In this life you will have trouble

A couple of hours ago I read a comment from a 26year old, on an online forum ‘Covid, my furlough has ended and now a fuel crisis. What next?’

She sounds a bit battered and bruised by the lockdown, the vaccine controversy, the M25 protests (apparently she was stuck in the tailback caused by the first one and missed a morning’s wage) and now the gas shortage and price hike. Maybe she needs to stop the watching the news for a few days, give her heart a rest. I think she feels as if the world is spiralling out of control, as if chaos is just over the horizon, and she is helpless. I added a comment to her comment but I don’t know if she’ll read it, so this is my reply to her now. Here it comes, it’s hardly news but; The world has always seemed to be spinning out of control. That is the way of the world.

I look back on my 72 years and this is what I find:

A couple of weeks after I was born, China was taken over by the communists (wasn’t me, honest!). A year later came the Korean War (btw the Pope was busy claiming infalliblity and declaring that Mary was assumed into heaven and didn’t just die like the rest of us) then came the Nuclear bomb, and live testing…. then smog in London killed 12,000 people in just a few weeks… and forget our miserable whinges about empty supermarket shelves – food and fuel rationing continued in the UK for 10 years after the end of the war. I don’t remember any of that but it’s in the history books.

Fast forward to the years I do remember and let’s see if things became calmer and altogether more stable… surely there were no shortages in the fabulous 70’s, the years of kipper ties, platform boots and flares? Yep, that was the decade that saw massive inflation, poverty wages, and the railways and miner’s strikes. All this resulted in the government declaring a 3 day working week, caused by the fuel shortages, closing production in industry and limiting transport, TV broadcasts were curtailed, products were unavailable, pubs were closed. After all this, unsurprisingly, the Tory Government lost the election and Labour came in.

‘Ah, I’ imagine my left wing friends saying with relief ‘and then it all became more stable?’ Not quite, because then we promptly tumbled into the ‘Winter of Discontent’ with more and more radical strikes in just about every industry – car manufacture, miners, road hauliers, NHS workers, rubbish collectors and even grave diggers. Rubbish piled up in the streets and bodies rotted in mortuaries and in unrefrigerated containers. Not surprisingly there was another General Election and the Tories see-sawed back into power.

So, do I fret and fume about the state we’re in just now? Not really. Do I trust any one lot of politicians to sort it all out? Not really.

And as for Covid! Let me take a breath and dive back in – I grew up when people vanished for years on end into TB Sanatoriums, when children died from Polio, when smallpox was rife in the third world.

And yes! There are a dozen wars and the news is full of death and fear and desperate refugees…. I know. When I was a few years old my Dad was fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya, part of a Colonial Force opposing freedom fighters. We called them ‘the enemy’, we called them ‘terrorists’ but whatever they were, whatever we were, it was a brutal fight on both sides. And now the Middle East is in a terrible state, yes, I know. This is not new. Jesus was born into the poverty and pain of the Middle East, into an occupied land, ruled by the savagery of the Roman Empire, torn by tribal conflicts, crippled by religious bigotry. His parents fled into Egypt with him when he was still an infant, a family just like the refugees we see stumbling out of Afghanistan, out of Syria, fleeing across the English Channel. He was born into a time like ours. The Middle East is a troubled place. I lived there, in Egypt, and we went to school in an Army ten-ton truck with machine guns mounted and manned fore and aft. I grew up in a world of enmity and fear. My Dad was run down by Arabs, and then to make sure he was dead they reversed over him (he wasn’t dead, just had a metal plate in his head for the rest of his life). It’s the same old, same old.

I lived through years of trouble in Northern Ireland, society so divided and so bitter that when my mother was dying she had to be flown back to England because no Omagh hospital would take the Catholic wife of a British soldier.

The world has always seemed to be spinning out of control, mankind has always been a mess, a broken , angry, barbaric mess. But in that chaos there is kindness too, and amazing acts of bravery, there are organisations like the Red Cross, Medicine Sans Frontiers, a thousand NGOs. There’s the love of Christ, the presence of our merciful God. And the world will survive. Even in the chaos there is joy and new life, kindness, truth and mercy.

Maybe you have to be 72 to have the perspective that I have. But even if you’re only 26 and can’t yet see the wider picture, you can listen to the words of Jesus

‘In this life you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.’

And just today I read in Colossians , describing Jesus,

‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

He holds all things together. The world is a beautiful place, and for all the wickedness and greed of man, we travel from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, just as we always have.

You gotta do what you gotta do

My home is looking a bit empty. There are three boxes packed, a load of stuff dumped already, another box will be sealed up this morning, the sofa is sold, etc etc etc… it’s even beginning to feel a bit echoey. And I have no idea where I’m going.

It’s a chilly, dull and wet day, but we dodged the showers and had a great walk on the rocks and along the shoreline, there were no sandlings for Pip to chase today so she didn’t need rescuing from the sandbar, and we all returned home fairly dry. For once. It had been an ordinary sort of walk, prayers for family and friends and for Afghanistan and for a solution to the Covid pandemic, for … well, you get it, all the troubles of the world. They seemed to crowd me this morning, and my words seemed too simple and banal to encompass even a tiny fraction of the fear and chaos of the world.

Making my coffee, choosing some music for ‘Alexa’ to play, I became aware of a growing excitement, an eagerness to be at my table reading the Bible. I’d finished reading Mark’s Gospel yesterday and I’d decided on Colossians today, feeling a strange urgency to ‘get at it’.

As I began to read I found the most wonderful few moments of clarity. I’m still there. That’s awful syntax, mixing up time and place, but you know what I mean. The wonder of that reading is still with me. I felt compelled, really, no – really – compelled to share it with you. So here it is, drop in with me for a coffee…. sit with me at my table… forgive the empty shelves and the echo, this my life just now;

Welcome!

Where will I squeeze in?

AKA Bread and circuses

I was looking online for a church in an area I may be moving to. I found one that looks OKish – Bible led, prayerful, a good photo of a cheerful crowd on the website, old and young, male and female…. I listened to a few of the sermons on YouTube… it all seems interesting and welcoming so maybe this is somewhere I can grow, build up some friendships, join in thoughtful worship, reach out into the community, find a place to belong….. But then, but then, scrolling down, I noticed something a bit shocking; they have 94 messages available online, and 91 of them come from men. So, in a UK population which is, typically, 51% female, this Christian church hears the female voice just 3% of the time.

The church I once belonged to here (a great little church) rules out female elders and it was only a few years ago that they accepted women as deacons. There have been murmurs about admitting women to eldership but the subject is so controversial, with such vehement beliefs from the ‘old timers’, that the (male) leadership – not wanting to foment trouble – has put off the debate, twice. I understand the problem – we all want peace in the church, we just disagree about the price we’re willing to pay for it! Women aren’t totally verboten, indeed I’ve given the message four times in the last few years and (good news!) a woman is on the rota for sermons right now as the Pastor has left and the next chap (it will be a chap, obvs) isn’t yet appointed. But I know one thing for sure, the men have a disproportionate say in all things churchy.

So. Where, if anywhere, do I fit in? Where do my three granddaughters fit in? What about all the joy and hunger, thirst and talent and enthusiasm and hope and love for God that’s in their hearts? What will they do with it? Does God truly want to write off over 50% of the population? What future for the church? I’m so glad I can blog at least. What about women whose gift is not writing but speaking? Shouldn’t we hear from them?

But I wasn’t going to talk about wimmen and blokes. I promised something about bread and circuses. Here goes:

About 100 years before the birth of Christ, the Roman poet and playwright Juvenal wrote something alone these lines: ‘the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’ To put it in the 2021 colloquial he was saying ‘The people who once elected strong and just leaders, now elect anyone who promises low tax and 24hour entertainment.’ I thought of this when I was talking a woman walking past my house. She paused to ask me to translate the inscription above my front door

it simply says ‘Built 1926’

and after a little potted history about the building (built before 1926 but remodelled then and opened as a vestry to the neighbouring chapel) we went on to village life (she was on holiday here from Croydon) and we arrived at the ‘trouble with the world today’ via the caravan she was staying in, the 9 or 10 TV channels she can get here (at home she has hundreds apparently), and the programmes she likes to watch.

The next day we happened to meet on the beach and the conversation continued. Mrs Grimly-glum, who’s quite a bit younger than me, puts the TV on as soon as she gets up, before anything else and it stays on all day. If she goes out she leaves it on as company for the cat. She gets the daily paper, a couple of magazines every week for the showbiz stuff, listens to the news maybe three or four times a day, and she is full, full to overflowing, with gossip, opinions (often contradictory but held with deep -if fleeting – conviction), rumour, conspiracies, scandal, cynicism and condemnation. The government is self-seeking, she says, not one of them has a genuine heart, they’re all in it for the money…. and as for the opposition! They’re incompetent and communist. The local council is a shambles, elected councillors are part of the old-boy network, the NHS is going down the drain, the vaccine’s not all it’s cracked up to be, she’s had worse bouts of flu than this Covid nonsense…..everyone’s gay or transgender just because it’s fashionable…. Croydon used to be a great place to live but now… Oh, the outpouring was deafening. I was reduced to an occasional ‘Mmm-hmm’ or an ineffectual bleat of protest as the sea curdled, the birds fled, the dolphins headed off for the Faroes, the dogs found things to do half a mile away, and she sucked the joy out of the air and wrung life from the human heart. As she left to return to her caravan in the nearby park she called back “Have a good day. See you tomorrow.”

It’s not exactly Christian of me, but my silent reply was ‘Not if I see you first, love.”

Her life, I think, is all bread and circuses. Too often we live for bread and circuses. These are the things that sate us, the things we feed off, build our lives around. To some extent I think that we are all like Mrs Grimly-glum, maybe not as deeply entrenched in modern myth and conspiracy theories and judgmentalism as she is, but we’re on the spectrum! Yesterday I was strangely and unusually tired, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and just enjoy being old, but friends were coming for a scrabble evening so I prepared the meal and tried to stay awake. Thinking of Mrs Grimly-glum, I put the tv on at about 3pm. I’ve never done that before (barring International Rugby) and I’m here to tell you that it’s rubbish! On every single channel (except for Film 4) there were varieties of reality TV, cheap programming, garish studios, weak ideas, loud presenters, corny formats, repeats of trash, repeats of repeats, and -of course – every ten minutes or so there were 4 or 5 minutes of adverts. The ads were for showers for the disabled, stair lifts, reclining chairs, lifting chairs, funeral plans and donkey sanctuaries. The message of the broadcasters was loud and clear “You may be old, but we that won’t stop us getting your money one way or another.”

And Mrs Grimly-glum watches these! Day after day, she absorbed the dross of the screen, the papers and the magazines. They fill her life and that’s all she cares about. Is it any wonder her life is so empty of joy?

It made me so grateful for the Gospel, for Kingdom life, for books and friends and laughter. And it made me sad that Mrs Grimly-glum has found none of them. I think we’re failing the Grimly-glums of the world.

I went to the beach the next day but she wasn’t there, and I drove to the caravan park but couldn’t see her.

The Gospel is full of joy and hope. The Gospel can change the world. Life is more than bread and circuses.

Loud and clear

Stand by for an outpouring. I have a load of stuff in my head just now. It has to go somewhere so it’s going into this blog.

First off, some of you will know that my life verse, my favourite chunk of my favourite book in the Old Testament (don’t purse your lips like that – you can’t stop me having a favourite book, however wrong it is of me) is in Isaiah 43

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

I am in limbo at the moment – not the Catholic nonsense about an in-between place, somewhere south of heaven and north of hell but just in-between houses – so I’ve been thinking about these words quite a lot over the last few weeks. It’s a time of endings and beginnings in my life, a whole new, unknown and solitary life opening up. It could be hard, and at times it is, just briefly, like a sharp pang, but I love the conversational style of this word from God, like he’s nudging me in the ribs, saying ‘Listen up, open your eyes, look around, see what I’m doing, trust me.”

This week he’s nudged me, good and hard, several times, so that I can’t ignore him, can’t pretend I haven’t got the message:

On Fridays I meet with a pal and we listen to a talk on rightnowmedia together and this week – lo and blinkin’ behold – those favourite life verses were quoted. One section of the talk was titled ‘The In-between‘!

On Sunday I went to a local church, one I don’t normally attend, and blow me down with a feather if the message didn’t also focus on those verses! It was all about new beginnings, a time of change, the in-between time when the Jews were wandering in the desert. I so wanted my old friend Jane to be there with me, how she would have laughed at my amazement.

This morning on the beach it was one of those quiet days when the water seems to be heavy, the waves like folds of velvet, the air warm and gentle… you know? I took a photo and posted it on Instagram, quoting that same chunk of lovely truth. Then I listened to the daily meditatation and it featured… yes! You guessed it. Them same verses.

Amazing. I mean, mind boggling. I googled it and there are over 31,000 verses in the Bible. Quite a lot to choose from.

A few minutes later I was listening to the waves as I sat on a log, the dogs were watching the shoreline for oyster catchers and it was a moment of contentment. No past and no future, just God and me, Percy, Pip and Pico. And then there was silence. Total silence. It was that lovely moment when the tide turns, when the rhythm of the waves pauses, and for a few seconds the sea makes no sound at all, as if the world is holding its breath. So I held mine. Wonderful….. And then a gentle wave ripples, no more than a whisper, and again a few seconds of enfolding silence… savour them…. and another wave, a little louder this time, and so we gradually return to the steady heartbeat of the tide.

As I walked off the beach I met a friend and neighbour and we stood together gazing at the silver sea.

This morning

He told me that I am the most surrendered person he knows. It made me smile. He isn’t a Christian. He knows that I am surrendered but he doesn’t know who I am surrendered to. It must seem to him that I’m slightly crazy, a few weeks off moving, nowhere to go to, no anxiety, not even any concern. But somehow he sees that the word ‘surrendered’ means something, or maybe everything, to me.

When God is taking me by the hand, revealing himself in so many ways, over and over again, so clearly, so undeniably there…. what a fool I would be not to surrender. Surrender to the one who loves perfectly, cares completely, protects totally. What a fool I would be.

And, alright, I’m a bit of a fool, most of the time, but c’m’onnnn…. I’m not that big a fool! Even me!

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

And in the words of Jesus:

And everything I’ve taught you is so that the peace which is in me will be in you and will give you great confidence as you rest in me. For in this unbelieving world you will experience trouble and sorrows, but you must be courageous, for I have conquered the world!”

John 16:33

I wasn’t going to write about that. That blog just sort of happened. I was going to write about bread and circuses. Maybe next week.

PS I love you

I’ve had a conversation with two friends today, all about the books we read, and the therapies some of us believe in, and all the theories out there about mental health and self-realisation and mindfulness and all the rest of it. We talked about that old idea of REM sleep therapy, we mentioned all sorts of things from happy pills to ‘talking more’. We touched briefly on millionaire preachers who live in walled compounds to keep the riff-raff out and employ bodyguards while teaching a simple lifestyle and peace of mind. The conversation was, as you will have gathered, a bit scatter-gun and no conclusions were reached.

I think we were talking a bit too much about us and not enough about who really matters. Three Christ followers babbling away, and we barely mentioned him. If I replay the conversation in my mind, I don’t find the name ‘Jesus’ in there at all.

That’s the trouble with the busy world and with navel gazing. All we see is the busy world and our navel. We don’t look up to see anything that might bring real enlightenment. Today we didn’t remember Paul’s advice to the Philippians “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.” Oh, no. We just splurged about cabbages and kings and let all our random thoughts tumble out.

Here’s a confession – no hair shirt and ashes, just an admission that I don’t think about Jesus nearly enough. Which is strange because when I do, there is excitement and peace and happiness right down to the marrow of my bones. You’d think that those two emotions, excitement and peace, would be incompatible, wouldn’t you? But when I think of Jesus Christ, I find both, just as I find two other opposites; contentment and impatience, not impatience as in ‘hurry up, hurry up’ but impatience as in ‘I just can’t wait for the next chapter!’

I think that with age we come to accept that we can’t neatly tabulate our thoughts to create a flow chart that would make sense to anyone else. With age and wisdom (!) we begin to accept that some aspects of our relationship with God just can’t be shared because we don’t have the words. And it’s only when we get over the frustration of that (I’m frustrated only 99% of the time these days) that we can reach real intimacy with our Creator, God, Father, our everything. And then …and then… forget the books and the gurus…. look up and beyond, and realise that we are not important, that we are not unique, that we are not special…. that we don’t have to have all the words and all the answers because we’re only us…. we are less than specks of dust in a million deserts in a vast panoply of universes. Now, all that could be a bit of a downer, it could send us into a dark corner with a tub of ice cream and a Leonard Cohen song, but gradually we come to realise that this is all good. It is! It’s good because in God’s eyes whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, however grumpy and grungey we are, we are all he longs for, we are the apple of his eye, we are the desire of his deepest longing. Warts and all. He looks at us with the eyes of love, because he is love personified.

Hah! Even me.

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about God’s love. I love the Song of Solomon in the Bible. It’s also known as the Song of Songs, which I translate as ‘the best of all the songs that were ever sung’. And for me it is absolutely the best song ever, just as the Gospel is the best truth ever. It’s the closest we can get to portraying the unending perfection of God’s love.

The Song of Solomon is the most passionate poetry – I hesitate to say it’s erotic but dammit, it is! It’s the truest account of pure love. It speaks to us in both the male and the female voice, and so it embraces everyone, full of longing for fulfilment, desiring only your love in return, whoever you are.

The bride speaks …..

‘My beloved is mine and I am his;
    he browses among the lilies.
Until the day breaks
    and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved,
    and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
    on the rugged hills.’

And the male voice answers….

You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;
    you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
    with one jewel of your necklace.
How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride!

How wonderful. I want to live in those verses. I want to turn down the white noise of this world , to quieten my mind, to talk less of daily troubles and more of God.

And after a conversation like the one I had today, I’m so happy to turn to God to whisper,

“PS Lord, I love you. I meant to say it, but I didn’t, so I’m saying it now.”

Knitted in our bones

This morning I listened to a meditation on Isaiah (surprise, surprise!). In Chapter 2, verses 3-5 when Isaiah is talking about the eventual rule of God he says ‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.’

The meditation touched very lightly on that phrase ‘nor will they train for war any more’ and in it I heard an echo that, at first, I just couldn’t place. Then it came to me… an old old Nat King Cole song ‘I ain’t gonna study war no more’ which went on to be covered by Pete Seeger, Louis Armstrong and a dozen more. So, of course, I had to sing it to the waves. And now it’s an ear worm. Bother.

As a teenager in the fabulous 60’s, I must have heard that banal song a hundred times, but I had never realised that this phrase was from Isaiah. I think that we in the West have forgotten how privileged we are that the Bible has become part of our culture, sown deep into the tapestry of every day living, so deep that it’s almost indiscernible. So often a Biblical truth is repeated by people who have no idea that it’s from the Bible, and if asked they might say ‘It’s something my Gran always said” or “Is it Shakespeare? Yes, I think it must be Shakespeare.” And yes, of course it’s sad that the Bible is not widely read and that these truths are not attributed to God, but an understanding of goodness has become an integral part of our society, in a way that just hasn’t happened in non-Christian environments. There is a deep and lasting understanding that kindness is good and cruelty is bad wherever the Bible is read, while in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, where the Bible is forbidden, the atmosphere is one of hatred, brutality and bitter merciless rage, beastial fury feeding upon itself, spreading ever further, ever deeper. And this is seen , by the religious leaders, as a good thing, a sign of devotion to god. Young people aspire to be angry, hate-filled and murderous.

Without God, this is what mankind looks like.

But the Bible is powerful, its influence is – to continue the fabric analogy – woven into the weft and weave of our lives. It cannot be silenced, God will not be defeated, and one day God will be triumphant. The gospel of love will win. Thank God. Thank God, because although we are a million miles from perfect, although we fail again and again, in a system that’s too often corrupt, without the influence of the Bible we could be where Afghanistan is right now.

Try to imagine the West without the Bible. I can’t. Imagine that there was no Holy Island, no Patrick travelling from Greece to Ireland, no Augustine, no monasteries caring for the poor and sick. I think we could have survived without all these things but then the question looms large – what would have replaced them? Something, for sure, to fill the ‘God shaped hole’ in man, but what? The world is a brutal bloody place, even with the influence of Christianity and indeed Christians have often been among the most brutal, but Christ was always there, to reprove and guide, our example and teacher. Without him, without his Spirit… what?

I cannot imagine this country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give it its full title) without the historical influence of the Word, which is Jesus. What political system would we follow? Who would have created our government? Would we have despots or committees, would we have been secretive and authoritarian or chaotic and anarchic? Who or what would we worship? Think about that with me for a moment; without Christ what would you or I worship today? I heard this in a great sermon a couple of years ago; “If God is not the centre of your life, something else will be.” What would we worship without the guidance of the Spirit? What sort of society would have shaped us? How would we view death? Would our men follow a list of arbitrary rules to ‘earn’ the 70 virgins so obscenely promised by some beliefs? Would we sacrifice to idols, desperately searching for meaning, consumed by fear? What would our world look like?

Thank God for God, indeed.

Even the most rabid anti-Christian, brought up in a society influenced by the Bible (someone like Richard Dawkins) has been shaped by the Word of God, powerfully influential over centuries. It is knitted in our bones, coursing through our blood, imprinted on our DNA.

But before we get complacent, us cosy people in the West with our ‘civilised’ values, maybe we should step back and look at the awful failings of the society we have built, even with the Bible in our clumsy hands… and we should have some compassion for those who have not had this great privilege. We are not so different. Our hearts should go out to those fierce, hate-filled men carrying kalashnikovs, beating the crowds at Kabul airport with lengths of hose. Our hearts should reach out to them in prayer. Each savage man is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father. They are not so different from you or me. Some are loved, some are sick, some are maddened by the things they’ve seen and done. There, but for the Grace of God, his Word and the faithful teaching of so many generations, go I.

Right there, but for the grace of God, am I.

What would the UK look like if it really was a Christian society, if we truly turned to God? We are told the answer in Galatians 5: 2&23

But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions:
joy that overflows, peace that subdues, patience that endures, 
kindness in action, faith that prevails, gentleness of heart,
and strength of spirit.

That’s the Passion Translation. Lovely, eh?

Peace, patience, kindness, faith, gentleness and strength. That’s my prayer for the Taliban. Forgiveness and love.

Who are the Taliban?

This is a distressing post. If you are low or tearful already, maybe you shouldn’t read it. It’s a request for prayers but includes a graphic account of cruelty. I’m not enjoying writing this, but I feel compelled to.

We were sitting in the car at the Covid vaccination centre on a wet August day and my 18 years old granddaughter was inside, getting her second jab, when my youngest granddaughter, sitting with me, asked “Exactly who are the Taliban?”

I knew she wasn’t asking for a history lesson, for a summary of Pakistan tribal politics in the 1990’s or an explanation of the Sunni form of Islam, or Sharia law, she was rather asking who are the Taliban today, right now? She was asking if I could help her to understand them. I couldn’t. Of course I couldn’t. How can anyone explain who these people are?

While we sat in the car, safe and calm, how is that there were women and children and their fathers and brothers, cowering in cellars, in fear of their lives? How is it that thousands of terrifying, masked, armed men are even now marching into peaceful villages, selecting who they will beat, maim, rape or kill? Who are these merciless brutalised men? Who are men who will enslave and imprison and humiliate women, even their own mothers and sisters, in the name of some demanding god? Who could clumsily, agonisingly, slowly, hack off the heads of the defenceless, amputate the hands of the starving, mutilate and flay the already defeated? Who could do these things? Are they even human? Who are these men?

I had been asking myself the same thing, reading this morning that when the news of the fall of Kabul was reported in Muslim North Africa there were crowds on the street shouting “god is good!” and “god is great!”

That must make those of us who believe in God pause. Make us catch our breath and wait, offer a prayer, ask for guidance. My God is good. Their god…. their god?

My heart heart goes out to Muslims who sincerely seek the face of God. When I was a teenager I looked for God with real hunger, and I remember that longing, that gnawing desire to find him, starving to death without him. Angry and alone without him. It’s an integral part of the human psyche to look for God, and while some deny him for ever, those who find a form of faith to feed this need, however imperfectly, find a sort of purpose. The adult who has never heard of a loving and sacrificial God may well turn to some alternative, a cultural norm of belief, simply because their need is overwhelming, so I respect and value Muslim people. I respect and value my granddaughters’ friends who wear the veil and attend the mosque, but I do not respect and value Islam, the dogma and disciplines imposed upon them. And I certainly despise the cant of rabid old men and vicious young ones in Islamic states. There is a difference – I respect Muslims. I do not respect imposed Islamic law and culture.

Today I’m praying for everyone in Afghanistan. I’m praying for the young and the old and the frightened, the starving, the panicked, the fleeing. For the women handing their babies over the wall to troops in the airport, to old men being carried to the planes. I’m praying for Christians and Muslims and everyone in-between. I’m praying for the men who kill and terrorise, driven by the twin devils of hatred and greed. Hatred of society, greed for power. The West cannot tame them just as the West cannot save their victims. The truth is that we’re useless. Biden couldn’t even arrange a peaceful evacuation when the need had been obvious for months. Politicians sat in deck chairs and ate ice-creams while a million lives were broken.

So, what did I say to the 14 year old girl who was trying to understand the unknowable? There in the rainy car park, with a prayer written on my phone and thoughts crowding into my mind? I said it was complicated, that every human heart and mind is complicated, that only God knows the heart of man, that I had this morning read an account of a someone who was taken to a … hang on… I’ll cut and paste it for you… I’ll précis it…. here it is, taken from The Times;

In Karimullah’s case, captured in fighting, the Northern Alliance soldier had been sent to the city’s jail as a prisoner of war.

“I had been there 12 weeks when three Talibs came into my cell,” he remembered. “They called my name out and said I was to be released.”

Surprised, and assuming he was part of a prisoner swap, the captive was led to a Datsun pick-up truck. The vehicle drove to the city’s Ghazi stadium, where executions and amputations were commonly conducted. “I was silent at the beginning,” he told me, “But as we neared it I asked, ‘What is this? What of my release?”

The Datsun drove into the centre of the stadium. From the stands, thousands of faces stared down … a group of mullahs sat on chairs in the middle of the field.

Karimullah was pulled from the truck and told to lie on the grass.

“The mullahs didn’t even ask my name or speak to the crowd,” he told me. “Seven doctors approached me. They wore grey uniforms, surgical masks and gloves. I could see one was crying. They injected me. After five minutes my body was numb, though I was still conscious. Then they put clamps on my hand and foot and began to cut them off with special saws. There was no pain but I could see what they were doing.”

There was a sigh and murmur from the crowd when they finished. The double amputation had taken about five minutes. Taliban guards threw him into the back of the truck. One was crying. Nothing was said.

Hard to pray for such people, eh? I mean, easy to say the words but hard to really heart-felt mean them, hard to love them. But, as I told my granddaughter… it’s complicated.

Look at this again….

Seven doctors approached me. They wore grey uniforms, surgical masks and gloves. I could see one was crying.

‘Taliban guards threw him into the back of the truck. One was crying.

And afterwards this man discovered that he had been tortured this way as a surrogate for a Taliban commander who had been convicted of theft. Where do we start to untangle this mare’s nest of deliberately wicked, deeply evil man-made laws and twisted justice? Can such a culture ever free itself of this bone-deep malevolence?

And now I have another thought crowding in, as Jesus was a surrogate for us…. was this justice? Was this more cruel, or less? More or less arbitrary? Ah, one thought too many. Selah. Pause and think.

“It’s complicated” I said to the wide eyed teenager. It’s beyond understanding. The lives these men lead, what could have brought them to this moment of savagery and cruelty? Who knows? But their tears may save them yet. The tears of Afghanistan is their hope for a better future. Tears give testimony that even for the perpetrators and for the men who have maybe been forced to do these brutal acts, such cruelty is unbearable and will not win.

The god that man has created, fashioned out of anger and need, will not win. He will only lay waste, create ruins where there was once love and beauty. The god that man has created can do nothing more than that. Whoever we are, East or West, whatever we create is hopelessly flawed. Look at the civilised West, look what a mess we have made of our world, look at the ice caps, look at the forests, look at morality…. look at everything.

But listen, even as you see all the smouldering ruins, know that God will win. Has won.

God is good.

Today we can join in with Habakkuk as he prays, and maybe we can pray it on behalf of all those in Afghanistan, in the chaos of Kabul, who don’t yet know God. Let’s pray it remembering that they can – whoever they are, warlords, Taliban commanders, mourning mothers – they can all come to know the God of love.

I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.
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 pen
    and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

and we can join with Habakkuk when he concludes his prayer:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

If your prayers are heartfelt but somewhat confused today, tearful and messy, that’s OK. He hears you.

Keep praying. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. We can weep over Kabul. It’s easy to love those who are being persecuted and living in terror, the wide-eyed baby, the trembling child, but let us also love those who are already brutalised, who are lost in hatred and violence, mired in savagery, let’s love the unlovely. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what Jesus does. That’s why we are loved.

Steady, the Buffs!

There are days when we need to re-calibrate, find a new and truer perspective, stiffen the sinews and summon the blood. And then, having tried valiantly to find that stiff upper lip, we need to have a bloody good bawl.

This is one of those days. Two dear friends are leaving the UK to return to their family in Canada. In the global scale of things, it’s a small fry incident. When we consider the terror and death of Afghanistan, Covid, families wrenched apart, the ills of the world, this is a tiny tiny moment. But right now, it’s huge in my heart. Huge huge enormous.

On the beach this morning… here… this is the beach this morning….. beautiful but somehow severe…

… on the beach this morning, there was no stiff upper lip. There were tears.

Today I recognise that, while I can be kind to myself, and tears are inevitable, it’s just plain exhausting to wallow.

What’s the use of wallowing? It never was worthwhile,
so pack up your troubles in your old kitbag and smile! Smile! Smile!

That seems to be the theme for this blog. I am an army brat. Brought up in the heart of a British Infantry Regiment, posted to a new home and school and circle of friends every couple of years, sometimes more often. In my first ten years I lived in Derry, Scarborough, Egypt, Cyprus, Omagh, Kilroot, Lancashire and Wiltshire. I’m very well schooled in making friends and losing them, a lifetime of saying goodbyes, and even now I’m still fabulous at packing, fantastic at choking back the tears. That’s how I learned to cope at a very early age. We had mechanisms to make it easier not to cry, to feel Ok when we plainly weren’t, to adopt a new home when we were still grieving for the old one.

Every time my dad came home with news of a posting we would begin packing. It never took more than a couple of hours. The furniture (mostly) belonged to the army and so all we had to box up was clothes and toys and a few personal bits and bobs. Then a Warrant Officer would arrive with a clipboard, usually a cheerful sort of bloke, and he’d ‘march us out’. That sounds more military than it really was – all he did was check that the house was in good order and the itinerary was complete. And off we’d go. Because dad was in the admin office, we were often the first to leave, to organise the new ‘home’ for the rest of the regiment. Sometimes there was no time to say farewell to friends, or to finish up at school, we were just…. gone.

In the new house, or flat, or (on one occasion) Nissan Hut, the first thing my Mum would unpack was a small reproduction of a painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. We, my brothers and me, knew that wherever she was, that was home. It was a tatty little reproduction in a gilt frame, battered and cracked, but it meant that we were home wherever we were. This is my version of it today, on the wall in my kitchen.

So, with that past behind me, and an uncertain future before me, and dear friends at this very moment loading up a van and charging off to the airport… what am I recalibrating? I’ll tell you what. Hang on, this is an emotion packed blog and I’m making it up as I go along…

I am recalibrating that an ocean is nothing, to God. That the world is in his hands and he holds us all secure. That we are family and miles cannot change that truth. That time is relative and we are already, all of us, united in eternity. That time and space do not diminish love. That we came together for a reason and we are parting for a reason. That we go wherever we are posted, and the last thing we put in our bag is our Bible and the first thing we take out of our bag is the Bible, and wherever the Bible is, that’s our home. And the Bible is everywhere. It’s in their hand luggage as they board the plane today, it’s here beside me as I tap-tap this blog, it’s in our hearts, and it binds us together, holds us, in eternity and love.

In the last six years, with the example and the encouragement of my two departing friends, I’ve re-discovered the amazing truth of the Gospel. And I’ve learned what it might feel like to belong to a place, to a family.

The title of this blog? The saying ‘steady the Buffs!’ originated way back, when each regiment of the British Army wore a flash of colour to denote which regiment they belonged to. I think that the Buffs (a sort of sandy tan colour) were infantry, like my dad’s regiment The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and it became a sort of rallying cry ‘Steady the buffs!’ when any sort of disorder threatened, from the parade ground to the front line of battle.

This morning, on the beach, disorder threatened. I have been feeling the loss of these very dear friends for some days, the sense of their departure building and building… and now they are on their way, gobbling up the miles, and I am here still, stranded on the shore. The enormity of this loss, so small to the world and so huge to me, was overwhelming. Seeing my tears a friend threw her arms around me and gave me such a great and very welcome hug. Then she asked if I wanted to walk alone, and I said yes (no one likes big snotty sobbing) . And under that great steel sky, those thunderous clouds, with my three scruffy dogs chasing birds along the shoreline, I sang a blessing on my sweet friends, and I thanked God for them, and when a little voice echoed down the years “Steady the Buffs!’ I said

Sod the buffs. I’ll cry if I want to.

A Simile

A simile is a great way to describe a whole rounded idea, a situation, a truth. Jesus was great at similes… ‘the kingdom of God is like….’

I was talking to two friends yesterday, both working for aid agencies in the Middle East, both calm, intrepid and admirable women, and among many other things we spoke about the church. We have very different experiences of church life but we found a great core of like-mindedness as we chatted. We all, whoever we are, whatever age we are, wherever we live, struggle with aspects of church life, just as we all at times struggle with friends and family. I was casting around for some way of explaining my view of church life, fully accepting that I am the church and part of any churchy difficulties, and I remembered something that maybe illustrates my view of it. So , with no authority at all, and no claim to being right or wise, this is my view of church life sometimes. Just sometimes….

CHURCH IS LIKE …. a group of elderly ladies I once knew. A group of funny, chatty, Derby wimmin.

It is!

I would go swimming every morning in a beautiful large indoor pool, revelling in the sparkling clear water, attempting my 40 lengths. Every day this group of elderly ladies could be heard before they were seen, and as I swam slowly up and down the pool I would hear their distant laughter and chatter, and I would start to smile. After a few minutes of this they came, stepping gingerly through the footbath, maybe holding on to each other if they felt a bit shaky, and then to the steps halfway down the pool, to carefully lower themselves into the water. There would be a few “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s as they felt the temperature that day, and some more laughter. The water at these steps came up to their shoulders and there they would stand, for maybe half an hour, or a bit longer, chatting and putting the world to rights. They didn’t move from that spot and the rest of us would swim up and down past them, nodding a “Hello” or “How you doing?” to their flowery, brightly coloured swim caps. A bunch of flowerheads at the pool’s edge. The pool was huge, the possibilities were endless, they could have tried a few strokes or floated, they could have designed a synchronised swimming routine, they could have had gentle ponderous races (who is the slowest?), moving from breast stroke to lazy gliding backstroke. They didn’t. Instead they were faithful, regular and predictable. Then they would slowly haul themselves back up the steps and troop into the changing room, still full of chatter. As I left the pool for a day’s work I would see them sitting upstairs in the cafe, digging into pastries and tea, their laughter echoing.

What amuses me still is to imagine their families, their children and grandchildren, saying “Oh, Mum’s marvellous, you know! She’s 83 years old but she swims every day, sometimes for a whole hour!”

Church is like….. turning up, standing in our comfortable depth, enjoying our routine, and meeting up with people we like. Sometimes we don’t do a lot of swimming, but there’s always the tea and pastries afterwards. That’s what church is like sometimes. Not always. But often. From the outside it looks as if we have worshipped and rejoiced and yielded ….. as if we are ready to follow God wherever he leads…. to step out ‘where our feet would never wander’….. that’s the picture we present, the image we project. I wonder if maybe it’s not quite true?

This isn’t them but…..

Give it a rest, Zophar

Do you know the book of Job? That’s where Zophar is. Job is as low as a man can get, pathetically low. His children are dead, his servants are dead, his wealth has gone, and he’s a mass of suppurating boils…. it seems that all he has left is his wife and all she does is nag him, trying to whip him up into anger and outrage against God. It’s as if she’s saying ‘Be a man! Shake your fist at him! Are you a man or a mouse?’ His mates do the very opposite – they try to bully Job into cheerfulness, gratitude, worship. No one will leave him alone to work stuff out for himself. No one trusts God and Job to get there on their own. So his pals gather around this pitiful man and bombard him with platitude after platitude, truth after truth, a great stream of wise sayings and trite encouragement, brotherly reproach. They might as well be the Ministry for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious. If I was Job I wouldn’t bother answering any of them, and certainly not Zophar, I’d just poke him in the eye with a sharp stick.

The story of Job examines the idea that God allows suffering, that even in our suffering God is good, that honesty with God is the best and only policy, that it is no sin to argue with God, to tussle with the difficult truths of pain and loss, to shout in despair to the God we love, knowing that he will hold us even as we howl our protest. Job’s friends just want him to say all the right things, regardless. I wonder if they’re British at heart, stiff upper lip and all that. Or good church people, sweet smiles and lots of ‘We love you’ but not much reality?

Pain and loss has brought Job low but it is bringing him to place of deep understanding.

Job’s comforters. What twits. Do they really think that a word from them can ease his pain? There’s a real danger that we go into the ‘I-have-the-answers’ mode when people are in trouble, either ladling out cliché and empty soothing words, or bestowing a painful nudge followed by a kick up the bum…. as if we can sort it, as if we have the wisdom and the answers, and of course the implication is that the sufferer is dim and wrong, and we are right and holy. Not so. We are all in the same boat together.

Silence is golden. Zophar should have given it a go.

Here’s Zophar, talking to Job, trying to show him that the ways of man are rubbish (as if that’s going to be either news or helpful) and that God can be trusted. On he ploughs, on and on about Godless people, the Godless lives they lead, trying to make Job see that the ways of man are wrong, that God is good and… well, he’s right. He is. Everything Zophar says is absolutely true, bang on the money, and he really understands that sin has a natural consequence- but he really needs to shut up about it. He just needs to look at Job and understand the depth of his despair, to have some true compassion, to sit with him, and trust in God and in Job, that together they will come to a better more peaceful and joyful place, without Zophar sticking his great fat oar in.

This is what Zophar says, talking about the Godless man:

Though evil is sweet in his mouth
and he hides it under his tongue,
though he cannot bear to let it go
and lets it linger in his mouth,
yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
it will become the venom of serpents within him.
He will spit out the riches he swallowed;
God will make his stomach vomit them up.
He will suck the poison of serpents;
the fangs of an adder will kill him.
He will not enjoy the streams,
the rivers flowing with honey and cream.
What he toiled for he must give back uneaten;
he will not enjoy the profit from his trading.
For he has oppressed the poor and left them destitute;
he has seized houses he did not build.

I often think of that first image, and I like the way Eugene Peterson translates it:

They savor evil as a delicacy,
    roll it around on their tongues,
Prolong the flavor, a dalliance in decadence—
    real gourmets of evil!
But then they get stomach cramps,
    a bad case of food poisoning.
They gag on all that rich food;

I thought about this imagery today, when I read about 7 million pounds allegedly paid to a politician who lobbied for a dodgy financial company that rapidly went into liquidation. How tempting those 7million smackeroonies must have been. Think of all the champagne and fine dining and luxury you could buy with that! How much privilege and advantage it can buy for his children. It made me wonder how long it will be before that politician gets food poisoning. Already his name is splashed across the news, already his friends are washing their hands of him, and soon – I’m sure – his involvement will be less desirable in financial transactions, in political movements. His legacy and reputation will be smeared. Stomach cramps indeed!

But 7 million pounds! The claim is that he slipped it into his back pocket for what? How did he ‘earn’ this massive fortune? A few hosted meals in expensive restaurants, a couple of emails, a few conversations? Obscene. Think of the peasant who has laboured hard from childhood, who lives a simple life doing no damage to his world, who knows nothing of wealth and success, ambition and greed. Think of the people in the third world who don’t have fresh water, adequate food, medical care. Think of the child labourers who make our clothes, and pick our fruit. Think of the countries where there is no Covid vaccine. Think of the people brutalised by the Taliban, silenced by China, isolated by North Korea.

Seven million pounds! 350 pounds will sink a bore hole in Africa to bring clean water to villages. 11 pounds will feed a child for a week. 25 will educate a young person for a month. Just one million of the seven would build a hospital.

The Bible gets it right, time after time after time, unfailingly, infallibly. We love our Godlessness. We love being happy, we love our treats and luxuries, we savour them. And they do us no good at all.

I’m reminded of the wonderful closing scene in an episode of The Sopranos, when Tony Soprano is at the wheel of his motor cruiser and heading out to sea… the sun is shining, the sky is blue, his son is there in the boat with him in a rare moment of bonding, and it’s wonderful! The boat slices through the crystal waters, the bow wave a great tumbling cloud of foam, the birds wheel above them, and Tony is supremely happy. So happy. He savours the moment, wordless, beaming. As he revels in his wealth and his possessions, and delights in speed and power, he is the picture of a happy man. The camera pulls back, and we see , in his foaming , troubled wake, a small rowing boat, rocked and swamped by the turbulence, in danger of capsizing, the passengers shouting in alarm. Tony can’t hear them. His success and his wealth drown out their cries.

And so, like the history of mankind, Tony Soprano goes on, ricocheting from one disaster to the next, amassing and spending, wasting and hoarding, grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. And so, left to our own devices, do we.

Like Job we can take this to God, we can see the injustice of the world, the grief and the fat cat profiteers, and we can ask ‘Why?’

I think there is something wrong with us if our prayers are not sometimes tortured, struggling, pleading, bewildered. I think our prayers need to be raw and honest. Sometimes nice words, wise words, aren’t what God wants to hear. If we look at the injustice of the world and are not angry, we are not in line with God.