A small snarl up

Between our village and the nearby town there’s a narrow road on a small but steep hill, and towards the bottom of the hill there’s a road off, leading to an industrial estate, full of warehouses and car sales and the like. The turn from the narrow main road to the even narrower estate road is tight, and when you add into the scene the cars that are parked on both roads, there are times when we get a cluttered knot of traffic. People hereabouts are, for the most part, patient. We wait for each other, wave each other on, nod and smile and acknowledge, but there are exceptions. There are some who make driving a pain – who charge down narrow lanes as if they are motorways, their engines roaring “Here I come! Look out! It’s me! Me! Me! Me!”

So we are always ready for them.

As I came down that hill today I could see a small car, coming the other way, nervously poking its little nose around a parked van, and carrying on regardless of the fact that we had right of way, not him. But the car in front of me waited patiently, and I sat behind in no rush at all. The driver of the little car coming towards us was tiny, a tiny old man with a West Walian cloth cap on his wrinkled head, the sure sign of an ageing farmer. He was so small that he seemed to be looking through the steering wheel, not over it. And then a large lorry started to pull out of the road from the industrial estate and onto our road – and I do mean a LARGE lorry. One of those long high things with wheels in the middle as well as at both ends. Of course the turn was too tight for a one-try turn, and the lorry stopped, reversed a bit, and lumbered forward again, correcting its course. The little old farmer panicked. The lorry driver had seen him and was waiting for him to pass, but manouvering while he waited. There was loads of room for the farmer to nip past but that bloke wasn’t going to nip anywhere, any time soon. Panic doesn’t see what the rest of us see and the little car stopped dead, in the middle of the road. There he sat, waiting for… what? When you see a battered old Fiat 500, with a battered old driver, you know he’s not going to get from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds and all you can do is wish him well and wait.

The lorry driver beckoned, the car in front of me beckoned, the driver of the parked van waved an apology to everyone as he clambered back into his cab, and still the little car sat there. It seemed that the driver was as stalled as his car. Paralysed. Now there were two cars waiting behind him and another car behind me, and goodness knows how many vans waiting to come off the industrial estate. We waited. We could hear the grinding of gears and the little car seemed to lurch but somehow the wheels didn’t turn. What was he doing? Time passed. And then the driver of the huge pantechnicon monster opened his door and clambered out, jumping down the last few feet. A big strong man, he strode over to the little old banger and opened the driver’s door. The old man shrank, his hands fluttering. My heart was in my throat. What was going to happen? Should I jump out ready to pull this horribe bully of a man away? Could I do that without falling over? And then I saw that the lorry driver was laughing, shrugging, shaking his head… and finally the old man smiled…. I don’t know what they both said but after a minute the small car started up again, the lorry driver slammed the door and stood back, and the old man slowly crept through… the lorry driver gave him a wave, someone tooted, so I tooted, and the lorry driver clambered back into his cab. Everyone was smiling.

Ain’t that lovely? That old farmer will have tootled on home, a bit abashed maybe, but I’m sure he was smiling too. It could have been so different if impatience or anger had ruled the day and I sent a silent ‘thank you’ to the lorry man.

I’d just read an article about a chef who used to have a daily struggle with anger, or maybe I should call it fury. He would shout and scream at his juniors, and now admits that he had become a bully and was even ‘a little physical’ in the kitchen, but every night he would go home full of self-loathing and regret, perplexed about his rage, wondering where this well-spring of fury came from. He believes that it stemmed from his childhood, and maybe he’s right, but for me some of the explanation came in the next paragraph as he described his life, back in those days of anger; he worked an 80 hour week, in a busy kitchen, striving always to be better, to present one perfect plate of food after another, with a ten year plan in his head, and a family at home who had to manage – mostly- without him. No wonder he was angry – at himself for failing to reach the heights of success, at the food for not being always amazing, at his colleagues for not being everything he needed them to be, at clients for not appreciating him, at his body for being exhausted, at his mind for racing, for time racing past…. maybe even at his family for needing him. Wow. What a punishing life we create for ourselves when we think that we are right and the world is wrong, that we are entitled and noble and that everyone else is less. And what a different world it is when, like that lorry driver, we simply make room and time for each other.

Oh. Sorry. I’m slipping into Little House On The Prairie mode. Hang on, I’ll reset.

But that chef, and then that small traffic snarl-up made me think about anger. I grew up in an angry house and I know the harm it does but sometimes, if we’re deep in the forest, we can’t see the wood for the trees. The chef said “I would tell myself: ‘Tomorrow, I’m not going to do it’. And then I’d go back, and within an hour I would be furious. Those are some of the worst times of my life.” The good news is that now, after ‘many many hours of therapy’ he has lost his anger, and found peace and a balance in his life.

Now I’m thinking of an angry young man I know. He doesn’t seem angry at all – he smiles and calls a cheerful greeting, and he laughs a lot, but he is consumed with anger and frustration that his life and the world is not what he thinks they should be. He’s clever and confident, but he uses his life and energy to post diatribes on facebook and on media platforms and it doesn’t stop online – his anger spills over into his personal life and involves his neighbours. So what if he distresses people, he’s in the right, isn’t he? As I read about the chef I thought about his words ‘Those are some of the worst times of my life.” and I wonder if my young friend is living through the worst times of his life. And if so, who will help him? Will there be a friendly lorry driver for him?

Anger seems to be caused by others, but anger is always a part of self. Me. You. Anger springs from a sense that we are right, that we know best and should be heard, that we should be in control and if we were the world would be a better place, that we have a right to this place, or this time, or this outcome, that my schedule is most important, that you are the one who should reverse down the narrow lane, not me. That you should apologise to validate my rage. Anger is about my right to tell you that you are wrong and to tell you in such a way that you will conform. What’s the word I’m looking for? That’s it – anger is, at heart, simply a bully.

And anger is – wait for it – a sin.

The idea of sin is regarded with suspicion these days. It’s an archaic concept to some people, arbitrary rules that wash all the fun out of life. But the Ten Commandments aren’t there to punish us. They’re there to guide us away from the cliff edge, to save us from the mess we make when we follow our first thoughts, looking for instant unthinking gratification. If you think I’m wrong about sin, imagine a world where all the Ten Commandments are met – no one will betray you, steal from you, attack you and yours, no one will scheme against you because they are jealous, no boss will be unfair and no employee dishonest. Instead you will love and be loved, when you are in need you will be cared for and you will care for others, you will be honoured, you will have shelter and peace, and most of all you will know God.

That’s what a lorry driver, someone I will never meet, brought to my mind today.

And here’s some advice from the Bible, something I learned a long time ago through hard experience:

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
    do not associate with one easily angered

Proverbs 22:24

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
James 1:19-20

And the next, and the next…..

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.

Tsk.

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.

Absurd me.

Some time after my husband died I was in Sainsburys (oh, how I miss Sainsburys, here in the sticks) and reaching into a low freezer cabinet I glimpsed, in a strip of metal, the reflection of a sour, grey and positively frightening face. Startling! Who could it be? Who could be so obviously fierce? You guessed it – it was me! Seeing my reflection like that was a revelation. At 43 years old I realised that the grief and shock of the last few weeks, the upheaval to life, my concern for our daughter, worrying about work and mortgage, alone and adrift, had become etched in my face and in my attitude, turning me into someone older, and colder. That’s what people saw when they saw me, this stranger. That morning was such a good lesson and I’ve tried to remember, since then, that when we see someone who seems unfriendly or even hostile, we don’t know what’s going on in their lives. We don’t know what grief or turmoil they’re trying to cope with at that moment.

How do others see us? What vibes do we give out, unknowingly? My resting face is glum. Time and gravity have done their wicked work and I’m a sour faced old ratbag when I’m not actually making the effort to smile. I hope I’m not a sour faced old ratbag inside but to all intents and purposes… outside…..

Appearances can be deceptive. The person who looks angry may be broken, the person who looks confident may be quaking, the extrovert wreathed in the trappings of success is just as flawed and messy as you and me underneath it all. In fact, the more success and confidence we show to the world, the more effort we have to put in to maintain the illusion. That must be exhausting and, of course, it’s futile. It won’t fool anyone, or ourselves, for long. Robbie Burns saw a louse (nit) on a very grand lady’s hat when he was in church one day and that prompted him to write this:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

In other words, says Robbie (my rough translation) ‘If God would give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, we might not be so full of airs and graces and so pleased with ourselves.’

Certainly that day in Sainsburys pulled me up short and I became aware that I needed to change, to make an effort to rejoin the world, to step away from grief. So, that realisation was a gift. It was. But sometimes seeing ourselves as others do, well, it’s not something to lighten our step and bring a merry whistle to our lips. My neighbour took a photo of me on the beach yesterday. And when I looked at it my immediate thought was “Well, what a fat auld, miserable auld, biddy. Ridiculous. The state of her!”

So this next photo comes with a warning – it’s not a pretty sight – it’s the opposite of Ozymandius; in my case it’s “Look on my lack of wonder, ye mighty, and despair.”

Who is that? It’s surely not wonderful and amazing me? Why is it making me laugh?

And you know what takes us through all these moments, these revelations, and helps us to face the next day? You know what keeps us going when we catch a sight of the real us, when we look down at our hands and see how wrinkled they are, how many age spots we have (just read this morning that the late Queen hated to see her hands in a photo)? What keep us going is the knowledge that even as we are gradually falling apart, we are all still full of life and love and silliness and absurdity. I love our absurdity. I mean, look at that absurd woman on that rain drenched beach, carrying a bag of dog waste (the dogs are out of shot). Isn’t she absurd? She is. She’s ended up in a house with no garden, and now she has to get down to that rain drenched windy beach come hell or high water, every damn morning, Covid or no Covid. Isn’t she absurd?

Here’s something I know for sure – life never unfolds as we have planned it. How boring it would be if it did. We may have the expectation that one day we will be old and surrounded by a loving and caring family, maybe basking on a sunsoaked beach, drinking crisp cold wine while the waves sigh and murmur, but life is not likely to follow suit. Chances are it will unfold in another way entirely. Who’s to know? Who’s to decide? Only time will tell.

And if I could retrospectively plan my life, what would I change now, looking back? Not a single day. Not a single hour. Every minute of my life, the good and the painful, have brought me to this moment, and however ridiculous I am, however absurd, however grey the day, it’s brought me to the knowledge of God, and a meeting with Christ. How could I wish to change a single second? I’ve never, it turns out, been an accidental tourist. I was always guided along the way. When I was toppling off a mountain top, somersaulting to the bottom, yelling all the way, a soft landing had already been arranged. It just took a few knocks to get there.

I just love that all my life there has been happenstance. Things have happened that have set me staggering off one path and onto another. Some were happy happenstances and some not so happy. But I’ve come through them all, just as you are coming through all the messiness and doubts of your lives. We’ve reached this moment for a reason. There is more ahead. So what if there’s the occasional nit in your hair? You can get rid of it. So what if you’re standing in the pouring rain? You are water proof. So what if you are far less than perfect? You are wonderfully, miraculously, amazingly human. And God loves you.

However absurd we are, God loves us. Died for us. Amazing God. 

See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:28-33

Is this what you’d call a rant?

I’ve just read a newspaper report that confirms something I’ve been wondering about for a few weeks…. and I now realise that I’ve entered an alternative world, fallen down a rabbit hole, slipped from one time continuum into another and lost myself. The report is all about the founder of FTX who has filed for bankruptcy. What is FTX? That’s the first question. The answer is ‘FTX is a crypto currency entity.’ Now I ask ‘What is a crypto currency?’ and then add ‘What do you mean by the word entity?’ Apparently the speed of this bankruptcy has sent shock waves through the whole digital assets market. What’s a digital asset? The crisis began on November 2 when a crypto news website (whatever that is) reported the extent to which the business was exposed to FFT, a token issued by FTX…. FTT? FTX? Token? Is that a token of a token? In addition, Bitcoin has lost 20% of its value.. hang on, what’s Bitcoin? I’ve heard of it but never understood it. How can something that doesn’t exist lose 20% of its value – and how can something that is merely a stroke on a screen have any value to start with?

Apparently crypto currencies don’t come into the scope of any financial laws, being totally unregulated, a bit like the Wild West but slicker. The founder of this floundering ‘entity’ is 32 years old and at its peak his personal fortune was 26 BILLION dollars, but this week that’s been wiped out by people scrambling to withdraw their funds. From what? A bank that doesn’t exist? What funds? Pretend money? A 32 year old has no business having 26,000 dollars, let alone 26 million, let alone 26 billion.

Half the world is starving, you foolish empty man.

Total madness. This rabbit hole is deep and dark and steep and I’m ricocheting from side to side, bouncing off the tunnel walls, blind and deaf and utterly confused.

Confusion isn’t new to me. I should be getting used to it. Only today I was reflecting on the fact that here in Wales if a loving parent smacks a child they’ve commited a criminal offence and will be taken to court, the family will be assessed and the child may even be taken away. I find that confusing.

Yesterday I heard an otherwise sane adult, on TV, give an example of child abuse as ‘a child being called by the wrong pronoun’.

A young woman was asked what she does for a living and she said she’s an influencer. Who does she influence? What is her purpose, her beliefs, her ideals? What are her skills, how has she trained, in what way does she make life better, who does she help, what does she make, what is the point of what she does?

Any moment now I expect to find a Cheshire cat grinning at me, and a dormouse asleep in a teapot, and a Queen playing croquet with a flamingo as a mallet.

But then, at lunchtime, I met with two pals and we watched the last in a series of videos on the Book of Genesis and then we had a nice lunch. Not exactly theologically taxing. But, what we lacked in scholarly application we made up for in our discussion (alright ‘chat’) afterwards. And this is what occured to me – you know how the Bible tells us that we were made in God’s image? Well, that’s always puzzled me. I mean, here we are intensely physical, mostly water with a mix of bone and blood, nerves and fat…. that’s not everso like God. And we are full of wrong doing and self and bad decisions, again not everso like God. The things we do are not God-like, from crypto currency to vapid influencing. So, in what way are we made in God’s image? In the videos we’ve been watching Markus Lloyd points out that we are unlike any other animal. No other animal builds skyscrapers, develops anti-biotics, builds jet engines, attempts to reach the moon etc. Seems pretty obvious but as I thought about that, the penny dropped for me.

This may not be right, it’s just what I think, but see if you agree: no other animal is creative. They are problem solving, yes – they take what is available and they weave it into a nest, or they drop a snail from a height onto a rock and so in a sense fashion a tool, they build dams to harvest fish, but they do not reach out beyond themselves and their needs, they do not imagine, they can only react to their environment. They react. Only man creates. Only man makes something from nothing – put a man in a bare cell with nothing, no tools at all, and he will spin stories, remember, sing songs, dream dreams, make plans, compose poems, draw in the dust. Making something from nothing. My husband designed refineries and sometimes a machine would be designed, as he lay in bed at night, staring into the dark. I am a writer and whole film plots would come to me as I walked by Carsington Water, or sat in the garden. It’s not just our ability to create things – songs or statues or machines – it’s our ability to create ideas, to think beyond what we see or know or have experienced.

I know that not everyone is consciously creative. You may feel that you never make anything. But creativity is more than just making things. It’s thinking, understanding, having empathy, reaching out, seeing the needs of others. It’s the young Mum who dreams of a future for her children and so creates opportunties for them. It’s the neighbour who sees a need and steps in to fill it. It’s the Pastor who yearns to share what he knows of God – that’s creative. This is what separates us from the animal kingdom. This is the part of us that is the image of God, the creator. God created man and his very essence, his creativity is in us.

And now I realise that those examples, the mother, the neighbour and the Pastor, are all showing love. Maybe creativity is another word for love. The painter who loves what he sees and longs to recreate it, the writer who delights in the richness of characters and wants to weave them, the musician whose love for music tumbles out of him. Maybe that’s the part of us that is in the image of God. That makes sense, doesn’t it? God is love and we are made in his image, and because we love we reach out and when we reach out we pass his love to others, and so the creation continues.

Man is wonderful, because God is wonderful. God makes us beautiful. Then we come along and bugger it up. We create nonsense currencies that implode, influencers who are empty and meaningless, we create millionaires while children starve, we take the Ten Commandments and decide which ones suit us, we are just so foolish. Are we more foolish now than we used to be, or am I just getting old?

It’s a jolly good job that God loves us anyway, with his eternal unchanging unconditional love. I struggle to love the crypto billionaire while God loves him totally, immersively, unendingly. Amazing God. He loves the rich and foolish young man of the Gospels, and the thief on the cross, and – wow, listen! – he loves you and he loves me.

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:17-18

History, dead and alive

My aunty Nelly,
she had a wooden belly,
And every time she walked,
it wobbled like a jelly.

That’s what I woke up thinking this morning. It’s a skipping rhyme. That’s what my mind does, left to its own devices. I’d been dreaming about life in Lancashire in the 1950s, back when I had several Aunty Nellys; There was Aunty Nelly Bourne my mum’s sister, and Aunty Nelly Simcock my Dad’s sister (married a Simcock), and Aunty Nelly Gannon, who had married my Uncle Hugh, and Aunty Nelly Shufflebottom (true) who wasn’t an Aunty at all but was adopted as one. Oh, and there was Aunty Nelly Grimshaw who … no, I can’t remember where she came into the story, but I do remember her wrap-around pinny, her apologetic hand-wringing mildness, the wide wide reach of her forehead … hang on… she had that forehead. Us Gannons all have huge foreheads. Maybe she was originally a Gannon before she met a Grimshaw…. and then there was Aunty Nelly Arnold. She was made of much sterner stuff than anyone else I have ever known. Really. Formidable woman. She had no children, her husband was long dead, she had little conversation, and we saw her only on a Saturday afternoon when we were coal collecting on the slag heap.

The main workings of the mine stopped at mid-day on Saturday, leaving just a skeleton team to keep the shafts ventilated and drained. That meant that there were no gangs of men on the waste heaps and we could scavange for our families. It sounds like child labour now but it was a raucous game back then – a competition to fill prams and carts and wheelbarrows, and to see who could get the most. Everyone on the slag heap was under the age of 15, apart from Aunty Nelly Arnold. She must have been about 60, I think, and scrambled up the sliding, skittering heap without our speed or agility, but with silent determination and great big feet in great big boots, her elbows jutting out like sails on a boat, keeping her upright when the coal beneath her feet began to slide. We played and whooped and skidded around her, fashioning slides from sheets of iron, but she was single minded.

She didn’t hang around on the lower slopes, either – she was up at the top with the big lads, with the daredevils and the tomboys. We filled our prams and carts with the coal, but she had a sack around her neck, dangling in front of her, until there was no room for another nugget, another pebble. Then she would lower it to the ground, turn her back to it, put the handles around her forehead and walk home, bandy legged, with enough coal to keep her fire going for a couple of days.

She would have carried far far more than this, but you get the idea.

I don’t know what her family name was, but she was called Arnold because she had come to Lancashire from Arnold, near Nottingham, as a young bride, a lace maker, dumped down in a town where there was no call for her skills. It was hard to imagine her huge rough hands – caked in coal dust whenever we saw her – making delicate lace, her broad shoulders bent over a dancing wave of nimble bobbins, delicate white thread weaving into magical patterns. But that’s who she had been and what she had known, once. If she could have known that one day she would be scaling a slag heap for coal waste, would that young woman still have walked down the aisle to say “I do”?

I wonder if there was a deep abiding love in the marriage, maybe that’s why she stayed a widow. I hope she knew love. I hope that’s what kept her going in the long lonely years.

Every week she would ask after our Aunty Nelly Bourne (who we lived with) and every week as we returned home Aunty Nelly would ask after her. As the only Protestant in our family she didn’t go to Mass, and no one had telephones to keep in touch so this small contact was important. I used to think that this exchange and this outing, was the only one she had all week but that must be nonsense – she must have gone to the shop for bread and milk, she must have had neighbours who knew her in those dense terraced streets. Maybe she had a great life – maybe I misunderstood. Maybe she had a hundred friends, long nights of laughter and beer. Maybe she just didn’t have much patience with a crowd of dirty urchins. Maybe the writer in me, even then, imagined a far more tragic life than the one she really led. I hope so. I don’t know what happened to Aunty Nelly Arnold, or any of the other aunties who – for a few years – loomed so large in my life. All dead now, of course.

If we were to meet now… “Look, Aunty Nelly, this is a blog, this is a computer, this is a mobile phone, this is a colour television, outside is my car, that’s a gas fire, this is a washing machine, that’s a toaster, that’s a microwave…. this funny thing here is called Alexa….. and listen, there is no coal in the house, none.” Maybe that’s the bit that would really intrigue her. No coal! No coal when her whole life revolved around coal. Coal kept her warm, heated the water to wash her clothes, cooked her food, coal powered the factories, trains and shipping, coal brought in the weekly wage, coal was everything. Black gold. And coal killed her husband. Now there aren’t even any working mines left. I wonder if she could have begun to understand that. No more slag heaps, because they are all planted out or bulldozed flat. Her world is gone.

The world changes as it turns. I think I may be the last person to remember Aunty Nelly Arnold. And now you know about her. A fragile link to the past, from me to you.

Do you ever think about life when Jesus walked the Earth? I don’t mean his life, I mean the lives of people like you and me, living where we are now. If you didn’t know about children collecting waste coal just 60 years ago, think how much more we don’t know about life a couple of thousand years ago. There’s not a deal we know about the daily round of the British Isles in Christ’s day, and it’s probably the same for most places (this blog reaches 36 countries and I’m sure many will have the same wooolly past). The Romans didn’t start arriving until about 40 years after the Crucifixion, and they came with their advanced government, their legions and engineers, while us natives were still a rabble of warring tribes and small kingdoms, an agricultural iron-age society. Historical fact about our way of life then is sparse, to say the least – for example, the Celts who occupied most of Wales (where I am living now) didn’t have a written language, relying on story telling and rituals to preserve their history. Yet we have such a clear picture of life in the Middle East, the seat of learning and civilisation, we know where Jesus lived, how he spoke, who he met. Who he was and is.

It amazes me that we can be so familiar with the life of Jesus, even listening in to his conversations, and his interactions with a hundred people we will never meet. The rest of us slip away into history, forgotten in a couple of generations, but in the New Testament – quite a short book – we meet with Jesus Christ, man and God, and two thousand years later, in staggeringly different societies, in our own language, we become truly familiar with his world, his life, his teaching. I think that’s just amazing. I have a friend who says, when he talks of the Bible, ‘This is the living word’ and his voice is filled with conviction and passion and delight. He’s right. The living Word is in the living word. Living now. Open the pages of the bible and we meet with God himself. That’s staggering. The world changes, but the Word remains. Accessible, clear, so that we can meet with God. You and me. Isn’t that wonderful? Listen to this piece of Jesus’ life, from Luke 7, imagine this scene, marvel at how much we know about the God who made us:

One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

What could be clearer? Kind, compassionate, egalitarian, patient, wise…. Open the Bible and meet this man. Living history. Like Aunty Nelly Arnold, we will all slip away from this world, and soon be forgotten, but the Word will last for ever.

Night duty.

I’ve just watched a Louis Theroux chat with Dame Judi Dench. It can’t be called an interview, because while it was clever and structured there was nothing formal about it, or confronting. They were two people who really like each other, spending a Summer’s day together, with a camera rolling nearby. The first person we met in the programme was Sweetheart, a grey parrot, much loved by Judi. Of course the parrot, being a pet (and pets being ornery) refused to speak on camera, so we were treated instead to several impressions of its voice. And it reminded me of something that still makes me laugh, and still makes my heart beat a little too fast, 40 (or so) years after it happened:

Our daughter was a toddler so I wasn’t working full time but occasionally I’d get a call from a nursing agency to cover for night staff who were off with illness, or holidays. The jobs could be anywhere, for anyone, a whole ward or a single patient, a child or an oldie. The jobs didn’t come up very often, but when they did the wages were very welcome and I enjoyed the variety, and if it was a hospital or nursing home I enjoyed the company of other nurses. One night I was called out to a bungalow, about ten miles from Derby, and I arrived at ten, in the pitch dark, and had only the vaguest idea of the surroundings. It felt isolated. The night was stormy, cold, and it was mid winter. There wasn’t even a glimmer of light at the windows of the gloomy bungalow. Sound like a horror film? Yep.

I was met at the door by the nurse who had been on duty all evening and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. She barely did a hand-over, was already in her coat and hat, with her car keys in her hand. I already knew that this was an end-of-life vigil, so the silent, dark house was no surprise, but it did feel unusually cold and it smelled a bit damp and… well, like I say, gloom was all around.

The patient was a very elderly woman, unconscious, frail and deathly still. The only sounds in the house were the ticking of a clock in the hall, the faint sigh of her breath, a gentle rasp of fluid in her throat. I pulled an armchair up to the side of the bed and, in the halo of light from a bedside lamp, I read up her notes. There was nothing to be done. She was warm and dry and settled. There was no medication due and only a iv drip to maintain. The hours passed very slowly, the usual routine of glycerine for her lips, a gentle rearranging of her body so that her skin didn’t break down, and an occasional word of comfort, just in case she could hear. The house was so quiet that my voice was intrusive, dischordant, and croaky. I looked around the room. There’s something about the houses of the very old, of that generation, that’s unmistakeably post-war. Behind me there were curtains from the ceiling to the floor, in a murky brown fabric, not unlike Army buff but with apologetic small faded daisies here and there. The dressing table was obviously utility issue, from the 1940’s, the lampshades were that weird sort of plastic-but-not- quite- plastic material, there were doilies and nick-nacks everywhere, and a scent of something that tried to be floral but was mostly chemical. Talcum powder perhaps. Poor old lady, dying all alone, tended by strangers.

In the wee small hours, there in that lonely, isolated, silent house, as I turned a page in my book and glanced up at my patient, an old man said, so close that that I could almost feel him “What time is it?”

I can’t describe my terror, the rush of blood to my heart, the electric shock, the startle reflex. I damn near fell out of the chair. And then the old man said again, “What time is it?’ The voice was croaky, harsh, demanding. He was behind the curtain. Right behind me! I could feel him. Somehow I reached out a shaking hand, and parted the heavy fabric… in the gloom a shape loomed towards me…. a small sharp rustling sound… my breath was frozen…. it was a mynah bird. A mynah bird in its cage in the bay window. I hadn’t even realised that it was a bay window. Beyond Mr Mynah, dawn was breaking, and I suppose that’s what woke him.

The old lady didn’t stir. The bird dipped his head and blinked slowly, as if waiting. My heart was still pounding, my legs shaking, I was in that strange limbo between laughter and terror, as I found myself looking at my watch and obediently answering ‘Nearly four o clock’

Busy busy busy, stuff stuff stuff.

On a Tuesday morning the narrow lanes and roads of this village are busy with refuse lorries, and queues of patient drivers, waiting to squeeze past when the opportunity arrives. Every week the teams come for recyclable packaging, and food waste and glass and every third week they take the stuff that can’t be recycled – the wrong sort of plastic, cellophane, tin foil and the like. I love Tuesdays but I love Mondays even more; the day when I fill the right bag with the right rubbish and put it out ready to be taken early the next morning. I love shedding. Shedding the skin of the week. And I don’t like stuff.

That’s the thing. I object to stuff. There’s too much of it in our Western lives.

After nearly 74 years on this Earth, I have all the stuff I want, or need. As a youngster I gobbled up the Earth’s resources, unthinkingly, as if I had a perfect right. Now, I look back and I think ‘What a twit’. I was never one for possessions, and always travelled light, but I didn’t give much thought to the way I was living. I look back at the old me and shake my head. What was she doing? How come she was so busy being busy? I usually had three projects on the go, a series or film in production, a series or film in development and a series or film at the treatment stage. Why? Bonkers.

Now I’m busy doing nothing (well, very little) and my house is called ‘Selah’, roughly translated as ‘pause and think’, so I try to do just that. And this last few days I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the way we all live in 2022.

I don’t want to mislead you – I’m not now a worthy old hermit, living in a hollowed out lump of rock on a cliff somewhere, denying myself any pleasure, thinking deep thoughts the like of which the world has never known. I’m still an unreconstructed bumbler and I love life and have a good one. I have a comfortable house, far from austere because over a long life you pick things up – like mud on your shoes – but everything around me holds some sort of history, a personal memory and affection. Everything I’ve kept I either love or use (I’m resisting the temptation to quote William Morris) and when I die whoever empties my home will have an easy job, one that shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.

So I’m fortunate, and I know it – I don’t need any more ‘things’. That means that I don’t appreciate gifts. There. I’ve said it. It sounds rude but the simple truth is, I do not appreciate gifts. I don’t. I appreciate the thought but not the thing. I already have enough. If it’s wine or food, a real consummable, great. Many thanks. Truly. Anything else, anything that will clutter up my desk or bookcase or kitchen, forget it. I sometimes get a new jigsaw but if one comes in, one goes out. When I want to read a new book, a physical book rather than a kindle, then I buy it, read it and quickly give it away. Simple.

This simple way of living isn’t everyone’s idea of a good life. There are people who have everything, who love having whole houses full of stuff, attics full of memorabilia that once meant something to someone, garages piled high to the rafters, every cupboard crammed full and that makes them happy. But everything needs looking after or it moulders or fades or rusts or crumbles and they have all that stuff to attend to but, like me, they have just this one life. How do they do it? I think their lives must be a juggling act, a constant nagging awareness that there are things that must be done – pay this and pay that, get a licence for this, pay the tax on that, insure the house and the car(s), get the MOT done, service this, mend that, replace the batteries, buy the next gadget, update the software, charge the…. and so it goes on. Maybe the list of things that need doing gives an immediacy to their lives, maybe they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they woke up in the morning with a whole empty day stretching ahead. Even when they plan a break from it all, a holiday, they spend weeks beforehand arranging flights, checking passports and visas, getting this vaccination, that certificate, insuring health, travel, accommodation, and when they get there they have another list – hire a car, visit this place, photograph that work of art, swim in this sea, sail on that lake… always always busy, always with a list of things waiting to be ticked off.

And as for millionaires with two or three homes… why? Where the hell is the sense in that?

What’s so difficult about living simply? It’s an option. A good one. It just takes a decision and then a tiny bit of discipline. And when you’re not ticking off a list of must-do’s and must-have’s, you have plenty of time for thinking, discovering, finding joy, having a laugh, watching clouds. You know, all the important stuff.

Marx talked about religion as the opiate of the masses, and he was right. Religiosity was a sop, making society passive, complying and complacent. But these days I think that society is dedicated to another opiate entirely – being busy with the must-haves and must-do’s of the day. And money in the bank. Oh, don’t get me started on money-in-the-bank!

Money in the bank, if it is beyond what we are likely to need in our lifetime, is an obscenity. When over half the world is starving, in drought or in flood, when children are blinded by conditions that can easily be cured, when people are truly homeless, when water born diseases ravage communities, what right does anyone have to store up money, so that it sits, useless and obscene, in their accounts? I think that the Christian who dies wealthy is going to have a bit of explaining to do. I want to die absolutely broke and down on my uppers (and it look like I might succeed!) That would be a good death.

I am so fortunate. I know it. I have my luxuries; my three dogs (only ever wanted one but they keep needing homes) and my old car that may keep going for a little bit longer so that we can walk on the beach every morning. And friends. And you bloggers. That’s all I need.

Today we were caught in a downpour – the heavens opened and Pico ran back to the car without me so we followed him and squelched homewards. I towelled the dogs, fed them, changed every bit of clothing, had a coffee and then looked out – the sun was shining! We went down to the sea again and this time managed to stay dry.

I have everything I need for a simple life. I am blessed. Why would anyone want more than simplicity? Simplicity isn’t dull. I have time to think things now that I never had the time to think back then when I was a busy little beaver. It seems that just about every day I find something new and exciting, or even startling. A simple life is amazing.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:19-21

And of course, of course, Jesus goes to the very heart of it. When possessions and success are our priority, there is very little room for God.

Eternity is waiting. None of this stuff matters. One day we will leave it all behind, everything. What a great shedding of stuff that will be!

The day the bin men take me out with the rubbish! Bring it on.

New Eyes

I’ve just come back to normal life after a two day sort of staycation-while-doing-something-different holiday. Friends arrived from London for some fresh air and sea views so I’ve been driving them around, to Mwnt and Poppit and the Preseli Hills, and there was an evening with more friends, catching up on the last four years, oh, and lunch out. A real staycation.

It’s been interesting to see the world through the eyes of newcomers. What has become normal and often unremarkable to me was breathtaking to them. Shrieks of delight as we rounded a corner, a gasp as we crested a hill. On a road that to me is just ‘the quickest way to the supermarket’ they were spellbound by the sky, the sweeping hills, the distant sea, the autumn gorse in all its vibrant fiery colour, the sheep, the air, the everything. I know that if I was to visit them at their home in London, I would be just as struck by the noise and bustle, the architecture, the availability of just about anything, the nearness of galleries and museums and restaurants and shows and …. all the things they probably don’t even notice any more.

We have so much and so much and so much, wherever we live, so that our senses can become dulled, so that the wonderful colour and life all around us is just wallpaper. It was good to see the place with their fresh wonder. There’s no denying, I didn’t read a lot of Bible over the last three days, so inspiration and any insight may be lagging right now – I barely squeezed in a Psalm on waking and another on going to bed. But, you know how it is – I meant to read a whole lot more. Oh, hang on – I read a couple of chapters of Genesis when my pals were walking up the cliff slope at Mwnt (but my attention wandered so that I ended up taking photos instead). Here they are setting off

And this is them at the top

And these are some of the words I read while they were up there, dazzled by the world……

And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.’  So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault ‘sky’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day.

And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’ And it was so.  God called the dry ground ‘land’, and the gathered waters he called ‘seas’. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis. Doesn’t that book put a spring in your step, a gasp in your throat? What a wonderful world we have, and – speaking entirely for myself now – how rarely I appreciate it in all its amazing glory.

This was the beach this morning:

And God (and Luce) saw that it was good.

Storms pass

‘The best laid plan so mice and men gang aft a-gley.’ So said Robbie Burns. What he meant to say was that even a budget and a mini budget and a u-turn or two, and a sacking and another sacking, sometimes don’t quite achieve the result you wanted.

But that’s enough about politics. Suffice it to say that the pantomime season has arrived early this year.

Last night we had an amazing thunder and lightning storm lasting for a couple of hours. The lightning turned the night startling-neon, dazzling the senses so that the little cottages in my street seemed to jump as the sky lit up. The thunder, a continuous long deep rumble rose up all around, from the air, the sky, and even from the ground. I stood on the doorstep and breathed in the electric atmosphere, smelling the ozone, skin prickling as I watched the rain flowing past the house, gurgling in the gutters, splashing off the rooftops. It was wonderful. It was the perfect moment to sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee, how great You are, how great You are.’ and to sing it with gusto because there was no one in the street to hear it, and even if they had been there, the storm would have drowned my bellowing. I mean, singing. Exhilarating.

This morning the world was calm. The storm had passed, as all storms do, and I sang those words again, with a new awareness of His power. But quieter. I learned my lesson about singing too lustily one windy day a couple of years back when, with the beach empty, I stood by the dunes and sang with all my heart, as loud as I could. It was pretty wintery and I had the beach to myself. Before I start I always check there’s no one anywhere near and there was positively no one. Honest. I really looked. The song was ‘Blessed Assurrance’ and those of you who know it will remember that it has a full-pelt, no holds barred chorus. A rip roarer. I was well away into the third or fourth repeat of that chorus (‘THIS is my story, THIS is my song!) when I saw that Percy was watching something behind me. Yep. The beach was deserted but the dunes weren’t. An obviously alarmed couple were scurrying past, probably hoping that I wouldn’t see them. What do you do in that situation? Brazen it out? Fall silent or keep singing? I broke off and shouted a cheery “Morning!’ but they just nodded, almost falling over each other in their haste to get away. Ah, well.

When we lived in Johannesburg there were quite a few brief thunderstorms, usually at mid-day, but the lightning and the noise seemed miles away, not around us, and under us and in us, like last night’s storm. I do love a good storm. A storm of Biblical proportions, as they say.

Talking of which, in our Bible study we’re watching a series of videos delving into the Mysteries of Genesis (by Markus Lloyd) and last week we heard about The Flood. The footage of the Grand Canyon, and the filming of the volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helen, and its effects, were amazing. Thought provoking. If you haven’t discovered Rightnowmedia yet, I do recommend it.

Anyway. No storms tonight. Even Downing Street and Parliament are settling down into something less frenetic and chaotic. Spare a thought for Liz Truss, and a prayer for her, she’s done her best and failed and that’s always a hard hard knock and this one has turned her into a figure of ridicule all over the world. Probably for the rest of her life. So do pray for her, she’s no worse than you and me, and she did her best.

‘One last thing…..’

My youngest granddaughter is in London this weekend, and before she left home in Cardiff to catch the train she sent me a text, excited and happy. Now, I know she’s 15 and I know she’s done it before, and I know she will be met at Paddington but I still couldn’t resist texting back ‘Be safe, go carefully, have fun, but keep safe. Don’t go anywhere on your own. ” I can imagine her reading that and thinking “Yeah, yeah, I know!”

Sometimes we need to be told what we already know, and sometimes we can’t help repeating ourselves.

I’ve been reading Hebrews 12 & 13 as part of a project with a friend. The book of Hebrews is a heavy old thing, wonderful and full of substance and ideas and truths. Those two concluding chapters remind me of the sort of thing you might say to a youngster if they’re going on a long journey without you; a sort of round-up of all you’ve ever said to them about keeping safe and sensible and… erm, don’t talk to strangers and make sure you always have some cash in your pocket, and … you know … all the sensible stuff of experience. But the writer of Hebrews isn’t reminding the traveller about passports and sandwiches, but about never giving up, always heading purposefully towards Jesus, looking after each other, listening to good advice, always learning…. loving each other… looking to God for support. Just as practical (but less prosaic) as ‘go to the loo before you get on the train.’

I don’t know who wrote it, most scholars say it was a contemporary of Paul if not Paul himself, but whoever it was, I get him, I think. The clear impression I draw from those two last chapters is that they are exactly the sort of farewell we are all familiar with, and the warmth and concern of the writer just shines through. He’s said all he wanted to say but he can’t resist saying it again, in shorthand, in practical terms, as the front door opens, the taxi is waiting at the kerbside, and the traveller is about to depart. “Before you go – hang on – remember what I said…. in case I didn’t make myself crystal clear….” He’s earnest and urgent.

And strangely, weirdly, these two chapters, written to Hebrews two thousand years ago, made me think of my friend Michael, and of his death. I didn’t know Michael for long – we met only a couple of years before he died but it was long enough to really like him, because he was a twinkly, naughty kinda guy, and we somehow understood each other. When I met him he wasn’t a Christian and he had a certain resistance to the gentle society of Christians, which was unfortunate as his wife Jane was deep into church life. She would bring him to my house for various churchy meetings, and he would sit in the back row, rolling his eyes and sighing, not quite disruptive but always in danger of erupting into a snorting giggle and getting a dirty look from Jane, probably wishing he was down the pub instead of listening to a talk on Ephesians. Eventually, I would give him the nod and we would sneak away to the kitchen and snigger together about… oh, I don’t know, everything. He was a full-time mischief-maker.

I hadn’t known him for long when he was diagnosed with cancer, advanced and voracious. It was a terrible blow, made more shocking by the vitality and sheer physical presence, the booming voice and the jokiness of the man. All through his illness he remained good natured, equable, funny and naughty while the rest of us prayed for him, for his spiritual life and for healing. One day, when the medical team had told him that all there was for him now was palliative care, he told me that he resented being prayed for, but he understood that it was all we could do when we all felt the need to do something. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, Michael began to listen, to think and to search. It helped that there were people in the church he trusted and liked, people he could relax with and question and with whom he could share his doubt. And it was a teaching church, not at all preachy. He realised that Christianity isn’t about trying to believe, or pretending to believe, it’s about discovering that – one day – you’ve done the thinking, the searching, and you believe.

So with no great ‘road to Damascus’ moment, he realised that Jesus Christ was and is the Son of God. That He died to redeem mankind. I remember Jane nudging him, half in delight, half in amazement and disbelief, “You’re sure? You’re absolutely sure?”

He was.

When he was a few days from death he was baptised, but he was far too ill to even sit up properly so he was baptised in bed, with his family and friends gathered around. He had very determinedly arranged it so that all his family were there – his non believing children and grand children, and that’s when he did that Hebrews 12 &13 thing….. ‘Before I go, I just want to say this….’. He spoke movingly and seriously to his family, told them what Christ meant to him, what Christ could mean to them, he gave them small loving nuggets of wonderful advice, and then he was baptised. There are some moments that stay vivid and immediate in our memories for ever, and this was one such moment for me; As our Pastor and friend Rob asked him the simple questions that would lead him to his statement of faith, Michael answered clearly and firmly, his voice strong. Our church usually baptises by immersion but for Michael there was just a trickle of water on his forehead, a symbol of a symbol if you like, and afterwards – this is the moment I will never forget – there was visible peace and joy on Michael’s face. I see him even now. He put a thin weak hand up to Rob, a thank you, and Rob took it in his two strong hands. And in that moment, there was a small piece of heaven in that room, a glimpse of eternity, the living and the dying and the eternal. There was. I will never forget it.

Afterwards, as I sat with Michael and we looked back on the day, I congratulated him on organisiing his whole family so efficiently, getting them all there on the right day from all the corners of the UK….. and he grinned. He said ‘They were a bit shocked, eh?” and he was right. The last time they’d seen him he was the old dad and the old Michael, non-Christian and barely tolerant of his wife’s beliefs. As he had spoken to them they had stood in stunned silence, hungrily searching his face, trying to understand this new and joyful man. I told him that as they had gathered, standing around the bed, I couldn’t help smiling because it reminded me of one of those very tragic Victorian paintings, maybe the death of Nelson. He snorted with laughter and then dutifully tried to look tragic but couldn’t, because he wasn’t a tragic kinda bloke. We just ended up laughing as usual.

Thank you for coming, but maybe that’s enough Meatloaf.

I know that the opportunity to speak to his family about the most important aspect of his life gave Michael a peaceful death. His story was told, his race was run, and maybe that’s what the writer of Hebrews felt as he finished dictating the very last verse, the blessing, ‘May God’s grace be with you all.’

In those last couple of peaceful, drowsy days, Michael bequeathed Jane to me. There’s no other way to word it. He didn’t ask me to look after her, or befriend her, he bloody well gave her to me, whether I wanted her or not. He knew what he was doing, he had it planned. He knew that whatever he wanted, in those last days, he would not be refused. Cunning man. And right enough, Jane was a wonderful, funny, equally mischievous, silly, sweet friend. She was diagnosed with cancer not long after and now she’s in eternity along with Mike. I miss them both.

Hmmm. I was supposed to be studying Hebrews 12&13 this afternoon, and instead I’ve been telling you all about Michael and Jane.

What a twit I am.

But the fact remains, the Bible is deep and detailed and instructive but, more than anything else, the Bible is full of love, concern and understanding. Humanity. The more I read the it the more certain I am that we are loved.

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. John 11:25