Many years ago in Jamaica, I saw an elderly man sitting at the roadside, next to his simple home, peeling something, a piece of fruit or maybe a vegetable. His hands were moving slowly, his eyes seeming unfocussed as he gazed across the hillside to the distant sea. Did he have a bowl at his feet for the peel or did it just fall to the dusty earth? I don’t know now, but I do remember his bare feet, the soles rising pink against his dark dry skin. I remember that there was no driveway to his house, because there was no car, and there were no power cables, so no heating bills, no hermetically sealed glass, no lock on the door. Barely a house. A shelter maybe, no more. Simple. At that moment I wanted his life. Oh, how I wanted his life! I don’t think it was a prayer, not a conscious prayer anyway, but it was a deep, deep longing, right down to the marrow of my bones, and I’ve thought of him so often since then. Maybe the depth of our desire is heard, and our passion turns it into prayer.
My husband had died very suddenly, and flailing around for something to fill our shattered days I had taken our 14 year old daughter and her friend on a New Year break. As we came down that hillside, in the hotel bus, my life was full to overflowing with work commitments, deadlines, a series to write and film, a mortgage to pay, household bills to juggle, all the detritus of a couple’s life now put into one pair of hands – hands that were already full of grief. Always struggling with discalculia, now there was only me to deal with the tax bills, the agent, the paraphernalia of contracts and obligations. Now it was up to me to bring up our daughter, to pay the school fees, to maintain a semblance of normality, to keep the broken little family going somehow, to make new friendships and create some sort of social life for us both. I was overwhelmed. No wonder that when I saw that old chap at the roadside, I wanted a life like his. What others (and maybe him too) would see as poverty I saw as freedom. A simplistic view, coloured by my exhaustion and loss.
Thinking of that hard time, and particularly of the day I saw the old man, I’m reminded of Psalm 38, written when David was going through his own dark days and he writes in verse 9
“All my longings lie open before you, Lord: my sighing is not hidden from you.“
Here’s the thing, my friends, my sighing was not hidden from him either. Isn’t that amazing? Because here I am in January, 2023 and I have that life, the very life I longed for. It’s just simply and smoothly happened. No planning. OK, OK, not always smoothly and it’s taken a lifetime and I don’t have the sunshine, but I do have a beautifully simple life. I can spend as long as I like peeling a piece of fruit, I can sit on the windswept beach for hours if that’s how the mood takes me. I’ve sold my house and I have enough to live on for another ten years, if that’s how it’s going to be. There are no deadlines, no fretting, no anxieties. There’s my dogs and me. That’s it. I am that man at the side of the road. And it’s wonderful.
Of course there are other things in my life that he didn’t have – for starters, and of necessity, I have more clothes and shoes than he did. Without a train station and bus services I have an old car, I have this computer and a phone… I don’t have a life cloned from his. But everything I have, the innards of my home, is all incidental. The only posessions I care about, literally, are my Bible and my dogs. Everything else I could lose tomorrow, and not give a damn. I am already free of it all. And freedom is wonderful.
The more we possess, the more we have to protect, guard, insure, maintain, clean, store, stack, dismiss and worry about. The less we possess the more energy and time we have for the precious things that really matter. The less room possessions take up in our lives, the more room we have for joy. My pals Alex and Renie came by yesterday and Alex said something that puts it all into a simple nutshell “We can become possessed by our possessions.”
As we talked we considered happiness, depression and anxiety, and it occurred to me that there is a happy balance to be struck between worrying (being anxious), and being concerned. Concern leads us to prayer, to action, to caring for each other. Concern gets all the ticks and a smiley face. It’s Good with a capital G. Worrying just leads to sleepless nights and achieves nothing. So then, when Alex and Renie had gone I listened again to a sermon on discipleship and thought a tad more about balance. I think – and I’ve already admitted this to you – that I often don’t care as God would have me care. I lack balance; I’m not angry even when there is a reason for just anger, I can be dismissive of other people’s anxiety, I forget to pray for someone I know is in need, I too often don’t turn caring into action, I find it easy not to worry. That’s my lazy default position. Maybe I need to have the epistle of James tattooed on my back (that’d learn me!) I’d love to get the balance right.
The difference between caring and worrying is self.
The difference between caring and worrying is God.
When we care, we are thinking of others, focussing on them, praying for them, loving them, serving them. When we worry, we focus on ourselves; if there’s a problem we think that we must find the answer, if there’s a challenge we long to succeed, if we’re in trouble we fret and fume about wriggling out of it, whatever the problem is we try to find the solution in ourselves. We lie awake at night coming up with one scenario after another, one possible outcome after another, so that we place ourselves and our desire at the centre of the story, as the hero. We want to be the one who sorts it all out. The difference between caring and worrying is that caring makes room first for God, and worrying tucks God away in the corner while we scheme our schemes and strut our stuff. And when we strut we fall.
Here’s the human thing – not one of us gets it absolutely right. Not one. I have friends who are struggling with depression and anxiety and the temptation is to think that those of us who don’t have these problems have got it right. We haven’t. Well, speaking for myself, I haven’t. I go too far the other way – I am too damn unworried. Too settled and at peace. It’s called being smug. I think I tend to smuggery. Here I am at 74, I own very very little, I have no worldly responsibilities, and I’m happy and surprised daily by how happy I am. Even when I’m fed up and lonely and it’s pouring down and I wish wish wish I had a garden so that I didn’t have to drive the dogs in my increasingly ancient car down to the beach… even then, I am full of joy. Uncomplicated joy. And that’s a gift of God. Nothing I’ve achieved by my cleverness. But it can make me feel just a tad smug. Sometimes I am tripped up by my own smugness. Fall flat on my face. Here’s a thing for me to remember on days like this, ‘Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.’ James 1:17
I didn’t get me here. I wasn’t in the driving seat.
This life is a gift from God. I know, in my more balanced moments, that God heard my prayer-that-wasn’t-a-prayer on that hillside and he brought me to this little house, on this crowded little street, under the wonderful sky (a sky that stretches all the way to that Jamaican hillside). Maybe, in eternity, we will sit together, the old Jamaican and me, and we will peel some heavenly fruit together, and gaze out over a silver sea and I’ll say “God is good.” and he will say “All the time, God is good.” And he’ll say “What was it like being you?” and I’ll say “Hellish at times.” and he’ll nod and say “Same here.”
Hey – just a moment to end with; I walk on the beach with a friend who’s a few years older than me. We have led very different lives and it would seem that we don’t have much in common but we have a good and easy friendship, as happy chatting as we are when we walk in silence, and I think we both love our mornings. We both struggle to remember names and this can result in very funny, gently bonkers conversations and this morning my pal came up with the best statement ever; seeing two people walking towards us I said “I don’t know their names” and she said triumphantly “Oh, yes, I know them…. I think they had something to do with something a way back.”
There you go! Clear as mud.