Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Integrity, Justice, Wisdom and Compassion.

I learned tonight that the ceremonial mace used in the Scottish Parliament bears the words "integrity, justice, wisdom and compassion", these presumably being the values that it is hoped will be manifest in all Holyrood's debates and doings.  I've never given any thought to the mace but found that interesting.  What great values to aspire to - not just for politicians but for all of us in every area of our lives!  Wouldn't Scotland be wonderful if we were all integrity-filled, just, wise and compassionate?

Monday, 10 March 2014

Tartan Clerical Shirt? A Follow-Up Post.

Following my last post I got an email from a retired colleague.  It was (a) nice to hear from him, (b) interesting to think someone is actually reading this blog, and (c) amazing to me to hear from him that my employer actually has a tartan.  I didn't know that.

Now as someone who mostly dresses in exotic labels such as Tesco and Asda, I'm not seriously thinking of having a bespoke clerical shirt (tartan) specially designed for me, but clearly if I was then SPS tartan would be the way to go.  In fact it could be made compulsory for all Scottish prison chaplains.  Or not!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

To Tartanise or Not to Tartanise - That is One of the Questions.

Last week, as I mentioned here, I decided that I'm going to wear a clerical shirt ("dog collar") one out of five days at work for a trial period, rather than not at all, to see what difference if any it makes - positive or negative.  

So I was interested to discover that it's possible to get a tartan clerical shirt (this is the men's version but they do them for girl ministers too apparently).  They're possibly on the cheesy side yet I find I'm quite tempted.  But maybe it would be taken as a political statement in this year of the big old Independence Referendum and I suppose chaplains shouldn't make their political allegiances clear since we're to be all things to all men.  I'm still undecided about which way to vote anyway, incidentally.  And now I'm undecided about tartan clerical shirts too.  Things are getting more complicated rather than clearer!

Monday, 3 March 2014

HMP & YOI Grampian

Today the new prison in Peterhead, HMP and YOI Grampian took its first prisoners.  They'll build up gradually over the next few weeks to full capacity rather than taking them all in one go.  I had a tour of the prison a few weeks ago.  It was very odd to be in a prison with staff but no prisoners!  In 2007 I visited one of its predecessors, HMP Peterhead, which along with HMP Aberdeen is now closed.  The Grampian prison has been built next door to the old and delapidated Peterhead jail, is a great improvement and much more fit for purpose.  It's not just a new building though.  HMP Peterhead was a specialist prison dealing with one category of prisoner.  HMP and YOI Grampian will take all categories but be postcode based, taking prisoners from the north-east of Scotland.  Statistics show that desistance from crime is more likely where there is a supportive family, so it's good to have prisons not too far from home so that prisoners' families (who're often struggling financially and in other ways) have shorter journeys to make in order to visit.  The visits will help maintain the relationships within the family and make reintegration into the family unit on release a bit easier.  It would be great if we didn't need any prisons so today probably isn't a day for celebration exactly, but it's a significant day and I hope that all goes well as staff and prisoners alike settle in. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Restorative justice? ;)

I'm interested in restorative justice and including victims in the justice process. This is a different reason why victims might want to meet offenders...

A man goes to the police station wanting to speak to the burglar who broke into his house the night before. 'That's not appropriate," he is told. "You can make a witness impact statement in court. That's the proper way to make your point.

'But I don't want to make a point, I just want to ask his advice,' says the man.
'I want to know how he got into our house in the middle of the night without waking my wife. I've been trying to do that for years!'

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Should I Wear a Clerical Collar?

In this country, the majority of Christian prison chaplains of both Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions do not routinely wear the "dog collar" at work.  I pretty much only wear mine if I'm to be involved in a memorial service or, as I did recently, I'm conducting a wedding.

I think the reason most of us opt for "civvies" is a good one.  We are employed not by the churches but by the prison service and we are employed (1) to perform religious functions such as worship services but also (2) to offer our support and encouragement to those of all faiths and none.  The latter forms the bulk of our working week actually as most prisoners are not practising Christians.  It is important to be as approachable as possible and to make it as clear as we possibly can that although, yes, we are the God Squad, we are also a resource that is available to everyone.  Probably we all instinctively feel that wearing the clerical collar might make it harder to get that important message across.  We don't want unnecessary barriers getting in the way of what we do.

However, no matter how many times we explain in all sincerity to staff and prisoners alike that we are there to offer generic support to all, there is a sense in which the fact we are members of the clergy is still there.  And maybe we try to squash it down when there's no need to do so.  Even people who wouldn't describe themselves as practising Christians may have the remains or the beginnings of a faith.  They may not really want us to be just like any other generic counsellor but to bring our sense of the numinous to the table, to have hope in God on their behalf until they can have it themselves.

As an experiment, I'm going to start wearing my clerical collar one random day per week.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Ask a Silly Question...

Prisoners may spend the latter part of their sentence in open conditions where (under licence) they are able to come and go from the prison somewhat - home for short breaks to reestablish family relationships, for instance, or out to work placements to practise for holding down a job, or even to the supermarket to get used to budgeting and shopping again.

For some trips they may be taken by prison transport and for others they will use public transport.  To facilitate the use of public transport they are given a travel warrant, a voucher that they can pay with.  Of course this has the unfortunate effect of making them stand out a bit and railway or bus service staff may be curious about them.  Some prisoners are quite blase about their status and don't care who knows while others are more self-conscious.

A prisoner told me yesterday that he'd been on a bus the other day and the driver, when presented with the warrant, said, "Oh are you a prisoner.  What are you in for?" to which he immediately gave the reply, "I'm in for murdering nosey bus drivers"!  What a good answer.  :)

(P.S.  This is not a photo of the bus driver in question of course.  It's the former "Spencer" of the kids television show Balamory.  The actor, Rodd Christiansen, became a bus driver in Scotland for a bit after the series was finished, until moving back to his native USA.  Before Balamory, Rodd did some work with Scripture Union Scotland and my husband worked alongside him a couple of times.  So when I was thinking a picture of a bus driver would be an appropriate accompaniment to this wee post I knew whose name to enter on Google...)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Time Passes.

I started blogging to try to raise awareness of prisons and prisoners among any folk who cared to read my posts.  Then I kept blogging because as well as that I was enjoying reading other people's blogs and felt like part of a community, whilst still hoping to do the aforementioned awareness raising.

But then I got caught up with other types of social networking and abandoned the blogging.  It seemed that I could interact with a much bigger number of people through, for instance, Facebook.

This evening, however, just for something to do, I started reading my blog posts from 2008.  In doing so, I realised that a blog can be at least as much for the writer himself/herself to read as for anyone else.  I've reconnected tonight with family events and thoughts about prison ministry from six years ago, and it's been very interesting for me.

So, even if no one other than me ever reads this blog ever again, I'm going to restart it as a journal that I can use myself to look back on.  And should they want to, my family might one day look at it when I'm gone!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Prisoners Week

Somehow a whole year has gone by and we are at Prisoners Week again, or Prisons Week if you're in Englandshire.  Here is the link to the Prisoners Week Scotland website if you want to know more.  Credit to Jon Birch, the artist behind the cartoon.

If you are a prisoner, every week is prisoners week.  The purpose of it is really for those outside, especially for folk in Churchworld.  It is all about reminding people about the otherwise out of sight and out of mind (the whole point of those big walls) because Jesus told us that one of the questions at judgement Day will relate to prisoners - see Matthew 25: 31-46.  And elsewhere (Hebrews 13:3) we're told we've to remember those in prison as if we were in prison ourselves.

Lots of people hate prisoners.  I know this because I am sufficiently obsessed with my job that I read a lot of newspaper articles online, and the comments left by Joe Public.  Sometimes I argue back but mostly I just observe.  Lots of keyboard warriors will insist at length or more often bluntly and rudely that prison should be far harder than it is and that we should throw away the key.  And so on.

I would argue that (a) even if you do hate prisoners, you should want time and money spent on rehabilitation in order to prevent you and yours becoming future victims, and (b) if you're a Christian you're not allowed to hate them because you're not allowed to hate anyone and you've to love them because you've to love everyone.

Christians who read this might like to adopt our official Prisoners Week prayer.  Say it every day this week if you can, but if not please say it and mean it once.  Thank you SO much.

The Prisoners Week Prayer:
Lord, you offer freedom to all people.
We pray for those who are held in prison.
Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist.
Support with your love: prisoners, their families and friends,
prison staff, chaplains and all who care.
Heal those who have been wounded by the activities of others,
especially the victims of crime.
Help us to forgive one another, to act justly, to love mercy,
and walk humbly together with Christ
in his strength and in his Spirit,
now and every day. Amen.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


My prison service employers periodically ask us, their employees, to complete an anonymous questionnaire.  It's good that we're given the opportunity to express our tuppence worth about the organisation and I always make a point of filling it in.  To me, it's the same principle as we bear in mind when general elections come around.  The vote for women was hard won and it would be disrespectful to suffragettes for me not to vote.  Likewise, employees should be grateful that their opinions are sought (and hopeful that they will be listened to).

However, I admit I wonder how anneonymous it really is.  We have to enter a code which indicates which prison we work in.  Fair enough.  But later in the questionnaire we're asked what area of the prison we work in and what gender we are.  I work in a chaplaincy team of two.  My Roman Catholic priest colleague is a man (obviously).  So if I say I am in the chaplaincy team at my prison and I am female, just how anneonymous am I being?

I'm not worried, by the way.  I'm just amused.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Prison Service, Military Service and Remembering.

The percentage of ex-forces prisoners in Scotland is on the rise.  It is the same in other parts of the UK.  Probably the rise is partly to do with the difficulty former soldiers often find in settling back into Civvy Street, especially those soldiers who've been traumatised by what they've seen, heard and done in warzones.
There are charities who seek to help former service men and women and some, such as Help for Heroes, have gained a lot of support, which is good.  On the other hand it is surely the case that since we the country sent these people to war on our behalf, we the country should pay for any help they need when they come home.  It doesn't seem right to leave charities to fill the gap.
Quoting from here
"Veterans in Custody.
In response to public and parliamentary interest in the increasing number of prisoners identified as 'ex-forces', the SPS carried out a survey of military veterans across all 15 establishments to better understand the numbers involved and give these individuals the opportunity to comment on a range of issues that impact on their experiences in prison. Subsequently, each establishment across the SPS estate now has a Veterans in Custody Support Officer (VICSO).
From January 2011 to December 2011 the number of prisoners identified as Ex- Forces rose from 103 in January to 168 in December. This however may not be a true reflection of the exact numbers as for a prisoner to be identified he has to "self-report" either on initial admission to an establishment or making it be known during his sentence.
Each establishment across the SPS estate now has a Veterans in Custody Support Officer (VICSO). Ideally this is a nominated member of staff who has personally served in the Armed Forces. They will be better suited to the role as they will be fully aware of the terms and information being talked about, as well as having a working knowledge of the Armed Forces.
The main aim of the VICSO is to identify Ex-Armed Forces offenders at the earliest opportunity and then refer or signpost them onto community based Ex- Forces organisations. The VICSO works alongside and contributes to Offender Management as well as acting as a liaison between the offender and his Personal Officer and supervisors in the establishment.
Many of the Ex-Forces that are currently in the system were unaware of any support network or the fact that the Veterans in Custody Programme existed. On leaving the Armed Forces many of them felt on their own and not sure if there was any help they could access. From personal experience the resettlement phase of leaving the Forces can be a daunting and stressful time. Every effort is made to make personnel leaving the Armed Forces aware that there is an infrastructure in place and that the organisations are more than happy to offer help and support.
The community based organisations we work alongside are the Royal British Legion, Poppy Scotland, SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association), SPVA (Service Personnel and Veterans Agency), Combat Stress and RFEA (Regular Forces Employment Association).  With many of the organisations mainly basing their help for the offender themselves, it is clear that the families also require assistance from time to time. Frontline Families is there for the families of Ex-Forces, and has been a huge help and gives the families a chance to talk to someone.
The organisations can offer help and support in many ways. They can help with financial as well as emotional support. Our first port of call with any referral of an Ex-Forces member serving a prison sentence is to SSAFA. They are best placed to offer support and much needed guidance. They are also ideally suited to obtain information about military records and information from the offender's parent unit whilst they were serving.
With the number of Ex-Forces increasing it is safe to say this is an issue that is not going to go away, and with all agencies working together we can help to provide support and guidance to the current prison population that have served in the Armed Forces."
That's the background to the story I want to share in this blog post. 
At the prison where I work, there are quite a number of ex forces people both on the staff side and the prisoner side.  Over the last couple of years, at Armistice, we have had a short Act of Remembrance which has been well attended by prisoners and staff alike.  These are always moving occasions - anywhere - but particularly so, I find, in Prisonworld.  It is just about the only time when the normal "them and us" between officers and prisoners/ "screws" and "cons" is suspended and we meet just as human beings.
Over the summer, a group of prisoners (mostly ex-forces), under the leadership of an ex-forces officer, and with some kind donations from wellwishers such as the Royal British Legion Scotland, have created on a patch of waste ground a beautiful memorial garden.  Half of the garden is focussed on a new war memorial designed and built by the prisoners.  The other half is a more general sort of memorial garden which is for people to remember anyone who they have lost through any kind of bereavement, not just through war.
It has now been dedicated and opened for use.  It is going to be a great resource to the prison.  The prisoners now have a quiet area to go and be calm, and to think and reflect.  We now also have a focal point for our Act of Remembrance on Armistice Day allowing us all (whether ex-forces or not) to take time out to think seriously of the horrific cost of war and remember those who lost their lives fighting in wars past and present.

Friday, 28 September 2012

God as CCTV?

When I was a wee girl, 100 years ago, my dad who was - as well as being my lovely dad - my minister, often had the congregation singing the children's hymn "God is always near me".  He must have liked it because we had it a lot.  And every time we got to the end and sang "Not a look nor word nor thought but God knows it all"  I felt a wee shiver.  God knew my every word and thought?  Yikes! 

These memories came back to me this week when I read the following post from a minister on an online forum I frequent:

"Go on - tell me I'm the only one who is always slightly shocked at the realization of how bleak a hymn this is:

God is always near me,
Hearing what I say;
Knowing all my thoughts and deeds,
All my work and play.

God is always near me,
In the darkest night,
He can see me just the same
As by midday light.

God is always near me,
Though so young and small;
Not a look, or word, or thought,
But God knows it all.

On a couple of occasions, I uset to pick it - irregularly - on the basis of remembering the first line and misremembering the rest as being about God's "nearness". (And who hasn't started reading the last verse,and assumed that it's going to end with a couplet about how God understands and forgives.)

And then I'd realize as I gave it out that there is NOTHING consoling at all in it. Bleak, bleak, bleak!!!!"

Clearly I'm not the only one who took the last two lines as a punch in the solar plexus.  And yet, it's many years since I've lost the feeling I used to have about those two lines.

Now when I read them I find great comfort in them.  Here's why.

When I was a kid, listening to/singing those lines, I was uncomfortable with the thought that I couldn't pull the wool over God's eyes, or in other words, that, no matter what act I kept up in front of my fellow human beings, I couldn't fool God.

But that - I now see - was because I thought (wrongly) that the word "Christian" meant "good person".  I wanted to be a Christian but knew I wasn't entirely a good person and, no matter how I tried, each day ended in failure to reach perfection!  I was well and truly aware of the undeniable fact that I was a sinner.  For modern non-church readers, the word "screw-up" is a possible translation of "sinner".

At the grand old age of 13 I finally "got it".  It dawned on me that reaching perfection is way beyond our ability on our own as human beings.  It dawned on me that God knew this all along and planned a daring rescue to get us out of our predicament.  It dawned on me (Good Friday, 13th April 1979) that God loved us before we loved him - LONG before we loved him.  He loved us in spite of knowing our looks, our words, our thoughts. 

In one sense I've always been a Christian believer.  I don't remember not believing.  In another sense that date in April 1979 - Good Friday - when as a young teenager I understood the great transaction that took place at the cross, was the date of my "conversion" or at least the date of my own ownership of the faith of my parents.

It wasn't all that long after that date that I came across the wonderful Psalm 139 (so much my favourite Psalm that for a while 139 was the combination lock on my briefcase!  It's now in the bin and I don't have one now so I can make free with such top secret information, hahaha) which I've read many a time at the bedside of the dying - I used to be a hospice chaplain - and in prison, where it's every bit as important, and in my own life (it's the psalm I read the day I found out I was going to be a mother, for instance).

When I sing, tunelessly in my case, "God is always near me...  not a look nor word nor thought but God knows it all"...  I no longer feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I no longer think that, oh dear, I am "stuffed" because God has seen the real me and the game's a bogey, as we say in Scotland when it's all gone pear-shaped. 

Quite the reverse, actually. 

I now think, "God is always near me...  Not a look, nor word, nor thought, but God knows it all AND YET HE LOVES ME!!  YUSSSSSSS!!"   There is nowhere I can go (prison, even) where God won't see me, love me and hear me.  He's under no illusions about the real me, even if other people are, but he LOVES me!  How fab... 



Tuesday, 21 August 2012


A policy I've adopted since I became a prison chaplain is that I don't allow prisoners to call a person who is addicted to drugs a "junkie".

In the Chaplaincy area of the jail, I have always told them, different rules apply.  Prisoners can swear  and curse to their hearts' content in my presence and I don't tell them off, even though I don't like it personally.

But, I tell them, when a person crosses the threshold of the Chaplaincy facility, they leave the "them and us" culture of the prison behind and enter as a human being.  I don't care, I say, if the person who comes in is a prisoner or an officer, or even if he's the governor, he is first and foremost a human being, and someone whom God loves.

For this reason, I have outlawed the word "junkie" from my presence.  It seems to me that if we label someone in this way (and the common adjective accompanying that label is "useless" - a "useless junkie") then this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's well known that if we label people with negative terms then their own sense of identity will be reinforced as being that negative thing, without much hope of improvement.  That's why parents and teachers are told to refrain from saying "you are bad" and instead say "that was a bad thing to do", as well as to lavish praise and encouragement when the child is trying hard/ doing well.

I'm pretty sure I still think this, but I was made to re-think it recently.  A prisoner I challenged over his use of the word "junkie" took me up on my challenge and engaged me in debate about it.  His argument was that the devastation and havoc that drug addiction bring to an addict and (arguably more importantly) his family and society are so massive that that he must not be allowed to get away with thinking his state is milder than it is.  He must realise how low he has sunk if there is to be any hope of his wanting to change.

This is interesting to me because something in it rings true in spite of my previous certainty that my attitude was the noble and Christian one.

And, as I write, I'm thinking of hearing the American evangelist Billy Graham preaching in Wembley, Parkhead, Murrayfield and Pittodrie two decades ago and being struck by how his popularity was surprising given that he basically, from the Bible, told the crowds in each venue how sinful they were, and how lost they were without God.  You might have expected them to run him out of town but, no, many of them came back the next night and brought their friends!  But he was scratching where it itched.  People need to be confronted with the truth even if the truth is unpalatable. 

And that immediately leads me to think of Jesus in this great story:  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A4-30&version=NLT.  He doesn't miss and hit the wall when he tells the woman how sinful she is and yet she goes and gets her friends to come and meet him!

So, then, what is my conclusion?  Am I going to start allowing the word "junkie" to be used by prisoners in the Chaplaincy?  I'll need to think about that some more.  Feel free to give your opinion.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Blogger versus Twitter... Fight!

Earlier today I was thinking about my completely irrational hatred of telephone conversations.  I was wondering if I'd have been happier to have been alive in the Olden Days before the phone was invented.  I love Jane Austen books.  Maybe I should have been Emma or Jane or Elizabeth... well okay, if I can choose then obviously Elizabeth cos she gets Darcy and Pemberley and his ten thousand a year.... 

But, anyway, of course I would NOT voluntarily leave 2012 for those days because I'd miss my beloved internet.  I love the bloomin' thing!

Earlier this evening Him Indoors, Firstborn, Blue-eyed Boy and Penultimate Child were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on tv and I was alleviating the boredom by trying to find, through Google, the meaning of the word that Marion Ravenwood says in the drinking competition.  (It sounds like pistore or pistole).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUAueFkVYvA  All right, so I didn't quite find the answer but it kept me busy.  Google is SO great!   :)

One of the features of living in this era is that the goalposts are always shifting.  So, regarding the blogosphere, my question is what its future?  With Twitter's success and popularity, I'm wondering whether the truth is that - with the best will in the world - most people actually don't have the time or energy to read long posts on blogs no matter how worthy they are.  Is the 140 character limit a concession to the modern busy life?  Not a bad thing, necessarily, just a reality.

When I was at school, English class included practice in "precis" or summarising.  I did quite well in my higher English but summary was never my strong point!  As a minister, I've had plenty of experience of preaching sermons of 20 minutes or more without interruption.  So limiting my waffle to 140 characters is a real challenge.  But is that where people are at?  If so, that's where I want to be!

I am as passionate about sharing Prisonworld with an audience as I was in the days when I blogged almost daily.  If we who know what it's like don't do so then it's all out of sight and out of mind for most people.  But I need to work out how and where to do it.  To blog or not to blog, to tweet or not to tweet, to facebook or not to facebook.... Shakespeare didn't have all that lot to worry about!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Giving Garden - a good news story for a change!

I want to tell y'all about my Totally-Brilliant-Afternoon.  I was invited to attend the official opening of "The Giving Garden" and it's such an inspirational thing I want to share the joy.

Menzieshill church in the middle of a big housing scheme in Dundee (and their minister) had a vision of a useful purpose for a bit of waste ground behind their church.  It was completely overgrown and had rubble, trees, bushes and litter and was not very promising.  Yet they could see a use for it.  Dundee has a wonderful and very essential charity called Dundee Food Bank which distributes food to people in desperate need.  I know some of those involved and it's just fab.  Mostly they distribute tins and dried food but through the vision given to Menzieshill church and their minister they should be able to include fresh produce for at least some of the year now.

The vision, now on course for fulfilment, was for the waste ground to be made into a big allotment growing vegetables and fruit that could be donated to the food project.  The first crop is now planted and the first harvest is anticipated with excitement.

Prisoners from the local open prison were drafted in to clear the ground.  This has been great for them in lots of ways.  It's this part of the project of which I was a small, but very glad, link in the chain.  At least one individual from local homeless units has been involved in the work too.  Two of those "workers" are now attending the church and growing in faith.
The local primary school were willing participants, helping with some of the gardening.  A girl at the school came up with the logo and a boy at the school came up with the name ("The Giving Garden").  The reason they didn't go with "Menzieshill Giving Garden" and chose "The Giving Garden" is that they are really hoping that the idea will spread and that Giving Gardens will become a feature of many towns and cities, in just the way that food banks are, more and more so.  Many churches have unused ground that could be used in this way.  Incidentally, the girl and boy whose logo and name were chosen got a bike (and helmet, for H & S) as a prize, presented by the Lord Provost of Dundee - that was the point at which I nearly lost it and cried!

In the picture below, btw, if you look over the fence, the whitish head on the far left is moi!  Even my closest friends will have to take my word for it.  The prisoner who was there understandably was even more camera shy than me.  The minister of the church is holding the left hand side of the giant-cheque-thing and wearing a checked shirt.  The guy on the far left of the picture is one of the leaders of the Dundee Food Bank.  I am proud to know these guys.


Monday, 21 May 2012

The Ascension and Having the Full Picture..

It was lovely yesterday morning to conduct worship services in two rural Kinross-shire congregations, in beautiful settings on bright sunny days after the recent depressing weather.  The people in both places were lovely, radiant in their faith. 

We were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus and all that it means to us.  If you're not familiar with the story you can read it here.  Thursday just past was Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).

And this Sunday coming, churches the world over will be celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church.

I would argue that Christmas, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost are all of pretty much equal importance in the Christian faith.  Not the festivals themselves.... what we DO to celebrate or even WHEN we celebrate them isn't fundamental.  But a Christian faith that only focusses on Christmas and Easter is not a proper faith at all, in my opinion.

The world and its wife celebrate Christmas.  It may be only May but behind the scenes the retail
business will already be making its plans for the Christmas bonanza.  Easter isn't such a big thing but is still quite commercialised, and there is a bank holiday and Easter eggs (the first promotion of Easter eggs for this year that I saw was on New Year's Day).  And of course, pre-Christianity there were festivals at those times of year anyway.

However, when it comes to Ascension Day and Pentecost, we in the Church are left to our own devices.  The card shops don't sell "Happy Ascension Day" or "Happy Pentecost" cards.  Sometimes I wonder if we take our cue from the world and largely ignore the two events ourselves.

It's not celebrating the festivals that I'm concerned about, though I'm all in favour, but it's remembering the other two corners that complete the square along with Christmas and Easter in the structure of our faith.

We need to believe in the Ascension, and focus on it sometimes, to remind ourselves of some key things:

1)  Jesus went into heaven in front of His friends' eyes and that's where He is now.
2)  In heaven one of the things He is doing is fulfilling His earthly promise to go and prepare a place for us!
3)  In heaven He is also interceding for (praying for) us.
4)  In heaven He is glorified and ruling along with the Father.

That last one is so important for us to remember and focus on, and explains why a faith based solely on Christmas and Easter will be a weak and ineffectual one.  The Christmas story is awesome - God becoming one of us, humbling Himself to come as a wee baby in a manger in a stable in a backwater place, is the "Incarnation".  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus 33 years later mean the difference between being lost and found for us.  Through that first Easter, death and sin are defeated and it is now possible for us to be reconciled to God and adopted as His children and citizens of His kingdom.

However, the two images of Jesus we have through these stories are weak images.  Jesus was weak and defenceless when He was a baby in a manger.  He was even weaker when He was hanging, broken, on the cross.  But He was only a baby for however long one is officially a baby (a year?) and He was only on the cross for a matter of hours.  Through the story of the Ascension we are powerfully reminded that for the best part of 2000 years, Jesus has not been weak and powerless and defenceless.  We pray not to a defenceless baby nor a dying man but to a risen, glorified king - indeed the King of Kings.  When John saw a vision of Jesus as He is now, described in Revelation 1:12-18, he quite understandably fainted! 

When I was a small kid in the playground, whenever there was an altercation between two children, you would hear, "I'll get my big brother on you!"  I think I probably said it myself even though I didn't have a big brother.  In heaven, Christians have the ultimate big brother - and he's rooting for us.

And then there's Pentecost - the other corner.  Jesus left the Earth and rose up into Heaven where He's at work on our behalf.  But He left us the Holy Spirit to empower us and counsel us and comfort us.  Without the Holy Spirit we'd be as much use as an electrical gadget without electricity.

A mature Christian faith has all four corners in place - the festivals are fine and fun, but the doctrines that they celebrate will make a world of difference to us if we fully grasp all four of them.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Prison Fellowship Scotland - well worth celebrating!

Prison Fellowship Scotland celebrated thirty years' existence this weekend.  It was a great privilege to go along and be part of their celebration.  Highlights for me definitely included taking three prisoners (legally, on licence!) with me and also meeting up with two much loved (by God and me and some others) former prisoners who are doing well and going on in their faith, in spite of difficulties along the way. 

I was reminded, yet again, of a recently and previously blogged-about retired Prison Fellowship volunteer at the prison I work in and her faithful service over many years.  A prisoner I knew well - let's call him John, though that's not his name - used to talk to me about her.  He didn't believe in God and wasn't interested in becoming a Christian ever.  He never attended a single service I conducted in the jail even though we spent a lot of time together and were on warm and friendly terms.  But "John" attended Prison Fellowship meetings in the prison every single week.  His reason?  He just came in order to wonder about our volunteer.  He knew that I get paid to be a prison chaplain but that she was a volunteer, not even getting her travel expenses even though she lived over 40 miles away and didn't even get expenses.  He was bowled over by her commitment over so many years to come into the prison every single week, rain, hail, snow or shine, just because she cared about the guys and, quite frankly, John wondered about that.  Our volunteer was of course "only" (wrong word) one of many over the years in our jail and lots of others across the globe.  When she retired others took her place.  The Christian church is (often rightly) criticised for her failings but when we apply truly our theology of grace we have really something amazing to offer!

Prison Fellowship is a wonderful international organisation which had its origins in the U.S. through the work of an American man called Chuck Colson, who died recently.

Chuck Colson was a politician who was implicated in the Watergate scandal.  He ended up going from a powerful respected wealthy political position to imprisonment.  In custody, he became a Christian, and on release founded the international organisation that is Prison Fellowship.  He said this: 
"...all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure -- that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation -- being sent to prison -- was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life ... only when I lost everything I thought made Chuck Colson a great guy had I found the true self God intended me to be and the true purpose of my life. It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn't want our success; He wants us. He doesn't demand our achievements; He demands our obedience..."

I was telling a long serving prisoner I know whose default setting in life (perhaps understandably) is a negative attitude to "the system" and who loves to see the cloud behind every silver lining about the recent death of Chuck Colson.  Predictably, I suppose, he started to say that, oh yes, Chuck Colson was a mere opportunist that thought he could salvage some power, coming out of prison, by founding Prison Fellowship.  I never said a word, but just listened.  Half way through his diatribe, though, he stopped himself and said, "Actually, he did so much more than I ever have for prisoners".  I love that prisoner but on this occasion I didn't argue!

Chuck Colson died a few weeks back on 21 April 2012, aged 80.  His legacy is priceless.  One of our ex prisoners who spoke at the Prison Fellowship Scotland conference/celebration on Saturday was interviewed on mic at the front.  What he had to say was great but when he was asked how he felt about Prison Fellowship he broke down as he replied, "Without them I'd be dead".  That spoke more powerfully than anything, especially to me because since I know him I know that he was not exaggerating.

Lord, thank you for the vision behind Prison Fellowship and all they do the world over, including Scotland.  And thank you that it is your message that brings hope where so much else is hopeless. 

It's just fab, whether a Prison Fellowship volunteer or a paid prison chaplain to know that we are engaged in helping our Lord Jesus with his own personal mission statement.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

I have a disability I didn't know about.

Last night I was talking to a bunch of prisoners. A couple of them pointed out how truthful I am. I had just confessed at length to two of them that I had found out since last week that a word I had used in our game of Scrabble wasn't in the (newly-purchased-to-prevent-future-disagreement) Scrabble dictionary, and that one of them had been wrongly denied a word that was in fact IN said dictionary. I have still got sin to battle, and don't pretend to perfection by any means but it is true that I don't tell lies, and haven't done so for years, maybe decades. So, for fun, I explained to them very solemnly that, "You know how some people are compulsive liars? Well, I suffer from compulsive honesty". This produced a great reaction across the board, a mix of hilarity, horror and real pity! One guy said, "That's really awful. That's a very serious disability. You should be able to register as disabled and get benefit for that".

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Faith Versus Doubt

Today I was reading the newspapers online, as I do.  (I'm far too tight-fisted actually to buy a newspaper when you can get the news for free on the internet.)  

Anyway, I came across this article about Bishop Richard Holloway's new book.  It was the prisoners' lock-up time and I had time to kill, so I read all the comments too.  As usual with comments on religious articles there was plenty of ignorance and even more nastiness evident among them.  I can cope with that, though.  And, in fact, I do think that it's very important for mature Christians and particularly Christian leaders to research the way in which we as Christians are seen by atheists and others.

Here is what struck me as I read about Richard Holloway's new book, and also as I read all the comments online:

Whilst sharing doubt is of course admirably honest, and will resonate with people in congregations who also are feeling those doubts, is there an argument for not sharing our doubt, or only rarely and in a minor way? Can sharing our doubts be self-indulgent sometimes? Is it helpful for the upbuilding of congregations and people we are called to lead? And what, if any, is the point at which a minister's faith would be sufficiently diminished that to stay on would effectively be taking money under false pretences? 

I'm, not, by the way, intending this post as an anti-Holloway rant.  Far from it.  I have no personal ill-feeling against the chap AT ALL; I'm sure he's very affable.   I just want to express here the questions that have occurred to me.

My own inclination is that part of being a leader in the Church and helping to "upbuild" a congregation is to shine like a light in the darkness (as both Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul in the book of Philippians put it).  This involves modelling, with God's help, a life of faith and trust and closeness with Him.
I have known periods in my life as a Christian, which began in earnest back in 1979, when I've gone through wee desert periods.  In those periods, I've never once doubted the existence of God, but I've not felt his nearness.  These have all turned out to be good for me in the long run, though

Some argue that "the opposite of faith is certainty" and it is true that belief in the existence of absolute truth is very unfashionable nowadays.  I have no allegiance to fashion though, and I just don't believe that it is true that "the opposite of faith is certainty".  I am more of the view expressed in Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." 

On a continuum between certainty and uncertainty (which presumably all would agree are opposites) it seems to me that the point of faith is that it is much nearer the certainty end than the uncertainty end.

I think doubt and crises of faith suck the life and joy out of people.  They are negative experiences, generally.  Experiences that suck the life and joy out of people, and negative experiences, are, it seems to me, not the work of an all-loving God.  Their origin is a whole lot more sinister.

A wise man, JC, once said, "Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death".  I agree.  No, it wasn't that JC.  I mean Johnny Cash!

Friday, 24 February 2012

From those to whom much is given, etc etc!!

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). 

I was encouraged this week by a prisoner (who's an atheist) telling me that I absolutely live what I believe.  What a lovely thing to say.  No doubt I don't actually always do so, but I do try and it's so lovely when someone notices.  :)

Living what we believe is part of integrity, isn't it?  Integrity is a trait we value in people.  Integrity is a trait we absolutely look for in those in authority over us.

Today, I've been feeling very frustrated over various issues to do with lack of integrity. 

(1) I'm not a football fan really (I support Airdrie United, after all and I know about football as much as I, as a Status Quo fan, know about music), but one of our leading Scottish teams, Glasgow Rangers, has been hugely in the news because of its financial troubles.  If you don't know about it and you want to, google it.  There are way too many articles I could point you to; the whole thing has been keeping journalists going at full tilt for a week or two.  Suffice to say, something stinks in the financial wheelings and dealings at the centre of it all.  Big time, it stinks.

(2) There's also the wee fracas that broke out in the bar at the Houses of Parliament last night.  By the way, most workplaces aren't allowed a bar on their premises - how come those with power at their fingertips which the rest of us will never begin to have, are allowed alcohol in their workplace?  Here is the story, for those who don't know.

(3)  Rupert Murdoch, whose mess at the, thankfully now defunct, very seedy News of the World, is still being sorted through at the Leveson Inquiry, seems to be free to produce a new newspaper starting this weekend.  Free press is a great thing, of course, but the price is quite high, it seems.

Actually, when I think about it there are way more than 3 things which frustrate me in this way.  Lots of stories about bonuses payed to bankers who have brought about the credit crunch, and many other things all add to my frustation.

Those of us who work in PrisonWorld, not just chaplains, want to help prisoners to start to think along the moral and pro-social lines that will endear them to, in the first instance, the parole board, and then, more importantly, society.  We really do want them to start thinking morally.  We want them to start thinking of a possible future life that is lived within the laws of the land.  We want them to stay out of jail, for goodness' sake! 

It's ten times (or fifty times, or, I don't know...) harder for us to proclaim a message of moral living when at the heart of "Rich-and-Powerful"-world, corruption seems the way to go.  Seriously you leaders, GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!  Please.  Thank you.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Masking Something.

Today I'm going to lunch with a volunteer who has worked with us in the prison for many years, through the organisation Prison Fellowship Scotland.  Prison Fellowship is a worldwide organisation which Charles Colson of Watergate Scandal infamy helped to found, but that's for another post.  Our lovely volunteer has now decided to retire.  She has been greatly loved by the prisoners - and by the chaplains - over all that time.  And it's been a mutual love; her family say she refers to the prisoners (some of whom are at least the same age as her) as "my boys".

We didn't want to buy her flowers which wouldn't last, so we have bought instead a print of a piece of art produced by a prisoner.  You can buy prisoners' art here at Pictora.  I'm slightly wondering where in your house you would put such a picture and whether flowers might have been safer, but I do like the image very much.

It's called "After a Visit".

Here's a question, though?  Is the prisoner taking the mask off or putting it on?

If he's taking it off, what kind of mask was he wearing and why?  Has he been wearing the mask with his family because he is protecting them from the reality of prison life?  Has he been wearing the mask because he's feeling down but doesn't want them to worry about him?  Has he, on the other hand, been wearing the mask with his family in quite the opposite way, exaggerating how awful everything is in order to get money, clothing, or drugs brought in?  Has he been promising to turn over a new leaf when he knows he doesn't mean it? 

If he's putting it on, what kind of mask is he putting on and why?  Does he feel he can be himself with his family but not with other prisoners and staff? 

Lots of questions and no answers - I like art like that, that makes us think.  I just hope the recipient likes it as much as I do!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas in Prison.

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. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Prisoners Week Scotland.

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. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Dementors and the Sunshine of an Indian Summer

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.

For example, Jesus tells us that he is the "Light of the World".     That's an echo of, for instance, Psalm 119:105 and lots of other verses in the Old Testament too.  Then Jesus says that we ourselves as Christians have a light-giving role for the world around us.  I think that's a really amazing statement by Jesus.  Do you notice that it's not a command, but a statement?  We're not being told to go and fulfil this duty that we feel, or don't feel, equipped for.  We're being told that if we're living in union with Jesus then we ARE (in spite of ourselves really) lights in the world around us.

Light lifts our spirits - sunny days in everyday life but also in a more metaphysical way.  I love the promise about heaven in the book of Revelation, and read it often at funerals, that says that one day darkness will be a thing of the past for those who're in heaven

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.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Sandy's Illustration.

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.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

This made me laugh.

This made me laugh, because I share her frustration with this sort of conversation.  But it's serious too.  Fun and serious at the same time is always a combination I like a lot.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Petrol in a Diesel Engine?

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". 

It's the same with life.  The Christian faith is NOT - definitely not - about a list of rules.  It's about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  It really is.  It's about a relationship with God, who loves us and wants us to have life and have it to the full.  It's so liberating to realise that. 

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).