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.

You have been warned!

Before dramas are shown on TV there are often warnings to us tender and delicate viewers about the content, so that as we settle down gleefully to watch the latest mutilation of a gangster, or a terrified woman being chased through a dark forest, or the slow strangulation of a blackmailing villain by some other villain, we can judge whether or not we might be ‘distressed’.

Hmmmm. It’s a joke, surely? When that drama is about to revel in the portrayal of murders, or rapes, assaults, torture, cruelty, dishonesty and betrayal, how cynical is it to broadcast this meaningless warning? When they are about to treat us as if we are hardened psychotics with no tender sensibilities at all, why do they first nudge us coyly, as if we were sweet little old ladies who have never stepped beyond our lacy boudoirs? 

‘This programme contains content some viewers may find distressing.’

No kidding? I don’t tune in for these things any more. Unless I can see the purpose and point of a drama, I don’t want to waste my time with it. It’s a bit like books – there are too many of them! It’s a bit like words – there are billions of the damn things (and here I am adding to them. Oops) There’s only a short life to be lived and I’ve already had my fill of crap films and pointless books. I need to know the motive and the moral behind the stuff that I allow to enter my head because I know that what I hear and see influences me, whether I want it to or not.

Even when the motive behind an image or story is clear and worthwhile, and I maybe need to take it on board, the poignancy can be unbearable. It might be a sign of my age that I find even mildly distressing scenes too much to bear – those ads for the donkey charities in the Middle East? Too distressing. The realisation that Wally the Walrus is only three years old and is bewildered and lost, rather than funny and extrovert? Too distressing. 

When my husband, a quiet and macho Scot (made in Scotland from girrrders) became a Christian, he turned overnight – literally overnight – into a great big softie. It happened one night as he slept and it took us both by surprise. We used to joke that afterwards he could weep at the puppy on the Andrex advert, but that was a bit of an exaggeration. He certainly wept whenever an athlete stepped up onto a podium to receive a medal, when the news showed a child rescued from a burning building, when a friend was diagnosed with cancer. And he wept to think of the death of Christ. I should add, for the sake of openness, that George was not a silent weeper. It was not a dignified experience for him or those who were with him. He was snorter and a choker, an enthusiastic nose-blower. He wept like the wind section of an orchestra tuning up.  

This morning, for the second time in two weeks, as I listened to David Suchet reading the book of Luke, I stopped the recording at chapter 22, verse 53. I hadn’t intended to stop it there again but I couldn’t bear to go on. To read how Jesus was bullied and beaten, spat upon, tortured? After reading about his life, and hearing his voice, wondering at his steadfastness and kindness and his uncompromising truth, after just plain enjoying his company for weeks…. to see again all those terrible scenes? My Lord and my God going through all that? I’ve loved reading Luke so much that I’m about to start it again for the third time in as many weeks, but I didn’t want to go beyond Gethsemane. Coward, eh?

Just a few minutes later, having put my phone away, as I was praying, I found myself saying ‘Thank you that you died for us’ and that brought me up short.

‘Thank you that you died for us.’ What a glib and dutiful thing to say. What a recital. I think that sometimes I need to listen on as the terrible story is told, to think about Jesus walking through that olive grove to meet his brutal death, knowing absolutely what that death would be. I need to think about these things.

But that’s hard. Yep. No one said that Christ following would be easy. The story of Jesus Christ is not a cosy and comfortable one. It’s a stirring, rousing, edge-of-the-seat thriller, a heartbreak and a triumph. We need to embrace all those aspects to understand how great our God is. How precious we are to him. The price he paid for us. Non Christian sceptics and cynics will sometimes call our belief ‘a fairy tale’. Oh! If they only knew! Of all the stories in the world, of all the histories of man, the true story of Jesus Christ is the most heart breaking, the hardest and the most wonderful. And it costs us to embrace it, it costs us to read on. There is a cost to belief. It ain’t no fairy tale.

Step into the pages of the Bible, that wonderful and life-giving miracle, but be warned, it isn’t a story for the faint hearted. Don’t think that it’s going to be easy. It will bring you to tears, but they will be wonderful tears of gratitude and praise and indescribable longing for the God who died for us.  

He was oppressed and harshly mistreated;
    still he humbly submitted, refusing to defend himself.
    He was brought like a gentle lamb to be slaughtered.
    Like a silent sheep before his shearers,
    he didn’t even open his mouth.
By coercion and with a perversion of justice
    he was taken away.
    And who could have imagined his future?
    He was cut down in the prime of life;
    for the rebellion of his own people,
    he was struck down in their place.
They gave him a grave among criminals,
    but he ended up instead in a rich man’s tomb,
    although he had done no violence nor spoken deceitfully.

Isaiah 53:7-9

1966 and all that….

In 1966, when England was in the final of the football World Cup, I was an 18 year old lance corporal in the Royal Military Police. There was only a handful of women in the unit (150 Provost Company) and many more men, gnarled and experienced, having served all over the world in the theatres of war. I was the youngest member of the company, newly arrived from training, after 5 years at a convent school. Not your average MP!

Guess who was on duty that afternoon, all alone, the only super hero maintaining law and order in Catterick Garrison while the match of all matches was played? Yep. Of course…. who else but muggins? There was no internet in those days, no TV in the duty room, just me and a bank of phones and my tiny tinny transistor radio to keep track of the score. The whole of Catterick was deserted, roads silent, our car park mysteriously emptied of its usual Land Rovers and staff cars…. but of course the duty roster was full….. so where were they all? They were crowded into the Military Police mess (a sort of bar and club house a mile away) noisily watching the game. Where else would they be?

Just before the end I gave up trying to follow the commentary, the radio reception too poor, but I soon knew when it was over; All over Catterick, a military township of thousands of squaddies, there were horns sounding, cheers, drums beaten, cars bedecked with flags came roaring past the unit and a steady stream of police vehicles returned full of my triumphant, noisy, flushed, ecstatic colleagues. Bunny Hare, the duty sergeant, came in banging out a tattoo on the high custody desk, and behind him the rest of them crashed in, in a Congo line, chanting ‘England! England!’ and other slightly ruder chants.

It’s a lifetime ago. So much has changed, the world is unrecognisable, and so am I. Of course on Sunday it will be only the Euros final, not the World Cup, but I’ll be there, glued to the telly, alone again but hearing and shouting and fretting with the rest of them, and texting my Italian friend, Salvatore, who will be watching it in Rome. Tonight he texted me ‘Is football coming home or is it coming Rome?’

He’s such a funny guy. He even makes jokes and rhymes in English. The bloke’s a priest so I know he’ll be offering up prayers, but then again, so will I.

Let’s see if God really is an Englishman!

Tonight I have a terrible tension headache.

But it was worth it.

Something like this!

I don’t know why….

but this cartoon tickles my funny bone;

How am I? Oh, filled with hopeless longing… and you?

I do love the silly world-weary bleakness of that caption.

Maybe I’ve thought of that today because it’s grey and wet and cold here in West Wales and on a day like this it’s so easy to be filled to the brim with hopeless longing. But we have a choice. We do have a choice.

 Keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always. Phil 4:8 (TPT)

Easy peasy, eh?

No. It’s not. It takes some small degree of humility and a dollop of trust, and a smidgeon of discipline, and a whole HEAP of grace to fasten your thoughts on God when your mind is wandering off on its own sweet way. I know, my friends, because I am that soldier!

I’ve been clearing out a load of old paperwork ready to move house and this afternoon I came across a bulging envelope and I tipped it out onto the table, expecting to see ancient receipts or bills and invoices. Instead there was a small mountain of condolence cards sent to me after George died. Frankie and I sat and read through them, and I could see that she was fascinated, trying to make a connection with the grandad she never knew. I was about to write that it was ‘a bitter-sweet’ experience but there was no bitterness at all – although the sweetness was there in plenty and of course it brought along with it some sadness, a reminder of grief.

It’s nearly 30 years since I read those notes; some were from friends who knew us both and they were full of humour and fondness, remembering us together, and then there were notes from people who knew George but not me and they told me what he meant to them, to his team. And then there were the notes from my colleagues, who didn’t know George at all but knew what he meant to me. All of them, of course, written in shock because his death was so sudden and unexpected, and as we read card after card, letter after letter, the echo of that shock crept into this room, so many years later. It was as if George was there, or maybe his hologram, with all who knew and loved him walking around him, their words and affection bringing him to life again. And there in the middle of all the notes was his passport, his Army records, his CV. , even a treasured cassette tape with his voice, waiting for me to find some way to play it. Or will I? Ever? Will I ever be able to bear the sound of his voice again? It’s in my head as I write this, his broad Scots, his energy and lilting laughter, but could I bear to hear it again, in this world when he is in another, unreachable?

Nope. I reckon I’ll not be listening any day soon. But I’m glad we had those few minutes, Frankie and me, confirming who George was and what he meant to the world and a reminder too, of where he is now. It made me think of those Andrew Gormley statues on the edge of the sea up there in wherever-it-is, poignantly titled ‘Another place’.

So, the choice is simple – to wallow or not to wallow? That is the question.

I choose to think of the authentic and real, not on the sentimental and lonesome. I choose to think of my life with George, the life that God gave us, of our laughter and our nonsense. With God’s help, I’m thinking about the wonderful work of creation that was George Marshall. And I’m giving thanks. He was just the best and I miss him still.

Moments of grief are good. They are! No, you don’t want to slosh around knee deep in tears, but when we lose someone we love, we can be honest when sadness floods in. Even after half a lifetime, grief can take us by surprise but it doesn’t have to overwhelm us or drag us down. Grief is beautiful. It’s a confirmation of love. And even in grief we can know joy. Joy that we’ve known love, that we know eternal love, that love reaches down to us… and we can be filled to overflowing with joy because we know that one day

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

The tenses used there are important;

‘He WILL wipe away’ future tense.

‘There WILL be no more …. crying’ future tense.

‘for the old order of things HAS PASSED away’ past tense.

We are already in a new reality, George and me, and the chasm between us is an illusion. Death is defeated. Time is in this world but we are in eternity, we are in God. And who could be sad for long knowing that?

Bless the little children.

In a couple of months, if all goes ahead with my house sale, I should be moving. Last week I began the great sort-out. This is the 5th or 6th ‘downsize’ and you would have thought by now that there wasn’t a lot of sorting left to do. But there is, and I quite enjoy the process in a silent and determined way.

Every day I go through a cupboard or a couple of drawers, and today I was sorting through small pile of photograph albums. I have a couple of photos, black and white of course, of my mother and they always pull me up short, slow me down. Was this really my Mum? Can I see any shadow of me in her eyes? What did she sound like? What were her gestures – and have I inherited any of them? The other photographs that make me catch my breath a little, lingering over them, are of my husband; walking the boxers, building a clock, playing swingball in the garden, rowing on a Scottish loch two days before he died. And then it hits me like a sledge hammer blow – you really are alone. I wonder what he would think of this latest move? You really really are alone, Luce. In this world you are alone.

In this world.

I have many married friends and as I sit here I can think of several couples who are finding it hard to feel happy about their marriages. They’re not on the brink of splitting, or warring or even miserable, but they are just… you know… struggling to feel happy about their married state. It’s not easy being married, not all the time, and there are seasons when it’s just plain difficult – even lonely – I get it. I really do. George and me had our lean and struggling years, we were on the brink of splitting up, but gradually, painful bit by painful bit, we reached a place of loving and liking and appreciating each other, all the time, not just when the mood took.

Here’s a little true story for you: on the day he died we were returning from a holiday in Scotland and in separate cars. I was driving my dad and step mother and he was driving our daughter and her friend. George was not a great navigator and so when we stopped for coffee I said to him, loud and clear ‘Don’t come off the M1 until junction 25. If you come off before we’ll have to drive through Ripley and Kilburn and it will take hours.’ (we were trying to get my frail dad back to Derby before he pegged it) George dutifully nodded. As we travelled down the motorway in a convoy of two, I couldn’t contain my exasperation when he indicated left at Junction 27 and then exited. I was bloody furious! I flashed my lights and eventually, a couple of miles on there was a lay-by and he stopped. As I got out of the car, and he got out of his, and we met on that busy lump of tarmac, with lorries and cars whizzing past us, I somehow knew this was important. All the frustration I had felt, all the words that had sprung to mind, died away. George looked tired and I loved him. He came towards me apologetically and I found myself saying something like ‘Never mind. Not the end of the world..’ and we had a quick peck on the cheek and returned to our cars, this time with me leading the way. What a gift that was. What a blessing that was. We arrived home probably a couple of hours later (the road was awful!) and I didn’t even get out of the car but drove on to the hotel where my dad would be staying that night. Half an hour later George was dead. So the last words I spoke to him were soft words, the last touch we had was a kiss. A gift from God.

I do understand that every state we live in, married, single, widowed, they all have their difficulties, but right now my solitary state is just exhausting. I long to have someone who knows me, who knew me a while ago, who is facing the future with me, who will talk and discuss, and weigh up pros and cons, who will share the decisions, and come off the motorway at the wrong junction but it won’t matter because we’re heading towards the same destination, someone who will pray with me, and help me to know what to do and where to go. Someone who will make mistakes with me and share the picking-up-and-dusting-down afterwards. I would give my right arm, my left arm, my legs for that. My heart for that. I have friends, good friends, but they have their own difficulties, their partners, their own responsibilities, and there’s, quite rightly, no space for mine. I wonder, is this the time when the presence of Jesus Christ is made even more real, when my dependance on him and my trust in him will save me? It’s certainly a time of humbling. As a writer I learned that no experience is ever wasted, and I think that’s true of the Christian life. I’m going through this for a reason, having these thoughts for a reason, for a purpose, to teach me what I need to know.

Anyway, anyway, whatever your state is, married and murderous or single and lonely,

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

I know I quoted those words of Jesus in my last blog, but they’re in my mind a lot just now.

Think of me and George, there in that noisy wind-battered lay-by, in our last moment together. It could so easily have been very different, I could have exploded with “Bloody hell! Typical! You never listen to me, you great Scottish twit.’ and he would have replied (quiet but withering) and I would have replied (hot and hasty) and… and… and…. I would now be living with regret. Don’t explode. Instead look at your partner and thank God for them, for the future you share however short or long. For all their lovely flaws and annoying habits.

That’s reminded me to thank God, right now, for the years I had with George. To close the lid on the old photos and get on with this new adventure.

Hey, talking about losing an arm and a leg or two, I’ll tell you a funny story; when I lived in South Africa I knew a very kind and gentle Afrikaans woman, a sort of cross between Laura Engels and Patience Strong, if that means anything to you. She was Sweet with a capital S and very lovable. She had a little boy who was just about as tender as he could be. She told us one day, chuckling at the memory, that when he said his prayers one night he had said “God, please bless all the children, and all the little children who have no mummies and all the little children who have no daddies…. ” somewhat impressed with the tragedy of his own prayer he went on earnestly “and please bless the little children who have no…..” he struggled to find something they really needed to be blessed about and found it…. “the children who have no arms… and the children who have no legs… and the children who have no….” he thought for a moment and finished triumphantly ” and please bless the little children who have no heads.”

No ‘eads? Wot, really?