The Mystery Message…

Whiteboard messageI’ve no idea who wrote it. I found it propped up on the piano when I went into one of my schools: a small whiteboard containing 30 words and a smiley face. It made me wonder. Had it been written with someone specific in mind? Or was it simply a “random act of kindness”, intended to encourage whoever happened across it? Maybe it doesn’t matter, as I came out of that room feeling better about myself than when I went in.

But it also challenged me. How do I make sure that I encourage those around me, whether it’s seen or unseen? Am I brave enough to reach out to other people, even if I don’t know the end result? Or am I too wrapped up in my own difficulties to remember that I am called to support others, too?

Romans 12 lists encouragement among the spiritual gifts. It ought to be one of the easiest gifts to exercise, although it’s often disregarded in favour of other, more “super-spiritual” gifts. Yet it’s a vital component of a well-functioning church life. I’m realising that I have a responsibility both to encourage those around me, but also to acknowledge and receive the encouragement they offer me.

Cup of teaI’m thankful for all those who have encouraged me over the years. I feel blessed to have friends who will go out of their way to remind me that they care, even though I’m not always as aware as I should be of their concern. One provides endless cups of tea and a shoulder to cry on. Another listens to me moan when I’ve had a bad day, and then reminds me (gently) that God still loves me even when my pupils don’t.

RosesI need to acknowledge the long-term impact of my actions, too. Someone recently bought me some flowers after I’d had an off-week. They made my lounge a much brighter place, but the real blessing was the thought behind them: that gift will stay with me long after the roses have been consigned to the dustbin.

If you have any further thoughts about how we can encourage each other, I’d love to hear from you…

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The mouse who couldn’t fly

There was once a mouse who lived in a cosy hole hidden under the roots of a knarled old oak tree. Although the mouse had no family, he was never lonely as he had made friends with a group of sparrows who had taken up residence among the spreading branches of the oak tree.

Each day, the mouse admired the way the adult sparrows flew gracefully from the tree to a nearby bush, and then to the meadow beyond, searching out the choicest insects with which to feed their growing offspring.Sparrow babies

“I wish I could fly,” said the mouse one evening, as the female bird paused on the tree root directly above the mouse’s home.

Mrs Sparrow lifted her wings and spread them as far as she could reach. “It’s easy,” she said. “Just flap your wings, and away you go.”

So the little mouse stood on a rock, and waved and flapped until his tiny paws ached, but it was no good.

“I’d love to do that,” said the mouse the next day, as Father Sparrow looped-the-loop before coming to exchange social pleasantries with the mouse.

“Oh, I’m sure you will soon,” said Mr Sparrow. “You just need to believe that you can do it.”

The mouse clenched his paws and shut his eyes tight, and tried to imagine himself swooping and soaring through the air. In his mind’s eye, he could see it quite clearly…but although he flapped his paws for a full hour, nothing happened.

“Maybe you need to wait for the right time,” said Mrs Sparrow the next night, observing the disappointment in the mouse’s eyes. “After all, our little ones won’t be ready to leave the nest for another week.”Sparrow

But two weeks later, when the younger sparrows were turning their mother’s feathers grey with their daredevil antics, the mouse’s feet were still firmly on the floor.

Over the next month, the mouse tried everything he could think of:

  • He developed huge (for a mouse) muscles in his fore-paws from all his flapping.
  • He believed with all his might that one day it would happen.
  • He confessed to the sparrows that he had once eaten a berry they had brought back and set to one side for their young ones. (The sparrows were more than happy to forgive him.)
  • He even tried taking a literal step of faith one evening by launching himself off the rock. Fortunately, he fell only a few inches and the rock was surrounded by soft, spongy moss; but even so, the mouse was battered and bruised by the whole experience.

It was while he was nursing his wounds and feeling overwhelmed with despair that an older, wiser mouse came by. The little mouse glumly described his hopeless attempts to become airborne. mouse-329082_1280

“I’m such a failure,” he sobbed.

The older mouse smiled, and patted him – with great care – on his shoulder.

“But mice were never meant to fly,” he said. “Accept who you are, and enjoy being you.”

 

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Decisions, decisions…

It’s that time of year again: as I write this, it’s exactly one month until Christmas. Which means that over the course of the next four weeks, I have some important decisions to make. How much do I spend? What can I buy for the man in my life, who (as usual) has no idea what he wants? How do we make sure we see all the people we need to visit over the festive period? Oh, and how do I make sure that the real meaning of Christmas doesn’t get buried beneath a mountain of tinsel and mushy sprouts?

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I’m trying not to go overboard with the decorations…

In the schools I visit (as a music teacher) we’ve been gearing up for Christmas since early October. I’ve already played through Jingle Bells more times than I care to think about. Conversations with other staff revolve around end-of-term performances, and whether the third violins are up to joining in with O Little Town. (Answer: Not if you insist on playing it in E flat.)

Modern life is so frantic that we often lose sight of the stuff that really matters. The relentless march of consumerism means that we are awash with alternatives in every situation. Going out for a coffee with a friend used to be a simple operation. These days, I have to choose from cappuccino, latte, Americano and so on. Picking large, medium or small ought to be straightforward, except that they’re all given fancy-sounding names just to cause further confusion. Full-cream or skinny? Take-out or sit-in? We are bombarded with choices wherever we go, so that the smallest decision can cause huge turmoil, and the more important things get pushed to one side. And in the run-up to Christmas, these options expand exponentially.

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Who knew ordering coffee could be so complicated?

Joshua had wise words for the Israelite people as they took possession of the Promised Land. “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” he challenged them, “…as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24: 15, NIV.) The Israelites – not renowned for their good decisions – were eager to reassure him that they, too, would follow God.

I’m seeking to understand how I can apply these words to my own life this Advent. It’s easy to say that I’ll make God my priority, but what does that look like in reality? How do I ensure that I choose to serve him rather than consumerism? What do I need to do differently so that Jesus is my main focus and not an afterthought? My prayer is that each day, God will help me to make good choices so that my Christmas preparations are centred on Christ.

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Sacred Places

At a recent quiet day, a number of us spent some time reflecting on the “sacred places of monasticism”. (And before you ask, no, I’m not considering joining a nunnery.) This is simply a tool for seeking to engage with God in each aspect of our day-to-day living. For the monks in mediaeval times, this meant learning to honour God in various physical locations – chapel, cell, refectory, garden, cloister, chapter, scriptorium and coracle.

Today, it’s helpful to think of these places as representing different areas of our lives, so that the refectory stands for hospitality and relationships, the cloister for unexpected encounters, and so on. Trying to expand on these themes led to the poem below:

 

Christ be in me in this act of worship:

A time to meet, to sing, to watch and pray.

Christ be in me; Christ be in each one of us –

As hearts and minds unite to honour you.

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Christ be in me in this place of stillness:

A secret space to be alone with you.

No clamouring voices here distract my thoughts;

I wait in full surrender for your touch.

 

Christ be in me now, and in my dwelling:

Lord, bless the friends – and strangers – at my table.

May those who enter here discern your presence,

And leave encouraged, mended and affirmed.

 

Christ be in me in my occupation;

And let each hour of toil be work for you.

Help me reflect the glory of your gospel

To shine your light where darkness would prevail.

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Christ be in each unexpected meeting:

Those unforeseen events are known by you.

So give me grace to use those chance encounters

To share your love with all who are in need.

 

Christ be in me in my conversations:

Teach me to wait and listen – not just talk!

Help me to open up myself to others;

To grow, and in that growing, build your church.

 

Christ be in my reading and my writing:

Direct my daily choices, help me learn.

You are the living Word throughout all ages,

So may my words illuminate your truth.

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Christ be in my journey: be the signpost

That guides my feet down undiscovered paths.

Your Spirit leading me to new adventures,

And this shall be my prayer: Christ be in me.

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Maps are for Wimps!

My dad was renowned in our family for his short-cuts. When I was growing up, a big feature of our summer holiday was trying to climb as many mountains as possible in the space of two weeks. We always took a map…but we didn’t necessarily follow it if we thought there was a more direct route. So we waded through bracken, scrambled up scree-slopes and trailed through bogs. Coming home with boots (and sometimes clothes) caked in mud was the sign of a good day out.

I’ve just come back from a fortnight in Whitby. One of the places we visited was a pretty little village called Goathland, which nestles in a valley in the middle of the beautiful North York Moors. From there, you can walk alongside the stream to a waterfall known as the Mallyan Spout. It’s only a short distance, but quite spectacular.

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There’s obviously more of my dad in me than I realised, because it was me who suggested that it would be more interesting if we joined the path a mile or so further upstream. I had been that way once before, with a party of schoolchildren, so I knew it was do-able.

Unfortunately, that was over 20 years ago. Either the path or my memory (or possibly both) had been eroded over time. What I had remembered as a gentle stroll down a clearly marked path was in fact a challenging combination of clambering over rocks and squelching through boggy patches. My dad would have been so proud!

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Are you sure this is the right way?

Life doesn’t always work out exactly how we plan it – and when it feels like a constant struggle, it’s tempting to dwell on the bad stuff. We focus on the slippery rocks and the muddy swamps. Paul’s response to this type of attitude was to encourage the Philippian church to think about things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy”. (Philippians 4: 8.) That’s quite a list!

Jesus never promised us that life would be easy, but he did promise that he would be with us. Sometimes we need to make the choice to pause and appreciate the good things that God has given us. After all, if I’d spent the entire trip worrying about whether my trousers were ever going to be fit to wear again, I would have missed out on some stunning scenery.

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A Place of Hope

(This story first appeared a few years ago in the ACW anthology Write the Vision.)

 

I’ll never forget that day. The cruelty of the soldiers, the mocking of the crowds. The sickening metallic “clunk” of hammer against nail, swiftly drowned out by piercing screams. Endless hours in the searing heat, watching as the life slowly drained from his bruised and battered body. Oh yes, I was there right through to the bitter end – which was more than some of his so-called friends could manage. It was the least I could do for him; even though it broke my heart to see him up there, covered in blood and gasping for breath.

 

I thought back to his childhood. To me he was the most beautiful baby ever. Of course, all mothers say that about their firstborn – but I can still remember the pride I felt at his birth and the overwhelming sense of gratitude to God as we took him to the temple to be dedicated. Our faith has always been a central part of our family life. My son loved it when we went to visit the temple on feast days – and he was always full of questions, often ones that we his parents couldn’t answer! Who would have thought that such childish innocence would one day end up here?

 

The first I knew of his arrest was when one of his friends burst in through the doorway, eyes wide with terror. It was all too obvious from the look on his face what had happened; the verdict was inevitable.

 

Friday dawned bright and clear. Jerusalem was full of visitors, come to celebrate the Passover Festival, and so there were plenty of witnesses to mark his faltering steps out of the city towards the place of execution. Clearly exhausted, he stumbled several times along the route. There were two others with him destined for the same fate, but I confess that I scarcely gave them a second glance – I only had eyes for my son.

 

The execution was efficiently – and brutally – carried out. The soldiers joked amongst themselves as they shared out the belongings of the condemned. A large part of the crowd had hung around to enjoy the grisly spectacle, taunting the slowly dying figures. Gradually their words filtered through to my brain. Most of their attention was focused on the central cross.

“Look at you now!” they jeered. “You saved others – why don’t you save yourself?”

 

Obviously I’d heard of this man – he was some sort of preacher, I believe. He’d been unpopular with the authorities for some time, but had a tremendous following amongst the ordinary people. Some of them had even claimed that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Personally I thought that this was rather far-fetched and that he should have been more discreet – no point in stirring up trouble. Besides, no one was ever going to achieve anything by getting on the wrong side of the Sanhedrin. Still, it seemed a shame that he had ended up here.

 

And my son? I confess I still don’t know where we went wrong with that boy. He’d always been so sweet-natured – mischievous, maybe – but a son to delight any mother’s heart. And yet, with hindsight, I can see that gradually over time he changed, became harder and more distant. The younger ones began to complain of things going missing – but then children are always losing things. It seems so obvious now, but at the time I never suspected that my son was the culprit.

 

I finally woke up to the truth when I found him examining a beautiful gold brooch, set with precious stones. Nobody of our acquaintance could possibly afford to own such a costly thing. My son, my precious son, was nothing more than a thief. How could he have done such a thing? And how could I not have realised what was going on? I felt so ashamed, so humiliated. I was also scared. What if he got caught? Roman punishments were always swift and severe. I had seen too many examples of their justice to hope for any leniency there. And I knew – as he knew – that what he was doing was wrong. It was clearly written in the laws that Moses passed down to us, laws that he’d heard expounded every Sabbath since childhood.

 

Deep down I knew it was only a matter of time. Then, last month, he and his friends foolishly laid an ambush for a Roman official travelling to Jerusalem. They knew – don’t ask me how – that he was carrying gold to Pilate, the governor. What they hadn’t counted on was the size of his escort. They were hugely outnumbered. My son and another were captured and thrown into prison to await the sentence of Rome. There was never any doubt about what that sentence would be.

 

And so here he was, paying a heavy price for his folly. The abuse from the onlookers was getting louder now, and the thief on the cross furthest from me was joining in.

“If you’re who you claim to be, you should rescue yourself – and us!” he shouted, his voice full of bitterness. The crowd cheered. This was good entertainment. And then my son spoke.

“We are only getting what we deserve,” he said wretchedly, “but this man – he’s done nothing wrong!” He twisted his head awkwardly towards the central cross.

“Jesus,” he whispered – it was an effort now for him to get the words out – “Jesus, remember me when you return as King.”

“I tell you,” came the gentle reply, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

 

I’ll never forget that day. People are saying now that the preacher is alive again. Perhaps his claims about himself were true after all. One thing I do know: only God could have turned an execution ground into a place of hope.

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A bear hunt with a difference

Have you come across the children’s story, “We’re going on a bear-hunt”? It has the kind of repetitive structure that children love, with lots of obstacles getting in the way of finding the bear. I use it regularly in my lessons, as it’s great for encouraging pupils to develop different sound effects.

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How much noise can I make with these?

God has been reminding me recently that I need to choose to trust him when life doesn’t go as smoothly as I’d like – which led to the following story:

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to change direction?

I’ve worked on this for many years –

I can’t back out right now.

 

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to up my giving?

Don’t you know there’s a recession –

I just haven’t cash to spare.

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My shoes-fund is looking a bit depleted.

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to show forgiveness?

Remember what they did to me?

That simply isn’t fair.

 

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to love the “misfits”?

I don’t think that’s my gifting –

Someone else should go instead.

 

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to learn to trust you?

Well…that’s okay, as long as you

Explain your plans to me.

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 This doesn’t make sense to me…

I want to follow Jesus –

It’s going to be amazing!

I know I’ve made the right choice,

So I’m sure that I won’t fail.

 

Hang on, what’s that?

I need to understand

That darkness, grief and suffering

Are on the road ahead?

 

My Lord, are you completely sure

You know just what you’re doing?

The things you ask are far too hard:

It seems I’m doomed to fail.

 

And Jesus said:

 

I’m calling you to follow me –                                

And it will be amazing;

As grace and mercy light your path –

For my love never fails.

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