The Overview Effect

‘To boldly go’

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.

I was there first!

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.

That’s rubbish.

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.

 Paradox

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. 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?

Paradox.

Goodness wins

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.

Good one, Habbakuk.

Alternative church

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:

Can you tell that I love a skyscape?

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.

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

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

Just one more word…..

Can you bear a few more words about the Queen? Are you on overload already? I am, a bit, but hanging on….

I’m not a high church person, and I’m not even – really – a dyed in the wool royalist. But of course I watched today’s funeral partly because it’s a huge historic occasion, partly because I appreciated and even loved the Queen, and partly so that I could enjoy the military stuff (the daughter of a CSM, the sister of a Sergeant and a Petty Officer, and myself an ex-NCO) . But surprisingly it wasn’t the pomp and ceremony that got me – it was the church service. In spite of having not much time for blokes in flowing robes and pointy hats and chasubles and the like, even I have to admit that sometimes they manage to say something worth saying. This is a small snippet from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address:

In 1953 the Queen began her Coronation with silent prayer, just there at the High Altar. Her allegiance to God was given before any person gave allegiance to her. Her service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth and the world had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

And those words will have been heard by millions who never otherwise would have heard them! What an amazing miracle. And there was loads more… from the Psalms to the Gospels to Revelation. A friend reminded me of Isaiah 55: 10&11

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Think of that; His word will not return empty.

Watching it alone, there were tears of course at several moments – when I saw that the formal white garland on top of the coffin had been replaced by pink roses with rosemary for remembrance and myrtle as a symbol of her long marriage, at her son’s request. And the music she had chosen brought a few tears, not just the wonderful hymns like ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord, Is Ended’ but also the Bible verses sung by the choir, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord’ John 11: 25–26 and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ Job 19: 25–27

That she (and not some worthy old bloke from the Anglican Church) had chosen those Bible verses and those hymns made them all the more poignant. I think that for millions around the world, especially those who have been bereaved recently, the faith shown by Elizabeth II, even as she planned her own funeral, is a witness of the great and certain hope underpinning the lives of all Christians, everywhere.

Apologies for the lack clarity… taken from the telly on my phone!

And then came the walk up the Royal Mile to Windsor and that little black pony, the one she loved, waiting patiently. And then the corgis (yeah, ok, they looked a bit bored by the whole thing). It would take the hardest of hard hearts, the most republican of republicans not to be a little moved by the love shown over the last few days, to a tiny and humble woman, who knew her place in the world and accepted it uncomplainingly.

But what a day! A day when the Gospel is on the TV, on the Radio, even in the newspapers, all over the UK, and in many other parts of the world too.

Surely, surely, the most touching, heart-breaking moment of the whole long day came when the lone piper appeared above the coffin and played the lament ‘Sleep, dearie, sleep.” Such a personal, sweet, wonderful sentiment. ‘Sleep, dearie, sleep.”

For Charles the day is still not over. There’s a short break and then the family is back for the private internment.

I’ll tell you what, she lived a good life and was blessed with a good death, but she also had a stonking, exhausting and full-on three tiered funeral.

The biggest military procession in UK history, 3000 servicemen and women, and they had 4 Canadian Mounties at the very head.
And then there were some who just wanted their tea.

She knew what was what.

This was the only book the late Queen ever endorsed

A servant? Really?

In the UK the newspapers, TV and radio have been full of accounts of the late Queen’s life, wall to wall, morning to evening and on into the night. Not accounts only of her life but also a minute by minute account of where she will lie (not in the ground but in vault in a Windsor Castle), a description of the coffin (prepared 30 years ago, lead lined, English oak, not sure of the birthday of the carpenter who made it but I dare say those details are in print somewhere), the flowers in the wreath atop that coffin (grown in Balmoral – I could list them but won’t), what comes next in the ceremonial process, and on and on. And on. I feel as if I’ve had a crash course in royal protocol, history and grief. With so much coverage, with so much emotion, with so much stultifying formality, it would be very easy to get it very wrong. Today, in Edinburgh, the stuffy old, boring old, much maligned Church of Scotland, got it absolutely right.

Yes, yes, there were men in silly gold uniforms blowing trumpets, and others with great big feathers in their tam’o’shanters, and long bows (long bows!), and there were people in red flowing robes and simply loads of gold and candles and all the stuff that shouts ‘pompous! irrelevant! bonkers!’ But somehow, in spite of all that, it was touching and somehow simple. It was. Honest.

It was a service to pay tribute to the Queen, welcoming her coffin to St Giles’ Cathedral, the cathedral she knew so well, and where her body will lie in state until the journey to London. The afternoon was pretty amazing – the choir was great, the music was soaring, the organ was thunderous, the soldiers were handsome, the marching was inch perfect, the huge crowd was hushed, heads were bowed… everything, everything was done with meaning and symbolism and love. Redolent with history and significance. And it could so easily have been empty, and vain-glorious, but it wasn’t. The very best part of the day, the droplet of enchantment that lifted it above everything the best of British pageantry could ever devise, came when the Bible was read, from the familiar words of Ecclesiastes,
There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens’

to the words of Paul
“What shall separate us from the love of God?”
to the words of Jesus himself
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

These words will have gone out all over the world, isn’t that wonderful? They were broadcast as a witness to a life well lived in the service of the true King, the eternal King. Over and over again we heard that this woman was guided and guarded by her faith in Jesus, in everything, personal and public. Is it any wonder that she was so loved?

There are not many world leaders who live so simply, lives of such unwavering service, both to God and to their fellow men.

I heard a good sermon last week about humility. We heard that when we humble ourselves, God elevates us. He never humbles us. He is for us, not against us. But if we humble ourselves, he will lift us up. There, in that cathedral, in all the pomp and circumstance, that sermon came back to me as we paid respect to a woman who was truly humble, who accepted her place in world and all the onerous duty it involved, but always remembered that there was One unimaginably greater, and who delighted in serving Him. She humbled herself, and He has lifted her up.

It’s a habit of mine to pay particular attention to the blessing, the parting words at the end of a worship service, thinking that these last words are a sort of simple handle on the next few days to come. Sometimes they take the form of a little tiny nudge in the direction of the sermon we’ve just heard and I like that. I love to be blessed. It’s a sort of love, a blessing is, and when love comes along, I grab it. Today, in St Giles’ Cathedral, the final blessing was this:

And now go out into the world and be of good courage, render no one evil for evil but hold fast to the good, honour all of God’s children, love and serve the Lord in the power of the Spirit; and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and all whom you love, this day, this night and even for ever more.

I’m hugging that to myself. That’s blessing and a half, that is.

A good life, well lived.

We really shouldn’t mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

We should celebrate her.

But we can pause for a while, to think about who she was, and be grateful for her. A woman of great wealth, who nevertheless chose a simple life, a life of faith and service. Warm and human.

And we will celebrate her in the weeks and months to come, of course we will, but first, today, we are sad. We’ve lost someone who’s been at the heart of the United Kingdom for nearly a hundred years. Nearly a hundred years! Someone whose face became dear to us, a face we watched grow old and wrinkled alongside our own, whose hair turned grey as ours did, who smiled through thick and thin, through war and too much loss, through family turmoil and nonsense. Someone who seemed to be a friend, even for those of us who never met her, even for those of us who are not Royalists.

I met her just once. Briefly. And we laughed together. She was tiny. Tiny. Lively eyes, sparkling. And her laughter was a lovely warm peal of delight.

On Tuesday evening I read this to two friends, and it seems to sum up the mood this evening, the reflections, the loss;

Funeral Blues
W.H.Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But, of course the last line is all wrong. Sorry, Auden. The rest is good, but the last line is wrong. There is a deal of good still to come.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Revelations 21:4

50 Shades of Grey

Love. Do you ever think about it? I mean, really think about it? It can’t be quantified, so it can’t be explained. It can be partially described, but not completely. It’s both innate and foreign, selfless, invisible, intangible, demanding, rewarding, fulfilling, and yet sometimes it’s elusive, and sometimes it’s hard. When I was reading 1John a few days ago, I came across a verse that I’d never really dug into before, I’d read it and simply carried on but this time I paused and gave it some actual thought (!)

‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’

That last phrase struck me as a commandment, as it never had before, and I remembered that some translations have it as ‘Now abide in my love.’

That translation seems to say so much more! The word ‘abide’ brings with it a sense of something encompassing, a sense of home and belonging, even of continuance, which is why there is no past tense to the word – we don’t say ‘Fred abided in the house’ because the word just doesn’t lend itself to that tense. ‘To abide’ means to make a home, to continue to thrive there. So Jesus has commanded us to abide in his love…. what a great commandment that is! To live in the greatest love of all, be surrounded by it, nourished by it, not popping in from time to time when the mood takes us, but to make our permanent home in it. The medium in which we exist.

How amazing. And, if Jesus tells us to do something, we know that with His help it’s achievable. We really can make his love our natural home. The strongest prayer I know is all about that, and I say it every day, thinking of friends and neighbours, bringing them into focus;

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And 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 3:16-19

‘Rooted and established in love’. That’s as strong as the commandment to abide, isn’t it ? What a great joy, to live in love. I think that when I’m not aware of a deep inner joy it’s a sign that I’m not living in God’s love. That something may have slipped a bit sideways. Like it does. That I need to step back into that abiding.

Last weekend it was my husband’s birthday and that chimed with my thoughts about love; He grew up in a dour Scottish Presbyterian family and wasn’t at all used to celebrating birthdays. When he woke up, I would have his gifts wrapped and waiting and of course there would be his favourite food, and silly decorations and anything else I could think of, and although he was a bit stunned for the first couple of years, he was also delighted. He came to enjoy them almost as much as I do, and it was good to remember him on his birthday, and to thank God for him, and for the gift of love. He was a smashing bloke.

Human love is wonderful, amazing, miraculous, and invaluable, but it’s pale and sickly compared to the love of God, shown from the beginning of time, and all through the Old Testament

‘Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.’

Isaiah 54:10

all the way through to the fulfilment of the New Testament

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
John 3:16

But God is God and I am shabby old me, and you are shabby old you, and we are tiny specks in the vastness of unmeasured space. Here today and gone tomorrow. So why does God love us? Here’s the thing. He loves us because he is love. And because he therefore made us lovable, that’s why! Yeah, yeah, I know that we are all unworthy and wretched and all that stuff too – goodness we hear about that side of things often enough, don’t we? What wretches we all are! But listen! We are also and undeniably bloomin’ fantastic, all made with delight and joy and love and attention to detail… each one of us the work of the supreme Craftsman. We are all wonderful because we are all wonderfully and fearfully made (Psalm 139) and that’s of no credit at all to us! The most beautiful painting in the world didn’t make itself beautiful, it was the artist who created that beauty. We are wonderful not because of ourselves but because of Him who created us. He gave us the gift of being loved and of being able to love. What a supreme gift that is! Over and over again in every human being, every new born baby and every centenarian, loveable humanity.

Take George for example; He was easy to love with his blue eyes, his lovely accent, his sense of humour, his strength and stubbornness, that annoying snort when he laughed, the gulp and swallow as he fought tears, his terrible dress sense.. oh, listen, his terrible dress sense! The day our daughter was born and I wasn’t home to give him the once-over before he left the house, he turned up at the hospital in checked trousers, a striped shirt, a different checked jacket and a contrasting tie. He told me, puzzled, that several people at work had said “Hi George, didn’t know it was fancy dress today.” But God loved him, and he loved God. And I loved him. What a gift he was to me. *

George has been gone for many years, but time is nothing. It’s less than a sigh, less than a heart beat, less than the blink of an eye. George is alive, in glory, with the God who loves him. Do I believe that one day we’ll be together again, delighted to recognise each other? You know, I don’t. I really don’t. Because I think that when we are in glory we will be completely and ecstatically captivated by the love that knows no boundaries, that reaches out to embrace all humanity, all souls, to encompass all truth. He will be there and I will be there and that will be enough because God will be there.

In eternal life, there will be everything and only. Everything and only God. Jesus said, in prayer, in the days leading up to his crucifixion ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’

That’s such an insight into eternity. Let me add some bold font this is eternal life; that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ This is eternal life: Eternal life is knowing Jesus. If we know Jesus we are in eternal life, we have it, we are part of it.

What is eternal life? Simple. Eternal life is knowing God.

Isn’t that something to shout about from the rooftops? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Now, that’s what I call love.

*In George’s defence, the whole outfit was, as he said indignantly “All in the same colour – grey.”
Yep. Light grey with small blue checks, bluey grey with darker larger blue checks, a grey satin tie with red stripes, a grey shirt with white pinstripes. But yes, George, not quite 50 shades and all basically ‘grey’.