I love the beach, but I’m afraid I don’t like the sea at all…

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When I was about ten, my father fulfilled a personal dream by buying himself a small sailing boat, to keep moored at Portland Harbour, a few miles from where we used to live.

The idea of the boat filled me with excitement. I loved the idea of being able to go and travel somewhere on the water. The very thought filled my imagination with romantic notions. I danced around, begging to be taken along when he used to go.

It took me quite a long time to recognise that what I had in my mind’s eye, and what sailing in a dingy was actually like, were not quite as congruous as I might have hoped. I found that, actually, I was terrified of the sea; anything beyond the most polite ripple in a small harbour would have me clinging to the edge of the boat and whimpering in abject fear.

If my father were still alive today, I would feel it incumbent on myself to apologise for my insistence on going with him on those hard earned days off. I turned out to be allergic to sea water, which would quickly bring my face out in weeping sores, I whined in non-stop terror from the beginning of the jaunt to the moment when he would gratefully take me home and rid himself of me, no doubt planning strategies for sneaking off without my persistently clinging presence next time.

All these years later, my antipathy for sea water has never changed. I will, under duress, wade in it – no higher than my knees – and I will happily climb on rocks near it, but my favourite is to sit by it, reading a good book.file-07-09-2016-10-20-25

Seaside holidays are such a great way of spending family time. In the past, Jamie, Kevin and I have spent weeks at a time in some thoroughly inclement weather; Jamie and Kevin going rock climbing, body boarding, and, more recently, surfing, while I have cowered in horizontal rain, behind a series of well-hammered-in wind breaks, wearing a waterproof coat and reading a damp book.

img_0711This year we are camping down at Porthleven, in Cornwall, with two good friends Sarah and Phil. We go just along the coast to Poldhu, where Jamie has surf lessons, and when he comes back he behaves like a wet dog and gets sand and sea water everywhere. Sarah reads books and Phil…

Well, Phil (nearly 50) builds sand things. Tuesday a head(!), yesterday a boat, today a set of steps (yes really), tomorrow a…?

file-07-09-2016-09-35-11Lots of planning and discussion goes into these works of art; he limbers up first, wielding his plastic spade as he prepares physically and mentally for the coming creative outburst. And then there is a flurry of activity, as his plans become gradually less ambitious: commencing with Darth Vader, or perhaps a giraffe, or maybe a turtle, and gradually reducing to more achievable subjects, such as a cream sponge, an Eccles cake, a hole in the ground. Eventually, he sits back exhausted but happy; proud of his achievement, king of all he surveys.

And who are we to cast mirthful scorn. This small Cornish beach is a seething mass of humanity, jockeying for their little piece of British seaside. Each of us putting down beach towels, erecting barriers and marking territory, without a cross word being spoken by anyone. A more good natured, easy going bunch you’d struggle to find.file-07-09-2016-09-32-40

Here we are, in an age when so many families don’t even get to sit down together once a week to share a meal, but looking around on this beach, it is packed solid with families, sometimes with three generations all present, playing cricket, building sand castles, exploring rock pools, chatting and enjoying one another. There is not a computer game, an iPhone or a tablet among them.

We look on, and, at the moment, the sun shines.

Oh… And just out of interest… they sell hot chocolate in the kiosk.

White Jackets…

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I never cease to be amazed at how God loves to bless us.


There are times that He comes through for us when we’re desperately in need – like when a single mum friend of mine couldn’t find the money for her severely damaged front door. A few church friends, who knew there was a financial problem, decided to hold a collection to give her a bit of help. What we didn’t know was exactly how much money was needed, so when she opened the envelope of cash and found exactly the right sum for the bill, to the penny, we all knew that it was God coming through for her, rather than us..

And then, there are those times that there’s no desperate need, but He just wants to delight us with His blessing and affirmation.

At the end of March, we were booked into a great little café called Smokey Joes, to shoot a video for our song ‘What Love Can Do’, (other cafés do exist, but not quite like this one). All sorts of talented people were giving their time, and we wanted to do it right.

The outfits for the girls were sorted already, but we wanted to find something equally suitable for the guys in the band. Our era for the video was kind of ‘fifties’, so the obvious thing was to find ‘Teddy Boy’ drape jackets, drainpipe trousers and crepe shoes. Fine in principle, until we started investigating hire costs. It wasn’t going to work.

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It occurred to me to talk to a local wedding hire shop, who’d helped us deal with school dances in the past. A quick phone call was all that was needed for the manager to establish in his mind that he wasn’t going to make much money from us, but even so, he started thinking of ways he might be able to help. He asked if I knew what Nehru jackets looked like, told me that he thought he might have some unwanted ones in the stock room downstairs, and that if we wanted those, we could either hire them or buy them absurdly cheaply.

So I went off to google Nehru jackets, and he went off to find out what he actually had in his stock room.

Ten minutes later, I’d found pictures, and he’d phoned me back to tell me that they only had three in the stock room after all; the others had been sold off. My disappointment must have been palpable over the telephone, because he then suggested that there was, after all, just a small glimmer of hope that he still had some others in his garden shed at home – what kind of garden shed does this man have?! He promised he’d check over the weekend and call me back on Monday.

Well, Monday came along and I’d spent the weekend fruitlessly scouring the Internet. I now knew that the men in the band needed every size from 36 short to 48 tall and various random sizes in between.

At 9.30am on Monday, I received a phone call from Nigel at the hire shop (first name terms by now), telling me that he’d found a further six jackets in his shed. He listed the sizes he now had and, amazingly, in spite of how few jackets there were, and the wide variety of the sizes I needed, he actually had them all, with an extra unwanted 44”. The chances of all the sizes being met had seemed so remote, but here we were.

I collected them on Tuesday, they were tried on, and they all fitted perfectly. Thank you Lord.

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And then, in the post on Wednesday morning, quite out of the blue, we received a cheque. Now, I’d like to stress the point that we’ve been so blessed and provided for in so many ways, and gifts of money through the post have, previously, been neither received nor expected. But now, here we were, with a cheque in our hands, accompanied by a note to tell us that they had decided that they wanted to bless the Out of the Ashes ministry.

The amount was, to the penny, exactly right for the full purchase of all of the jackets.

God has blessed us, well beyond our needs or expectations. He’s an amazing, loving father, who likes to be involved in every aspect of what we’re doing. He loves to bless us, just as we love to bless our children, with unexpected gifts – sometimes big ones, sometimes small ones, and always astonishing and precious.

So, when you see OOTA play, or look at the video of ‘What Love Can Do’, and you see those white Nehru style dinner jackets that the boys are wearing, just remember – God provided those.

Or you can put it all down to coincidence, and you’re probably right. But as J.John so aptly puts it – when we pray, coincidences happen. I think it’s all down to love.

 

Little grey boxes

young penny.jpgI was one of those kids who chatter a lot. My family called it waffling, and my brother would make a hand signal of fingers and thumb being opened and shut together like a barking dog whenever I was caught in the act of talking too much. Which was most of the time.

I was taller than everyone else, and I had size 8 feet, which I hated; I wanted to be cute and charming like my gorgeous elder sister, who everyone adored. Instead, in my eyes, I was big and noisy and grotesque.

I used to try to become what it seemed the world demanded of me, by attempting what I call personality surgery; I would practice being quiet, considered, obedient, with a tinkling laugh, which would only be heard at appropriate times. My quiet obedience came across as sulkiness, and anyway I couldn’t maintain any of it for more than ten minutes.

bullying.jpgWe so need encouragement and affirmation. Our children grow up riddled with self doubt – not because we don’t love them – but because, among their peers in the school playground, and among their siblings, they probably receive criticism at a ratio of about ten to one over the amount of encouragement they get. What we actually need, to grow up healthy and confident, would be the reverse of that.

It took the intervention of Jesus Christ to change my self view, and here I am in my middle fifties, stumbling on a realisation that takes my breath away: all those things I learnt to hate about myself – my habit of just saying what came out of my mouth before engaging my brain, my sharp sense of humour (kinder friends call it wit), and lots of other things that have dogged me since childhood – have been coupled together with all the things that I just thought were useless – such as my ability to write little ditties and poetry, to sing, to chat to all and sundry and tell stories – have become the very things that, under God’s grace, He uses as the Out of the Ashes ministry develops.

So, whenever we do a public event now, you will find that we have little grey boxes of ash to give away. They are a reminder that, just like St Paul, who had a thorn in the flesh that he repeatedly pleaded for God to release him from (2Corinthians Ch 12:7), so it is with us – when we totally hand ourselves over to God, when we offer ourselves to be used for His purposes, He will take the very stuff that we thought was too old and used up, too disabled, too damaged, or simply too pointless, and He will use and bless every last bit of it, in the breathless wonder of His plan.

His strength through our weakness.

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The very desire of my heart…

IMG_20150204_202756He had given me the very desire of my heart. And in doing so, he gave me my life’s work.

So what has given me this heart for running a gospel choir and getting people to sing? I’ll tell you.

I come from one of those hatchings, matchings and dispatchings families. You know the kind? It’s ok to write ‘Church of England’ on application forms, but for heaven’s sake don’t talk about it or get involved.

Well, in spite of my mum’s reservations, when I was sixteen I started going regularly to one of those other kinds of churches with a school friend. This was my first real experience of what most people would have described as a ‘happy clappy’ church, where people talked about Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, my mother remained tight lipped. I loved it.

One night about six of us were crammed in a car, travelling home after the service and I realised that my friends in the car were discussing a rehearsal for a band. I asked what they were talking about and was told that they were planning to start a band playing Christian music.

File 18-05-2016, 09 19 19Now… understand this, I was sixteen, and gawky with a gummy grin. Not a girl with street credibility – and this sounded so cool!

Well, the only instrument I’d ever played was the violin, which I’d had to give up because those that loved me couldn’t stand the dreadful noise I made when I practiced; my brother and sisters had always assured me that I couldn’t sing – so – well, not exactly excellent qualifications. Anyway, I muscled my way in with my eye on the spot of backing vocalist – I had plans on the back row, boogie a bit and no real responsibility – thus achieving a level of cool in my own eyes that I’d never hoped to see in my whole life.

That is until the first rehearsal – when my lack of talent became abundantly clear to all of us.

The rest of the band – bless them – probably felt quite a degree of responsibility for what might happen to my spiritual wellbeing if they gave me the sack, and they were clearly in an uncomfortable dilemma. Should they get rid of me and lose the dreadful noise in the back row? Or should they give me a tambourine, take away the microphone and reduce my impact on the sound as much as possible? Looking back, I feel for them.

I remember how I felt, and I promise you, it was painful. I knew what the situation demanded – I needed to admit my shortcomings and leave the band graciously; but that would mean admitting to all my other school friends the truth about my lack of ability – The gawky sixteen year old had just achieved some small level of cool and now I was about to lose it again.

I needed help desperately.

So I prayed like I’d never prayed before, asking God to help me; It never occurred to me to pray to be able to sing, it never crossed my mind that it might be on the ‘shopping list’ so to speak; instead I prayed for courage, humility, honesty. All the things I didn’t have and knew I needed. I realised that my only way through this maze was to hand it over to God completely. To let everything go.three

So, for the first time in my life, I experienced that amazing release that can only be found when you completely lay something at Jesus’ feet. During the following week I didn’t sing once, I just prayed and handed over, again, and again, and again.

And God worked. First of all, He showed me that His plan is paramount. That in accepting His plan, I was accepting something that was made just for me; a plan not to harm me, but to prosper me. A plan for which I was perfectly and wonderfully made. It was a life changing lesson.

The next rehearsal found me sitting in an arm chair, watching my friends practice, without feeling any of the familiar resentment that accompanied the thwarted desire to take part myself. I felt joyfully grateful, completely in His hands, completely in His will. Peaceful.

Later on in the evening, there was an interruption in the rehearsal, resulting in only a few people being left in the room. It seemed that the leader of the band suddenly became aware of my presence and in that brief moment of ‘nothing to do’ he took the opportunity to hear some of the songs I’d been writing. “Come on …” he said, “let’s hear what you’ve been up to…”.

I sang through a couple of ditties I’d put together. He looked at me quizzically. “Sing this” he said, giving me one of the songs the band had been working on. And then “sing this”, and then again “how about this one?”.

There was no other way of looking at it. My voice had changed so much as to be beyond recognition. God, given my complete submission to His will, had given me not only what I had asked for…

I am reminded of Abraham, who asked to put the precious sum of all his loves, hopes and ambitions, in the form of Isaac, onto an altar of stones for sacrifice to God, was prepared to do so, thus giving God the trust that enabled the birth of a nation.

He had given me the very desire of my heart. And in doing so, he gave me so much more than I could ever have dreamed.

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Dear Mum, (Letter from a re-homed kitten),

IMG_0446I thought it was probably about time I wrote to you to tell you how I’m getting on in my new home.

I live with the three humans that took me away. They all seem to have two names; there is one who has the same name as you, Mum, which is a bit of a coincidence, but she is also called ‘Sweetheart’, one who is either called ‘Dad’ or ‘Darling’, and one who is mainly called ‘James’, but sometimes gets called ‘Jamie-Nick’, (especially when Sweetheart wants something); I think he’s some kind of human kitten.

At first, I was scared of them, they have awfully big, heavy feet, big clumsy paws and loud voices – they are really noisy – but I’ve gradually realised that, although they are slow and stupid, they are not actually dangerous, and with training, they’re learning to be quite good companions.

Clumsy though! They’re hopeless! They can’t climb trees, jump up on tables or move quietly, and the number of times I’ve had to leap out of the way to avoid getting trodden on by Sweetheart doesn’t bear thinking about. I think they all mean to be kind; Darling’s learnt that I like having my tummy rubbed, my chin scratched and my nose stroked. He always comes downstairs first in the morning, and I love making him yelp by leaping out when he’s not expecting it and grabbing hold of his bare legs. I’m hoping that one day I’ll make him drop his tray of cups and glasses, no luck yet. Sweetheart loves stroking me, and they all argue over who’s lap I’m going to sit on.

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Jamie-Nick isn’t clumsy though… he’s much cleverer than the others, and he’s learnt to play football, chase, hide and seek and find-the-ball. I’ve not seen him climb a tree yet, but I suspect he could. Not as well as me of course, but I suppose you’d have to make the best of it if you’re not very sensibly built.

In the last couple of weeks, they’ve given me a special little door, that only I can get through, so that I can go somewhere they call ‘outside’. Mum! It’s AMAZING! Not, the door, I mean outside is amazing.

First of all, it’s colder; but I just fluff my fur up and that’s fine. But everything else is so different too! The air moves around a lot more, and that makes things like leaves, and sometimes even bigger things, move around too. Which can be great fun. And then there are the sounds and the smells (such smells) and the trees to climb and the places to explore and how big it all is! Even just outside my special door is really big, so I don’t go far. And sometimes water comes out of the sky and my coat gets all wet, but it’s OK… I don’t mind. I will always remember that you told me, us Maine Coons don’t mind water… and we really don’t!

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But there is something I need advice on. The humans seem to have got it into their heads that they own me. They don’t let me go in and out when it gets dark; which I wouldn’t particularly mind, because in the evenings we all go and sit together in front of a nice warm fire and it’s really nice; but they also say I’m not allowed to climb on the table where they eat or on the kitchen work surfaces, and there are only certain places that I’m allowed to sharpen my claws, (Sweetheart is really quite bossy about this one). I mean, don’t get me wrong, they all recognise that I’m absolutely wonderful, just as they should; but is there anything that you can suggest to help me establish a more natural order, and let them know their proper place and not be quite so above themselves?

All love and regards to Dad if you see him,

Your loving son,

Cato.

p.s. I’m washing everything, just as you taught me.
p.p.s. Added on Friday. Today there has been a huge assault on my dignity. I’d rather not talk about it, but I’ll just say that it involved a trip to the vet.

 

To Brave Women Who Went Before Me…

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I have grown up in an environment that has allowed me to believe in, and hope for the best from my life.

I was educated to a standard that taught me to make the best of my opportunities and that dreams and ambitions are as acceptable in a woman as they are in a man. I was taught that if I didn’t want to have children, then that is ok, and I was taught that both men and women are equally responsible for raising, loving and celebrating our children. I was taught that I have a voice, and that it’s ok for it to be heard.

Most of the women who taught me these things, were not living in a society that allowed them to enjoy those freedoms themselves… they just dreamed for me.

So I would like to thank my mother, my old headmistress, and a number of teachers along the way, who, those who are still alive, now get the chance to watch me, and other women like me enjoy freedoms that, for their own lives, they wouldn’t have dared to wish for…

I’m so sorry you missed out, in your own lives, on the liberation you gave me… I salute your courage, your determination and, probably, the loneliness your courage imposed on you.

THANK YOU

When we do our bit…

It’s time to come clean with you all – or maybe, it’s more about being honest with myself – I am a singer of only moderate talent.IMG_5978

Also, whilst in the general run of things I’m fairly intelligent – when I speak, I regularly make more noise than sense. And my ability to work hard enough to fill in for my own shortcomings is unquestionably lacking. But, in spite of our copious shortcomings, I’m delighted to say, that God is using me as part of His plan.

So, How many times have you felt – there’s sometimes no other word for it – useless?

How many times have you felt, in a given situation, that you can see what needs to be done, but you aren’t the man, or woman to do it?

How often have you looked in a mirror and seen someone of limited abilities, who’s too old, or too young; too feminine or too masculine; too black or too white; too privileged or too poor; too smart or too stupid? How often have you allowed yourself to believe that you’re not the right person for the job?

The Bible is littered with examples of heroes who, according to the world’s values, would have been better to stay at home and keep their heads down; David, Ezekiel, Moses, Jonah, The Disciples of Jesus, Paul, to list but a very few – they all had plenty of reasons to make their excuses and shuffle off to the pub.the-widow-gives-her-tithe.jpg

Well, strangely enough, rather than talk about all those heroes of the Old Testament who wanted to ‘leg it’ in the face of God’s commission, I find my attention drawn to the story of the widow’s mite. We can find it in Mark Ch.12 and Luke Ch.24. Jesus saw a poor, largely unnoticed widow, who came into the temple, and put two tiny coins into the collection. He pointed out to His disciples that she’d just given more than anyone else had, because she had given everything she had; regardless of how small it was, she felt it was worth making the trip to the temple and putting it in. She had given her whole livelihood.

Now, I’m sorry, but this is where I get really excited, because I’ve spent my whole life thinking that all this passage is about is money. Now, I realise that it’s also about me, and my limited abilities, as well as me and my money.

Yes! Jesus loves us to be generous with our money, I don’t want to belittle the importance of financial giving. But Jesus is also saying so much more. He is telling us that when we give everything we have, in every sense of the word, he sees. And loves us for it. And will honour us.

So, all those times that the devil is telling us that we’re not good enough, and we might as well not bother; because we’re too weak, or too stupid, or too poor, or too old, or too young, or we’re the wrong sex, or the wrong race… we need to think about our poor widow with her mites, and ask ourselves ‘what does Jesus say?’ Did He remark that it’s all very nice, but she probably shouldn’t have bothered? Did He make sage remarks about it being the thought that counts? Did He observe that she’d have been better to stay at home and watch Coronation Street? I don’t think so.

So, when you hear that ‘don’t bother’ voice in your head, listen more carefully; because there will also be another voice, one we need to learn to listen to, we need to learn to hear our Father God saying ‘don’t listen to him, listen to Me! Get in there! There’s stuff that needs doing and I will equip you!’

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On those occasions when we are prepared to give it a shot, we find that God turns up, in spades. When we are prepared to put our heads up above the parapet and hand over our little bit; when we act according to His will, and give Him all that we are, no matter how small, or puny, or lame, or damaged, or uncool we might feel, He will fill in the gaps for us.

When we sing the notes, God produces a masterpiece. When we pick out the tune with one hand on the piano, God brings in the orchestra. If we are prepared to take tiny little steps of faith, God gives us seven league boots.

All He needs is our faith – and he’ll do the rest.