Tuesday, 27 January 2015

52 Original Wisdom Stories ~ a new book

I’ve been waiting to tell you about this book, dears. It’s what I was working on through last year.

The title is 52 Original Wisdom Stories, and it's on pre-order on English Amazon at the moment, and will be on pre-order on US Amazon soon.

You might know my book of 100 Stand-Alone Bible Studies (and here on US Amazon) I wrote that because I couldn’t find anything quite like it for my own Bible study groups. There’s so much excellent material, but I always used to hit two particular problems with it. Most Bible studies have ice-breakers, a study passage to read, then questions on it, then life application suggestions. They top and tail that with chatting time at the beginning and prayer time at the end. My problems were always that there was too much material to cram into an evening unless the leader was quite assertive about hurrying people along from one exercise to the next, and that very often the questions were ones with a right/wrong answer.

I wanted to create study material that gave people space to really get into discussion without being told to stop and think about something different, and that had genuinely open questions that didn’t make people feel small or afraid because of the risk of being wrong. So my 100 Stand-Alone Bible Studies (UK, here) have a minimalist outline – just a study passage, a short commentary, three questions and a prayer. That means you can relax over your socializing before you begin, you can take as long as you like praying together at the end, and you can really get your teeth into the questions – which invite a lot of sharing about the group members’ own lives and perspectives. There’s also the advantage that someone with little or no experience in group leadership is given confidence, because the timing isn’t complicated to manage, you don’t need special interrupting and shutting-up skills, but everything you need (the words of the Bible passage and the prayer, the commentary and the questions) has been provided.

And as they are (as it says on the tin) stand-alone studies, they are perfect for filling in when a series has finished but you still have a week or two to go, or if you meant to prepare something but forgot. Though it’s not hard to make a series from the studies if you want to, as they are grouped in categories.

When I was writing it, to be sure that the structure I devised worked as intended, I sent out, to any group leaders who asked, a selection of their choice to try out with their group and let me know how they got on.

That book has proved very popular, and is going well.

So this new book is a kind of companion volume. The 100 Stand-Alone Bible Studies can be used for personal devotions as well as group work – and this new one is good for both as well.

It's also in the same vein as my Lent book, The Wilderness Within You (title linked to UK Amazon, picture linked to US Amazon), in that it's in dialogue/story format - though The Wilderness Within You was dialogues with Jesus, all on Lent themes.

This new one, the 52 Original Wisdom Stories, explores the cycle of the church year. This will be very familiar to some of you – it starts at the end of November or beginning of December with Advent, then come Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, then lots of Sundays of Ordinary time through Harvest and finishing up with All Saints and the Feast of Christ the King. But in the course of the year there are numerous saints’ days, and also special days like Ascension and Corpus Christi.

This book travels through the church year, with 52 seasonally appropriate pieces (so, one a week, plus a foreword and a special appendix). There are pieces about some of the most beloved saints, and in the stretches of Ordinary Time there are pieces that explore all sorts of questions and challenges belonging to life and faith.

Then, there’s an extra thing. Long ago, before the Roman form of Christianity was adopted in Great Britain, the church observed the forms of Celtic Christianity – our first evangelists were Celtic monks from Ireland via Scotland. Hardy people who lived simply, they penetrated some wilder parts of the British Isles that Augustine never reached. In their evangelizing, they worked with the old pre-Christian Celtic observances – natural folk religion based on the agricultural year. Rather than antagonizing the old ways, they developed connections and resonances with the Christian gospel.

So in this new book I’ve also included the old Celtic rhythm of faith, the ancient quarter-days following the equinoxes and solstices, and the cross-quarter-days that came halfway between.

The format of the book is based on a relationship between a married couple of early retirement age – Sid and Rosie. Each piece is a snapshot of their life and conversations together. They have both been married before, and come from different Christian backgrounds. Life has knocked them both around a bit, and caused them to do much soul-searching.

After each piece, three questions and a prayer are included. The material is of itself intended to provoke thought and discussion, but the questions are there to give further help.

Each piece is of such a length that it could be read aloud as the devotional input for a home-group or midweek church group meeting – or used in place of a sermon in a small church or at and evening service, where regular preaching may not be the standard pattern.

The book comes out this summer, and as before, I would like to offer you the opportunity to try out one or two of the pieces with your group, and see how you get on. I’ll list the contents at the end of this post. If you send me a comment with your email address and your choice of up to three pieces, I’ll email you PDFs of the ones you’ve chosen, and the foreword that explains the book.

Please be aware that I can only publish or delete comments that come in to me – I cannot edit, or publish just part of what you say. So if you have a general comment to make, send me that, and then send a second comment with your email address and choice of pieces to try out.


Foreword, then:

  1. Advent 1 – the Beginning
  2. Advent 2 – Harrowing Hell
  3. Advent 3 – the Missing Jesus
  4. Advent 4 – the Judge
  5. Christmas / Yul
  6. The feast of the Holy Family – Love wins
  7. Epiphany
  8. Candlemas / Imbolc / St Brigid
  9. Ash Wednesday
  10. Lent 1 – Wabibito
  11. Lent 2 – the Bell Curve
  12. Lent 3 – Love vast as the ocean
  13. Lent 4 – Mothering Sunday
  14. Lent 5 – Lazarus, come out!
  15. Feast of St Joseph
  16. Holy Week
  17. Easter
  18. Living the Ascension
  19. Beltane
  20. Pentecost
  21. Trinity – Emergent deity
  22. Feast of St Julian of Norwich
  23. Ordinary Time – Life
  24. Ordinary Time – Barking up the wrong tree
  25. Ordinary Time – Kairos
  26. Ordinary Time – Why Sid became a Quaker
  27. Corpus Christi
  28. The birth of St John the Baptist
  29. Ordinary Time – Abiding joy
  30. Ordinary Time – Ma
  31. Ordinary Time – the Formless
  32. Ordinary Time – Disapproval
  33. Feast of St Benedict
  34. Ordinary Time – You Have Enough
  35. Ordinary Time – Letting your life speak
  36. Ordinary Time – Taking it literally
  37. Lammas
  38. Ordinary Time – the Name of Jesus
  39. Ordinary Time – the presence of Jesus
  40. Feast of St Clare of Assisi
  41. Ordinary Time – Getting inside the light
  42. Ordinary Time – Last seen eating dandelion leaves
  43. Ordinary Time – Perfect Storm
  44. Feast of St Francis of Assisi
  45. Feast of St Michael and All Angels
  46. Feast of St Teresa of Avila
  47. St Luke’s Tide
  48. Martinmas
  49. Feast of St Hilda of Whitby
  50. All Hallows
  51. No Time
  52. Feast of Christ the King
  53. Appendix containing Sid’s recipe for lemon cheesecake.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Subtle bile

I spent two-thirds of 2014 de-toxing my liver. This process will, I think, never be ended – because the liver filters toxins from the blood, and even with good diet and a disciplined life, the inflow of toxins from environmental pollution and psychological stress can never be absent from a person’s life.

In this cleansing journey, most of all I was impressed and surprised by the indivisible conjoining of body and mind. With the detoxification came such profound peace. When I asked myself if it was my body or soul that felt at peace, I couldn’t tell. It reminded me of babyhood – the peace of an infant resting. How do I remember that? Not by recall in the normal sense, but my body recognized and identified it, somehow.

This detoxification may have created peace, but it also rocked the boat. It made me aware of what my body/mind/soul needed for well-being; it made clear to me what situations and relationships didn’t do me good.

I began to understand the physical effect on my being of psychological input – that there were some people and situations from which I had to be healed after encounter. Not that they were of themselves toxic – but they were not doing me good. Nuts are not bad, they’re tasty and delicious and an excellent food: but if you have a nut allergy they’ll kill you. So for me with some environments, some relationships. As I repeated again and again the de-toxing, getting used to the peace and restfulness of clearing, I began to notice what stimuli and inputs didn’t sit well with me.

In de-toxing the liver, the gall bladder plays an important part. Back in the days of Shakespeare (and before that, with Hippocrates, and later, in the anthroposophical system of Rudolf Steiner), people’s temperaments were said to be governed by four humours. I won’t go into detail, or you’ll be reading this forever, but you can look up about it here or here, if you’re interested.

A problem that has beset me since childhood – despite being a compliant child and in general a quiet person – is rage. Upwelling. So it intrigued me to read that in Hippocrates’ system of humours, rage associated with yellow bile – from the gall bladder. There was also a black bile from the spleen, but that tended towards melancholy (indeed “melancholy” means “black bile”).

But yellow bile was known as choler, and its excess encourages a choleric temperament; irritable, volatile, inclined to anger. That’s me. I find it hard to own this, because I know I am a quiet, peaceable person; and how can you be both? I don’t like it because I depart from my true self in entering a choleric state. But the humours (as they were understood in that ancient system of medicine) are meant to be in balance. It’s when they are out of kilter that disharmony is created, and rage or melancholy (or whichever humour comes to the fore) predominates.

Bile is bitter. Remember the Christmas carol – “The holly bears a berry as bitter as any gall”? Rage is bitter. Fury. It burns.

I thought about the composition of the human being. It’s not like Russian nesting dolls, one inside the other – the mind inside the body, the soul inside the mind, the spirit inside the soul. Rather, the different aspects, what are called the “subtle” aspects, which is to say the intangible, non-physical aspects, all occupy the same space simultaneously. Indeed, if anything, the body is smaller than the “subtle bodies”; its boundaries do not extend so far. That’s why you can feel a person’s vibe as they approach, or (in some cases) see their aura. The subtle bodies are like light shining. Soul-light.

And I wondered, can you have subtle bile? Is this what the letter to the Hebrews described as the “root of bitterness”?

In the KJV it’s put like this (Hebrews 12.15): “…looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness spring up to trouble you, and thereby many be defiled

It’s seen there as a person within a community. But perhaps it can be a phenomenon within an individual? Bitterness, gall, upwelling in imbalance, like a spreading stain – rage gradually seeping through; toxic, overwhelming.

I’m not quite sure how you de-tox the subtle body. I know what is recommended in the religions – in some cases meditation, fasting; in others confession, eucharist; bringing to the foot of the cross one’s burdens, troubles and sins. I take note, but I’ve also seen plenty of bitter, furious souls who were steeped in religion, saturated with it.

So I think there are two things that apply to the soothing and rebalancing to keep subtle bile in its right proportion. One is de-toxing the body – because the physical body and the subtle bodies are linked, and I have found for myself that deep peace arises from physical detoxification. The second is giving permission to transformation. Remember how the letter to the Romans (12:2 KJV) says: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”?

That suggests it is possible for something new and healthy to grow through. Like a snake emerging from a shed skin. Like the liver which renews itself every 300-500 days. It suggests that a person doesn’t have to stay fixed, stuck, in the patterns of toxic rage and resentment that build up poison in the body until one becomes quite ill. It’s possible to shed, it, to de-tox, to emerge – transformed and renewed.

A puzzle for me arises from certain relationships and circumstances which, for good reason, I cannot excise, but which tend towards re-toxing not de-toxing. My hope is that my spirit can become so strengthened that I can, as it were, turn the flow – become the influencer instead of the influenced. That I can cease to be malleable (“conformed to this world”) and instead grow into the I Am of God, by a steady process both physical and spiritual, of de-toxification, transforming and renewing.

I’m working on it.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Pitfalls of growing old

Here’s a question for you. What is it reasonable to require of old people?

Let’s agree from the outset – old people are people as well as old; so that means each one is an individual, and one cannot just lump them together.

But one makes allowances for children. When the boundaries are pushed and the millionth question asked, when the defiance grates and the melt-downs become wearisome, when night after night at three in the morning the bringer of unwelcome tidings appears in the moonlight to announce a wet bed – the mother reminds herself, this is only a child. Don’t pick up a rolling pin and batter it to death. Try to be understanding.

In the same way, one can listen to the interminable sanctimonious utterances on the subject of “When I was young …”, “When I grew up …”, “My generation …”, “During the war …”, “In my day …”  - and all the other yawn-worthy stuff – with a mental note to retain the pinned-on smile, refrain from slumping in an attitude of death staring at the clock and wondering if it has . . . actually . . . stopped.

Do you watch TV dramas?

Most of them explore the familiar landscape of human reality, touching on experiences that most of us share.

One of these is the Bolshy Teenager – the flouncing out, the rude remark flung over the shoulder, the coldness and rudeness, the unreasonable tantrums and general refusal to co-operate. But, I kid you not, none of that ever happened to me. Not once that I can recall. Oh, my children were argumentative at times – but never unreasonably so. They stood up for their point of view – insisted on it, even; but why not? I cannot recall one single occasion when they spoke disrespectfully to me, or even unkindly. Well, there was that occasion when one of them described my hair as looking like a used mop; still, she was having a bad day; and she was right.

But another stereotype from the TV dramas is the Surly Old Parent. The sour, critical mother, finding fault. The cantankerous old father, contemptuous and cruel.

There are things to take into consideration. Old people often feel unwell, and tired. Some of them – my father came into this category – deal with this by quietness and withdrawal. My father, in the last couple of years of his life, slept a lot. He went out once a week to see the other old men at the pub. He drove to the supermarket every day and ate lunch in the cafĂ© there. Apart from that, he stayed at home. He stopped attending family gatherings – even funerals. He enjoyed feeding the birds, watching Country File, and reading the paper. And he dozed. His manner was kind. He never said a lot. He and I rarely saw one another, never wrote except at Christmas, and hardly ever spoke on the phone. That was not new, really. In the whole of my life he showed little interest in me, never read my books – certainly never bought one copy of anything I wrote. He lived and died without knowing me. I mean, he would possibly have recognized me in the street, though I can’t be entirely sure of that because a lot of people don’t. I’m a bit vague and foggy; not all that present, somehow.

But he and I, we were alike: the default mode for both of us, “Withdraw. Wander off.”

But these old people caricatured in TV dramas – they are, it’s true, evident in abundance. Dismissively belittling their children, rude and thoughtless, critical of everyone they know. Comparing one sibling against another, scornfully. Unrelenting contempt. So unkind.

What is it? Is it an accumulation of poison from bad diet and lack of exercise? Is it that thing of synapses in the brain disabling the inner editor? Is it habit set hard? Is it a sense of increasing powerlessness? Are they just world-weary – tired and achey and defeated?

And what is it reasonable – and realistic – to expect? Is it (perish the thought) inevitable? A sort of sclerosis?

I think of a friend whose mother developed Alzheimers in old age. My friend found herself in the unwelcome role of inspector, checking the fridge for bad food and the closet for soiled clothes, much to her mother’s outrage. Their relationship worsened. Eventually, her mother arrived at the state of health leaving no other viable option than residential nursing care; and then things began to improve between the two of them. My friend became the welcome visitor instead of the impertinent busy-body.

Might it be the case, then, that instead of the greater intimacy which (at first look) increasing vulnerability seems to require, maintaining a certain distance is the way to maintain respect and courtesy?

What do you think?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

One Thing

Different occupations suit different personalities (obviously).

I could not bear the idea of going in to work day by day – in an office or school or hospital. Even when I had a salaried position, I needed to work in a role where I could create my own schedule and operate in a variety of locations.

I’m okay in a team if I have my own specifically delineated contribution – I’m spectacularly bad at sharing a task. Are you doing it or am I? Whose responsibility is this?

The key to my present occupation as a self-employed writer (Oh cripes – that reminds me – I must have a magazine deadline coming up. Yikes!) is what my beautiful mama always referred to as “being a self-starter”. Some people left to manage their own day will procrastinate and lose heart, getting lonely and discouraged.

Today – cold, grey, gloomily clouded – I just don’t feel like working. In such circumstances I require of myself One Thing (actually One Thing After Another, but I pretend that’s not so, leading my reluctant psyche slowly through a series of tasks).

One Thing to do for the household – taking six bags of clutter to the charity shop.

One Thing towards the evening meal – get the mince out of the freezer.

One Thing to further work already in hand – check Amazon copy, contact publisher to get it corrected, download photo file in preparation for forthcoming blog post.

One Thing towards a project undertaken – in this case, writing one Bible study towards a series promised to the Bible Reading Foundation’s New Daylight.

One thing to firm up a piece of work taken on locally – today, a home visit to someone who has lost a loved one, to talk through what they would like for the family funeral.

One thing towards the next novel planned  some preparatory reading.

Self-employment requires that a person have the determination and perseverance to keep on doing one thing; putting one foot in front of the other regardless of mood or inclination. To work faithfully and well in solitude, remembering deadlines and crafting something workmanlike and beautiful for the glory of God and because others have placed their trust in me.

A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. In the end, there could be no greater prize imaginable than to hear Jesus say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” This, above all, is my heart’s desire.