Saturday, 6 February 2021

Back in the Moment


‘Back in the Moment’

Every morning before I get up, I read the new day’s page of The Upper Room.  A Bible quotation is followed by a reader’s account of an occasion when those words had special meaning for him/her.

 Last week an Australian woman had chosen Luke 5: 1-11 because such vibrant reports of how Jesus spoke to people can put us back in the moment’.  She described a conversation with a friend who intended to travel across Australia, as she had once done, to see a wonderful display of wildflowers.  “Talking with my friend,” she wrote, “brought back some of the joy I had experienced. It put me back in the moment.”  That immediately struck a chord with me, for I too had recently been “put back in the moment” – a moment of joy!

Between my bed and the dressing table on which I keep my Bible and The Upper Room there is a newspaper rack in which I store books of current interest.  After Christmas, as I arranged my new books in it, I decided to place a tea towel on top of them to keep them dust-free.  I pulled one out from its drawer, completely at random, and was surprised to see that it showed a map of Western Scotland.  I had forgotten its existence!  I carefully folded the cloth in two and fitted it over the collection of new books.

That night, as I settled down in bed, I looked more closely at the cloth map.  There, at the bottom of the fold, was Iona beside the isle of Mull … and yes! … there was Bunessan!  Immediately I was “put back” to the amazing moment of incredulous joy which Bob and I experienced there over 35 years ago, and which has had a profound effect on me ever since.

This is what happened.  Totally exhausted, physically, mentally and spiritually, we had decided to make a little pilgrimage to Iona where (we had read) Heaven seems especially close, in a mystical way.  Both teachers, we had just finished our end-of-term reports; Bob’s frail mother needed constant attention; our three children all needed ferrying to and fro – the two girls to rehearsals for their school’s production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, HMS Pinafore.  All that had been tiring – but also over us hung the perpetual dark cloud of Bob’s recurrent bladder cancer, for which he had needed an operation every three months.  Our future was uncertain…

Before we left home, I prayed, “Please, God, give us your support – and make us aware of it.  Please send us your Holy Spirit to guide us.”

Using the Tourist Board’s Book-a-Bed-Ahead service, I had booked our accommodation for the first night in Helensburgh.  From there I would book a B&B for our next stop, in Oban, then would ask someone at the Oban Tourist Board to help us find a guest-house on Mull. (We knew that Iona was unlikely to have spare places at such short notice.)  The only place we knew of on Mull was Tobermory, but our Helensburgh host advised us to try Bunessan, which is much nearer the Iona ferry.  We had never even heard the name of that village!

Arriving on Mull, we decided to take the long way round the island to Bunessan.  We had lunch in Tobermory, where the main road stopped.  Thereafter it was a single-track road, with freely wandering sheep. There were some scary moments when we were forced by an oncoming vehicle to reverse to a passing-place on top of cliffs!  When at last we reached Bunessan, a policeman informed us that our B&B was a mile out of the village, standing alone, overlooking Loch Scridain.

Our host was waiting for us under a big bright golfing umbrella beside the gate.  He led us into the guest bedroom.  I noticed a framed photograph on the bedside cabinet – and stopped in amazement!  It showed the cast of HMS Pinafore, with our two daughters, Sally and Linda, smiling out at us!

The powerful effect of this ’coincidence’ was so overwhelming that we could only stand there in awe and wonder, sensing the presence of some invisible power that had led us to this place.  The information that our host’s daughter had spent the summer term at Ayr Academy teaching art did nothing to reduce our amazement. It simply added one more element to the way in which we had been guided to this experience, after complete strangers had found rooms for us in guest-houses totally unknown to us.

Even today, all these years later, the memory of that moment of astonished recognition still brings me strength and joy, renewing my faith in the ever-present Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would be our Advocate and Comforter.  How glad I am that during this trying Covid-19 time of separation from loved ones, of grief, anxiety and frightening statistics, I have that little cloth map, as a visible, tangible reminder of God’s loving care.  (Coincidentally, beside my bed - just as that special photograph was!)

If you have a similar symbolic souvenir which puts you back in a moment of joy when your faith was deepened, now is the time to look it out again and ponder over it!  Remember John Newton’s well-loved hymn which begins:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Deo gratias

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Pass it on!


Pass it on!

Do you watch The Repair Shop?  In 2020, in the midst of all our worry, frustration and grief, how lovely it has been to have this (pre-recorded) haven which never fails to show us expertise, gratitude and joy!

The format is simple.  Each visitor brings a treasured possession in need of repair; an expert craftsman/woman applies their expertise to “bring it back to life”; the visitor is amazed and delighted.  Usually, two or more generations of the same family are involved: a grandparent and/or parent for whom the item has had special significance, and who now who wishes to pass it on to the next generation.

The experts, too, often mention a previous family member who taught them their particular skill.  For example, the man who created two new wheels for a child’s miniature vehicle told us that he had learned his craft from his father and grandfather, both wheelmakers by trade.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of a felt picture which I once made, to hang on the back wall of my classroom.  The front and side walls were festooned with posters of France and Germany, but I was well aware that not every pupil was keen, or indeed able, to learn a foreign language.  So, the felt picture was there at the back to encourage me, as I tried to convince my teenage pupils about the importance of the Learning Process!

The deep pink figure, standing with arms down, symbolises a pupil of the current generation.  The paler pink figures on his/her left represent previous generations: from parent all the way back to great-great-great grandparent - after which they fade into the distant past (Half-figure in white).  In order to receive useful know-how which can be passed on to the next generation (as yet unborn! – shown by the white half-figure on the right), the pupil must raise his/her arms – that is, make an effort - to join and continue the chain of knowledge.

Of course, I was delighted when pupils shared my love of French and/or German and did well in their exams.  But I was also delighted when on Friday afternoons members of my fourth-year non-certificate class took turns to tell their classmates about a specific skill they had learned from older family members.  I remember the pride of a boy who loved fly fishing as he showed us the colourful artificial flies he had made, and the determination of another, whose ambition was to become a farrier for racehorses.

In this photo of my Higher French class, you can see my felt picture on the wall behind the pupils.  But at this present time, what is far more noticeable is the closeness of the youngsters – no facemasks and no social distancing from one another or from the teacher.  How very sorry I am that the present generation – including my two grand-daughters at school and my younger grandson at university – have had their education and social development disrupted by Covid-19 and their future prospects made less certain.

What can a grandparent do to help?  Nothing much, it would seem, in this unprecedented situation – except stay at home in Lockdown!  But everyone of my age will have had to face anxiety and heartbreak at some time or another, and will possibly remember and pass on words of advice which their grandparents gave them.  In my family such advice was “Just live one day at a time” and “This too will pass” and ‘Cast all your anxiety upon Him, for He cares for you.’

Now, I realise that for many people faith in God is very difficult, especially in view of all the present frightening statistics.  But the Good News is that faith is absolutely separate from all statistics!  It is for each of us a personal relationship with God, accessed by private prayer.

If you look again at the photo of my pupils you will see a quotation which I posted up there for my own benefit! – words which have given me strength at very difficult times of anxiety, money worries, sorrow, physical and mental exhaustion.  I painted the letters in yellow on black paper, with the most important word in white paint for emphasis.

The message on the poster is in French: Ne crains pas; crois seulement, which means:  Don’t be afraid; only have faith - a quotation from Luke’s Gospel, passed on from generation to generation for two thousand years.  It is what Jesus said to a distraught father (Jairus) just before he brought his 12-year-old daughter back to life.

Now, as we face the New Year, 2021, I pass it on to you.

 May God bless you and your loved ones.


Tuesday, 3 November 2020

A new Circuit Board


A new Circuit Board


There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all people, are the work of the same God.  In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way for some useful purpose.                                                                         (1 Corinthians 12:6-7)

“What a kerfuffle!” I heard someone exclaim the other day, and I chuckled with delight to hear that old Scottish word which my mother would use when things were in a state of confusion.  Well, “kerfuffle” more or less described the situation in my house this October!  Order has now been restored, I’m glad to say – but only after five visits from four clever masked men…

It all started one morning when I woke up feeling cold and realised that the central heating wasn’t working.  On opening the front panel of the boiler, I saw that the pressure arrow was away beyond the green section where it should be.  Trying to remember the instructions, I found the ‘tap’ down below and turned it 90 degrees.  Within an hour the whole house was far too hot – and now I couldn’t turn the heating off!  I hurriedly looked up the phone number for Scottish Gas.

A young engineer- wearing a mask with a hairy fringe (he had a beard!) - came promptly.  While I stayed at a safe distance in the living room, he fixed the pressure and checked that all was in good order.  Now I could relax!  However, a few days later I was somewhat alarmed when another masked man arrived unexpectedly at my door, asking to come in.  This was a local Scottish Gas inspector, come to check that the work had been properly carried out.  I hurriedly put on a mask and directed him through the garage to the kitchen and back garden where he carried out another thorough inspection.

The next masked stranger to arrive was a Hotpoint engineer to solve the problem of my washing machine, which had mysteriously turned On-Off, On-Off when I had tried to start the usual hot wash of towels. Once again, I put on a mask and stayed safely in the living room while he tested the machine. Ten minutes later he declared that he could find no fault, then departed, leaving me relieved but very puzzled as the machine obediently filled up with hot water.  All was well!

But two days later I awoke once again to a cold house.  No heating and no hot water!  How could this be?  What was the meaning of all this? I wondered…

 In response to my emergency phone call, another masked engineer arrived and studied the flashing lights below the boiler.  After twenty minutes I was somewhat alarmed to hear him on his mobile phone, describing the problem to the manufacturers.  He then announced that a new circuit board was needed.  He didn’t have one in his van, but would return with a PCB (Printed Circuit Board) next morning.

Well, I had never seen or even heard of a PCB, so I quickly turned to Google for enlightenment!  There I read: ‘Printed Circuit Board.  A PCB allows components to be correctly connected to a power source while being safely insulated’.                    

 The following morning, I put on my mask, sanitised my hands and, somewhat nervously, went into the kitchen to view this essential piece of equipment.  How astonished I was when I saw it! – so small, but very complex.  When he removed the old one, the engineer pointed out the part which had burnt out, thus causing the breakdown.  I gasped in astonishment when I saw how tiny it was!  Hardly any bigger than this capital M!  Less than the size of one of my pinkie nails!  I was amazed to find that such a small part could prevent the flow of energy from the source of power – resulting in the huge difference between heat and cold, comfort and misery. 

As soon as the new circuit board was fitted, the central heating started up and hot water was available again, almost immediately.   Comfort had been restored!  How gratefully I thanked the engineer as he left the house.  As I relaxed with a cup of coffee, I humbly thought of how indebted I was to him and to the other three engineers who had recently come to my aid.  How glad I was that they had the necessary knowledge and expertise on subjects of which I knew next to nothing!  Pondering on this, I realised how, during the whole of October, I had been indebted to people who had specialist knowledge: the nurse who had given me the flu jab, the garage mechanic who had given my car its annual service, the pharmacist who had provided my medication, all the unknown IT experts who had made it possible to connect with my family members via Zoom.  I thanked God for all those who, unlike myself, had chosen to study ‘science subjects’ at school.  I had followed my passion for languages, music and writing, and had enjoyed my teaching career, but there are often occasions when I feel totally ignorant!

Two books in my study sum up the situation.  In the hope of extending my knowledge, I bought Physics for Dummies, but after only two pages I was groaning in despair.  Obviously, familiarity with algebra was needed, and I found the terms of reference, e.g. Vectors, completely incomprehensible.  I gave up! – concluding that any hope of understanding the basics of modern technology seemed to be blocked by my overriding sense of wonder, which belongs more to pre-Industrial Revolution times that to the 21st century!

For example, I remember my amazement one afternoon on a deserted beach on the island of Arran.  Wanting to take a photograph of my sister and nieces, I ran back to my car to fetch my camera from the boot.  Beside the camera my mobile phone was flashing, so I checked my mail.  ‘Hoping you are having a lovely time on Arran’ said the message – from my son in Hong Kong!  What!! How on earth had that come all the way from Hong Kong into the boot of my car in such a lonely place?  No amount of slow, patient scientific explanation could have diminished my awe and wonder…

Which takes me to the other book: Marcus Borg’s Days of Awe and Wonder.  An hour after buying it in Edinburgh, I started to read it on the bus home.  Only two pages into the first chapter Listening to the Spirit, I found myself emitting soft clucks of agreement – like a happy hen!  I read, for example: ‘In addition to the visible material world disclosed to us by ordinary sense perception (and modern science) there is another level of reality, a second world of nonmaterial reality, charged with energy and power’ (my italics)…  I was immediately reminded of the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples: ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’.

  What a great pity that so many people don’t know these words, don’t want anything to do with the Gospel (= Good News) and have no time for faith in God, so the powerful ‘circuit’ flow of God’s love and comfort is broken for them.  Do any of these ‘circuit breakers’ sound familiar?

‘Oh, I don’t have time for any of that at the weekend – I’m too busy catching up with housework’./ I’m a scientist, so I don’t believe in God./I’m actually a very practical person, so I only believe in things I can see and touch/I used to have a Bible, but I’ve lost it./I need facts – not any of that airy-fairy stuff./ For goodness sake, this is the 21st century!/My parents used to force me to go to church, but I rebelled when I was sixteen/ It isn’t cool to go to church or read the Bible – my pals would laugh at me if I did/My Dad said they were all hypocrites, so we never went to church/ Religions just cause wars, so they should all be banned.’

To all of these pre-Covid views will certainly now be added “How can you possibly believe in a loving God, when the whole world is in such a mess and every day we are bombarded with frightening statistics of new cases of the virus and the mounting number of deaths?”

Well, that’s where faith comes in!  The good news is that each individual’s relationship with God is on a private, one-to-one basis.  Here’s my advice.

Switch off the radio, the TV and all your smart devices.  Cast all newspapers aside.  (Sorry – the following may sound ironic, even cruel, to anyone who is self-isolating.) Find a quiet place to sit where you are unlikely to be disturbed.  Imagine that you are about to make a very indignant phone call.  Then either silently or, preferably, out loud, pour out all your anger, fear, grief, frustration and/or despair, until you can say no more. If necessary, write them all down in a list.  Now add these words: “Please, God, help me” OR “Please God, if you exist, help me.

To ensure the ‘call’ is received, use the password, which is Thank you.  Cast your mind back to past ‘blessings’ for which you are still thankful, especially unexpected ones at times of stress.  Enjoy remembering them for a minute or two.  Relax.  Repeat the password Thank you.  Then quietly remain seated or get up and go.  Repeat this ‘phone call’ whenever you feel the need.  In this way you are on the right line to receive the peace of God which passes all understanding – a sign that your new circuit board is now connected to God’s power source. 

Amen (= So be it)

Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Michaelmas 2020

 Michaelmas 2020

Last week I got a surprise.  There in the flower bed just outside my back door were two little clumps of Michaelmas daisies, announcing the arrival of Autumn.  

Can you see them on either side of the reeds?  

They are pale blue with pointed petals. I can't remember having planted them, but I do now recall that they have popped up in previous Septembers at this, their appointed time.  Because of lockdown I was unable this year to pay my usual Spring visit to a garden centre for a selection of bright annual flowers to decorate this border.  Instead, I let Nature take its course!  When several large green weeds appeared I just left them alone - and was rewarded with bursts of daisy-like flowers.  This cheerful unexpected display has made me more aware of the wonder of wild flowers.

In August I remembered the delicate little blue harebells I had discovered in the nearby large open green space (formerly a golf course) the day after I came to live in Prestwick.  Were they still there this August? I wondered.   I took my camera and set off to look.  Yes!  Twenty-five years later, there they were, in several tufts of long grass.

Where did all the wild flowers come from originally?  How easy it is just to say carelessly, "Oh, the wind must have blown the seed here".  But where did the seed itself come from originally?  There are so many thousands of flowers, of different colours, shapes and sizes, each set to bloom at a certain time of the year.  How quick we are to accept them casually as a "given", without pausing in wonder to ask ourselves where they came from - and who was the "giver"!  I love these words from Iris Murdoch: 

People from a planet without any flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

Throughout the summer my quiet sunny back garden proved to be a safe place to chat with people (one at a time!)  - such as my friend Muriel. 

 At the beginning of September she told me that her church in Ayr was going to re-open for a Sunday morning service.  The number of worshippers would be greatly reduced, but a recording of the service would be available online.  I was delighted to find it on my Kindle, especially because this is the church where I attended Sunday School and sang in the Junior Choir, where Bob and I were married and where Sally, our first child, was baptised.  How lovely to see the beautiful stained-glass windows again, and to hear the magnificent organ.  In the late 1990s, after I retired, I came back here for organ lessons as part of a training scheme to enable pianists to play the hymns if the organist was indisposed.  

Matthew, the present organist, and his wife Rachel, a professional singer, were leading the music at the online service.  Unfortunately, because of the danger of spreading the virus, congregations are not allowed to sing the hymns out loud.  However, as the words were being shown on a screen, Rachel sang each hymn in her lovely strong voice.  Towards the end of the service she sang an extra hymn as a solo, i.e. the words were not displayed.   I was immediately reminded of a strange Coincidence which had occurred on the very first day I saw Rachel and heard her sing.

It was at an organ recital in Ayr Town Hall.  For ten years there have been weekly Monday recitals there, from noon until 1pm.  Organists come from all over the UK and even from Europe to play the Splendid Lewis organ.  When it is Matthew's turn the recital is always very well attended.  

On that particular occasion, the Town Hall clock had already struck noon when I parked my car in the carpark on the opposite side of the River Ayr.  As I hurried towards the bridge, I looked at the river and saw that a big tree trunk had been brought downstream during the recent heavy rain.  On top of it was perched a large bird.  "Oh, there's a gannet", I thought - but then immediately corrected myself.  "No, it's a cormorant, not a gannet."  At that very moment a helicopter flew directly overhead, and simultaneously I heard a man say to his little son, who was sitting on his shoulders, " Oh, look!  That's a helicopter from HMS Gannet!"

As I crossed the bridge, I was amused to think of the coincidental gannet (bird)  and Gannet (helicopter) as I was on my way to an organ recital!  "It would just be like the thing if if the programme includes something with the letters GAN" I thought.  But I couldn't recall any piece by Bach or any other organ composer which had GAN in the title.

Matthew had already begun his splendid performance when I arrived so, as quietly as possible, I slipped into the back row downstairs.  Michael, the concert organiser, passed me his copy of the programme.  I was surprised to see an unusual addition: a solo singer.  I read that Matthew's wife Rachel, who is from Wales, was going to sing several items, beginning with a lullaby, Suan GAN, the words of which are set to a traditional Welsh melody Yr Hun GAN!  I couldn't believe my eyes, and had to suppress a loud chortle! 

So that is why, as I watched the online church service, I felt the goose bumps rise again when Rachel began to sing her solo hymn, Holy Spirit, gift bestower - which is set to the tune of Yr Hun GAN!

What is the significance of such coincidences?  I don't know exactly where they come from, but I do know that for over fifty years they have become an integral part of my Christian faith.  Every day as I say the Lord's Prayer, I pause on the words 'Thy will be done', and at the end I often add (from Psalm 119:v 33) 'Just tell me what to do and I will do it, Lord.'  Many other people tell of feeling an insistent nudge to obey a new instruction.  Their stories vary according to each person's individual nature. (Just as flowers vary greatly!)  For me, coincidences often confirm a recent Leitmotiv - a recurrent theme which leads me to a new path in life's journey.  This September, the theme has been the importance of hymn singing. So I'll finish with the first verse of the hymn Rachel sang:

Holy Spirit, gift bestower, breathe into our hearts today.  Flowing water, dove that hovers, Holy Spirit, guide our way.   Love inspirer, joy releaser, Spirit, take our fears away.  Reconciler, peace restorer, move among us while we pray.


Monday, 31 August 2020

Joyful Reconnection!

Joyful Reconnection!

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Spring 2020 will long be remembered for the arrival of the corona virus.  Suddenly our lives all took a strange frightening new turn as the pandemic started to spread throughout the world.  Because we were forced to stay at home in ‘Lockdown’, our cars were left untouched outside our homes.  Here is mine, as seen through the blossom of the cherry tree directly opposite my home.

But this photo reminds me that the spring of 2020 will also be remembered for its beauty.  During those weeks of warm sunshine it was somehow reassuring to see that Nature was carrying on as usual!  Trees and shrubs blossomed, flowers appeared at their given time, all obviously flourishing in the unusually fine weather.  Above the silent streets the birds flew busily to and fro, carrying twigs and moss for their nests, or sat singing on rooftops, claiming their territory.  Never before had we been aware of such wonderful birdsong.

If you look more closely at the photo of my car, you will see the aerial standing out against the white garage door.  Those two – the aerial and the up-and-over door – unfortunately had a violent collision last December.  Because the weather had turned icy, I had put the car in the garage, but forgot to unscrew the aerial from its base on the car roof.  The next day, when I hurriedly backed the car out, there was a loud crack!  The aerial was lying beside the damaged base.  As I tried without success to screw it back in, I realised that, alas! I would no longer have radio contact – so, no Classic FM to keep me calm and happy when driving along busy roads.

After examining the damage, my local garage owner told me that unfortunately, in order to restore the radio connection, he would have to take down part of the ceiling inside the car.  When he said that this would probably cost about £160, I sadly resigned myself to the situation…  I looked out some favourite CDs to accompany me as I drove, and laid the aerial inside the car boot.

In January, during a family “Mammycare” (!) weekend, Bex, my daughter-in-law, took it back out and managed to fix it on to the car roof again, but – unsurprisingly - there was still only silence when I tried to switch on Classic FM or any other radio station.

Then came Lockdown.  For over three months the car stood untouched in the driveway while I self-isolated (because of my advanced age!)  When at last I plucked up enough courage to drive to the local supermarket, I chose a cheerful CD to encourage myself – but still regretted the loss of Classic FM.  That seemed yet another loss in addition to the ones which had already resulted from Covid-19:  no family reunions, no church services, no coffee mornings with friends, no choir rehearsals, no playing the cello in the church Praise Band or the piano for a local ladies’ choir.  So many precious parts of my life which had given me a sense of identity and of purpose!

Another favourite activity has been dog-walking.  After my collie friend Tara moved to Stirlingshire, I was delighted when I was asked to walk Mac, a West Highland terrier, and Mindy, a labradoodle. For ten years I have enjoyed this lovely form of exercise with these two doggy friends.

  But two weeks ago, their owner phoned me to say that they will shortly be moving away from the district.  So, yet another chapter has ended…

One morning last week, after my usual Bible reading and prayer time, I felt a wave of depression sweep over me as I thought of all the activities which had given me a sense of physical and mental wellbeing.  Worst of all, I suddenly felt an unaccustomed emptiness.  It was as if the spiritual ‘aerial’, which for over fifty years has connected me with the comforting presence of God’s Holy Spirit, was no longer functioning, leaving me desolate.  
As I got out of bed, I remembered these words from Psalm 51: 

Create a pure heart in me, O God, and give me a new and steadfast spirit; do not drive me from thy presence or take thy holy spirit from me; revive in me the joy of thy deliverance and grant me a willing spirit to uplift me.

I opened the bedroom curtains.  My attention was immediately drawn to my car in the driveway below, and specifically to the aerial on the roof.  

Suddenly I was   reminded of my shopping expedition a few evenings before.  Because I had waited until Sainsbury’s would be quieter, I was already tired when I donned my facemask and began pushing a trolley all round the store.  By the time I had piled six bulging bags into the car an hour later I was exhausted.  In need of music to revive me for the homeward journey, I decided to replace the current all-too-familiar CD with a new one.  I pressed the release button.  To my surprise I heard a lovely orchestral piece and saw on the screen the words ‘Classic FM’.  “That’s odd!  I’m glad we’re reconnected,” I thought - but had to concentrate on my driving, then, back home, on unpacking and storing all the groceries.

Now, as I stared down at the aerial, it was as if the sun had suddenly burst through the dark clouds.  I was full of a belated sense of joy and wonder!  How could that possibly have happened - that mysterious reconnection?  I was ashamed that, preoccupied with practical problems, I had not reacted with amazement and gratitude for this unexpected blessing.
Still happily puzzled, I later asked a few friends if they could think of an explanation. Comments ranged from “Divine providence!” to “You must just have had a loose wire!”  Well, maybe the latter is true in more ways than one!  But whatever the explanation, I am relieved and very glad that my ‘inner aerial’ seems to be working again…

After another visit to Sainsbury’s, I gratefully switched on Classic FM, and instantly recognised the opening bars of John Rutter’s setting of A Gaelic Blessing.  For years I have played this at the end of each rehearsal of the ladies’ choir.  Now I sat in my car and joined in singing the lovely words, which I hope will have meaning for you:

The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his face to shine upon you, to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.  Amen.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Look for Comforting Coincidences!

Look for Comforting Coincidences!

Sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain.  But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.  (African-American Spiritual)

These two doves appear to be observing ‘social distancing’ in accordance with the present Government ruling!

Back in March I was not too worried about the strange new situation.  After all, I have lived on my own for years, so self-isolation (because of my age) did not seem too daunting a prospect.  I am fortunate enough to have a comfortable house, a garden where I can happily potter about in the sunshine, the means to order food online and – best of all, kind neighbours who offered to buy any extra items I needed from the shops. One special couple have even provided me with a hot roast dinner, plus a glass of wine, every Sunday evening!  So yes, I have been truly blessed.

However, over these last four months my outlook has gradually changed.  I have become more and more aware of the importance of social interaction, and the value of conversation, which reinforces one’s sense of personal identity in the midst of the struggle to create a new ‘normality’.  Constantly bombarded with alarming news on radio, television and newspapers, people like myself who live alone have tended to become more and more inclined to stay at home, thus avoiding public places, including shops.  Recently, when I jokingly told a friend that I was beginning to feel like a tortoise, withdrawing farther and farther into its shell, she agreed, saying, “Oh yes, that’s how I feel too – only I think of myself as a snail!”

Afraid of sinking into depression, I have prayed for spiritual strength and inspiration.  Then last weekend I was greatly cheered by news of a special ‘coincidence’ which reminded me that our ‘Golden Network’ is still very much in existence – an eternal invisible source of connection, of wonder and of comfort.  Here is what happened… 

Several friends and family members have birthdays in May, June and July. This year, although sorry that I couldn’t shop for presents for them, I managed to send vouchers or cheques to those in the UK.  But that left three French friends. If I managed to make up parcels for them, these would have to be weighed at the Post Office.  Since that is located in a local pharmacy, I hesitated to risk going there, for fear of coughs and sneezes which might spread the virus.

For Marie I had found a suitable book via Amazon, and it was now ready to send to Asnieres, near Paris.  But I was at a loss to know how to find presents for Pascal in Brittany, and his three-year-old son.  All three birthdays had come and gone, and I was becoming more and more frustrated at being unable to go shopping.  Finally, in desperation, I decided to choose some items from my own ‘private collection’.  I found four little Mr Men books – two in French and two in English - which Pascal, his Papa, could read to little Laouenan.  

Now for Pascal.  In the past I have sent him DVDs with English subtitles, so I searched through my own DVD collection.  As I did so, it occurred to me that I was about to send two presents to a family of three, which didn’t seem fair!  I felt that Pascal’s wife Soizic should be included, although I didn’t know the date of her birthday.  Aware that Soizic doesn’t speak fluent English, but knowing that she loves animals, I decided that the DVD about Lassie the collie would ‘suit the bill’.

Having assembled the presents, I now looked for a suitable ‘post-birthdays’ cards.      For Pascal and Soizic I chose a card showing a bright butterfly on a flower.  Along with my best wishes I added my sincere apologies for the long delay.  Then, with my new facemask at the ready, I set off for the pharmacy/post office – my first venture into a shop for over three months!

The parcel bound for Brittany arrived on 24 July.  Completely unknown to me, that was the sixth anniversary of the death of Soizic’s mother.  After a long illness, she had died in their house.  Remembering that sad occasion, Pascal and Soizic had taken Laouenan out for the day.  On their return they found the parcel – and were amazed when they opened it! 

The butterfly card.  At her mother’s funeral service, Soizic and Pascal were surprised to see a beautiful butterfly resting for several minutes on a friend who was sitting just in front of them, and even more surprised when it appeared again at the reception afterwards, apparently determined to stay!  Its beauty and unusual behaviour helped them to cope for the rest of that sad day, and ever since the sight of a butterfly in their house has been a reminder and a comfort to them.

Lassie, the collie dog.  Again, I had no idea of the effect which my choice of DVD would have!  As a child, Soizic loved the story of Lassie, and Pascal has often read it to Laouenan, who also loves “Maman’s favourite book”.  Now they would all be able to watch the film together!

This two-fold surprise brought them great pleasure and comfort at the end of the sad anniversary, Pascal told me in an email.  How to explain this timely arrival? – except as another example of ‘kairos’ (God’s time), as opposed to ‘chronos’ (our familiar chronological time), used as a reminder of the golden network of love which transcends both time and space.
Deo gratias

Postscript:  This is not the first ‘collie coincidence’ I have known in France!  For five years I used to walk a Border collie.  Like Lassie, (a so-called ‘rough collie’), Tara was descended from the shepherding breed of dogs which originated in the border country between Scotland and England.  Very intelligent, she was a great companion.  Here we are in a local park.

So, I was very sad when she and her owner moved to another part of Scotland.  As souvenirs of our friendship, I bought two identical ornaments of a collie at rest and gave one to Nicola, Tara’s owner, on our last day together, 20 September 2007.

The very next day I flew to France with a Town Twinning group.  Because my usual hosts in Le Pecq were away on holiday, one of their neighbours had kindly offered me accommodation.  As she showed me into my bedroom, she exclaimed, “Oh dear, I forgot to take away that ornament from the windowsill!  I’ll do that now.”  I laughed out loud when I saw what it was: a collie with her puppy!

So, another coincidence which confirmed the end of a chapter in my life but which at the same time, by its very strangeness, brought me a familiar sense of comfort.

Bless the LORD, my soul; bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, my soul, and forget none of his benefits. (Psalm 103, 1- 2)

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Who's calling?

Who’s Calling?

Then the Lord made answer:  Write down the vision, insert it on tablets, ready for a herald to carry it with speed, for there is still a vision for the appointed time.  At the destined hour it will come in breathless haste, it will not fail.  If it delays, wait for it; for when it comes will be no time to linger.                                          (Habakkuk 2)

Like many other people in lockdown, I have been using the extra time at home to do some spring cleaning.  One day at the beginning of this month, I was up in the attic when I caught sight of a framed picture which, many years ago, I had hung on my classroom wall, in the hope of inspiring my pupils – and myself!  Thinking that it would make a good topic for Our Golden Network, I took a photo of the picture and transferred it to my computer, ready to illustrate the text, which I had begun to compose.  But somehow the words just wouldn’t come in their usual flow, and so by the 18th of June I was feeling more and more puzzled and frustrated.

Nowadays I need a siesta in the middle of the day to ‘recharge my batteries,’ so after my lunchtime snack I took myself off to bed, hoping that a snooze would help me to think more clearly.  But what happened next turned out to be far from clear!

On getting up again, I checked my phone for missed calls.  I found that there had been one from an unknown number.  It didn’t begin with 08, so wasn’t a company call, nor did it have a local code.  Curious, I dialled the number - and the following conversation ensued

Unknown Lady:  Hello?
KB:  Erm, this is Kathleen, returning your call.
UL:  What?  Who are you?
KB:  I’m Kathleen Bates, phoning from Prestwick.
UL:  Prestwick?  That’s in Scotland!
KB:  That’s right.  Have you ever been to Prestwick?
UL:  Oh, yes…  I remember going there once on holiday in 1955, when I was 15.
KB (after a quick calculation!):  Oh, so you’re about the same age as me!
UL:  Well, I’ll be 80 in July.
KB:  Really!  My 80th birthday was last August.  How are you managing in this lockdown?
UL:  My daughter buys my shopping.  When she comes with it, we sit well apart in the garden, or I sit in the living room while she stays in the kitchen.

A very pleasant chat followed.  I discovered that her name is Pauline and that, like me, she is a widow.  Her husband, Fred Beattie, who died 8 years ago, used to say that the Beattie family originally belonged to Scotland – somewhere on the east side - until his great-grandfather plus five brothers all came to Lancashire – why, exactly, Fred didn’t know.  Perhaps in search of work?  Or perhaps because of the typhoid and cholera epidemics in the mid-19th century?

I asked if there was any family connection with Beattie’s biscuit factory in Glasgow, where I lived until the age of eight.  I remember enjoying the biscuits, and how I used to giggle when reciting a “naughty” little rhyme – which I proceeded to repeat to Pauline - somewhat lowering the tone of our talk, I’m afraid!  (I wonder if any of my contemporaries remember it?) Beattie’s biscuits are the best, In your stomach they digest, Pull the plug and they go west (= get lost, disappear), Beattie’s biscuits are the best!  As Pauline replied that she didn’t know, I promised to make enquiries.

We went on to discuss the huge adjustment we each had had to make as widows, especially when going on holiday alone for the first time.  Pauline had gone back to Malta, where she and Fred had spent many happy hours. She made a hotel booking for three weeks.  But just after arriving there she fell and broke her wrist and had to go to hospital.  However, she didn’t tell her son or daughter, not wanting to upset them. 

“They got a big shock when I arrived at the airport and saw my arm in plaster!  But, you know, a lot of people at the hotel felt sorry for me, so they talked to me a lot and I didn’t feel alone for the rest of my stay.”  She went on, “Fred and I used to do everything together.  He didn’t like to stay indoors in the afternoon, so we went for a walk every day.  Looking back now, I’m afraid that that was a mistake.  I don’t have any friends now.  I used to have, but they have died…”   

Then she asked, “Why did you phone me?”
“But I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I was just returning your call.”
“But how could I have known your number?” she asked, perplexed.

Ah, how indeed?  That’s the delightful question!  Another one to add to my large collection of inexplicable happenings, including the mystery which I described in this year’s January blog post.  I suddenly realised that this, rather than the framed picture, should be my topic for June!  Food for thought…

For who was really calling?  Which of the 80-year-old widows living alone in lockdown?  Had it somehow or other been arranged at an unseen spiritual level?  How easy it would be just to brush it all off as unimportant, a mere case of ‘crossed wires.’  But how did they become crossed?  Could that, rather, have been a means to an end? A little, much-needed source of company to lighten our day?  I don’t pretend to have an answer.  I only know that this unexpected contact brought me joy by its completely inexplicable nature!

The last week of June is always one of very mixed emotions for me.  This year the 26th is the 33rd anniversary of my beloved husband’s death.  (33 is a number which always reminds me of Bob, as he was born in 1933.)  But then June 27th is the (56th) anniversary of our wedding day, which I still remember with great joy.

 Over the years the copy of the Bible which Bob gave me for my birthday in 1984 has been a source of great comfort and peace.  I begin each day by reading the passage recommended in my current Upper Room booklet, but end the day by opening the Bible at random, often rediscovering precious marked passages which have brought me strength in the past. 

For example, in John’s Gospel (14), Jesus promised that after his death he would send the Holy Spirit as advocate and comforter to everyone who obeyed his two commandments: to love God with all our heart, and our neighbours as ourselves.  In Matthew’s Gospel (5) he said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  In addition, I have been spiritually refreshed by so many astonishing coincidences that I have come to think of them as signs of the “living water” which (in John, 4) Jesus described as “an inner spring always welling up for eternal life.”

So, this month I am, once more, full of gratitude for another lovely thought-provoking mystery, and can’t help murmuring “Nice one, Holy Spirit!”  By way of celebration I will end with this beautiful little prayer which my friend Muriel taught me:

And now may the God of hope fill us with joy and peace in believing, that we may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen