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.

I know! I know!

I know I said I was vanishing for a bit, and I am, I really am… but in the middle of preparing to move, sorting out what goes to the dump and what goes to charity shops and what to sell, I came across some old notebooks, mostly full of sermon notes but interspersed occasionally with random thoughts and one entry just made me laugh aloud.

It was written at the very beginning of my wanderlust stage… when I first had itchy feet. But I couldn’t walk away from great teaching in the church here, I was hungry for every lesson, every message, every new thought, and I believed (and still believe) that God had brought me here for a purpose and so I stayed.

Anyway, because the note-to-self made me smile, I’m going to type it out here, for you, and hope it makes you smile too.

I could

I could sell the house. No fuss. No one need know. Get in the car with the dogs and hie myself off to a mountain top.

I could join a convent. One that allows dogs. Become a hermit. Travel to Liverpool and sleep on cardboard by the Mersey. Why Liverpool? Why not?

Why cardboard?

I could up sticks and go.

I could turf up in Africa, eating mangoes and singing Zulu songs.

I could buy an ancient camper van, and grow old in it, smelling richly of mildew and seaweed, with toes grown webbed from so much paddling in the coastal waters of Ireland.

Or Iceland.

Or the oily water of the muddied Thames.

I’m not fussy.

I could.

I could.

I could walk away. What do I own?

Leave it all to the taxman and the passers-by, every stick and blade.

I saw a Jamaican once, sitting at the roadside in Montego Bay.
I think of him often, that sweet old drunk,
I could sit with him, in the shade,
listening to his half remembered anecdotes,
imagining his long dead wife
with midnight skin and the voice of an angel
and the temper of a wild boar.

I could lose my past in his.

I could move to Scarborough where I once nearly saw the Queen Mum.

Or Whitby. Or somewhere with a name like Nether Wallop, or Shepherd’s Bottom
so that every day would be absurd.

I could breed maggots for fisherman.

I could upsticks every Monday or every third Tuesday.

I could be
a new person every day.

Live a hundred lifetimes, spin a thousand tales.

I could shake my fist at policemen and startle good people with my sudden bark of laughter.

I could dress the dogs in bonnets and wheel them in a pram.

I could eat from waste bins, scavenging with grimed hands and strangely yellowed nails.

I could stand at the water’s edge shouting prayers in gutter Latin to the screaming gulls.

Just like this morning.

Pater Noster
qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum.

I could sleep in the dunes on a wild Northumberland beach, with my two small dogs, waking to the crash of the waves and the echo of the life left behind me.

I could.

But I’m held here, firm, for now. By the heart. By the tug of love.

By a God who has a plan.

I’m held here, to listen and to learn. For now. Just for now.

What a bummer.

Hahaha! That makes me smile. The gypsy who cannot gyps. God held me here and now he’s taking me elsewhere.

OK. Now I really have gone for a while. Tara.

Something is happening

What I mean, of course, is that something is always happening, but here in my little world a hell of a lot of things are happening all at once. Where shall I start?

My granddaughter who has lived with me for over two years is leaving at the end of the month to go to University, and to rejoin her Dad and sisters. I will miss her.

Good and dear friends are moving back to Canada in two weeks. I will miss them.

My lovely agent of nearly 20 years is retiring this month. I’m gonna miss him.

I’ve sold my house but with no completion date, so I’m in that weird limbo, when it’s too early to find the next step. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m going to miss the beach, friends, neighbours.

The producer I’m working with is going on maternity leave. I’m certainly gonna miss the work!

Those are the people and things I will walk away from with some sadness. There are other changes too, not sad but still quite major ;

The deepest stability in my old life, church and worship, has changed beyond all recognition. My thinking about ministry and discipleship has been shaken up and rejigged and is still settling.

Tomorrow it will be 30 years since my husband died. Thirty years of alone-ness. Maybe that’s adding to my sense of solitude and introspection.

Everything is going, or ending. Which means that newness is beginning.

That’s me on the edge. Feels like.

The upshot of all that is that I’m signing off for a little while, to catch my breath, re-centre, get life back into some sort of focus.

See you on the other side of this whatever-it-is.

Until then, let’s think about the words of God from Joshua 1:9, words which always put a tiger in my tank when I’m running on empty:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

I particularly like the Message version of that verse:

Haven’t I commanded you? Strength! Courage! Don’t be timid; don’t get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”

I sent this verse to a friend this week, and it’s come back to me now, God speaking to me and to you, his assurance and promise (you knew I couldn’t leave you without a nod to Isaiah)

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

Dora

This morning I was sitting on a bench by the beach, brushing the sand from my feet, when I was joined by an elderly couple, in their mid 80’s. The wife, let’s call her Dora, has Alzheimer’s and her husband, we can call him Ian, is her carer. Me and the dogs nudged up to make room for them and soon we were swapping ‘where do you come from?’ and ‘this is better than the South of France, isn’t it?” and all that stuff. Dora was sweet and smiling and just a tiny bit agitated, not noticeable unless you were sitting with her, talking to her. I’m sure that to everyone walking past they just appeared to be a normal elderly couple chatting in the sunshine, but actually nothing Dora said made sense, it was a steady babbling brook of chuckles and words and gestures, light and tinkling, but meaningless. We mentioned the nearby cafe and I said they had great doughnuts and OKish coffee…. Ian said it sounded good but he can’t queue with Dora. And he never goes for a meal with her, because she intrudes on the other customers, and sometimes forgets how to eat. I asked how long it was since Ian had been out for a meal, and he couldn’t remember. “Maybe,” he said, “nine years? Ten? Something like that.”

I queued up. I got three coffees and doughnuts. We sat in the sunshine and got to know each other. Ian doesn’t sleep well because Dora wakes every hour or so and goes walk-about. This is their first holiday for nearly six years and today they’re travelling back to Guildford, and home. With the long journey in front of them, he now wishes that they hadn’t come because, removed from the familiarity of home and routine, her confusion has been even worse. They chose West Wales because she always loved the area but “She has no idea where we are, what we’re doing.” His love for Dora shines through his exhaustion and his mild exasperation, his weary patience. This is something a million times crueller than ‘Till death do us part’, it’s a slow heartbreak and torture. He gets a weekend ‘off’ every month when Dora goes into a care home, but he doesn’t manage to get out for a meal, doesn’t go into town, just tidies the house, allows himself a bottle of wine and a take-away, and has the luxury of an undisturbed night – that’s just 12 in a year! He’d love, he said, to go to a pub, but he’s forgotten how to, feeling awkward on his own.

I wonder how many of us singletons will have forgotten how to walk into a busy church when this Covid time is over?

I can’t imagine what their journey home will involve, but I know that love will play the biggest part.

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.

Song of Solomon 8:6&7


Ian said that he looks at his wife sometimes and asks ‘why her?’ and I know what he means. It’s much easier to accept our own troubles than the troubles of those we love. I know couples in their late 50’s who still have each other, each have their parents, their children and grandchildren are well and thriving, they still have their love for each other, their shared faith… they live together, pray together, laugh together…. face the adventure of old age together… and I know others who lost parents when they were tiny, who went through horrible years of abuse and lovelessness, and who, at the end of it all are left ill or alone, or – like Ian – exhausted, broken-hearted and just a bit bewildered. It’s easy to focus on the unfairness of life, but it’s so much more nourishing to focus on the great gift of life. But I kept that thought to myself.

There’s a time for words of comfort and there’s a time for coffee and a salted caramel doughnut. Words are just too easy. All I managed was “God sees it all, and he loves you, he loves you both.” Tears came to his eyes. Poor lad. And then Dora had to be sorted out, her face and hands wiped, and he led her into the ladies loo as I kept cavey on the door.

We can’t know what troubles other people carry, what’s in their minds, the lives they lead, unless we talk to them, and take all the time they need, willing to listen until we understand, offering more than a smiley “How are you?” as we scurry on our busy way. That’s what church should be and do. A place of love, offering time. Sad to say, I don’t know any like that. Not one.

For crying out loud!

Sometimes, like a really surprising and delightful gift, we find a new insight into something we thought we already knew. It’s as if an unseen companion whispers to us “But, wait… have you not realised…. think a little more about this……” and then we find a new thought or a deeper understanding of an old thought, and the moment makes us chuckle aloud, or catch our breath, or stand still in a busy street, lost in wonder.

Here’s the thing that made me stand stock-still in awe this week (I may grope around a bit trying to explain it, so be patient). It’s something you will already know, but it won’t do any of us any harm to be amazed by it all over again. So, like I say, be patient with me:

Jesus the man knew what it was to live in total submission to the Divine, Jesus the man was totally one with God, filled with the Holy Spirit, perfect in his humanity and perfect in his divinity, perfect in submission to his future, his sacrifice. ‘Submission’ is a wonderful word to describe this moment – Christ was under his mission, sub-mission, and his mission was the Gospel, his mission was to show the love of God by dying for humanity, and the power of God by defeating death.

As he rode a donkey’s colt towards Jerusalem, he was aware of the politics, of those who wanted him dead, and of their power and malice. His disciples and his brothers had warned him often enough and he knew at first hand how the Jewish leaders schemed and tried to trick him into what they would call blasphemy. As a good Jewish rabbi he knew the prophecies about those next few days, his death. As God he knew that he would be betrayed and killed. As man he knew that his mother and his friends would be distressed, lost, broken hearted. Jesus the man knew only too well what execution meant – the savagery of it, the brutal scorn, the blood and pain and the lingering agony. The mockery, the spitting, the jeers and the humiliation. He had seen many crucifixions – the common currency of Roman power in that occupied territory.

That day, as he rode towards his death, we can have little understanding of the emotions and thoughts and prayers that must have crowded his mind. All around him were his followers – a motley crew of vagabonds and shepherds, samaritans, healed cripples, cured lepers, those who had begged for years, the once-mad, the tax collectors and, of course, some pious men and women who had waited for the Messiah faithfully and saw now that Jesus was indeed the fulfilment of all that had been promised…. and I’m sure that alongside and mixed in with these disciples was a great crowd of needy, noisy, misfits. Like the very worst English football fans, a mob of fickle rabble-rousers, hotheads, ready to shout his praise one day and bay for his blood the next. No wonder the religious leaders were offended by all the enthusiasm and clamour.

Luke tell us that ‘ When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

When I’ve read that in the past I’ve read on, unthinking. But this last week or so the words of Jesus have taken on a whole new depth and reality for me. If that noisy mob had fallen silent, if his disciples had stopped claiming him as Messiah, would his story have been lost? Would he have slipped into history unnoticed? No, because Jesus knew, even as he was facing the terrors of torture and death, that this was the greatest story that will ever be told. He understood as both a man and as God that this was a story of triumph and joy, that as he rode to pain and disgrace he rode to glory.

I think that as Jesus said those words “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” there was laughter in his voice, there was energy and defiance in his words, restrained excitement… this was it.. this was it… in a few short days the story would be done…. bring it on!! There was more than submission and obedience, there was the joy of submission, the power of obedience. Those words were a declaration of the power of the Gospel, that it cannot be silenced.

It cannot be silenced. After two thousand years or a million thousand years, it cannot be silenced. The stones will cry out. What a triumph! What an amazing heart stopping, mind blowing triumph!

Go, Jesus, go! Tell ’em! If every single one of your disciples falls silent, the stones will cry out.

I suppose that’s what we are trying to do, isn’t it? We’re telling the story, singing the praise, shouting out in adoration, because it’s a story that can’t be silenced. And even when it’s just too glorious for words, and we’re lost and dazed and unable to voice his goodness, no worries, Luce, because the stones DO cry out… they do! The sea praises him, the sky, the hills, the air we breathe…

Psalm 19:1-4 (TPT)

God’s splendour is a tale that is told,
    written in the stars.
    Space itself speaks his story
    through the marvels of the heavens.
    His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky,
    showing his skill in creation’s craftsmanship.
Each day gushes out its message to the next,
    night by night whispering its knowledge to all—
without a sound, without a word, without a voice being heard,
 yet all the world can hear its echo.

I can hear its echo. Can you?

At times like this

At times like this, when my heart is feeling a bit sad (allow for British understatement) it’s all too easy to keep sliding down, down down down, in the belly of the whale (that’s a saying I’ve adopted from one my most treasured lessons of all time, Jonah). And that’s a tad boring. So when it all looks bleak and lonely, and lost, I intentionally find pleasure and peace in the little things. The precious little things.

I have a friend who, like me, loves coffee, but while I toss a capsule into my humming, snarling, clunking machine and bung some milk into the noisy microwave, he has a proper and altogether calmer way of doing things: he enjoys the gentler, more thoughtful ritual of making his morning coffee properly, grinding the beans, boiling the water, and then, in the peace that ensues when the only sound is the faintest trickle of coffee filtering through the beans, he savours the aroma. And, of course, to continue the theme, he drinks it black, unsweetened, like a proper grown-up, probably gazing out at the sky and the fields, while I add a spoon of sugar and a dollop of cream to mine and slug it down as I gather the dogs and try to remember where my car keys are. Coffee isn’t one of my rituals but there are others….

I bet we all have our little rituals, those special parts of the day when we relax into the moment, appreciating it fully, savouring the simplicity and the familiarity. I think they’re more than moments of peace, they’re moments of prayer, when we can slip sideways into a holy space.  

One of my rituals (I don’t have many, too scatter-brained) is the simplest of all; peeling an apple. 

It takes me back, every single time I do it, to an understanding of God’s amazing plan of renewal for all living things, to wonderment at the perfection of an apple, to gratitude for lunch (it’s usually lunch) and to a visual sort of ‘ahhhh!’ as I see the peel curling and falling and twisting. Lovely! 

And then I get to eat it … and then I eat the peel! So why do I peel it at all? Just for the moment. Just for the tiny tiny pause and the delight of that curling pink peel. Just because. Just as my pal could make coffee more speedily if he chose to, and just as I could choose to bite into the apple whole, these little moments feed our souls, slow us down, opening another tiny chink in our day to remember God.

Another satisfying ritual for me is putting on a new pair of socks. It is! I savour the moment as my friend savours his coffee. Feel that lovely cool cotton… or that cosy wool…. There’s something about new socks, fresh from their packet, that is very very satisfying. And we don’t have to say a formal ‘thanks for this food and drink and these socks’, because the ritual has become our Grace. The ritual places us where we want to be, in a pocket of time and space when we can remember, by God’s grace, that this is a gift from God, that he has given us this moment, whatever it might be for you. 

Whether we live in a palace or a tent (or, temporarily, the belly of a whale), these little moments are there for us, they may be in the tearing of bread, in reaching out for the hand of someone we love, in sewing the perfect seam. Our lives are sprinkled and sparkled with these moments, we just need to  slow down and savour them, to remember who gives them to us. Then we will find joy.

Allsorts

I finished reading the Gospel of Luke yesterday and started on John this morning, maybe my favourite and most often prayed verse in the whole Bible ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’

What a first line! Boom! Take that! Sock it to ‘em, John! 

I wonder if we can see a hint about the personalities of the writers in the way they begin their accounts of the life of Christ? Matthew has the most exact and dutiful beginning to his history – a beginning that reveals the genealogy of Jesus, painstakingly proving who Jesus was before anything else at all! I can imagine him thinking ‘This might be a bit boring – but hard cheddar – they need to know!’ I think he might have been an exact sort of person, a book-keeper, someone who would catalogue a library, weed a flowerbed, iron a towel. And then there’s Mark who sets the whole thing off with a reminder that Jesus’ coming was already foretold, and that John the Baptist was his herald. I think Mark was an engineer at heart, satisfied when a machine worked as it should, contented when a process was complete, and so delighted that Jesus was the perfect fulfilment of prophesy – showing it clearly in those first few words, staking a claim to Jesus as the promised One. Both Matthew and Mark make their first statement a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Strong, eh? 

On we go into Luke who kicks the story off with quite a long explanation of who John the Baptist was and why he’s important to the understanding of everything that followed. Maybe Luke was a teacher at heart, wanting to do more than just tell a story, to lay the foundations for that story, to cement it into a context before anything else, so that his pupils would not just have a vague ‘kinda-knowledge’ of Jesus, but a complete understanding.  A bit like hearing a sermon in the middle of a sermon-series, when the sermon starts with a re-cap of what we’ve discovered so far, and a summary of what we’re going to look into today. Clarity.

And then we get to John’s Gospel with the most wonderful opening of any story ever. I think John was a single minded, dedicated, focussed, determined, probably quite scarily intellectual, sort of thunderer. I quite like John. I get him. Or I get who I think he might have been. A solitary soul maybe, not great at small talk, the sort to speak the truth bluntly. No pussy-footing around. I can imagine the others thoughtfully working out where their audience (us) would need to join the story, and John not even having to give it a thought. Bang! Take that! Straight in!  Of course John, too, goes on to tell the story of John the Baptist, acknowledging by its inclusion its importance but first he goes straight to the power and glory and the magnificence of God. I love that! Spot on, John – first the praise. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus, the Word. He was in the beginning. That’s the start of the story. 

When the Cosmos was breathed into being, Jesus. When our small Universe was spun out of space, Jesus. When the world was created, Jesus. Before he was conceived in Mary, Jesus.

Each one of the Gospels begins long long before they all begin. Out of time. The story of Jesus begins before there was a beginning. John, thank you, I get it.

And now from the sublime to the ridiculous – I have a lovely pink fridge. It’s one the simple things that makes me smile. Here it is:

When visitors see it for the first time they either wince (mostly the blokes) or they are amused, or they say “I want one!’

I do love it! But when I move house I have to leave it behind so yesterday I cleaned it. Oh, boy! Talk about judging a book by its cover and all that. Inside, when I’d taken out all the food and bottles and jars, it was shocking! I was very glad I was cleaning it on my own because I would have been mortified for anyone else to see the grubby innards. And as I sprayed and washed and wiped and struggled to get the damn glass shelves back in (there’s a knack, and I am knack-less) I remembered that phrase from Jesus to the Pharisees ‘whitened sepulchres’. I think my fridge was a pink sepulchre. I wondered if that’s what life is… looking one thing and being another thing entirely.

My house isn’t clinically clean, and I’m not house proud, but it’s… you know… OK. But still, when it went on the market I somehow knew there were jobs to be done… wash this and wipe that and clear out the rammel, and tidy the odds and sods and extend the feather duster to reach up into the high high ceilings, and hose down the tiny courtyard, and… and… and… I realised that my home always looked cleaner and tidier than it really was. Like me.

Hah! Good job God loves me. Good job he can see all my grubby messy corners and loves me anyway. Good job we can come as we are. That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? It’s not from the Bible, but it’s been adopted by churches all over the world. This is a photo I used in a magazine I used to edit….

But ‘Come as you are’ can be misunderstood. That’s why I love the phrase underneath that image ‘Real people, real God, real life change.’ (although I think the God bit should come before the people bit, just to be picky)

God brings change. We come to him as we are, and then he works his wonderful miracle, and bit by tiny teeny bit, we learn what it is to be Jesus. We don’t transform. He transforms us. No bleach required! No scrubbing. Just God.

Imagine what a mess I would make of it if I had to transform myself. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I look back and see what a mess I was without Jesus. Week by week I scrubbed away in the confessional, I bleached with Rosary beads, I scoured and scrubbed. And all I ever needed was Jesus.

Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28 

Oh! Hang on! Listen, no – really, listen. It’s just occurred to me to include this; I long to pray with other people, but I find it very difficult. I long to praise God and to just share my great happiness, but there’s no one to do that with, and I just find the inability to speak out his praise frustrating! Really really frustrating. I can’t do it to a church and I live alone… so what will I do? Well, I’ve been thinking a whole lot about Luke (yep, reading the book three times in three weeks has an effect!) and one incident keeps coming to mind – we find it Luke 19, verses 39-40

When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

And thinking about what Jesus meant when he used those words, I came to the conclusion that as he was going down into Jerusalem, towards his death, Jesus was telling us that this is the story that cannot be unspoken. It’s a truth that can’t be silenced. It’s the greatest and only truth we need to know and all his creation declares it. Two thousand years later, here we are still telling that truth, still shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Or we should be. I should be. And I know now that I can’t be silent. I’m still not sure what the next step is, but until I find it, I’m inviting you to join me in prayers on a YouTube channel. It’s not fancy, I’ve given up trying to cope with iMovie editing after two weeks of trying, so it’s just a simple prayer, a couple of minutes long, maybe once or twice a week, or as God leads. I want to joyfully praise God. Nothing clever. Just the sky and the sea and a few words. You can find me and join me on

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEnwIDv9YzgA5FhaT4pwKyg/featured

But even if you never join me, I have to praise my God. I have to speak those words into the world, and if only the sea hears me, or the sky, I still have to praise him. Or I’ll burst. And no one wants that.