Monday, 19 April 2021

A-Z Challenge - J: Jesus

Well, who knows what letter of the alphabet everyone else is on? I am on J, which is a good place to be, because that's where Jesus is. 

Once again, an old post but this time heavily reconfigured. Some things do not change, do they?


'In the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus.'

This is a quote from a traditional spiritual song that I don't know which was famously (apparently) arranged by a lady called Alma Blackmon. The words are very simple, and beautiful and the refrain: 

'You can have all this world
Just give me Jesus'.

That's about it. 

There have been a handful of times in my life, Lord God, when I've run out of... well, everything. Energy, ideas, patience, peace of mind. This week is pretty much one of those times. It's been a week in which anxiety and worry linked arms and barged their way back into my head where they set up camp and made themselves comfortable. Fear crept in quietly and ominously and now huddles with them round the camp fire and depression has taken a step out from the shadows and is asking to join in the conversation.

Give me Jesus. 

Lord, give me Jesus when I rise, and before that, when I lie in bed and stab at the snooze button and try to stay asleep because it's easier being asleep than awake. Give me Jesus when I come downstairs and try with as much tact and diplomacy and thick-skinned-ness to communicate with my teenage daughters who have their own sizeable problems at the moment. 

Give me Jesus as I exercise to try to loosen my aching joints and fight on against the accumulating excess pounds. Give me Jesus as I make phone calls and check for sad messages that are surely coming soon. Give me Jesus as I break news, as I make arrangements, as I try to think of things to say. Give me Jesus when I'm on the brink of saying things I should not say. 

As I spend time with people I love, give me Jesus so that they can see Him, not me. 

Give me Jesus as I try to find a meal that everyone will eat at a time when everyone is free to eat it. Give me Jesus as I head off to bed before my daughters and try to sleep not knowing when they'll go to bed and if they'll be able to get up in the morning. 

Lord, Give me Jesus. You can have all this world, just give me Jesus. 

Lord, you can certainly have all this world. I don't want it very much at the moment. It's a world full of broken marriages and pain and illness and hospitals and doctors and shaking heads and bad news and low self esteem and tears and waiting and lying awake at night not-knowing and filling the gaps with imagination that just loves to paint everything bleak and grim. 

It's a world full of shadows that are so dark that sometimes it's hard to see you.

It's a world where you are visible in the huge extravagant beauty of the magnolias blooming in my garden (well, the ones that survived last week's sub-zero temperatures) and in the promise of the flowers on the tomato plants and in the baby radishes peeping potential above the soil. It's a world of purply-grey stormy skies and lashing rain then watery sunshine and subtle rainbows and the smell of wet dusty ground. 

It's a world where those that have eyes to see and ears to hear can find you all everywhere - and all that's just lovely and great but right now it's not enough, Father God. I don't want to discern you in subtleties, I want to run actually, not figuratively, into your real, solid, faithful arms and feel the weight and strength of your embrace. To let my legs go as wobbly as they feel and let you pick me up effortlessly and hold me close like a little girl. 

Daddy, I'm tired.

I don't want to be strong. I want to give up. I want to stay asleep. 

I don't want to keep trying to communicate when I don't have words. I don't want to persevere with the goals I've set myself - who am I kidding? I abandoned them long ago, but they haunt me still. I want to sit down and not move. I don't want to make decisions and I don't want to explain bad things to small children and I just don't want to do any of it any more. 

I don't want to run the race, I'm tired and I want to rest. 

You can have all this world. Just give me Jesus. 


Wednesday, 14 April 2021

A - Z Challenge - I: Inadequate

Another repost - I'm trying to tell myself that this is not cheating, that it is still a way of reconnecting with my writing, but I fear I'm kidding myself. I can't believe that I used to have so many ideas and so much time. But - maybe that makes this post altogether more relevant to Right Now as well as Then. 

Maybe.

(First published as 'How to be a Small, Inadequate, Mighty Warrior').

Gideon had a word with me the other day.
I'm sure you've met Gideon. His story can be found in the Book of Judges in the Bible. 

I am drawn to Gideon. He felt small and inadequate, and I know that feeling.

Judges 6:12.  God sent an angel to chat with Gideon and the first thing the angel said was, 'The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.'

At this point I imagine Gideon looked behind him, because clearly there must be a mighty warrior nearby that he hadn't noticed. He wasn't feeling very mighty, or warrior-like; he was feeling defeated and weak and insignificant. What's more, he didn't feel particularly that God was on his side, but he rallies and very politely comes over all cynical:
'If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders...?'
Gideon was quietly doing his thing, minding his own business, and God came and told him to stop doing his thing, and go do a great thing.
'Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?'  
What about that? The clue is in 'Am I not sending you?' If Mighty God was telling Gideon that he was equal to the task of fighting the Midianites, then he probably was. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I'm not the one hiding from these same people and wondering what on earth is going on.

Gideon argues:
"'But Lord,' Gideon asked, 'How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.'"
You've got the wrong guy.

But God is patient and reassuring.
'Pull yourself together, Gideon. Blimey, how many times do I have to tell you? I am GOD. If I tell you you're going to be Superman, then you're going to be Superman. For Pete's sake, man up.'
Or not quite like that. God tells him that he would be with him.

Time and time again Gideon asked for proof that it was God, proof that God definitely was talking to him, proof that he'd heard God correctly. Did God get impatient? No, God humours him. Did God get a bit annoyed that he kept asking for a sign? Nope. God gave him signs.

God is endlessly patient. But that isn't the whole story. Of course, there's the bit about Gideon's defeat of the Midianites, the ongoing chronicles of the people of God and the glory of the Almighty shining through humble servants, there's that. But the thing that struck me is how God stoops down to choose ordinary people to do the extraordinary. When those ordinary people have hangups ('But I'm weak! How can I do this thing for you?') or insecurities ('I am the least in my family!') He reassures and equips.

God says: I will be with you. I'm going to hold your hand.

Go in the strength you have.

God didn't make Gideon feel strong. He didn't double the size of his muscles, or give him a couple of tanks and a huge army - He simply said, 'Go in the strength you have. Am I not sending you?'

If God is sending us, we'll be alright. He wanted Gideon to trust that he would be equipped when he needed equipping. Not right up front, able to see how things would play out, no surprises; to step out, just as he was, knowing that the Lord was fighting with him.

God wasn't talking to the person behind him who had bigger biceps and a bit more charisma.  I don't think it's any different today.  God says to me and you, 'I am with you.'

Doesn't He say to us, 'Go in the strength you have?' and, 'My power is made perfect in weakness.' (2 Cor 12:9) Doesn't He ask us to step out in faith, no knowing all the answers, with the knowledge that He is beside us and will give us what we need when we need it?

Forget the woman on the other side of church who is more beautiful than I am, more confident. Forget the other folks who are publishing their books and getting great reviews. Forget the guy who writes the blog that has so many more hits than mine. God has something else up His sleeve for them that's none of my business.

There is a plan just for me. God knows what He's doing when He asks someone to do something.

Sounds straightforward, doesn't it?

Funny how the Bible has been around so long and yet nothing changes. I compare myself with others just as Gideon did and I find myself wanting, just as he did. I wonder why I should try anything when that mean little snipy voice tells me that it's been done better by someone else already. I wonder why I should even entertain the possibility that God has a calling for me, little me, pathetic little me... just as Gideon did.

I'm not saying that I am a spiritual giant of the stature of the Old Testament heroes. But what I heard as I read the story of Gideon this morning is that the Biblical Big Guns had cold feet too. Even they doubted themselves and felt small and insignificant sometimes.

I so often feel ill-equipped for the task of living as God would have me live just on a day to day basis. If God has something for me to do, or say, or write, or tell people about, then I'm quite sure I'll worry about that too. Why me? How, me? And yet the answers are right here.
'Am I not sending you?'
If the Lord God Almighty is asking, then I'm dancing. If He's sending, then I'm going. Because He also says, 'I'll be with you.'

There's no safer place than where God is. Even on a battlefield (and my life sometimes feels just like a battlefield). But look what Gideon did. He defeated the Midianites, just as God said he would, even if he was from the weakest tribe, even if he was the least in his family. 

God was right. How 'bout that?

So when I feel defeated by circumstances and inadequate and afraid, I should remember that God's power is perfect in weakness. Well, that's something I can do: if weakness is required, I can provide it!  In buckets. When I am weak, He are strong. If God is by my side, and I am hearing His voice, then I have sufficient strength for the next step. He will provide all I need.

I need faith, Lord. Always more faith. Sometimes believing is hard.

I need to hear the voice that told Gideon, 'Go in the strength you have. Am I not sending you?

Amen, Father.



Tuesday, 13 April 2021

A - Z Challenge - H: Home

Well, I'm behind already. I suppose it was inevitable. But still, onwards...

This is an edited version of an old post that I wrote in answer to the question, 'Where's home?' and 'What does home mean to you?' Bit of a lengthy answer; it's more of a potted biography I suppose. But home is many things, and not always geographical. 

Home

I am from Derbyshire, a town with a crooked spire and Roman history, celebrated market and too many Tescos. Peak District hills and dales and moors and crags. I am from the county furthest from the sea in a small, crowded island that can sometimes feel big. 

I am from 1930s bay window, back garden photographs, chunky legs and a scowl in front of the conifers in the garden, tiny then, towering last year, now gone. I am from endless summers, droughts and ladybirds, watering the vegetables with bathwater. From snowmen and snow-in-your-wellies and cocoa in blue and white striped mugs. 

I am from bucket and spade, hunt for seashells, run from seaweed, cool wind off the North Sea beach holidays. Caravans and car journeys and endless photographs. I am from pub-lunches and motorbike rides and leapfrogs and awful school dinners. 

I am from 'Jesus' sandals, sensible shoes, gabardine raincoats, falling down white socks, wonky fringe, cheese and beetroot sandwiches, skipping ropes, grazed knees and space hoppers. From shoe buckles snagging on the sofa cushions, wax crayons and writing stories in tiny notebooks. From beans on toast, pikelets with melted butter and canned fruit and blocks of ice cream in the freezer compartment. My mum's rice pudding; the best in the world. 

I am from Sunday lunch at Grandma's, chicken and gravy and endless grown up conversation and rhubarb-from-the-garden suet pudding (lines your stomach). I am from rocking chairs and setting lotion and cigarette smoke and bags of sweets and leaving my blanket behind and insisting that Daddy goes back to fetch it. I am from please-and-thank-you, kiss-it-better and it-won't-always-be-dark-at-six and if-at-first-you-don't-succeed... I am from reserved and English and stiff-upper-lip and a-smile-costs-nothing.

I am from Enid Blyton and Helen Dore Boylston and Nancy Drew and Jill's Gymkhana. I am from Bunty magazine, and my brother's Beano and then Just Seventeen and Mizz and Cosmopolitan. From shopping with Mum, saving up for things, giving things to Dad to mend rather than buy new. 

I am from Listen with Mother and Magic Roundabout just before the news with Dad and Andy Pandy after lunch with Mum and Mary Mungo and Midge. From longing for a Blue Peter Badge and from (the innocence of) Jim'll Fix It and Why Don't You...? Jacques Cousteau's Undersea World and the dull bit at the end of The Two Ronnies that grown ups found the funniest. From staying up late on New Year's Eve watching The Sound of Music for the very first time. 

I am from eager to please at school, english lessons easy and maths lessons hard. I am from too much homework and ice on the inside of the bedroom window above my desk. 

I am the bullied, the insecure, the prize-winning, the fearful, the prefect, the distrustful. I am from adolescence in the company of boys, not girls (much more straightforward that way). 

I am from hotbrushes, big hair, hairspray and Sodastream. From rolled up jacket sleeves and 'Flashdance' and 'Pretty In Pink' and 'The Breakfast Club'. From Slinkies and Sindy dolls and Pippa and thinking that ET was not remotely cute and being unmoved when he nearly died. 

I am from Atari tennis blip-blip electronic games and wishing for a Donkey Kong. From three TV channels and no video. From the girl with the teddy and blackboard and the National Anthem when the telly was finished. I am from the days when we had our first phone installed and it went bring bring and we sat on the stairs in a draught to talk. 

I am a teenager in the middle of a crowd on a hot, hot day listening to an evangelist talk about Jesus Christ. I am the only one there. I am lost and I am found. I am one of those stumbling past rows of knees to get to the aisle, self-consciousness forgotten, to turn my tearstained face upwards and say yes, please to the One who really saw me. 

I am from church youth group, boyfriends, church camps in the Lake District, exam-passing, teacher-pleasing (mostly) and the first in the family to go to university. I am from Bronte, Hardy, Clare, Keats and Shelley. From Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jonson, Rosetti, Milton and Byron. 

I am from churchy, goody-goody, black and white, right and wrong, finding out about the grey the hard way. I am from broken heart, church work disillusionment and faith on the back burner. From broken friendships, loneliness and confusion. I am from knowing what I want, not knowing what I want, changing my mind, changing direction, worrying my parents. 

I am from leaving the country, seeing the world, running from decisions, backpacking, bewildering long haul flights and sleeping on coaches, brushing teeth out of a window, getting by with language, camping under the stars; geyser fields and sunrises, waterfalls and air so thin it's hard to breathe. Condors and sloths and llamas and butterflies and cockroaches. From the beauty and the grime and the wonder and the riches and the poverty. 

I'm from Derbyshire, Newcastle, Liverpool, London. From old friends, new friends, new town, new university, new dreams. Anatomy, physiology, sociology, psychology. More exams, romance, wedding magazines, diamond rings and flowers. I'm from happy, holding hands, holidays and freedom. I'm from uniforms, paperwork, hospitals, making splints, holding hands, mending bodies, teaching skills, ticking boxes, climbing the ladder, striving, achieving, trying so hard but wondering what else there must be. 

I'm from sentimentality, memories, diaries, journals, fragments of stories. Creative writing, photography, bereavement, childbirth. I am from fractured sleep and crying babies and confusion and despair. I am from post natal depression, lost and lonely and fearful, and then found once again and comforted and held tight.

I am from coming home to church and finding that it was not God who went away but me. I am back to live in the house with the beautiful back garden with the people who mean the world to me. 

I'm from middle age and aching joints and calorie counting and calorie ignoring, comfort-eating and exercise regimes started and discontinued. I am from self-conscious and struggling, from the land of low self-esteem and distorted self-image; but I am awake again to the truth of how much I am loved, and I want to tell the world: if I am loved like this, then you are too. 

I am from gratitude and awe and tearful thanksgiving. I am from hands-in-the-air worship and head-bowed in prayer. From day-by-day, hour-by-hour keeping going, carrying on, doing my best, starting again, not giving up. 

I am from closed-fist to open-palm, from rags to riches, from darkness to light.

I am wife and mother and daughter and sister and friend. 

I am a child of God. 




Thursday, 8 April 2021

A-Z Challenge - G: Gospel (choir)

Well, this is a little tenuous, I admit, but it's almost bedtime and I've only just sat down with my computer so I'm afraid this offering is a repost of something previously published as 'Joy, Sister'. So to file it under G is a bit of a cheat, really. 

But it is about a Gospel choir. It's about Gusto. It's also about God. 



Here's a little anecdote. A true story. 

New York city, nineteen ninety something. Backpacking with a friend. The Empire State building, the Twin Towers, the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty in one weekend and then, before we caught a train somewhere else, Sunday worship at a cavernous and very well known New York church.

It was held in a huge theatre right in the heart of Manhattan. There were thousands of people swaying to music and and the service hadn’t even begun.  A vast gospel choir in red and purple robes with big white collars straight out of the Blues Brothers had a band with guitars, keyboards, a five piece rhythm section and more brass than you could shake a stick at. Swirling spotlights played on the congregation as the music got louder.

Then, without warning, a small, bald man with an impossibly shiny head trotted out from the wings, bowed to the assembly and began to convulse. Nobody bat an eyelid; indeed the band started to play - it turned out that he was conducting, and with such energy that it looked as if he’d been electrocuted. 

The place erupted. Everyone was on their feet, reaching for the heavens, calling out, and dancing with breathtaking abandon. They were full of the Spirit and He was most certainly bursting out all over. I could only gaze in awe at the uninhibited celebrations all around me  – I was overwhelmed by something I’d never seen before (or since, actually); something so wonderful but a galaxy away from church back home. No, further than that. 

Worship here was a whole-body experience. 

Fingers outstretched, arms waving, hips gyrating, eyes tight shut and expressions of ecstasy or pain – it was hard to tell which. 

The aisles were full and so people danced even in the confines of their rows. 

For me, trapped mid-row, twenty oblivious, ecstatic bodies between me and the aisle at either side, I felt my personal space somewhat invaded.  

Despite being stuck in the middle, I was definitely on the outside looking in. You might say that I was significantly outside my reserved, Anglican comfort zone.

Not knowing the unfamiliar songs I hummed along. I had my hands very firmly in my jeans pockets. I have to admit that I became so carried away with the music that I may or may not have perhaps been tapping my right foot.

They were singing a song about the joy of the Lord. At last! I knew this one! I could remember the words and with what, for me, passes for great gusto, I added my little warble to the beautiful harmonies and counter harmonies that were so effortlessly and energetically offered all around me. I began to enjoy myself.

Until.

The very large orange and purple clad lady gyrating to my left nudged me in the ribs with a meaty elbow and leaned over to bellow in my ear:

‘I don’t see that joy, sister!’

Well. 

I don’t know if she expected me to switch it on like the Oxford Street Christmas Lights, maybe, but what joy there had been – and there had been some, actually, easing nervously out of its hiding place,  limbering up for something a bit special - like a bit of swaying from foot to foot, maybe - well, that bit of fledgeling joy panicked, elbowed his way through the crowd and fled the theatre right then. 

She didn’t see the joy. Well, I can understand that. 

It would take a trained eye. 

It was there, though. Honest. 


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

A - Z Challenge - F: Friend

This is a little something I wrote as an exercise on a writers' weekend. We had to write a parable; a narrative that held a deeper meaning. Something that could be read on different levels, allowing the reader to pull out truths as they saw them, embedded in story. Here it is.


My Friend (first published as 'Treasures Everywhere')

This afternoon I went for a walk with an old friend. We haven't spent time together for quite a while - I'm not sure why. He's always good company but I've kind of got into the habit of walking with other people, or even just by myself. That's when there's time for things like that at all, of course; everything is such a rush these days!  Anyway, my friend seemed a little surprised to be asked but as soon as he heard my voice he was full of enthusiasm. So delighted was he to hear from me that my pleasure was tinged with a little guilt, if I'm honest.


Anyway, we went for a stroll on a beautiful sunny summer's day. It was very pleasant. We chatted about this and that - or at least I did; he didn't say very much and so I felt a bit as if I needed to fill the gaps in the conversation. I probably went on a bit but if he found my monologue tiresome he didn't let on. He just listened and smiled encouragingly.

We reached a point where the path forked into two. Left or right? I hesitated.

My friend knew the area much better than I did, so I asked him which was best. He shrugged  and told me it was my choice. I felt a pang of irritation at his reticence, but quickly rallied.

After scrutinising each path, I chose the one that looked easiest walking. I was only wearing my battered old flip flops; not the best choice for a walk in the woodland, as it turns out.

I chided myself that I should have been more prepared. I hadn't really given much thought to what I'd need before I set off.

Easy walking indeed! Before long the path took a sharp and rocky upward turn. I set off up the steep gradient somewhat hesitantly as it would have been very easy to slip in my inadequate footwear. A couple of times I felt the reassurance of my friend's hand on my elbow, which was very welcome. I was soon out of breath and stopped talking to him completely. Again, he didn't seem to mind but stayed beside me as we climbed. Later I realised that when we got to the top and flopped down for a much-needed breather I should have thanked him for his assistance, because I'm not sure I'd have made it without him, but embarrassingly, it didn't cross my mind.

Funnily enough, it was the downhill section where I nearly had an accident.  Feeling more confident, I had taken the lead and my friend did not call me back as I strode off ahead. He followed not far behind, but let me do my thing. I very nearly came unstuck as my bare foot slipped on some loose rocks and I stumbled badly. After that rush of adrenalin I slowed my pace a little and stayed closer to my sure-footed friend. The experience had also taught me to pay closer attention to the path to try to avoid another mishap.

I was so focused downward that I would not have seen the baby rabbits playing in a clearing, if my friend had not gently stopped me and pointed. What a delight!  He encouraged me to slow down and not worry so much about each single step, or what was round the next corner. I resolved to follow his advice and go at a more leisurely pace so that I didn't miss any other wonders along the way. It is too tricky to concentrate on one's feet and take in the scenery at the same time.

After a while, we had a welcome rest on a bench. My friend produced a bottle of cool water and handed it to me. I looked at him in astonishment; he seemed to know just what I needed! I drank deeply - almost forgot to leave him any if I'm honest - and felt much revived. I sighed happily as we took in the vista below our vantage point.

The woods opened out below onto a lush meadow of wild flowers bordering a small, still lake. It was the perfect spot - so very beautiful. I could feel the gentle breeze cooling my forehead and hear the whisper of the trees and the song of the birds. I slipped off my sandals, felt the soft grass soothe my sore feet and inhaled the fragrance of honeysuckle. What a treat! I smiled broadly at my friend, who seemed to be taking pleasure in my relaxation.

Much restored, we resumed our walk at a much gentler pace. Neither of us said very much; conversation seemed unnecessary.

We walked companionably side by side, stopping often to admire a flower, a leaf, a ladybird. My friend had the gift of spotting nuggets of interest that I would have walked past, but as I paid attention and fell into step with him, I began to notice more and more for myself. Each time I paused to examine something, my friend encouraged me with his delighted response to my observations.

We rounded a corner and I realised that we were almost at the spot where the path had divided earlier. The sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees lighting up the leaves in more shades of green than I had known existed. I remarked that it had not really mattered which route we took through the woods; there were treasures to be found everywhere! My friend laughed affectionately and I felt full of gratitude toward him. His company had made all the difference.

It had been such an agreeable afternoon that we made plans to meet again for another wander in the woods. My friend somehow seemed to have all the time in the world and would have agreed a date and time immediately; he seemed a little disappointed as I flicked through the pages of my well-worn diary for the next few busy weeks and drew a blank. I promised to telephone him at my earliest convenience. 

We said our goodbyes and I left him leaning on the stile at the end of the path to the woods watching my departure with a strange look on his face.

Glancing at my watch I realised that a number 62 was due from the high street any moment. If I got a wriggle on I could be home in time for the prayer meeting at church.

I hurried towards the bus stop.









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