When is it better to be right than kind?

This blog isn’t going to seem kind. I warn you now. I hope it is, but I’m afraid it won’t make anyone feel good. Nevertheless the writing itself comes as it usually does, from the heart, and I’m going to carry on and plough in, properly, but it’s not the sort of writing I am drawn to, and I find it painful:

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says (the bold print is mine)

 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist,discharge all the duties of your ministry.

The Christian walk can, like any other long trek through life, have periods of difficulty. We cannot always be on the top of the mountain, soaring with the eagles. If we trust in God, and in the teaching of the Bible, and submit to his will, we will keep walking steadily on, our eyes fixed on him. And some days will seem long and dull, and some seasons will feel as if they’ve dragged on for ever, and we may start to long for fireworks and adventures and something amazing to happen – like a miracle! It’s only human to desire, at these grey times, a flash of amazing colour, a startling manifestation of God’s power, enough to rock us back on our heels and gasp in amazement.

Here’s the thing: when it doesn’t happen, we have no right to pretend that it does. When we don’t get what our heart desires it is wrong to lie and say that we do.

Last week, in a local church, a man walked to the front and claimed some amazing things – that when he first turned to faith, not many miles from here, he healed 40 people in one fell swoop. He didn’t say what their illnesses or conditions were, indeed he admitted he didn’t know what they were, but still he claimed the healing. He claimed that God struck a friend so that she fell at his feet and was cured when he didn’t even know she was ill. And then he claimed that the dead were raised. The dead were raised! This was in a church where I have received great and honest and true and steadfast teaching for 7 years.

It shook me.

My God doesn’t need lies. His miracle is here in my every breath. His miracle is in every sunrise, in every human life, in every act of kindness. His truth is in the Bible. My God doesn’t need to have his followers chivvied into action by deceit and false claims. By myths, as Paul worded it. Yes, I know that some will have heard this man’s claims and will have been encouraged by them, but the fact that something makes you feel good does not actually make it good. Booze, fags, adultery, theft… they all make the moment feel good. If I steal a million pounds I may feel greatly encouraged by my cleverness, my skill. If a charlatan whips up a crowd to state of elation, has them singing, and shouting their approval …. they may feel greatly encouraged but he is still a charlatan.

Honesty matters. Without honesty we have nothing. And in a church, when a man or woman stands at the front and pretends miracles in order to justify and encourage faith, something is very wrong. Very wrong. And for the whole congregation to stay still and listen, and then thank him for his sermon… well, that may be kind but it very definitely isn’t right. It isn’t strong.

If a wolf wears sheep’s clothing and sounds like a sheep, he is still a wolf.

In 1 John 4:1 we’re given a clear instruction:
My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.

And so I thought about it, and argued with myself and really just wanted to walk away from the mess of church and preachers, but the instruction is clear ‘carefully weigh and examine’ and some versions use the word ‘test’. So, instead of walking away from the mess, I contacted the man who made these claims of mass healing and people rising from the dead, and I politely asked him when the resurrection of these people took place, their names, and the location. He could not, of course, give me any details because he said he had forgotten.. and his excuse was that it took place 30 years ago. When Jesus was raised from the dead the whole country knew, and then the whole Roman Empire and then the world. Two thousand years later we are still dazed and amazed by it. We know ALL the details, the place, the time, the grave clothes, the stone, the consequences for the Roman guards, everything. And yet this speaker ‘forgot’ in 30 years? Can’t remember the name of someone who was dead and then was alive? Didn’t the raised person keep in touch? Wasn’t the medical world amazed? Didn’t the newspapers pick it up? The TV news? Where is the raised man or woman now? Still alive? Can we contact them?

No, of course not. Myths are shy.

We do not need to lie about our God. It’s obscene to do so. It’s treating each other as if we are customers who have to be fed a dubious marketing strategy to bring us onboard. It’s turning God’s house into a house of lies.

The church should be more courageous than this. Straighter, stronger, truer.

My God doesn’t need lies. He doesn’t need a marketing department.

In the Book of Acts we’re told (Chapter 20:30) Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

We have to be on our guard. Sloppy preaching, unfounded claims, ‘magical thinking’, hyperbole, saying the right things to sell ourselves and our ministry, these are wrong. They turn people away from the truth.

My God doesn’t need lies.

Alternative church

The road to the beach has been closed for a few days, and we have been diverted around the headland, a journey of 5 miles. I’ve not heard so much fuss and complaining since it was suggested the church moved a few hundred yards down the road…… honestly! What is it with people and change? Change is good, a little wander away from the norm is to be welcomed, explored, enjoyed. It may even be better than the usual old trudge through the day.

The road was closed to allow for work to be carried out on the water supply, in a very narrow stretch between two rows of terraced houses. ‘Essential work’ they called it, and there is nothing more essential to life than water. So, button your lip and stop with the complaints. Be glad for the maintenance. Thank God for the men in their high vis jackets, the detour, the signs, thank God for fresh water, when half the world has none.

It’s not as if our journey was arduous, we aren’t slogging on foot up and down the hills. Oh, I know sometimes you meet a tractor on the lane, or a lorry, or a holiday maker who can’t reverse and has no idea what a passing place is, but a few minutes delay isn’t a disaster and look at it… just look…. people pay good money and travel miles to see what we see every day. This is the detour we were sent on, and I am not complaining one little bit:

That was yesterday. Thanking God for sky and sea and roads and workmen and fresh water.

Now for today.

I’ve never dialled 999 in my life, until this morning, and because it was a first-time experience, I dithered over it for a few minutes, unusually hesitant. I was on the beach (of course) with the three mutts (of course) on a dry, fresh day, with tumbling clouds reaching high and lying low, the sunlight fleeting. Here’s this morning for you:

Can you tell that I love a skyscape?

We’d walked through the dunes and up to the dead tree and now we were sitting on a log while I tried to build up the enthusiasm and energy for church (and people), and I was just on the brink of giving myself an ‘excused duties’ note when I clocked a sailing boat crossing the bay and heading our way. The tide was going out and the little craft was heading towards the sand bank, rather than taking the usual wider course to enter the estuary. I thought at first that it was just someone unfamiliar with the bay and settled down to see it safely over the sandbank. And then I saw that one of the sails seemed to be flapping wildly, and then that the smaller sail also seemed to have lost its shape somehow. As I watched, the boat turned back towards the open sea, but then it kept on going, circling, going broadside on to the wind. It didn’t seem to have engine power, just to be wallowing. By now the rocks were about 100yards away but the gap seemed to be closing. Or was it? Was it my imagination? A trick of parallax? I could see that something was wrong but was it just a minor glitch that they would soon sort out for themselves (I could just about make out two people moving around in the cockpit) or was it a real emergency? I dithered. I did. And I don’t like dithering.

On a Sunday morning the RNLI station is abuzz with activity, getting ready for practice, usually involving launching one of the boats, but I was at the other end of the beach and it would take at least 15 minutes to get to them. There were other dog walkers quite near me and they weren’t reacting at all to the sight of this little white yacht flailing around near the rocks. But I had seen it, and maybe they hadn’t. Would I be negligent to walk on and do nothing? After all, the breeze was light, the tide was falling, and if they could just keep off the rocks they would simply go aground to refloat at the next tide. But what if they hit the rocks first? And what if, with the sails out, what if the engine was crocked, too? If that was the case then the tide coming back in would be a problem. Anyway, anyway, I told myself, they were bound to have mobile phones – everyone has mobile phones. If they needed help they would call for it. Or are they the sort of perverse people who refuse to own cell phones? Damn. They could be, I know someone who trumpets his refusal to own one as if it’s a high moral calling. Dither dither. And anyway, came another line of reasoning, when the tide is right out they’ll be just a few muddy steps from shore and rocks and a clamber to dry land. They might be really annoyed if they’re raised as an emergency. Bum.

Would I be over-reacting if I called the coastguard? Would I be ruining the day for a whole gang of people? Should I just call a friend whose whole family is on the lifeboat crew? I told myself off quite sternly and made the decision and did both. I texted my lifeboat friend and I dialled 999. The emergency service was flawless, the chap at the coastguard was great. As the call ended I had a text from my friend and was able to send her a photo of the boat, so that they knew just where it was. After what seemed like ages (but wasn’t) with the boat seeming to get closer and closer to the rocks, I heard the distant alarm of the lifeboat launch and watched as the bright orange heroic little thing, with four white helmets shining like halos, went to the rescue. Now I had been joined by Annie, the wife of one of the men on the lifeboat (she was also walking her dog) and we watched as someone – probably her husband – got into the water and did something (?) and then clambered back in, and there was a bit of shouting and to-ing and fro-ing. They were there for probably 20 minutes and I think they had a go at getting a line on, but by now the boat was too high out of the water and nothing was going to budge it, so they returned to the lifeboat station. The stranded boat will sit there until high tide, in about 5 hours.

So, it wasn’t quite an emergency, but it might have been. It wasn’t quite dramatic, but nearly. I’m no Grace Darling, as it turns out.

I didn’t get to church (hooray!) and I didn’t finish my devotionals (boo!) and by the time we got back home we were all starving. And you know what? Seeing that little crew heading out to an unknown situation, giving up their Sunday morning, seemed even better than being in church. It was seeing the love of God, and remembering that God loves us, because he made us loveable. It made me thank God not just for the RNLI and their quiet heroism, but for the whole fabric of the world, for the men who built the roads we so unthinkingly drive along, for the workers who laid the water pipes and the drains, the people who invented phones, the unseen millions of the past who have made our lives so comfortable today. And it made me think, again, of those who have no water, who don’t have the blessing of a green and fertile land, or of rescue and care, of those who are battered by war or storm or drought or disease.

It was a morning of joy and thankfulness and a sort of grief, in equal measure.

This morning I was at worship. Miles away from the nearest church.

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

Let the whole earth sing to the Lord!
    Each day proclaim the good news that he saves.
Publish his glorious deeds among the nations.
    Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.
 Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!

1 Chronicles 16: 23-25

Just one more word…..

Can you bear a few more words about the Queen? Are you on overload already? I am, a bit, but hanging on….

I’m not a high church person, and I’m not even – really – a dyed in the wool royalist. But of course I watched today’s funeral partly because it’s a huge historic occasion, partly because I appreciated and even loved the Queen, and partly so that I could enjoy the military stuff (the daughter of a CSM, the sister of a Sergeant and a Petty Officer, and myself an ex-NCO) . But surprisingly it wasn’t the pomp and ceremony that got me – it was the church service. In spite of having not much time for blokes in flowing robes and pointy hats and chasubles and the like, even I have to admit that sometimes they manage to say something worth saying. This is a small snippet from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address:

In 1953 the Queen began her Coronation with silent prayer, just there at the High Altar. Her allegiance to God was given before any person gave allegiance to her. Her service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth and the world had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

And those words will have been heard by millions who never otherwise would have heard them! What an amazing miracle. And there was loads more… from the Psalms to the Gospels to Revelation. A friend reminded me of Isaiah 55: 10&11

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Think of that; His word will not return empty.

Watching it alone, there were tears of course at several moments – when I saw that the formal white garland on top of the coffin had been replaced by pink roses with rosemary for remembrance and myrtle as a symbol of her long marriage, at her son’s request. And the music she had chosen brought a few tears, not just the wonderful hymns like ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord, Is Ended’ but also the Bible verses sung by the choir, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord’ John 11: 25–26 and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ Job 19: 25–27

That she (and not some worthy old bloke from the Anglican Church) had chosen those Bible verses and those hymns made them all the more poignant. I think that for millions around the world, especially those who have been bereaved recently, the faith shown by Elizabeth II, even as she planned her own funeral, is a witness of the great and certain hope underpinning the lives of all Christians, everywhere.

Apologies for the lack clarity… taken from the telly on my phone!

And then came the walk up the Royal Mile to Windsor and that little black pony, the one she loved, waiting patiently. And then the corgis (yeah, ok, they looked a bit bored by the whole thing). It would take the hardest of hard hearts, the most republican of republicans not to be a little moved by the love shown over the last few days, to a tiny and humble woman, who knew her place in the world and accepted it uncomplainingly.

But what a day! A day when the Gospel is on the TV, on the Radio, even in the newspapers, all over the UK, and in many other parts of the world too.

Surely, surely, the most touching, heart-breaking moment of the whole long day came when the lone piper appeared above the coffin and played the lament ‘Sleep, dearie, sleep.” Such a personal, sweet, wonderful sentiment. ‘Sleep, dearie, sleep.”

For Charles the day is still not over. There’s a short break and then the family is back for the private internment.

I’ll tell you what, she lived a good life and was blessed with a good death, but she also had a stonking, exhausting and full-on three tiered funeral.

The biggest military procession in UK history, 3000 servicemen and women, and they had 4 Canadian Mounties at the very head.
And then there were some who just wanted their tea.

She knew what was what.

This was the only book the late Queen ever endorsed

A servant? Really?

In the UK the newspapers, TV and radio have been full of accounts of the late Queen’s life, wall to wall, morning to evening and on into the night. Not accounts only of her life but also a minute by minute account of where she will lie (not in the ground but in vault in a Windsor Castle), a description of the coffin (prepared 30 years ago, lead lined, English oak, not sure of the birthday of the carpenter who made it but I dare say those details are in print somewhere), the flowers in the wreath atop that coffin (grown in Balmoral – I could list them but won’t), what comes next in the ceremonial process, and on and on. And on. I feel as if I’ve had a crash course in royal protocol, history and grief. With so much coverage, with so much emotion, with so much stultifying formality, it would be very easy to get it very wrong. Today, in Edinburgh, the stuffy old, boring old, much maligned Church of Scotland, got it absolutely right.

Yes, yes, there were men in silly gold uniforms blowing trumpets, and others with great big feathers in their tam’o’shanters, and long bows (long bows!), and there were people in red flowing robes and simply loads of gold and candles and all the stuff that shouts ‘pompous! irrelevant! bonkers!’ But somehow, in spite of all that, it was touching and somehow simple. It was. Honest.

It was a service to pay tribute to the Queen, welcoming her coffin to St Giles’ Cathedral, the cathedral she knew so well, and where her body will lie in state until the journey to London. The afternoon was pretty amazing – the choir was great, the music was soaring, the organ was thunderous, the soldiers were handsome, the marching was inch perfect, the huge crowd was hushed, heads were bowed… everything, everything was done with meaning and symbolism and love. Redolent with history and significance. And it could so easily have been empty, and vain-glorious, but it wasn’t. The very best part of the day, the droplet of enchantment that lifted it above everything the best of British pageantry could ever devise, came when the Bible was read, from the familiar words of Ecclesiastes,
There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens’

to the words of Paul
“What shall separate us from the love of God?”
to the words of Jesus himself
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

These words will have gone out all over the world, isn’t that wonderful? They were broadcast as a witness to a life well lived in the service of the true King, the eternal King. Over and over again we heard that this woman was guided and guarded by her faith in Jesus, in everything, personal and public. Is it any wonder that she was so loved?

There are not many world leaders who live so simply, lives of such unwavering service, both to God and to their fellow men.

I heard a good sermon last week about humility. We heard that when we humble ourselves, God elevates us. He never humbles us. He is for us, not against us. But if we humble ourselves, he will lift us up. There, in that cathedral, in all the pomp and circumstance, that sermon came back to me as we paid respect to a woman who was truly humble, who accepted her place in world and all the onerous duty it involved, but always remembered that there was One unimaginably greater, and who delighted in serving Him. She humbled herself, and He has lifted her up.

It’s a habit of mine to pay particular attention to the blessing, the parting words at the end of a worship service, thinking that these last words are a sort of simple handle on the next few days to come. Sometimes they take the form of a little tiny nudge in the direction of the sermon we’ve just heard and I like that. I love to be blessed. It’s a sort of love, a blessing is, and when love comes along, I grab it. Today, in St Giles’ Cathedral, the final blessing was this:

And now go out into the world and be of good courage, render no one evil for evil but hold fast to the good, honour all of God’s children, love and serve the Lord in the power of the Spirit; and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and all whom you love, this day, this night and even for ever more.

I’m hugging that to myself. That’s blessing and a half, that is.

A good life, well lived.

We really shouldn’t mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

We should celebrate her.

But we can pause for a while, to think about who she was, and be grateful for her. A woman of great wealth, who nevertheless chose a simple life, a life of faith and service. Warm and human.

And we will celebrate her in the weeks and months to come, of course we will, but first, today, we are sad. We’ve lost someone who’s been at the heart of the United Kingdom for nearly a hundred years. Nearly a hundred years! Someone whose face became dear to us, a face we watched grow old and wrinkled alongside our own, whose hair turned grey as ours did, who smiled through thick and thin, through war and too much loss, through family turmoil and nonsense. Someone who seemed to be a friend, even for those of us who never met her, even for those of us who are not Royalists.

I met her just once. Briefly. And we laughed together. She was tiny. Tiny. Lively eyes, sparkling. And her laughter was a lovely warm peal of delight.

On Tuesday evening I read this to two friends, and it seems to sum up the mood this evening, the reflections, the loss;

Funeral Blues
W.H.Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But, of course the last line is all wrong. Sorry, Auden. The rest is good, but the last line is wrong. There is a deal of good still to come.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Revelations 21:4

50 Shades of Grey

Love. Do you ever think about it? I mean, really think about it? It can’t be quantified, so it can’t be explained. It can be partially described, but not completely. It’s both innate and foreign, selfless, invisible, intangible, demanding, rewarding, fulfilling, and yet sometimes it’s elusive, and sometimes it’s hard. When I was reading 1John a few days ago, I came across a verse that I’d never really dug into before, I’d read it and simply carried on but this time I paused and gave it some actual thought (!)

‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’

That last phrase struck me as a commandment, as it never had before, and I remembered that some translations have it as ‘Now abide in my love.’

That translation seems to say so much more! The word ‘abide’ brings with it a sense of something encompassing, a sense of home and belonging, even of continuance, which is why there is no past tense to the word – we don’t say ‘Fred abided in the house’ because the word just doesn’t lend itself to that tense. ‘To abide’ means to make a home, to continue to thrive there. So Jesus has commanded us to abide in his love…. what a great commandment that is! To live in the greatest love of all, be surrounded by it, nourished by it, not popping in from time to time when the mood takes us, but to make our permanent home in it. The medium in which we exist.

How amazing. And, if Jesus tells us to do something, we know that with His help it’s achievable. We really can make his love our natural home. The strongest prayer I know is all about that, and I say it every day, thinking of friends and neighbours, bringing them into focus;

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-19

‘Rooted and established in love’. That’s as strong as the commandment to abide, isn’t it ? What a great joy, to live in love. I think that when I’m not aware of a deep inner joy it’s a sign that I’m not living in God’s love. That something may have slipped a bit sideways. Like it does. That I need to step back into that abiding.

Last weekend it was my husband’s birthday and that chimed with my thoughts about love; He grew up in a dour Scottish Presbyterian family and wasn’t at all used to celebrating birthdays. When he woke up, I would have his gifts wrapped and waiting and of course there would be his favourite food, and silly decorations and anything else I could think of, and although he was a bit stunned for the first couple of years, he was also delighted. He came to enjoy them almost as much as I do, and it was good to remember him on his birthday, and to thank God for him, and for the gift of love. He was a smashing bloke.

Human love is wonderful, amazing, miraculous, and invaluable, but it’s pale and sickly compared to the love of God, shown from the beginning of time, and all through the Old Testament

‘Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.’

Isaiah 54:10

all the way through to the fulfilment of the New Testament

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

But God is God and I am shabby old me, and you are shabby old you, and we are tiny specks in the vastness of unmeasured space. Here today and gone tomorrow. So why does God love us? Here’s the thing. He loves us because he is love. And because he therefore made us lovable, that’s why! Yeah, yeah, I know that we are all unworthy and wretched and all that stuff too – goodness we hear about that side of things often enough, don’t we? What wretches we all are! But listen! We are also and undeniably bloomin’ fantastic, all made with delight and joy and love and attention to detail… each one of us the work of the supreme Craftsman. We are all wonderful because we are all wonderfully and fearfully made (Psalm 139) and that’s of no credit at all to us! The most beautiful painting in the world didn’t make itself beautiful, it was the artist who created that beauty. We are wonderful not because of ourselves but because of Him who created us. He gave us the gift of being loved and of being able to love. What a supreme gift that is! Over and over again in every human being, every new born baby and every centenarian, loveable humanity.

Take George for example; He was easy to love with his blue eyes, his lovely accent, his sense of humour, his strength and stubbornness, that annoying snort when he laughed, the gulp and swallow as he fought tears, his terrible dress sense.. oh, listen, his terrible dress sense! The day our daughter was born and I wasn’t home to give him the once-over before he left the house, he turned up at the hospital in checked trousers, a striped shirt, a different checked jacket and a contrasting tie. He told me, puzzled, that several people at work had said “Hi George, didn’t know it was fancy dress today.” But God loved him, and he loved God. And I loved him. What a gift he was to me. *

George has been gone for many years, but time is nothing. It’s less than a sigh, less than a heart beat, less than the blink of an eye. George is alive, in glory, with the God who loves him. Do I believe that one day we’ll be together again, delighted to recognise each other? You know, I don’t. I really don’t. Because I think that when we are in glory we will be completely and ecstatically captivated by the love that knows no boundaries, that reaches out to embrace all humanity, all souls, to encompass all truth. He will be there and I will be there and that will be enough because God will be there.

In eternal life, there will be everything and only. Everything and only God. Jesus said, in prayer, in the days leading up to his crucifixion ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’

That’s such an insight into eternity. Let me add some bold font this is eternal life; that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ This is eternal life: Eternal life is knowing Jesus. If we know Jesus we are in eternal life, we have it, we are part of it.

What is eternal life? Simple. Eternal life is knowing God.

Isn’t that something to shout about from the rooftops? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Now, that’s what I call love.

*In George’s defence, the whole outfit was, as he said indignantly “All in the same colour – grey.”
Yep. Light grey with small blue checks, bluey grey with darker larger blue checks, a grey satin tie with red stripes, a grey shirt with white pinstripes. But yes, George, not quite 50 shades and all basically ‘grey’.

Chained to a mad man….

During the week I had a day in the big City (well, not that big, Cardiff) so a pal came and spent some time with my dogs. This pal is very married, by that I mean that she and her husband are at home all day every day, keeping each other company, so they’re not just ‘married’, they’re very inescapably and wonderfully ‘married’. She duly arrived and made a fuss of the dogs and sat cuddling Pip, with Pico at her feet (Percy ignored her, miffed) and after a while she made some lunch and sat at the table to eat it. Then it hit her. The truth of being single. She felt, suddenly and sharply, the reality of living alone, in a silent house, with no one else. She had, she told me afterwards, a brief but vivid understanding of a singleton’s life. The irrelevance and isolation of it. Fortunately she was just here for 5 hours so she’s back in the bosom of her family, but she reminded me of the image I had when my husband died so suddenly – I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a desert, no one in sight, no trees, no homes, no sense of another heart beating. The world I knew wiped out. When that happens, and it happens to many of us, we can either sit down and give up, or we can plant a few trees, make a few paths, build a hut, sing a song. Looking around, we’ll find a few seeds we didn’t know we had, and stuff left behind by other people, lessons learned in another life, there will be manna from heaven, just enough to get us through today. Manna from heaven, the Word of God. That’s what gets us through.

Well, it’s what gets me through. That and you, you bloggers. And friends. And dogs. And the sea, and the sky and an occasional jigsaw with an audio book playing. God is good and even when life is hard, we have all we need to get by. If you’re on the edge of desert right now, courage my little chum. There is manna for today. There is. And tomorrow will bring manna of its own.

‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’ (James 1:17)

We celebrated a friend’s birthday yesterday, with a movie evening; a few weeks ago I downloaded the fabulous’Elvis’ movie, so last night we had hot dogs, popcorn, wine and ice creams. Correction – we had so much in the way of hotdogs, popcorn and wine that we didn’t manage any ice cream.

Have you seen the film? It’s very rare for any film to daze and dazzle me, but this one did. The script, the cast, the director, the set design, and especially – oh! especially – the editing are just excellent. We don’t often give the team in the edit suite the recognition they deserve, but surely this editor, Matt Villa, is on line for an Oscar.

There were three of us, silent and transfixed all the way through, and although I’d already watched it with one of my grand children, I was lost in it again, awed by the talent and skill. There’s Tom Hanks, playing a fat old man, wearing a fat suit and latex jowls, his teeth yellowed, his beady eyes darting here, there and everywhere, the greed oozing from his pores…. no longer Tom Hanks! He becomes the self styled ‘Colonel Parker’. What a talent. And now we are no longer earth bound, we are in a Ferris wheel, in an almost-but-not-quite fantastic scene, a sequence of heightened reality, engaging and poignant and honest. Wowser!

And at the end, the person who never cries at sad endings (me), who can never quite step into the drama, who can’t help but see the workings of the scene and wonder why this was done or that was not done… I was completely absorbed, heart broken, totally present. Stunned.

Do watch it, if you get the chance. It’s more than a tribute to creative talent, it’s a supreme display of it. It says something important, showing the vulnerability of a gifted person and the greed of the world, nailing the truth that for every talented person there’s a huge cost, and an inescapable responsibility. And the songs will send you spinning back through the years to Rock’n’Roll and cowlicks and sideburns, and great old American cars, and even Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King. Fabulous.

Talent is a gift. We either have it or we don’t. But what we do with it is our decision. It can be nurtured or it can be neglected. It can raise us up to great heights and it can dash us down to the lowest depths. To nurture a talent demands hard work and commitment and a degree of sacrifice. That’s a truism, I think, something we all know, but need occasionally to remember. Sophocles likened the male sex drive to being chained to ‘a frantic and savage master’ and sometimes being talented can feel a bit like that. Just a bit. A dear friend, a fellow writer, is in the grip of her writing talent and there she is at midnight, banging out the latest draft. In the morning she’s researching. Her script is in her head, her internal world is rowdy with characters, her thoughts prowl around them constantly. How will she show this aspect of life? How will she lift the mood, darken the mood, reveal a truth, drive the drama through… She’s driven and desperate and full of energy and exhaustion and frustration and self-doubt and sheer bloody TALENT.  And it costs her. Of course it does.

A creative talent is a gift from God. Yes, it may seem like being chained to a mad man sometimes, or being strapped in the most terrifying fairground ride the world has ever known, but it is also, at a very basic and nurturing level, our greatest joy. If God has gives us a talent and we deny it, there’s trouble ahead, simply because we’ll be unsatisfied, bored, and eventually depressed. And, listen – used well, our talent may even glorify God! Wouldn’t that be fab?

Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:17)

Keep digging

A 91 year old man, estimated to have a fortune of 2.5 billion pounds, is going through the courts arguing that he hasn’t hidden 400 million pounds from the tax man. Unfortunately the court seems to have proof of a bank account he hasn’t declared and in it there’s 650 million dollars. Oops. He probably forgot – a mistake anyone could make.

But whether it was deliberate or not – he’s 91, for heaven’s sake! Hasn’t he got better things to do? Hasn’t his long, long life taught him anything at all? Whether he owes it or not, why doesn’t he reach into his copious back pocket and just hand the dosh over, knowing it will do more good in circulation, keeping the infrastructure going, than it will ever do in some electronic virtual safe? Doesn’t he realise that he’ll be moving on soon, to a place where money and possessions have no value at all?

Why waste what little time he has left in arguments and travelling to court, and sitting through the boring ritual of law, and fretting about who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong? Give it up, geezer! Hand it over. Get on with your life, pour a nice crisp chardonnay, or sit on a hillside and watch the clouds, or float in a sparkling pool (he must have dozens of those!) or give away a thousand houses, or build a hundred hospitals or something. Go on! Life offers more than money. Give yourself a treat, for pity’s sake. Hug a child, kick a football. Sink some fresh water wells in Africa. Want a list? I can send you one.

Doesn’t he know that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’ ?

Not money itself, but the love of it. The desire to have more. To keep what we have to ourselves. To steal and cheat and scheme to get more, regardless of the poverty all around us. To hoard it and gloat over it, so that it masters us. To have wealth and success as the focus of our life, instead of God. When money can do so much good, what a sin to leave it tucked in a purse and hidden away.

Hey, talking about money…. there’s a man locally who runs a very successful building company. He is the one person in the world for whom the word ‘bombastic’ was coined. He overflows with delight at his own wealth, not at all reticent about telling everyone what a great profit he turns. The other day a newcomer in the village was asking about local builders and at the end of the list, as a sort of after-thought, they were told “And if you’re really stuck and can afford him, there’s always Trifle.” Apparently that’s this guy’s nickname. I wondered why ….. “Because he’s always going on about his hundreds and thousands.”

Wealth and success, eh? That’s what the world values. So seductive.

I listened to two speakers this weekend and in each message I heard something that really caught my attention. And both said the same thing in different ways. Here in Wales it was a sermon about giving up everything we have to follow Jesus, a message given by a self-confessing ‘Jesus freak’ and one-time Californian hippy, who did indeed give up everything to follow Jesus many years ago. The second came from halfway across the world, in an on-line video about discipling, and it’s interesting that both these blokes spoke about the importance of following Jesus and only him, of shedding the burdens of the world and surging ahead, travelling light. Let me tell you about the discipling video – and here I’m shamelessly plagiarising, jotting down what was said, verbatim and italicised:

Luke Chapter 9:62
Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’
Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’

‘No one who puts their hand to the plough’ There’s a reference here to the Old Testament story of Elisha, who was called – like disciples are called – to follow. And when he was called, he was ploughing a field with 12 teams of oxen. So, he’s a very wealthy man. But he understands what the call to follow means and he obeys it. He burns all his equipment, sacrifices his oxen, throws a big feast for his family and friends and then leaves. And he cannot come back to that farming life. He’s put that life behind him.
What does this mean? Well, when we’re called into the Kingdom of God it’s a journey in one direction. It’s a lifelong call to the pursuit of being a disciple.

I loved hearing that clarity, that truth. Wow! I love the simplicity. The past gone, the future Christ. A journey in one direction, no turning back, no turning back.

It reminded me of the account of Lot and his wife. That’s always struck me as harsh, or as the kids would say now, ‘random’. She looks back and she’s turned to salt? That’s a bit heavy handed, isn’t it? I mean, she just turned for a final look…. anyone might do the same. But now, thinking about the burnt plough and the sacrificed oxen, I get it; she turned back, towards Sodom, she wasn’t single-minded. It was more than a look, it was a clinging to the godless, Sodom, a place of sin and evil, distracted her from her walk of obedience.

And then, of course, of course, I remembered the very respectable and well behaved rich young man in Matthew 19 who asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life, Jesus told him
“If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

From the Old Testament to the New, the message is clear and getting clearer. We were made to follow. The more I read the Bible, the more I realise that the deeper I go, the deeper I go, and I’ll never get to the very deepest. But it’s jolly good fun trying.

Eternity

When our daughter was little, she liked her bed and she liked her sleep, and after a goodnight story we wouldn’t hear a peep out of her for a solid ten hours. Late one night, when she was about seven, she called out in a long and gut-wrenching wail. Alarmed, we shot out of the sitting room to rescue her from robbers or bears or toothache or whatever was troubling her. There she was at the top of the stairs, a cross and exhausted little figure, inconsolable, wailing “I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about eternity and it just keeps going on and on and on and on! On and on and on. And it never ends.”

It just goes on and on

I’ll try not to go on and on, but I have been thinking about eternity. 

In Job 36:326, the Living Bible translation, Elihu, one of Job’s false comforters says ‘God is so great that we cannot begin to know him. No one can begin to understand eternity.

I know that Elihu’s motives were all wrong; he was, after all, a false comforter, desperately trying to say all the ‘right’ things rather than just buttoning his lip, but he got this bit right – we can’t even begin to understand time without end. Or time without time. Hang on, that isn’t even logical….. How do we discuss something that’s invisible, silent, unknown and unfathomable? How do we discuss its absence? See how difficult it is? Shall I give up now, delete the blog and tell you about my day instead? No. I’m ploughing on.

Surprisingly, really surprisingly, there’s hardly any mention of the word ‘eternity’ in the English translation of the Bible, but the concept of eternal life runs through it like a life-giving artery, and eternity is the promise Jesus holds out to us. Eternity doesn’t just matter – it’s central, vital to our Christian walk, it’s what God made us for, to spend eternity with him. 

He has made everything beautiful in its time. 
He has also set eternity in the human heart;
yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Ecclesiastes 3:11

He has set eternity in the human heart. 

Here’s an amazing truth: We existed at the beginning of time, you and me. We hadn’t taken a breath – our forefathers hadn’t taken a breath – but we existed in the same way that music exists before it’s played. If I say  ‘Bridge over troubled water’ or ‘The 1812 Overture’ or ‘Oceans, where feet may fail’ you almost certainly hear a melody in your mind. You become conscious of it, and so it exists, even in the silence. And when God created the heavens and the earth he knew the beginning from the end, he knew you and me and the lives we lead and the love we have for him today. We were in his knowledge, and so even then we existed. We were the song already written, waiting to be sung. Hang on, hang on – here’s a thing to chew on – the world was made with us in mind!

Kinda taking a liberty there.

Jeremiah 1:5 is a go-to verse for many of us ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’ So every one of us is an integral part of God’s plan. He knew us. He didn’t just know about us, or plan us. He knew us. When we read Genesis, we are a part of it. From the first cell, or amoeba, the first drop of lava, the first swirl of interplanetary wind (if there was such a thing) across the primordial swamp, we were always going to be His crowning act. Made in His image.  

When we talk about the beginning of the world and we read Genesis, or John 1, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’ it’s more than poetry – it’s history. Whether you believe that God created a fully formed Adam and fashioned woman from one of his ribs,  or whether you believe that this is a wonderful metaphor, similar to the metaphors and similes of the parables, there is one thing for sure- Omnipotent God created the Heavens and the Earth. In the beginning God, our Triune God, created all things. The scientists talk about the big bang, and about the universe expanding, and I don’t fret about all that stuff. I’m quite happy with that suggestion. Why not? I read John 1 over and over again and just crow with delight at the truth of it. If there was a big bang, who created it? God. If the Universe is expanding, who is doing that great work? God. And in the act of creation, time began.  Before creation, before there was matter, there was no time. Time less ness. Time is a blip, a distraction in eternity, no more. It’s of less importance than eternity, and although time is essential here in this life, marking our progress from cradle to grave, our priority and concern is eternity. Everything in this world will rot and fade or break or diminish, ignite or crumble, except for God’s word and our humanity.

It’s hard for us to come to a sort of acceptance or vague understanding of timelessness, but we can try.  Do you ever suddenly, and unexpectedly, remember a place that you were in years and years ago? The other night as I was tidying the kitchen, I suddenly had the very strong and immediate memory of a corridor at my school. Out of the blue! Dunno why. The school consisted of three large houses linked by a long corridor, not a dark and winding tunnel but wide and high and airy.  A corridor where voices echoed and if you stood in a certain place and called a name, that name would echo and echo and dwindle away to a whisper. For some daft reason – some blip in a tired brain – as I wiped down the work surface in my kitchen I visualised the tiled floor of that corridor, the cream walls, the double doors to what we called ‘the new building’, and I could walk in my mind up a wide curving staircase towards the cloakroom, and see beyond that the rows of handbasins, the line of loos with their grey doors… just as if I was there, and I could turn around and see the new hall, the two sets of double doors, the parquet floor stretching away. I could smell the unmistakeable smell of school. I was both back in 1964, and here in 2022, both there in Somerset, and here in Wales, and that seems to me to be a clue about the nature of timelessness, a state in which the past, the present and the future exist together in perfect truth and wholeness. Eternity is not wishful thinking, it’s as real as thought, as invisible as memory, as powerful as love. God thought the world into being, knowing the end from the beginning, so that both existed in His omniscience. His all-knowing.

When Jesus was resurrected he told us ‘Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.’ We are in him and he is in us. How intimate is that?  However intimate a marriage may be, it’s a poor weak copy of our intimacy with the God who made us. He knows everything, every thought, every temptation, every moment of love, there is nothing, NOTHING that can be hidden from him. That’s what makes prayer so wonderful and exhausting and challenging and sometimes a bit scarey. I’m still learning that I can be, and indeed must be, entirely vulnerable in prayer, completely dependent. Still learning that prayer is an uncovering of my soul before God, to quote CS Lewis (if you’re a regular here, you know these words already)
”We must lay before him what is in us and not what ought to be in us.”  That makes prayer a hard won thing. Not easy. Not a recital, not a form of words, a stripping bare. Ouch.

Saying the right words, like poor old Elihu, or presenting our best face to God, isn’t prayer. Psalm 147 tells us ‘His understanding is infinite’. That means without bounds. There’s nothing he doesn’t and hasn’t always known. God is unchanging, there are no surprises for him, nothing we do will startle him or make him reassess the situation. Or fool him. What he knows now he knew before time began. All of it. Petrol at two quid a gallon, inflation at 10.1%, and the big things, the tragic things too, like war in Ukraine, floods and famines and children dying. And your heart and mine. He knows us inside out. We can trust him with our secrets because he knows them already and he knew them before time began. And he loves us anyway.

  I don’t suppose there’s any adult reading this who hasn’t felt the terrible pain of a loved one dying. Sometimes the loss is so shattering that it changes our life completely.  Everything in this world has a cost and love is no different, and we pay that cost when we lose someone, when they go ahead of us out of this world and into glory. But when a loved one dies, just as you and I are part of God, we are still part of each other. Whether we are the one left behind in this world or the one who slips away into the next, this is how it should be. No life ends too soon, and no life drags on too long. However much we miss those we love, we can rest in the knowledge that their story has been played out from beginning to end, and is perfectly complete. No-one is short changed, each story fully told.

What is eternity? Eternity is yesterday, today and next Thursday week. Eternity is beyond space and time. We were made for eternity.