Foghorn

It would have been early, 5 am or thereabouts, when our sleep was interrupted by a long, loud blast on a ship’s horn. My other half was not impressed, saying it was a bit antisocial. It blasted again a few times more and then stopped. Later when we got up we couldn’t see the water or the bank opposite. It looked as though a cloud had parked in front of us. The blast was probably a cruise liner or cargo ship moving out along a stretch of river also used by small boats and rowers. So the foghorn may have woken the folks along the shore, but those on the water needed it.

One of the more ridiculous lies I have wrapped my scaredy-cat self in over the years goes like this: offence is worse than warning. So the best thing to do is to say nothing and hope that by being a really super-nice person others might be intrigued enough to give me opportunities to share the hope I have in Jesus. If I was really serious about that I should have got myself one of those badges pyramid sellers used to wear. ‘I’m a Christian. Ask me how.’

But I didn’t. Because for one thing, I was not nice enough consistently enough to arouse much curiosity. Truth. For another, I didn’t really have much to tell people in response to any question they might ask me. Thinking about talking to anyone about my faith made my palms sweaty. Still does at times. But I saw a cartoon that gave me pause. It showed the devil leading a man off to hell and an angel leading another off to heaven. The condemned man is looking at the other with disbelief. The caption reads: Bob! You never told me you were a Christian!

If you’re in the dark and you’re in danger you need someone to warn you. If you choose not to believe them that’s your choice. If I see the danger but am too shy/scared to tell you, that makes me not at all nice. That makes me something else entirely. As Penn Jillette, not shy about his atheism, puts it so well here.

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New day. Yay!

Lamentations 3: 22 – 23

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.

It’s about 5 am. I’m sitting at the kitchen table wrapped in three blankets, the third one over my head. Yes, it’s cold in here. No heating in a house on stilts halfway up a hill. My children, husband and dog are all asleep. Just me and the fridge buzzing away in this chilly room, keeping each other company. Well, me the fridge and God. And the distractions from things popping up on my screen every few seconds to remind me that I’m connected to the world outside.

Ahead of me today the normal weekday routine, marshalling the kids from sleep to school with the right lunches/uniform/money/permission slips, organising dinner, and helping in the school canteen. Sigh. Would have loved a day to get myself together, but I’ve committed. I haven’t been using my time very efficiently for a good few weeks now. It’s taken me a while to identify the problem, and it’s really very simple. I have no plan. And it’s time to get one.

From the kitchen window I can see the lights on the other side of the river and a thin sliver of the underside of the moon. It still feels like night. It still feels like night inside me too. I can’t yet see the way through this, but I now know that there is one. Can’t live by feelings. Too unreliable. I need to live by what I know.

I know what I want to do – mostly. Blog, write and possibly podcast towards the end of the year. There is no set path, which is fine, as I’m not too good at sticking to those anyway, but what plans I had at the end of last year were derailed and since then, with each house move, my vision has blurred a little more. The simple everyday stuff that was so hard immediately after the fire, and took a lot of energy, has been quickly settling into routine for months now, but my mind has not kept pace. I have noticed that I have been going the long way around everything, taking longer, making less sense to myself and others. I’ll be honest, it’s been getting me down.

I also know that this is a new day. This is the day that the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Whatever yesterday was like, today is full of possibility. Including the possibility of snatching another hour’s sleep before sunrise.

Goodnight.

After Paris

It’s over a week now since the attacks in Paris. The national period of mourning has ended. Paris is on the move again, albeit it at a limp. Now Brussels waits in anxious shut-down while the authorities respond to threats of similar attacks against that city.

Some, those few responsible, will mark the Paris attacks up as a success. Those around them who do not share their triumph will be conflicted. Ashamed and terrified. For the innocents who have been violated with such precision. Burdened with knowing at first hand what their family or associates are capable of. We can only imagine the pain, sorrow and anger of the survivors and the bereaved. We are a global village now, united in our pain, in our losses, in our injury, in our questions. There are no victors here, just more victims.

When I was a child and starting to pay attention to current affairs, I remembered my shock at first hearing terrorist groups claim responsibility for bombings. I thought, in my childish way, that they should be ashamed, not boasting about murdering people. I still feel the same way, I think. There is something a bit empty about boasting over murder. Destruction is easy. It’s creating that’s hard. Anyone can be violent. Peace takes real effort.

There are no simple answers. It’s easy to point at politicians, or the system, or religion. Those are big anonymous enemies we can shake our fists at. But doing that doesn’t get us far. Who would really like to be in the hot seat of the world leaders, having to figure out what to do next? They need our prayers as much as anyone else. Events like this affect us as individuals, calling for an individual response. But what? Perhaps we can draw closer to the stranger. Let them hear our heartbeat, know that the same fears assail all of us. Fears of rejection, fears of aggression.

A man who wanted Jesus to affirm his piety asked this question: Who is my neighbour? In response Jesus tells the story of a man mugged and left for dead. Two outwardly religious men, a rabbi and a priest, walk by leaving him where he fell. The one who had pity on the man, who cared for him at his own expense and treated him like a son or a brother, was a foreigner. A Samaritan. A citizen of what is now the West Bank. He belonged to group with whom Jews did not mix. But the Samaritan, Jesus said, was the true neighbour. Because he was the one who had pity on the victim.

Who are our neighbours? The people to whom we show compassion and mercy. The ones we reach out to help. Those whose needs we see and can meet. It is a tiny response, but not without value in the aftermath of events which aim to tear us apart and separate us into warring tribes. Perhaps, to counter the aims of the violent, it’s worth trying, in whatever small way, to reach out without fear and become neighbours to the strangers in our midst.

Puzzle. Part 2

I’ve noticed that it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the patterns and shades in this puzzle each time I come back to it after a pause for something unimportant, like food or sleep. I need time to tune in again, slow my thoughts down. No wonder they use these things in therapeutic settings. My mother was a psychiatric nurse and I remember doing jigsaw puzzles on the ward with the patients. I was only young then, maybe six or seven, but I remember the sense of calm around the low tables where the puzzles were laid out.

For me it was a mysterious place where the grownups sometimes said strange things or would walk off suddenly or start singing or dancing. The ward was busy, with the occasional alarming outburst from behind a curtain or a bed somewhere. Conversation was scant, it was too disjointed for me to follow, so I remember I didn’t say very much. The patients and I came together around the puzzle, scenes with horses or rose-covered cottages or ships in full sail.

At that age, and in that place, seventies South London, I was used to seeing the brewery dray horses that still pulled the beer wagons around to the pubs, but the rest, rose-covered cottages and ships in sail, was the stuff of stories and a world I did not know. I loved working on these huge puzzles, just letting my mind wander to the places and the lives that slowly materialised out of all the disparate pieces.

The satisfaction I got as a child from fitting the pieces has not gone with the passage of years, the bearing of children or any of the other things that happen over the course of growing up. It is perhaps one of the deepest pleasures, understanding where, how and why things fit together.

Fast-forward exty years to my big cat puzzle. I find the piece of the right shade, pattern and shape for the bit of the picture I’m working on. It doesn’t fit. So I try to force it in. It’s slightly too wide or too high. The pattern is close to the pieces around it but not quite the same. I put it aside in frustration. It can’t fit anywhere else. Maybe it’s in the wrong puzzle. Can’t trust these manufacturers any more. After all, imagine how many they must produce. It must happen, right. Many pieces later, the ‘wrong piece’ fits in elsewhere and another unlikely piece slots into that earlier space. I stare at it. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. It looked like it didn’t belong and had nothing to do with the rest, but it fits. And now that it’s in place, in that way of jigsaw pieces, it’s disappeared. It’s become part of the whole. Without the whole picture that one piece is meaningless. Without that one piece the picture is incomplete.

So here’s today’s insight from the world of puzzles. We all fit.

I know, you don’t look/sound/think like anyone else. You like different music, films, styles of clothes. Or you were born to a family of musicians but you’re tone deaf. You are the curvy one in a tribe of wands. Or you would rather eat your own arm than go swimming and your Dad’s a swim instructor. You’re short not tall. Or practical not academic. Whatever it is, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Not here by accident but design. And even if you appear to look, sound and think like everyone else, there’ll be at least one difference that makes you you and no-one else. If the makers of jigsaw puzzles can turn the sky into hundreds of individually shaped and shaded pieces, how much more could the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, closely documented and yet-to-be discovered, make you just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y different from everyone else around you?

You do fit. You do belong. You may find your place easily, it may be clear. Or you may have to wait awhile, until the support of other pieces, people, are in place. But be assured. Be encouraged. You do fit.

Psalm 139 v 13 – 16

For you created my inmost being;

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

When I was made in the secret place,

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

Your eyes saw my unformed body.

All the days ordained for me

Were written in your book

Before one of them came to be.

Lavinia

About three months ago our family visited the dog home. The children and their father were enthusiastic and keen, peering into the cages where the young dogs and puppies waited to be chosen. Classical music blared through speakers on posts near the cages, adding a surreal pathos to the scene. I found it all a bit much, to be honest.

Our eldest stopped and looked at a medium size dog whose cage label said Lavinia. She liked her short black and tan coat, her tufty eyebrows and big brown eyes. She brought me to look first, then the rest of the family. The dog’s dignified name seemed to suit her. Lavinia, a 2-year-old Kelpie Shar Pei cross, found abandoned in a house nearby, lay still while the other dogs barked, yapped or jumped at all the people peering into their cages.

When we met her in the exercise yard the connection was immediate and strong. She was quiet and relaxed, not bounding around in excitement or chasing the youngest, as other dogs had done. She quietly found me and stood by my knees, perhaps sensing my nervousness. I was the least keen to get a dog, my well-worn practical objections revealing themselves as fear in the days immediately before our appointment at the dog home. My only experience of dogs was with Kelly, my Aunt’s terrifying German Shepherd, who as far as I know never left the house and lived under the stairs waiting to eat small visitors.

For a long time the children had lobbied, begged and made ridiculous promises to break down my objections to having a dog. Until recently, circumstances were my ally – we lived in a rental, we’d just arrived in the country, we were about the leave the country, the youngest was still too young…then there was the extra responsibility, picking up poo, vet bills, having to walk the thing, the cost of pet food, restrictions on holiday plans, you name it. I finally had to cave when their father joined in.

Fast forward three months or so. The unimaginable is happening. I am becoming a Dog Person. At the local dog beach I watch her sprint and play with her pals. I know the names of some of the local Dog People, and even their dogs. I carry treats in my pockets and other dogs come up and nuzzle me. I do not recoil. I hardly recognise myself. Except for the times Lavinia stands in my blind spot and I nearly trip over her. Then my objections to dog ownership return. Briefly.

It makes me think. What else do I think I can’t handle that I might actually enjoy?

So where is he, then?

Been a strange Easter, this one. Full and empty. Empty of emotion, full of stuff – the stuff that comes with children and (at this time of year) egg-shaped chocolate. Full even with church stuff. But empty of Christ, somehow.

I often have a good wallow at Easter, it’s the time of year when I am allowed to dwell on the awfulness of the world and our sinful state. I can keen and moan over the atrocities, the cruelties and the callousness we hear and see so much of that it becomes wallpaper to our daily lives, barely noticed, largely overlooked.

Easter is when I am most usually acutely aware of the contrast between the naked, dying God and myself, one of the comfortable creatures He made, cushioned from the impact of his passion by some two millennia. Long ago and far away, the story that the world can’t quite consign to myth has, at this time of year, the power still to move me. Over the years I have relived the emotions of what Christians call Holy week in all kinds of different kinds of services and easter traditions.

This year has been different.

Because this year I am different. My perspective has changed. I’m seeing the same scenes from a different vantage point. The man is still accused by jealous religious leaders who fear his hold over the crowd. He is still betrayed by his friend, deserted by those who had eaten with him hours earlier. He is still flogged and mocked by the Roman guard. Still an innocent brutally executed. But this man is more than anyone at the time even suspected. They didn’t know what I know. They don’t know how this part of God’s story in our world continues. What the next chapter holds.

This year I am more focused on the risen Christ than the crucified one. They are one and the same, of course. The latter demonstrates God’s frankly incomprehensible love for the world, which is so good at bad, and his solution to the breach that this created between him and his creation. The former, the risen Christ, demonstrates that the evils of the world we live in are not enough to extinguish the hope ignited by the story of the Jewish rabbi who did not stay dead.

Where is he now, then?

With me as I type, as I go about my daily life, listening, shaking his head perhaps in dismay at times, but at others smiling, egging me on, encouraging me to dream, to speak up, to laugh, to trust, to engage. To discover where he is out in today’s world.

Oh he’s alive alright.

Switching off the MeCam

I needed to take a new picture the other day using my webcam. It took me a while to figure out why my face was always in shadow. I must have taken about eight photos before I realised I was looking at myself, not at the tiny lens in the top of the screen. Not at the camera.

And I thought, oh. Is that what I’ve been doing all this time.

It’s very hard to do anything much if you’re constantly observing yourself. Checking your own progress. Re-playing conversations, assessing your performance. Looking in the mirror of other people’s responses. It’s also exhausting. No wonder I’m tired all the time. And so self-conscious. Why sometimes I talk as if speech was about to be banned, and at other times I can find nothing to say. My harshest critic has always been me. My biggest bully (and I’ve had a few) has been my own dear self, reminding me always of my failures and never of my successes.

So at the beginning of my 4Xth year I’ve decided to switch off the me-cam. I don’t need constant reassurance that I’m on the right track. I can trust God’s word and God’s methods to set me straight when I need it. I’ve decided to actually trust myself and my gifts this year. Possibly for whole days at a time. I aim to resist refuelling at the pit stops of self-pity, fear and sadness. I am going to check my progress, if I must, against what God says about me. I am going to surround myself with people who encourage, words that inspire and images that delight me. (No cat pictures though).

Jesus got a little exasperated with his disciples from time to time. On one such occasion, he had healed a boy his followers had not been able to cure. They asked him why they couldn’t do it. He said

Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

Matthew 17 v 20

I have no idea what this will look like, and that’s the point. I have speculated far too much about how things will look, or how I will look, and what others will think about it. Time to stop. So I’m switching that off. Now.