, practical, no-nonsense, gruff and hard working. We know he was married, so he had a family to support, and so maybe he also had family members who could keep the business going when he was away. The Sea of Galilee isn’t a sea at all, but a huge lake, and back then (before man-made dams and sluices) although the water was deep enough for fishing all year round, the catch would have been affected not just by storms but also by the rainfall and heat, altering the water’s salinity. Sometimes there was a harvest to be had in the waters and sometimes there was nothing. Life must have been just a bit hand to mouth for Peter.

That was his life. Simple. Simple enough to leave his nets and follow this new and intriguing rabbi. Peter was with Jesus for about three years, one of his closest friends and followers, loving him extravagantly, but eventually denying and abandoning him. Demonstrably imperfect, wrong footed and all too human, that’s Peter. I get him. I had to smile earlier today, when I was talking to a friend about this blog, and saying how excited I was and how difficult it was to know where to start, and my friend said in his measured way “Well, maybe think about it awhile, let it settle.” Hah! That ain’t Peter and it sure as owt ain’t me. I know I should follow that good advice but it’s a bit like telling a penguin to be a swan. Can’t do it, however hard I try. Anyway, what’s the point of being excited if you can’t share the excitement?

What’s so fascinating about this man, Peter? Well, we’re told that he was ‘unschooled and ordinary’ (Acts 4:13) and obviously not a wealthy chap, so how come a gang of 21st Century people, with all our technology and science, are still hungrily studying his words on Zoom? How is it that we are still learning from this horny-handed son of toil? (so tempting to write ‘horny handed ton of soil’)

As I sat at my desk last evening, listening on Zoom, I was overwhelmed by the realisation that the passage we were studying (1 Peter 2:1-10) enveloped the whole of human history – from the creation of the world to the death and resurrection of Christ, to the work of his Holy Spirit in us. I was overwhelmed by the the realisation that Peter’s teaching chimed perfectly with Paul’s writing, with Isaiah, with every word in the Bible, with Christ’s life, with everything that God brought about before and after, all melding seamlessly, as drops of mercury rush towards each other, marrying into one perfect shining pearl. Perfect. Perfect enough to make the eyes prickle, tears rise.

How is it that less than 200 words, written in a papyrus scroll in ancient times, composed by an uneducated bloke in an occupied region of an arid land, still has so much power? Has so much to teach me, a 21st Century woman? Not just enough to enthral me for one evening but to keep me awake for half the night (alright, slight exaggeration) with my mind racing, making me wake early, to hurry back to his words, and now to this screen. How did he manage that, this dusty old ancient old fisherman?

The simple answer is that he didn’t. God did. God spoke through him.

When I wake in the night to wonder (as I do occasionally) if God is real, questioning if maybe the atheists have got it right after all, then I bring to mind a few big solid facts… and one of them is that when I came to know Jesus, my life was changed. Overnight. I didn’t change it, God did. Outside of me. I was too stunned to do anything but surrender to a greater power. And I remember that when my atheist scientific engineer husband surrendered his life to Christ, his life changed. Overnight. He didn’t change it, God did. Outside of him. And I remember that when I read the Word, my life is guided and held, my soul nourished, and this too comes from outside of me, a gift. And when I pray I know a presence beside me and in me and around me. And then I think of my friends who shine with the love of Christ, and I know that he is in them, Jesus alive and well and living here in Wales or Africa or wherever….

And now, in the future, if I wake unsettled like that, startled by a bad dream or the echo of the past, yes… I’ll think of Peter too, and recognise that God, the real and transforming God, spoke through him. That no man could ever write the words that he wrote without being inspired and empowered by Jesus. That the very existence of the Bible is proof of God. Nothing else in this world is perfect, no other written word is alive, no other word has the power to change lives and eternity.

Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.
Jeremiah 15:16

I had a fabulous supper last night…. I ate God’s words until I could eat no more, and it was so very very good that here I am again….. opening the Bible, holding out my hands…..

Reaching out

On the edge of the Irish Sea, this morning

Why write a blog? Beats me.

My last posting was read by people in the UK, America, South Africa, Holland, China, HK, India, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea. Russia, Australia, Canada, Cameroon and Pakistan. That’s unusual – although I have readers in 43 countries, mostly I reach people in the UK, and might see visitors from 3 or 4 other countries on any one day. So why were there so many overseas bloggers on that particular day? Did I use a word that some nosey algorithm recognised, some phrase that cropped up in google searches? Who knows?

Writing a blog is fascinating, and the intrigue doesn’t start and end with the writing – who are you all? How do you live your lives? Where do you read these words,? Are you in a bedroom cosy and sleepy, or maybe at a desk? You could be on a hillside in a tropical storm, or in the shade of a palm tree overlooking a sparkling bay, leaning on a kitchen counter waiting for bread to prove,  rocking a child to sleep lit only by the glow of your screen, or maybe you’re reading this in Africa, on a stoep, serenaded by cicadas, or in Canada sitting in a car waiting for snow on the windscreen to clear.  I don’t know. And I wonder what you make of me and my life? Can you imagine life here in the UK, in this corner of West Wales? Would you like to see my street, the view from my front door, yesterday morning just after a light fall of snow? Here you are; 

Shoes, scarf, hat…..off we go.

Are you a person of faith or anti-faith? What do you make of my ramblings? Why do you read them? It’s a mystery. Because I’m a writer I don’t quite fully understand anyone who isn’t. I mean, what do you non-writers do with all your thoughts? Seriously, what do you do with notions and ideas and questions that need exploring and sharing? I know that most of you will be in a relationship so there’s another mind reaching out to you as you reach out to them, but still… don’t you want to write stuff down, to get it out into the world, to test it and weigh it against other thoughts from other minds? Other cultures? If not, why not?

It would be so good to know you. We are all so wonderfully different, and surely it’s a great gift to desire to know more and to tell more? To be both giving and receptive? It’s difficult right now to communicate properly, one to one, in lockdown but doesn’t that make reaching out in any way we can even more important?

I heard, from two different speakers this last week, that God’s deep longing, is to reach us. That really hit home for me. I understand the longing to communicate. We are created in his image, so just as he reaches out to us, so we are made to reach out to him and to others. When we do that, we find fulfilment and meaning. When we know that we are loved and when we love, we are at peace. We come to rest in the place we were always meant to be. Wow! I just smile when I think of that. God intends a loving relationship, the deepest most loving most personal relationship ever, with those he has created. You and me. He longs for our love so deeply that he gave up his only Son, to torture and death, for us. He could not love us more. He is love itself, personified in Jesus.

God doesn’t change. He is constant. Complete and perfect. So just as he loved us in our moment of creation, so he loves us now. Whatever we’ve done, whoever we have become, whether you’re wrapped in the velvet warmth of Africa, or sheltering from the icy blast of Canada, surrounded by the roar of traffic in New York, or lying in a hospital bed as you read these words, God wants you to know him. God loves you with a lavish love. Whether you’re Miss Prim and Proper sailing through life untroubled by disaster, or Mr Bit of a Mess with a great swathe of bad decisions and broken hearts in your wake, God loves you with his lavish love.

Why do I write this blog? Because God loves you. Because God reaches out to you. That’s how important and precious you are! And when you know the reality and love of God, as I do, by his gifting, oh boy!!!! You’ll be like me, filled to overflowing with too much good news to keep it quiet. You’ll want to speak, blog, video, tik-tok, write, sing the great news. You can’t help it, wherever you go, Canada, Taiwan, down my little road, on the front line of every violent demonstration, in the Covid wards, on the surface of the Moon, in a rocket ship to Mars….

Now I’m just being silly. Time for a cup of tea.

You can know him. He stands at every door, waits at every moment of every life. He reaches out to you. Always. Always.

The Lord your God is with you;
    his power gives you victory.
The Lord will take delight in you,
    and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you, (Zephaniah 3:17)

And Yet……

Last week I was overwhelmed. Everything suddenly – quite suddenly – seemed undoable. A friend was seriously ill, the national news was unremittingly grim, the TV bombarded us with weeping newly-bereaved people, honing in on close-ups of exhausted NHS staff, sweating and tearful behind their masks and visors, and this brought my poor ill friend to mind over and over again. Helpless. Her devoted husband couldn’t go in to see her, there’s a grandchild she hasn’t met because of Covid, all we could think of was our dear friend surrounded by strangers in a noisy crowded ward, beeping monitors, gloved hands…… Other Covid updates took us into a mortuary where staff were defeated and wordless. I understood the motive for these images, to persuade covid deniers that this is real and the human cost is huge and heartbreaking. I understood, but by heck, it sent me toppling headlong into the depths, down down into a whale’s belly, as deep and as dark as I could go. Running suddenly from trust in God. Oh, intellectually I trusted him, I knew him to be faithful, but emotionally I was alone and shaken. So sudden.

And I missed my God, I missed knowing the immediacy and reality of him, it was like a sort of mourning, a sort of drowning, so I decided I’d pull myself up by the scruff of my neck… clamber out of that smelly belly, and swim with strong calm strokes towards the daylight. Superwoman. I would work out what was stepping between me and the peace of God and I would sort it. I forgot this one simple fact:

I knew my problem was one we all have – how to deal with life under lockdown. I’m no different. You’re no different. We’re all facing a new way of life and it’s gone on for much longer than we expected. The days are pretty empty, eh?

I’m not the only one to have been trying to fill the long shapeless days with stuff, give-us-some-any-old-stuff sort of stuff, so many are struggling with what the media likes to call ‘mental health’ (but I prefer to call it our spiritual and emotional well-being). We are not sick, or deluded, or psychotic, and our grip on reality is unchanged, but we are sad, reasonably sad, reactively sad, because of the new demands on our emotions.

And then comes the guilt – what about the NHS workers and the drivers, the paramedics, chemists, people who are working flat out? They don’t have time to moan, the luxury to be sad. What about the people struggling for every breath, you whining woman? But they were fleeting pangs of compassion – most of the time I was thinking about me, and how to fill the hours.

Here’s an image that I think reveals how I went about that: On Tuesday last week on my desk I had three books open (an NIV Bible, a Study NIV and a Wiersby Commentary), and my constant companion ‘Shaped By The Word’, plus Strong’s concordance on the Mac screen. Beside the books was a magnifying glass so that I could read the tiny teensy teensy cross references in the study Bible, a notebook for each separate study, pens and markers.

Remember the film Jaws? “We need a bigger desk.” I studied and read and planned and all my thoughts returned, relentlessly circling, I was exhausted, tearful. I sent an email to a trusted friend, someone wiser than me but kind enough not to call me an idiot  “But I could spend all day like that and at the end of it not remember a damn thing! Aware of God’s grace and presence? Not really, no. Too busy for that. Longing for him, thirsting for him, thinking of him? Not really, no. Heart breaking. “

So, finally, realising I hadn’t taken this to God, at last I prayed. You think I’m going to go all victorious now and say that the answer immediately dropped down from heaven, don’t you? Hah! This is me we’re talking about, not Laura in Little House On The Prairie. I prayed and handed it over to God… gave it, ooh, thirty seconds or so… then I grabbed it back and started again, searching for the answer…. and when you search you can sometimes grab hold of stuff shouting “Eureka!” and kid yourself you have the answer to everything. I thought THE answer had arrived, dew-drop fresh from heaven… All I had to do was drop my blog from the daily round and my mind would be uncluttered. I would then turn my newly minted and receptive mind to the study of God’s word and I would hear every single thing he had to say to me and be filled with inexpressible joy. Obvs.

I wrote a farewell blog, spent all day on it, and within two hours of posting it I had been persuaded and scolded into taking it down. It seems that I am to continue blogging. I can’t argue with pals from South Africa (fancy calling me selfish! Me! As if!) and Wales and America and Holland, and strangers (now friends) from England, and my lovely daughter who even told me what my husband would say (“Och, Luce, sleep on it”) and I think maybe they were right. Maybe their responses were the answer to my prayers. Maybe seeing that I wasn’t listening to him, God sent the message through them. They’re a lot ruder than he is, and I listened. The blog lives to fight another day.

I still need to find a way out of this Covid maze I’ve wandered into, some way that will glorify God, and I’m still praying for guidance, but I’m not counting off the hours quite so much, and there’s a big hole in the belly of the whale so that I can see daylight sparkling high above me on the ocean waves.

So, there you go. Humble pie. I was wrong. If you read that farewell blog in the two hours that it was posted, my apologies. Here I am.

I’ll finish with a quote from an email I had from a church friend “So often your blogs reminded me of psalms where David has a right moan and then comes around to praising God for his unfailing love and faithfulness.”  And that made me smile, because when I first started this Luce Thinking blog I was going to call it ‘And Yet ‘ or ‘Nevertheless’ because of the verses in Habakkuk 3

Though the fig-tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the sheepfold
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

But I decided against that title because I wasn’t sure that every blog would follow a pattern, or end up victorious – and yet, and yet, and yet, this one does. Which is amazing because nothing has changed except my heart. 

We are still in the grip of the pandemic, families and friends are grieving, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, this is a sad time for everyone, and a hellish time for some, we see no end, we still don’t understand the enemy we face, and yet and yet… I will be joyful in God my saviour. 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38

Welcome to my world.

Most of you have no idea who I am, and will never meet me, and can never test the truth of anything I say. I can present myself as a shining shimmering angel, a warm and cosy granny, or a grouch, a saint or sociopath. I can dissemble and fantasise. If I said that this morning, with the beach crusted by snow, I had broken the ice and gone for an early morning swim, some of you would believe me.

You have no way of knowing. And yet, you read on. Isn’t that strange? Do you read trustingly, or cynically? Is your claptrap-radar working overtime? I hope so. I hope you’re not reading uncritically, soaking it all up, unseasoned by discernment.

In lockdown I turned to reading contemporary novels. After scrolling through articles like ‘The 100 best books of 2020’ I chose six but they’ve been so dire that I’ve deleted them all. What a waste of time that was! There was something dishonest and formulaic about them. I want a writer to make me say “Me too! Me too!” with the excitement of recognition, or gasp with delight at an unexpected thought, or lose myself in a heady new world so that I step out of mine and into theirs. None of them got anywhere near.

And now, of course, I’m trying to remember the last time a novel did this for me; I think it was ‘The God Of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. In her writing I discovered a childhood in Naipaul, the delightfully complicated personalities of two young sisters, their family, the smells and sights of India fifty years ago. I think the first paragraph of that book is the best I’ve ever read in a work of fiction, ‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’

How I wish I had written ‘fatly baffled in the sun.’

Arundhati Roy showed me a world I don’t know. That’s magical.

There are about 8 billion people on this planet right now. In our daily conversations we talk about our world as if it’s simply that – one world – when it’s really 8 billion worlds, 8 billion experiences of life. Writing is our attempt to share our experiences with others and to catch a glimpse of theirs. When writing succeeds, it’s thrilling. Skin on skin, visceral belonging, like waking in the night and feeling the presence of another soul, unseen in the dark, somehow sensing another heartbeat. Good writing can take us almost there, good writing says ‘You are not alone. Reach out a hand. Here I am.’

You’ve seen QR codes?

Well, the most complicated of these can store 15,000 pieces of information, according to the arrangement of black and white spaces, and this means that this one QR code can have 2.817960879631397637428637785383222308241674912977296×104515 applications. I don’t even know how to say that number (but thank you, google!) although I think the x means multiplied and the tiny numbers mean multiplied several times. With a huge number like this, does it matter?

So, one small lumpen block of black and white squares has millions upon millions of ways to arrange and rearrange itself. How they are stacked and placed, and the shape and size of the spaces in-between, makes each one recognisable and unique. Amazing. Now think of the 8 billion human souls in the world at this moment, and consider all their different genetic and physical, racial, cultural, sexual, environmental, medical, familial and political influences… each one unique, each internal understanding of the world shaped by so many different external factors…. don’t they all add up to 8 million different worlds? My husband and his siblings were all born in the same house to the same parents but George remembered childhood as cold and stern, Jean remembered it as warm and lovingly chaotic, Billy considered their parents to be perfectly correct and saintly, and John felt the family was claustrophobic. Why such different memories? When Jean was born their parents were young and hopeful, excited by parenthood, but when George was born their father was a big fish in a small town, too busy to be a father, their mother was worn out, and by the time George was a teenager one brother had died, their parents were grieving, disappointments had soured small triumphs, money had become master, life had changed. Which view of the sibling’s world was the true one? All of them and none of them.

That’s what writing should reveal to us – that we are all subject to a thousand influences and so we are all wonderfully the same and all amazingly different, that life is dazzlingly rich. There’s a saying that we shouldn’t judge someone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but the truth is that we never have the right to feel superior to anyone at all, because we cannot ever, ever, walk in another person’s shoes. You cannot ever know what has made me who I am today. You might have a few ideas, and if you’ve read my autobiography you might have some insight, but you can never see the world as I have seen it, just as I cannot know your world as you know it.

But writing can bring us closer. That’s the thing, that’s the great exciting possibility for any writer to keep hold of; whether it’s fiction, biography, scholarly thesis or poetry, good writing will always bring the writer and the reader closer. I can give you a glimpse of my world so that maybe you will feel less alone in yours.

Is that why I write this blog? For the illusion of closeness? Possibly. Do I write it because I am (shush, whisper this next word) lonely? Yes. Absolutely. Listen, my life is full of joy. Underpinning everything, like a rock-solid foundation of pure gold stretching down to the very centre of the Earth, I have joy. But there are tough days too, rough days, when the loneliness seems unbearable, just too much to live through, bleak and abandoned days, when there’s no one to talk to and no one to understand, when all I want to do is stop the pain, any way, absolutely any way. When no single sod cares and all this ‘brotherly love’ stuff seems an empty mockery, and I am so angry and alone.

When I stand in the dunes some mornings (and boy, it was like being carved in ice today) I’m able to thank God for the earth beneath my feet, the sea, the grasses, the sky, space, galaxies… the mind goes on and on… I thank him for time, for eternity out of time, thank him for thought, thank him for love and laughter and friends… and seeing Percy and Pip and Pico chasing birds I thank him for small dogs scampering after sleek crows. And on other days the beach walk is like trudging down a wind tunnel while being sand blasted by an industrial turbine, and then my gratitude is in a different key, but somehow it’s still there, uppermost… thank you for the breath that’s being whipped away from me, for the air that’s choking me, the salt that’s blinding me, the wind that’s fighting me…. thank you that when I sing your name into the roaring air it soars up and up and no one hears my cracked old voice but you and me. Exhilarating. Some days I’m not tuned in and then I just womble along, peacefully enough but empty headed, watching the waves and thinking nothing, aware that God loves me even on these woolly days, barely dreaming a sweet half-prayer here and there. Some days there’s pain and I’m dizzy and clumsy footed, and the tinnitus is unrelenting so that all I can manage is a desperate plea for help. And sometimes, my friends, some mornings I’m wrestling with feelings and thoughts that are nowhere near God, critical, frustrated, depressed, rebellious or more often… here comes that word again ‘lonely‘. Yes, often lonely.

If I can fool you all and be the person I want to be when I write, why am I admitting that sometimes I’m defeated? Why don’t I present myself as successful, victorious, surrounded by like minded souls? Because good writing is honest. And because, like me, many of you are lonely, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be ashamed. You’re in good company. Jesus experienced everything that we can experience in our lifetime, and that includes loneliness; No one knew what he knew, no one faced what he faced, he was a leader and leadership is lonely, he was forever teaching and guiding and that role is lonely, he climbed the mountains alone, he prayed alone, he knelt in Gethsemane alone, he was alone on the cross. Our God, our perfect God was often alone and I believe that often he was lonely. Led by the Spirit, forever united with his Father, even for him there were times when he wept, and on the cross he called out ‘Why have you forsaken me?”

Loneliness is not numeric. It can thrive in a crowd, a church, a family, a marriage. The busiest people can be lonely, the funniest liveliest people. Alone-ness is geographic, but loneliness is not.

But enough of bleak, bleak, down and down because loneliness is also a choice. If you’re lonely you have a special place to stand, and that’s with God. And he is the answer to loneliness. Relax, I’m not turning into Pollyanna and I know you may not have a beach to thank God for, or a sea to paddle in, but maybe you have a kitchen sink to stand at and a window to look through, a picture to gaze at…… so focus on some small thing and thank him for that. It won’t be easy but the thought will grow. You know those days when I can’t thank God, when I can’t praise him? I don’t leave the beach until I can. I don’t leave the beach until I can thank him for the day he has given me, whatever it holds. That’s something I’ve learned in just this last few months. If we turn to God, we discover that we are not alone. No magic wand, we might still feel alone, but we know that we are not. And there’s comfort in that. Turning to him, especially when we least feel like it, confirms our knowledge, confirms our faith, reminds us of who he is and who we are. Thanking God dispels loneliness. It does. It doesn’t come easily and it can be a bit exhausting, so that when I get back in the car to drive home I sit there for a few minutes to recover…… but

Yet I am always with you;  you hold me by my right hand.
 You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion for ever
. Psalm 73

I hope that a glimpse into my world has shown you that if you’re lonely you aren’t alone. You’re not peculiar or unwanted or a failure.

I hope you know that God loves you, whoever you are. Right now.

Peace

I love the sound of silence. My days would seem, to you, to be mostly silent, no radio or TV, no conversation, just the occasional sigh as a dog moves in his sleep, the creak of my old favourite wooden chair as I sit at my desk, the heavy-fisted pounding of my fat fingers on the key board…. but maybe once or twice a day I click onto the videos of The Irish Blessing, or the song ‘Oceans’ or a Bach Mass. There I can share in an act of worship, become conscious of other people all over the world praying, remind myself that I am not alone. I miss praying with others – nothing do with Covid but with deafness. And people do mumble so when they pray! That’s made me laugh – it reminds me of my Dad, who had a similar deafness and blamed the whole world but never his own ears.

Silence is good, so good. It means there is no straining to hear, no distraction from thought. Much of the time I have tinnitus in one ear, little yelps of noise and squeaks and low rumbles, distant hissing. It can be quite annoying. Sometimes, to be a bit more honest, it’s bloody annoying. It even wakes me up in the middle of the night with some half-heard sound that my brain conjures into an unlikely event – a horse clip clopping towards the bathroom, or some angry memory yelling my name. So, whenever the white noise stops and silence descends…. ahhhhh. Lovely. That’s why I said “My days would seem, to you, to be mostly silent”. As I write this, tonight all is silence. Thank you, Lord for the wonderful gift of stillness, peace.

I’ve been watching, through my high windows, the daily dance of a hundred crows silently circling and gliding in the twilight, preparing to roost. If I was under them I would have heard them cawing, but here at my desk they seemed to gather and soar and swoop in silence. I love their daily dance. Now it’s dark and the blind is down, and I’m simply revelling in this early evening peace, loving the light bulb glowing behind my Mac, the shadows, the idea of talking to you, the fabulous privilege of this simple life that has, after 72 years, come to make such perfect sense. Like a jewel. Like a pearl. Like a perfect shimmering drop of crystal water, gathering and about to drop… to be no more.

There, now you see what I see.

I rarely talk about my own death, but when I do my grandchildren are indignant, as if it will never happen and it’s ludicrous to imagine it, but it’s coming… as surely as a drop of water must fall, so a life must end.

I’ve reached the age when I hesitate to buy new coat. How much use will I get out of it? If I only have a couple of years left, won’t the one I’ve got be OK? I could be gone tomorrow and then, think of of it, 50 quid down the plughole when it could have been of real use to someone. There is an impermanence in life that’s plain exciting. That droplet of water, the waves as they hit the shore, the tide as it ebbs and flows, the sun as it rises and sets…. there’s beauty in impermanence. When my husband died, our 14 year old grieving, shocked, weeping daughter said something that was true and wise and a deep and real comfort to me. Still is. The undertakers were taking George away and we sat in the front room, trying not to hear the footsteps and the murmurs, not to look out and see our lovely man being taken away from us, and I said something foolish and wrecked like “He died too young.” and Louise said “No, he had the life he was meant to have. He had his full life.”

I don’t know why I feel the need to tell you all this tonight, but I do, and I’ve learned to listen to these promptings: life is precious, because it ends. That droplet of water, captured in that moment, is beautiful because it will fall and the moment will be gone. Every morning I watch the waves crash or creep, whisper or roar on the beach and I marvel at them, wave upon wave, million upon million, every one distinct, every moment particular, and then they are gone. But another and another and another. Rolling in. Each one beautiful, distinct, and if just one wave wasn’t there, the world would tip, the ocean would slip, the rhythm of the sea would break. Every life and every moment, however short or long, is beautiful and precious, and irreplaceable. And meant to be.

I look back on my life, the people I’ve loved and lost and the people I’ve found and will lose one day, and I’m filled to the brim with wonder. Life. Bloody wonderful, isn’t it? Even when we’re knee deep in trouble and grief and confusion… it’s wonderful.

Why would God make us with such imaginations and intellects, such a facility for memory and love and longing, such delight and silliness and greed and plain old wrongness? Because he loves us. He is for us. Because life is precious. He is for life, for life. That’s why he made the world, that’s why he made day and night, you and me. Because he loves us and rejoices in us and desires us.

It’s taken me 72 blinkin’ years to see the shape of my life. To see that when I was away with the fairies, reeling from one disaster to the next, ricocheting from one poor decision to an even worse one, God was bringing me to this evening, to those wheeling crows, to this desk and lamplight and silence. The white noise, the tinnitus of the world has died away.

Peace.

If you long for peace, here’s the news for today…. peace is found in only one place, in the knowledge and love of Jesus. He offers that peace and joy to everyone.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

When it comes….

When I first knew him my Scottish husband celebrated Hogmanay far more than he celebrated Christmas. It was just one of the many many differences between us. If he was wished Happy New Year even on New Years Eve he would reply, “Aye, when it comes.” His firm belief was that the greeting was appropriate only at mid-night and then for a few days afterwards, and he just couldn’t see that his reply seemed a bit parsimonious, sort of rationing the good wishes. He was a Glaswegian and one Christmas, in Derbyshire, he introduced me to the practice of first-footing, or the version of it that he had grown up with (customs change slightly in different areas); at midnight the first person to enter the house should be a man, dark-haired (not essential – he was blond) and carrying a bottle of whisky, with a coin in his pocket, a twist of salt, a piece of shortbread and a lump of coal. These things are supposed to bring financial and physical health, warmth, good food and good cheer for the coming year (dark-haired because that signified a Celt rather than a Viking). At a minute to midnight some one would leave the house and at the stroke of midnight return carrying all these goodies. The other hogmanay first foot tradition is to then go out and call on neighbours and friends, to share a drink with each one before going on to the next house with your bottle of cheer. Well, we were broke, but knowing how important it was to him, I had bought a bottle of whisky and produced it just before midnight, to his delight. We shared a tot (I hate the stuff) and then George said “Right, away we go, hen.” I wasn’t sure that anyone in Derby would understand this next bit of Hogmanay tradition but George was adamant “everyone knows about first-footing” so off we went to share the cheer with our neighbours.

Our immediate neighbour was Bill, a sweet widower, and when we knocked on his door he and his huge adult sons crowded to the doorway, full of laughter and beer, kisses and huge hugs. “Happy New Year!” said George, holding out the bottle. “Happy New Year” said Bill, and he took the bottle, gave George another big drunken kiss and then shut the door in our faces. The whisky was gone. We looked at each other, stunned. His lovely whisky! Gorn.

We returned home. Had a cup of tea. The next day Bill called over the fence “That was very generous of youse, George. Thanks a lot, mate. Happy New Year.” and my poor bloke smiled weakly and just about managed an unconvincing “Yes, good…. Happy New Year, Bill.”

I liked George’s toast at New Year “May the best of your old year, be the worst of the new.” but I’m not a fan of the celebrations. Tonight my bubble friends will come with an Indian meal, and they’ll be going early because they have dogs who hate fireworks so they want to be with them. I don’t want to see the New Year in, I’d much rather be tucked up in bed, but like my bubble pals, I have dogs who will be distressed, so I’ll stay up, have the music on loud-loud, hoping to drown out the racket as the sky explodes with colour and lightning bolts and all manner of whizz-bangs.

Warning: Tomorrow I will be hung over, not from booze but from a sleepless night and dog worries. Probably wise not to wish me Happy New Year in the morning, as a smack in the mouth often offends.

Hey – I was given a book for Christmas and it’s good stuff. Want to hear my favourite bit so far? No? Well, stop reading then, because here it comes:

‘..the image of Christ is the fulfilment of the deepest hungers of the human heart for wholeness. The greatest thirst of our being is for fulfilment in Christ’s image. The most profound yearning of the human spirit, which we try to fill with all sorts of inadequate substitutes , is the yearning for our completeness in the image of Christ.’ That’s from Invitation to a Journey by M.Robert Mulholland JR, expanded by Ruth Haley Barton

I love it when a writer is so desperate to get something across that they say it three times. I love preaching that says the same thing three ways, so that we walk around the subject, as if we’re walking around a person, we look at this way and then that, seeing this shadow and that plane, seeing it sideways, above, below, face on… we listen in 3D. I know just such a preacher and his stuff hits home, not a word is wasted, nothing -I think – forgotten.

I read that Mulholland text just last night, and this morning I had an email from a friend who has just finished reading my book. She was particularly pleased by how it ended (some wit out there is already changing that to ‘she was particularly pleased when it ended’). The last page covers the moment when, at 35, I suddenly, painfully, longed to know God, so her email and the Mulholland excerpt came together with real power for me this morning. This is the (shortened) email I sent in reply:

“That moment at the end of the book came just before we left for South Africa. When we arrived in Durban I went to the local Catholic Church but still I couldn’t reconcile my thoughts of God with the bribable god they seemed to promote. George could see this was important to me and we went together to meet the Catholic priest. This was a big big thing for George, who hated all religion and really couldn’t understand why I needed this crutch (as he saw it) but being a kind man he wanted to understand. Our marriage was very strained and maybe he just thought if I found a church to distract me things would improve! The priest was hopeless! Both George and me had a fit of the giggles as we left. At one point one of us had asked him a question that he couldn’t answer and instead he said something like “I have books about it, I have a book in the other room, it’s a very big book.“ That became a family saying for us, whenever we realised that we were making a statement that we couldn’t back up and might be wrong we would say “I have a book about it and it’s a very big book!“ And then we’d  both fall about laughing. I still couldn’t worship a God who was bribable, and I couldn’t pray to the dead or trust the confessional and I wouldn’t pray to Mary… So I was a bit lost. Anyway, shortly after this a Canadian woman came into our house bearing a plate of brownies. Her husband was the Baptist Minister and they lived a few houses away.’

That’s where I heard the Gospel for the first time, in a simple Baptist Church. What a great memory for New Year’s Eve. What a great reminder that the most profound longing of the human heart is the longing for God. And what a great reminder that when we look for God, we will find him. Even if he has to take us halfway across the world to make it happen. He stands at the door and knocks.

A few months later I accepted Jesus Christ as my God and my saviour. A few months after that my scientific, engineer, ‘no crutch needed here’ husband was also bowled over by the goodness and reality of God.

Happy New Year.

(when it comes!)