2018 Random Lent Thought #13: Simplicity

Here’s one of my favourite sayings: ‘Junk will always expand to fill available space’.

And here’s one of the most challenging sayings of Jesus: ‘‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘ (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV).

You and I have been formed by a culture in which our right to store up for ourselves treasures on earth is considered sacrosanct. A huge advertising industry is dedicated to making us discontented with what we have, and success is most often defined in terms of increasing wealth. But here Jesus stands against this and unmasks it for what it is: idolatry: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

Back in the 1970s there was a saying: ‘Live simply, that others might simply live’. I’m fortunate (although it doesn’t always feel that way!) to be married to a woman who cares deeply about the simple life and who regularly goes through the house, identifies things we don’t use and don’t need, and finds a charity to give them away to. We’re also fortunate in that we live in a small house, so there isn’t much space to accumulate junk anyway, because (as I said above) junk will always expand to fill available space.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’. How am I putting this teaching of Jesus into practice in my life? How about you?

Advertisements

2018 Random Lent Thought #12: Faith and Unbelief

Just a short RLT this morning. As part of my One Year Bible readings today I read Mark 9:2-9, which ends with the story of Jesus delivering a boy from an impure spirit when the disciples have not been able to do this. After the boy’s father describes his symptoms to Jesus, he says “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help u!” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24 NIV).

This is my favourite prayer in the Bible, because I often have a problem with faith. When I read Jesus saying “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24), my heart sinks and I know there’s no hope for me because I have never at any time in my life been able to summon up faith like that. Some may be able to do it, but I can’t.

So I’m encouraged by the raw honesty of the father in today’s story. “I believe and I don’t believe – please help me move forward, Lord!” And the amazing thing is that it’s enough; Jesus immediately turns and delivers the boy, and he is set free from his troubles.

Does this mean that the father’s faith was enough? I think I would prefer to believe it means Jesus‘ faith is enough. The father may not have strong faith, but Jesus has absolute faith in his Father in heaven, and so he is able to deliver the boy.

Growing in faith is something we sometimes think about during Lent, but I suspect that to many of us it’s even more difficult than fasting and self-denial! How would we even begin to grow in faith? It’s easy to become discouraged when, year after year, we can see only negligible movement on that score. “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” remains our prayer as the years go by – maybe even more so.

Today when I’m faced with desperate situations that need fervent, faithful prayer, I know I’m going to feel inadequate about addressing them. But I’m going to try to remind myself that although my faith feels weak, Jesus’ faith is strong, and the letter to the Hebrews tells us that he is always praying to the Father for us. And that will be enough.

 

2018 Random Lent Thought #11: Neighbours and Foreigners

Sometimes our Lent disciplines can be overly individualistic. We think about our own prayer, our own fasting, our own self-denial, our own individual relationship with God. But God has a different vision. To God, holiness is social as well as personal.

This morning in my ‘One Year Bible’ readings I read Leviticus 19-20, the so-called ‘holiness code’. It begins with the famous words “Be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (19:2). But it immediately begins to define holiness in social terms: respect your father and mother; keep the Sabbath (in modern Judaism, that is very much a community discipline, and I expect the same was true in ancient times); don’t harvest your field or vineyard so thoroughly that you don’t leave something behind for the poor; don’t steal, lie, deceive one another; don’t defraud your neighbour; don’t hold back the wages of a day-labourer overnight; don’t pervert justice by showing partiality in court to either rich or poor; don’t slander your neighbour or endanger their life; love your neighbour as yourself (this is just a selection from 19:3-18).

The one that really struck me was this one: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So they were commanded not only to love their neighbour as themselves, but the foreigner living among them – the immigrant, the refugee – as well. So all the commands about how you treat your neighbour also applied to how you treated the foreigner.

“Isn’t it awful – refugees and immigrants who haven’t paid taxes here get just the same benefits as us!” Well, in Leviticus God apparently disagrees with that sentiment. ‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born’.

We must not avoid thinking about these things during Lent. The way I treat my neighbour is an integral part of my relationship with God. This is not just about warm feelings and kind words; it’s about basic honesty, justice, and respect.

On Ash Wednesday we read from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the Israelites for following the prescribed fasts but not caring about their neighbours. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’ (Isaiah 58:6-7; the whole chapter is worth a re-read today).

Lent is not just about ‘me and God’, because holiness is not just about ‘me and God’. Both are social. After all, Jesus has told us that the way we treat people in need is the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How will we treat our Lord today when he comes to us in our neighbour?

2018 Random Lent Thought #10: Taking On and Giving Up

This morning Marci and I read some passages from Mark about sabbath observance. It got me thinking about ‘taking on and giving up’.

Traditionally, of course, we ‘gave things up for Lent’: chocolate, sugar in your coffee, alcohol etc. In recent years, however, there’s been some resistance to this idea. Isn’t it better to take on a positive practice during Lent? Volunteer in a homeless shelter, spend time with your family, read the Bible more, etc. etc.

Personally, I think we need to consider balance, and be realistic about scheduling.

When I look at the folks I know in Edmonton, I have to say that most of them aren’t sitting around with lots of empty space in their lives, just waiting to add another positive practice. Most of them are running at a hundred miles an hour from morning til night. They have far more things to do than they have time to do them in. That’s one of the reasons why ‘regular church attendance’ now seems to mean once a month rather than once a week.

Frankly, it’s not good news for these folks that Lent is here, and we have something more we want you to take on for the next six weeks!

So let’s be realistic. Every time we decide to do something new, we’re also going to have to decide what we’re going to stop doing in order to make room for it. Read the Gospel of Mark through Lent? Excellent idea. Now – when in your day are you going to do it? What are you currently doing at that time? So are you going to stop doing that, or move it to another time (and stop doing something else…)?

I’m all for adding positive habits to our lives. But I have to say, for most of the people I know, one of the most important positive habits they could learn would be this one: do nothing for a while every day. Don’t check email or surf Facebook. Don’t rush around doing things and fulfilling obligations. Shed some of those obligations. Decide what’s really important and what’s not. Let some things go, and don’t fill that space. Just sit, nurse a cup of coffee, and enjoy the quiet and solitude for half an hour. Or go for a walk, not for exercise, but just for the pleasure of it.

In the Old Testament when God gives the command to observe the Sabbath, the only rule he gives is “You shall do no work”. Nothing else is mandated for the Sabbath. It’s a day of rest.

That’s both giving up and taking on. Sounds like good common sense to me.

Happy Sunday.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 18

Link back to Chapter 17

On the following Wednesday evening it happened by accident that almost all of us were at the hospital visiting at the same time: my mother, Alyson and Becca and me, as well as Emma and Eric. Rick was still using his crutches to get around but he had been told he would be going home the following afternoon. My father was sleeping fitfully, but the rest of us got into conversation with one of the residents who was going around the unit checking on the various patients. “His blood count was very low”, she said to us as we stood around her in the corridor outside his room, “and unfortunately there are at least three different infections taking advantage of the situation. Doctor Khoury’s using a cocktail of different antibiotics to fight them but it’s going to take time, and meanwhile we need him to rest”.

“You think a hospital’s a good place for him to rest?” my mother asked irritably.

“Probably not as good as his own bed, but we need to keep him here so we can give him drugs intravenously and monitor him. I’m sure Doctor Khoury will talk to you about that if she hasn’t already done so”.

My mother nodded; “She was talking to me today, actually”.

“Where did he pick up these infections?” asked Rick.

“Actually the vast majority of infections that chemo patients struggle with are already present in their bodies”.

“Really? I didn’t know that”.

Becca grinned; “You’d be amazed how much bacteria’s already living in your system, Rick – especially in your stomach. Normally it’s not a problem because your body’s immune system keeps it in line”.

“Are you a doctor?” the young resident asked Becca.

“I’m just a lowly G.P.; the really specialized oncology stuff is a bit above my level of expertise”.

******

While my father was in hospital my mother slept over several nights each week at Becca’s apartment. She wanted to be with my father every day, and some days she seemed to be with him from morning until night. Becca was worried about her. “She’s going to wear herself out”, she said to me one evening; “I don’t want two sick parents on my hands, and if she doesn’t get enough rest that’s what’s going to happen. We’ve already got three family members in that hospital; I don’t want a fourth one going in”.

“I know how it is though”, I replied quietly. “You want to be at the hospital as long as you can; you want to take advantage of every possible chance to be together”.

Becca looked at me for a moment, and then she put her hand on my arm. “This is hard for you, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is”.

“Lots of memories?”

“I remember a few nights when I slept in the chair beside Kelly’s bed”.

“I’m sure that didn’t make for a very good sleep”.

“No”, I admitted, “but I didn’t care; I just wanted to be with her”.

“Of course you did”, she replied softly.

******

Colin Kingsley seemed to have taken a liking to me.

He had managed to scrape through his mock exams with marks in the fifties and low sixties, but he was still struggling in his academic subjects and I made a point of setting aside extra time to help him. Our regular tutorial sessions took place on Thursday afternoons, and lately he had gotten into the habit of staying a little longer just to chat.

One day, completely out of the blue, he started talking about his father, who was currently in the Middle East on a photojournalism contract. “I haven’t heard from him for a while”, he said, “but that’s normal for him. He’s allowed to write to me or send me emails but he doesn’t do it very often. I don’t really care; I don’t get on with him”.

“I remember that”.

“I wonder about him sometimes, though. He’s been in Iraq a lot since the war started”.

“Are you worried about him?”

He frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know; maybe”. He shrugged helplessly; “I honestly don’t know how I feel about him”.

I waited for a moment, and then said “Are you afraid of him?”

He nodded slowly; “Sometimes I am. He’s not allowed to see me, but I still remember things”.

“Your mum told me he was quite violent sometimes”.

“He hit her a lot”.

“You saw him do that?”

“Not very often. Sometimes at night I heard them, though”.

“That must have been terrifying for you”.

“Yeah”.

“Have you ever talked to anyone about it?”

“Like a counsellor you mean?”

“Yes”.

“I went to a counsellor for a bit after Dad went to jail”.

“That would have been a few years ago now?”

“About six years ago”.

“Did it help?”

He shook his head. “To be honest, I can’t remember much about it. I was only eleven at the time. I remember the counsellor was kind but I don’t know how long I went to see her for. I don’t think it was more than a few months”.

“Do you ever feel like you need to talk some more about it?”

He shrugged; “I don’t know. Sometimes”.

“Have you thought of talking to our school counsellor?”

“Mrs. Franklin?”

“Yes”.

He shrugged again; “Maybe”.

“Think about it; some people find that kind of thing helpful. When we go through trauma like that it can come back to haunt us later on, and sometimes we need help to work through it”.

He glanced at me. “What about you?”

“Yes – I had a couple of pastors I talked to”.

“Pastors?”

“Ministers”.

“Oh right; like my grandpa. He was a vicar”.

“I hear you get on very well with him”.

He smiled; “Grandpa’s all right”, he said.

******

A few days later, completely out of the blue, I received a phone call from Mickey Kingsley.

It was early evening in the middle of the week; Emma had gone down to the hospital to visit our patients, and I had just started working at my desk when the telephone rang. I picked it up and said, “Tom and Emma’s”.

“Tom Masefield?”

“Speaking”.

“Mickey Kingsley here”.

“Mickey!”

“That would be me”.

“I thought you were in Iraq?”

“Just got back a couple of days ago; I’m in the country for two weeks. It’s been a long time; how are you?”

“I’m fine; how did you know I was here?”

“I get copies of all Colin’s school reports”.

“So you recognized my name?”

“Yes, and I e-mailed Colin last night to find out if you were the same Tom Masefield I knew long ago. Sounds like he quite likes you. Just as a matter of interest, why did you come back to England?”

“My Dad has cancer”.

“Oh – I’m sorry to hear that. Of course, you two never did get along very well, did you?”

“We’re doing a little better now”.

“Oh – well, my sympathies, then. Is it terminal?”

“I’m afraid so”.

“How long has he got?”

“Hard to say; when he was diagnosed they gave him two years, and that was just over a year ago”.

“I see”. He paused, and then said, “Have you been seeing much of Wendy?”

“We’ve met two or three times; why do you ask?”

“So you know about Lisa, then?”

I saw immediately where this conversation was going. “I’ve only met her once, at one of her choir concerts. We had a nice conversation at the reception afterwards”.

“She’s not my daughter, you know, Tom; she’s yours. She’s the product of that little one-night stand you and Wendy had not long before you left the country”.

“I know that”.

“Wendy told you?”

“No”.

“Ah, so you’ve been counting the months, have you? I take it Wendy doesn’t know you’ve guessed the truth?”

I was silent for a moment; I knew that I felt uncomfortable talking with him about Wendy, but I also felt instinctively that it would be wrong to simply brush him off.

“Actually”, I said, “I would prefer not to talk about Wendy behind her back like this”.

“What exactly is going on between the two of you that you don’t want me to know about?”

“Nothing. We’ve met a few times, we’ve talked – that’s it”.

“She’s told you all about me, no doubt?”

“I know that you went to jail for assaulting her”.

“The stories were exaggerated; she had a good lawyer”.

“Presumably the court had access to the relevant medical reports?”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line; I waited, listening to the sound of his breathing. Eventually he said, “I may not be allowed to see Colin, but I’m still his father, Tom. Don’t forget that”.

“Sorry, but what’s Colin got to do with this?”

“He seems to like you”.

“It’s always helpful when a pupil likes his teacher, and he’s in my tutor group too”.

“Right. So how long do you plan to keep your little secret from Wendy?”

“I think I’ll choose not to answer that one”.

“Why are you being so hostile?”

“I’m not being hostile at all; I just don’t want to talk with you about stuff that concerns her before I’ve had a chance to talk with her about it”.

“Sounds like you two are getting pretty cosy”.

I didn’t respond, letting the silence hang between us. Eventually he said, “Okay, I get the message. I’ll say goodbye, then”.

“Goodbye Mickey”.

I heard the click as he hung up. I put my own phone down, thought for a moment, and then got up and went downstairs to get myself a glass of water. I stood at the sink for a moment, staring at my reflection in the darkened window, and then I took my mobile phone from my pocket and called Owen.

“Fosters”.

“Hey, it’s me”.

“Tom; what’s up?”

“I just had a phone call from Mickey Kingsley”.

“Mickey? How on earth did he come to be phoning you?”

I gave him a summary of my conversation with Mickey; when I was finished, he said “Well, this changes things, doesn’t it?”

“I think so”.

“Are you afraid he’s going to talk to Lisa and Colin about you?”

“He’s always been volatile; there’s no knowing what he might or might not do”.

“Does this mean you’re going to tell Wendy what you know?”

“I think I have to; I’d hoped to leave it and let her decide when she wanted to tell me, but I don’t think that’ll work any more”.

“He hasn’t lost his talent for causing chaos, has he?”

“No”.

“Do you think he was warning you to keep your distance from Colin?”

“That was really weird; I honestly couldn’t figure out what he was getting at. As far as I know he’s had very little to do with Colin for the past six years; surely he’s not so insecure that he’d be threatened by a schoolteacher who has a good working relationship with his son?”

“I’d never presume to try to psychoanalyze Mickey Kingsley”.

“No – I know what you mean”.

“So you’re going to talk to Wendy?”

“I think so; I’m going to call her as soon as I get off the phone with you”.

“Okay; let me know how it goes”.

“I will”.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah – just a bit rattled, that’s all”.

“By Mickey?”

“He surprised me, and he seemed a little unbalanced”.

“There’s a reason Wendy’s got a restraining order to protect her and the kids”.

“No kidding”.

“Call the police if you feel you’re in danger, alright?”

“I don’t think it’s gone that far”.

“I know, I’m just saying – if it does…”

“I’ll be sensible – I promise”.

“Good”.

******

As I was on my way back upstairs the cordless phone started to ring again; I went back into the office, sat down at my desk and picked up the receiver; “Tom and Emma’s”.

“Tom, it’s Wendy”.

I guessed immediately that Mickey had called her as soon as he finished talking to me. “Hi; is everything okay?”

“I hear Mickey was talking to you”.

“Did he call you afterwards?”

“I’ve just got off the phone with him”.

“I thought he wasn’t supposed to have direct contact with you?”

“He’s not. He’s supposed to write or use e-mail with the children, and in an emergency he’s supposed to contact me through Rees, not directly like this”.

“Has he ever done this before?”

“One or twice. Now and again he likes to push the boundaries of the court order; it’s a power thing with him”.

“I see”.

“So you know about Lisa”.

“Yes”.

“Are you angry with me?”

“I was, but I’ve gotten over it. Would you like to get together to talk about it?”

“Yes – if you’ve got time”.

“Let’s do it tonight; this is important”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes”.

“Are you alone?”

I glanced at my watch; it was about seven forty-five. “I’m expecting Emma back from the hospital in about an hour”.

“Right – that doesn’t leave much time. Is there a place near you where we could meet?”

“Do you want to go up to the Red Lion for a pint?”

“That’ll work; see you there in about fifteen minutes?”

“Okay”.

******

The Red Lion was an old stone-built pub up in Old Marston, a three minute drive north of our place. A handful of customers were seated at the bar when Wendy and I walked in; we found ourselves a table in the corner and I left her there while I went to get drinks. When I returned I handed her a pint of cider and sat down opposite her; “Cheers”, I said, raising my glass to hers.

“Cheers”. She took a sip of her drink and put it down on the table; she opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again with an awkward frown.

“It’s all right”, I said gently.

She looked at me apprehensively; “Is it?”

“Yes”.

“How long have you known?”

“About six weeks”.

“How on earth did you find out?”

“I’ve got access to school records; they include birth dates”.

She frowned again; “Why would you go searching through Lisa’s school records?”

I shook my head; “I don’t know why I did it. It happened the night of her choir concert. I got home before Emma, and I was finishing off a few end of term things on my computer. I’d enjoyed my conversation with Lisa and I got curious, so I had a look at her records”.

“And that was when you found out I hadn’t told you the truth about when she was born”.

“Yes”.

“Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

“I was going to at first, but then I thought about it a little and I came to the conclusion that you obviously had a reason to want to keep it from me. So I decided to leave it to you to tell me the truth in your own time. And then Rick and Sarah had their accident and my dad got sick again, and we’ve been kind of busy since then”.

“So it wasn’t a power thing?”

I shook my head. “It really wasn’t. Believe me, that was the last thing on my mind. In fact it never even occurred to me ’til now”.

She looked away again, and for several minutes she said nothing. Behind me I could hear other people coming into the pub; someone greeted the bartender in a loud and cheerful voice, and he responded in the same way. In the background I heard the voice of Sting on the radio singing ‘How Fragile We Are’.

Eventually she looked up at me; “You must have been very upset”.

“I was at first, but like I said, I’ve gotten over it”. I smiled at her; “It must have been difficult for you to decide what to do when you found out you were pregnant”.

She took a sip of her cider, her eyes down. “Do you remember the last time we met before you went to Canada?”

“Yes; it was at Owen’s house the week before I left. I remember you were looking a bit under the weather than night”.

“I had a rotten cold, but I was worried, too; I’d already begun to suspect I might be pregnant. I wanted to take you aside and talk to you about it, but I also realized I had no right to assume we could be a couple. After all, I’d been pulling back from you; it would have been very shabby for me to ask for your help after I’d basically rejected you for the past few weeks”.

She looked up, and her eyes met mine. “Then you left for Canada, and about a week later I had a pregnancy test. So then I knew – I was pregnant, and I was going to have to find a way to deal with it”. She shook her head; “To be honest, I was completely overwhelmed. I’d had my future all planned out, and now this totally unexpected factor had come along and everything had changed. I felt totally inadequate. I knew women who’d raised children as single parents but I couldn’t begin to imagine doing that myself; I knew I had to find some help.

“I never even considered trying to end the pregnancy. I didn’t have any really strong religious convictions by then but I couldn’t bring myself to think of my unborn child as anything other than a human being, and I couldn’t imagine disposing of that human being for my own convenience. I thought about trying to get in touch with you in Canada, but I was afraid; I knew I’d turned you away and I thought you wouldn’t be able to get past that. And of course I knew what had just happened between you and your dad and I was pretty sure you wouldn’t want to come back to England. I knew you’d moved to a small town, far away from any university, and one thing I knew for certain was that I still wanted to do my doctorate. And anyway I couldn’t see myself moving to a strange country and starting all over again out there. So I decided against trying to contact you. But I still couldn’t imagine trying to bring up a child by myself, without any help; the thought of even attempting to do that was just too overwhelming to contemplate.

“So I had to find a solution that didn’t include you. My family – well, again, I knew I’d taken a different path from Dad and Mum. Not that they would ever have rejected me – I know that now – but at the time I had a rather superior attitude toward their simple-minded faith – that’s how I would have described it – and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for their help. And my brother had recently been ordained and he was going through a time when he was the most self-righteous pharisee on the planet!” We both laughed, and she continued, “Poor Rees! He’s been such a help to me since my marriage broke up and I’m sure I misjudged him in those days, just like I misjudged everyone else. But I really didn’t want to end up as an illustration in one of his sermons, so I decided Mickey was my only option”.

She shook her head. “I was so pathetically stupid”, she whispered, looking down at her half-empty glass. “I wanted to believe that Mickey and I could work things out, and I succeeded in convincing myself. He was living in London by then and I knew the city well; I knew I could study there, and get work too in a pinch. And after all, he and I had been a couple for seven years and it hadn’t all been grief; we’d had a lot of good times, and there was a lot of feeling for him left in me still.

“So I went to London and talked to him. I told him the absolute truth; I told him I was pregnant and you were the father, but you didn’t know anything about it. I told him you’d gone to Canada and I didn’t want to follow you there because I didn’t think you and I were a couple. I asked him if he would take us in – my unborn baby and me – and help me raise the child. I was honest with him – I told him I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, but I was in a tight corner and if he still wanted me, I was willing to give it a try again”.

She shook her head. “I find it hard to recognize myself when I look back on it now. What I was actually doing was throwing myself on him in exactly the shameless way that I refused to contemplate doing with you or my own family, and I couldn’t see how stupid I was being”.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself”, I said gently; “it was a tough situation and you didn’t have many options”.

“No, but I was brilliant enough to choose the worst one, wasn’t I?”

“How did he react?”

“He was angry when he heard that you and I had slept together. Of course, he hadn’t exactly been Mr. Purity himself since moving to London – denying himself an attractive roll in the hay wasn’t something he was ever very good at – but I didn’t know anything about that at the time. He shouted at me a bit – we were at his flat, not a public place – and for a while I started to think it wasn’t going to work out the way I wanted. When I left that night, he still hadn’t given me an answer.

“But deep down inside I was fairly sure he would say yes in the end. I knew instinctively that I had the winning card; I knew he still wanted me, and in the end his desire would overrule everything else. And of course I was right. It didn’t occur to me that basing the security of the rest of my life on Mickey’s lust was a rather risky policy; I can’t believe how short-sighted I was”.

“So eventually he agreed”.

“Yes. He rang me up a couple of days later and asked me to come back and talk again. He told me he still loved me and he was willing to take me in, but he insisted that we were going to tell the baby he was its father; you would never be mentioned or even hinted at. Well of course I had to agree to that; I didn’t really have a choice, and anyway I didn’t think you’d be coming back to England any time soon”.

“So that’s when you moved in together?”

“Yes, and I spent that autumn studying at UCL”.

“I had a letter from you at the end of September”.

She nodded, looking away again; “I remember every word of that letter”, she whispered. “I said that I might have led you on a little, and I was sorry if I’d misled you. It was a totally despicable letter; of course I’d led you on, and I’d given you every reason to believe there was something between us, despite all my talk about friendship and love not being compatible”. She shook her head, looking up at me with guilt in her eyes. “It was a shameful letter, Tom; I’ve felt bad about it for years. I’m very sorry”.

“It was a blow”, I said quietly, “but I got over it a long time ago”.

“I was paying the price for Mickey taking us in”, she said. “I knew I had to sever all connection between us, and between Owen and me as well. I couldn’t risk you finding out about the baby, not after what Mickey had said about wanting it to think he was the father”.

“I understand”.

She looked at me in silence for a moment, and then she whispered, “Thank you”.

I shook my head; “Carry on with the story”.

“Well, Lisa was born in February, and Mickey and I were married the following summer”.

“How did you get along?”

“Quite well at first; he was happy I’d come back to him. But of course the fact that I’d had to come and ask him to take me back appealed to his love of power, and it didn’t take long for me to notice that the dynamics were different in our relationship”.

“Oh?”

She frowned. “I ignored it at first; in fact I don’t think it became really clear until after we were married. But he was more directive with me; he seemed to like ordering me around more. He’d been directive when we first started going out as teenagers, but that was when I was the sheltered vicarage girl and he was the man of the world with a motor bike and a reputation, so it had seemed only natural for him to take the lead. Later on after we started playing and singing together our relationship became more equal, and he seemed comfortable with that. But after I went to London and we moved in together we seemed to revert back to our old style.

“Anyway, after Lisa was born I started to notice he was losing his temper with me more often. At first I didn’t think anything of it; I was rather strong-willed myself too, and we’d always had arguments. But after a couple of years he started to really shout at me and say demeaning and insulting things when he was angry. And then he hit me for the first time”.

She was silent for a minute, and I waited, knowing by the expression on her face that she was reliving the experience as she recounted it for me.

“It was during a reunion of friends from my undergraduate days at UCL. We went to a nice club, and one of the people who came was a guy who’d been an occasional study partner of mine. We shared a drink and caught up with each other, and we even danced a couple of numbers together. I never thought anything of it, and I certainly didn’t mean anything by it. But afterwards, when we got home, Mickey lost his temper and accused me of shaming him in front of our old friends. I got very angry with him; I told him it wasn’t my job to pander to his childish immaturity all the time. And that was when he hit me across the side of the face, completely without warning, with the palm of his hand.

“I can remember it as if it were yesterday. He hit me hard enough to bruise, but at first I didn’t notice the pain; I was too shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me; abuse was something that happened to other people. And then I cut that thought off – I told myself this wasn’t abuse, it was just a momentary lapse. We’d get over it.

“The next day he was profusely apologetic. He said he didn’t know what had got into him and he promised me it would never happen again. So we had an emotional reunion and we gushed over each other for several days. Of course, at the time I didn’t know this is a common cycle in abusive relationships: deterioration, abuse, repentance, round and round again. I lived in that cycle for the next twelve years”.

“I’m sorry Wendy; I didn’t mean for you to have to relive all this tonight”.

She looked at me and shook her head slowly. “No – I’m not sorry I’ve told you. And I need to add that even though it’s still painful for me to think about it, I’ve done a lot of healing since I moved to Oxford – especially since I’ve got to know Elaine at St. Michael and All Angels. She got the story out of me after a while, and she put me in touch with a group for survivors of abuse which was really, really helpful. And being away from London has been tremendously important for the children and me; for the most part we feel safe now. Rees calls regularly to check up on us; he’s turned out to be one of the truest friends I’ve had through the years, and of course I’ve got other friends at the college and in my church community. I’ve discovered I’m stronger than I thought I was, and I’ve realized that other people have pain too – lots of them worse pain than mine. I’m grateful for your concern, Tom, but please don’t think I spend a lot of time paralyzed by memories of the past. I don’t. I still get nightmares from time to time but I’ve learned how to deal with them; I get up, I make myself a cup of tea, I read a good book or pray the psalms, and eventually the fear passes and I can go back to sleep again. For the most part I’m coping well; I really am”.

I shook my head in admiration; “You’re a remarkable person”.

“No – really, I’m not. This sort of thing is common with survivors of abuse; I could introduce you to at least five or six people just in my small circle in the academic community who’ve been through the same thing, and have dealt with it in the same way. It’s not an uncommon story”.

“I still think it’s remarkable”. I pointed at her empty glass; “Would you like another one?”

“A two-pint night? Isn’t that a bit adventurous?” She shook her head; “I’d better not – not when I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’ll tell you what, though; if you ask for a pot of tea, I’ll help you drink it”.

“Okay; excuse me for just a minute”.

I got up and went across to order a pot of tea. The pub was fuller now; there were six or eight people standing or sitting at the bar and a few others seated around the tables. A couple of cigarettes were burning, and in the background an old Benny Goodman tune was playing on the radio.

When I returned to our table and sat down again I said, “So Lisa’s always assumed Mickey was her father?”

“Yes”.

“Did you put his name on the birth certificate?”

“Of course not; her birth certificate doesn’t list a father”.

“How did you explain that to her?”

“She didn’t actually see her birth certificate until a couple of years ago when she applied for a passport before going to Russia. I told her it had just been an oversight when she was born, because we hadn’t been married at the time. By then she already hated Mickey so much that she thought it was rather ironic and funny”.

“I notice she goes by ‘Howard’ now, not ‘Kingsley’”.

“Yes. Mickey had legally adopted her after we got married, so she went by ‘Kingsley’ when she was young, but when she turned sixteen she asked me if she could have her name changed to ‘Howard’ again”.

“Mickey didn’t put up any resistance?”

“He was in jail for assaulting us at the time”.

“Right”.

“Please tell me you’re not going to ask her to start going by ‘Masefield’ any time soon”.

I frowned; “Of course not – the last thing I want to do is barge into her life. I think it would be better to take things slowly, don’t you?”

She nodded; “Sorry, Tom; I shouldn’t have been so defensive”.

“Not at all”. I looked across at her; “You must have been nervous when you found out I was back in Oxford”.

“Yes – I got quite a shock when Colin first mentioned your name, but then I thought, ‘There must be lots of Masefields in England; it must be a coincidence’, and I put it out of my mind. But after you rang me – well, then I knew it really was you, and I knew I had a problem.

“I knew that sooner or later you’d want to meet me, and actually I wanted that too. But I was afraid about what would happen if you found out about Lisa. I tried to put myself in your shoes, finding out you’d had a child for over twenty years without being told about it; it was really hard for me to imagine you reacting in any other way but anger”.

At that moment the bartender appeared at our table; I smiled my thanks as he put the tea tray down. “Let me know if you need more hot water”, he said as he turned and went back to the bar.

Wendy took the lid off the teapot and stirred the bags around for a moment. “You probably noticed I tried to avoid meeting you again. It was hard, because I really did want to see you and talk to you, especially after we’d had that conversation at the school and I’d met Emma. But I couldn’t risk you finding out the truth about Lisa, so when you asked me about getting together I put you off”.

She poured milk into the bottom of the cups, filled them both with thick black tea and handed one of them to me. “I did my best to avoid you, but then after we’d had such a good time together playing music with Owen I realized I still liked you and I didn’t want to jeopardize any chance we might have of being friends again. So I continued to hide the truth from you; I was afraid that if you found out, our friendship would be over. I know it was wrong of me to do that, and I’m certainly not proud of what I did, but there it is”. She looked across at me; “I’m really sorry, Tom; please forgive me”.

“There’s really nothing for me to forgive; I’m just glad that we’ve finally been able to talk about it together”.

“So am I – really glad”. She smiled awkwardly at me. “Actually, I can’t tell you how relieved I am; I’ve been worrying about this for the past four months”.

I returned her smile; “Time to stop worrying”, I said softly.

“Thank you”.

I shook my head; “No need”.

She took a deep breath; “So, what are we going to do now?”

“Well – do you think Mickey’s going to talk to Lisa and Colin?”

“It’s impossible to predict what he’ll do, but I’d say it’s likely. I’m going to have to tell them, aren’t I, before they get it from him?”

“I think so”.

“What about you; who do you need to tell before the story comes out?”

“Emma first, then Becca”.

“Are you afraid of how Emma will respond?”

“A little. Owen thinks I’ve got nothing to fear; he thinks Emma and I have a strong enough relationship that we can get through this”.

“Owen knows?”

I nodded; “I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have told him, but he already knew about the night you and I spent together – I told him about it years ago, just a few weeks after it happened. We went out for a drink one night about a month before I left for Canada; I was feeling really down about things between you and me and I told him the whole story. And then six weeks ago when I first found out about Lisa I was kind of in shock, and I called him. I’m sorry, Wendy; I probably shouldn’t have done that”.

She shook her head; “It’s totally understandable”.

“Thank you”.

“Does anyone else know?”

“No”.

“So he was talking to you about Emma?”

“Yes; I told him I was afraid this news would break her heart but he disagreed. I’d like to be sure he’s right, but I have to admit I’m worried”.

“Of course you are; she’s very special to you”.

“Yeah, she’s – she’s all I’ve got left…” I stared into my teacup for a moment, then looked up at her and said, “What about you? Are you worried about how Lisa and Colin will take it?”

“I’m worried about how Lisa will take it. Not that there’s any love lost between her and Mickey but I’m sure she’ll quietly hold it against me as one more example of how I’ve failed to protect her. She’ll tell me that if I’d chosen to go to you instead of Mickey, she would never have had to go through that day when he assaulted her”.

“Would you rather I talked to her?”

She smiled at me. “Thanks, but I know I’ve got to do it. Can she talk to you afterwards if she wants to?”

“Of course. Are you going to tell her tonight?”

“I can’t really – she’s at her room in college. I’ll probably ring her and ask if we can have lunch tomorrow. What about you; will you talk to Emma tonight?”

“Probably, if she’s not too tired. She’s been working all day in her new job at Marston Court, and then she went in to see Dad and Sarah tonight”.

“I like Emma”.

“Thanks. I’ve enjoyed your two as well – not that I know Lisa very well”.

She frowned thoughtfully; “Would you mind if I told the rest of my family about you being Lisa’s father?”

“‘The rest of the family’ meaning…?”

“My mum and dad, and Rees and his family”.

“That would be fine”.

“Of course, after I do that, my mum and dad might want to meet you”.

“Do they ever get over this way?”

“Not very often, although Lisa’s birthday’s coming up in a couple of weeks”.

“Well, one way or the other I’ll look forward to meeting them”.

“Thanks Tom – I know you’re really busy right now”.

“That’s true, but this is important”. I glanced at my watch; “Well, I’d better get going if I’m going to talk to Emma tonight”.

“Right”.

I got to my feet and went to the bar to pay our bill, and then Wendy followed me out into the night air; a mist from the river was slowly rolling in, and I felt the chill in my bones as we walked across the parking lot to our cars.

“Thanks for coming out, Tom; I’m sorry if I put you behind on your schoolwork”.

“No – I’m really glad we talked about this stuff, even if Mickey backed us into it”.

“So am I”. She leaned forward and gave me a gentle hug. “Good night”.

“Good night. Call me when you’ve talked to Lisa”.

“I will”.

Link to Chapter 19

2018 Random Lent Thought #9: More About Prayer

Yesterday we explored a simple framework for a daily prayer time. This is a good starting place for people who have never done anything like that before.

But of course there’s always more that could be said, and I’m a preacher, so I always have more to say! Today I’d like to explore the words we use in prayer. It seems to me that there are three options, or three elements if you like.

First, we can pray using our own words. This is sometimes called ‘extemporary prayer’. I think of what the psalmist says in Psalm 62:8: ‘Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge’ (NIV). When we ‘pour out our hearts’ to someone we don’t tend to use special words or a polished presentation; we just speak words of heartfelt honesty. The ACTS outline I gave yesterday (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) can easily be filled in with this sort of prayer. This style of prayer is also very easy when we’re in desperate need or overflowing with thanksgiving!

But sometimes we find it hard to find words. Conversational prayer can be a bit weird when the other party seems reluctant to join in the conversation! And this is where the second option can help: we can pray using other people’s words.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. After all, a whole book of the Bible (the book of Psalms) appears to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to give us words to use in prayer when we can’t find words ourselves (and some of them are very gritty and honest words). Jesus also gave us the Lord’s Prayer, which we can legitimately use either as a prayer in its own right, or as a framework for our own prayers. In the catholic traditions, the daily offices have made heavy use of the psalms and other biblical prayers to give depth and structure to our prayer lives.

But sometimes we need to stop talking. So, thirdly, we can pray without words (which C.S. Lewis thought was the highest form of prayer, although he admitted that he was often not on ‘good enough form’ to manage it). In silent prayer we simply sit or kneel in the presence of God. We listen, but we don’t worry if we don’t hear anything (with our ears or our hearts). That’s not the point. The point is simply to be with God, in that deep intimacy where words are not necessary. It’s what the psalmist was talking about: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’ (Psalm 62:1 NRSV).

I suspect that most mature Christians use a combination of these three elements: our own words, other people’s words, no words. I suspect that we all have one we like best and one we like least. And I suspect that Lent is a good time to challenge ourselves to explore the one we like the least.

2018 Random Lent Thought #8: Prayer

‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’ (Mark 1:35 NIV).

One of the things we think about in Lent is prayer.

When I was a little boy I was taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer and other simple bedtime prayers. On Sunday we went to church and I joined in the liturgical prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. But I didn’t really have a personal prayer life.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen, and not long afterwards my dad gave me a little booklet called ‘Seven Minutes with God’ by Robert D. Foster (it’s now available as a PDF download on the Internet). It was written for beginners, and so Foster recommended starting with a short prayer period – five minutes might be too short, ten at first would be too long, but seven was a good compromise. He recommended doing this first thing in the morning, the beginning of the day, as a good time to tune into God’s presence – like Jesus getting up ‘very early in the morning’ and going out to a solitary place to pray.

The structure was simple:

Half a minute to prepare your heart, thanking God for the blessing of a night’s rest, asking God to cleanse your heart, open the scriptures to you and help you understand them.

Four minutes to read a short passage from the Bible, listening for a word from God for you.

Two and a half minutes to pray. The prayer should include (here are the old words Foster uses) Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS).

Adoration is worship. I would add – if you can’t find words for this, use a psalm as a prayer of worship. Psalm 150 is good, or Psalm 92 or 93, or (if you want to take a little longer) Psalm 104. A well-loved hymn or song of praise can also be a help (‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, ‘I Lift My Eyes Up’ etc.).

Confession is simply being honest with God about our sins – we have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbour as ourselves. Think back on the last twenty-four hours, call to mind specific failings, ask God for forgiveness, and thank him for his grace.

Thanksgiving comes next. Gratitude is a vital component of Christian living. Think of all the blessings (people, experiences, things, faith, community) you enjoy, and thank God for them.

Supplication is asking God for things. We pray for the needs of others, and our own needs too. Don’t be shy about this! You can also look ahead to what the day may hold and ask God’s help for any challenging situations you may be facing.

Foster doesn’t mention this, but very quickly in my own practice I got into the habit of concluding my prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer – it’s a good summary (and maybe correction!), and also ensures that I don’t leave out any of the important stuff!

This is a simple guide but I found it a great place to start! Gradually you’ll find the time grows (I find that now, nearly forty-six years after I started, I’m spending 30-35 minutes). But don’t rush to that; let the prayer time grow naturally, as you get used to it and begin to sense the benefits of it. You may also become more flexible about how you combine the various elements, what order you put them in, how you incorporate silence, and various other factors. That’s great! ‘Seven Minutes with God’ is not meant to be an inflexible structure – it’s meant to be a place to start.

I have absolutely no doubt that this ‘Morning Watch’ or ‘Quiet Time’ (to use two of the traditional names for it) has been by far the most important factor in my own Christian growth for the past forty-six years. I recommend it to you without reservation. and if you’ve never done it before, Lent is a good time to begin it.