Letters to a Sister

Every week on the ‘blog’ part of my website, I post a letter to my sister (and to anyone else who might be interested.) Most are just funny things that happen in my life or things that affect me – the sort of things that we all write to our sisters. Here are a few of the ones that have some christian content:

Letter 22

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So, I was asked if I would consider helping with the Sunday School. Actually, it’s not called Sunday School, it’s called Boulders, but everyone knows what I mean if I give it the old fashioned title. If it happens, it will be hugely exciting. I did help with the group about a year ago, before I was ill. It was tremendous fun, I (and I think the kids) enjoyed it immensely. This might be my second chance.

When we were children, did you enjoy it? Mum and Dad dutifully sent us every week, but I think for me it was a bit too much like school. I did learn though, much of my Bible knowledge today is based on what I learnt as a child in those classes, despite my main aim being to kick off the shoe of the teacher when she crossed her legs. I remember one teacher who I loved because she let us draw stick-men instead of writing the story. We were simple souls.

Of course, if I am the teacher, I can be as imaginative as I want. Last year I taught about the plagues in Egypt, Moses, Pharaoh, God leading his people to the promised land. I was very keen that it shouldn’t be like school, a ‘sit down and write’ lesson. So I made it as real as I could. I felt it was important to source some of the plagues. Husband (somewhat reluctantly, I must say) helped with this.

First was blood – I did wonder about asking cousin the nurse if she could get me some but thought that maybe there would be health risks with using human blood. So we used food colouring and coloured some water red. It was more pink to be honest. Fear the children may now think all Jewish people were anaemic.

Next was frogs. I tried the local ponds but they were very hard to catch. Father-in-law came up trumps. Apparently his pond had too many and he needed to lose some. Gave me a tupperware box full of bouncing amphibians. I put them in the garage in a very big box covered in netting with a ‘pond’ in an empty ice cream container. Was getting excited now.

Flies were easier than you might think – my window sills had a good supply of dead ones that could be put into an envelope. The joys of living on farm land. I decided the smaller ones could double up as gnats.

Locusts were also easily sorted. The local ‘exotic pets’ shop sold them in boxes as food for the lizards and things. They were alive (apparently lizards and things do not like to eat dead things.) We put them into another big crate in the garage. You would be amazed by how much green stuff a locust can eat. We had about twenty of them. Husband then got rather enthusiastic. He ‘decorated’ the crate to make a nice environment for them. Lots of leaves and branches, areas of soil, etc.

The boils were lipstick spots with ‘tumours’ of lumps of cold porridge. The hail was crushed ice cubes. The dead animals were found in my daughter’s long forgotten farm set in the loft. The darkness was a big blanket everyone could hide under.

Death was harder, we had to just act that. Even I felt that using a corpse might be going too far. And be illegal. And damage the children beyond repair.

Anyway, we had a terrific time. We learned about the story, then made a short film, using mobile phones. It would probably win some Oscars if I released it. I will send you a copy.

Afterwards, the frogs went into my pond (still see them occasionally) and the rest of the stuff went back into cupboards.

The locusts were a problem. They had grown huge (we only had them a week) and husband had bonded with them. Super. Son 1 did suggest we could release them into crops next door but that was clearly wrong. Eventually we found someone with a big lizard thing which ate big locusts, so we gave them to him. Think husband was rather sad but we coped.

Am very much hoping it happens. Husband has banned me from teaching about Noah’s Ark. But I think it has potential.

Take care,
Anne x

Letters to a Sister : 19

Have you seen on facebook that people often include a ‘past event’, “this day five years ago I was….” ? As you know, being an IT dinosaur, I only got fb fairly recently, so I don’t have any such gems to offer. It did make me start thinking though, about where I was a year ago.

A year ago, life was really rather difficult. I was a couple of months post op and everything was hard work. Did I ever tell you the details of my op? (Look away now if you’re squeamish!) They shaved my hair, cut a window into my skull, cut through my brain to the centre and took out the rather annoying cyst (which would have killed me if left alone.) They then patched me up with some titanium and stitches and sent me on my way. Pretty amazing really. Also amazing that I now look normal, have hair again and don’t sit in the corner dribbling (no more than I used to, anyway.)

The thing is, I look normal, but inside I am different. When I saw my first post op MRI, I asked what the black line was that went through my brain. I was told that was the gap, where the knife went. I did a bit of research. Apparently, as I understand it, scar tissue in the brain never heals, it just sits there, blocking the flow of neurons that allow us to think. However, the brain is pretty spectacular. It cannot use the same pathways, so it makes new ones. Gradually it learns to rethink, to redo all the things that it used to do.

When I say gradually, I mean gradually, very very slowly. Enough to pull out your hair (if you have enough left) slowly. The first time I tied shoe laces it was like being three years old again, I just could not make different hands do different things. While I was still in hospital, before they decided whether I was well enough to go home, they took me to a kitchen and asked me to cook a plate of pasta. It is, by far, the hardest thing I have ever cooked. Just filling the pan with enough water, remembering to light the hob, timing the pasta when it was boiling. Oh, the effort, the mental strain. It was exhausting, I slept deeply for an hour afterwards. But I did it, passed the test, was allowed home.

As time went on, everything improved. Now, a year later, most things are (roughly) back to normal. The point is (I do have a point, trust me) unless I used my brain, tried to do things like tying laces, kept going even though it was difficult, the brain would never make those new pathways. I had to attempt it before I could do it, the ability came second. Okay, hold that thought.

Now, quick subject change. I have been reading in the Bible about all the ‘gifts’, the things that Christians are meant to be good at. Things like forgiveness, self-control, patience. I have to admit, I’m pretty rubbish at all of them. Much nicer to have a quick shout at someone when they’re annoying or avoid the people who I think are nasty than do all that christian stuff. Plus, when I do pray, ask God to “help me to forgive Stacey because she’s a nasty piece of work and really I would like to slap her face,” I do not feel especially flooded with forgiveness. I still want to slap her face, so I avoid her.

However, it has been bothering me lately that actually, these behaviours are not optional extras. God does not say that when we are christians, if we feel like it, we should love and forgive the nice people we come across. It’s kinda in the sign-up sheet. If I claim to be a christian I have to be different, a better person than I would be if I weren’t one. So what to do?

Well, I have realised recently, that just like my brain had to start doing things to be able to do them (if you see what I mean) so I have to put these things into practice for them to be real. Sitting on my chair and asking God to ‘help me forgive’ and then waiting for me to feel like I had, just doesn’t work. I never felt like that. No, I had to ask God to help me, then trust that he had and actually start to behave and think like he had. I didn’t know if I could cook pasta until I did it. It was hard and I made some mistakes. Once I started behaving like I could, the skill caught up, now it’s easy. If I ask for the ability to forgive, then I have to start behaving like I have forgiven them, stop thinking about slapping them, start saying things that show I have forgiven them. Then the ability and the feelings, will catch up.

Okay, lecture over. But do you agree? Do you think that might be right?

Letters to a Sister :16
So, we went to look at some missionaries. It was a little like going to view a puppy before we agreed to take one. Not quite sure how we managed to be given the job.

To explain, our church supports some missionaries who have now finished their term abroad, so we need new ones. We were given the names of some who seem suitable but they didn’t have time to visit our church, so it was decided that a deputation would go and hear them speak. We (me, husband and Barbie) somehow managed to be the deputation. Not a good choice.

The evening started well when the motorway to strange Baptist church we had never heard of before, was shut. Briefly, but it did mean we were then in a rush. We then found that the road that actually led to the church was also shut. Was not going well. Considered abandoning mission and going to pub instead.

Arrived late, church was small, neat, probably has not changed very much in the last 150 years. Nor I suspect have some members of the congregation. The chairs have though, they were nice and comfortable. And in shades of purple and lilac to match the mauve carpet and purple tulips. All very colour co-ordinated. I wondered who had ordered the six green chairs and whether they still attend the church.

The congregation (all 17 of them) were singing when we arrived. The words to the song were displayed on an overhead screen. I should perhaps have guessed the mood of the evening when I saw the white haired lady playing the guitar with the rainbow strap. To be fair, she played very well. In a sort of military style – I for one was not brave enough to NOT sing!

I did need to use the loo though. A very nice man told me where it was – through the door right at the front. When I asked if it was the only one, as the service had started and everyone would see me go through the door, he told me that actually, if I preferred, I could use the side door. I did prefer. He was unfortunately the man responsible for changing the words on the projector and while giving me toilet directions, the singing ground to a halt. When I returned I couldn’t work out why we kept repeating the same song. Husband helpfully informed me it was the chorus. Then got the giggles, very embarrassing in strange church. The more I tried to not giggle, the bigger the urge to collapse in uncontrollable heap. Recieved stern looks from husband.

Missionaries then stood up, wife first, to introduce their work. We began with her showing us some photos. She said we had to tell her where they were taken. I thought this was going to be examples of unusual places to hold a school or church or something. But no. They were just random photos of the country they work in and we had to guess where they were taken and who was in them. Bizarre. One was a cow in a street. What were we supposed to say? “Ah, that is a cow in a street.” Or a group of people. Was I really expected to know if they were her aunty Joan, her next door neighbours or a group from the church? Nearly lost control completely at this point, was bursting to call out “swimming pool” when shown boys playing football. (The correct answer was : “Boys playing football.” You get the idea.)

To be fair, this is not the worst thing that I have been asked by missionaries to do at a missionary evening. At least we didn’t have to sing something in a foreign language that no one speaks and which might as well be Humpty Dumpty as a christian song.

Missionary husband then gave a talk, which was quite good, but I was slightly beyond listening at this point. They seemed like a nice couple doing a good work in a difficult place. Why do churches and missionaries put themselves through these evenings? Why couldn’t we all just have a nice curry or go to the pub and chat about the work they are doing? I am glad God is so much bigger than the churches that follow him.

On drive home, we discussed the feedback we would give our own church. Husband offered the view that, “He wasn’t a pompous git like the last one we had”. Barbie and I agreed that she would be the spokesperson and husband should remain silent.

There is a truck that keeps parking outside our house. This is perfectly legal but for some unknown reason is a bit irritating. Boys and husband have been thinking of ways to encourage owner to park somewhere else. One suggestion was a sign on windscreen which says, “Harry the Hammer hates selfish parking.” The latest idea involves cat poo – of which we have plenty (joys of kittens and dirt boxes.) They feel a few nights where it will appear a local cat has taken to using the truck as a toilet will encourage the owner to move on. They are joking. I hope.

Take care,
Anne xx

Letter 14

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Do you ever have those weeks when everything seems to go wrong? I don’t mean in a funny, laugh about it afterwards way, but in a depressing, wondering why I bother way? I guess that’s just part of life, a ‘down’ that allows us to have ‘ups’. This week two friends have died. True, both were old, but that doesn’t make it any nicer really, just less shocking.

It brings back lots of memories of when Dad died. I’m not sure I’ve ever really talked to you about that time, everything was such a muddle, so much to organise, both of us worrying about Mum. We never really sat down and talked did we.

I was in such a bad place while Dad was alive, really angry with the world. I was having headaches all the time and not knowing why, felt stressed and was finding work/family a lot less fun than I had thought they would be when I was 12! I had sort of given up on God a bit, decided I would ‘go it alone’, see how I got on. I didn’t get on very well actually.

Then, when Dad was diagnosed with cancer, I somehow got this feeling that it was my fault, a sort of punishment for giving up on God. It sounds silly now, if it was someone else saying this I would have all sorts of sensible things to say to them, but at the time, that’s how I felt. And it was horrible.

Cancer is a horrid disease. It kind of ‘eats’ people. When the nurse told me that Dad wouldn’t recover, that it was just a matter of time, I set myself a challenge. I would watch him die. I figured that all my life, Dad had taught me about God, had claimed that He was always there, helping Dad through life. I decided that during life, you could fool yourself into believing something like that. But death has a horrible honesty about it. If God was real, He would be there at every step while Dad died. If He was just in Dad’s head, a fabrication to make life easier, then as he died this would be evident. You can’t pretend when you are dying. So I watched.

I saw the cancer destroy Dad’s body, saw him become weaker and more in pain, fed up with all the medical intervention, exhausted by what the disease was doing to him. And I saw him change.

At the beginning, as the disease began to take hold, Dad complained all the time. He told me about every ache, every loss of appetite, every sleepless night. To be honest, I got a bit fed up with him (as I said, I was not in a good place.) Then gradually, as his body got weaker, I saw him draw closer and closer to God. His conversation changed. Instead of talking continually about his health, the latest ache and pain, he talked about what he had read in his Bible, some new insight that he had found. He laughed again, was excited about what he was discovering about God. I felt that I was watching him become less physical and more ‘soul’. It was as if his spirit was taking over.

Dad never wanted to die, he fought it until the end. But I can honestly tell you, he died a good death and God was there, every step of the way. Dad taught me more about God in his dying than all the sermons during his life. His cancer was horrid, a particularly painful type. But he died the beginning of January and at the end of December, just days before he died, he told me he had just had the happiest Christmas of his life. Like I said, you can’t pretend when you’re dying.

When Dad did die, when we were burying his body, on a suitably grey wet day (though not ‘Dad’, not his spirit, I had watched that getting stronger and stronger until he finally left his body) that was when I realised that I could not have caused his death. Death is too big, nothing about me would result in that.

Perhaps I needed to feel like that, to have that nasty patch in my life, to make me see clearly again. I don’t know. All I can tell you is that for me, it was all the ‘proof’ I needed. And of course, the good thing about coming back to God is that He makes it so easy, it’s just like turning around really. And I haven’t regretted it since. I’ve had some knocks in the last few years, life has sometimes been less nice than I hoped. But I can never again doubt that there is a God. Or that He cares.

Take care,
Anne xx

Letter to a Sister : Brazil
. Fri 19th June

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Just got back from visiting the slums. We go to dinner in an hour and tomorrow we leave early, so forgive the errors in this. I’ll write you a more organized article when I’m home, I just want to give you a splurge of words so you understand something of the day’s experience.

We started off going to Instituto Solidare. This was on the edge of the city and was a concrete building with big gates that locked. We could see teenagers playing football in a large covered area. We were taken upstairs, shown into a classroom and joined by about six of the workers. We all introduced ourselves – I got to use my Portuguese, very exciting! We then learned a little of their work. They began by having different projects, run by the church but then realised that actually there was a disconnect between what they believed and what they were doing. They needed to be part of the community, not just doing the odd project, they wanted the projects to BE the church. They see their worship as what they are doing.

They began with working with children, this extended to teenagers, then whole families and then the community. There is a huge problem with prostitution, drugs and the violent crime that goes with it. They aim to remove the kids from the streets, to occupy their time with lessons, sports, a proper meal, then they go to school in the afternoon and spend the evening with their parents. They are then hopefully, too tired to get into trouble.

We looked around the institute, then walked around the community. The houses were small, unmade roads, lots of dogs. The river was where all the toilets empty. In the rainy season ( June and July) the river floods, taking the sewage into the houses. Many of the houses had moved all their furniture upstairs. It was hot, lots of flies, lots of dogs wandering around. We saw young men strutting, with hard faces, appraising eyes. There were children, cute, smiling, wanting to be in photgraphs. Then the other teenagers, the ones with thin faces, dead eyes, wasted bodies. As a mother, it broke my heart to see them. They have mothers, somewhere. They are feeding their lives into hungry addictions, dead before they have known what it is to live.

We went to another favela. This one seemed much poorer, it felt unsafe walking around ( we were told to leave all our bags and cameras in the car. We just took our phones for pictures.)The homes were made of cardboard, hardboard, odd bits of wood and scaffold. It smelt, litter was everywhere. I photographed beautiful children sharing bags of crisps, giggling. They lived in the equvilant of a shack. It felt hopeless.

Yet there was hope. Tearfund are working with their partners to educate the people, to teach them about flood control, clearing up litter. They are teaching them skills so they can find work, things like making jewelry from discarded stuff, metal work. They are lobbying the government, trying to get better housing, more respect for the people.

It wasn’t a horrid day, though I feel exhausted by all we have seen. We laughed with children who were playing a game with David. Some teenaged girls had done a play about clearing up litter, which they had performed to their neighbours in the flavella. They were so proud of it, wanted to take us to where they had done it, sang us some of the songs. We chatted a bit and they laughed when I told them I have chickens and ducks. I wanted to scoop them up, bring them out of the favella to somewhere safe, somewhere that they wont probably end up as sex workers. I cant. All I can do is pray, support the work that Tearfund is doing. And tell you about it.

Will do a proper article with photos etc when I’m home.

Take care,

Anne xx

Letters to a sister 9

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Cassie (black labrador) died last week. I couldn’t write about it at the time, was too busy crying. She was old for a lab – 14 – and she was losing the feeling in her back legs, pooped without knowing it and her sight and hearing were pretty much gone. I didn’t mind clearing up after her, I owed her that much, she has given the family so much joy over the years. And until recently she has seemed happy enough. She mainly slept but so did the old cat and they snuggled together in her bed, so she had company, she still got excited at meal times and once a day she would go for a plod around the garden. But then she stopped wagging her tail and began to seem frightened by things, so it seemed kinder to let her go. Horrible decision. I had so hoped I would just find her dead one morning but in the end we felt it was time to take her to the vets, to put her to sleep before her life became a torment of fear at not seeing and unhappiness if I didn’t clean up her bed fast enough.

Although I knew she was ready to go, that it was the kindest thing to do, it was still hard, I still cried most of the weekend. It also makes me look harshly at life when someone/something I cherish dies. What is the point of it all? Life is so short, such a brief time of healthy happiness before we all decline, what is it that keeps us going? Why do we strive so hard to stay alive? And how will I cope when/if I lose those closest to me?

I look at the elderly people we cook for on Fridays. Most of them were married, had children, jobs, hobbies. Yet now, for the most part, they live alone, they cope with everything by themselves as their bodies deteriorate and everything gets harder. It seems to them like yesterday that they were vibrant, powerful in their own life, now they are becoming more and more dependent on others. How does that feel? How will I cope when that happens to me?

Maybe we are not meant to look ahead too far. If we trust in God (and deep down I do, I just have blips every so often, times when it all seems a bit scary ahead) then perhaps trusting him is all that matters. We do not know when or how our life will end, only that it will and that was always part of the plan, an intended consequence of having lived. Perhaps it is the now that matters, rather than the past or the future.

I know that what is in my past is finished, that those things I am proud of are not important anymore, that the things I did wrong have been forgiven. The future is a void, I cannot even predict what will happen this afternoon, in the next hour, I can only make a good guess and plan accordingly. But now, this actual moment in time, is mine. I can decide what I will do, how I will act, think, behave. And because I do not know what will happen in the next hour, what phone calls I might receive, accidents or happy surprises, then the most sensible thing would be to rely on God.

We are on a timeline, we can see the past, live in the present but the future is invisible.
(As an aside, did you know that the chinese language actually shows this in the words it uses. So the future is ‘behind’ you, because you cannot see it. It is like sitting on a train looking backwards. All the words relating to past are in front, before, you and all the words relating to future are behind you. I love that language!)
However, God is outside of time, above the line if you like. He can see my past and future and present all at the same time. So surely it makes sense to ask him for help when I live my present, to ask for his guidance as I stumble through this bit of life, doing the best that I can.

I guess if I am honest, I don’t really know what ‘the point of life’ is, especially when I get to the really tough, lonely bits of it. But God does, I really do think he has a plan and so I will just trust him on this one. I will cry for my dog, because I miss her, but I will know that her life (and mine) are not futile. There is a point, I just don’t know it yet.

Take care,
Anne xx

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We organised a Football Quiz. Not really my kind of event, but apparently there are several people who enjoy football, so we hoped some ‘non church’ people might come and realise that we’re not too scary after all. (I was going to write “not too odd”, but I thought that might be stretching things a bit!)

So, we asked our friend who is a professional footballer if he would come (do you say ‘plays’ football if someone does it professionally? Not sure, feels like wrong verb) We persuaded brother he would like to make up some questions and got some fliers printed up. We held it in the church hall, people registered their teams online in advance and brought their own snacks and drinks. We didn’t charge, but there were collecting tubs for donations to Tearfund.

It was a good event. This was partly because brother did an actually rather brilliant quiz and partly because it seems quite a few people are rather keen to meet footballer friend (Julian Speroni, who plays in goal for Crystal Palace FC.) Husband was on hand to sort logistics, Minister did the introducing and interviewing Julian bit and I dutifully hovered to help where needed. (I wouldn’t exactly say that football is possibly the most boring game ever – but I did take a book to read….)

When we arrived at church, it had been repainted and all the internal signs had been removed. Might have caused confusion toilet wise. We have three toilets at our church, with a middle one for people wanting to change babies’ nappies or needing disabled supports. I therefore made three signs. Decided to label them ‘Ladies’, Gents’ and ‘Undecided’. Was slightly worried I might forget to move them before the service on Sunday (some church members don’t always get my humour) but it was fine.

Mum had advertised the event for us, and some of her friends made a team. They recognised me and asked which person was brother. I pointed to Julian (he’s better looking than brother, thought it might improve our general family impression.) They just looked confused, so I think they knew I was lying.

After the quiz, Julian was interviewed, then fielded questions from the audience (about his salary, place on the team and retirement plans. People didn’t hold back! ) His talk was good (didn’t read my book for that bit.) He talked about training in Argentina and sending a video of his playing to other teams. He was offered a place in Dundee, so moved over. He said that learning English was a challenge, with a Scottish teacher, and Italian and Chinese fellow students to practise conversation with!

He also talked about how he attended an Alpha course, how he realised that God is real and has a plan for his life. Even professional footballers need God.

I guess that’s the whole point really. To me, Julian is ‘just a bloke’, it seems very strange that people would want his autograph or to shake his hand. God sees past all that, he knows that Julian is ‘just a bloke’ too, one that he loves and wants to help and give direction for his life. Just like us, we are ‘just people’ too, underneath all our make-up and talents and insecurities. We need God too.

The quiz had a winning team. They won a football shirt, signed by all the players. Never mind, if they wash it on a hot wash it will probably come clean again.

Have a good week,
Take care,
Love, Anne x

Letters to a Sister are posted every Monday.
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