Constriction and Wasting



Recognise them?

Many of us find that, as we try to enter into our true calling in God, we suffer unexpected constriction or wasting. We are pummelled financially; crushed to such a degree that we can’t go on. Despite a desire to push on, despite our faith that God will come through for us at just the right moment, there comes a time when we simply have to call a halt. We know we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way. Sometimes the squeeze is so severe the best course of action is cut our losses and just suffer the wastage of all the time, effort and money already invested.



When we’ve met them once or twice, we find ourselves assailed by doubt: didn’t we hear from God? Because when we prayed, a whole set of amazing signs, confirming prophecies and even miraculous openings all lined up. Before they slammed so brutally shut.

Could the problem have been our lack of faith? Not if all we need is the size of a mustard seed. The very size of the financial loss testifies on our behalf: no, it wasn’t lack of faith.

If you’ve ever been in this situation, you know how soul-destroying it is. Some people, after being flattened by the steam roller more than once, feel God has abandoned them and throw over their faith entirely.

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The Belt of Truth 4

My favourite television show in the late nineties was the science fiction series, Space: Above and Beyond. I was such a huge fan I even wrote fanfic! Lots of readers liked one particular story, Icarus Walking—a story of truth, honour, heroism and sacrifice. In fact one person resonated with it so much she asked me to mentor her as a writer.

As I worked my way through her manuscript, I started to notice repeated ash tree symbolism. I quizzed Melissa about it. She insisted it was unintentional. This was really early days in my investigations about names but I was already suspicious. Could there be a connection between the name Melissa and the ash tree symbol?

Now any book of names will tell you that Melissa means either bee or honey. Not deterred, I looked up words for ash trees. And there I discovered the story of Melias, the nymph of the ash tree, and the saga of how the name Melissa, over millennia, changed in meaning from ash tree to bee.

The intriguing consequence of this exercise was the discovery that ‘melissa’ is also a name for the North Pole. That odd finding led to deeper digging into other ways the North Pole could be symbolised. In no time at all, it became obvious to me why Melissa had resonated so much with Icarus Walking: it was full to overflowing with obscure polar symbolism. All sorts of mysterious arctic icons spilled out of just about every scene. In particular, I seemed to focus on an idea I’d never heard of previously: a cynosure.

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Three Kings

My brother–in–law is a king.


It happened this way: he was involved in aid work in the Philippines. Some villagers asked him to write to the government on their behalf. They wanted the land taken from them back. Privately he thought their chances were nil but he gave it his best shot anyway.

To his surprise the government agreed. The villagers were so delighted they decided to make him their king. My sister travelled with him for the ceremony and asked what it meant to become a ‘datu’. ‘Our datu is our king,’ she was told. ‘He can go to Buckingham Palace and eat cucumber sandwiches with the Queen of England.’ My brother–in–law has not tested the earnest conviction of his loyal subjects on this score, possibly put off by Wikipedia’s insistence a ‘datu’ is merely a petty tribal chief.

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Discovered or Improvised?

Back when I was at school, algebra was taught as a symbolic language. Over the years, the emphasis changed and, by the time I left mathematics teaching, it was being introduced through arithmetic patterns. Somehow I got the best of both worlds: I was equally at home with algebra as a language or as a system of recognising numerical relationships.

These two ways of thinking about the nature of equations could not be more different but I was fortunate in being able to move from one system to the other without missing a beat. Despite the disdain of modern mathematics educators for symbolic language, I’m deeply grateful I was brought up with it. Because the day came when I realised that, once you are fluent in one symbolic language, you have the essential grammar of them all.

Dream symbols operate according to the same rules of language as algebra; literary symbols often do too, especially when those symbols are ‘invented’ names within a ‘made-up’ plot.

In Discovered or Invented?, I looked at the question which perplexes some very eminent mathematicians: Is mathematics a construction of the human mind or does it exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be found?

In Discovered or Imagined?, I looked at a similar question in relation to fiction: Do storytellers make up their ‘secondary worlds’ or do the stories exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be told?

On an even deeper level: Are the names we think we ‘make up’ for characters simply a random conglomeration of suitable syllables or are they already ‘out there’, just waiting to be exposed?

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Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

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Be Thou My Vision


Last Sunday I was in church singing Be Thou My Vision when a couple of lines leapt off the page and grabbed my attention:

Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my armour, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight

The first two lines are from the end of the second verse and the next two from the beginning of the third. I was entranced. How could I have missed this before? It was about the making of a covenant. It was about oneness, about the exchange of armour and weapons, about offering dignity through the swapping of mantles. An eighth century hymn that preserves the notion of covenant we in the twenty-first century have lost entirely—how exciting!

As soon as I got home, I typed these words into Google and… …how very odd! Not a single instance of them were to be found anywhere in the entire world.

There are nearly 2.7 million results on Google for Be Thou My Vision but not one of them with these exact words. For a moment I thought I was seriously losing my memory but then I decided to change the spelling of ‘armour’ to ‘armor’.

Aha! One result. On YouTube. Hmm, the account was closed. It was just baffling. One occurrence in the whole world and it was no longer verifiable. How could there be just one and no more?

I decided to check out the 2.7 million results for Be Thou My Vision to see why this discrepancy existed—no, not all of them. Just a few. I quickly realised that, in a significant number of cases, ‘armour’ had been changed to ‘breastplate’, ‘dignity’ had been changed to ‘armour’ and ‘delight’ had been changed to ‘might’.

Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.

Does it matter? I think it does. To change the symbols of covenant to symbols of battle results in a profound loss. Instead of being about unity and defence, it’s about force and attack.

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