Friday, 20 December 2013

When the Towers Fall: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble, Part 3




My third post in this series has really quite a simple message. It was born from a memory of the TV news coverage of the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001.

I remember it distinctly. A TV camera was panning round the rubble and dust of ground zero, through the jagged edges of girders and the last vestiges of walls and doors.

All of a sudden, the commentator stopped talking.

There, on a mantle shelf fixed to a wall that was somehow still standing was a painting of Jesus, a searing look of compassion on his face.

The commentator was speechless.

The camera lingered.

Everyone watching must have been like me - open mouthed with surprise.

After several seconds, all the commentator could say was, 'well that speaks for itself.'

And then the camera moved on.

I share this because my third suggestion for rebuilding your life in the rubble is simply this:

Look for hints of His Presence in the Rubble.

I didn't expect to see Christ in the chaos, but he was there.

He is always there.

There are always hints of his Presence.

Why? Because the Redeemer is drawn to our rubble.



About five years ago I discovered Antony Beevor's magnificent book about Stalingrad.

At the worst moment in the battle, 300,000 troops of the German 6th army were trapped in the destroyed city, with no chance of escape from the Russians, who were eager for revenge.

It was Christmas 1942.

At the darkest hour, hardened soldiers of the German Army walked into a small underground chamber to pay homage to a picture drawn by Kurt Reuber, a German soldier also trapped in the kessel.

The image was of the Madonna and child.

Reuber - Protestant pastor, artist and Panzer division commander - had created the picture which was three feet by four feet in dimensions. 

It had a stunning effect on the soldiers.

One of the only 6000 6th army soldiers who survived, later wrote this:

'For me that Christmas was heavenly. I felt there was a bridge that stretched over the entire earth, the starry sky and the moon, the same moon that my family could see in Germany.'

The picture was removed in the last plane out of Stalingrad, just before it's fall in January 1943. It now hangs on the walls of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

There is a copy below. It has the words, life and love on the right hand side.





I share this not just because it's Christmas but because there are many of you reading these blogs who feel like you are surrounded by rubble at the moment.

I know because you have been writing to me.

My advice is this:

Look for hints of His Presence in the rubble.

Be alert to this surprising, sudden intimations of God's Presence even in the chaos.

Don't believe the lie that says this is too messy, dirty, murky and dark for Jesus.

How clean and bright do you think his manger was when he was born?

The God who created the universe touched down in filth and shadows not in a sanitized shrine.

He is Immanuel - God with us in the mess.


I had one of the worst days of my life in the run up to last Christmas.

Through my own failings, I had lost just about everything and now I was about to lose my beloved Black Labrador called Molly.

For reasons I cannot go into, I now had to find a new home for her and fast.

To say that I prayed with tears of desperation would be an understatement.

I longed for Molly to have a good home.

Within a few days a lovely woman contacted me. She said that she had heard that I had a Black Lab that needed a new home.

'I lost my six year old Black Labrador in the summer,' she said. 'She was killed by an adder. I was devastated. Her name was Molly.'

She shared that she had two other dogs and acres of land and also that she now felt it was time to have a new Molly.

When I handed Molly over on a drab and rainy day, I knew that she was in the best possible hands, that she would be happier with her new Mum and her new home than she had ever been, and this was God's kindness.

For me it was a stunning moment of reassurance.

Even in my mess, God was being kind.

Even in my rubble, he was present.

As even an atheist said to me, 'it seemed meant.'


            (Molly in the grounds of her new home)

If you're at ground zero, and the dust is yet to settle, look for signs of His presence.

He is there.

He is not scared by disaster or allergic to chaos.

He is the God who was born in the mess of the manger and who is present in our mess too.

Don't lose heart.

May his presence surprise you and his peace delight you.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding Your Life in the Rubble, Part 2

In this series of blogs I'm looking at how we can recover from disaster - whether that disaster is self-inflicted or thrust upon us.

I believe we can move from helpless passivity to creative activity, however dire our circumstances may seem. 

We can make choices in the chaos that will determine whether we live life again or simply exist - whether we thrive or survive.

In my last blog I suggested that our first choice should be, 'don't - whatever you do - lose hope.'

Today I want to offer a second choice.

Before I tell you what that is I'm going to describe a dream I had in February of this year, when life in many ways couldn't have looked bleaker.

Here's what I saw.

I was standing on a beach looking out to sea. There was a strong wind blowing, almost gale force. The sky was shifting from light to dark grey. Birds were flying at speed inland, faster than the scudding clouds.

As I peered into the distance I saw to my horror that a huge wave - a massive tsunami - was rolling towards the coast where I was standing. It felt like it was over one hundred feet high. It was pitch black in colour and filled the entire horizon.



As I strained my eyes I saw that there was a word written in gargantuan letters on the wave. The word - cast in a serrated, elongated and sharpened font (like those used by serial killers) - was 'inertia.'

As I read that, I didn't fully understand what it meant (I'm not a physicist) but I did understand what it signified.

It signified a choice. 

A choice to yield to the wave and let it wash me up on the beach.

Or a choice to confront the wave and try to conquer it.

Somehow, even in my unnerved state, I knew there was only one choice. 

I looked around and saw to my surprise a small wooden boat, no longer than ten feet, lying on the gravelly sand. It had a furled, burgundy canvas sail around its mast.

I ran to the boat and pushed it through the surf into the breakers. I jumped in and loosened the sail, tying and tightening it to the boat. I steered my flimsy coracle towards the inky tsunami which had now built to a prodigious height in front of me.

I remember climbing the wave with an unnatural, supernatural speed until I was almost vertical.

My little sail was puffed out like a proud chest.

Then, in the twinkling of an eye, I was over the dark summit and descending on the far side of the wave.

The colour of the sky changed, like the sea, from black to grey and then from grey to blue.

I could see the rays of the sun on the distant horizon, bursting through the clouds.

And then the dream, like the wave, was behind me.



When I woke up the next day I had a new resolve in my spirit.

I was not going to give in to helpless passivity.

I was going to choose creative activity.

That morning I was due to keep an appointment with the Job Seekers Plus office. I phoned to cancel. They asked my name. When I told them, they said they had no record of an appointment with me that day.

Clearly God had different plans.

I was not meant to go on the dole and watch daytime TV.

He wanted me to do something.




Many of you reading this will know what it is to be confronted by the overwhelming temptation of inertia. 

Inertia in physics is the tendency of an object to maintain its state of rest unless acted upon by external forces.

When we lose everything - whether that's our mobility, our health, our marriage, our jobs, our money, whatever - a terrible dark wave can often start building up in front of us. That wave is - a profound disinclination to act or move.

But the Father has better things for his children.

He wants us to make a defining decision - to choose creative activity over helpless passivity. He wants us to act. He wants us to decide to do something. He doesn't want us to wait for some great act of philanthropy from someone else. Nor does he want us to manipulate or orchestrate for it.

That's the entitlement mentality of the orphan. 

God wants us to launch our little boats and conquer the wave like heroic sons and daughters.



I have a close friend who is doing just that right now.

She has just lost her husband. She and he were deeply in love - deeply united spiritually and wonderfully affectionate physically. They were everything a Christian married couple should be. They were a radiant example.

Then death barged into her life like a thief and stole him from her.

She could have given in to inertia.

She could have allowed herself to be washed up on the beach.

But quickly she sensed the promptings of the Holy Spirit. She decided it was time to DO something creative, compassionate, community oriented.

What a daughter of God!

She decided to conquer the wave rather than let the wave conquer her.

You may be in precisely this situation today.

You're not one of those Christians who lives in the shallow waters, pretending everything is fine and dandy, proclaiming that you're living in constant triumph.

You're a real Christian, someone who knows brokenness as well as blessing, tragedy as well as triumph.

You know that the word of the Lord to you is to push the boat into deep waters (Luke 5.4).

So ignite the pilot light of heroism in your soul.

Steer your boat towards the wave.

Set your sail.

If you set your sail, He will fill it.

And you will discover the glorious truth of Psalm 18.16-19 (in the Message):

But me he caught - reached all the way from sky to sea; he pulled me out of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos, that void in which I was drowning. They hit me when I was down, but God stood by me. He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved, surprised to be loved.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL. Rebuilding your life in the Rubble. Part 1.

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL

How to rebuild your life in the rubble. Part 1.

I apologize for the title. I know it’s disturbing and dramatic but I started thinking about this series of blogs on September 11th, watching the still horrific TV images of the crumbling twin towers in New York.


I guess that got me thinking about how anyone ever recovers from disaster. How do people rise from the ashes that follow implosive events – events such as sudden redundancy, bereavement, betrayal,failure, shock, bad news, and so on?

Some implosions are self-inflicted, of course, while others are inflicted on us. But whether we cause our chaos or have our chaos thrust upon us, we are all faced with the same choices once the dust settles.

That’s what this series of blogs is about.

It’s not about the blame game – going over and over what’s happened and blaming ourselves, others, the devil, or even God.

No, this series is more pragmatic, more merciful.

It’s one of those HOW TO series I vowed I’d never write.

It’s a series of steps (I hate those too) – steps that I have been led to take in my own chaos.

I want to share with those thousands and thousands of people whose towers have fallen what might be involved in rebuilding your life.

So today I offer my first step, and it’s this:

Don’t - whatever you do - lose hope.

When the lights go out and we’re lost in the rubble, it’s hard to think about anything else except the present moment. The priority is enduring the challenges before us in the now. We are committed to one thing and one thing only – survival. It’s not about living. It’s about simply existing. All we can often say in our solitude is this:  

I just need to try and get through today.

All this is reasonable, practical and totally understandable.

And yet it is not just surviving the present moment that brings us out of the debris. It is the ability to believe that there might one day be order where there is now chaos, beauty where there is now ugliness, life where there is now death.

It is the ability to cling by our torn and dirty fingernails to the frayed hem of hope when it passes by.

It is the ability to shift from the present to the future tense, even if it’s just for a second.

I know there are some, like Eckhart Tolle, who believe that looking to the future is a denial of the reality of what’s happening now. But I’m not suggesting something as simple or simplistic as that. I’m suggesting we do both.


In other words, I’m saying, ‘in the midst of facing our reality, let’s be open to the fact that now is not all there is, that there is a future, that there is hope, that we will breathe fresh, clean, sun-drenched air again.’

I’m saying ‘let’s believe what it says in Isaiah 61, that there’s a transcendent force in the universe – the redemptive force of divine love – which can create beauty out of ashes.’

I'm saying 'let's hold onto the hope expressed even by the cynical author of Ecclesiastes (3.11) that God makes everything beautiful in its (his) time.'

In the midst of my own reality, one of the most helpful comments anyone has made to me is this.

‘Mark, this is the end of a chapter; it is not the end of the book.’

Maybe it was the fact that he was using an analogy which he knew would really touch me deeply (that’s a good buddy for you). But when he said those words it felt like a tiny shaft of light had broken through the ash clouds and touched a despairing corner of my heart.

I felt the momentary warming offered by a shard of hope. 

And that hope – that this is not the end of me, my life, my contribution to the planet – has sustained me.

It has helped me some days just to move because hope is what keeps us alive when the lights have gone out.

Whatever disaster, whatever loss, whatever tragedy, whatever failure, you may be facing right now, don’t lose hope.

Hope sees the treasure in the trash. 

It sees the first golden glimmers of redemption in the ghastly rubbish all around us.

And that takes something.

It really takes something to cling to some bright possibility of hope on the darkest of days. 

It really takes something to declare in the detritus of disaster, 'God's not done with me yet.'

In fact, there are few finer, diviner things than the tenacity of hope.

On August 28th it was the fiftieth anniversary of the greatest speech since the Sermon on the Mount. I am referring of course to Dr Martin Luther King’s address delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.


I have been fortunate enough to stand on those steps a number of times in my life and to look out from where the great man delivered his speech.

So it seems fitting to end this first blog with a quote from Dr King.


He once said, ‘we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’

Sunday, 9 June 2013

              The Text of My Life

There are moments when you suddenly realize that the details of your life are not an accident and that there is a Master Storyteller at work somewhere in the background, weaving together the disparate fragments of your past to create a plot fraught with purpose.


A few weeks ago I remembered something, and in the act of that remembrance had an awakening.

I recalled how in my second year training for the ordained ministry in Nottingham I befriended an American Methodist minister. He was at the same theological college but was studying for a PhD in Professor Thomas Torrance's theology. It was for him a truly demanding and taxing task.

Bob - that was his name - asked me to help him complete his draft. He knew I had been a scholar of literature and that words were (and are) my area of expertise. So he asked if I would edit his thesis on a daily basis until he reached the point where he was happy enough to submit it.

I remember well how we wrestled together with a theologian whose language was dense and demanding, and how I wrestled on my own with Bob's language, which was even more dense and demanding! In the end, after much sweat (in my case) and tears (in his), Bob was awarded his PhD.

Looking back, I can see what a significant moment that was not just for him but for me. I was in my early twenties, training to be a Vicar, but spending my time doing freelance editing. From Bob's point of view, I had the 'Midas touch'. I had a God-given ability to turn base texts into gold.


Today, after nearly thirty years in Christian ministry, I am now editing texts again. Indeed, since setting up my new business - www.thescriptdoctor.org.uk - I have had the privilege of applying that Midas touch to many texts and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Alongside creating my own stories (through writing novels), I am helping good writers to become great authors.

In the process, I'm discovering who I truly am and what part of my purpose might be.

As if this wasn't enough, a good friend of mine recently introduced me to a radiant text in the Psalms.

I am, at the moment, delighting in the Psalms anyway because they remind me of a stunning truth about God's grace - that our follies and our falls do not disqualify us from excelling in the area of writing. In fact, some of David's best songs were composed on the back of his worst decisions.

While this is not a license to make catastrophic errors of judgment, it is a saline drip of life-giving help for the vast ranks of broken and wounded soldiers in God's army.

It tells us that our crushing can be the crucible for our finest creativity.



So I was already feasting on the songs of David when my friend said, 'have you seen the Message version of Psalm 18.24?'

When I said 'no,' he read it to me:

God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him.
When I got my act together, he gave me a fresh start.
Now I'm alert to God's ways; I don't take God for granted.
Every day I review the ways he works.
I try not to miss a trick.
I feel put back together and I'm watching my step.
God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.

When my friend spoke those words over my life I immediately sensed hope rising in my broken soul - hope that there is meaning in my mess because the Divine Hand is rewriting the text of my life as I open up my heart to his scandalously compassionate and acutely penetrating eyes.


And that's happening.

As I receive help from trusted others (particularly through inner healing ministry and regular professional counselling), I have started to see my past with the eyes of my Heavenly Father and, in the process, begun to trust him to edit and rewrite the text of my life!

And as that has started to happen, I have reflected on this.

Our Heavenly Father is the greatest editor in the universe!

When it comes to the text of our lives, he has the Midas touch.

He can remove paragraphs and improve chapters.

He can change point of view and develop characters.

He can beautify and rectify dialogue and description.

He can turn tragedy into comedy just as easily as he turns winter into spring.

And so I have come to see a surprising synchronicity between what he is doing and what I am doing.

I am editing other peoples' stories.

While he is editing mine.

'Selah,' as David would have said!




Saturday, 11 May 2013

A NEW SEA SONG

Tight Lines

They amble hand in hand along the leas
He with a fleece like the lining of a dog's bed
She with a scarlet anorak
That jars against her leaden hair

Two fishermen are setting up along the shore
One is thrusting a long rod into the shingle
The other a puny tent for both to shelter in
Should the lenient wind pick up

Two girls in crimson helmets pedal by
Calling to each other on their rusting tricycles
Their torn black leggings hustling eagerly
In three wheeled synchronicity

The twitching fishing lines are out
Linking the land's edge with the gravelly sea
Watched by the fishermen in dungarees
Sitting stoically together on the stony beach

A short legged hoodied woman passes by
Her tethered Dachsund trotting by her heels
His restless tail jerking like an agitated rod
His face turned up to hers adoringly

'We're in!' I hear the fishermen exclaim
As one begins to pull a flatfish from the surf
Its wide eyes fixed in startled rage
Against tight, intrusive lines



Saturday, 4 May 2013

A HEAVENLY HOMECOMING

There are few words more emotive and evocative than the word home - and there are few moments in life more joyful or poignant than coming home. 

My novel, 'The Prodigal Father', is all about homecoming. In it, a father called Jake goes off the rails and leaves his family for Casino City in the far north.

He loses himself in a world of gambling and danger until he experiences an extreme downturn in his fortunes. He is forced to live rough on the streets and forage for food.

There Jake wistfully talks of his home to a fellow street dweller called Christine - a modern Christ-figure who teaches him how to survive in a harsh and unforgiving urban landscape.

She and her imaginary friend 'Gusto' share their home - a rusty old Ford Capri - with Jake.

With their unconventional help and wisdom, Jake begins to turn his thoughts from exile to return.

How it all pans out - well, you'll have to go home and read it!

                            *   *   *

Homecoming - the act of returning to where you feel most welcome and loved - is undeniably powerful, whether in literature or life.

As Charles Dickens once wrote,

'Every traveler has a home of his own and he learns to appreciate it more from his wanderings.'

This is true.

And it is also true that the older we get the more we appreciate it.

When we are young we grow up wanting to leave home. When we grow old we start wanting more and more to return home.

When we are children, we look up at the sky and long to be sitting in an airplane flying far away.

When we are older, we look down from the airplane and long to be with our loved ones again.

The young want to leave it.

The old want to retrieve it.

There's truly something about home.

                            *   *    * 

Why all this talk of homecoming?

The other day I was asked by a friend who works for the BBC to provide resources on the Ascension of Christ - in preparation for a program for Ascension Day (Thursday 9th May).

After some study, I came to the conclusion that for me the most moving aspect of the Ascension of Christ has to do with his homecoming to the Father.

The actual physical act of the Ascension doesn't interest me that much.

I am not so preoccupied with whether Jesus went up to a realm beyond the reach of any telescope.

Or whether he slipped through some invisible portal into a parallel universe.

These things seem rather prosaic to me.

At least in comparison with the idea of homecoming.

That is what intrigues and moves me most - the idea of the Stranger from Heaven returning home.

The Son coming home to the arms of his outrageously loving Father.

That's the stuff of poetry.

                                                          *         *         *

There are three things I have thought about over the last fortnight in relation to this.

The first has to do with REST.

That great philosopher Pumba in 'The Lion King' said that 'home is where you rest your rump.'

Precisely!

Home is where you can sit down, put your feet up, and sigh with uninhibited relief.

There would have been something of this for Jesus at the Ascension.

The Bible says that once he had ascended into the heavens he sat down next to his heavenly Father.

And he sat down because he had fulfilled his assignment.

He had won the race, fought the fight, gained the prize.

Now it was time to rest.

It was time to sit and sigh with relief and delight.

There was something about REST in this heavenly homecoming.

                          *   *   *

And there was secondly something about RELATIONSHIP.

Coming home doesn't always mean returning to a place.

Often it can mean returning to a person or people - to those who know you best and love you most.

As the actor Daniel Radcliffe has said, 'I love coming home to somebody.'

Not somewhere, note, but somebody.

As Radcliffe added, 'I love being in a relationship.'

Jesus' homecoming was all about relationship.

When he returned to his home in heaven, he returned to the immediacy of intimacy.

While he was on the earth, he related to his Father in his human body through the Holy Spirit.

When he returned to the Father he went from a long distance to a face to face relationship.

Homecoming was about RELATIONSHIP for Jesus.

                         *    *    *

And thirdly it was about REJOICING.

Guy Pearce has said that 'the thrill of coming home has never changed.'

Thrill - good word that.

It can be truly thrilling when a loved one comes back home - both for the one welcoming and the one returning.

This was emphatically true of the Ascension.

And here we have to dream a little.

Can we begin to imagine what this return of Christ was really like - after his thirty years on the earth, three years in Galilee, and three days in the tomb?

Did the whole company of heaven stand for the returning Son?

Was there an ovation beyond any the world has ever known?

How loud did the angels sing and what was their exuberant song?

And what about the Father?

What did he do?

Did he run to his Son like the father of the prodigal - his arms outstretched, his face beaming, his eyes streaming with tears?

And did the whole universe shudder in an inexplicable ecstasy as the two embraced in the wild, encircling arms of the Spirit?

Maybe one day we will know.

Maybe one day we will see.

But for now we glimpse and guess, like children peering through the misty glass of a car returning home, plaintively inquiring, 'Are we there yet?'

And my guess is this - Christ's homecoming was a moment of unbridled joy in which the Father spun on his feet and danced with a ludicrous abandonment that startled heaven.

The Ascension released a Hallelujah chorus that would have sent shivers up Handel's spine.

                           *   *   *

May I make a suggestion?

If you have problems getting excited about the Ascension, think about it in terms of homecoming.

Imagine the moment when the Son came face to face with the Love of All Loves and heard the words, 'welcome home.'

And consider this.

The Son of God came to live in our place so that the sons of men could one day live in his.

We will all go home one day - even if we do not have a home to go to here.

There is a welcome waiting for us the like of which the world has never seen.

Because in his resurrection Christ opened the grave.

But in his ascension, he opened the doors of heaven.

Now every son and every daughter can one day dream of coming home.

And that's something worth celebrating.



'The Prodigal Father' is available as an ebook on www.amazon.co.uk, www.amazon.com, www.lulu.com and at www.theprodigalfather.co.uk 


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Sound of the Sea

This month's blog is a poem.

My first ever book was a volume of poetry entitled 'The Drawing out of Days.' 
It was published when I was just 16 and it was reviewed very favourably by the wonderful Joan Bakewell.

So it's been very healing to rediscover this gift and especially healing to write about my last five days on the Suffolk coast.

Breakers 

It's always rush hour here beside the sea
As waves, like trucks and cabs, break noisily
Outside my cottage window.

'There's a different kind of traffic here', I muse,
As briny, white-roofed, cars and coaches 
Come and go unwaveringly.

Each day an unseen postman comes
- like a furtive oceanic messenger - 
To my dilapidated door.

'Look what the tide's brought in!' I shout
To the motionless seagulls surfing the wind, 
As they speed off effortlessly. 

I sit on a bench composed of rotting timber 
- a simple, decomposing offering - 
Brought in on generous tides.

There I contemplate the latest letters
Sent from the Maker of the Sea
Who writes to me so tenderly. 

I settle my mind and brood on his messages,
My arms stretched out like a seabird's,
My broken soul surrendered. 

'His words have the constancy of waves' I cry,
'They drown me in their raging love 
As they break upon me endlessly.' 

As I watch a murmuration of busy starlings
Darting over a brown and broken heath,
An inner vow begins to surge. 

'This is where unhurried hearts can swell with song, 
This is where my beaten ears belong,
Where the surf sounds mystically.'