A friend who holidayed in Africa is on her way back home. Another is heading off, this very moment (probably) to Bermuda. On the beach today we spoke with a family heading back to the south of England, via the delightful M4 and the carpark we call the M25. So many people on the move, like herds of bison, or drops of water in a stream, moving, ever moving. I imagine that if we were floating above the Earth, able to see the travels of all these people, we would see a seething ant heap. Busy, busy, busy, jetting here on business and there on holiday, boats crossing the sea, students inter-railing across the continents, bucket-listers climbing mountains and deep diving in oceans, families splitting and merging, farewells and hellos… busy, busy.
It’s half term here in Wales and the narrow roads through the village are full of cars with bikes on the back, paddle boards on the roofs, or towing trailers with tents and camping gear. There are caravans and motorhomes and battered old beatnik-y vans from the last century, and as they park up and disgorge their contents at the beach there are families so ladened down with ‘stuff we might need’ that it’s comical seeing them struggle across the sand. The things we’ll do to have a ‘good time’!
Me? I’ve just come indoors after sitting in the sun for an hour, in my tiny tiny courtyard, specs off, eyes closed, having an absolute whale of a time, a real adventure. Seriously. It was great.
As I stumbled indoors, half blinded by the change from glare to shade, I found my thoughts running through a sort of Thesaurus, a reflection on my time in the sun, offering words like ‘calm, silent, peaceful, and reflective’. And then I found myself adding ‘challenging, demanding, rewarding, exciting, admonishing, nourishing, invigorating.’ It was a healing balm and an amazing experience. It was a waterfall, a rock face, a sleepy lagoon, a rose garden, a giddying cliff edge, an ocean dive, a double somersault, and a blast of trumpets.
It was prayer. The nearest we come to touching God. An hour with God. I mean, isn’t that something? Isn’t that better than… well, anything?
It’s 5 years since my last holiday and I didn’t really want to go, even then. Jane was facing terminal cancer and she had always wanted to go on a cruise. Now, she said, she never would. So, before I could stop the words escaping, I heard myself saying “Don’t be daft – I’ll come with you.” Well, I think it was about four hours later that she told me she’d found the perfect cruise and we were booked. Damn. Double damn. But I said (being a great actress) ‘Oh, great!’.
Tickets and plans and a drive across the country and a stay in a horrible hotel and then 6 days in a floating old people’s home, where the main focus was breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and then supper. Bloody hell. A continuous conveyor belt of food you don’t really want in a long day of doing not very much at all. But Jane loved it and there were three stops when she went ashore and she visited somebody-or-other’s cabin in the mountain (Grieg? Ibsen? I can’t remember) and some museum and did a bit of shopping. I went ashore too, just once, but mostly I read books and gazed at the sea and the sky. The weather was lovely and the ugly great monstrosity of a boat, with its thousands of (mostly) elderly people went up a few fjords, (when you’ve seen one fjord, believe me, you’ve had your fill) and we ‘ooh’ed at the sight of the road tunnels cutting into the hillside, and ‘aah’ed at the distant waterfalls, and … that was it really. But Jane loved it and we had a right laugh. She was a good, good friend.
Travelling is great, and holidays can be wonderful, and there is absolutely nothing to stop me setting off on an adventure. I may just do that one day although Jane isn’t here any more and the idea of being alone for a week in a strange place isn’t overwhelmingly tempting. I might, just might, one day return to a hillside in Jamaica, somewhere that I occasionally remember in my dreams. But there are adventures to be had at home, too; As I drank my first coffee of the morning I read Psalm 18, and I took the echo of it with me to the beach and later into the sunshine right by my own back door.
It is God who clothes me with strength,
and gives my way integrity.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and causes me to stand on my high places.
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms bend a bow of bronze.
You have given me the shield of Your salvation,
and Your right hand has held me up,
and Your gentleness has made me great.
You have lengthened my stride under me,
so that my feet did not slip.
Isn’t that great? Oh, it’s not just the words that are so invigorating – they are, after all, only words. But those words are inspired and they shape our thoughts, deepening our understanding, revealing how vulnerable we are, and how loved… how weak we are in ourselves and how strong we are in God…. and then, without knowing how, we find that we aren’t just reading and thinking, we are with God. With him! In all our flawed humanity we find ourselves in prayer. Led there by the Word of God.
Is it banal and prosaic to say that this morning was, to me, better than any week away in a distant paradise? Yeah, well, there you go – I am banal and prosaic, because, to me, an hour of prayer is sublime. And unusual for me – I’m not hushed and monastic and I don’t often find that depth of worship in prayer so, when I do, I thank God and want to tell everyone. Like the man in Mark 5.
“Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
When I came indoors and my eyes refocussed, before I sat down at my desk to share these thoughts with you, to tell everyone in Decapolis, I read the next Psalm, and then the next…. and that made me pause, so that I read it again, and again, and I thought of everyone who happens upon this blog. It seemed like a prayer for you, and a blessing, and so I offer it up:
May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
and lift up our banners in the name of our God.
Hey, my friends, may he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
And if you’re going on holiday, or coming back, or planning one – God speed!