EMPTY (Five Minute Friday)

It’s a big word, empty.

Strange how such nothingness can be so vast.

Or it can be small but devastating.


Empty reminds me of the hole left in my life

by the death of my mother.

Empty reminds me of how depression

sapped me of motivation and energy,

leaving me void of feeling,

a big black terrifying blank.


But empty also reminds me of

a cleared room before decorating,

a white canvas ready with easel, brushes, and paints laid out before it,

a vase waiting to be filled,

bare earth before planting,

the last Resurrection Egg in the box.


Empty is the moment before something new.

Empty is a place to begin again.

Empty is the potential for anything.

Empty is a tomb on Sunday morning.

Empty is the garden where we meet Him.

(This is my weekly link up with the Five Minute Friday community hosted at http://katemotaung.com/).



If anyone had seen me, they would have wondered what I was doing: lying on my back, knees bent, gazing up at the sky through the canopy of the Rowan tree above me. They would have assumed I was doing nothing but if anyone had asked me, I would have replied: “I’m paying attention.”

It was a glorious view. The new leaves, in the pattern of ferns, wobbled in the imperceptible breeze against a perfect baby blue sky. The silvered trunk stretched up into a veritable tangle of branches. If I looked carefully, I could just see the promise of blossom in clusters of tiny buds here and there. Two plump bees inspected them hopefully for pollen. Far above, a plane traced twin trails across the blue and, a little closer a group of terns, far from the coast, hovered, then sped away.

The spring symphony of birdsong in full surround sound, the beginnings of the dusk chorus, encircled me. I recognised the double coo-cooing of the wood pigeons and the tapping percussion of a woodpecker. But an unseen call and response duet remained a mystery. From a few gardens away, came the echoing repeat of my neighbour’s grandchild laughing. The bumbling of bees hummed in and out of the concert.

I could feel the fronds of untrimmed lawn under me, cool and sleek against my aching back and shoulders. And as I turned my head, I got a close up, side on view of the bed where I’d just dug in some rose and clematis feed. A morass of bulb life, some spent, some blind, some on the verge of bloom, formed a dense undergrowth, a miniature jungle – beneficial for keeping the clematis roots chilled (no wonder it was flourishing, scaling the Rowan’s trunk to head height in only its second year). Delicate allium flowers nudged their way through the verdigris and lime green leaves as dwindling narcissi towered over with bobbing faded heads.

Fascinated by this miniature scene, I sat up and edged my way forward to sit on the step next to my herb patch for a similar height view. Tiny golden tips edged the forest green of thyme leaves. Jungly mint’s former attempts to take over the whole patch were  suitably constrained by the boundaries of its buried pot. Rosemary waited for warmer temperatures before it sent up new growth but lavender was already on its way. A clump of grassy chives sprouted like a Mohican hairstyle. I knew the familiar fragrances that would be released if I reached out and rubbed any of these plants between finger and thumb – I could smell them in my mind. I started to think of recipes I could use them in this summer: mint lemonade, lavender scones, tartare sauce.

Gardening is mostly done from above, standing or kneeling. But this gave me a child’s view of the world again, or an ant’s. For once, I gazed at the side or underneath of things and found new beauty. It made me stop and listen, take notice and touch, remember and smell, imagine and taste.

All this from 15 minutes’ rest. It was worth paying attention. But I would have missed it if I hadn’t succumbed to that mattress of lush jade grass.

And now I’m thinking about how Jesus looked at life from an unusual angle: how He told us the best faith is simple and childlike not complicated and grown up; how good leadership comes from being a servant; how latecoming workers in a vineyard got paid the same as early birds; how He was known as a friend to publicans, tax collectors, and prostitutes rather than to the great and the good; how His death brought life in all its fullness.

In fact, I wonder if Jesus’ whole life was a means of giving us a new angle from which to view and engage with God? Many of us see God as presiding over the earth from far off. Remember that song Bette Midler sang, ‘From A Distance’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC3FW_RU-GI), or Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Crucifixion hovering high above the world, ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_of_Saint_John_of_the_Cross)? But I don’t believe God ever wanted that. We are meant to be in immediate relationship with Him, ‘walking in the Garden [together] in the cool of the day’ (Genesis ch.3 v.8). That’s why ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John ch.1 v.14 The Message), so that we could see what God is like up close and personal, a side by side view.

Looking at something or someone from a different angle changes our perspective and relationship with them. We notice previously unseen details, consider new possibilities, but only if we take the time and pay attention.

Today’s the beginning of Holy Week. It seems to me that it’s a good time, whether God is a familiar or unfamiliar figure in our lives, to look at Him in Jesus from a fresh angle, to pay Him some attention, and see what blessings come our way as a result.



Recently my boys have had interesting time explaining to their friends why they have to be home next week for Passover when we’re not Jewish. It’s a tradition we started when they were small after I read about Michelle Guinness’s habit of embedding faith in the family home rather than a church building on a Sunday. And it has become as important a family event as Christmas for us. More on that in another blog post, I think.

I was reminded of part of the traditional words from our Passover Haggadah by this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt. After we list the 10 plagues leading up to the escape from Egypt as well as any modern day plagues we endure, we list a host of ‘if onlys’ about what else God did at that time, each followed by the response ‘It would have been enough’:

If God had only brought us out of Egypt, slain their firstborn, given us their wealth, divided the sea, satisfied us in the wilderness, brought us to Sinai, or brought us to the Promised Land, without any of the ‘added extras’ (crossing the sea on dry land, feeding with manna, giving us the law, building the Temple), each would have been enough.

I wonder sometimes how often I really do appreciate each of God’s actions as sufficient or whether I take His generosity for granted? But I also wonder whether each of these things listed would have been enough for God? After all, His generosity is extravagant not mean spirited. It is not in His nature to only do ‘just enough’. Look at the Feeding of the Five Thousand with its twelve baskets of leftovers!

I suppose the way to avoid complacency is by gratitude. This section of the Haggadah ends with the reminder of ‘how much more must we go on thanking God for His great mercies to us.’ Or as the hymn puts it:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never changes.

His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning, new every morning.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O Lord,

Great is Thy faithfulness.’

GRACE, a blessing over food (Blessing Jar Week 13)

‘Dear Father God, thank You for this food and for this chance to be together. Amen.’

At the corner table by the window of a Spanish restaurant, it was a moment of shared private gratitude, quietly spoken in public. Spread over the table in front of us were tomato drizzled patates bravas and chorizo, two types of paella, two salads, garlic soaked mushrooms, crispy fried squid, and sea bass dressed with raspberry vinaigrette. Homemade mint lemonade flavoured with mango or passionfruit waited to wash it down.

But everything paused for the familiar words before we dug in.

A family tradition established over decades and generations, it would be easy not to pause within the pause, to take the time to both think about the meaning of the words and to mean the meaning. Perhaps because we are less frequently a family of four now, when we do meet (and that almost always involves a meal), I have a deeper sense of appreciation. These words my husband prays with no introduction, a simple reminder of the presence of Another at every meal we eat, also link us to past generations who taught us the habit with much the same words. I hope my boys continue the habit, alone and when they have their own families.

It was a delicious meal, with personable helpful waiting staff, a relaxed reunion of our little family in a convivial atmosphere. We appreciated the skill in the cooking and new flavour combinations. We were grateful for a whole day of togetherness in the Spring sunshine – chatting in the car, sharing falafel wraps and whirly ice cream in a park, enjoying the view of a host of hellebores and daffodils painting the grass with colour, a cup of tea in our son’s digs, finishing with this meal in an evening still full of light since the clocks went forward.

It’s easy to take the everyday for granted, to forget what a blessing it is to have daily food, let alone in such creative abundance, and loved ones to share it with. I’m learning this year, as I fill my Blessings Jar, to stop and take notice of the big and the small, the momentous and the moments. I’m learning to be mindful of these blessings of the ordinary. Our daily habit of saying grace reminds me to do this too.

DEFINE (Five Minute Friday)

Apologies for the late posting link to Five Minute Friday at http://katemotaung.com/. I’ve been away for the weekend (more of that in my next post) and didn’t take my tablet with me. I wrote the post on my phone but sadly couldn’t post from it. Hope it was worth the wait.

I love to know the definitions of words – in the past, perhaps because defining a word meant precision and exactitude; it gave it clear boundaries, put it in a nice neat box. When I worked in mental health, one of my clients, with extreme OCD, would question almost every word or phrase I used – there was no room for sloppiness or throwaway remarks with him: it provoked too much anxiety.

But language is more slippery, more tricksy than that. Having studied French and R.E., I learned that often there is no direct translation for words. Or they can have multiple meanings, the context needing careful study to deduce it. Or in poetry it can be an advantage to play with ambiguity of definition.

And I love that.

I love learning the etymology of a word, which brings depth to its meaning. I love a thesaurus, the multiple alternatives bringing a breadth of meaning.

Words are birds, swooping and soaring like swallows, not caged like canaries. We can pin them down like a Victorian butterfly collection and admire their precise detail or we can let them fly, letting our minds and hearts adventure with them to unthought of sources of nectar.


“I thank my God every time I remember you.” (A BLESSING ON MOTHERS’ DAY 2017)

I was reading Bible passages about mothers this morning, thinking about how much of the Hymn to the Good Wife (Proverbs ch. 31 vv. 10-31) described my mum, when this verse from Philippians ch. 1 v. 3 stood out to me. Mothers’ Day is no longer straightforward for me but I want to concentrate on gratitude rather than loss. So here are some poems I’ve written over the years that echo this verse.


This first poem I wrote many years ago. For my tribute at my mum’s funeral, I could do no better than read this:


The mothering of many

The foreign student far from home

The son’s friend whose own mother died

The daughter’s friends who turned to her for advice and wisdom

The Sunday lunch guests who came to a morning service alone but left in a family

The gentle offering of mothering to a motherless girl

The ability to share the mothering moments of her own children with others


O root of all motherhood

True Mother of life and all things

Let me be a mother like her

My door and arms always open

To my own and to those You send

Give me listening ears, a wise heart, and welcoming arms

Let me set free my own children to warm the hearts of others


Make me a mother like her

Make me a mother like You


When I became a mother, I looked to my own for help and advice regularly. She was such a shining example that I worried about how I would cope without her. So I asked her how she had got to such a place of wisdom. This poem is based her reply.


You will be the mum.

One day you will be the mum.

You will wake up and find that you have become

The pillar that holds up the roof;

The hearth that warms the house;

The electricity that lights their way home.


Your arms will be strong to comfort and uphold;

Your head will have infinite space to hold everyone’s secrets;

Your ears will be able to listen to anything;

Your words will be full of well-earned wisdom.

You will be the mum.


You will be the one they turn to

When their hearts are broken,

When life overwhelms them,

When they don’t know which way to turn,

When they need your experience to fall back on.


As each day passes

With each new joy or challenge

You are being shaped, stretched, filled, until

One day you will be the mum:

The centre of gravity;

The sun around which all generations rotate,

Your pull holding them all in place as they spin through their own orbits.


You will be the mum.


And whilst I have lost my own mum, I am still blessed with a lovely mother in law, who has enriched my life with another type of motherly love.


There are the mothers

Who spend nine months

And a day of pain

To give us life itself


There are the mothers

Who steer us

Through stormy waters

From toddlerhood to teenage


And then there is you.


I joined your family

Through someone else’s choice

Yet every day

You give me the precious gift

Of choosing to love me


And as these days

Have become years

Your choice has filled

Gaps in my heart


And we have woven

A web of strength between us

For our beloved man

And for each other


I have much to remember and thank God for.

EMBRACE (Five Minute Friday)

(Here’s my regular link up with the lovely FMF Community at http://katemotaung.com/ )

All this week, my mind has been flooded with thoughts of my mum. It’s Mothers’ Day on Sunday but my mum died three years ago and the anniversary was only a few weeks ago. So it’s not surprising that this week’s FMF prompt sparked more memories of her – she loved a cuddle and offered them generously.

I can still remember the softness of her body that moulded to mine whenever we snuggled up. She told me God had deliberately designed her that way for exactly that purpose.

Nowadays my favourite embraces are from my husband and sons. The former always leaves me feeling protected and secure in his strong arms. My eldest son, at 6ft tall, tucks me comfortably under his shoulder with a laughing smile as I wrap my arms around his waist. It reminds me of my dad’s embrace when I was young.

My younger son went through a stage of refusing cuddles, much to his more demonstrative brother’s disappointment. Instead he developed his own signature move we nicknamed the Head First Hug, where he would lean only his face in until cheek to cheek and allow just one arm to go around his shoulders. It wasn’t a standard embrace but it was his and that was always welcome.

I miss my boys’ hugs now they don’t live at home.

But these words from the Bible are playing in my mind, that:

The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you’ (Deuteronomy 33.27).

and Jesus’ words:

‘How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Matthew 23.37).

So these promises remind me that my whole family, wherever we are, however separated by time and space, always have Someone’s embrace ready and waiting, where we will find security, love and home. We just have to snuggle up.

THE BLESSING OF FRIENDS (Blessings Jar Week 11)

I love belonging to the Five Minute Friday blogging community. http://katemotaung.com/ Writing to such a deadline sparks creativity in unthought of directions and keeps things tight. However, because of the no editing rule, sometimes I end up rather dissatisfied with my efforts and this week was no exception because I felt I had dwelt too much on the negative and therefore written an unbalanced piece. https://thestufflifeismadeofblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/friend-five-minute-friday/

Reading it back a day later, I’m not so sure of that judgement but, in my continuing attempts to be a more glass-half-full person (which is one of the key reasons for this Blessing Jar series), it seems apt to consider the blessings I’ve had from friendships.

I’ve started to think about what exactly the bonds are that hold a friendship together, what makes one friendship last and another drift, why some friendships can be taken up again in a matter of minutes despite miles and years in between and some never progress beyond politeness.

I think the first things that lead to friendship are time and opportunity. We start to become friends with those we do things with – school, work, church. But it needs more than that for a friendship to develop. We need commonalities, similar experiences to discuss, those moments when we suddenly realise, ‘Oh, you too?’.

From 4 years old this glamorous lot were playing together in each others’ gardens and walking to school together with us mums. Now they are all at university but we mums are still friends.

I remember that moment with my friend, Lizzie. For a while we’d just nodded at each other as we walked the same route to drop off and pick up our kids from school before we actually spoke to each other. But it was when we discovered that we had both lived abroad for a while that I felt we ‘clicked’. We went on to discover and develop a host of other shared characteristics – husbands whose work took them abroad; children in the same years at the same schools; a love of travel, good food and nice wine (admittedly that’s actually moved on to a shared love of gin now!); the loss of our mothers; and the caring for increasingly dependent fathers. All these have woven a web of friendship bonds between us.

And cocktails, we also like to swap cocktail recipes!

But there’s another element required for a friendship to last and that’s effort. Going back to work, volunteering at Boys’ Brigade, and an increasing amount of time spent looking after my father – all worthwhile and properly prioritised activities – reduced the time and energy I had to spend with my friends. And a friendship without deep roots won’t survive such neglect. A good friend will understand when other concerns must take precedence but all friendships are like plants and need attention. So I’m glad to be back in the routine of coffee with the other mums on my estate. It nurtures my soul and helps keep me sane.

Of course, the way to tell a true friend is by the way they act, especially when times are tough. There was Jeni, who understood when I had depression that I couldn’t cope with large social events but organised something small and manageable so I didn’t miss out on a special occasion. Simone helped set up the catering on the day of my mum’s funeral. Liz listened endlessly on the phone when I was miserably sick with hyperemesis through both my pregnancies.

Liz has kept my family supplied with her wondrous cakes for a very long time.

And for a proper friendship, as Kath writes on the Glimpsing Glory blog http://glimpsingglory.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/whats-in-name.html for the same Five Minute Friday prompt, there has to be equality – otherwise it’s not friendship but a different relationship altogether. Friends have no superiority or one sidedness but take it in turns to hold each other up. I’ve been glad to hold my friends up with a listening ear or the benefit of my professional knowledge because I know my own turn has either just passed or is about to come round. As the song says:

‘Lean on me

When you’re not strong

I’ll be your friend

I’ll help you carry on

For it won’t be long

‘fore I’m gonna need

Somebody to lean on.’

Finally, I think what pulls and holds friends closest together, no matter the distance or time between meeting, is shared values. This is what enables us to pick up where we left off straightaway with some. My best female friend lives nearly 150 miles away but put us on the phone together or in the same room and none the miles or months matter. Not bad for a couple of women who, having had the other bigged up by our families before we met, originally decided not to even like each other! Our faith and mutual history has forged elastic bands of friendship between us that stretch but don’t break.

Reunited with old school friends, Elaine and Kiren, last year

In the end, I guess it’s a combination of these factors that creates and establishes friendships. Some will last a season and others a lifetime. Looking back, I can see I have a lot of friendships to thank God for sending my way and I have indeed been blessed.


FRIEND (Five Minute Friday)

Welcome to the weekly link up with the fabulous Five Minute Friday Community at http://katemotaung.com/) This week’s word is ‘Friend’.

Strange how I’ve found it so difficult today to write about such a simple word – perhaps because it’s such a big subject or perhaps because it has reminded me of the many times when I’ve found it hard to make or keep friends.

I think growing up it felt as if many of my friendships came readymade. I don’t remember where I met my first best friend. I know our mums were pregnant and under the same doctor together, that we lived only a few doors from each other, and automatically walked to both playgroup and primary school together. Kerry was quite a forceful character and I just followed her lead. When we went to different secondary schools, with less time naturally spent together, I guess we had less in common and drifted apart as she became less available.

Outside of school, much of our family life revolved around church where other close friendships seemed to happen naturally. It was just expected that the children of my parents’ friends became my friends – and they did, some of them much more lasting. Apart from these, in my teens I think I drifted from one friendship group to another, never quite feeling like I fully belonged. In 6th Form, most of those I thought were my friends let me down whereas others I’d considered more acquaintances proved kinder and more accepting. The unwritten social rules proved confusing and at times hurtful.

Moving two hundred miles away to college, I was glad to have a fresh start where I could be known for who I was, without history or known relations, but I found it so difficult without all my familiar supports to back me up. My self confidence completely deserted me for the first few weeks.

Things improved from there though. I’d read somewhere that the way to make friends was to be a friend, to take the initiative, treat anyone I met as a potential friend, not to wait for invitations but to give them out. And it worked.

It’s a lesson I continue to apply as an adult. In a new situation – conferences I’ve gone to on my own, new jobs, holidays, meeting my husband’s work colleagues – I’ve learned to take a breath, remember that others may also be feeling nervous (but that we’re all good at hiding it!), and make the first approach. I remember to take an interest in others, to ask questions about them and let them talk. I’ve also learned that I am better one to one or in small groups so to play to my strengths and that it’s ok to take time out when I find large gatherings a bit overwhelming, regather my equilibrium and then take the plunge into the social occasion again.

Of course, it’s easier now because once again I have great back up: I know that my team of male cheerleaders (husband, sons) will always be onside and the company I love best. And their love and friendship is an echo of the ultimate Friend who reminds me that ‘You need never feel alone when God’s prayer away’. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVkJsyNmtpY)

The best cheerleaders a girl could have – and I had to choose this photo as it is St Patrick’s Day!

BLESSING AFTER BLESSING: The Blessing of BB Camp (Blessings Jar Week 10)

I’m sorry this post is so late – blame it on busyness and exhaustion. I spent from Friday night to Sunday night at Boys’ Brigade Camp, with my days lasting from 6.30am to 10.30pm, and I’m still recovering.

But I drove home from Camp with such a glow in my heart and a renewed enthusiasm for the work we do at BB. Yes, it had been hard work with a few frustrations along the way but there had been so many moments of joy, fun, hope, and encouragement that they sparkled in my mind like diamonds in the rain.

I won’t forget the Challenge Course for a long time. After a convoluted route there, pretending to be ninjas and ‘hiding’ as trees/bushes/letterboxes from any adults we encountered, we reached a series of assault course type obstacles in the woods with extra mud (the activity leader brought buckets of water to ensure there was plenty!). Nor will Pete*, who didn’t want to spoil his Hollister hoodie so borrowed my fleece to wear instead – my bright cerise pink fleece, the one he spent the rest of the weekend trying to persuade me to photoshop a different colour in the pictures I took.

I won’t forget either the sense of achievement on the boys’ faces when they succeeded in an activity, many of which involved negotiating a very high object (a climbing wall, a tower, a pole) and then trusting a rope of some kind to come down (e.g. a zip wire). On Saturday Jake* quietly refused to go on the giant swing because he didn’t like it last year but was so proud of himself on Sunday for jumping off the very top of the trapeze and the power fan for the first time.

Not all the boys managed all the activities 100%. Fear of heights (or fear of hitting the ground hard, as my husband would describe it) overcame some of them. The others had to learn patience as a boy froze on one of the pieces of equipment. They started to learn which words encouraged and which ones didn’t. But there was always at least one to reassure that boy when he came back down again feeling the odd one out for not doing everything the others had. I have a picture in my mind of two of them sheltered from the rain, hugging for several minutes until they felt better.

Then there was the joy of seeing BB staff’s skills, old and new, in action. AJ used his previous experience as a children’s party entertainer to tell the story of the Feeding of the 5000 with his magic bag’s endless supply of chocolate coins. That certainly held the boys’ attention! Tom led a Bible Study and prayer on the story of Jesus Calming the Storm, the first time he’d ever done something like this – but it won’t be his last.

And I can’t miss out Eric – the PGL leader assigned to us for the whole weekend. This 19 year old never flagged, despite the long hours he worked. He asked to join our Bible studies as he was a Christian himself and joined in himself at our final group prayer, giving the boys another example of what BB calls ‘true Christian manliness’. He combined energetic enthusiasm with quiet authority in a way I’ve seen few lads of his age do. This was a man doing a job that totally matched his gifts.

A weekend like this always gives us staff a chance to see another side and get to know the boys better. One quiet boy hardly stopped talking. A ‘sensible’ one turned out to be quite the mischief maker. I learned how important extended family was to one lad who I know has had a difficult upbringing. I was entertained by another’s card tricks at Seniors Night on Saturday. So at our final Bible study, as we took it in turns to pray (silently or out loud), I looked around the circle and felt a much stronger bond and concern for these boys than before, having had an insight into their worlds outside BB, and that consequently my prayers would be so much more accurate and heartfelt.

I told parents in a follow up email yesterday that it’s a real privilege to take the boys on Camp. But it’s more than that: it’s a real blessing.

(* names changed)