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Hands up, who remembers the drive-in?

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A picture similar to this was doing the rounds on FB not so long ago, along with the caption: “Like this if you recognise what it is.” Ha, ha! Most kids today couldn’t even begin to guess.

Last week found me reminiscing about the family excursions we used to make to the drive-in [theatre] during my childhood. The conversation about drive-ins was unfamiliar territory for my British friends who had never experienced them.

I guess this way of watching movies was a benefit of growing up in a country with great weather. But it was being together as a family that made it a joy.

Occasionally we went down to play on the swings in front of the giant screen until it was time for the film to start, but usually my brother and I would wait impatiently on the back seat, fidgeting and arguing over something trivial like who had the best view.

If it was a balmy evening we sometimes laid a blanket down on the tarmac, still warm from the day’s sunshine. Our excitement mounted as the sun began to set and Mum pulled out the packed sarmies. “Yum, egg mayonnaise,” I declared. “Yuck!” gagged my brother, preferring the ham. If we were lucky there were homemade scotch eggs too, followed by fruit or biscuits and washed down with milky coffee. And if Dad was feeling magnanimous he would walk us over to the cafeteria where they sold “horrogs”, chips, Coke and other childhood delights.

Only one drive-in movie has stayed with me all these years… Grease. My little-girl imagination was entranced by the music and dancing, along with Olivia Newton-John’s golden curls and dazzling smile.

With the film over it was usually a long wait to get out, with all the cars queuing for the same gate. There were always several smart alecs who left early – before the film had even finished – their headlights spoiling the enjoyment of the rest of us as they tried to miss the rush. The pillows and blankets we’d brought along drew us into happy sleep as Dad safely trekked us home.

Johannesburg’s last drive-in theatre closed its gates in 2012, and I don’t know if the drive-ins in Port Elizabeth, where I was born, are now shut. But the joy-filled memories remain with me.

Do you have happy memories of the drive-in? Or any other family traditions you remember fondly?

I’m only human

A friend sent me a link to this advert for a US company called Liberty Mutual Insurance. It made me laugh!

To the soundtrack of the 1980s song ‘I’m only human’ by The Human League, the voice-over says: “Humans. We mean well. But we’re imperfect creatures living in a beautifully imperfect world.” The advert goes on to show a series of calamities befalling various hapless human beings.

Been there, done that

We probably wouldn’t be laughing if all those accidents had happened to us (and I’ll leave you to guess which one befell my household!). But what makes the ad endearing is our ability to relate.

We’ve all done something stupid (I’ll admit to more than a few!) where we ended up looking foolish and feeling bad, and when we see others blundering and slipping up we recognise our own human frailty. That’s why the ad not only made me laugh but also feel warm inside. I recognised my own shortcomings and mistakes, and didn’t feel alone in them.

The freedom of honesty

Yesterday I read a post about someone’s vision for an ideal church where people can be completely honest about who they are and the struggles they’re going through, with the aim of being healed and transformed.

While we must be careful not to overly dwell on the things we get wrong, there is amazing freedom in acknowledging the truth of our inadequacies. And it reminds us of our dependence on the One who understands our weaknesses and who faced similar challenges.

“So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:15–16)

 

I find it challenging to be open about my really cringe-worthy disasters and inherent weaknesses. Are you the same, or do you find it liberating to admit to them?

Are you expecting good things?

Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

(Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

This week I’m participating in a fellow blogger’s new series called ‘Monday Ministry’. Hosted by Tania Vaughan on her blog tryingtobefaithful.blogspot.co.uk,  it’s about “taking Sunday into the rest of the week and letting it minister from Monday”.

Last week we had an amazing church evening of worship, teaching and ministry. The abundant presence of the Holy Spirit and all He had to share with us profoundly moved us. As a church, we felt a spiritual shift. We saw amazing healings, were encouraged by words of prophecy, and felt ready for the next step of this exciting journey we’re on with our heavenly Father.

Now I’m trying to implement what He’s teaching me about being expectant and positioning myself to receive. Taking new steps of growth in the Lord is always stretching, and most days I feel the battle. Wonderfully though, He has promised to renew my strength each day like the morning dew (Psalm 110).

BE EXPECTANT of the goodness of God

Sometimes, especially when we’ve been waiting a long time for God to fulfil a promise, we can become negative and ‘grumbly’. This is not His will for us, and it does not advance His Kingdom.

But if we expect His goodness to us and we overflow with thankfulness and praise, more blessings seem to flow our way. Just in the past week, as I’ve expressed my gratitude, I’ve received a completely unexpected belated birthday gift, an encouraging text from a family member, a good price on something we had to buy, and even a clear run of green traffic lights when I was late!

POSITION YOURSELF to receive what God has for you

When we position ourselves to receive from our Heavenly Father who delights to give good gifts to His children, we start to see Him in all sorts of unexpected places. As we become more open to Him, we notice the hundreds of (often little) ways He’s blessing and helping us every day – both in the things we have specifically talked to Him about as well as in wonderful surprises.

Then we find ourselves becoming more focused on Him – the giver – rather than on the gifts, and on His presence rather than the presents. We listen more carefully and our spirit is more in tune with Him.

And this leads us into greater opportunities to share His love and goodness with others. We start looking to bless those around us and to freely give what we’ve freely received. This morning I read in Hebrews 7 that “the person who has the power to give a blessing is greater than the one who is blessed”. Wow! So be encouraged the next time you choose to bless the shop assistant or waitress serving you, or to share with a friend how Jesus has changed your life!

What I’ve learned about blogging so far…

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Last week on the Facebook page of the Association of Christian Writers there was an interesting discussion about blogging. I’m still a newbie at this, but over the past year, from reading other blogs and working on my own, I’ve learned one or two things.

1)     Knowing your stuff increases hit rates and followers

You don’t have to be famous and successful to increase your hits (though it helps!). Focusing on a subject you know well can also expand your circle of followers. The church communications blogs I follow (primarily for their focus on social media and digital marketing) as well as the food and cookery blogs I read are hosted by ordinary people with a love for their subject.

They aren’t necessarily leaders in their fields but they have knowledge they’re willing to share, and that makes them useful to me. If they consistently post in an easy to read, interesting format, providing valuable content, I’ll gladly subscribe!

2)     A great layout attracts more readers

While it might seem shallow, a good look-and-feel engenders confidence. If it looks professional, it must be professional and the information useful, we reason. (Of course, this doesn’t always apply, but if the content’s no good it won’t take a visitor long to realise.)

While the design of my own blog is not exactly as I would like it to be, WordPress is great for the variety of professional layouts it offers for free, as well as tips and pointers (through its tutorials and emails) on using the tools to make your blog more effective. Checking out great blogs on its ‘Freshly Pressed’ page can also give you fresh inspiration. For a podcast/post on setting up a WordPress blog, look at Michael Hyatt’s ‘How to Launch a Self-Hosted WordPress Blog in 20 Minutes or Less’.

3)     Brevity is best

It’s unfortunate but true that if a post is too long, most readers will give up and many will not visit again. Writing for the web is different to other forms of prose. Your visitors have short attention spans, preferring to digest bite-sized thoughts.

I often struggle to keep my word count under 500, apparently the optimum length. But my goal is to learn from those who write concise, punchy pieces. Formatting that uses bullet points, lists and sub-headings makes the information more scan-able.

4)     Put yourself out there (well, not all out there!)

Yes, great content is vital. But if you don’t share something of yourself in the process, your readers will battle to engage with you. References to your own life and experiences help readers identify with you and apply what you’re saying to their situation.

5)   Continuing the conversation

Do you usually end off your post with a question or thought that will motivate readers to comment? Many visitors enjoy talking about their own experiences, so getting them to continue the conversation can encourage others to read and follow your blog too. I find I often learn as much from the comments as from the original post. That’s the beauty of social media.

In another post I’ll share about some of the mistakes I’ve made.

What do you think makes for a great blog? And what makes you follow some blogs over others?

Loving the unlovely – how one woman’s compassion is helping the condemned reclaim their humanity

prison bars

Sam spends his days alone in an 8ft by 10ft cell. His meals are passed to him through the bottom of the door on the end of a long pole. On certain days of the week, he may leave the cell for two hours of exercise in a cage outside. There is no television. Once a month he is allowed a two-hour visit, but no one comes.

Sam has no dad, and his mom turned to prostitution when he was very young. From the age of five he looked after his younger brother and himself. In his teens he learned that drugs helped numb the loneliness and rejection, and he found comfort in the companionship of others like him.

One fateful night, a drug-addled Sam watched as his buddies robbed an all-night shop and murdered the assistant. He was sentenced to death. Today, 15 years later in a high-security prison, he remains on death row.

The door’s thin strip of wire mesh allows him only a sliver of a view of the world outside his cell. The same opening channels in the incessant clamour reverberating around him. His fellow prisoners on the row shout, bang, whistle and sing 24 hours a day. Sometimes the inexhaustible uproar, along with the wait for the execution chamber, pushes his mind to the edge. Fear stalks him.

But there is a glimmer of light in Sam’s otherwise dark life. Each month he receives a letter.

Its content is the stuff of ordinary life… a trip to see the spring daffodils, a meal shared with friends, volunteer work at church. But to Sam it’s a vital connection to the outside world, a reminder of normality, a kindness that helps him regain something of the humanity he once lost.

A life-changing decision

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The letter-writer is Ann Stevens, a warm and openhearted Englishwoman whom I’m privileged to call my friend. In 2000 she overheard a discussion about voluntary pen-friendships with US prisoners and that life-awakening conversation, as she describes it, stirred up her spirit. “I knew that God had work for me to do,” she explains. “I began writing to my first death row prisoner, and a year later when I travelled to the US to see friends, I decided to visit him. That’s when others started asking me to write to them too.”

It developed into Concerning Captives, her self-funded ministry of letters and visits to inmates. She now writes regularly to 53 prisoners in the US and one in Zambia, and makes an annual trip to visit 23 of them.

Condemned to death

Do their crimes upset her? “Yes, the stories are terrible. I do not condone what they’ve done. But they’ve been judged and condemned to death; they don’t need me to condemn them as well.

“A prison guard said to me, ‘These ain’t humans lady, these are animals.’ But I have learned that no one is beyond redemption, and many of them are not the same men (or boys, as some of them were) who committed the crime. I look at the person behind the act, and feel compassion.”

Ann’s faith is the reason she gives so much of herself to the inmates she’s befriended, and she doesn’t hesitate to share her beliefs. Many respond; others don’t feel able to. She has noticed that it is those with a strong faith who cope better with their impending execution.

Human contact

She loves meeting with them and fits in as many visits as she can while in the US. The extensive travelling, followed by three two-hour visits per day as well as trips to some of the prisoners’ families, is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. But for her friends, who experience little human interaction, the visits are priceless.

“I can’t imagine,” says Ann, “how it must feel to never have any human contact at all, other than being manhandled and shackled, of course.” In some cases she has been the first visitor an inmate has had in up to 11 years.

Last year she attended the execution of one of her friends. “It was awful,” recollects Ann. “Those I visited afterwards wanted me to describe exactly what had happened and what it was like. It was very difficult for me.”

Common Ground

But she’s grateful for her sense of humour (which includes a habit of launching into show tunes!) as it not only helps her through the bad days but also builds common ground with the prisoners.

This year she will celebrate her birthday while in the US, and some of her friends have promised to sing to her. Rather than Happy Birthday, it’s likely to be a soulful Luther Vandross song they’ll gift her with. It’s a bizarre scene: a 60-something English lady serenaded by a hardened criminal through a glass cage in a high-security American prison. That’s testimony to the mercy and grace God can bring into even the darkest places.

Far from average

This is not your average Christian woman’s ministry, and in her book Concerning Captives Ann describes the times she wasn’t sure she was up to the calling, asking God if He couldn’t have found her an easier path to follow.

“Sometimes I’ve felt I’m fighting a losing battle trying to make people understand why I love these guys. But the more I have felt God’s approval, the less concerned I’ve been about man’s approval. I really believe that I was born for such a time as this, to reach out and to love the supposedly ‘unlovable’.

“In sharing my heart with people who are said to be heartless, baring my soul to those said to be soulless, and finding priceless treasure in ‘ugly’ vessels, I’m going about my Father’s business.”

“When did we ever see you… in prison and visit you?” the righteous ones will ask Jesus at the final judgement. And he will reply, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”

If you’d like to support Ann’s ministry, you can contact her through her website: http://www.concerningcaptives.com

US Death Row Data

  • There are more than 3 000 prisoners on death row in the US
  • The average amount of time spent on death row is almost 15 years
  • 101 prisoners put to death since 1970 have since been found innocent
  • California has the most death row inmates, followed by Florida and Texas
  • Texas has had the most executions since 1976 (when capital punishment was reintroduced)
  • 35 US states carry the death penalty

Maternal instincts

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day here in the UK, or Mothering Sunday as it is also known. Apparently it was originally the Sunday in the year when churchgoers went back to their original or ‘mother’ church, but eventually the day became an opportunity to honour mothers and has now evolved into the more commercial ‘Mother’s Day’.

Whatever its origins and the ways it has changed over the years, any celebration to honour mothers and all they do for their offspring is a good one in my book!

In my own life it is my mother who has had the greatest influence on me, in numerous ways. When I am compassionate and giving towards others, I know it is largely the result of my self-sacrificing mum modelling it for me. And when I tell my remarkably patient husband to take a coat because it’s cold outside, it is my mum’s voice I hear in my head!

Mums… the same everywhere

Isn’t it amazing how mothers of most species seem to share similar traits?

IMG_0656This weekend we visited a lambing shed, hoping to witness the arrival of a little woolly bundle or two. In one area several ewes and their offspring had been penned together, and whenever the new-borns gambolled off, the mamas bleated loudly and sternly for them to return. One particular wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing actually used a head-butt to swiftly despatch any non-related interloper daring to stray too close!

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And yet the same ewe, struggling with a painful hoof, allowed her own lambs to snuggle up, feed and receive the warmth and security they needed. She was fiercely protective, yet tender and sacrificial too.

The One who mothers us

The ewe led me to ponder The Lamb who was slain for us… the One who demonstrated such strength and love in willingly laying down His life, to save us.

At a Father’s Heart conference last weekend we heard how our heavenly Father, who made man and woman in his image, embodies both feminine and masculine characteristics. As a father He adopts us and gives us His identity, but He also lovingly nurtures and succours us like a mother. He longs to gather us ‘as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings’ (Luke 13), and to comfort us ‘as a mother comforts her child’ (Isaiah 66).

Perhaps that’s why God gave us mothers, to teach us something of His own tenderness towards us. No mum is perfect, and some children have been let down. But the warmth of a mother’s love is God’s desire for all of us. And if we have failed to receive from our mums, it is offered to us abundantly by Him: ‘Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close’ (Psalm 27).

I am in awe of His gentle and compassionate mothering of me, and profoundly grateful for the funny, thoughtful, strong and Godly woman I get to call ‘Mum’.

 

For a moving poem on motherhood by Paul Canon Harris, read Lyrical Umbilical (scroll down to see it) – copyright PCH 2013. Used with permission. http://www.paulcanonharris.org

Are you thankful to God for your mother? What did you learn from her? And have you experienced the mother-heart of God?

What about the horses?

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The last few weeks saw news headlines in the UK dominated by revelations of horse meat in our frozen burgers, bolognese and lasagne. The meat – falsely marketed as beef – was sold in the nation’s supermarkets and served in restaurants, hospitals and schools.

For the most part, the story has now been replaced with other news, except for the odd line about a few more withdrawn products, and the supermarkets’ attempts to woo back shoppers who’ve moved their custom to local butcheries.

But to me, far more shocking than the prospect of horse meat in our ready-meals, was the deafening silence about the welfare of the animals involved. In all of the newspaper reports, radio debates and online forums I did not hear or see commentators mention this.

Shocking treatment of abattoir horses

Only four weeks previously there had been a report in the press about the appalling treatment of horses at a British horse abattoir.

According to Sky News, animal welfare group Hillside Animal Sanctuary had secretly filmed horses at this abattoir being “beaten with an iron rod, crammed into the slaughter pens”, stunned together and shot on top of one another. Sick or injured horses had been “left untended overnight rather than put down immediately,” and footage showed a horse appearing to come round from the stun while being hung upside down before being bled.

Hillside staff observed that it was not just the ill and old being slaughtered. There were also fit and healthy horses, horses with foals, pregnant mares and thoroughbreds, all being badly treated. “It blows away the myth of humane slaughter. There is a misery in that place that’s palpable,” described one. “All the horses in there had their heads hung down,” added another.

The report also indicated that the number of UK horses slaughtered every year (former pets, show jumpers and race horses) had more than doubled between 2007 and 2012.

The result of the exposé? Two slaughter-men employed by the abattoir had their licences revoked.

And what of the horses destined for food markets?

The owners of the abattoir said their horses were destined for Europe, not for British supermarkets. But if this occurred in a UK slaughterhouse, there can be no doubt similar conditions exist in parts of Europe, the origin of the horse meat found here.

After putting together this post earlier in the week, it was a relief to finally read on Friday of someone else who seemed to share my concerns about the welfare of the horses involved.

A reader of The Good Life Letter commented: “[These horses] would be the cast-offs from all over Europe…. The stud farms of Poland, Germany and other countries breed vast amounts of horses every year but only a few are good enough to be of any use… the rest are sold off for meat. That’s OK. Except that they are not cared for as animals used for meat should be. They are poorly fed, crammed into large lorries without proper food or water and transported many hundreds of miles across Europe to countries… where they are badly slaughtered and then… [enter] the food chain.

This is the real stomach-churning scenario. Let’s pray the British and European authorities investigating those responsible for the fraud will tighten (and strictly enforce) the regulations needed to protect the welfare of those animals giving their lives to fill our bellies.