Back in the 80’s (no, not the 1880’s, pack it in!) George and I had some very good friends – I’ll call them Neil and Jill, whose son was the same age as our daughter, and we often met up, spending a lot of time together at weekends. Jill was a great baker and cook and she would be chef while I would peel and clear up, her assistant, and the men would do whatever latest job needed doing in their huge renovation home. Then there were long leisurely evenings as our reward, good wine and the relaxed talk of old friends.
One year we hired a canal boat together and spent a very happy week tootling through the English countryside at a maximum of 8mph. But no, it would be more accurate to call it a very pleasant week …. the ‘happy’ word is a bit of an overstatement. If you’ve never had a canal holiday, I do recommend it. We set off from Swarkestone, near Derby, and headed towards Birmingham, a large dense post-industrial city, famous for its grime.
Most of the journey was through a beautiful landscape, pastoral England at its best.
The weather was kind, the boat was long (70 feet) and very comfortable, the children were fully occupied running on the tow path, charging ahead to happily work the locks, while the adults sat on the deck watching the wildlife, the dappled water, enjoying the idyllic weather. Lovely. (the photo is from the web, it’s not us) Time took on a new rhythm, small fat dogs waddling along the tow path overtook us, the world was languid.
So, you may be asking, why did I qualify just how happy the experience was? Well, here’s the thing – Jill was a very organised woman. She had firm views about things and usually got her own way. Her husband was a bumbling, kindly guy, who invariably did as he was told, my husband was a quiet man who didn’t like a fuss, and I am not by nature an organiser and planner. So, we all ended up doing what Jill thought was best.
Unfortunately, she had a lot of thoughts about what was best, and they mostly involved never stopping the boat, getting through each lock as quickly as we could, and ignoring the many opportunities to stop for a nice relaxed pub lunch. One of us would be looking at the map and say “Hey – we’re coming up to a village and there’s a pub. Look – it’s a five minute walk from the canal and it’s recommended for lunches.” We would all look to Jill, hopefully, but the answer was always the same “Oh, it’s too early/late for lunch/dinner, let’s press on to the next one.”
We spent all week pressing on to the next one. By the time we reached each ‘next one’ it was invariably (according to Jill) too early/late for whatever meal we had been hoping for. I’m not saying that we suffered, there was plenty of good food and wine on board after all, but as the week slipped by the idea of a pub lunch became more and more attractive as the available diet became less varied.
Then we came to Birmingham, where the canals are fascinating, surprising, passing under huge buildings, roads and motorways, parks, and even the infamous Spaghetti Junction.
There’s a canal under all that.
With Jill in charge we missed it all. We didn’t once get off the boat, wander along the streets, sit outside the pubs – we didn’t even have a coffee and a Birmingham bun. Nevertheless we did have a great time – the children loved the tunnels, lying flat on the deck, or crouched low, making ghostly sounds, trying to frighten each other, imagining life back in Victorian times when the barges were ‘legged through’ these narrow lengthy tunnels, by the bargees lying on the deck, ‘walking’ along like this;
Even Jill didn’t make us do that.
An earlier version of George and Luce
As the week drew to its end and we were again gliding through lush fields, past reed beds and herons, catching a fleeting glimpse of electriuc blue kingfishers, it dawned on us that we hadn’t had a single relaxed and catered meal, none of us had managed to get a break from the others, and it seemed that we were on a sort of relentless voyage with a Captain Bligh and increasingly short rations. But by then it was too late to say anything. Even the gentlest and kindest and most gracious comment on our pitiless progress would have upset Jill and seem like a reproach. No one wanted that, Jill was Jill and she couldn’t help organising us any more than we could help obeying her. No one’s fault. So we pottered on, until we were back at the canal basin, where we unpacked our gear, said our goodbyes, hugs and laughter, got into our separate cars and set off home. I don’t know about Jill and Neil but we stopped at the first pub we came to.
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for 2022. We are so busy pressing on to the next event, the next day, landmark, achievement, ‘must-do’, that we can miss so much of the good stuff on the way. The stuff that sustains and encourages and reminds us how great God is, how wonderful his creation. It’s not that we’re thankless, or unappreciative, or even blinkered. We may even thank God daily for our lives, but maybe, just maybe, we don’t pause long enough to savour what we have. Really savour. We say the right words in our prayers, and when we say them we do mean them, but then we charge ahead with plans and schedules and hopes and all that stuff, and God is put on the back burner until the next time… the next time… and sometimes the next time doesn’t come, and we don’t even notice it.
Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist) is perplexed and angered by the rich/poor divide in the world, and his concern has prompted him to make a programme for TV. I watched the first section this week. We’ve worked together, Brian and me, he was my lead in a radio play a few years ago, and he’s a kind and interesting man but that’s not why I watched the programme. Like Brian I’m fascinated that some people are happy to be wealthy, filthy rich, obscenely rich, to have 16 bathrooms and five houses, and gold leaf where gold leaf is just plain tawdry (the loo? Really?), when they know full well that half the world is starving. Every day I read The Times on line and last week there were recommendations for Christmas presents – a knitted poncho costing nearly £4000 pounds (four thousand!), a baseball cap £605, a pet bed £5710 (five thousand smackers for a small lump of wood and upholstery). Insanity. These billionaires in their opulent mansions and yachts are, like Jill, forever pressing on to the next. The next take-over, the next acquisition, the next holiday, the next investment, the next supercar, the next… the next… the next…. and in doing so, forever pressing on to tomorrow, they miss out on the small and precious joys of today. Jesus said that man cannot serve two masters. While we serve our desire for progress and possessions, power and success, we are mastered by these things. Enslaved by them.
We sometimes refer to ‘our 3 mile an hour God’ and it’s good to remember that Jesus travelled on foot. Three miles an hour. Because he wasn’t rushing by in a limo he saw the little man climb a tree, he felt the woman touching the hem of his robe, he spoke with the Samaritan woman, he understood the seasons, the crops, the herds, the people.
When we got off the narrow boat (at last!) after just one week of chugging along, everything seemed so fast! The traffic was frantic. We were amused and surprised by our reaction to our own speed; unlike me George was a sedate driver but we seemed to be hurtling along. But here’s the thing – although we thought we had been travelling slowly, appreciating every moment, the desire to press on had still been our master and we had still managed to miss some of the experience. I think that maybe we do that in our spiritual walk. We think that we are walking with our 3 miles an hour God, but we are still pressing on in our busy lives to the next, the next, the next. And then, with the best of intentions, we miss the simple truth that where we are right now, this plot of land, this lump of sky, this day, is ours to savour, not to rush through. It means making a decision to check ourselves, to slow down, foot off the throttle. It takes a tiny bit of discipline.
My house is called ‘Selah’, usually translated as ‘pause and think’. Sometimes I’m so busy doing the latter that I forget to do the former.
I think about a friend who lives by the prayer “Your will, your way, your time.” and I think that’s a prayer I may just have to nick from him.