A place at the table

My husband’s taste in music is considerably heavier, and he would tell you better, than mine. For this reason he has seen it as his mission throughout our marriage to broaden my musical palette, and as a result I am regularly required to participate in ad hoc rock quizzes. We’ll be driving along in the car and listening to the radio when a song will be played by an artist that is widely esteemed in great canon of rock music. Adrian will turn to me and, with a tone of child-like enthusiasm, ask me “Who’s this?”

Occasionally, after many years of musical re-education, I get it right immediately and he beams with pride. More often, however, I’ll say that I don’t know and in a tone that says I also don’t care that much. Unbowed by my lack of enthusiasm, Adrian will urge me to listen to the guitar sound, or listen to the vocals, willing me to recognise the band’s unique style.

Of course I have no such issues when I hear a song by a band I love. On my way home last week I heard the new Deacon Blue single on the radio. It wasn’t introduced before being played, but I didn’t need to be told who it was – there, very clearly, was Ricky Ross’s distinctive vocals, with Lorraine Mackintosh’s voice soaring in the background. Just at the point when I was pondering if it might be a new song by them as a duo, there came the Deacon Blue keyboard sound to seal the deal.

When we know something or someone well, we can recognise them in a moment, no matter how out of context they might be. When we know the voice of Jesus, the whispers of his Spirit, the call of the Kingdom of God, we can uncover them in all kinds of places.

Ken Gire is my all time favourite Christian author. His writing is so beautiful it makes me cry. If you haven’t discovered him, I urge you to go and find one of his books and enrich your life with his poetic genius. I was introduced to his writing nearly twenty years ago when I was given his book Windows of the Soul. In it, he talks about how God can speak to us in all manner of ways, including through the windows of stories, art, writing and movies. In his chapter about the latter he says,

Art, music and literature all come together in a movie, and when they all come together just right, something beautiful happens. A window opens, and you glimpse something in yourself that has been hidden from you for maybe all of your life. Or you glimpse something in someone else. Or, in a rare moment of transcendence, you glimpse something beyond.

And so it came to pass that I found myself crying in the cinema last weekend.

We had gone to see The BFG – not a film that immediately strikes you as a tear-jerker! For the first half I was mesmerised – it looks absolutely beautiful, Roald Dhal’s use of language is delicious and the portrayal of the giant by Mark Rylance is exquisite. And then about two thirds of the way through the story comes the part where Sophie and the giant need some help and, deciding to ask the Queen, make their way to Buckingham Palace. After explaining the issue to her majesty, she invites them both in for tea. Half way through the scene that follows I realised that I was crying – not just one solitary tear, but rivers of them. Given that I was enjoying the film in every way, I wondered what was going on, and as I asked myself that question, the window opened and revelation swept in.

I was watching a portrayal of kingdom hospitality.

table 1

The giant, with all of his awkwardness, his size that shouldn’t fit, his lack of knowledge about the rules and niceties of the situation, was welcomed in and accommodated with such a lack of fuss and with such genuine kindness that it took my breath away. He was given a seat at the table, no matter what had to happen for that to be achieved, and he was honoured and respected regardless of his clumsiness or just plain different-ness. The Queen (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton), gave of her home, her resources and herself with an open-handed spirit that I saw as immediately beautiful and challenging.

 

I claim to be resident in a kingdom where the outsider is brought close, the excluded are ushered in and the down-trodden are given refuge. I claim to follow a King who came to the lowliest places so that, to once again quote Ken Gire, “out-of-place people would feel most welcome.” I found myself wondering how closely my life resembles that kingdom.

As I watched the film unfold I found myself asking what it would mean for me to truly open the doors of my life, my home, my heart. To set a place for those who might feel excluded. To bring in those who can so easily be left outside. Too often I allow people in only so far and then make it clear that I have no room or time for them to come closer. Or I accommodate them with such fuss that they have to know I’m doing them a favour, and so will move along promptly when their allocated time is up.

What if, instead, I threw open the doors, created space, lived each day with a spirit of welcome? What would it look like if each person I met knew that they had a place set for them around the table of my life, for a few moments or for as long as they needed to be there? I want my life to be a roaring fireplace of safety and warmth, rather than a mat that tells you to wipe the dirt from your feet before entering.

fireplace

What might it cost for me to become that person, that place? As I’ve been pondering this question this beautiful poem by Torri Horness has become my prayer:

If I have anything to do with it,

my very life will be a

shelter for every

weary wanderer.

It will feel like a

well worn sweater,

smell like

fresh-baked bread,

and it will sound like

the only thing we

become wayfarers only to hear:

here, you are wanted.

Welcome home.

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Unfailing Kindness

I hate camping. I mean really hate it. With a passion.

My husband loves it and is always trying to convince me to go. I grew up going on camping holidays, but they were always in the south of France, where there’s generally sunshine and proper facilities. Camping in Scotland can be quite a different experience.

Rain.

Midges.

Rain.

Wellies.

More midges, more rain.

Putting on said wellies in the middle of the night to walk 200 metres to the toilet.

No thank you.

And then there’s the airbed. No matter how well you inflate them before going to bed, inevitably by 4am part of your body is lying on the cold hard ground and you are very uncomfortable. Eventually your chilly state of discomfort leads you to need the toilet – on go the wellies again and so commences the long walk to the bathroom.

Bear Grylls I am most definitely not.

Life is hard enough without camping.

Sometimes the things that we put our trust in begin to deflate. Jobs, family, church, friends, possessions, position – all can change, let us down or be taken away, and as a result leave us wondering in the middle of the night why we’re suddenly lying on cold, hard ground. The cushion that had seemed so reliable has gone and life has become considerably more uncomfortable.

What do we do when life begins to sink? Where do we find the means to lift ourselves again?

The Bible talks about kind words being like honey, “sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” (Proverbs 16 v 24 NLT) Can words really do all that?

I had a conversation with a friend this week who was asking how my husband and I are doing in the midst of our ongoing season of uncertainty. This friend has been consistent in his care and kindness, but played to his gender stereotype by bemoaning the fact that his mere words were not satisfactory and what he really wanted to do was fix the situation for us. Not being able to do so led him to believe that his kind words were a poor substitute.

I quickly put him right.

You see lying on the cold hard ground of difficult circumstances eventually takes its toll. You can put up with it for a while, but eventually you start to ache. At those times what we need are friends to come around us and breathe words of kindness into our deflated life. To lift us off the ground, even for a few moments, with their care and attention. To ease the strain in our bodies that has come from carrying too much stress for too many days. Lift the burden from our weary shoulders so that we can stand tall again. I know that the kind words of many people over these last couple of years have been a tonic that my soul could not have done without.

The power of kindness, of kind words, is hugely under-rated.

There have been several documented examples over the past few years of strangers pausing to ask someone ‘are you alright?’, and that one question, that one moment of kindness has stopped a person from taking their life. They didn’t physically pull them back from the brink, but their kindness had a power all of its own – transformational, life-giving.

I whole-heartedly believe that kind words are not some empty, token gesture but that they have strength, a steely core that can pack the best kind of punch.

confetti quote

Every single day each one of us has at our disposal a rich bank of words. Words that can be used to breathe life and hope, bring joy and laughter. Words can offer care and kindness, compassion and empathy. Words can change how someone feels about themselves or their circumstances.

Words are entirely free. They cost us nothing.

Words that we can choose to leave unsaid.

This world can be a tough place to walk through at times. Why would we leave kind words unsaid?

Will you join me in committing to kindness? Let’s throw it around like confetti? Let’s dare to say kind things to strangers as well as friends. We may never know if our kind words have made any sort of difference, but who cares? The world needs all of the kind words it can get.

Let us never fail to speak kindness.

Following tail lights

Last week I had a meeting with a girl I know to talk about a work project. I don’t know her very well, but we sat down to talk over a cup of coffee and began chatting about a few personal things – and before you could say “another round of donuts please” I had bared a small part of my soul.

I do this quite often. I’m something of an open book and it really doesn’t take too much for me to spill the beans. I’d be rubbish under interrogation. I talked about some difficult and stretching times that I’d walked through in the last couple of years, and the great joy of this particular conversation were the words that came back to me : “I know exactly what you mean, I’ve been there too.”

I love those moments.

The realisation that you’re not the only person in the world to walk this path. Others have gone ahead of you and are alive to tell the tale. They have words of wisdom and understanding to share with you and as they are offered you greedily eat them up, starving for the hope that is given.

A few months ago I was driving back from a speaking engagement in Inverness late one Sunday night. I could have stayed over, really should have stayed over, but the draw of my own bed and being home with my husband was such that, despite the snow falling I decided to risk it. Those of you familiar with the roads of Scotland will know about the A9 from Inverness. A beautiful route when the sun is shining and you’re not in a hurry, but in the darkness of winter it’s quite a different prospect. At times when there is no snow anywhere else in the country, the gates of the A9 will be closed due to several feet of white powder.

As I left Inverness with the snow starting to fall, and thinking that this drive might be a very unwise idea indeed, I made a request of God: “If it’s going to be bad, please give me someone to follow. Amen.” Several miles further on the weather really started to get serious and driving conditions were unpleasant to say the least. Just as I was beginning to get concerned I caught up with a coach that was on the road ahead of me. Thank you Jesus! So then we had a little chat, the coach driver and I. It was quite one-sided but I said some things that I needed him to know. “Ok listen up. I’m following you from here to Perth and I really need you not to go too fast so that I can keep up with you. Now drive safely and then we can all get out when we reach the end and celebrate with some high fives.” I appreciate that actually talking out loud to the driver in front makes me sound more than a little crazy, but I’m hoping that I’m not the only person in the world who does this under duress! On we drove into the night and the snow, me and my convoy. I’ve never been so thankful for a set of tail lights to follow.

At one point, probably when we were at the highest part of the mountain but really who could say,  I couldn’t see where the road was. Everything was white. If I’d been on my own I would have pulled over (if I could have found where ‘over’ even was) and just cried. Instead, with my shoulders tensed and my concentration focussed, I fixed my eyes on those two red lights at the back of the coach and didn’t dare look away. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, the road came back down the mountain and the weather began to clear and when we reached Perth the convoy went our separate ways. No high fives – except for the little ones I did for myself in my car.

I don’t know if that coach driver knew that I was following him, but I was so glad he was there. Glad of his experience and that he could see further down the road than me. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need, on the road and elsewhere. Tail lights to follow. When the storm is raging and you can no longer see the road, when you have no idea of the right direction and all you want to do is pull over and cry, we need people to say “I know what you mean, I’ve been there.” Sometimes they are literally a few steps ahead of you in the road, just far enough for you to follow in their tire treads, and maybe not even much more sure than you of where the road actually leads – but the fact that they are there is enough.

Too often in church we try to keep up a pretence that we know where we’re going in life and the journey is all smooth and glorious, bright sunshine and clear roads. But sometimes it’s not. And in those moments of course it’s great to have people who will listen to us, who will bring us encouraging words of Scripture to hold on to and who offer to pray for us. But sometimes what we need more than anything is someone who says “Me too.” Being vulnerable is a risk. I’ve definitely had times where I’ve opened up to someone and have felt their kindness but I know they haven’t the first idea what I’m really talking about. You walk away from those conversations wondering if that person thinks you are an idiot or backsliding and in need of referal to the church pastoral team. But I’d rather be honest, because I believe that honesty, however painful or embarrassing, in the end encourages more honesty. And maybe my honesty is the set of tail lights that someone is desperate to follow.