A messy story, please.

This is from the Passion translation of the Gospel of John, chapter 1. I love the more familiar versions rather more, but it’s good to explore other ways of telling the same story, a new way of expressing the old truth;

In the beginning the Living Expression was already there.
And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God.
They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning.
And through his creative inspiration
 this Living Expression made all things,
 for nothing has existence apart from him!
A fountain of life was in him, for his life is light for all humanity.
And this Light never fails to shine through darkness—
    Light that darkness could not overcome!

I really understand how the Word, as in other versions, can also be the Living Expression. That Christ is both the Word (the Gospel, the truth) and the Living Expression (of God’s reality) seems to close the circle for me. To make perfect undeniable truth of faith.

Hey – getting all geared up for Christmas I thought there would be a soppy old Hollywood snowy film on the box but I’ve just watched ‘Resurrection’ starring Joseph Fiennes, a good (not wonderful, but good) film covering the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s a strange choice for a broadcaster in Advent, right enough, but it was refreshing to see a film that made a serious attempt to tell the Christian story. I went to bed wondering why, although it was head and shoulders above most films about Jesus Christ, it was still simplistic, unsatisfying. And then I realised – in the daily life portrayed there were no struggling donkeys, no messy village streets, no manure, no dirt anywhere, no dust, no heat, no sweat, no washing drying in the sun, no flies (except in the exhumation scenes), no filthy feet, no snotty crying children, no torn clothes (except the artfully designed tatters of a few clean beggars) and the Jewish people spoke the same perfect language as the Roman conquerors, and a Jewish Rabbi pulled out a seat and sat down with a Roman governor (unconcerned about uncleanliness) and all the disciples spoke with the same inflection and accent and everyone was well educated and neat, and no one swore, and the fishing boats were picture-book smart…..Israel in the year 32 was, apparently, quite like Eastbourne in 2021.

I have lived in Egypt. It was a long time ago but I still remember. And I have photos….

I’m sorry this so out of focus – his little lad would sit on the swing with me.
And this shepherdess would lift her veil to waggle her long loose black teeth at us, so that we screamed in delicious fear and ran away, with her waving her stick and laughing fit to bust

We lose something precious and revelatory when we forget that the world Jesus was born into, and died in, and rose from, was very very different from the world we know, now, in the West.

If we want to find a modern comparison with the rural life of Israel, back then, we’d probably have to go to Iran or Iraq, or Afghanistan. If we wanted to find a comparison with the rule of Rome, where would we go? North Korea doesn’t quite cut it. Or a society crippled by religious bigotry? Afghanistan again? None of them quite present the environment that Jesus came into. Jesus was born into a very particular and idiosyncratic time and place.

God didn’t send his Son into a well organised and respectable world of finely balanced diplomacy, or into a community served by social services and utility companies. God chose to become man in the chaotic, oppressed, religiously bigoted, poverty stricken, primitive world of the Middle East. There were two worlds in Israel’s cities – the streets and the Roman Garrisons, the haves and the have-nots. The Romans had sewers, the Jews did not. The Romans had civic law, the Jews had ritual, the Romans had wealth and might, the Jews had poverty. The film paid no attention to any of that.

Outside the Roman garrison society there was a divided rabble, with many tribes and many languages, and we get a vivid description of that in Acts 2 when the Apostles started to speak in a language understood by everyone ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ No film could do full justice to a society as rich as that, but this one didn’t even try, didn’t acknowledge the variety of clashing cultures in any way at all. Everyone was quite civilised and reasonable and well spoken.

The more I reflected on ‘Resurrection’ the more I realised what a disservice we do to the Gospel when we sanitise it. The world the film makers showed us bore no relationship to reality. In that region trees are precious, with no great areas of forest, so fuel for the fire was dried dung, piled high in the sun… water was drawn from a well serving a whole village….. animals were slaughtered at home, bleeding to death in the dust …. bodies were buried quickly in the heat… women died in childbirth…. life expectancy was short… birth defects were common… leprosy was rife… girls were mothers as soon as they menstruated… theft was punishable by amputation… adulterers were stoned to death… crucifixions were arbitrary… life was short and cruel.

This is the world Jesus was born into. Messy, dirty, harsh. And he was born into a world of vicious, greedy men, into the very religion that would want to kill him from the moment of his birth, and would succeed when he was in the prime of life.

But it’s not all grim – the old fable that there was no room for them at the inn is probably a misunderstanding of the word translated as ‘inn’. Mary and Joseph had walked many miles to Bethlehem, to join family there for the census, and just about all the theologians and archaeologists agree now that Jesus wasn’t born in the stable of an inn, but at a relative’s house.

The theologian Rev Ian Paul tells us ‘The actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, where the animals would feed. So Jesus would not have been born in a detached stable, but in the lower floor of a peasant house, where the animals were kept.’

Emmanuel was born in a sheltered room, dry, sweetly smelly from the animals, lit at night by lantern… cosy. I’m glad. But still, hang on, not that cosy and safe, birth is messy and dangerous- there’s the pain and the urgency, the contractions, the mother trying to understand what each new feeling means, should she push? Is this normal? And then the first sight of the baby’s head (you hope not his foot or bottom) and then the baby, the waters and blood and placenta… messy. And that’s how Jesus was born. A messy process.

From eternal glory to humanity. For us. The cute tableaux we set up in our homes at Christmas are good reminders, but they don’t tell the story of God’s sacrificial love.

The world doesn’t want to recognise that this is the greatest, most dramatic story ever told, visceral and shocking, and so it turns it into a cosy fable for children. What a terrible waste of the greatest gift, the greatest story, of all time. And the only story that ultimately matters.

“The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”  Mere Christianity CS Lewis

I wonder if I will ever fully understand the great gift of Jesus? There are moments when I almost do. And then I remember that I must give Percy his eye drops, or I wonder if I’ll have time to start the Christmas cake tomorrow… and the moment flits away. I want to sit still in the amazement of Christmas, I want to comprehend the dirt and heat and sweat of Bethlehem, the pain of birth, the trauma of that first breath to every child and especially to this one, I want to be aware of the rough linen on his tender skin, and to remember that this was for me. For me. For you. For every one of us.

For here is the way God loved the world—he gave his only, unique Son as a gift. So now everyone who believes in him will never perish but experience everlasting life. John 3:16 TPT

What a gift. What a gift.

PS. !!!!!

I got up from the screen, put the TV on for Masterchef and what did I see? These…. a manger scene, a white Mary, a blond Jesus… just one more cosy tale for five year olds. Aaaaaargggghhhhh!

No no noooooo!

Yeah, it’s Isaiah again. So?

Shoot me. It’s Isaiah. I know it always seems to be Isaiah with me. I can’t help it. Shush.

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.

That’s in Isaiah 46:4

It looked this year as if I would have to move from this house and find somewhere to rent, probably not around here because there’s very little rental property in the village. I was OK about selling up and moving, in fact I’ve been homesick for England for a few years, but then something very strange happened – when my neighbours and friends, and even people I barely know, heard that I was going they showed deep, real concern for me. I was quite taken aback – I don’t join in much with the village social life, I think that in the 14 years I’ve been here I’ve judged a couple of talent competitions and done a tiny bit of writing for newsletters, and that’s it. But suddenly I was aware of a great blanket of care being draped around my shoulders. Not soft words and a ‘we love you’ meaningless mantra, but real care. Real Biblical care.

People I had never had more than a cursory conversation with came into the house or stood at the door, asking if they could help, was there no other way, saying they would miss me, that they didn’t want anyone else in this house, all sorts of touching and awkwardly uncertain attempts to reach this stubborn heart of mine, and to sway me. But I couldn’t afford to be swayed – it was a simple practical solution just to move away. I began to feel a bit frustrated that they were so insistent, wouldn’t it just be so much simpler if they let me go and I went on my merry way whistling a happy tune? Why all this emotion?

I kept telling them it was OK, me moving. And that God would look after me. It was a dog-walking Scrabble friend, Anne, who said “Maybe God has sent us to look after you because you won’t look after yourself” and that really floored me. Maybe God had sent them?

I have lived all my life moving from place to place. It’s easy. Moving is easy. Pack your bags and go. As a child I lived in Army quarters, in Derry, Omagh, Scarborough, Egypt and Cyprus. When my mum died I lived with relatives in Lancashire. Then moved with my father to Wiltshire and then Somerset. Then came Yorkshire and London, and Kent and Derby and South Africa, and Canada, and several different homes back in Derbyshire, then Wales….. Moving is easy.

If you don’t let it hurt you, it doesn’t hurt.

Except it does. And as these people so stubbornly nagged me to stay, and worried about me, they were beginning to make me feel bad about going. It was beginning to hurt. A new feeling I could do without.

It began to dawn on me that these people were my family, more than my long-ago society in England, more than church, or my work colleagues. For the first time ever I dreaded moving, and my prayers began to subtly shift… is there any way I could stay? Is there?

Prayers are sometimes answered in the most surprising way and also in a pretty damn short space of time; a wonderful answer to my difficulties came knocking on my door, right out of the blue, and moving was no longer the only answer. A stranger had heard someone talking about me, saying how much I would be missed (me!) and he had a solution, a solution no one had thought of. It was as if I was being held, held tight. It was a heart warming answer to prayer, my own miracle.

Yesterday was my birthday. I don’t set much store by birthdays but then I’m often surprised by how much I enjoy them. When I turned 60 I had just moved into this village and we had a right rip-roaring party. There was everyone from past and present, friends, actors, producers and comedians from England, the local vicar and a few neighbours, my grandchildren and family… it was a brilliant night, and some drink was taken. The vicar then was a small round man, a would-be thespian and one of my abiding memories of that long long night is him walking unsteadily away up the street, singing – or trying to sing – the Madness song ‘My girl’s mad at me’ while his wife walked on ahead, indeed a tiny bit cheesed off.

This year and for the last few years it’s been a deal more sedate, but just as special. Quiet days of joy and reflection. Yesterday it was a walk on the windswept beach, my phone pinging several times with birthday messages (some were even quite polite). Home to coffee and cosiness, before a shopping trip to get some stuff for Covid pals. When I dropped their goodies off, they had my present waiting by the door and shouted at me, through the closed window, to open it so that they could see my face. It was the best and silliest gift ever. In the UK we erect blue plaques on houses where really famous people have lived – something like this

and for my 73rd birthday my friends had given me this

Still lives here

Isn’t that funny? I am going to put it up in the porch to make me smile every time I come home, and to remind me that even when I’m alone I am held and sustained. And that sometimes God uses people to show me his love.

And in 23 days we celebrate another birth; we’re in the countdown, the tree is up, the lights are lit, Dawn French has been turned into a fairy for M&S, and this year I have learned that love really IS all around.

And who is love? Oh, that’s right, God is love. God is all around. Emmanuel. God with us. Here in my village, and wherever you are.

In a great billowing cloud

Hebrews 11 is all about the greats of the Bible, acknowledging the inheritance they passed on to us, and then Chapter 12 starts with this (I’m reading the Passion Translation just now)

As for us, we have all of these great witnesses who encircle us like clouds.

I love the thought that all the greats of faith, everyone who went before us, are encircling us like clouds. We’re in the middle of a great crowd, millions and millions of believers who went before us, passing the scriptures down to us, and creating traditions we still follow today, sharing and teaching their experience of God and their understanding. And I love that the writer has so intimately included you and me in the ‘us’ he writes about. We are in the midst of that great cloud. Everyone we know, a part of that great surge of humanity, those with us now and those we have loved who are already in glory. We are all united in the love of God. Doesn’t that blow your tiny mind?

It’s very stormy in the UK and this morning I trudged through the dunes, unable to brave the beach and as we went down one dune into a little valley, bordered by banks of bramble and Old Man’s Beard, and the dogs ran ahead, excited and silly, with the wind up their bums, there was a sudden roaring overhead, all around us, shaking. It was above us, around us and even in us. More than a deafening noise, a sensation, a thrumming, an overwhelming. A roar with no direction. In that little hollow there was madness. The dogs stopped, confused, looking back, tails down, as the grass whipped and the trees howled. No time to be afraid, wonder pushes fear aside. It seemed to shudder the world, to reach into the bone and the heart and the mind, and then… it was gone.

It was just the wind. Just the wind. Wonderful, powerful, like standing in the middle of a vortex. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

This morning, peeping at the beach

We walked on, and reached the end of the path, and there before us was the sky and the sea, the sand whipping past, and I was the only one in the whole wide world. Well, me and God.

At the moment life here is pretty unrelenting; rain and wind is the easy bit, and after that comes bereaved friends, a pal who’s just tested positive for Covid, another who’s bedridden, one who’s been horribly ill for two weeks with no diagnosis, another friend has lost her workshop and livelihood in a house fire, I’ve had a very bad reaction to a booster, Macron is playing the wounded Frenchman and Johnson is bumbling around helplessly as people drown in the English Channel, there’s a new and more virulent Covid strain… grim, grim, grim. Enough already!

But listen, listen to the power in the wind, look up at the fabulous moon tonight, be aware of our smallness and the miracle of life and love all around us. Remember all those millions of Christ followers empowered by his love, know that you’re a part of that great billowing cloud, a part of that great energy, a part of that eternity! Think of the unending compassion and kindness of God, and know that even on a night like this, whatever is going on in your life, however the world is split by injustice, he is in control. ‘In him all things hold together.’

And lest you think I’m a right old Pollyanna, now I have to tackle the next bit of that verse in Hebrews;

As for us, we have all of these great witnesses who encircle us like clouds. So we must let go of every wound that has pierced us and the sin we so easily fall into.

Let go of every wound that has pierced us? What, even when it really really hurts and someone’s been really really unkind? And even when I’m already struggling with that? Even when it’s a wet dark night in wettest darkest Wales and we just want to fume and simmer and complain about something that’s so obviously not our fault (sort of, erm…) and we feel really ill and , well, you know… do I have to let go of my hurt even in those special circumstances? Can I plead a special case? Apparently not.

Bother. Don’t you just hate it when a verse lifts you up, and then convicts you?

But listen, the very next line is ‘Then we will be able to run life’s marathon race with passion and determination, for the path has been already marked out before us.’

All those little winding paths in the dunes, a witness that someone has walked that way already, that it’s a safe way to go, that when the storm lashes and the wind roars, on that path there is shelter and safety. The path is marked out before us, by that great billowing cloud of witnesses to the goodness and truth of God. The path is not always easy, but it’s always true. So, if tonight you’re sad and maybe lonely, or maybe hurt, or even angry, think about that great cloud of brothers and sisters, people who have gone this way before you, marking out the path for us, think about the writer of Hebrews, and I will too.

I’ll think about that last line, about letting go of hurt. Dammit. Nursing a grievance is so rewarding, isn’t it? It just feels good. Like a drug, like a lie, like a sin.

OK. That’s it. I’m off. Night night. Wherever you are, who ever you are, God bless.

The tiniest fleeting shadow of a glimpse

I’m on the last chapter in the novel ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell, and I really don’t want to finish it. I know (because the game was given away in ‘Mrs Bridge’, the earlier book) that he will die soon. There are just a few pages to go and I could have gobbled them up last night, but I saved them, like a choice morsel on the side of the plate, to be savoured and thought about and lingered over… but tonight I’ll have to read the last page and say goodbye to Mr Bridge. What a great character Connell, wrote! Here was a man who tried so hard to do no harm in life that he did very little good, was so circumspect and careful that he never discovered anything new, who believed most of all in the value of respectability never considering that there might be truer values to live by, never changed his mind or learned, never explored beyond the received wisdom of his childhood, never risked or hoped, instead he carefully and painstakingly planned. He had pride in his plans. A man with a strictly controlled life. But he was a kindly, careful and diligent man too, full of unspoken and unconfessed love, as if love was a dangerous thing, not to be trusted. He was a small-town successful man unwilling to recognise his limitations and his prejudices except in very rare moments of insight, and these he turned away from, afraid to explore them, to find out new truths about himself and the world. The whole novel lays out, in simple and often beautiful language, an unexamined life. His tragedy is not the life that he leads, which is like many millions of lives – home and family and work – but in his fear of looking beyond that life, to deeper.

Looking beyond the visible towards the invisible, or even looking beyond our consciousness towards our deepest selfish selves, there’s a cost to that. A helluva cost. And if we’re unwilling to pay that cost, like Mr Bridge, we’ll never understand more than that the earth is round, the sky is high and we all one day will die.

Oops, that rhymed. I keep doing that. Sorry. Makes me sound like a teacher in an infant’s class.

But what a waste it would be to squander a whole lifetime and never learn more than that the world is round, the sky is high and one day I will pop my clogs.

Some days, no – not days, some moments seem to come to us unbidden, outside of ourselves and well beyond our own reasoning. They can be a bit shattering and wonderful all at the same time. These moments are gifts from God. His grace. We can’t summons them, or create them, or determine that if we wait long enough they will come. They overflow from God, simply his. And if we embrace them, even when they reveal how small we are and how powerful God is, even when they shine a light on those dark parts of ourselves we’d rather not see, then… then… we begin to understand life. We get a tiny fleeting shadow of a glimpse of how great a gift it is to be alive, and of our place in eternity, and of the the greatness and the ineffable goodness and love of God. And that’s just bloody brilliant.

Where am I going with all this? I’m getting there. Hold on. There is a cost to submitting to God. And our only part in the whole truth of Christianity, is our willingness to pay that cost. There are moments on the beach…

Sunday morning

… there are moments when we sit with a dying friend, and moments when stand on a summit and see the world spread out below us, all sorts of moments when the joy of life and the miracle of humanity just hit us. POW! When we become aware that God is real and present. In all sorts of places at all sorts of times. But we can’t create them. They are gifts. And we can – like the fictional Mr Bridge – choose to turn away from them, we can choose to live the unexamined life because sometimes it’s unsettling and daunting to stand under a huge billowing sky recognising how small we are, how fleeting our lives… ‘life’s little day’. When we recognise the absolute purity and love of God we can’t help but recognise our own selfishness, and narrowness, our lack of purity and love. and that blinkin’ well hurts, big time. But we can either turn towards God in those uncomfortable moments, or turn from him. Like Mr Bridge, we can choose to deliberately ‘not think’ about who we are, and why we are, and what it’s all about.

Several times, in the novel, Mr Bridge begins to see the very edges of truth. He sits at the window on a dark and stormy night as leaves slap against the pane, and feels despair. But he doesn’t explore the moment, instead he turns away, goes to bed, seeks unconsciousness.

I’m not one for huge mood swings, from elation to despair, and usually I chug along, sort of half way between the two, but there are sometimes (not everso often!) moments of deep joy, glimpses of the eternal truth, of the nature of God, of completeness. I had a conversation yesterday with a scientist, and we were both marvelling at the technology we take for granted, from emails to Zoom to ‘intelligent ‘ machines and there on the beach it suddenly struck me….

and I know it’s not an original thought, but here goes: the greatest miracle and technological triumph is mankind ourselves. That two people can stand under the dome of the sky, two beating hearts in many millions, on a world that is one of millions, in a universe that may well be one of millions… and that we don’t just see what is around us, the sea and the hills and the birds, but we can imagine and reach out, and remember, and be aware of others half a world away, that we can look beyond the visible to what used to be visible and ahead to what will never be visible… that we can search for the unknowable and yet be content with the little we now understand…. and that all this is the gift of God and not from man…. POW! again, POW! A moment.

Billions of people, over millions of years. All those thoughts and experiences and beliefs. And one God. Why? Why do we exist? Here is the miracle, here is the truth I can’t turn away from, no matter how uncomfortable it is sometimes (I am a grubby little soul deep down); God made me in the image of God. In his image! Me! I mean, come on – me! You know… me! And daily, as I fall short, he loves me anyway. He loves me because he is love. Is that why he made me? Because he loves me? Wowser. Flip me. Bloomin’ ‘eck. And all that.

The scientist and me.. that was yesterday and a gift from God.

Today, walking along the beach with my three little hairy hounds, the sky was full of tumbling clouds, and the wind was brisk, the air fresh, like a long cool drink of water….

and my neighbour came along, jogging past the dunes, their grasses shimmering in the sunshine, and he held his arms wide. He’s a tall man, a broad man, bearded and cheerful, and he said “Give me a hug” and we hugged. Sod Covid, we hugged. It was a great hug. A bloody marvellous hug. Human contact. Love. I miss male hugs. I do. Men weren’t made to be single and neither were women. Men hug differently from women and this hug was a proper hug. Fabulous.

And that was a God moment. It was! No great thoughts, just a hug. Maybe God knew I needed exactly that, exactly then.

Yesterday and today. Tiny fleeting precious glimpses of the love of God. How spoilt am I?

Poor Mr Bridge, and everyone like him.

Save your breath

I’m a bit flabbergasted today, at the venom and aggression in our culture. The way it’s just woven into our daily lives right now. I’ve had a recent bad experience with a Facebook post that attacked a friend and although I follow only a few very select pals (and granddaughters), I’ve just heard about another horrible post leaving someone in tears. Wow! Where does all this desire for poking people in the eye come from? And when did it become socially acceptable to be unashamedly foul? I’d even say ‘proudly foul’. We are a divisive and quarrelsome lot. We just shout it out, don’t we? Blah blah bah! Me, my and mine.

Facebook. It’s a terrorist’s handbook “How to do massive damage from the comfort of your own laptop,”

I had a pastor who would say that simple but true phrase ‘It’s better to be kind than to be right.’ He said a lot of lovely things – he went through a phase of saying, with a broad smile ‘Jesus is brilliant – he says the words our hearts need to hear.’ My pal Jane and I would dig each other in the ribs and chuckle. We loved hearing that, the warmth and simplicity and truth of it. That’s what we should aim for, we should aim to say the words our listeners need to hear. Words to build up and encourage, to cheer and not demean. Words of love for goodness sake.

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not
traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (TPT)

Facebook, Twitter, the largely unregulated comments on news sites, and all the other anonymous or semi-anonymous forums, don’t know much about love. But it’s not just the internet. It’s culture, society, us. I read a very good comedy script the other day, really good, written by a bright and talented woman, and in the middle of it she unfavourably compared a hard working politician with the perverted child killer Myra Hindley. Really? This democratically elected accountable woman, a mother, is worse than a sexual predator and serial murderer? Political opposition has become so routinely vicious that we barely notice how we’ve degenerated into a brawling mob. The script was about love, and in the middle of it, POW! an explosion of naked tribal hatred.

We all, it seems, think we are right. All the time. About everything. And having eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we alone know the difference, and are entitled to say every little thing that comes to mind. No filter, just spew it out…

It’s the same with conversation, with political debate, with emails.

Oh! Emails. Here I go. It’s too easy to send an ‘honest’ and searing and extremely wise email putting the whole world or someone else to rights. Far too easy. I say this from experience, having been on both ends of those emails, sending and receiving. If you really really need to write them, write them. And then delete them. I have sent emails that I should have deleted and I’ve hurt the recipient. It’s all too easy.

I received one a few weeks ago that has paralysed me. I know that its most hurtful accusations are untrue, I know that the sender wrote in anger, that he’s in a difficult place in his life, that he now feels wretched to have revealed so much bile but, nevertheless, it has paralysed me. Affected my life. Here we are… stuck. Poor chap, how does he ‘unstuck’ himself and me? That’s what angry words can do, they can cripple both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader.

The world seems to be a shouty, bullish, belligerent place just now, and you and me, we’re part of that world. So, what do we do to avoid adding to the chaos?

Here’s good test, one that I’ve started using when I’m about to let rip and jolly well say it like it is…. it comes from Proverbs 12:18

Reckless words are like the thrusts of a sword,
    cutting remarks meant to stab and to hurt.
    But the words of the wise soothe and heal.

I ask myself ‘Do I want to hurt or to heal?’ To stab or soothe?

If you can’t imagine Jesus saying it, save your breath, leave it unsaid. Instead say a little silent “Oops, Lord! Nearly put my foot in it again.”

He knows our thoughts and forgives them, honours our silence, and loves us. And guess what? Whatever is wrong with the world, or with the person we’re speaking to, or the subject we’re speaking about, God can fix it. Only God.

Very alright

There’s a documentary, a fly-on-the-wall programme I sometimes catch a chunk of at the end of the day – I can’t remember if it’s called “Ambulance’ or ‘Hospital’ or “A&E’ but you get the idea. In the title sequence a small lad, probably about 4, is on a stretcher, his head immobilised by a collar and blocks, and this wee soul is looking at his parents and all the adults around him, saying, quavery and piping, “I am going to be alright, I am going to be very alright.”

At that point I turn off – the poignancy just too much. I don’t volunteer for sadness, even bitter-sweet happy-ending sadness. There is enough in any one life, without witnessing even more.

The bravery of that boy, so obviously afraid but desperately reaching out to reassure his parents, is too much to bear. When we are most afraid, that’s when we are our most courageous.

I have a very dear friend facing the end of life, going on to greater and better, full of trust and love for God as these last days pass. He is at his most courageous right now.

We will all know real poignancy at the end; broken hearted to leave loved ones, the people who mean everything in this world to us, but worn down by weariness, overtaken by acceptance that the time has come, and trust that all will be well… and all will be well.

I saw my friend a few days ago, but now he’s too frail for visitors. He knows that we’re with him, in prayers, united in the eternal bond of brothers and sisters in Christ. Ah, but there’s heart ache enough for any of us just now, so sad to think of him, sad to think of his so devoted wife, and the hard time they’re going through. Sad that no one can step into their pain and take some of it for them.

When I last saw him he was full of thankfulness, thankful for his years of family and work and travel, thankful that he was leaving his wife secure, thankful for his church and friends, but most of all thankful, absolutely full of thanks that he knew God, that he knew God’s love, that he was suffused with God’s love.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge,
will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:7-8

Tonight I thank God for him, and for his family, knowing that they will be held and comforted in the perfect love of our Father.

To understand love, is to accept the cost of loving, not just the joy but also the anguish; that they come together, hand in hand. When we accept the cost we begin to understand why God himself could give us no greater gift, pay no higher price, than Jesus. Love conquers all, even death.

You love him passionately although you have not seen him,
but through believing in him you are saturated with an ecstatic joy,
indescribably sublime and immersed in glory. 
For you are reaping the harvest of your faith—the full salvation promised you—your souls’ victory

1 Peter 1:8

The world changes

I have a friend with a magic bag. Every week as she arrives for lunch, before anything else, she unpacks her magic tote…. biscuits for the dogs, eggs when the chucks are laying, tomatoes when the season’s right, or it might be a pair of socks (!), or chocolate marshmallows, and today some rice I’d been unable to get. One day, I’m sure, she’ll pull out a rabbit and a pair of doves will fly up to the ceiling. Some weeks we have fish finger sandwiches with lashings of tartare sauce and sometimes it’s a pretend-macdonald’s beefburger, and today it was brunch- my favourite breakfast, fresh pears and waffles. Our Bible Study is a real treat, a chance to talk and laugh and eat and …. and then we squeeze in a bit of .. you know… well, sort of … study.

All good things come from God, including socks and waffles. We’re listening to Francis Chan’s series on the Book of James and just a couple of weeks ago we read

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

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

A couple of friends are also reading James and the bloke sent me a funny email yesterday headed ‘For widows in distress’. and the email read thus;
‘Guess what book we are going through? Want to practice some pure religion. Making a takeaway run on Thursday at 5 pm. Our treat. Place your order by return email or forever hold your peace. ‘

So I did.

Now, that’s what I call practical Christianity. I wonder what ancient James, in the heat and dust of the Middle East, thousands of years before cars and email would have made of it all? Wouldn’t he have been amazed that his words, straight from God but penned by him, can still make fellow followers smile, leading us to thoughts of God and acts of love, as we sit at a computer listening to another man (who had recorded himself weeks or months ago in America) his Bible in his hand, open at the book of James…. and that a husband and wife in a stone farmhouse are poring over the verses together, while the rain lashes down outside? Lynn and Luce, Alex and Renie…. Oh, James, I think it would have blown your mind. Incomprehensible.

But here’s the thing, with all our knowledge and technology and easy lives, the words James wrote are still teaching us. Still feeding us. Still guiding and convicting (and still getting this old widow a take-away).

But that was nothing to do with James, not really. James simply wrote what the Holy Spirit prompted, he didn’t have a clue, not an inkling, of all the people those words would touch. He thought it was a letter to Jewish Christians in that region, the 12 scattered tribes. How little he knew! And how little we all know right now about the work that God is doing around us and through us. Now, today. When we are obedient and sensitive to his prompting, the world changes. The world changes. We don’t change it but God does.

The other morning, in a daily meditation, praying for COP26, the speaker referred to Hosea 4

There is no faithfulness, no love,
    no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
    stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
    and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land dries up,
    and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the fish in the sea are swept away.

I’m no translator, what I’m going to do now has no authority, but this is how that seems to me, so many years later; Because of man’s faithlessness and lack of love, because he is Godless, full of sin, greed and violence, there is drought and famine and flood. Because of our disobedience, animals, birds and fish are dying.

If only we were obedient. If only. God’s plan is perfect and when we are obedient the world changes.

Great Expectations

This morning on the beach, in a blustery but oddly warm wind, I listened to the daily meditation on Lectio 365 (I recommend this ministry from the 24-7 Prayer organisation). Today its focus was on love, and as it was drawing to a close, the reader quoted a verse from Jeremiah, 31:3

‘I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love and more love!’

I was struck by this because I had never thought about ‘expecting’ God’s love, but although it was a new thought, it seemed right and true. Why had I never heard it before? I love the book of Jeremiah and must have read it three times in the last five years. How have I not thought about ‘expecting’ God’s love before?

The terrible, awful, cringeworthy phrase ‘I’ve never quit’ should have told me, that it was a quote from the Message version of the Bible. I do like the Message but there are moments when clumsy Americanisms break through in a way that seems awkward to the English reader. Making God sound like John Wayne, or John Travolta. So I stood there, sand whipping all around me, and looked up the NIV version of that verse

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

Ahhh, that’s more like it! But I can see how the translator of The Message, Eugene Peterson, came up with his choice of words – God has told us that his love is everlasting and unfailing, so if we fully believe what he says then we must expect love and never doubt it, although it seems like a bit of a cheek to take that verse and rewrite it into another command, however true.

Great expectations of a great great God.

The thought has stayed with me and nourished me all day. We should expect God’s love. What a great thought, Eugene. You can’t help being American. Thank you.

I have a friend who also can’t help being American, and others who can’t help being Canadian and others who can’t help being South African and some w.c.h.b. Dutch…. my American pal took her ‘right of residency’ test this week. Aren’t governments stupid? All governments everywhere. This woman has married a Brit, has lived here for years, studied here, works here, pays taxes, breaks no laws and yet she had to travel 130 miles and pay good money to take a stupid multiple choice test, jumping through a hoop to satisfy some bonkers rule.

Friends from different cultures enrich life. They make us smile just as we make them smile. This lovely American can’t bear our winding narrow lanes and their historical hedges, hankering after wide straight roads that ‘make sense’. My Canadian friends don’t laugh at the black comedy and gentle absurdity of Fargo as I do. My South African friends saw our ugly little red brick church and declared it to be ‘pretty’ or ‘sweet’ or something. My Dutch friends moor two kayaks under their window so that they can make a quick escape if a dyke is breached, but it’s worth the risk because their house is surrounded by hares and herons and rabbits.

You’re all very strange, but we love you anyway.

Us? Just as strange? Us? Surely not……

I mean, what’s strange about this national icon?

Sticks and stones

This is from the book of James:

‘,,,, mighty ships, though they are massive and driven by fierce winds, yet they are steered by a tiny rudder at the direction of the person at the helm.
For every wild animal on earth including birds, creeping reptiles, and creatures of the sea and land have all been overpowered and tamed by humans, but the tongue is not able to be tamed. It’s a fickle, unrestrained evil that spews out words full of toxic poison! ‘

Strong stuff, eh? Words spoken, whispered or written are powerful.

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ What a lie that is. Bruises and breakages, we get over. Words stay with us forever. Calling names and criticising are not only accusations, they’re a chronic assault, because once a word is said, a nasty murmur spread, it cannot be unsaid, there is no local anaesthetic to numb the hurt, there’s no arnica to ease the bruise. It’s there. Blame someone to harvest sympathy for yourself, take self-righteous delight in judging someone, and you demean everyone – yourself, the person you’re maligning and everyone who hears you. And what an example you give to the world.

What am I going on about? I’m going on about rotten stinking old Facebook, that’s what! And Twitter and a dozen other media platforms I’m too old (hurrah!) to know about. There have been two horrible posts in the last three weeks, from two different people, that have already done real harm. I don’t follow either of these people but the words they sent out into the world were exactly as James described them… unrestrained, spewing out. Within minutes of being posted they had done harm, from here to the ends of the earth for all I know…. while the people who had posted them sat back and felt … what? Satisfied? Justified? Triumphant? It’s the new way of throwing stones and running away, cowardly revenge, the new way of lobbing a hand grenade into a peaceful scene and watching the mayhem that results. It’s mean and grubby and deeply damaging to the writer and the reader. I want to go out onto the street and throw my arms wide and shout out loud and loud and loud

‘Stop it! Just stop it!

But it’s a bit like bad drivers – everyone you ever speak to is a good driver…. so where do all the idiots on the road come from? Everyone who talks about social media decries its misuse – so who’s doing the damage? One of the two posts I mentioned comes from someone who lectures others about privacy and cyber bullying. I just don’t get it.

Words are mean little things, and sometimes we are mean little things, all of us, but God is always good. And maybe the lesson to all of us is twofold; don’t say unkind things, and don’t listen to unkind things. Or threefold – Luce, don’t run out onto the street to shout ‘Stop it!’ Instead, remember Philippians 4:8 (TPT)

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.

OK, Paul. I’ll do my best. Here I go, thinking about good things…… fastening my thoughts on the glorious work of God.

This morning

Doesn’t that delight the heart? Amaze the senses? Feed the imagination? Bring God into the moment? Make the world seem a whole lot smaller and God a whole lot greater? Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

How amazing that, scruffy and grubby and stumbling as we are, he loves us. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you have done, he loves you. Right now.

Deo gratias, bigly.

Remember that I wrote about my open door policy a few days ago? That I love having an open front door so that friends can just walk in and treat this house as a sort of refuge? I wrote about ‘a much loved neighbour who will occasionally come swinging through the porch to enjoy a minor rant, and -on one occasion- to roar with frustration, but more usually to bring me a song (he’s a musician) or a story, or a cake from the Farmer’s Market.’ Well, he came in for a good humoured roar of frustration today (he has builders in and it’s a big old job)

Good morning to you too!

Doesn’t he just make you smile? Don’t you wish you lived in a village like this? A couple of hours earlier I had been on the beach

Today, 8am

And there, just out of the frame of this picture, I watched as a volunteer from marine rescue collected an abandoned and underweight seal pup from the high water mark. Later, on Facebook, we could see the dappled grey seal under a warming light, safe and comfortable, with people who knew how to care for him until he’s well enough to return to the sea.

Don’t you wish you lived in a village like this?

At mid-day a young friend popped in on her way to lifeboat practice. She stayed just long enough to give me a totally undeserved bunch of flowers and a big hug.

Don’t you wish….. ?

There are days when I’m reminded that this is a good place to live, with good people all around me. And something wonderful has happened that means I don’t have to move. I can stay here, continue walking on the beach, keep my door open, enjoy the sight of flowers on my table, the occasional hug, and thank God for the life he has given me. I’m amazed at the solution to my housing problem, because it had never occurred to me or to anyone else. But I’m not amazed that it’s happened. Does that make sense? The solution itself has taken me by surprise but I never doubted for one moment that there would be a solution, that God would provide what I needed. Just didn’t know what. And that didn’t worry me, because I knew that God was doing the working out, not me. When I work things out they are not quite so, erm, you know, worked out. They don’t last.

In Philippians Paul wrote

‘I am convinced that my God will fully satisfy every need you have, for I have seen the abundant riches of glory revealed to me through Jesus Christ!’

I’m no Paul, and I don’t know what you all need just now, but I do know that whatever problems you face if you face them with God, you have no cause to be anxious or afraid. Not that life will be all beer and skittles from now on, of course not, but you will be brought through troubles, held safe, buoyed up. That reminds me of that other Paul pearl of wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

If you’re feeling hard pressed just now, struggling, as many are, take heart, you do not need to be crushed or defeated or hopeless. Take heart, take a deep breath, and remember Jesus. Hey – I keep thinking of a rather, erm, sort of mawkish old old hymn. I don’t think I’ve ever sung it before but these days, these gentle simple days, I find myself singing the chorus over and over and taking such joy from it ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look deep in his wonderful face, and the cares of the world will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace’. I suppose I’ve always thought the hymn was a dirge, the words morbid, making me think of a death bed scene, like that old oil painting of the death of Nelson, all tragedy and melodrama and gloom. But actually they’re an anthem of joy and certain hope. If we do turn our eyes upon Jesus, the troubles of the world slip away, fade, lose all their power to make us distressed or anxious.

My life is simple. No fame, no great success, no fortune stashed away, no posh car and holidays abroad, instead I have God, the beach, an open door, friends. But don’t look at my happiness and think it’s anything to do with me. That I’ve done something to earn it. I’ve not cleverly planned my life and diligently aimed to arrive at this day, this happy outcome. It’s all a gift. My life is messy (it’s been messier) and most lives go through highs and lows and take unexpected turns, but there can be joy and peace even in the worst of days.

Joy and peace. Deo gratias. Thank God.

‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’

The key words are ‘as you trust in him’.

Good night, everyone. It’s half past midnight, and I can’t feel my feet because the heating’s gone off, so from West Wales, here’s a prayer for you: May God fill you, wherever you are, with all joy and peace, as you trust in him.