Grateful

Last week I wrote about my friend Gulufshoon, a lady who had not had the chance to learn to read, although she’s encouraged her children to seek a good education. She’s been on my mind this week as I realise how many things I take for granted:

View from Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, May 2019

Such as the fact that my parents were hugely supportive of my education, that I had access to free education right up to degree level, unlike the young people of today. I learned to read so young I can’t remember doing it and at my Infants School, I’d read all the books in the school by Year 2, and was allowed to bring my own in from the public library!

That we had books at home and an endless supply at the library which was in my village and to which I could go alone once I was 8 or 9, as I had a bike and the roads were safe – more to be grateful about.

The May is out!

Equally, the Bible is freely available in English, we are spoilt for choice in the number of versions available to us. Resources are plentiful and our history means that there is a long tradition of Christian literature right through the ages, translated from the original language or written in English, and hymns from times past that resonate. It’s so easy to take this for granted too.

To never have the opportunity to experience the way words leap from a page into your heart, from a letter, a note of encouragement, a book that speaks to you or a God-given verse from the Bible seems to me a monumental loss that cannot be compensated for by speech alone. Yet there are millions who live without literacy and girls suffer more from lack of opportunity for education and literacy.

Sunlight through young copper beech leaves

In the past, I have not really paused to reflect on how my life is enriched by being literate. May I never have a sense of entitlement too such a gift that so many are without.

When you start counting your blessings you realise how much there is to be grateful for…

and how rarely I am intentionally grateful for it! But this week I definitely am.

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,” Hebrews 4:12

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Cooking rice

This week I visited my Iranian friends in North Kensington. Gulufshoon is a lady past retirement age with the most delightful smile who came here five years ago after persecution. Completely illiterate as her father did not consider it appropriate to educate his daughters, she speaks almost no English (but more than I speak Farsi).

More or less house bound until she has a knee operation, her everyday life is limited by lack of mobility, literacy, language and finance, yet this hasn’t diminished her as I’m sure it would me.

Fortunately, her daughter and son-in-law are learning English so I speak through them and we smile a lot.

You may or not know that I am hopeless at cooking rice!! (Understatement). So today I had a lesson in cooking the kind of perfectly cooked, delicious rice that we have been treated to when we’ve eaten at their house; they offer wonderful hospitality on every occasion. She tells me if I follow the steps I too can cook good rice! Time and practice will affirm or give lie to her confidence.

The care and preparation that goes into a pan of rice contrasts sharply with my own last minute efforts to include it in a meal.

Gulufshoon epitomises the phrase ‘do small things with great love’ so perfectly. Simple, delicious food served with a smile and a warmth of welcome I can definitely learn from.

When I think about it, the sum of these moments is probably more important than I realise.

‘These people….’

For many months now the use of these two words has caught my attention.  Too often they seem to be said with disdain and describe the refugee, the traveller, the outsider, the political opponent, anyone who doesn’t agree with us. I wrote this as my response:

Street Art near Brick Lane

Hot words scorch across our airwaves, our papers and sneak into our language,

Shaping our thoughts, moulding our opinions – the inflammatory becoming everyday…. ‘these people’.

We see ‘these people’ as different, threatening perhaps, or just not on ‘our side’.

‘These people’ are not cardboard cutouts, single issue irritants

They are fully dimensional, living, breathing

Some speak love and truth, and some speak lies and hate,

They are composite, complicated, products of all they have experienced, unique…

You cannot label them like chocolates – the wrapper does not tell you what is within.

From some pour melody and song, or beautiful words or encouragement,

Some can coax life from the driest soil, or flavour from the simplest food.

‘These people’ carry anger and compassion, hope and despair, a web of unique experience and talent, tears and laughter;

‘These people’ are not formed by committee, don’t live in a box – neatly labelled for someone’s convenient shorthand.

‘These people’ are somebody’s daughter, grandson, cousin……..

Made in God’s image (did we forget?)

They have stories and tragedies, high points and low;

Some are heroes and adventurers, some are just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,

Some have been torn away from home by traffickers, or uprooted violently by war,

Some just want a better life, some do wish us harm.  How can we tell?

Fear locks them up and we cease to see their humanity, instead they become an endless stream in our minds that we forget to see as individuals.  ‘These people’ become numbers, amorphous, without feelings.

How can we lock up the traumatised in degrading camps with small hope of leaving, trapped in limbo, at the mercy of evil and expect them to be ok?

Each one is a child of God, an image-bearer, someone he loves and has given a unique set of talents.

‘These people’ interact with each other and can flourish and bloom, or can be stunted in dry ground through lack of care.

‘These people’ can go on to lead the world or fade into oblivion.

Some of ‘these people’ live across the sea, growing our tea, packing our consumables, sewing our clothes

Too far away to see their faces, hear their stories, know their details – a mass to serve our needs.

‘These people’ live in our towns too, in areas we rarely enter, places we don’t want to go, and when we see them in the High Street, we move aside, wondering at their strange ways.

‘These people’ have differing opinions to ours, and heaven help them if they get in the way of us having our way.  Implacable opposition. Denigrating language – a great divide.

We can choose to forget about most of ‘these people’, they rarely live next door or enter our protected economic bubble.

We can sit in judgment based on a paper-thin covering of skin, or clothing, accent, status, politics or faith – these people….

Sometimes ‘these people’ come disguised as nurses or carers or celebrity successes and we carefully reclassify them or grant them exemption or lionise them (just to prove how inclusive we are), away from our casual classification.

Sometimes some of ‘these people’ find their way into our hearts and we learn that whatever made them ‘these people’ is so wafer thin compared with the things that hold us together that we finally acknowledge that they are ‘our people’ or we are theirs.

Jesus was one of ‘these people’ – a native of a troublesome nation, poor and from the wrong town with the wrong accent

Born in circumstances to fuel the gossips

A manual labourer, yet Creator of all things.

He spoke without fear, making some uncomfortable

He hung out with ‘unsuitables’, more fuel for wagging tongues

And stood up for the weak, the helpless, bringing his Kingdom of hope and healing to them.

He didn’t pander to the socially elite which obviously got on their nerves

And he didn’t waver from his path – to see all people saved and invited into his Kingdom.

Jesus was one of ‘these people’ so doesn’t that make his followers ‘these people’ too?

God’s people.

Tower Bridge at Sunrise – by Ken Thomas Steer – December 2018

God in my playlist

My journey into spiritual formation has acquainted me with practising the presence of God, and it’s easy to speak of ‘inviting God into my day/life’ (as if He wasn’t already there!), but how far do I really take this?

A conversation with my husband, Ken, over the weekend revealed that we were both thinking along these lines, (it does seem that after all these years we are often on the same page in our thoughts).

Reflection shows me that my life is more compartmentalised than I’m happy to admit. Yes, I invite God into my day each morning, yes, He’s with me as I read and pray, yes, I ask for help in difficult situations (eventually), and my thoughts turn to him sporadically, but there are areas of my life I’ve never even thought of sharing.

It was as we were choosing music on Spotify (a music streaming channel) as a family on Saturday night that it struck me – I don’t listen to music with God, although he gifted each one of the musicians with their talent; I don’t watch TV with God, unless there is something terrible on the news; I rarely shop with God, or hoover, or knit…

This isn’t deliberate, but it’s habit. There’s a song we used to sing at church by Tim Hughes, which begins:

God in my living, there in my breathing
God in my waking, God in my sleeping
God in my resting, there in my working
God in my thinking, God in my speaking:

Be my everything, be my everything

The rest of the lyrics to ‘Be my everything’ can be found here.

This week I’m asking the Holy Spirit to remind me, to blow through my mind and bring God into those areas of my life that have previously excluded Him.

How does the next verse go for you?

God in my playlist, God in my driving

It’s not fair…

I was musing on the parable of the landowner (Matt 20:8-13) who hired people this week and on the decision of the landowner to pay everyone the same no matter how long they had worked for and the reaction it got from those who had worked longest.

Sometimes I see the Cross in the same way…

Each of us needs Jesus’ forgiveness for those things we have done wrong and we can only rely on grace to bring us into a restored Kingdom relationship with our Trinitarian God.

However, I don’t believe grace comes in measures and that there are different quantities of grace required for different sinners, who incidentally are also children of God. But somehow that comparison seeps into my thinking at times. Who am I to judge? Why can’t I revel in the abundance of grace in my life and those around me instead of being small-minded!

‘and I’ll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that Cross‘* … goes the song, and I can recognise that God’s story with mankind has been immensely costly, way more than I can comprehend. Can you imagine what the weight of one single hour of sin, guilt and pain generated by humankind felt like? Then multiply it…

The mystery of the Cross is way bigger than I can take in: its facets more varied and deeper than I can imagine, but one thing is clear: what Jesus has done for us is deserving of our unconditional gratitude, worship and praise.

In this first week after Easter Sunday, in the light of the empty Cross, I am seeking a more open heart, filled with more gratitude, revelling in the joy of my salvation, I am trying to pray with more love and to enter into practices that will bring me closer to the source of grace that can soften my heart and change me – our good and faithful God.

*Here I am to Worship – Hillsong

Photos taken on Easter Sunday 2019 in Banstead Woods.

Lessons from the Trees – a return to the Tree of Life

In a moment of reflection this week, I was wondering whether the Tree of Life is not just about eternal living (which is often how I think of it) but also linked to the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus refers to in John 10:10?

When I think about the Fall, the first thought is about death coming to humankind and their exclusion from Eden and a close relationship with God. But I wonder if I have missed out on the wider picture.

At that moment also came moral failure, doubt, blame, guilt, remorse, comparison, misery, stress, uncertainty and many other things that blight everyday life, our relationships with others and with God.

In Revelation 22:2 we are told that ‘the leaves of the tree [of life] are for the healing of the nations.’ That healing is not only physical, but mental and spiritual on an individual level and, I believe, a healing between ourselves, others and God both on an individual and collective level. Once healed, we are restored to that from which we were banished in Eden and we can live forever in the eternal light of God.

Immediately following the verse above, John writes ‘No longer will there be any curse.’ I am probably way behind you all, but I have not been struck by that before – it takes me right back to Genesis, making a link I had not recognised before.

Happisburgh, Norfolk – April 2017

So we can take the hand of Jesus, the Good Shepherd as we walk into this full life, this Kingdom life. Psalm 23 tells that he leads us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. This has a striking parallel with the New Testament, where Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 – ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

Or, as Dallas Willard puts it – ‘do the next good thing!’ Our kingdom life is now and allowing ourselves to be led by Jesus into the good works that he has already prepared for us brings us into that life to the full. Perhaps not what we first think of when we encounter this verse, but a richer, deeper, meaningful life living in all the mess of the world around us, knowing we are perfectly safe because our God is always with us.

Nesting Swan – Norfolk – photo by Steve McLeod

In my Celtic Daily Light book this week, the Finan reading for 13th April reads like this: You are a Father, all powerful and infinitely wise and good and tender. You say to us as Your children, so frail we are and hardly able to walk except with our hands in Yours, “All that you ask I will give you if only you ask with confidence.”

If we ask You for dangerous playthings You refuse them in goodness for us, and You console us by giving us other things for our good. If we ask You to put us where it would be dangerous for us to be, You do not give what is not for our good, but You give us something really for our welfare,, something that we would ask for ourselves if our eyes were open.

You take us by the hand and lead us, not where we would wish to go, but there where it is best for us to be.’

I found this to be very comforting and encouraging. May I wish you all a blessed journey in Holy Week and a very Happy Easter.

Turning the stone

Since the autumn, I have been a member of the Renovaré Book Club – this requires the reading of only four books in 9 months which suits me better than the book a month format of many book clubs. We have read ‘Becoming Dallas Willard’ by Gary Moon, ‘Glittering Vices’ by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung and ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ by an unknown 14C author. Next week we begin our final book ‘Reconstructing the Gospel: finding freedom from slaveholder religion’ by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Having bought this a while ago, I am now looking at the cover and wondering what I will find within….

Having grown up in a family with very working-class roots and with no history of seagoing, I don’t imagine my ancestors were very familiar with slavery, although some of them lived in Hull, contemporaries of William Wilberforce (although a very different class!), whose former residence now houses the Museum of Slavery, which Ken and I visited two years ago on our visit to Hull City of Culture 2017. It was a sobering experience and one which I think our nation has yet to come fully face to face with. There is much wealth in the UK which has its origins in slavery, a history of shame which is largely hidden under the carpet and rarely talked about.

Holy Trinity Church, now Hull Minster, August 2017 where some of my ancestors were baptised and married.
A memorial to William Wilberforce, Hull, August 2017

Closer to home, I was challenged during my Renovaré Institute course to think more closely about equality before God and what unconscious biases I live with. This led to an academic exploration with friends and the presentation of a paper about our desire to see inclusivity in the Spiritual Formation community as well as the wider global church which challenged and changed some of my thoughts and attitudes.

I’m not sure I even know what slaveholder religion is, and although it is an American book I fear that turning over the stone of this thorny issue may prove rather uncomfortable reading. The trouble with me is that I can blithely go along pretending that all is well if the stone remains unturned and I don’t have to face up to an issue. Once the stone is turned, the truth is out, and I am a lover of truth. It will be impossible to put it back and carry on – there will always be a niggle, knowing what is lurking under the stone. The only way is to deal with whatever is revealed, and that may be painful and challenging and difficult.

However, if I am truly seeking to become more Christlike, I hope this book will be a companion to change. Shane Claiborne describes it as pointing ‘the way toward a Christianity that looks like Jesus again.’ I hope that this book, however difficult to read, will be a cleansing and growing experience in my life.

William Wilberforce House – now the Museum of Slavery, Hull, August 2017

A short aside, just because you know my love of trees. When we visited the Museum of Slavery, we wandered into the garden with our picnic lunch to enjoy the outdoors and sat beneath two enormous mulberry trees that shaded the lawns. They were in fruit and we were allowed to pick it as long as we didn’t damage the trees. I had only ever eaten mulberries once before – at Hever Castle – but they have stuck in my memory as being the most delicious of fruit – so a chance to feast on freshly picked mulberries was a treat that will stay with me always – such a gift!

The Humber Estuary – August 2017

A very small cog

I’ve been in and out of London a few times recently and I’ve been struck by just how many people live and work here. As my train passes, I can look into the back of houses, through apartment windows and I often wonder ‘who lives there?’ ‘what is their life like?’.

The City from under a bridge- Adam Thomas Steer

The sheer numbers of people make me feel very small and it’s easy to feel insignificant, even that you don’t matter in this giant swirl of people, all going, doing, seeing, living….. and I wonder how God ever keeps up with all that is going on.

But however small I feel, I am not insignificant to God, I am loved, I matter. Somehow in the universe, He still has time for each of us as individuals. If he can keep track of hundreds of billions of stars, he can surely keep a few billion people in mind. We all have this need for significance, but sometimes I think my view of what makes me significant is distorted by the way the world works around me.

I am not famous, wealthy, beautiful or talented by the standards of society around me. I can let that define me or I can recognise my uniqueness, my belovedness and my value to those around me, who know me or who I come into contact with. I can choose how I see myself: negatively against the template of society, or positively, through the lens of God, my friends and family.

When I was growing up, my Granny often used to quote the proverb/rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Apparently this comes from as early as the 14th Century, although some link it to King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, when he is reputed to have shouted ‘A horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’ as he lost his horse on the battlefield.

Whatever the origin, the point is clear. The lack of one small thing led to huge consequences. It makes the nail important, even in its apparent insignificance. A very large machine can break down because of a tiny defective part.

The proverb can be framed in both negative and positive light – in this case a nail was lacking. But what if the nail had been available? – history might be different! It could be rewritten – because of a nail, the shoe was on… etc.

Magnificent magnolia

Maybe I should see my life in this light – and yours! We cannot know what cosmic differences are made because of one small action, but God who can keep the universe in mind, sees all things, and can weave seemingly random things together for his overarching purposes. I don’t want to be the lack of a nail because I don’t know there is a battle going on. I want to trust God that whatever I am doing, I am trying to live in His will so that I can be the nail in place if needed. With that trust in my heart, each small act of love may just be that nail which changes history.

Wherever we are, let’s do life as well as we can for God – because we matter to Him.

Spring is coming….

As I walked yesterday at Claremont, a local National Trust garden, the trees were mainly still bare. There were a few camellias blazing colour amidst the grey, some majestic evergreens silhouetted against the sky, and something that might have been a heather tree, but mostly spring had not reached the garden.

If you look closely however, all around are tightly furled buds, small and brown but beginning to swell in the burgeoning warmth of late March. Each one camouflaged against its twig, insignificant and yet containing all it needs to burst forth into leaf or flower – connection to a source of food and energy, the right chemicals for colour and growth – and be seen in all its glory.

I am like that too. Inside me is contained everything for me to be the person God created me to be – potential for attainment in this life and fully blooming in the life to come. Sin and self-doubt limit us now, but that does not mean it cannot come in time. I often struggle to believe this, I feel unworthy of His love, and I cannot imagine being able to blossom into something glorious. Yet, somewhere deep down, I know there is potential, that there is something more than I am right now.

Unlocking it is the work of God in my transformation, believing that He can do far more with me than I believe I can do myself. As a caterpillar journeys to become a butterfly (an incredible transformation and long, long wait) ….. I am waiting for spring to come, because this metamorphosis will bring glory to God, who imagined me into unique, significant being – and you, as well. In Christ, through grace, He has promised it.

Rod Thomas – Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

Why I can’t sing the superhero hymn any more…

I’ve been challenged lately about how I worship – whether I properly engage in communal worship activities and whether I really mean what I am singing or saying.  This has led me to consider the lyrics of worships songs and hymns and one in particular has bothered me for a number of weeks now, so I started to think about what it was in the words that doesn’t sit well with me.

Warning: this is a bit of a ramble/rant so if you prefer tohave a nice quiet week, please enjoy the photo below and click delete!

London Wall – 19th March 2019

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