Where do I sign?

Do you remember, way back in the last century, a film with Olivia Newton-John, and the song Xanadu? Well, it’s seeped into my mind and will not budge. That in itself would be bloody annoying, with so many better songs to sing, but – adding insult to injury – my ear worm insists on singing not ‘Xanadu’ but ‘Sag aloo… Ooh, oooh, ooh-ooh…. sag aloo-ooo-oo……’

Hah! Distractions, how they snarl up our thinking. I’m reading a book about the monastic life – advice and wisdom of them ole desert fathers hundreds of years ago. Interesting enough, but I prefer to learn from today’s teachers, people who live in my world, who know about road tax, house insurance, water rates, and roof repairs all landing in the same month.To add further distractions to my internal world…. today I have taken my Mac computer to the repairers because the damn hard drive has failed. So, forgive me, Lord, if I seem a bit distracted, if my quiet time this morning was a bit sweary and hot and bothered.

This monastic book – it’s all well and good and wise and all that And has loads to say about prayer, and how to cope with distractions, but I don’t want nice neat solutions from some old geezer living in a cave in another era, who wouldn’t know a council tax bill from a scroll of parchment. The life they chose then isn’t open to us. The society we live in makes demands we must obey, taxes we must pay, forbids life in caves, insists on health and safety, on drainage and boring vital stuff like that. And it’s bloody cold in West Wales for most of the year, plus you’re not allowed to burn logs. The desert fathers could let go of everything and own nothing. We don’t have that luxury. Yeah, ok, I’m being flippant, I know it’s about the internal, not the external.

So, your task for today, Luce, stop mucking about and ask yourself , ‘when everything goes wrong like this, is God teaching me something I need to know?’

“Yes.” That’s the answer. I don’t think that anything in my life is a happenstance. There are lessons and truths to be found in everything. My job is simply to listen to the peace and love of God, not to the insistent earworms of a hundred distracting thoughts.

I live very very simply. I’ve let go of much of the unnecessary stuff, giving it away or letting it lapse, my only luxuries being the computer, a phone, a 6 year old car, my dogs. I wonder if I should give some of these up, too (not the dogs) and if I do, lose even my contact with you bloggers, lose the tools of my trade, the car to take the dogs to the beach every day, would that be too painful? I don’t think so. I think it would be fine. I’m not sure how I would pay the bills, or how the hounds would cope with village treks, or how my body would cope with hillwalking but if that’s what will take me a step nearer to relying totally, totally on God…. will I sign up for that?

I’ve spent the last few years deliberately simplifying my life. I’ve stopped doing so much, dumped possessions, dropped pastimes and habits, lost who I used to be socially, and I regret none of it. I was beginning to think that life couldn’t get any simpler – not here and now, in 2020. That it was pared down as far as it could go. I was wrong. This week we were asked what the crucified life means to us, and it’s really shone the brightest most startling light on all the dark corners of my mind.

You see, I know that I am not being asked to give up everything. God takes no delight in the blood of bulls or the trampling of his courts (couldn’t resist one of my favourite Isaiah quotes) and certainly not the abandonment of small lapdogs like Percy. But I know that God takes great delight in our willingness to put our love for him before all these things. All things. I am not being asked to give up everything but I am invited to be willing to give up everything. And so to be truly free. Sign up, Luce, for God and him before all things.

Sign up daily, hourly. We need to sign up again and again because before the metaphorical ink of our metaphorical signature is dry we are distracted by this temptation, or that expense, this opportunity, that possession, that failure, this idea, this hurt, that friend….. by Covid….. by the daily run of life. The daily run of life slipping between us and our closeness to God. The insistent clamour of ‘sag aloo’ intruding when we simply long to sing songs of worship.

So, come on, time to put your money where your mouth is, Luce. Do I again sign my life over to Christ? All my life? Is there anything I refuse to give up for him today? When I jokily wrote ‘not the dogs’ was I recognising a limit? There’s a wonderful liberty, a lifting of our spirits, when we see that the trappings of life have just been tethering us to the earth, the mud, and that letting go of everything but God’s love is real freedom. The only real freedom. That the more we let go, the higher we soar.

O Galatians 5:1 tells us ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ and whilst I know that Paul was addressing our love of ritual and works and man-made law, I believe that the essential truth of that verse is that freedom in Christ is freedom from every tether, problem, limitation and possession. Total freedom. Sky blinkin’ high.

Do I trust Christ with my life? Can I really depend on him for all things? Give up all I have and rely on him? Give me the pen… where do I sign?

What is this thing called …. joy?

The most challenging aspect of my very action-packed (and now long!) life wasn’t surviving a disrupted education, a lousy childhood and adolescence, as if somehow that survival was down to me and my amazing strength. It wasn’t. I was lost and blundering (and blubbering) most of the time.

And the most exciting aspect of this long life was not crash-landing in a plane at Orly Airport, or nearly sinking off the Isle of Sheppey in an ancient boat along with my dogs and cat, and it wasn’t coming off a motorbike in snow on Charing Hill (although that was pretty heart stopping) or driving powerful cars (probably too fast) or nearly drowning in the Med with a badly mangled foot.

The most fascinating times of my life were not the years spent in Africa, or Cyprus, or Egypt, or in the Army, or nursing.

The most surprising time of my life wasn’t the discovery that I could write the sort of scripts that producers wanted to make and broadcasters wanted to buy.

The most rewarding achievements of that bumbling messy life aren’t the awards, or the MBE or the thrill of of being on a drama set, or being the writer-in-residence at the RSC, or sitting in the twilight studio of Desert Island Discs and while it was fun having a South Bank Show dedicated to boring old me (woman with bulldog and not much to say) I never fooled myself that I had earned any of it and I never, for one moment, believed any of the hoohah and the flattery.

I don’t decry any of that long list – and I love looking back on nearly all of it, but none of it has lasting value. It’s all yesterday. It brought happiness and a temporary fulfilment, but nothing eternal. Happiness fades with time, like old photographs. Fulfilment is fleeting. Cars grow old and have to be replaced. TV dramas are forgotten. My Bafta needs a polish, the crystal awards need a scrub and a shine, the South Bank Show is gone, it’s all of the moment, limited by time. Only joy is eternal. And joy can’t be found in the material or in anything we achieve. I don’t think it can be found in even the most beautiful sight in the world. When we stand on a mountain top and gaze down at a hundred miles of beauty, we may feel elation and a tingling awareness and appreciation of the moment….deep deep happiness, a sense of one-ness with creation…. but that doesn’t last. Even that doesn’t last. The next day we can be distressed, lost, angry, shaken.

I think sometimes ‘us’ Christians forget to say that knowing God, knowing in the sense of experiencing him and submitting to his kingship, is a deep and indescribable joy (but I’m such an idiot I keep trying to describe it) And we should be willing to say with conviction, and fearlessness, that there is only one eternal joy. One joy that survives every grief and hardship and confusion.

I think we forget that those who follow Christ know something so special that it seems to be a sort of madness to those who don’t have it. We talk about the peace that surpasses all understanding and that’s fabulous, wonderful, amazing, but it’s only half the story – how about the joy that surpasses all understanding?

A joy that’s so intense it’s physical. A joy that, when I take it out to look at it, and thank God for it, and really really think about it, brings tears to my eyes and a sort of ache to my bones. It does! It makes my bones ache.

Weird, eh?

I have a little notebook on my desk, a tiny thing, and one of the very small pages says… well, see for yourselves… it’s from Psalm 62 and I think it’s just one of the most exciting verses in the whole Bible (TPT).

The GREATER your passion for more, the GREATER reward I will give you.

I love that Psalm so I often turn to it, but it’s more than just these two verses. I need to remind myself of the context, so that I can grasp what God is saying and can turn it back to him as a prayer. What passion is this psalm talking about? What sort of reward will God give us? Oh, listen, listen, here it is, pin back your lugholes and be prepared for joy and amazement:

All the love you need is found in me! The greater your passion for more, the greater reward I will give you.”

Today, in our online service at Mount Zion Church, we started a ten sermon series on discipleship, and it’s so exciting! This is excitement, and fulfilment and challenge and all the rest of it. This is JOY. Discipleship is joy. As I listened I found my heart quickening because I know that discipleship brings us closer and closer to the eternal. Joy unlimited.

The more we love God, with the love that comes from God, the more we will want to love him, the more passion we will feel, the deeper and stronger and wider and thicker and brighter and richer and exceedingly bloomin’ amazing our joy will be.

Doesn’t that make your bones ache?

If you’re up for discipleship, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFWZ7h6zEtBsdT_-fDJgfiQ

A snippet and a photo. No blog tonight.

Hello, bloggers. This isn’t a blog. It’s just an attempt to maintain contact with you while I work out what to do next. I seem to have given up so much recently, and I find myself wondering if this blog is the next in line for the chop, so this rambling offering is me holding on, by my fingernails, because I’m not quite ready to give this up yet. I need to hear my voice in order to understand what I am saying, and this is the only way I can do it.

Yesterday a friend arrived for a few days and he’s challenging me to write all sorts of stuff, scripts, books, lessons (!). I could write this, or that, or this… and from this viewpoint, in this voice, or in that voice…. with a view to this, or that…. have I ever thought of this… and then there’s always that…. He’s great. But here’s the thing; a writer can write well only what has spun out of her life and thought, and no matter how good an idea is (and all his ideas are very good) unless it sparks that creative thingummyjig, it won’t be worth writing. And I think that maybe he doesn’t understand how narrow my field of ability is. That’s not modesty – it’s like a painter saying that he paints the small things in fine detail, a dewdrop on the curl of a rose petal, not the slash and splash of a battle scene covering a whole wall. Like the dewdrop painter I write the small things, the prosaic, the domestic, the unnoticed. That’s all I can do. And so I sit in front of my Mac and I wonder what I will write to you tonight. Maybe a little snippet from my day?

OK. A snippet and a photo.

This morning I read a news article about the Garrick Club, in London, one of the last strongholds of overt sexism. A woman entrepreneur is challenging their ‘men only’ rule. It reminds me of a very very wet day in London some years ago, when I was due to receive an award in a presentation ceremony to be held in a famous, plush and exclusive gentlemen’s club – all wood panelling and pale green paint and heavy furniture, squeaky leather armchairs and reading lamps. Just think of Jeeves and Wooster and you have the perfect image. We arrived about 30 minutes before the time on the invitation, having travelled from Derby and trailed across the city, in monsoon rain and howling winds. The club, quite near St James’ Palace, is in a wide street that acts as a sort of wind sock for the area. I had brought my daughter with me, and we were blown through the front doors to land dishevelled at the porter’s feet. We got no further.

He was a very pleasant, kindly Irishman, and full of apologies as he refused us entry. Only women accompanied by gentlemen could be admitted. He understood that I was there to receive an honour but there was no way he could help us. “Isn’t there” I asked plaintively, rain dripping from my head onto his polished shoes, “some little cubby hole or broom cupboard that we could hide in?” But there wasn’t. He managed to let us know, quietly but with conviction, that the club members were a load of bigoted ****s, and the rules were ***t but he had to show us the door until our hosts had arrived. So back we went into the wind funnel, with no coffee bars or pubs or shops (far too genteel an area for commerce) where we could have taken shelter. When we turned up half an hour later, for the ceremony, we had passed saturation point and it’s to be devoutly hoped that wherever we went we soaked their cushions, squelched their carpet, and water stained their mahogany.

You might have thought that twenty years on, things would have changed, but no. I wonder why this clever, articulate woman wants to change the rules of the Garrick? Surely it can’t be because she wants to join them? Surely not? Why would anyone want to be a member of such a narrow minded, snobbish, outdated and dull club? Why would anyone want to join any organisation where they’re not wanted?

I have joined only two things in my life – one was the Army (no regrets there, it gave me a home when no one else did) and one was a local church. Joining doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s not been a complete success, but at least neither the military nor the church ejected me into the eye of a storm. Don’t do it, woman entrepreneur, don’t join the old fellahs. You’re better than that! Start a club for women and have a big sign on the door “Men welcome”.

I don’t belong in any organisation but around my neck is a pendant inscribed ‘belong’ and it’s a daily reminder that I belong to God. He isn’t exclusive.

And here’s that photo…. today I took a friend to some of the places now familiar to me, and I so enjoyed seeing his wonder and delight. Fresh eyes in an old world.

My brave God

Like many writers, I have very vivid dreams. Some stay with me all day and some have stayed with me for years. When my husband was here I could say to him “Did we ever drive in a LandRover under a huge crystal bridge, with a pink castle in the distance?’ and he would patiently say ‘No. But we looked at Barbie Castles yesterday for Louise’s birthday present.’

Ah. Right. Thanks, George. That’ll be it.

But some dreams are so intense and real that they teach us something we can’t and don’t want to forget. Many years ago I dreamt that I was sitting, cross-legged, in a long, wide, high marble hallway. It was grand and beautiful in its emptiness, its grand austerity. A marble palace. But I was filled with fear and dread as I sat there, so aware of the echoing space, the hush, my aloneness. Petrified, as stiff and cold as stone. To one side and behind me, was an ornate door, closed. The only sounds were from the other side of that door; muted, muffled sounds, the familiar tinkle of a spoon in a china saucer, the gentle schlip-schlop of slippered feet, and in the distance soft voices murmuring. So ordinary. So terrifying. Terrifying.

I was waiting to be executed. Beheaded. Just waiting. There was no reason, no history, no questions, just the inevitable. Execution. The fear in that dream was real, the dread and the certain knowledge that death was a few steps away. There was submission to the inevitable, alongside the terror. I will never forget that palace. My own memento mori.

There! That’s cheered you up, hasn’t it? Sorry, guys. Plough on.

Only a dream, but it taught me something real; I know now that fear and resignation, dread and terror and acceptance can all exist at the same time. I truly do believe that I know now what it is to wait for death, I didn’t wake up fighting, or sweating, or screaming, but peacefully tearful, shaken, wiser, older. The chink of the teacup, the soft slippered footsteps, the melodic distant voices….. I hear them still.

This week I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew and thinking about Jesus the man. I don’t think that Jesus has ever been so real, so human and present to me, as he is right now. Reading Matthew 26, thinking of everything that Jesus faced, of the things he knew and prophesied, of the days leading up to his execution…. I’m back there in that marble corridor, my heart racing, my hollow stomach aching with the horror. My poor lovely Lord.

It’s never occurred to me before but the whole of Matthew 26 is a love story, the love of a man for his followers, the love they had for him, the soaring heights of his love, and the human frailty of theirs. At the top of the chapter we have Mary pouring a lavish river of sweet perfume on the head of the man she loved, and the God she worshipped. What devotion. And yet this generous act of selfless love was the catalyst, or maybe the excuse, that plunged Judas into bitter, greedy betrayal. How messed up we humans are.

But Jesus knew what was to come and he wanted to mark his last meal with the people he loved, and that’s a very human desire we all have – we all want to say a memorable goodbye. I’ve been with two dear friends this past year as they’ve died, and they both summoned the energy and the strength they needed to say goodbye to the ones they loved. One of my friends had not only made a very short list of the people she wanted to see (as it turned out she died the next day) but she also had things lined up to say to us! I think that’s how Jesus planned this meal – he knew that it was important, that he needed to be with his friends for one last time, and so “I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples…” verse 18. He planned his farewell supper.

Imagine that celebratory meal, a great gang of friends, and Jesus looking around at them all, knowing what was to come in just a few hours… grieving for the loss of them…. trying to leave markers so that they would look back and understand and take comfort from his words. He would be so very aware of the Passover, the history and significance of it….. the relevance of God’s timing and the message it sends …. And all that time, he was watching them, listening to them, smiling at them perhaps, even though he knew that Judas was even then betraying him. Was his mind in turmoil, his heart racing, fear and knowledge churning? Well, if he was Jesus the man, yep, I think so. This is Jesus the man. God and man. Both.

Jesus lived in perfect sinless union with his father, in constant prayer, total submission to the will of God, and so after the meal they sang a psalm and headed off into the hills, the disciples probably longing to pull their cloaks around them and get their heads down, Jesus longing to pray, to be at one with his Divinity, his Father. But I think that Jesus the man was also longing, aching, to shed this humanity and be only Divine. Surely he must have felt the pull of the eternal, alongside the tug of the worldly? The love of God and the love for his disciples? Do you think he had an easy golden walk through life as the Son of God? I don’t. I think every moment lived as man was an act of love for us, sacrificial. Every decision he made was a conscious act of love for God and for us, from the moment he was born to the final cry of ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani’… every hard choice he made was for us, and in obedience.

God and man. Perfect. So perfect a God that he faced death for us. So perfect a man that he longed for the companionship of the men he loved, but even the ones he chose to keep watch at his deathbed, his closest and last companions, abandoned him as they fell asleep. He was truly alone. Alone with his knowledge, his dread and fear, his submission to God, his willingness, his love. Alone. In those minutes, however long it took for the Judas mob to arrive, was he standing alone, kneeling alone, terrified but resigned, knowing what was to come and submitted to it? Did he stand in that olive grove, looking into the darkness, straining to see, listening, holding his breath? Knowing what was coming, the wavering torchlight, the voices of the Temple Guard, the clatter of swords, as they stumbled towards him? Not just waiting for the inevitable but willingly walking towards it. In the Gospel of John we’re told ‘Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

And then… Judas, Judas. Oh, Judas.

How does Jesus greet him? “My beloved friend,” Jesus said, “is this why you’ve come?” (TPT)

Ahh. Brave Jesus. Our brave Jesus. Our strong courageous God. Endlessly loving, whatever we do. When he sees us, in eternity, will that be how he greets us? ‘My beloved friends’.

Sometimes it’s good to think of the man who was Jesus. Thinking about the man, Jesus, reveals the nature of God. When God seems far away, Jesus is sometimes very near.

God with us. One of us. Whatever we face, and whatever we endure, however hard the road, Jesus was there before us, willingly, lovingly, submissively, strongly, bravely. For us.

Bravely.

Start again… get it right.

I wrote a blog about friendship yesterday. Well, sort of about friendship, and a bit about prayers and a bit about me. I was OK with it. Not exactly revelatory but no worse than my usual. I came back to it an hour later, checking for typos (I don’t see them unless I’ve had a break from the text) and the blog was not what I thought it was. It was… erm… how do I put this? It was OKish. I had strung a few words together so that they made sense of a sort, but it was… it was…. erm… bitter around the edges. I had thought I was celebrating the gift of friendship but actually I was indulging in a somewhat veiled whinge. So it went in the bin.

But I do want to celebrate friendship. You know, if you have the gift of friendship then you really are in a good place. The mistake I made in yesterday’s attempt at blogging was that I focussed on having friends but the gift of friendship is about being a friend. And that’s even more rewarding. We can’t create people to be our friends, we can’t take uncaring people and make them love us, but we can do something about our own attitudes, and our own willingness to befriend.

There’s a deal of delight to be had in being a good friend. I think it comes more easily to some than to others, that’s why I call it a gift. We’re told that all good things are from God and I reckon that covers this subject very neatly.

The gift of friendship is a good feeling, a feeling of love, it’s being unable to walk around a shop without seeing something that brings this friend to mind, or that friend, wondering if maybe they would appreciate a packet of their favourite biscuits, or a well marbled steak… or a silly packet of liquorice for the bloke who said ‘you never see it in the shops any more’. It’s making someone’s favourite pie even when we don’t really feel like baking because we want them to know they’re loved. It’s being conscious that while they cheerfully say they’re fine, they may be lonely, or homesick, or anxious and it’s being ready to listen, however faltering their words. Listening to the silences in-between. It’s hearing them when they call me to account, telling me that I’m in the wrong, and accepting what they say. Knowing them and trusting them. Being someone’s true friend is just bloody well loving them and caring about them and being conscious of what it might feel like, occasionally, to be them. And for the Christian, the gift of friendship means the desire and passion and delight of praying for those we love. But not only praying. I think this is where we Christians get it wrong sometimes. Here’s a statement to make some of us recoil, to make some of us squirm :

praying isn’t enough.

There! I’ve said it. I am so glad if you pray for me. But if you also rarely speak to me, or write to me, or make any sort of meaningful, honest contact, if you never think of me until you work through your prayer list, if you don’t share with me what God is doing in your life, or care about what he’s doing in mine, then you don’t know me and I’m really struggling to know you. So do your prayers for me mean anything at all? God will hear the words we speak when we pray, but he will also see our heart. James wrote

‘… if a brother or sister in the faith is poorly clothed and hungry  and you leave them saying, “Good-bye. I hope you stay warm and have plenty to eat,” but you don’t provide them with a coat or even a cup of soup, what good is your faith?  So then faith that doesn’t involve action is phoney

To mangle James a bit, ‘prayers that don’t involve action are phoney.’ That’s not biblical, it’s just Lucical. I can’t be doing with phoneyism, all that smiley stuff, saying the right things and regretting that we can’t hug, and saying that we long to be able to meet again. Of course we can meet again. We can meet under God’s wide sky, pray together under his great canopy, worship up in the hills, by the sea, wandering along the riverside. It was good enough for Jesus so it’s good enough for us. Isn’t it?

Oops. I digress. Back to friendship – we’ll leave phoneyism for another day.

Maybe my life as a non-Christian has spoilt me, in a great rollicking social and work sphere of friendship that lasts and reaches deep. Just tomorrow a good, good mate who I worked with 20 years ago is driving a 6 hour round trip just to have lunch with me. That’s so wonderful. I’ve been very fortunate to work in an industry where bonds are made that really do last a lifetime; bonds forged in ridiculously long hours, often driving through the dawn to be on set with the first grey light and just as often working through to midnight, problem solving, being accountable, team minded, challenged, happy, exhausted – and it was friendship that kept us going. We made a point of spending spare time – when we had any – together. Friendship makes us strong. In Ecclesiastes we’re told

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labour:
if either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broke
n

As a friend, I know I’ve fallen way short. There are two daily alarms on my phone, to remind me to pray for two couples in our church. They will be praying at the same time, so it’s a quiet virtual communion. As I wrote yesterday’s blog I realised that it’s months since I saw one of these couples and weeks since I saw the other. Bad Luce! How can I possibly know how to pray for them, when I don’t know where their thoughts are right now? Phoney Luce.

I’m going to think more about friendship. Not what it owes me, but what I owe to it.

When Paul wrote this, he wasn’t thinking about Covid 19 but nevertheless….

Discover creative ways to encourage others and to motivate toward acts of compassion, doing beautiful works as expressions of love. This is not the time to pull away and neglect meeting together, as some have formed the habit of doing, because we need each other! In fact, we should come together even more frequently, eager to encourage and urge each other onward as we anticipate that day dawning. Hebrews 10:24-25 (TPT)

I thank God for my friends. You know who you are. You are wonderful.

God’s gifts are all around us.

Brotherly love

Shrieks In The Night

As I start writing this it is 3.20am. The storm is raging outside, and a piercingly painful shrill alarm is sounding all through this little house. The rain has entered into the roof, dripping through the ceiling and it’s short-circuiting a fire alarm. I’ve tried everything I can think of… which was only one thing… I turned off the mains electricity, and it made no difference. The shrieks continued. So, the power is back on and the dogs are in a right old state.

That paragraph was written an hour ago. I’ve discovered how to turn off the shrieks, at least for a moment or two. You don’t quite understand what the term ‘ear-splitting’ means until you’ve spent an hour standing under a high ceiling with a broom handle extended above your head, pressing the ‘off’ switch on a fire alarm, with three dogs barking at the noise and running scared, and a grandchild trying to sleep a few feet away.

My poor granddaughter! She arrived today for a week with her Nana… that’ll learn her!

Anyway, anyway, as my sailor brother was wont to say “Worse things happen at sea”. When it’s light we’ll see what the damage is, probably a few loose tiles , and I’ll ask someone to disable the stupid damn alarm. If it’s anything worse, well, it’s something worse. So what? I’m on my second cup of coffee, fully dressed, I’ve read a chapter of Romans (should have been Lamentations, or the account of the Flood) and I’m wondering if I really need a slice of toast. I think I probably do.

If this had happened two years ago, I’d have been in a right old state. As it is, it’s fine. Annoying, but fine. Each time it screams now I run into the hall and hoist my broom. My Doctor said to me a little while ago “You’re not the worrying sort , are you?” And I’m not. But I need to communicate in order not to feel entirely alone. And so, a blog! I wonder if my first thought in a fire would be “Ooh, must remember to put this in a blog.”

We need communication, fellowship, even the pretend fellowship, the pseudo-companionship of a blog. I write, therefore, I am not alone. When my husband died, so shockingly and suddenly, my agent (also my dear friend) asked me “Have you kept notes?” I hadn’t, and I think I probably swore at her quite a lot for even suggesting it, but she had a point. Writers don’t take days off.

Hey, following on from my last blog; I’ve been thinking about miracles. Particularly what Jesus said about signs and miracles. He said that unless ‘this generation’ (us) see signs and miracles, we don’t believe. He knew that we see them every day, every second, but we don’t recognise them. We don’t appreciate that every second of every life is the gift of God alone. We are the miracles. That sentient life exists on this lump of spinning earth in the vast expanse of the Cosmos is a miracle. That the God who created us did so in love, is a miracle. That his love is so great that he has joined us, shared our pain and vulnerability and loss is a miracle. And that he calls us, that’s the greatest miracle of all.

And that we long to be with him, to know him better, to reach up in all our frailty , to him…. that’s the greatest gift. This longing, this need, this passion. His greatest, greatest gift.

A few days ago I had a late lunch of bread and olives and cheese and for once I was really hungry. We are so rarely hungry in this Western culture, but when we are, everything tastes so wonderful, flavours deeper, textures richer, gratitude greater. I thought about Jesus the man, walking all day , preaching, pursued by crowds, surrounded by devoted but squabbling followers, living so simply, and I hoped that there were real moments of joy for him in his life as one of us. It made me pour a small glass of wine as a sort of personal communion. A tiny glass of wine – or I’d be semi comatose all afternoon. As I ate, I thought that maybe this was a meal Jesus used to eat, olives and bread and cheese, and I hoped that he had moments of simple human happiness, laughter and fondness as he listened to his follower. I hope that Jesus the man knew affection as well as his own deep love. I hope that when he rested, he was fully at peace. I love to think of Jesus laughing. My God.

Right. It’s 5am now. The rain has eased off, the alarm hasn’t sounded for about half an hour, the dogs are still wary but less fearful. Time for another coffee.

Wherever you are, East or West, North or South, just know that God is with you. He goes before you, he is behind you, he is above you, he is below you, he is for you, not against you. He loves you. Even in the middle of the night, in a storm, when you’re alone, and don’t know what to do, he is with you.

No need to be afraid of the shrieks, the fears and the confusion of the night. God is with you.

**Update. 10am. A pal is walking the dogs, it’s stopped raining for a while, I’m feeling a bit nauseous and light headed after such a disturbed night, but there are two men on my roof and they seem to have found the problem. Nothing major. Deo gratias.

Do you ever think about thinking?

For a couple of days I’ve been proof reading a thesis. Flip me. For a professor. Me. What a laugh.

Academic writing is very very different from blogs, scripts and fiction. I knew that it would be, but I didn’t realise how very very different. Do you know what a ‘haruspice ‘ is? Neither did I. Do you know what ‘imbricated’ means? Neither did I. What did you think a diachronic approach to text might be? I didn’t have a clue. But now I was getting annoyed with myself so rather than google it, I broke the word down and came to a conclusion and only then checked – and I was right. The thesis was so engrossing that I kept forgetting the job in hand, instead stepping deeper and deeper into new thoughts, new questions. It’s an amazing piece of work. It’s even more amazing to realise that it’s a thesis in English by an Italian who reckons he’s not fluent in my language. Haha! His English is so good that I’m now nervous about emailing him.

It’s about Jeremiah’s prophecy of the fall of Babylon, a great reflection on the outcome after such a prophecy (here’s a hint – it looks like Jeremiah got it wrong) and I read 35 pages yesterday, just half the introduction, and cannot wait to delve into it again today. I can’t begin to understand what it must be like to be inside that professor’s head!

Then, yesterday evening, recovering from PTSD (post thesis stress disorder) and trying to find something worth watching on TV, my elbow nudged a book off the arm of my chair, Packer’s ‘Knowing God’ and as I reached down to retrieve it, Percy Dog jumped onto my lap and sent my Bible flying. It was a Mr Bean moment. There was an awful lot of scattered scraps to pick up from the floor, not just those two books but tatty notes, sermon’s jottings, bright thoughts and unanswered questions, and as I gathered them all (wondering why and when did I write ‘Simeon? really? Look up before Romans‘) I was aware of being surrounded by, and blanketed in, good teaching and the wisdom of others and I remembered Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

I’ve always regarded that as referring to the pastoral and the emotional – flora and fauna, the sky and the oceans, and the joy of birth, the grief of loss, the circle of life. But as I gathered up the books and tried to put all my scraps of paper back in the right places, I saw a new meaning in that verse. The greatest miracle of all is that man seeks God, that man thinks on a non-materialistic plane, aching for the eternal and the invisible. That man, even me, longs, longs, longs to draw near to God. In Italy or Wales, Timbuctoo, Johannesburg or Canada, even when he goes to the Moon, man seeks the eternal. All the sermons, lessons, books…. the hours devoted to God and to prayer….. This is a visible reflection of the invisible nature of God. Man, for all his sin and weakness, is the greatest indication we have of the nature of God. ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them‘ Genesis 1:27

In his own image. I went to bed, thoughts swirling.

And then, this sunny morning, driving back from the supermarket, across a bridge, I saw the beginning of my village in the distance and I recognised a friend’s house, a tiny dot two miles away, and then the curve of a hedge marking where I walk the dogs in the afternoon, and then the solitary tree where we pause to recover our breath… miles away! Miles away, but recognisable, dear and familiar. And I realised that the greatest gift of all, the greatest most wonderful, amazing, soaring, tumbling, splendiferous and blinkin’ heart stopping gift of all, is our mind. Thought. Understanding. Imagination. The greatest gift of all is that in every car I passed, every car that passed me, every home on that hillside, every aisle in that supermarket, there were conscious, thinking, seeing, understanding minds.

Thought. It’s bloody amazing. You are amazing. That you are reading this, from a woman most of you will never meet, and having your own thoughts (better ones, I know) and coming to your own conclusions. Isn’t that amazing? And it’s nothing to do with you! You didn’t create your brain or your awareness. Only God.

God’s invisible qualities can certainly be seen in the sky and the seas and the mountains and the Cosmos ‘in him all things hold together.‘ Colossians 1:17 but what greater proof of God’s eternal nature and power is there than each other? What greater proof of God’s power than the fact that he has given us teachers and preachers and writers and wise men and women, using this flawed and weak humanity to bring God’s wisdom to us? What greater sign of his nature than our desire to find God, contrition for sin, the delight of prayer and, yes, the thesis that has me googling words I’ve never heard before in sentences so complex I have to read them aloud, several times.

And yet, you know, we still haven’t arrived at the deepest greatest miracle. Here it comes: here’s the true miracle – by nature we want none of this. None of it! Our nature is self; self-protective, self-seeking, self serving, self, red in tooth and claw, but because of God’s nature, through him and only through him, we desire more than self, we yearn for God. Made in his image we long to be one with that which created us, that which calls to us. And he has promised us that when we truly desire God, we find him. ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ Jeremiah 33:3

I have a mental picture now of mercury. A phial of mercury spilling out, droplets breaking off, and then flowing back together again. Drawn back, seeking unity. A visual metaphor for our fallen, broken nature being drawn back to oneness with God.

How often do we thank God for this longing to know him, and for the millions who have gone this way before us, for the wealth of wisdom they’ve left for us right now? How often do we thank him that he has given us the ability to teach and to learn? How often do we thank him for thought – what a miracle! Have you ever really thought about thought? I mean, how does it happen? I mean….. That we reason, and understand, that there is memory in this unfathomable organ of the brain…. that no computer can match a fraction of our minds, that they grow with our bodies and retain and develop and decide and discern. That an idiot like me has thought, ideas, can shape and posit concepts. That an idiot like me can drive down a wide empty road under a beautiful sky and see in the distance shapes and colours that mean something more than the visual, that mean Trix’s house, and my dog walk, and friends, and memories….. And all this a gift! Nowt to do with me. Isn’t that enough to make us fall on our knees in gratitude? That each mind is so miraculous and so loved – however difficult and wayward and careless – so deeply loved.

We are. Each one of us. Each internal universe in every mind, loved. Whatever we struggle with, whatever mistakes we make, however disobedient we are, Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Even when we stick our fingers in our ears and spend our lives making excuses. Our great God, our servant God, constant and loving, will never give up on us, he will never wander away, turn his back. Whatever we do, he will never love us more and whatever we do, whatever we do, he will never love us less. How do we know this? Oh, blimey…. we just do. That’s the miracle. That even I know this.

If we open the door, he comes in, the Holy Spirit floods into our lives, like mercury we bond, we become one…. how do I know to write this? By his grace.

Thought. What a gift.

Knowing God is so exciting. So joyful.

I don’t know what my friends are doing right now, but thinking (there’s that thought thing again!) about them, knowing that they love God, knowing that we are his sons and daughters, thinking of those who teach and preach, and of my chum who has written this amazing thesis, I am overcome by an awareness, a glimpse, of the love of God and of his nature. It is one of those electric moments, when the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, when tears come unbidden and unnoticed, when we are able to feel, by his grace, a part of him, and a part of each other. His church. His true church. My friends. His gift to me. This is unity, found in prayer, this is God. This is his nature. I share the moment with you.

Thought. So many thoughts. Each one a miracle.

Mackerel ahoy!

This is one of those blogs that isn’t really a blog at all. It’s just something that happened to me today, something that holds significance for me, but something you might just shrug at and say “Oh. So what?”

Before lockdown came along, Sunday was the highlight of the week – walk the dogs (an hour or two), shower the sand off, arrive at church at 10.30 and get home just after mid-day, usually friends would arrive as I cooked lunch, we’d chat through the afternoon, and I’d kick them out in time to get ready for the evening service, be back home in time for a glass of wine or two. Lovely! A full day of praise and talk about God, and friendship.

Now, it’s walk the dogs, make coffee, listen to the service on youtube and then…… nothing. Zilch. So today, being hot, I basked in the heat for an hour until the sun went behind the building next door, and then I ….. erm….. I sort of… erm…. what did I do? In the shade, what did I do? Out of the sun…. Anyway, whatever I did, which was absolutely nothing, the day passed. The contrast with our old Sundays was striking and a bit dismal. If you can be striking and dismal at the same time.

I knew the sun was shining on the High Street and the beach and all parts in-between and I could hear distant busy traffic, but in here, silence and peace. Not a lot happening. I put on a cardigan and thick socks, in my shady cool house, and I think I may have done a crossword. Or half done it. I saw a few people passing by, watched a family loading paddle boards and surf boards onto their car, enjoyed their excitement, the nostalgic sight of rolled up towels and picnic gear. Then, shaking myself, speaking sternly to me-myself about my propensity for making a really uncomfortable bed and then being grumpy about lying in it, I had some thoughts about a distance learning course I’ve foolishly embarked on, and about age, and about the church…. and the day sort of swithered past me. Did I pray? I think my thoughts are prayers. I think if we live with God then he’s always there, we’re always leaning on him, all our meditations are conscious of his presence. But did I actually say “I need help here?” No, because I didn’t know I did. I’d slipped into the shadows, wrapped myself up tight, closed myself off, observed the world but then retreated from it. I do that. It’s really annoying and I wish I’d stop it.

And then, late in the afternoon, came a little tap on the door – human contact! Real human contact on my doorstep.

There, on the pavement, were two lovely young friends, full of energy and joy, glowing with youth. Being Sunday their family hasn’t been working today (they run a dolphin-spotting, seal-espying boat trip company) so instead they had gone fishing and now they were delivering two freshly caught, cleaned and gutted, fat teenage mackerel. How lovely! How kind.

Sometimes we don’t know we need rescuing. Sometimes we step into the shadows in more ways than one. Sometimes we lose the warmth of life. Sometimes we are alone. That’s when the smallest things take on a powerful meaning.

So I emailed a very dear pal and shouted ‘Mackerel ahoy!’ and he’s on his way over for tea. Salad, new potatoes and grilled mackerel with the salt of the sea in their deep fat flesh.

Thank you for that knock on the door. Thank you for a miracle of fishes.

A miracle of fishes

He will care for you as a shepherd tends his flock,
    gathering the weak lambs and taking them in his arms.
    He carries them close to his heart
    and gently leads those that have young
.

Isaiah 40:11 (TPT)

POST SCRIPT….

I’ve never had such fresh mackerel before. They were simply delicious. We made small delighted piggy snorts and grunts as we ate.

Ah, yes, I remember it well….

I am not a great one for marking special days, for anniversaries and the like. It’s part of my rebellion against my Catholic upbringing (when it was always someone’s bloody feast day, so there was always some pressing obligation to light a candle or say a decade of the Rosary, or remember some gruesome martyrdom and feel suitably sorry/rebuked/penitential) Enough already! Today is today and the past is over and done with.

But I’m surprised to discover that today is a day for remembering – remembering so very much! It’s a day of nostalgia! Whether I want it to be or not. And it’s OKish because it’s a gently happy sort of remembering. 28 years ago today my husband died. and I find that I’ve spent quite a bit of prayer time thanking God for him. His name was George, my blond haired, blue eyed, broad shouldered, Scottish, quiet, funny and really infuriating bloke. I miss him when I think about him, so I don’t often think about him these days. It’s deliberate – there’s enough pain without volunteering for it. He was here, he was lovely, and he’s gone and so I don’t dwell on missing him, but he’s also a part of my history, he’s a part of who I’ve become, and in a way he’s always with me. If I saw George walking down the High Street towards me, I wouldn’t really be surprised. He is still very much alive in my memory – his energy, his bouncy walk, the great smile. I know that time is an illusion, and we are already in eternity, so when I go to glory it will be as if he and I have been parted for only a breath, as if he was at my side a moment ago and now I have turned around to find him just a step away, waiting. And I won’t be too interested in him, anyway – I mean, c’monnnn…. he’s lovely and gorgeous but I’ll have God to look at! Blinding. Amazing. Wowser. All that and more.

George wasn’t a flowery man, but he did like sweet peas. At his funeral we found a florist who could get a huge box of them, although the season was almost over, and we scattered them all over the coffin. A neighbour has brought in a bunch of sweet smelling sweet peas today. How lovely! Maybe that’s what’s taking me back 28 years, making that terrible day as real and as clear as the present. Damn it. I was determined not to weep. I have to shake it off, there has to be a sort of gentle discipline to mourning ; I can remember, I can love, I can regret, but there’s an end to it to – wallowing ain’t good, morose-ing ain’t good, certainly not after 28 years. It’s self indulgent. And I know that morose-ing isn’t a word, but it should be.

The strangler

I have a few friends of my age, and we’re all adjusting, lumpily, to being in a new phase of life. I say ‘lumpily’ because that’s what it feels like – some days are smooth sailing and balmy – we say daft things like ‘The world is for the young’ and we almost fool ourselves that we are serene and untroubled, and then a damn great clot of memory or uncertainty, or realisation comes along and … yeah, it’s lumpy. Life as an oldie is…. different.

In the good old days, in Derbyshire, my life was very different. Mostly I began the day with a short drive to the David Lloyd Centre to swim for an hour or more in lovely clear water, with sparkling tiles, the sun streaming through the windows if we were lucky, and if the sun really was up to the mark I’d swim outside, up and down, lazily, and it was just wonderful. Then, a leisurely shower, and a long coffee and maybe toast in the cafe, drive home, walk the dog in the local park, be sitting down at my desk by 10am, when my London colleagues were also arriving at work (after a much less refreshing start to their day). Then I would work through to about 4 or 5, and to the next walk with the dog, maybe around Markeaton Park, past the lake, watching the boats and the children… or maybe we’d drive to Carsington Water for a much longer walk through the Derbyshire hillsides. Then back home, supper and work, work, work, work, writing until the wee small hours, falling into bed at about 2am and up again at 5.

Some days, of course, the routine was broken – we’d have a production meeting in the house, or pals would come for the evening, and we’d while away the hours. Some days it was a London trip, and I would be in St Pancras by 9.30, ready for meetings and all the noise and horribleness of a stinky exciting city, meeting friends who were also colleagues, sorting problems, maybe sitting in an edit suite, or over in the now defunct BBC Centre on Woods Lane…. I even remember when Central TV was in Portman Square! That’s how old I am! Central TV which is no longer, the concrete doughnut of the BBC that is no longer…. apparently it’s now luxury flats and I bet they cost a fortune.

So! What do I want to say? Listen, this is what I want to say. Today I’m not in Derby with pals and life and busyness and all that, today I can’t glide up and down, up and down in a sparkling swimming pool, and chat to my dear friends, and sit in my garden with my dogs. I have no swimming pool to go to here, and my friends are two hundred miles away, and there’s no garden… Today I have no George… but this is what I did this morning; I stood in the sea, up to my knees, as my dogs played in the waves, I gazed at the blue sky, I basked in the sun, I walked on the warm sand with another good kind friend. I came home and listened to a joyful life-affirming sermon, I took part in a Zoom call with church people as we said a heartfelt ‘fare well’ to one of our church family who’s going back to Canada. Then I went into my courtyard and realised that the sun was still reaching it (it goes into the shade around mid-day) so I sat there for a full 15 minutes just BAKING! That was lovely. When the sun went behind the chapel next door I came in and now here I am, snug in a cardigan and thick socks (my home is cold) talking to you.

Not a bad day, eh? How much do I have to complain about? Totally, absolutely, completely NOTHING.

If the Grinch is reading this, or the Grinch’s sidekick, down there in the hospital, in the clatter of a busy ward, this is for you, my dear friends: God is with you, God loves you. Through all the twists and turns of life he has you, tight. Even today. Especially today. Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn. That’s Isaiah that is. Surprise, surprise.

And this is David in the Psalms. He knew a thing or two as well. Psalm 121

He will not let your foot slip –
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and for evermore.

Absolutely you

A week ago, I asked a 13 year old, on her birthday, what she would like to do as an adult, and she answered “I would like to be an influencer.”

I asked her what sort of influence she would wish to have and, remembering that this was her 13th birthday, I’m sure you can imagine what she said; she would like people to be kind and good and gentle, not mean or judgmental. She would like to encourage them to like themselves, to know that they’re lovely, whatever they look like or sound like, or however they feel and whatever their lives are like. She would like to influence them to be kind to animals and to be careful with the environment.

Not a bad ambition. It beats “I would like to be a pop star” but it did feel like a conversation with piety personified. Perversely, I wanted to ask “Why don’t you want to be a formula one driver? Where’s the ambition to glide over the Alps with a jet pack strapped to your back, or to camp out in Antartica, or to sit in the rainforest with gorillas? How about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? ” I even bit back the more personal (attainable) ones “Wouldn’t you like to live on a boat, as I did, or camp out on Christmas Eve in snow, as I did, or come off a motorbike going down Charing Hill, or be in a plane as it crash-landed, or fall out of a sculling boat on a freezing February day (yeah, yeah, as I did), or lose power in a motorboat in a busy shipping lane, or meet the Queen or…” She would have looked at me as if I was mad.

You know, my life has been wonderfully mad. You might think that it’s hard for me now to slip into a life that’s sane and sensible. Too right, mate, it is! Often, often, it really is. But my life is still strangely and wonderfully – and quietly – exciting. No barrels required, no motorbikes or boats or planes. Sometimes the smallest things are more thrilling than any death defying parachute jump;

I came back from my dog walk and paddle yesterday with very sandy feet. I’d already showered when I woke up, so while the dogs wolfed down their breakfast I stepped into the cubicle and directed the shower rose at just my feet. It made me think of Jesus, washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:10 ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean…’ and I remembered a sermon I heard probably some months ago, and in that moment, washing the sand of the Irish Sea from my feet, I was there, with Christ, two thousand years past. And I absolutely understood! I had understood the sermon on the day, and benefited from it, but maybe it hadn’t quite ‘hit home’. And now it did. And how!

What did he say to the disciples? ‘And now you are clean…’ I watched the sand swirling away and felt a growing elation. I’m having a few spiritual tussles right now and I know that I’m not always making the right choices, not always turning to God as I should… but I watched the sand as it was washed away, and for that moment I really was standing there, with God.

I’ve embarked on a distance learning course on the Bible, and the very first module warns against adopting a Bible verse out of context and claiming it as uniquely or specifically relevant to our lives today. Warns against putting a bias on it to suit our own desire and to make it all about ME.

Was I guilty of this error? I padded, wet foot, to my desk, and looked up the whole incident… Jesus teaching a life lesson in a simple act of service. The reading, together with the sermon I remembered, came together. Fabulous realisation, wonderful, life-giving truth! If we belong to God, if we have already gone to him with all our brokenness and sin and humanity, and asked sincerely for forgiveness, claimed his sacrifice, submitted our lives to him… we are clean. Clean as clean. Head to toe, clean. Forgiven. Our faults and sins gone, as if they never were. But then we live on.. we wake up the next day in a bad mood, or feel unloved, or are no one’s priority, or we’re short tempered or selfish or … a thousand other human flaws…. and we are no longer clean. Our feet have stumbled. We’re in the doo-doo. So then we step out of that and into …. contrition. We turn again to Jesus and we ask his forgiveness, and we learn by the experience, and we are clean…. until the next time.

I get it. Daily humility. Daily reckoning. Loved and owned and claimed, however faltering. And his love more than compensates, his forgiveness heals, cleans, restores. And we grow more and more humble, more and more thankful, more and more assured. Paradox, eh? The weaker we are, the stronger God’s influence becomes in us. I really did understand it when I heard the sermon, but sometimes it takes time for a truth to inhabit us, heart, mind and soul..

Isn’t that paradox exciting? Isn’t that more breath-taking than some crashing, pounding, soaking, shattering plunge down a waterfall in an old beer barrel? It is! Isn’t that more exciting than crash landing at Orly airport with a wing on fire? It is! Isn’t it more life-affirming than trotting to Buckingham Palace to queue up for a handshake and a pink medal? It bloody well is!

God makes me spanking shiny clean every day. I wasn’t just dipped and rinsed and made squeaky clean 30-something years ago. I am new every morning. I am new every time I falter and realise and turn to God in submission and a kind of joy. ‘Joy’? When I’ve sinned? Paul would have something to say about that (Romans 6:1) but you know what I mean – sorrow that I’ve stumbled but fabulous joy that God is waiting to welcome me home. Relief and gratitude.

God’s love is unending, unvarying. Your life might be dull and lonely, you may feel that no one cares, that you are no one’s priority, you may struggle with mental health or marital or financial worries…. all these things are real. Horribly real. But more real, more powerful, more immediate than any of these emotions and thoughts, is God. He holds all things together, and that’s ALL things. He holds the Moon and the Sun and the Earth, and you and me. He is omnipresent and timeless, he is here and now. With me as I sit in the lamplight at my desk, with you wherever and whenever you read this. Know that God loves you. Now and always.

God is love. He loves you. Regardless of your circumstance, regardless of your role in life, regardless of the lifetime of sin behind you and the sin you just committed, and whether you’re 90 and ready to bow out, or 13 years old and up for a lifetime of adventure, He loves you.

You.

Absolutely you.

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