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’
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.
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.
‘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.
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?”
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.
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
William Shatner hoped that by going into space in October 2021 at a mere 90 years of age, he would experience what he called “the ultimate catharsis”, a sense of the connection between all living things. I understand that sentiment so well, we all long for completeness, don’t we? A sense of interconnection, of relevance, knowledge (indeed, the motive for the original sin was a desire to know as much as God does, to understand everything). Shatner hoped that up there, beyond the confines of the Earth, he would – with that fabulous new perspective – make sense of the Universe, of life itself. But that wasn’t what he experienced, not at all.
In his own words: ‘When I looked into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.”
“I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. .. I turned back toward the light of home… I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.”
Shatner writes “It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral. “
When he returned to Earth after that amazing experience, Shatner was overcome with emotion and disillusionment. “Everybody else was shaking bottles of champagne, and it was quite a sense of accomplishment. And I didn’t feel that way at all.” Shatner said.
Only later did he realise that he had experienced the “Overview Effect”, a reaction common among astronauts. It’s a little bit like (and the very opposite of) my friend Gareth who loves sea swimming every morning. because it gives him a sense of his place in the universe, seeing himself as a tiny tiny scrap of life in all of history and space and existence. But Gareth finds joy in the vastness of time and space, while Bill Shatner found despair. The same, you could say, but very different.
Of course Bill Shatner’s senses must have been deeply influenced and stimulated by fear. He says that he was terrified as he strapped himself into the rocket, remembering the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, knowing that in a second, a fraction of a second, it could all be done for him, his story told. When my friend Gareth thinks his thoughts, relaxing into the gentle sea, the worst that might happen is a seal popping up nearby to startle him, but Bill Shatner was strapped into a rocket, helpless, a bit bewildered, and very vulnerable shooting through space. It’s no wonder their conclusions are so different.
I do like William Shatner. He’s a character, right enough, a big bold full-on personality, a fireball of energy, and curiosity, even at 90 plus years of age. But if he’s looking for the meaning of life, he’s looking in the wrong place. The meaning of life isn’t ‘out there’. It isn’t in a view, or in travel and new experiences, the meaning of life is within us, around us, where we are right now.
The only Overview Effect I want, and the one that leaves me breathless and celebrating, is in the Bible. I get my perspective, my sense of awe and of history from its pages. Take Psalm 8, for example:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
And listen to this, written hundreds of years before Christ, before man went up there into the vast nothingness….
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.
Sometimes, Mr Shatner, dear old Bill, simple words, well written in truth, will deliver what a space rocket can’t ….. that sense of wonder and completeness.
Not that I’m particularly proud of the fact, and not that I’m planting a flag on a mountain peak to assert my wondrous deeds, but listen, I’m 73, chances are whatever you’re going through right now, I was there before you.
And I’ve survived. As you will. And it’s not only me – everyone else who has reached old age or some sort of maturity has clambered up that mountain before you and has paused and wondered if they would ever make it, standing maybe where you are now. We have been where you are and known the same feelings, thought the same thoughts. Circumstances will have been different, and our reactions may have been wildly different, but we have all had – at some time – the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now. And we are still here. For all I went through in 73 helter-skelter, sometimes dreary years, I am still here, stumbling on, enjoying the mornings, loving the dark night sky, toast and marmalade for lunch, a daft Skype with a daft pal, work to do, dogs to feed, life going on.
I know that some of you are feeling bleak and hopeless. You’re not alone. That’s the message. You are not alone. We’ve all been there to some degree. Sometimes being in the moment is terrible, a dark vortex, an endless desert, a raging forest fire, but when we look back… it was a dip, a dry patch, a grate of dying embers. That’s all. It passed. The world kept on turning and while life never becomes absolutely perfect, it was and is always, at its heart, worthwhile
I sometimes think of our emotions as if they are nerve endings; If we put a tiny crumb in our mouth, our sensitive wonderful nerve endings will magnify that crumb, so that it seems much bigger, so that we can taste it, sense its surface, its texture…. and when we take it out on the end of a finger and look at it, there it is – tiny, tiny. That’s what our understanding of this present moment is like. It feels huge when it is truly small. It feels never ending, when it’s barely a fleeting minute. If we are happy, our senses are filled with a warm glow, untroubled and elated, and if we are sad our sadness colours everything we hear and see and try to understand, so that the more we feel, the deeper we plunge.
Our emotions are deceiving.
I’ve been re-reading Ecclesiastes. That’s the book that includes ‘there is a season for everything under heaven‘ (Pete Seeger put it to music in ‘Turn, turn, turn’)
‘ a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build’
That’s usually quoted as a sort of ‘feel good’ thought, an encouragement, and if that’s what you get from it, good for you. It gives comfort and perspective at funerals, and that’s great. But Ecclesiastes is so much more than comfort, more than clever words. Clever words can be no more than a marketing slogan. Ecclesiastes is all about reality, about looking at the world with a cold and rational eye, and if you’re already in a dark frame of mind and read it subjectively (as if it’s all about you) it might plunge you into the pit. But take a deep breath and read on, because this is a comprehensive look at all life, an honest, open, unshielded look at the world, and it sees light as well as shade, grief alongside joy.
Ecclesiastes won’t jolly you along, manipulating your absolutely understandable desire to feel good, but it will treat you as an adult and take you on a honest exploration of living. If you read it with an enquiring, open mind, it’s ultimately life affirming but never cosy. Ecclesiastes is the opposite to the Pollyanna approach, the pretence that all is happy-happy and wonderful in life if we just wish it so. That we all have the right to everything all the time. Modern marketing and some contemporary churches preach that, if we do it right, life is good, all the time.
God is good all the time. That’s the truth. But life, sometimes is difficult. But it is always, always worthwhile.
Don’t fall for the modern myth that we can all have everything we want, all the time. We can’t. But what we do have is wonderful. Look around you. Look at the sky, look at the roads, the trees, the people, look at your hands. I mean, really, look at your hands! Aren’t they fantastic? Look at how the fingers articulate, how the nails protect, how the skin is elastic, how the fabulous design allows us to point and lift and grasp and turn and feel. They can make robots now that do most of these things but they can’t really feel, they can only respond to mechanical stimuli. And the great thing about your hand, as you look at it, is that it’s ageing and regenerating, both at once. Growing new fibres to replace the old, new nail to replace the old, it’s waterproof, it can send an impulse to your brain in a millionth of a second – it even has self healing powers. And that’s just your hand! What about the rest of you? You’re a blinking’ miracle, that’s what you are.
You are wonderful. However you live your life, that life is a miracle. You have 100,000 miles of blood vessels in your body (thanks, Google) and a trillion bacteria are keeping you infection free (ta Google), you have 37 trillion cells making up your body (very roughly!) and with every second that we live we produce 25 million new cells. Can that be right? Really? 25 million? Apparently so. The new cells aren’t quite perfect as we age, but only life can do this. Robots rust and fall apart. We go on for years and years, regenerating. We are bloody marvellous. We have been made by a Master Craftsman. No life can be replicated, from your tip to your toe, from your first breath to your last, you are a one-off, unique in every way. And things that are unique are valuable, they are treasures. Your life is a treasure. You are valued. If I was on Antiques Roadshow I’d be worth a few quid.
Lest you’re thinking “Huh! What does she know about my lousy life?” let me share a few facts… my mum died after two years of blindness and confusion when I was 7, and before I was ten I had lived in 4 different countries and 9 different houses, I was abused by an uncle and his cronies, my brother was beaten, by this time I was a mess and I was labelled ESN, my stepmother loathed me, I was kicked out as soon as she could do so and the only home I could find was in the Army, desperate for home and love and stability I married the first bloke who came along, and he was violent. My second husband was lovely but he dropped dead suddenly leaving me and our 14 year old daughter. So, I’ve known ‘stuff’. Lots of hard stuff and I still have some hard stuff to deal with. I’ve had my share of bleak bad days, but here’s the thing – I don’t regret a single one of them. I wish that my uncle hadn’t been the man he was, but I don’t want to go back there and rewrite my life. It’s my life and look – I’m still here! And it’s been a good life.
I struggled with depression as a young woman, at 19 I tried to kill myself (this is where you ask if I succeeded),and it took years to emerge from that terrible illness. But gradually I did and although there are times even now when I recognise its shadow, I’ve learned to recognise depression as an imposter, a warped version of the truth. And I’ve learned (never to be unlearned) that God is good, that He is love, and that I am loved.
And you, whoever you are, are loved by God. You are His miracle. How can you know for sure that God is good? Well, remember to look around you, to look at that hand of yours, your wonderful body, think about the amazing fact that you exist, that you have all those miles of blood vessels, trillions of body cells… and they’re all in the right place at the right time to create life and then to keep you going. Think about the great potential of the human mind and know that all this was created for a purpose by a loving God.
For ever since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through His workmanship, all His creation, the wonderful things that He has made… Romans 1:20
You are one of ‘the wonderful things that he has made’! And he won’t desert you in your hour and days of need.
‘No trial has overtaken you that is not distinctively human; and God is faithful; · he will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear, but with the trial will also provide the way through, so that you will be able to endure it.’ 1 Corinthians 10:13
This was the beach the morning, no filter, sunshine and shade. Like life.
And this was the same beach just a few seconds later, same camera, no filter, same me.
The world keeps turning, light turns to shadow and shadow to light,
Listen, listen, wherever you are right now, however you are feeling, know this. The world is a good place, and it is an even better place with you in it. Whatever you are going through, will pass. Just keep on, keeping on. Take one small step, take one deep breath, and then another, and then another. Wait for the sun. It’s there. It’s coming. Breathe. There are good days ahead.
You meet all sorts of people on the beach, and every one of them has a story. They might not know it, they might think that their story is far too dull to interest anyone or, even if it’s an amazing saga of adventure and discovery, they may not want to share it. But sometimes they know it’s worth telling, and so they do. This morning I heard one such story, one man’s simple but profound account of his gradual walk away from depression and sadness, to peace.
He’s a bloke I see most mornings, as he walks into the sea and I plod along on the sand. For two years we’ve been nodding at each other, Gareth and me, then graduated to a wave, and then a ‘hello’, but now we’ve had an actual for-real conversation. Usually he’s with a friend, and they have their routine and I have mine and ne’er the two will meet, until today when he was alone and we walked off the beach together. He’s a cheerful kinda chap, and that made his story all the more intriguing and welcome, his smile taking the place of any psychobabble or do-goodery, his insight simple and straight forward – no gossipy chit-chat, no small talk, straight to it. I was sitting with a pal and as he walked towards us, still wet from his swim, he held up his finger and his thumb, a mere smidgeon apart, calling “When I’m down here I feel this small.” and in that simple sentence, in that smile, in the cheerful voice, in his words “this small” I heard real joy. Joy that he is that small. That the world is so huge. Real joy that the universe is beyond imagining, deep joy at the reality of our amazing existence in an unknown and immeasurable cosmos.
We perched on the dune and talked, and laughed and my dogs had a go at a German Shepherd (twits) and the clouds rolled in and the drizzle started. We didn’t care. I know that all three of us were buoyed up, encouraged, and our day was set up with a little nudge of energy. Well done, that bloke!
When I came home I sat for a few minutes thinking about the beach. It’s a strip of sand, lapped by the grey old Irish Sea, nothing startling, there are no palm trees, and most of the time it’s rain sodden and blowing a hoolie, but for many of us, it’s a special place. And I thought about Gareth’s delight at feeling so small when he’s down there. He gets it. He understands that to be small, to be tiny, to be a mere speck in the vastness of human history, is not to be insignificant. It’s only when we understand how tiny we are that we can begin to glimpse how great creation is. Only then do we ‘get’ the miracle of us being us. Only then can we really delight in the world around us and our own place in it.
Paradox, eh? What a paradox it all is. I lead a simple life these days. Regular readers know I ain’t no saint. I have my off days and my grumps, and I get things wrong all the time, but the simpler my life is, the less I get wrong. The simpler my life is, the deeper is my joy. If I don’t try to get things right all the time, I get fewer things wrong. If I don’t strive so hard, I achieve more. If I’m not trying to be happy now, and now, and now, I find instead a still peace, a deep joy.
Gareth is a quarter century younger than me but he’s caught up, hasn’t he? And he will keep on catching up, as I continue to be 25 years older and more experienced than he is. Paradox, paradox. I realised this morning that it’s taken me 73 years to learn how to be 73, and that if I keep on learning, and being open to new thoughts and new conversations, with a little bit of luck by next year I will have learned how to be 74.
I hope that the 74 year old me will be a bit wiser than the one typing this. If not, what’s it all about? Surely every day should be a little step towards wisdom? Oh, you may not call it wisdom, because that’s become a bit of a churchy word, so let’s just say that every day should be a little step towards maturity, self-knowledge, joy, God.
The greatest paradox is that smallness is significance, simplicity is profound, humility is strength, vulnerability is power, understanding is joy. Our lives aren’t made better by our success or the money we have, or even the works we do. Our lives are fulfilled when we find joy. Like Paul said in his letter to the Philippians : “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 1 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
On reflection, the greatest paradox of all is none of the above. The greatest paradox of all is God. God, without limit and beyond understanding, made Man. The Creator of all, crucified, vilified, spat upon, tortured by the ones he created. The God of redemption and forgiveness condemned to death. Death defeated by life.
Where else in all of history is death defeated by life? Where?
You may have noticed that I don’t read devotional books. I just don’t. But because a friend is reading ‘Mere Christianity’ I’m making an exception. It’s great. It’s absolutely blinkin’ fab. Honestly, the first three chapters (I keep going back over them, they’re so good) are completely engrossing. All about .. erm… how can I put it without taking up three chapters? Well, those first few pages are all about why we humans adopt a belief in right and wrong, why we share a common view (historically and largely) about what is good and what is bad, and about the simple fact that good is always good and bad is always bad. C.S.Lewis says it about 123 times better. Read it if you haven’t already – I do recommend it.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about what he calls ‘the moral law’ and it’s enlightening and unsettling at the same time. I see the world, when I look through Lewis’s eyes, as a very perverse place. With those chapters in my head, I listened to the news this evening, and then to a political debate. Afterwards I had to go outside to stand under the wide dark heavens, catching my breath, remembering that there is more to the universe than this. More to life than this moment now, in this tiny shabby country.
The UK is in turmoil. A documentary has shown that the state of some psychiatric hospitals is like the worst prisons in Eastern Europe in the 1950s – the ward staff are brutally coarse, undisciplined, lazy, abusive, obscene. They loll around, sleep on duty, swear, offer no therapy, insult their patients, jeer at them, gang up on them. Assault them. Shocking. The senior staff are absent and uninterested, unprofessional and unaccountable. Patients are locked in solitary for weeks on end, punished for being ill. They would receive much better accomodation and treatment in the worst of our prisons. This is our NHS and these are our brothers and sisters, our daughters and sons. I am shaken.
It gets worse; it’s estimated that out in the community we need another 4,200 doctors, and 40,000 nurses. Tonight there’s a heart breaking report about a fit young man who contracted an ear infection but was unable to get a consultation with his doctor, instead he had four, FOUR telephone conversations over a 4 week period, each time with a different physician from his GP practice. His blood tests didn’t come through, no one took his pain and illness seriously, and a few days after his fourth telephone call he died, of a simple ear infection that spread to his brain. This is our NHS, the health care system that was once celebrated, that offered care to everyone.
It gets worse; the new Prime Minister has made swingeing changes to the tax regime but refused an offer by The Office of Budget Responsibility to provide an economic forecast, advising on the effects of the budget. And now the government refuses to give any details about expected economic growth. This situation is unprecedented. Whether or not the government is doing the right thing (who knows?) the situation is cloudy and confusing and not great for a sense of fiscal security, for investment and growth. A reader’s poll in the Conservative Times newspaper today showed that less than 20% of its readers had faith in the government’s fiscal policy.
It gets worse; mortgage lenders, reacting to the uncertainty about future growth are in chaos. People in the middle of arranging mortgages now have had them withdrawn, and must seek a new deal – one woman on TV tonight was on course for a mortgage interest rate of less than 3% and today that offer was dumped and the best deal she was offered was interest at over 10%. Overnight!
There are two new-build houses near me that had ‘sold’ notices on them on Friday, today they are both for sale again. I suppose that the mortgages have been withdrawn or the rates are too high for the buyers. I know the builder – just last month he told me that if he didn’t sell them for far more than even he thought they were worth, he would lose money. This is because the cost of many building materials has doubled in the last few months. It’s taken him two years to build them and after paying wages and costs, his business will fold.
It gets worse; realising that the sums don’t add up, the PM has announced that future benefit payments will not be linked to the rate of inflation but instead will be linked to wages. This could seem like an entirely cynical response to the realisation that with her budget measures, inflation will soar while wages will remain stagnant. I hope it’s not cynical but….
It gets worse; while the basic rate of income tax will be cut by just enough to benefit the average person by £176 per annum, those at the top of the money mountain will on average benefit by £10,000 per annum.
It gets worse; in the shops prices are soaring. Even bread is more expensive, fish and chicken have almost doubled in price. How does a young family cope with all this? When even two wages aren’t enough to pay the rent and feed the children, what are they supposed to do?
By this evening, by that political debate, I began to feel that good was losing and evil was on the ascendancy. That’s not what I believe, but that’s how it seemed. That’s when I walked out into the lovely silent velvet night of Wales. And that’s when…. listen…. I remembered something. Something lovely. I remembered that as I came out of the supermarket this morning, I saw something that lifted my heart. The box where items are donated to the Foodbank was full to overflowing. Full to overflowing! There were two people ahead of me in the queue, trying to find space for the stuff they were leaving. People care for each other, even when the establishment crashes around our ears. At times like this, people are kind. Goodness wins. Goodness wins.
‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have conquered the world.’ John 16:33
Man can scheme and fume and duck and dive but God is in charge. He holds all things together. However weak and lost or mad and bad and chaotic we are, he is constant, loving, faithful.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The road to the beach has been closed for a few days, and we have been diverted around the headland, a journey of 5 miles. I’ve not heard so much fuss and complaining since it was suggested the church moved a few hundred yards down the road…… honestly! What is it with people and change? Change is good, a little wander away from the norm is to be welcomed, explored, enjoyed. It may even be better than the usual old trudge through the day.
The road was closed to allow for work to be carried out on the water supply, in a very narrow stretch between two rows of terraced houses. ‘Essential work’ they called it, and there is nothing more essential to life than water. So, button your lip and stop with the complaints. Be glad for the maintenance. Thank God for the men in their high vis jackets, the detour, the signs, thank God for fresh water, when half the world has none.
It’s not as if our journey was arduous, we aren’t slogging on foot up and down the hills. Oh, I know sometimes you meet a tractor on the lane, or a lorry, or a holiday maker who can’t reverse and has no idea what a passing place is, but a few minutes delay isn’t a disaster and look at it… just look…. people pay good money and travel miles to see what we see every day. This is the detour we were sent on, and I am not complaining one little bit:
That was yesterday. Thanking God for sky and sea and roads and workmen and fresh water.
Now for today.
I’ve never dialled 999 in my life, until this morning, and because it was a first-time experience, I dithered over it for a few minutes, unusually hesitant. I was on the beach (of course) with the three mutts (of course) on a dry, fresh day, with tumbling clouds reaching high and lying low, the sunlight fleeting. Here’s this morning for you:
We’d walked through the dunes and up to the dead tree and now we were sitting on a log while I tried to build up the enthusiasm and energy for church (and people), and I was just on the brink of giving myself an ‘excused duties’ note when I clocked a sailing boat crossing the bay and heading our way. The tide was going out and the little craft was heading towards the sand bank, rather than taking the usual wider course to enter the estuary. I thought at first that it was just someone unfamiliar with the bay and settled down to see it safely over the sandbank. And then I saw that one of the sails seemed to be flapping wildly, and then that the smaller sail also seemed to have lost its shape somehow. As I watched, the boat turned back towards the open sea, but then it kept on going, circling, going broadside on to the wind. It didn’t seem to have engine power, just to be wallowing. By now the rocks were about 100yards away but the gap seemed to be closing. Or was it? Was it my imagination? A trick of parallax? I could see that something was wrong but was it just a minor glitch that they would soon sort out for themselves (I could just about make out two people moving around in the cockpit) or was it a real emergency? I dithered. I did. And I don’t like dithering.
On a Sunday morning the RNLI station is abuzz with activity, getting ready for practice, usually involving launching one of the boats, but I was at the other end of the beach and it would take at least 15 minutes to get to them. There were other dog walkers quite near me and they weren’t reacting at all to the sight of this little white yacht flailing around near the rocks. But I had seen it, and maybe they hadn’t. Would I be negligent to walk on and do nothing? After all, the breeze was light, the tide was falling, and if they could just keep off the rocks they would simply go aground to refloat at the next tide. But what if they hit the rocks first? And what if, with the sails out, what if the engine was crocked, too? If that was the case then the tide coming back in would be a problem. Anyway, anyway, I told myself, they were bound to have mobile phones – everyone has mobile phones. If they needed help they would call for it. Or are they the sort of perverse people who refuse to own cell phones? Damn. They could be, I know someone who trumpets his refusal to own one as if it’s a high moral calling. Dither dither. And anyway, came another line of reasoning, when the tide is right out they’ll be just a few muddy steps from shore and rocks and a clamber to dry land. They might be really annoyed if they’re raised as an emergency. Bum.
Would I be over-reacting if I called the coastguard? Would I be ruining the day for a whole gang of people? Should I just call a friend whose whole family is on the lifeboat crew? I told myself off quite sternly and made the decision and did both. I texted my lifeboat friend and I dialled 999. The emergency service was flawless, the chap at the coastguard was great. As the call ended I had a text from my friend and was able to send her a photo of the boat, so that they knew just where it was. After what seemed like ages (but wasn’t) with the boat seeming to get closer and closer to the rocks, I heard the distant alarm of the lifeboat launch and watched as the bright orange heroic little thing, with four white helmets shining like halos, went to the rescue. Now I had been joined by Annie, the wife of one of the men on the lifeboat (she was also walking her dog) and we watched as someone – probably her husband – got into the water and did something (?) and then clambered back in, and there was a bit of shouting and to-ing and fro-ing. They were there for probably 20 minutes and I think they had a go at getting a line on, but by now the boat was too high out of the water and nothing was going to budge it, so they returned to the lifeboat station. The stranded boat will sit there until high tide, in about 5 hours.
So, it wasn’t quite an emergency, but it might have been. It wasn’t quite dramatic, but nearly. I’m no Grace Darling, as it turns out.
I didn’t get to church (hooray!) and I didn’t finish my devotionals (boo!) and by the time we got back home we were all starving. And you know what? Seeing that little crew heading out to an unknown situation, giving up their Sunday morning, seemed even better than being in church. It was seeing the love of God, and remembering that God loves us, because he made us loveable. It made me thank God not just for the RNLI and their quiet heroism, but for the whole fabric of the world, for the men who built the roads we so unthinkingly drive along, for the workers who laid the water pipes and the drains, the people who invented phones, the unseen millions of the past who have made our lives so comfortable today. And it made me think, again, of those who have no water, who don’t have the blessing of a green and fertile land, or of rescue and care, of those who are battered by war or storm or drought or disease.
It was a morning of joy and thankfulness and a sort of grief, in equal measure.
This morning I was at worship. Miles away from the nearest church.
Let the whole earth sing to the Lord! Each day proclaim the good news that he saves. Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does. Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! 1 Chronicles 16: 23-25