Being in prison over Christmas is no fun, even for the staff. Please, if you're the praying kind, remember those in prison over the festive season and their families too. And, of course, remember also the victims of crime and their families.
I know there are days for this and weeks for that and years for the other, but this is a good one. Prisoners are by definition out of sight and out of mind - that's kind of the point of the whole system for society isn't it? But for all of us who call ourselves Christians, we're asked by God to love and pray for these guys (and gals) even if we are offended by their offences.
Sometimes I think I picked the wrong country to live in. Not that I picked it - I was born in it (I blame my parents) - but I suppose I didn't choose to leave it. I really love Scotland. Seriously. It's a beautiful country, very beautiful in fact. But (*whispers*) the weather isn't always wonderful, and it's not as sunny as I would ideally like.
This week we're having what we call an Indian summer though. It's late September but the weather is lovely by the standards of this time of year.
On Saturday I was with our church's Youth Fellowship group's outing to a funfair. I suppose the kids would have enjoyed themselves whatever the weather, but the sunshine was a real bonus for us all.
For some of the day I was on bag-and-coat-minding-duty, which involved sitting in the sunshine and people watching. I'm basically a very nosey person and people watching in the sunshine is not a chore.
One of the things I was thinking about during my time in the sun on Saturday was that sunshine really affects the mood of Scots. It really does. Some who read this blog live in sunnier climes where a lovely day is the norm and taken for granted. You may not be able to understand this fully, but in Scotland it is honestly the case that people are by and large nicer and smiley-er and happier when it's a sunny day. The converse of this is that a lot of people suffer in the darker gloomier winter months. There is a condition called SAD (seasonal affected disorder) which is widely recognised and you can buy special lamps which mimic sunlight to help you through the winter. Personally I often think it would be worth the investment for the government just to install these lightbulbs everywhere in shops and offices and "treat" the whole population for free.
On Saturday everyone was smiley and enjoying the autumn sunshine. So was I.
As I enjoyed the sunshine, and thought about the spirit-lifting effects of the sunlight, I began to be reminded of various Bible references to light.
All those thoughts about sunshine and light inevitably made me think of what light is contrasted against. The devil and his demons are seen in the Bible as dark forces. Sin is described as deeds done/hidden in darkness.
The very talented writer J K Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, introduced us to various chilling examples of baddies. Amongst the most horrible and creepy and chlling are the "Dementors".
This is how the character Remus Lupin explains the Dementors to Harry Potter:
" Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life".
I think this a powerful description of the effects of the influences of evil in the world. Evil - and as a Christian I believe that evil isn't just the opposite of good but is an actual living power at work in the world - is all about decay and despair and death. It's about sucking the life out of people until they are also soulless and evil.
When we're giving ourselves a check-up as Christians, and trying to assess where we're at exactly, one of the things we need to think about is whether we've got that sunny, life-enriching, positive, joyous, love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control attitude and way of being, or are we negative, life-draining, cold, Dementors, sucking the life out of other people.
I am thankful, incredibly so, that I am a prison chaplain. It is the most amazing job in the world, although it's a real old roller-coaster. I love the prisoners and the staff. I meet such interesting characters and their stories are fascinating, though sometimes harrowing to listen to.
What I have realised afresh is that I need to make sure I don't lose touch with the Light, so that I also (on a smaller scale) can be enabled by Jesus the Light of the World to be a light in the darkness that is prison.
I love working in prison, but it's a real old cess-pool of sin. Please pray for chaplains and Christian prison volunteers everywhere that we will be able to keep ourselves on track in our faith and be always ready, willing and available to love unconditionally. We're human beings just like the prisoners we work with. Without God we're no better than them and may be worse than many of them. Please pray that God will use us to be able to point folk in His direction... not just for the repair of physical ailments but for knowledge of and friendship with Jesus.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had the totally wonderful experience of seeing stalactites and stalagmites in a couple of caves in France. I've never forgotten it, though I was only a teenager at the time. I'd so love to have the wherewithal to take my kids to see them too.
This morning I was at our church's monthly prayer breakfast and was reminded afresh of that experience and at the same time thrilled by the wonderful parable/illustration that was given at the beginning of the meeting by the lovely Sandy, a (theoretically) retired minister who is a member of our church. Sandy and his wife Ruth, who are two of my favourite people by the way, have just come back from a holiday in Northern Ireland where they also visited caves and saw stalagmites and stalactites. They had also seen, as I did, that sometimes a pillar is formed when a stalactite and stalagmite join together.
(Incidentally, if you forget which is which, remember tights/tites come down and mites run up, but apologies for the bawdy tone suddenly introduced to this post). :)
Sandy spoke this morning of how both stalactites and stalagmites form. I've copied and pasted a bit from a website that explains it:
"These features are really very interesting. When the water level is lowered to a level below cave, the water entering the cave from above drips down through holes in the roofs. The Carbon Dioxide of the water is freed and the calcium carbonate dissolved in the water is deposited on the inside of the roof. The deposition starts forming in the shape and size of a ring. The ring continues to lengthen gradually. When the material of the water continues to deposit, the ring elongates down from the ceiling and hangs from the latter. The deposited material hanging from the ceiling are called stalactites. The drops which fall on the floors also deposit their calcium carbonate. The deposited material slowly develops upward. It has a small depression at its top. It is known as Stalagmite. Sometimes these two features meet each other thus forming a pillar. Such pillars are known as cavern pillars".
He then went on to draw out a powerful illustration from that which I for one found very helpful and challenging. Stalagmites don't grow upwards from sloping ground. The ground needs to retain the deposits and not let them drain or run away. For a pillar to be formed, there needs to be something from above and something from below.
In Scottish churches we have a phrase, "pillars of the kirk", which we use to describe certain folk in our congregations without whom we can't imagine we could carry on, people who live out their faith so fully and who can shoulder trust and responsibility in such a way that they become as key as actual pillars in a building.
Pillars don't just happen automatically, either in caves or in churches. There are certain prerequisites in both cases. In caves, these are as outlined above. In churches they are, Sandy suggested, kind of similar.
From above, there is what God sends us and gives us through Jesus' coming to earth to live and die for us, through the Bible, and through the Holy Spirit. From below, there is the need to retain the deposits and not let them run away.
I have rarely missed a Sunday service for the past 45 years. Don't be too impressed! My dad was my minister when I was a kid and missing church wasn't on offer - it was compulsory in our house. My husband is my minister now, and although I honestly do love it and genuinely don't want to miss it, there is definitely the added dis-incentive to taking a Sunday off that it might upset Him Indoors! Perfect, or nearly perfect, church attendance is one thing, but how many sermons I have retained is another. I'd really rather you didn't ask.
My stalagmite would have grown much more quickly had I retained more of what I had heard, and had I spent more of my time over the years in prayer and Bible study.
Sandy's illustration was a good reminder to work on that afresh.
Today I had a "senior moment" and put four or five gallons of petrol in my diesel car. Not the most sensible thing I've ever done. It happened on my way to work at a petrol station which is attached to a garage. The guys there said they were willing to drain the tank and refuel but that I would need to wait as they had pre-booked jobs to do first.
So I spent four hours in the car. It was pouring rain outside. I guess it's a sign of my advanced age but I now actually don't mind four hours doing nothing - in the past I'd have been going mad. I had a peaceful, prayerful time with Him Indoors's Bible and found a lovely prayer on a wee bit of paper in it, which I enjoyed meditating on. I'll post it separately. I had a wee sleep. I had a cup of coffee. I spent some time doing the puzzles in the newspaper. I didn't enjoy the bill so much. First of all, I'd spent £22 on inappropriate petrol which was drained and disposed of. Then of course I'd to buy more diesel and pay the guys for their time and effort. Loadsamoney. :(
One of the things that occurred to me during this episode was that, ever since someone else I know (I won't name him - let's just call him Him Indoors) did the same thing a few years ago, I've used this scenario as an illustration, in sermons and/or when talking to guys in prison. (I may have blogged about it once before but if I've forgotten then no doubt you have too). Now it isn't a secondhand experience. Now it's firsthand. It would be lovely to think there was a purpose in this afternoon, and that it will strengthen the authority of the illustration or something...
Let me share this illustration here.
There is absolutely no law at all against putting petrol into your diesel car. No one will arrest you and you won't be taken to court. If you want to put petrol in your diesel car every day, or five times a day, you can if you want! You are wholly free to do so.
On the other hand, of course there's a law against putting petrol into your diesel car. It's the law of consequences. If you put petrol in your diesel car (or diesel in your petrol car) there will be consequences. Either you will have to have the tank drained and refuelled, or you will drive it and damage the engine and have a repair bill to pay instead.
I have often used that as an illustration of God's purpose in giving us the rules that are in the Bible. Of course it's up to us whether we follow them or not, but there are consequences of breaking them.
People sometimes think that the Christian faith and Christians are all about telling you what you can and can't do. Not so. We are familiar with the saying on product labels, "For the best results, follow the manufacturer's instructions".
Our firstborn has recently received her standard grade results (in Scotland, standard grades are the national school exams sat in the fourth year of secondary school) and has now embarked on her higher grade year at school. Today all over England teenagers have received their "A" level results. All this affects whether the kids get into university and, if so, which one.
Prisoners in Scotland have the opportunity to work towards early release from prison, either "parole" or "home detention curfew".
Each month many of us have to work to earn our salary. If we don't appear at work, or don't do the job properly, we will lose our job.
Exams, parole, pay... we are all of us brought up in a mindset where we work for a reward. The Christian message, sometimes called the "gospel" is not like this. We cannot earn our way into heaven. We cannot earn our own salvation. We can do our best to keep all the rules in the Bible but (a) we'll not manage to achieve 100% and (b) God's not expecting us to achieve that.
The rules are there not to cramp our style and spoil our fun. The unwritten "rule" that I shouldn't put petrol in my diesel engine isn't there to cramp my style or to spoil my fun either; it's to save me a whole heap of trouble.
God's rules are there for exactly that reason too. The Christian faith isn't about rules; it's about making our lives, our families' lives, our friends' lives and society's life easier and freer and better.
If you're reading this and you've been put off Christianity by the thought that it's all about a whole lot of rules, please think again. It's SO not! It's about freedom! It's about the acknowledgement that we have no chance whatsoever of keeping all the rules and that we therefore need God's help. It's about realising that we've already broken so many rules that we're already done for... except that Jesus Christ has taken the punishment already. What Christianity is actually about is being loved. Unconditionally. It's about being forgiven. Completely. It's about being restored. Totally. It's about living. Abundantly.
Yeah there are rules but they're there for us to choose to follow... and for our own benefit! Just like choosing to put diesel into a diesel car (which I plan to do from now onwards).
I came across this statement today in an online debate which I was reading on the Scotsman newspaper's website: “In the extremely unlikely event of me appearing before God on judgement Day, with only an insincere apology required to save me from the flames ... I pray I would have the moral courage to spit in his face” - quote from “Col Blimp III”.
First of all, it reminded me of a prisoner saying almost the same thing to me. This guy was brought up in the church as a child but subsequently chose the path of violence instead (and has been in prison for a long time). He told me recently that, were Jesus himself to appear in front of him, he would refuse to bend the knee, because God (if there is one) is unquestionably a psychopath.
But secondly, the statement I read in the Scotsman online debate just made me squirm. I've been a Christian for a hundred years or so. I find this kind of statement now hits me like a literal slap in my own face. I obviously (well if it's not obvious, I'm sorry) acknowledge people's right to say these things. If they think it they may as well say it, because God knows their hearts anyway. I just cringe though when I hear folk say these things.
The prisoner I mention above says that the reason he hates God so much (although he's not sure if there is a God) is that God has the power to do good and save the world from the mess it is in but seems to choose not to. Another point of view (mine, and Jesus's) is that God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him will not die but have eternal life.
A while back I posted on "things not to say to prisoners". Today, for some reason, a connected memory came to mind. I think it was because I have a new mobile phone, which I'm trying to get to grips with, and I was thinking about ringtones. Anyway, in the Olden Days when I started as a prison chaplain I was allowed to take my mobile phone into the jail. Nowadays if I tried that I could end up in prison myself!
I remembered today about a time when I had my mobile phone in my handbag in the filing cabinet in my office. A prisoner was in the office with me, pouring out his many troubles to me, when my phone rang. I hurried to the filing cabinet to turn the ringtone off but the handbag in question was one of those with nine hundred different zipped compartments in it. Could I find the phone? No. Not until this whole ringtone had been played. Can you imagine ANYTHING less appropriate to be playing in the presence of a lonely, homesick guy who of course was not himself allowed to have a mobile phone. In my defence the only thing I can say is that it was my dear children rather than me who had set the bloomin' ringtone. "Oops!" was about all I could say...
Prince Philip is 90 years old tomorrow (happy birthday, sir - in case (highly unlikely obviously) you are reading this). Tonight BBC1 have been showing a program about him which I've seen a little bit of, and quite enjoyed. I think whether someone is royal or not, if they have lived for nine decades they merit our respect and their stories are almost automatically interesting. Fiona Bruce was the journalist with the tricky job of interviewing him for the program - and it was tricky. He's clearly the master of avoiding talking about himself, even though his childhood, for one thing, was so strange and difficult that it alone raises a lot of interest.
It's funny, but what I was mainly struck by whilst watching the program was that my emotional reaction to Prince Philip was the sort of warmth I would feel towards any elderly relative. But he is not a relative. I've never met him and don't expect to.
I am not particularly a royalist. Nor am I definitely anti-royalist. I am currently in an "undecided" category politically. Do I want Scottish independence? Don't know. I quite like Alex Salmond but would I like President Salmond? Don't know.
The warmth that I felt towards Prince Philip as I watched the bit of the program that I saw seems to me to be evidence that the royal family have, for many of us, become in our minds like our relatives. I don't watch soap operas (I'm sixth of six in line for the remote control in our house but I'm not sure I'd watch them anyway so don't weep for me) but I gather that people have the same feeling towards the soap characters.
It's interesting, this feeling. We become so familiar with characters on television and in the magazines that they become like our family members.
Isn't it strange that we can feel a family feeling towards people we've never even met?
Prisoners do not have access to the internet and many people think that this is just as it should be. The longer I work in jails, though, the more I think that, looking at the big picture, this is probably unhelpful.
There are good reasons for not allowing the prisoners access to the internet and I acknowledge that, but I believe the arguments on the other side should carry a greater weight.
Firstly, any "privilege" that is given to prisoners immediately and without fail generates negative headlines in the tabloids. Journalists and many of the public - and I do understand this - would complain that it is most unfair that those who have broken the law should get something paid for out of the public purse that the law-abiding struggle to afford.
Secondly, there is the danger of furnishing criminals with the ability and the opportunity to increase their criminal activity. There are two ways that this could happen.
1) A prisoner previously computer-illiterate who gains expertise on the internet and then manages to secure a mobile phone (these are illegal in jail but there is a trade in them and every now and then a mobile phone, a recharger, or a SIM card is found) could use his new-found communication skills for criminal purposes. Drug dealers can carry on lucrative business empires from within prison, for example. Prisoners on remand can intimidate witnesses. And so on.
2) A prisoner may use his new-found computer skills when he gets out of prison. Indeed he may go the whole way and develop an interest in computer crime. How is the prison to know why the prisoner is keen on participating in education? It could be (a) a soft option to get out of more physical work parties such as the cookhouse, (b) part of a grand plan for building the criminal career already embarked on, but it could also be (c) a genuine desire to get educated and (d) a determination to get a job and go straight on release.
There are arguments for allowing prisoners access to the internet and, as I say, they seem to me to outweigh the arguments on the other side.
The truth is that many prisoners (I suspect most) really want to keep out of trouble in the future. Many of them are highly motivated, and have worked very hard during their sentence. They have tried to address their offending behaviour and the reasons for it. They have fought and won (at least for now) their addiction battle. They have done what they could do repair their family relationships. But as the time draws near for release they are often apprehensive and feel unprepared. Or - perhaps worse - others don't feel unprepared but feel supremely and misguidedly confident that all will be straightforward when clearly it won't.
We who have not been out of circulation at Her Majesty's pleasure over the past years know that the internet is a huge part of modern life and can only imagine how handicapped we would be by having missed out on it all.
I suspect that even the most low-paid, ordinary, unglamorous job on the outside may involve you being able to send emails to your employer and receive them in return. Being unable to do so will have a real impact on your employability on release.
Prisoners' families will be internet-literate and this will add to the prisoners' feeling of distancing from them. Ex-prisoners who know about Google, for instance, will be able to help their kids with their homework projects, and prisoners who know about social networking will be able to know more about what their children are up to.
By no means all prisoners, even if they are highly motivated, will secure employment on release. They will be most likely be living on a very low income, perhaps just state benefits. The internet offers great ways to save money. I am currently expecting the delivery of a pair of curtains for my son's bedroom. I bought them on E-bay and although they are new and still in their packaging they are pre-owned and therefore I was able to buy them for well below half their value. Guys coming out of prison could do with knowing about such a thing.
Should prisoners have access to the internet? I would say that they should.
Certainly they shouldn't have limitless unsupervised access to the internet. I think we might feel irked by the idea that they were watching pornography for example, or that they were controlling their drugs empire, or bullying their partners. Schools, though, can set up restrictions and limitations to what the kids can access and the prisons could do likewise.
I'm not advocating they should get to blog, or use social networking sites or be posting comments on newspaper online sites, but I am arguing for basic internet familiarity, including emails, shopping for bargains, booking tickets, googling facts and so on to be a major part of the education program on offer in our prisons.
Whether you love or hate prisoners (fellow Christians reading this will know which God expects them to do) you should want to see them rehabilitated, if not for their sake then for the sake of potential future victims which could include you and yours. In the year 2011 I think we need to fact the fact that full reintegration back into society will for most involve familiarisation with the internet.
Of all the subjects discussed at the General Assembly last week, the one which has attracted the most interest from the media has been, inevitably, the one relating to sex. People sometimes wrongly accuse the church of being obsessed with the subject. I don't think this is at all fair, for two reasons:
(1) The Church does a HUGE amount of good work in communities all over Scotland and with vulnerable groups. It is really thrilling at the Assembly to hear the reports of all the work going on, and I am immensely proud to be part of an organisation doing so much for the disadvantaged and needy. Are the press interested in those things? Do they get reported? Not really, considering how much there is to admire. "Crossreach", the social care arm of the Church of Scotland does a lot of truly wonderful stuff. So does the "Guild" (formerly "Womens Guild"). So does the Department of World Mission, the HIV/Aids project, and so much else at a national level. On top of this, in every city, town and village all over Scotland, local congregations are doing a phenomenal amount of good in terms of social care and community projects. These things are done in the name of Jesus, and are all ways in which Christians communicate in very practical ways the unconditional love of God for everyone. It is not really our fault as a denomination if the media are not sufficiently interested in these activities.
(2) The main message of the Church is not a message about sex, or indeed about any other moral or legal or lifestyle issue. The main message of the Church, often called the Gospel (which means "good news") is this: God loves the world so much that, rather than allowing people to receive the punishment that their sins deserve (and make no mistake we are ALL sin-full), he allowed his own son, Jesus, to take the punishment for us on the cross. Jesus became a once-and-for-all sacrifice so that WHOEVER (including prisoners of course) believes in him will not die (though their body does) but have wonderful eternal life. In Prisonworld, prisoners will interpret the word "sin" to mean their index offence; I sometimes find myself at services in prison having to break the bad news that there's a lot more to their sin than their crimes. Jesus said, for example that the most important two commandments were to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour (our fellow human being) as much as we love ourselves. We ALL break them, and probably several times a day. We all need to hear the Gospel and our sex lives are marginal to that.
Having begun with that preamble I want to say something about the issue that has attracted the media attention because it IS an important one.
Should the Christian church have homosexuals among its leadership? This has been the subject of much debate.
The traditional point of view in my denomination and many others has been that (a) God loves every human being unconditionally, (b) God sees heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate place for sexual activity, (c) God loves heterosexuals, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transexuals equally, and (d) it is in no way a sin to be homosexual in orientation. In view of (a) to (d), therefore, ministers were traditionally expected to be either in a heterosexual marriage or else celibate.
Last week, the Church of Scotland General Assembly voted to consider the possible theological, ecclesiological and legal implications of moving away from this position towards allowing non-celibate gay people to become clergy.
What do I think of this?
To be honest, I am very sad. This will probably shock my many LGBT friends and relatives because, I trust, you always have found (and I promise always will find) me to be unconditionally accepting of you. I love you as much as I did. I love you unconditionally. However, I also love the Lord.
When I read the Bible it is abundantly clear to me that, whatever I personally may feel, GOD himself disapproves of homosexual practice (as well as heterosexual sin such as adultery etc too of course). So what I think is irrelevant. I'm a sinner myself, as all who know me will testify. Therefore I am a poor judge of what is sin and what isn't. Just because something doesn't particuarly offend me doesn't mean it's not a sin. God is holy. God made the world. Wee boys playing football will sometimes claim "It's my ball" and that will give them extra say in what the rules are. The world, shaped like a ball, is God's ball and he makes the rules. We don't need to love them immediately but need to accept them and work towards understanding why God wants things that way.
The debate at the General Assembly a week ago today resulted in a decision to move in a "trajectory" in the direction of allowing practising homosexuals to be ministers. This is against the will of the membership as surveyed by a Special Commission questionnaire. This is against the will of the majority of the worldwide church with whom we do want to retain a real sense of unity. But more importantly it is clearly against Scripture.
It is this departure from Scripture that is really what upsets many of us. I cannot begin to put into words how grieved I am that people genuinely think that people in my position are homophobic. That is SO not true. For a living, I love people in spite of their lifestyles. For the avoidance of doubt let me be clear that I am not comparing homosexual behaviour with a life of crime. My point is that I love people in spite of their lifestyles. If I love the criminal then obviously I love the non-criminal. I know my heart and I know that I love everyone unconditionally and that clearly and definitely includes my LGBT friends and family. My greatest fear, indeed, in posting this blog (which has been a decision reached after a lot of thought) is that you guys will be hurt and misunderstand where I am coming from as a rejection of you.
I'm aware that some readers may want to say, "But, AnneDroid, are you saying that only ministers who are without sin at all can be ministers?" No! Of course I'm not saying that. No one is without sin, least of all me. Ministers are human. However, there is a higher standard expected of them than of others and that is just the way it is. Were I to carry on a series of extra-marital affairs (I'm not planning to - I like what I've got) I would not have committed an offence against the law of the land but I would expect the church to take a negative view of it. Even the least observant among you wouldn't need to look at me long to be suspicious that I am guilty of the sin of gluttony. I am, and I fight it with varying degrees of earnestness, but what I wouldn't ever do is try to persuade others that gluttony was not a sin but in fact a great blessing. That's an important distinction.
Some of my fellow clergy who share my understanding of God's will have already decided to leave the Church of Scotland. Others are still thinking they may well do so. I'm not going anywhere. My dad, his brother, my mum's uncle and his uncle before him were CofS ministers. Perhaps that's got something to do with my desire to stay, I don't know. But I don't feel God's leading to leave. Nor does Him Indoors. So we're staying.
This week I've been commuting to Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, which is our annual week-long business meeting (with breaks to eat and sleep of course). A quarter of the denomination's ministers attend each year, and this is my third assembly in the thirteen years since I was ordained, since I had a bit of time off for childbearing/childrearing/good behaviour.
Him Indoors, who is also a minister (not in Prisonworld but in a local church congregation) has also been attending this year. It's been really lovely to be there together. After nearly eighteen years of marriage I still quite like being with him... which is good. :)
One of the lovely things about the General Assembly is that you get to see friends you haven't seen for a while. That's important as well as what happens in the actual debating chamber. We all need fellowship and encouragement. I love my (biological) brother (and my lovely brothers and sisters in law) very much but it's a wonderful thing as a Christian to be part of a worldwide family in which every Christian one meets is "a brother from another mother" and "a sister from another mister". I've been a Christian so long that I can't remember anything else, but my hunch is that those who're not Christians just can't begin to imagine this brotherliness/sisterliness feeling. It's great, and I've enjoyed that aspect of this week very much.
As to what's happened in the actual debates, that's important and I'll come back to it in the next couple of days, but meantime I just want to give thanks to God for the encouragement it's been to see friends I haven't seen for ages, and also that I've made a bunch of new friends too. By tomorrow that may include the waiters and waitresses of JimmyChungs at Waverley who have benefitted a lot from the presence of some of us this week!
Recently at work it was my turn for my regular refresher self-defence training. I hope I never need it but it's good to be prepared.
In the middle of us all throwing each other about the gym I was suddenly struck by a funny thought. I was distracted at one point by thinking about a bereaved prisoner that I should go and see, and remembering how tearful he had been when I last saw him. That made me think that I should really get some more paper hankies as the box was empty. Neither of those were the funny thoughts (obviously).
What made me smile was the idea that I routinely need to buy paper hankies as one of the tools of my trade (along with teabags etc) and so the conclusion from that could be that perhaps I cause the guys to cry (by offering sympathy, love, prayers, etc) at a greater rate than anyone else in the prison. In other words, there I am, day by day, with some of the so-called "Scotland's Toughest" and I'm the one who brings on tears the most!
The day after I realised my handkerchief supply had run out, I was listening to another tearful prisoner. He was really crying and, to be blunt, his nose was producing a lot of output too. He badly needed a tissue but the only thing I had to give him was a (fresh) wiping up cloth like the one in the picture!
Long time no blog, but think I will get it up and running again. Limited though my knowledge and understanding of Prisonworld is, I'm in there and I'm listening and learning every day. Most people in the world are not prisoners/prison staff/families of prisoners, and the big high wall with the barbed wire inevitably means that it is hard for the public to know what it's like in jail, especially given the Total Pile of Crap the tabloids feel free to print on the subject!
What's been happening recently?
Lots that I can't mention, as usual. But some thought-provoking stuff including:
1) reflections with chaplaincy colleagues from other jails about just what a weird environment we work in as ministers and how vitally important it is for us to support each other in prayer. I am the first to admit I am a sinner, albeit I know that God is at work in me sorting out the mess, but I still recognise that working full time in prison is to be a lot of the time in a real old cesspit of sin and the metaphorical stench can get to you after a bit.
2) the challenge of working as clergy and civil servants at the same time - trying to serve two masters - which of course the Bible says is impossible! I am a minister and I am an employee of the Scottish Prison Service. It's a struggle I believe is well worth the effort, but it is an effort sometimes. There is the constant danger of failing one side or the other of our twofold purpose.
3) the difficulty of having to watch what one says. In the Olden Days, it was often said that prisoners would fake religious conversion in order to improve their chances of parole. This may seem a ridiculous thing to say, but I do believe that one of the results of the secularisation of our society is that things have almost gone the opposite direction. I sometimes think that if a prisoner mentions his religious experiences, some staff are more likely to send him for a mental health check up than they are to be in some way impressed. Therefore, I suspect that we as chaplains also have to be careful in case we say things that, whilst totally acceptable in our churches, will be misinterpreted in Prisonworld. Here is an example - and let me be clear that I didn't say the thing that I wanted to. I was speaking to a prisoner I have got to know well whose victim was his child who died as a result of the crime. He is sorry about it and I have tried to be a support to him. He is unsure whether he believes in God or not, as are lots of people of course. On one occasion he announced very firmly that were the Lord to appear in front of him, that far from worshipping him, he would kick him in the b***s. What I would like to ask him, but think I can't is this: "I believe your child is in heaven. Wouldn't you like the chance to go there one day to be with that child whom you loved and to be able to say sorry?" If it were to be reported that I'd said that, though, what would happen? I don't know. Would I be disciplined? Possibly. In Churchworld that would be a perfectly reasonable question to explore.
4) Some of you may have heard that Rev David Wilkerson died recently following a car accident. His amazing book "The Cross and the Switchblade" (the first edition of which came out two years before I was born) was a favourite of mine when I was young. So was "Run Baby Run" by Nicky Cruz who appears in the former book. The news of David Wilkerson's death caused me to re-read these two books. I have found myself as stirred by them as I ever was, and would very much recommend them to anyone who's not read them yet. When I read these books the first time round, as a teenager, it never crossed my mind that I would end up working with people whose lives sometimes have sad similarities to those whom David Wilkerson was called to minister to.
5) The political landscape in Scotland and the UK has changed with last week's election. Dramatically and radically changed. It's exciting to feel like a part of history. I really do feel for those who have unexpectedly lost their seat after years of faithful service to their constituents but I also feel excited for the new recruits, some of whom did not expect to win and have suddenly had to resign from their jobs and make new plans. Although the Scottish National Party landslide was in the Scottish election, the consequences will be felt at Westminster too. Labour's strength in the British government has always been supported by the large number of labour seats in Scotland. Not so now.
6) The Church of Scotland, the protestant and presbyterian denomination I happen to belong to (although I'm really not a denominationalist by nature, just as I'm not party-political) has its General Assembly later this month. I am a commissioner. For those who don't know what I'm on about, the General Assembly is the Church of Scotland's annual business meeting. It lasts for a whole week. There are too many of us all to attend at once, so each minister and for each minister, one elder, serve on average once every four years. This year myself and Him Indoors, who is also a minister, are on duty as commissioners. One of the big issues which the media will be particularly interested in is the debate on whether or not practising homosexual clergy should be allowed to be ordained as ministers in the Church of Scotland. I can't say any more about that because a previous Assembly agreed that there would be a moratorium on public comment on the issue. I believe that has been a great blessing, as otherwise those on each side of the debate would be liable to fall prey to the temptation to air their opinions on the subject via the media which would soon descend into an unedifying spectacle.
7) Above all, my recent reflections have led me to realise that what I most need to be having in my life is the power of the Holy Spirit, and what I most need to be doing is seeking the Lord more fervently in prayer.
This is a photo of Mary Gardner of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Her picture was on the front page of newspapers today because Mary was the victim of a bus bomb attack in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
It was my privilege to know Mary many years ago, at a time when I was considering whether I might become a Bible translator myself. Mary, at that stage, was just finishing her training and getting ready to go overseas to Togo, to begin translating the New Testament for the Ife people.
This was accomplished. Bible translation is a slow and laborious process but the Ife people got the New Testament in their own language in 2009.
Mary never married and had no children. She poured out the prime years of her life in the work she felt that God had called her to. Rather than rest on her laurels after translating the New Testament for the Ife people, she was then studying Hebrew in Jerusalem in order to continue on to the Old Testament. I remember her as a very gentle, soft-spoken, lovely young woman.
As it says on the Wycliffe website: "Worldwide there are over 300 million people who do not have access to the story of God's love for his people - the story of the Bible - in the language that they understand the best, their 'heart' language".
However, there are many dedicated people like Mary all over the world working to make sure that the Bible will be available in all languages. Today, I'm sure, many of them will be thinking of Mary's elderly parents, her siblings, her colleagues and the Ife people in their grief.
Many hundreds of years ago, when I was young and had yet to get involved with he who is now Him Indoors, I wanted to be a missionary.
To be honest, the first job I ever aspired to as a child was to be a bin lady. Note: bin lady not bin woman - I have standards. That was because I was fascinated (and still am, if you want to know) by bin lorries, or dust carts if you're from the other side of the pond. I love how they mash up the litter.
However, I soon changed ambition to being a missionary. I grew up near the David Livingstone memorial in Blantyre. While my contemporaries were idolising the Bay City Rollers, I was captivated by the story of David Livingstone. I had a book called "The Great Explorers" in which one of the chapters was about Dr Livingstone. One of the things that remained in my childish imagination was a picture (not, but not unlike, the one above) illustrating the assertion that David Livingstone died while in prayer.
When I left school I began studying medicine at university, and read more and more about being a missionary. However, my medical career was very short-lived and after two years at university I knew it wasn't for me. To tell the truth I'm so squeamish I couldn't even now watch a whole episode of Casualty. When I go to give blood I struggle even with the pin prick thing they do on your thumb to check you're not anaemic.
The missionary thing wasn't out of my system, though. A few years later, I became very interested in Wycliffe Bible Translators. In fact I completed some of the application process to become a translator and although in the end it wasn't God's plan for me I still take an interest in their work. Today I came across this fascinating gem in their prayer diary:
"Getting the Right Word.
Translators want to get the right word out! So they must ask the right question. For example, in order to translate “carry one another’s burdens”, the Koma translators in Ghana had to choose between mili (carry on the back), dogi (carry on the hip), vigi (carry on the shoulder) and chii (carry on the head)! So which word did they use? (Hint: What do Koma people carry where?). Please pray for translators who have to make difficult word choices to convey the right meaning.
Answer: Babies are carried on the back, toddlers on the hip; tools on the shoulder, and heavier items like water pots on the head. So they used chii".
This year is the 400th of the publication of the King James Bible in English - for a long time the most common English translation of the Bible. Whilst it remains popular, many of us now use a more modern translation. I like many of the modern translations, including the New Living Translation, the New International Version, the Good News Bible and others. Yet there are many peoples around the world who don't have a choice of translation as we do. Many don't even have one book of the Bible in their own language.
As we English-speakers mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible this year, let's remember and perhaps even give some of our money, or our prayers, in support of the efforts of Wycliffe Bible Translators and others to make sure that the good news gets to "the ends of the earth".
Luke 21:1-4 says,"While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.”
I happened to read these verses at tea-time in the prison tonight and was thinking about them an hour later when I was listening to a conversation between two prisoners. One of them was asking the other to help him write a C.V. for him to apply for a job on release. He admitted that he had never had a job in his life before (he's not particularly young but has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager). The guy he was asking to help him pointed out that there were lots of things he'd done in prison that he could mention in his C.V. and promised they would work on it together tomorrow.
I couldn't help making connections between my Bible reading and that conversation. Earlier in the day I was at a 4-hour long meeting at which I'd been marvelling at the intellect and gifts of many of the attendees.
(When I was a wee girl, I used to think it must be great to go to a "meeting". I wasn't very sure what a meeting was, but I wished that I could go to one. Now at the grand old age of 21... well okay, 45... I have been to lots of meetings and am considerably less enthusiastic!)
However, my experience of meetings, my experience of people and my experience of church has led me to the conclusion that it isn't what gifts you've been given that matters, it's what you do with them. The meeting I attended earlier today caused me to marvel at the combination of great gifts from God together with a commitment to serving Him. Wonderful!
A meeting I attended recently (in a different venue) was very different and caused me to reflect less cheerfully on the combination of great gifts and talents together with a lack of respect for God's ways. Not good!
The prisoner who wants to compile a C.V. may not have much to put in it with which to impress a secular human employer. The widow who put her couple of coins in the collection plate, however, apparently didn't have much to put in it to impress Jesus, yet she did impress Him. The important thing in the Christian life isn't how many qualifications and assets we have. The important thing is how willing we are to give God what we have.
God's far less interested in our ABILITY than He is interested in our AVAILABILITY.
1 Corinthians 1:27 says, "Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful."