Blackberry fool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithful Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will fail. He will not.

Giving thanks for ALL things.

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

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

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

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

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

And I got back to the car without calamity.

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

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

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

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

Red letter day!

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

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

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

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

Two whole lovely people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bet you a million squillion quid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaw dropping

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

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

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

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

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

Page one of three, and some afterthoughts.

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

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

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

Books. That’s the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally
God is love.  1 John 4:8

Hang on… one more… just before I go….

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

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

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

Stories

I’ve had two lovely long chats today with good pals in the village, and it was really good, after so long in lockdown (still in it but relaxing a tad), to rekindle friendships and chew the fat. We all have stories to share – we think our lives are mundane but they are rich, rich, rich.

I remembered back to when I was a new Mum, when money was tight, and I really needed a job. I could work at night because my husband would be home to look after our baby, and I would be there during the day, napping when she napped. I belonged to a nursing agency and one night I was called to care for a dying woman in her own home. I arrived after dark at the 1930’s bungalow – nothing unusual about it at all, the traditional two bay windows, a decent sized bedroom, space to sit beside her through the night. The family left to return to their homes and I read her notes, checked her medications, all the usual stuff. There was not much to do except hold her hand, keep her comfortable and warm, maybe rub her heels, be ready to give comfort. By about 3am I was half asleep myself, in that hushed, peaceful state of a night vigil. The room was only dimly lit, cosy, the only sounds were her soft breathing and the tick of the clock in the hall. As if we were wrapped in a blanket, that sort of night. And then, right by my ear, strident and and rough, coming out of nowhere and no one, “What time is it?

Well! I nearly hit the roof! It’s the nearest I have ever come to a heart attack.

The family had forgotten to tell me that, in the bay window, behind the curtain, there was a birdcage and a mynah bird. When I’d picked myself up from the floor and stopped swearing, I found myself answering “Twenty past three.” The bird put its head on one side, blinked slowly, and said again “What time is it?”

That bloody bird asked the same question every two minutes for the next half hour. Hardly an ideal deathbed companion. So much for serenely departing this life. I moved the cage to the other room.

Funny things happen in the strangest, most tense and emotional moments. Mostly, they’re not very funny at all, but we find them hilarious because we so need to escape from the weight and the emotion of the moment, to be silly old us, sniggling and giggling, rather than sombre strangers the occasion seems to demand. At my husband’s funeral, the hearse driver didn’t bother with signals and seemed to apply the brakes randomly. In the following car we got the giggles.

In my village there’s a woman I worked with on two films, she was the set designer, and strangely we’ve ended up living a quarter of a mile away from each other. Today we sat on the wall outside my house and remembered an old friend, now dead, a much loved actor – one of those precious ‘national treasures’ – and what joy it was to have him come alive to both of us, as we remembered his sweet and silly ways.

Stories draw us close, stories are windows to human nature, tributes to humanity. Stories reveal so much. They say to me “You’re not so different from everyone else” and they say to you “You are not alone.” and I think that a good story, honestly told, teaches us to forgive. It teaches us that we are all flawed, that we are none of us apart and better than others, that we all deserve love. That loneliness kills.

Something about the conversations I’ve had today has released the desire to write and so I’ve finished the first chapter of my second book. Hoorah! I think that when we remember how full of humour and nonsense and love and grief and rage and contradiction our lives are, we can’t help but tell each other all about it. These are our stories. I do love our stories.

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog about my newly discovered covetousness. I had an email from someone I’ve never met telling me that she has just had the very same experience! On the very same day, she had realised that her discontent wasn’t harmless ‘thinking’ but damaging, corrosive covetousness! Like me, she was a bit shocked. Like me, it woke her up.

Stories, see? They whisper “Me, too, sister.” They tell us that we are forgiven, that we are loved, acceptable, and that even when we are no earthly use to anyone, we are eternally valued by God, and that with his help, we can learn and grow.

Whinge whinge

We have a heat wave here in the UK and that’s just fabulous. The sky is amazingly heart-piercingly blue. OK, not ‘heart piercingly’ but so pure and blue and deep and wide that it brings tears to your eyes. So beautiful.

But we can’t see the sky from our house, or only a small patch of it. And there’s nowhere to sit outside in the sun, and indoors it’s cool and darkish, which is lovely when you first come in from the sun but not so great if you’re there all day while the sun is cracking the tarmac.

This morning I paddled in the sea for two whole hours and it was wonderful, but I was home by 8 with the long day indoors stretching ahead. I can’t go for the meandering walk I long for because my back won’t let me, I can only amble very slowly and when my back ‘goes out’ I have to stop and bend down until the spine rights itself. Or sit down. And you can’t do that walking on the pavements and roads. So here I am, stranded. Scuppered.

Mid afternoon I could stand it no longer, I grabbed my granddaughter by her ear and like an ancient old couple we set off for a drive. We drove past Fred and Freda’s house, and saw them in the garden. Past Bert and Bertha’s house and admired their sea view, past Pat and Patricia’s house and admired their decking, past Simon and Simone’s and wondered how long it took to cut that huge lawn, past Dave and Davina’s and remarked on the length of their drive…. and you know what? I was beginning to feel really hard-done- to. All these people with all these gardens, all that space and sky and sunshine… and all we could do was drive past. We headed towards Mwnt to sit on the cliff top and gaze at the sea, hoping for dolphins, but the road was closed (Covid, I think) and so we chuntered on to Aberporth but there the car parks were also closed, and with double yellow lines everywhere we couldn’t even stop. I was feeling a bit miffed with life by then. I started to enjoy a quiet seethe.

“I’m stuck here,” I said to God, “for another blinkin’ year, and no one cares a damn. Including you.” I may even have had a little thought about George being dead for, like, a hundred years and everyone else, truly everyone else in the whole damn world, married. I don’t see the point of saying the ‘right’ things to him, if my heart says something else. I told God that it was never meant to be like this, life and stuff. I think by now my thoughts were tumbling and incoherent even to me. I asked him if he remembered my lovely plans for a garden when I moved into my current house. Everyone else I can think of has one….. well, apart from a friend in a London flat and she’s got flipping London on her doorstep and over there they’re free to move around and meet and greet and visit and everything…. but me, I’m here in Welsh Wales (“where, incidentally, Lord, I never intended to live at all”) and I’m stuck, aren’t I? Proper bloomin’ stuck. And then .. and then…. and then….. I had a serious , first time ever thought…. is this what it is to covet?

Am I coveting my neighbour’s gardens? Their company? Their lives?

I think I am.

So I smiled at myself (because I know God was smiling too) and kicked myself (because he wouldn’t) and said sorry, and admitted (silently) that I had never before thought that I had any weakness in the area of coveting. Never! I don’t like owning things, I don’t hanker after success, I just don’t have the knack of holding onto money or stuff and nor do I want to. If you have a six bedroom house .. so what? So did I once, and that went the way of everything else. And you can live in only one room at a time, sleep in one room at a time. And success is crap. So is money. And I don’t want posh holidays. And I’ve had fast cars and I’m over it. And I always knew they were just nonsense trappings anyway. Give it away, I say… give it away! So I have never had a problem with coveting. But this afternoon… boy! I was covetous to the power of ten (whatever that means). And I felt alone and washed up and friendless. Really really, no, really sorry for myself.

Here’s the funny thing. Trying not to show my granddaughter how utterly pissed off I was, I was making all sorts of flat conversational segways. One of them was “Do you know what I’d really like now? I’d really really like a Mr Whippy ice-cream.” and warming to my theme I went on “You’d think, with cafes closed, that ice-cream vans would make a killing in Covid, especially on a day like this. But you never see ice cream vans these days, do you? Maybe there aren’t any left. It’s years since I saw…. “

And I kid you not, at that very moment, as a tractor turned off in front of me, there, in a lay-by…. Mr Whippy!

It was more than I deserved. Far far more. But I really enjoyed that ice cream. It must be about ten years since I had a 99.

So. I may be sour and human and flawed and full of self, but God knew just what I needed and he had pity on me.

I ain’t a preacher but I’m telling you now, as one who knows; don’t covet. It takes the colour out of the day.

And I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to moan about. This is the photo I took this morning, as I paddled. The sea was a long way out, and we were all alone with the blue blue sky and our great great God. You know, the God who gives ice cream to spoilt brats.

End of a chapter

About six years ago, I’d just finished a TV series, I was deep in a radio play and toying with the idea of writing my autobiography, leading a happy and busy and messy life. I’d been a writer for half a lifetime and in that time I’d been widowed, gone through surgery, seen my daughter married, become a grandmother…. busy, busy, busy. Razamatazz. But something was missing.

From a standing start, someone who had been to the theatre only once and left school at 16, I’d become a writer and exec producer, and it was a good life because it was always about the thrill of writing, not about success. Starting out, I had been over-awed by meetings full of intellectuals, graduates, execs, Oxbridge types, middle class men with suave confidence, but over the years I had come to realise that I belonged there. Whatever else I was, or wasn’t, I was a dramatist. These clever people were all there because I was there. Without a writer, there would be nothing to make. Without them nothing would be made. Equals. At home in that environment.

But the awareness of that ‘something missing’ persisted and when I wandered into a little red church and heard a challenge “We are called to lead a holy life. Are you leading a holy life?” the question hit me where it hurts. It took my breath away. Stunned.

I knew what I was looking for, a life with God, a life I’d slipped away from when I started writing.

I dutifully finished my current projects but since then I’ve written only radio plays, work that could be done from home, not in pre-production meetings or post-production edit suites, not in studios or on set, just quietly tapping away at my desk and missing nothing of church life. From going to London every few days, rising at four to attend morning meetings, returning at midnight, working and planning and having FUN, driving fast cars too fast, busy, busy, there was suddenly …. stillness. Aloneness.

After such single-minded non-stop writing, I really couldn’t talk about anything other than scripts and film making. I had no small talk. Still don’t. The church was lovely and accepting but we spoke different languages and overnight, like some sort of internal collapse, all my confidence fled. Who was I? A fish out of water, that was me. The church was small so it didn’t take a whole lot of people to make it feel crowded, too many strangers and conversations to navigate so I decided I needed something to do. You know – something to do – a way to be useful, carving out a little niche to hide in when the chatter was going on. I persevered, trying to find a role. I tried this, I tried that. Nothing doing.

One day I mentioned to an established bloke in the church that I was really looking for a role in church life and he said “People always want cakes. You could try baking cakes.” What???? Fortunately I wasn’t holding a gun or a baseball bat. I was speechless. Is this who God wanted, a cake-baking old woman? But my companion didn’t notice my silence – he said that firemen always wanted cakes, and then there’s the ambulance crews, the nurses, the bin collectors…. I managed not to choke the life out of him.

I have to tell you… my cakes are NOTHING like this

Fast forward a few years to the Covid lockdown, and like many others I’m much more domestic than usual. A couple of days ago I made a cake for friends and drove to their house to deliver it. My granddaughter nipped out and knocked on their door and when she came back to the car she was smiling – she had told our friend ‘Nana has a new ministry – cake making.’

Wow! That sent me back to that day when I could have cheerfully strangled a perfectly nice man for suggesting the very same thing. What I so deplored has come about. Flip me! Is this a lesson? What is God telling me? What is he showing me? He wasn’t finished, the lesson concluded today:

This morning two very different new writers asked me for advice. One is just about to begin drawing together a dozen threads with no clear vision yet of what she’s weaving, and one is preparing for his first commissioning meeting with an embryonic ‘good idea’. Neither of them quite know where their narrative is leading and both are uncertain about how to proceed. The advice I gave them both was “Distill all the ideas you have about this piece, decide where the core truth is, and then chase that core truth and nothing else. You don’t have to know where it’s taking you, truth will find its own ending.”

I didn’t say it that clearly – I write better than I speak. It’s something I’ve come to believe through my work because in any story told with truth, truthful characters, truthful intentions, truthful consequences, light and shade, there will be a natural conclusion. It may not be the neat ending you hoped for or planned at the beginning of the process but it will be true.

A few hours later, as I drove through the beautiful countryside (yes, delivering another cake, weird, eh?) my thoughts came together with startling clarity. I’ve come full circle, from competent writer to inefficient idler and occasional cake maker. I’ve lost myself along the way but I know now that this is what I needed to do all along. And now God has drawn a line under this strange few years, the lesson is learned, and it’s time to move on. How do I know? I know because this narrative has reached a perfectly satisfying conclusion, told in truth. My narrative is that drawing near to God is all about being, not doing. That I don’t have to be the sorter-outer of problems, or the writer who gets an audience of millions, I don’t have to drive across country at dawn to auditions in London (just as well – one pre-dawn I hit a fox and wrote off a Jaguar and nearly killed myself) but neither do I have to be busy and productive in church, because I don’t have to belong there. I don’t have to belong to any group of people. I already belong, to God.

God loves me even when I’m no earthly use to anyone.

I read ‘Shaped by the Word’ a couple of years ago and although I’m not in the habit of marking up books, I underlined one paragraph and drew a great big exclamation mark next to it. I knew then it meant something very pertinent for me but it’s taken a while to grasp it.

‘Are you willing to offer something to God as a discipline and to keep offering it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year – to continue offering it for God to use in whatever way God wants in your life and have God do absolutely nothing with it? If you are (and don’t answer that too quickly) then you are engaging in a spiritual discipline that will cut to the heart of all those debilitating dynamics of our culture…’

Well, Robert Mulholland Jr, thank you (the emphasis is his). This meant so much to me that today, two years later, I remembered where that passage was, the top of a right hand page, towards the end of the book, and I went straight to it. The paragraph was seared in my mind.

For five years, I’ve offered my service to God day after day, on the beach, at my desk, ankle deep in the Irish Sea, going around Tescos, always asking God to use me whatever I was doing, whether it was worshipping, helping old ladies across the road, or pulling the injured out of blazing buildings (OK, I’m going too far now). I’ve offered and offered and offered and God has done absolutely nothing with those offers. Say that again, Luce….

‘I’ve offered and offered and offered and God has done absolutely nothing with those offers.’

Yes, that’s what I said but ahhh! That’s where I’ve been getting it SO wrong. He’s done a whole load with every day and every prayer, and taught me so much while all that ‘nothing’ was going on; that all he wants from messy old me is messy old me.

So, story told. This chapter in my life is ending. I’m going back to England next year. I don’t know why. I just know that this is where I must go next. The advice I gave to my writer friends is advice God has given to me, “You don’t have to know where it’s taking you, truth will find its own ending.”

I’m here until my granddaughter finishes school next July and then I’ll be off. No regrets, no looking back, just ‘off’ and I know that even if God has nothing in store for me to do over there, his ‘nothing’ will be perfect and exactly what I need. There will be new lessons in that nothing, a closer walk with God. Peace comes when he leads and I follow, even when I don’t seem to be moving at all.

So we are convinced that every detail of our lives is continually woven together to fit into God’s perfect plan of bringing good into our lives, for we are his lovers who have been called to fulfill his designed purpose. For he knew all about us before we were born and he destined us from the beginning to share the likeness of his Son.

Romans 8:28-29 The Passion Translation

Oh, do give it a rest!

I went shopping for an elderly couple this morning, but this is week 12 of this lockdown routine and so I could write their shopping list for them – very little varies from week to week. Their cat eats the same every day and so do they, well, almost. So when I got to the till and another queue, dull witted with boredom and in quite a bit of pain, for the first time in about ten years and on a whim, I picked up a magazine, paid for it, brought it home. I’ve just flicked through it.

Now I remember why I haven’t picked up a magazine for ten years.

Listen to what this one copy promises: A renaissance of kindness, mood boosters to lift the spirits, the key to happiness, and in another article joy. There’s a whole spread about how to fear less and live more (one of the ways to do this, apparently, is to laugh more) And oh! Look – on page 40 there’s even more ways to find joy, ‘new ways’ this time. Next comes a list of 50 podcasts I NEED, and then a few suggestions to give me a good life in July, and then an article about beauty that works (as opposed to beauty that doesn’t?) In these pages I can learn how to ‘boost my wellness’, and how to do something wonderful to my immune system, keep my feet in good shape, fight ageing, ‘eat better, get fitter and feel happier with Joe Wicks’ (he’ll have to shave that stupid beard off first) and then there’s some stuff about sex getting better with age (try not to roll your eyes). If you want to create ‘a sea of calm’ in your home, knock a wall down, obviously. There are instructions on how to sleep better, enjoy my garden, make fabulous food (mint and pea ice cream apparently) and there are many many recommendations for skin care, reflexology, anti-wrinkling, bronzing products, probiotic creams (make up a word and wear a white coat and we’ll buy anything). There’s an amazing article on how good posture is an anti-ageing trick and a load of stuff about how to wear clothes. So much for so little!

The cover promises 233 moments of JOY and that ‘simple pleasure starts right here’.

By the time I’d flicked to page 198 and read ‘Island hop in the untouched Hebrides’ I was a gibbering wreck, shouting to the universe “This magazine is crap” and my granddaughter yelled back from her bedroom “I knew you’d say that.”

Page 198 just about sums the whole magazine for me – it’s an ad for a cruise to the Hebrides, on a ship with a passenger capacity of hundreds, so a crew of goodness knows how many, a gross tonnage of over 7,000, and 8 decks high, towering over the waves. Those ‘untouched’ Hebrides won’t stay untouched for long. But there’s a little pic of a puffin with its beak full of fish, and a beautiful sunset above an untroubled sea, so that’s OK. Promise the plainly impossible and you’ll get away with it.

And that ad sums up the whole damn magazine industry, our culture, our dreams and hopes. They promise eternal youth, alluring beauty, deep contentment, perfect joy. Find it by crowding onto an uncrowded island, or by fighting the ageing process with 8.000mg of hydrolysed marine peptide collagen (only £1.92 a day), or by disguising your nail fungus (so much better than treating it!) so your feet are beauoooootiful again, or indulge yourself in the Caribbean, or…..

Flip me. That blinkin’ magazine has properly amused, enraged, surprised and depressed me. Are we so shallow? Are we so easily persuaded? I don’t think we are. So who keeps these publications going? It can’t be fools like me who splash out once a decade.

And anyway, what’s wrong with growing old? What’s so bloody wrong with growing old? I have wrinkles, I have a saggy chin, I have the tributary of the River Nile etched carefully on my upper chest…. my hair is grey, my spine locks out of place whenever it feels like it (usually at the till in Tesco), my shoulders ache like billy-oh…. I fall over occasionally (it’s a sort of hobby)… and no amount of cream or spray or backward-dog, yoga, running, dieting or or cosmetics or trickery will stop me growing old and one day dying.

AND I LIKE IT THAT WAY!

Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun

I have friends of all shapes and sizes and persuasions, cultures, politics and beliefs. I have family I love. I have dogs I love. Why on earth did I think a magazine, written by flighty clever-dicks in a glossy glassy office block might give my one brain cell something to chew on?

There is more joy and wisdom and interest to be found in one verse of the Bible than in a hundred self-help articles, or a million ads, or a billion bright new 21st Century ways to find happiness.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ MATTHEW 6