This Was Not What We Imagined

With my mind elsewhere today, I’m sharing a poem I wrote a while ago that I think fits this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt of RISK.  I love considering the parallels between our modern experience and Bible characters; it brings the characters closer, personalises them.

This was not what we imagined
This was not how we expected pregnancy to be
The timing all wrong
Me with my new job
And you before your wedding day
We had no preparation for the anguish and distress
My nonstop vomiting exacerbated by anxiety
Your risk of rejection and scandal driven disgrace
But we each had our Elizabeth
Our place and voice of refuge
And we thanked God for her

It was not the birth we hoped for either
No familiar faces surrounding us (except his)
Only the support of strangers
No security of homely surroundings
But unkind smells of disinfectant or dung in the darkness
I ached for a window in that long night
For a glimpse of the natural world outside
Of sky, of starlight
You had your Starlight
But did you get your glimpse outside
Of the universe on tiptoes outside your door?

When I needed help
God sent me a tall smiling doctor
With a voice to believe in
And an Alien faced midwife banshee shouting
God sent you men more used to delivering livestock
With a story of angel song
Still ringing in their ears
But your little lamb had already arrived

And after the excitement of announcing our boys’ arrivals
Telephone for me, celestial choirs for you
We found that first moment of stillness
Babe in our arms well sated
And we wondered
And pondered
God’s good guidance
And possible plans

 

SAMARITAN OR NOT?

The end of the week, the end of our journey, just our little hill to go. Storm Dennis continues to pour down on the windscreen and in rivulets down the tarmac as we squeeze carefully up the narrow twists and turns in first gear. It’s a bit more challenging than usual but manageable.

Or so we think.

At the steepest, tightest bend the headlights catch a woman on all fours and a man trying to lift her up. There’s no way round them so we have to stop. We consider getting out to help but attention quickly returns to the car as my handbrake is failing to hold it against the combined force of gradient and rain slicked road. I daren’t take my foot off the other brake. I can manage this hill forwards but there’s no way I can reverse safely down.

Eventually she staggers over to a small parking space and we struggle past, a slightly worrying burnt smell coming from my clutch. We think again about going back to help as we unload in front of the steps up to our house but, by the time, I come down from our own parking space further up the hill, others have gone to their aid.

 (Here’s the road in the daytime. At the top of the view is the sharp bend left where the woman fell and between the house and the blue and white fence is where we had to stop). 

The experience left me thinking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the viewpoint of the passers by.

I wonder what their reasons for avoiding helping were. Did they think the man by the road was drunk so not worthy of help? But is that a valid reason? Did they have others waiting at their destination, relying on them, so any delay by rescuing this man would have caused distress or harm to someone else who needed them?

It’s easy to cast the priest and Levite as simple villains, self righteous or afraid. And to assume that we would never behave like that because we know the lesson from this familiar story so well.

But human behaviour is rarely as straightforward as in a short story, even one told by Jesus. How do we balance the needs of more than one person who needs us at a time? Does God call us to be a neighbour to everyone? Or does He call us to particular needs and people?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts. But I am grateful for an experience that has made me confront a familiar parable from a different angle, even if I haven’t reached any conclusions yet.

This post was written as part of this week’s Five Minute Friday Link Up with the prompt ‘experience’. Find more here https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/13/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-experience/

The Parable of the TALENTs

I wonder if God smiled to Himself at the first telling of the Parable of the Talents, knowing that the English translation of the word for money would have a second meaning? So, rather than consider how we manage our finances, we can’t help but hear the story in terms of what we do with our God given skills.

How do we invest and multiply our gifts? Or are we guilty of hiding and burying them? And do we realise that God wants us to grow what he has given us?

But how do we do that?

Well, I guess, first of all we need to recognise what we have been given. So it’s worth asking ourselves what has been put in our hands and laps. Is it time or finances? Is it a dining table or a spare room? Is it an aptitude for numbers or art? Is it a love of gardening or languages? Is it a joy in seeing others succeed or in the natural world?

As a young Christian, trying to work out my direction in life, I was given the wise advice to look at what I was good at and what I loved doing as a starting point. Even the parable talks about ‘each according to his ability’. God isn’t a spoilsport so go with your abilities and see where it takes you.

But to make the most of what God has given us, we need to invest it and invest in it. We need to put time and energy and discipline in. No one became a great musician or led church worship well without practising. Likewise, I can’t become more patient  without frequently forgiving other drivers or a good listener without giving my family my full attention when they talk. It’ll be hard at times but with continued application, taking the opportunities that come our way, our talents will grow.

Sometimes we can feel that we have few talents, few resources to invest. We think it’s only the great that really counts. But God doesn’t see size, fame, or significance as we do. He is a God who loves small things, seeing such significance and potential in them. He loves a widow’s last pennies, mustard seeds, and a boy’s packed lunch. He loves a child’s pocket money donation to charity, a prayer said, a cup of tea made with care.

He takes our small investments and honours our attempts to use them in His service. And then He multiplies them. Seeds grow into vast trees giving shelter to a range of wildlife. A couple of fish sandwiches more than feed an enormous crowd. The exhaustion and pain of caring for a loved one with dementia turns into a precious gift and memory. A few encouraging words act as someone’s  lifeline.

We don’t always see such results. But God does. And when He sees us making the most of the talents He has given us, that definitely makes Him smile.

Joining in again with the fabulous Five Minute Friday community on this week’s prompt of TALENT. Find more here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/06/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-talent/

TESTIMONY (Five Minute Friday)

There’s a saying, isn’t there? ‘If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’

Scary thought.

If I were in the dock, who would be my witnesses? I guess the key ones would be those closest to me, those who know me best, those who see how I behave every day.

My family certainly know about my faith and how integral it is to my life. They have seen over the years how it is at the core of my decision making and choices, opinions and priorities. They know I pray daily for them.

But they also know better than most how imperfect my faith is, how often I don’t live up to the standards my faith calls me to. Because they love me, they forgive me much.

And when I get it right, how much, I wonder, do they realise is down to God and not just my original character and upbringing? They didn’t know me before I became a Christian. Most of the people in my life now don’t. So how can they see what a difference Jesus has made to me?

I’m no evangelist. I am honest about my beliefs if people ask. But I don’t shout about it. And I am terribly aware of how often I get it wrong – my impatience, anger, or unkindness.

Called to the witness stand myself, I can only tell you that God is Who keeps me going when life feels overwhelming, gives me the means to grow as a person, and daily opens my eyes to the wonders and beauty of this world around me.

Sometimes He sends people to teach me these lessons. Sometimes circumstances show me. Sometimes a sentence in the Bible shouts His reassurance or direction at me. Sometimes as I write in my prayer journal to Him, the way becomes clear. Sometimes it’s like a gentle whisper in my head and a sense of peace as I follow.

This is my testimony.

OFFERing

…Elsewhere, swathes of colour flash
Around the great donation boxes.
Strong footsteps assert their way to the front.
Silken embroidered robes are swept aside
As, with a flourish,
A fat purse is rustled out of deep folds of fabric.
Each gold and silver coin spangles in the sunlight
Before falling individually into the box
With satisfying clang:
The larger the donation the larger the audience
Necessary for the performance.

Nervously waiting
Until all the great donors are gone
(Reassuringly patting the plumpness
Of their spare purses)
A dowdy figure quickly, almost furtively,
Approaches the boxes.
Her hand brushes the opening
So fleetingly that no one notices,
Except One,
Who hears the imperceptible clink of two tiny coins
And acknowledges with approval her private sacrifice.
She leaves with empty pockets
But a full heart…

This is an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote but it just seems to fit this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt well

WELCOME BACK! (Five Minute Friday – INTENTIONAL)

I practise yoga once a week after work on a Tuesday. It helps me stretch out muscles cramped from driving between patients’ homes and hunched over a computer writing up those visits, as well as de-stressing mentally.

Sometimes our yoga teacher talks at the beginning of ‘setting an intention’ for the session. I suppose it’s just another way of saying to come up with a personal aim or focus for the session but somehow it’s a gentler, kinder ambition than a specific objective and therefore easier to succeed at.

I’ve had a long break from this blog – Christmas, New Year, a chest infection, too tired, and then just out of the routine, plus lacking an intention for it. With the end of 2017, I came to the end of my year’s series of the Blessing Jar weekly posts. I’ve been meaning to review them and write about that, thinking that it would lead to inspiration for a new series but I haven’t found or made the time and I’ve got stuck, lacking ideas and not finishing anything I have started.

I’m not one for New Year resolutions these days – too easy to be over ambitious, unrealistic, and then fail. But I have quietly started to read my way through The Message version of the New Testament in the mornings, alongside returning to Stormie O’Martian’s books to pray for my husband and sons. I’ve seen a lot of those ‘Bible in a Year’ schemes and wanted to do them but felt daunted by the commitment (I’ve tried before) so not having a deadline seems more achievable. I suppose that’s a form of ‘setting an intention’.

I’m trying to eat a little healthier too but without making a big deal or an actual diet of it. And I’m hoping to get back to swimming again. Or maybe that’s a bit over ambitious!

But I think it’s a matter of being intentional in my writing. I need to set an intention of writing for my blog each week again. Perhaps I don’t need to be too specific (yet) about topics and I certainly don’t need to keep holding up my recent failures to finish a piece or post something. – I just need to remind myself that I am still a writer and do it.

 

ONLY (Five Minute Friday)

OK, I’ll admit to cheating this week! I wrote this post on 31st October last year as part of #Write31Days when we were on holiday in upstate New York. So. with the same prompt word for Five Minute Friday, I’m repeating it here (and at least it definitely takes only 5 minutes to post!):

The final challenge of Write 31 Days – Write out Philippians 4.8 and practise thinking ONLY about those things today (‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’) – is one I need.

I’m a perfectionist by nature, which is a constantly uncomfortable way to live. Faults, errors, mistakes leap out at me like an editor’s red correcting pen on a manuscript. It might be a missing apostrophe on a sign or an inaccurate reference in someone’s conversation. I don’t look for imperfections deliberately; it’s more like wearing glasses with a filter that makes them stand out. And the urge to correct a mistake is so strong it’s automatic, like iron filings to a magnet.

So it’s very easy for me to fall into criticism mode and to anticipate and interpret actions for the worst in others. My view becomes skewed, out of balance.

That’s why I need this verse.

And I have tried today. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road, where I would usually be very critical of other drivers, but I’ve tried to make allowances and not assume their mistakes were malicious. I’ve tried to counter worries about my dad back home with thoughts of yesterday’s majestic and raw power of Niagara Falls. I have filled my eyes with the beauty of the unfamiliar landscape and architecture we’ve passed.

It’s a particularly apt verse for today, Halloween, when our culture seems to celebrate all things unlovely. As a Christian, I struggle with this celebration and I mourn its metamorphosis away from its original purpose of remembering those loved ones who have died. It would be easy to just criticise it, especially here in America where it seems such a major festival.

But today I have tried to look at it with fresh eyes, to see if I can find anything admirable or praiseworthy in it. And I think I have. The little mountain town we have arrived in has closed off its small main street for the local Parent/Teachers Association to hold a fancy dress parade (for all who want to join in), lay on free hot dogs and a pumpkin pie eating competition, and set up themed stalls out of car boots where children can get festive treats. Laying aside my usual concerns about the ethics of Halloween, I have to admire the effort to make trick or treating safe for all involved. I have to admire the creativity of many of the costumes (especially the fluorescent jellyfish made from umbrellas). And I have to praise the sense of community that was evident to visitors like us.

Whatever I conclude about Halloween itself, the point is that by practising this verse, I was able to find light in the darkness like the stars in the clear black sky. And it’s given me much to think about in terms of how to harness and tune into such creativity and community spirit back in the UK, potential inspiration I would have missed if I’d concentrated on criticism instead.

It’s a great verse for me. And it’s been a great discipline to practise today.

But it’s not enough.

I need to practise this regularly.

The Blessing of Bed (THE BLESSING JAR)

Sometimes you have to go without something to appreciate it – at least, I do.

Last weekend, we held a sleepover at church for the 8-11 year olds in our Boys’ Brigade Company. They played pool and table tennis, made chocolate pizzas, did a quiz, and watched a film late into the night. Finally, it was time to settle down for some actual sleep, the boys in the church hall, the leaders each in a side room.

I retired to our Rainbow Room, used throughout the week for meetings, U3A sessions, and small youth group activities. It also had the advantage over the hall of having carpet tiles. And I had come well prepared – after all, I’ve done this before. I had my husband’s new, thick exercise mat; my cosy, brushed cotton lined sleeping bag; a pillow; and my long fleece dressing gown for an extra layer if needed. I even had my Kindle just in case I couldn’t sleep.

I wasn’t expecting any difficulties. I’ve slept in more uncomfortable surroundings, even fully clothed (complete with hat) when camping outdoors in November. I’ve slept in this room for previous indoor camps before.

But I was wrong. It was one of the worst night’s sleep I’d had in a long time. Carpet and mat seemed to make no difference as I struggled to find a position that didn’t dig into my hips or thighs or shoulders. My pillow instantly shrank to half its thickness and seemed determined to spend the night escaping from under my head. The light in the corridor (which we’d left on for the boys to find the toilet) flooded my room with unwelcome brightness, fooling my brain into thinking it was daytime. Unfamiliar noises, even though I told myself they were just the pipes after the heating had been turned off, kept bringing me to a state of alertness.

I was glad of my Kindle. I read a lot of my John le Carre book before finally dosing off.

But it wasn’t to last. Around 3am, I woke for no obvious reason. I went to the loo, snuggled back into my sleeping bag (which I’d moved into a darker corner away from the intruding light, simultaneously trapping my pillow against the wall), and once again returned to the saga of no comfortable position, disturbing sounds, and a brain that had switched off sleep mode. Surrendering to wakefulness, out came the Kindle again as I followed the exploits of George Smiley for another two hours before finally falling asleep again for the last thirty minutes or so before my alarm went off.

The following night, I was back in the comfort of my own capacious double bed with its elegant brass frame. Two fluffy pillows moulded perfectly to my neck and head. The mattress and topper gave just the right level of support to my curves. A double layer duvet wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth. The bed linen was freshly laundered, soft and scented against my skin. Only the faint outline of the closed door pierced the sleep inducing darkness. And the comfort of that familiar body next to mine filled me with reassurance and security. Bliss.

This was a bed full of memories: where my youngest was nursed as a baby; where both children found refuge when sick; where I was woken early by the phone to be told of my mother’s death; where everyone’s Christmas stockings and birthday presents are always opened first thing in the morning. Its history, our family’s history, wraps around me like an old, well loved dressing gown.

Such a welcome difference.

And I realised how often I take it for granted or don’t appreciate it at all. Even if insomnia attacks at home, I can decamp to a generous and very comfortable sofa with plenty of warm bedding. I considered my bed and my home with renewed gratitude.

With Advent about to begin, I also started to think about what it was really like for Mary and Joseph, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment with a brand new baby. How cold and hard was the floor of an animal enclosure? What about the noise, let alone the smell? How many disturbances from sleep by that child who needed feeding or changing? How many disturbances when the animals needed feeding or mucking out, let alone strange visitors?

No pillows or sleeping bags or camping mats for extra comfort for them. No Kindle for distraction.

The trouble is we have romanticised the story, sprinkled the stable with tinsel and glitter, and turned the whole thing into a pastoral idyll. We have magnified Mary and Joseph into saints or reduced them to characters in a children’s play. We have ignored the reality of it, turned away from the cold and the dirt and the smell, forgotten the fatigue and fears of new parenthood.

What if we try to imagine the modern equivalent – giving birth and making do in a garage?

I gave birth in the safety of a local hospital, then within a few hours brought my infant son back to our lovely brass bed and our warm centrally heated house and our fridge full of food and my parents staying for a few weeks to support us. No such comforts for Mary and Joseph.

And no such comforts for a lot of people in the modern world.

We’re trying a new tradition this Advent, a Reverse Advent Calendar. It’s a simple cardboard box, to which we will add one item per day, and give the finished result to our local Foodbank. It’s not much. But it’s an attempt to celebrate the truth of this season, to remember the God who didn’t just come for a sleepover but who moved into the neighbourhood, and to do something for others as a means of serving Him. I might not be able to give Mary and Joseph a bed for the night but I can make sure Jesus, in the form of someone else, has enough to eat and the toiletries He needs.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.34-36 & 40)

So NEAR and Yet So Far (Five Minute Friday)

Check out all the other great writers at the Five Minute Friday community here http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/11/30/fmf-link-up-near/.  Five minutes of free writing on a given word, no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect spelling or grammar, just write.

Here’s my contribution this week:

I’m facing Christmas with mixed feelings this year, my first without my dad. I feel a bit silly saying that though. After all, I’m a grown woman with a husband, adult children, and decades of our own family Christmas traditions behind me. But my parents were always part of our Christmas, even if it wasn’t always on the Day, so my first without either of them, grateful as I am for the rest of my family, feels bittersweet and just a little bit empty.

I guess that’s the thing with grief. You’re managing fine, getting on with life just like you know your Lost One would want you to, when suddenly a heart sink catches you unawares or a cold aching in your very centre settles in like a week’s worth of bad weather.

There are times when I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, I must phone Mum and tell her about that,’ only to realise that she isn’t here to phone anymore. Or something happens and I can feel my Dad smiling at it, except he isn’t.

I am blessed in the knowledge and experience of parents who loved me, who loved me well and long. Sometimes it’s as if that love lingers on, hovering just behind my shoulder, or waiting to envelope me in a hug, or echoed in my sons’ faces. At other times, even their memory feels very far away and the ache is hard to bear. Or I am so absorbed with the rest of my life that I forget them and their absence for a while.

Sometimes I think this push-pull of grief is similar to my faith experience. Sometimes Christ feels very close – my prayer life flourishes, church services inspire, Bible readings shout with words personal to my situation. But at other times, Heaven remains silent, distant, or I push Him away, too busy with my own priorities.

This Advent, I pray that I ‘will draw near to Christ’ and hope that ‘He will draw near to [me]’.