Two years ago, mum passed away. And in her passing I discovered a gate that led, out of the garden in my heart, and into a wide panorama of beauty and life. I chose to open the gate and found myself exploring The Great Adventure.
For the first time in my life, I was finally free to think what I wanted, believe what I wanted and live how I wanted. And that, at sixty-one years old! Quickly it became a journey of discovery. For too long, and under the fear of eternal damnation, I was imprisoned in doctrines and beliefs that I was terrified of. I began to explore and question, read and talk over coffee. I soon became clear about what I no longer believed in, but struggled to be certain about what I did believe in. It is a scary place if you have been imprisoned all your life.
Slowly but surely I began to emerge from thick forests of uncertainty. Depression and anxiety came to stay for a while. Love and kindness, from family and friends, helped to make sure that their stay was short.
There have been two or three friends who have walked with me. My Band of Blokes is growing, the walks and the coffee and the conversation have become very real encouragers along the way. And there have been two or three authors, new to me, who have significantly helped me to rethink and reimagine my faith. And Brian Zahnd is one of those.
The timing of this book was perfect. He described what I had been through, given some of it names, and illuminated with force some of the conclusions I had come to. I loved the way he challenged certitude – our attempts to put God in a box and ensure he never leaves it.
But for me, the chapter “House of Love” created a finishing line to my explorations… for now. There are other books waiting to be read, and I am sure I will revisit the writings of Brian Zahnd again. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I don’t recall ever saying about a book – “This book is filling my heart with joy!” I did this time.
I had just had a great cup of coffee and a good catch-up with one of my close friends, an honorary member of My Band Of Blokes. I always leave invigorated and thoughtful. And today was no exception.
As I slowly walked (thanks to sciatica) home, I approached a very small car, the size of which will become significant soon. A lady approached the car in a wheelchair. I was going to say she was an older lady, but then realised that she is probably about my age. She wrestled the drivers door open and heaved herself from the chair into the car. I paused. As I was about to walk past the car, the woman pushed the back of the drivers seat back, so that she would be almost lying flat. I realised that she was about to heave the wheelchair over herself and onto the passenger seat. I thought carefully. These situations can be tricky.
“I don’t mean to insult you, but would you like some help?” She smiled. “I’m not insulted, and some days, I appreciate the help, but today, I’m fine, thank you.” I smiled. “Then, in that case, I will continue walking, feeling inspired.” When I mentioned it to my daughter, she told me that the woman goes swimming, heaves herself out of the pool and onto her waiting wheelchair. She swims faster than my daughter, all with upper body strength. I’m impressed.
I had barely crossed the road, when the whisper I have come to know and love, asked a very pointed question: “So, which miracle draws more attention to me (God)? The miracle of supernatural, instantaneous healing? That, quite frankly, is often forgotten within days? Or the miracle of somebody exhibiting supernatural courage and grace as they face the challenges of every moment of every day?”
If there is a correct answer, it is probably, “Both/and.” And please, do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting for even a second that we shouldn’t be believing in miracles, or even praying for them. I’ve seen enough to know that miracles, whatever shape they come in, give My Great Papa bucketloads of credit, and inspire faith and confidence in him to do it again. But I wonder – that’s all – whether we underestimate the stories of those who are never healed, but exhibit the same faith and confidence in God by their courage and resilience in the face of adversity?
Speaking for myself, I am inspired by those close to me, and those who are strangers, who have no faith or bucketloads of faith, who face their challenges with courage and resilience. And my faith is lifted and injected with new life – yes, with the way they deal with their lives, but also when I see and hear stories of Papa’s supernatural interventions in the lives of others.
It is often not what you are looking at, but what you see and the way you see it.
I have always absorbed Philip Yancey’s books. He has never been afraid to ask awkward questions of the church, or of God. The rebel in me kind of likes that.
This is subtitled, “A Memoir” and in his usual way, he shines a light on his own life, and the pain that has been endured by all of his family and many more.
What I didn’t expect was the book to become a mirror and a spotlight onto my own life. In so many ways, our stories are similar, though what he endured at the hands of Church and Bible College leaves my pain in the shadows. And it appears that the soul ties that exist between fundamentalism and Republicanism in the US are more obvious than they are here in the UK. Although… when I was growing up, it was almost insisted on, at least by my parents, that the only party a Christian should vote for is Conservative. Really?
As I read, and looked in the mirror, and allowed the spotlight to shine into the dark shadows of my own life, I saw, in a new way, that I am more free today than I was even a couple of years ago. And if only to ask questions and to allow the answers to send me on an inner journey of adventure and discovery. As you will see in the coming year, my reading material is varied and diverse. And before you blame somebody else, I requested these books for Christmas and Birthday, myself, and with purpose.
I would heartily recommend this book by Philip Yancey. It makes for painful reading, but the story of redemption and grace shines through, even in the darkest moments.
On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to my Aunt. The Tuesday and Wednesday left me reeling in astonishment and wonder.
I stayed with dad. Always a risk. Dad is eighty-six, his world shrunken by dementia and Covid-19. He didn’t understand why I had travelled for the funeral. I tried to explain. He grunted, but I wasn’t sure if that was out of reluctant approval, or I still don’t get it. To me, it didn’t matter and dad has probably already forgotten.
We had circular conversations, that still carried on when I phoned him this morning. The tragedy of dementia. And yet there were moments of memories as sharp as if they were yesterday rather than eighty years ago. And optimism for the future; yes, at eighty-six. He remembered that at three-years-old, he was in hospital with a chest infection, and how his mum came to the hospital to tell him that there had been an accident and his dad had died; and the length of their garden.
And then that moment when he owned up, with very sad eyes, to missing mum, so much. And wondering whether he will recognise her when he leaves this life. “I would really love to see Heather…” And then his eyes lit up, sparkling with hope and expectation; a big smile spread across his whole face. “… But I can’t wait to see the Lord.” My own eyes well up with tears as I write. I have never met anybody so ready to take that final journey. I will cherish that moment. And then, as we said goodnight to each other, with a sense of mischief in his eyes, “I’m trusting we will see each other in the morning!” We laughed, but Dad was being serious.
When I said goodbye to dad, as I left to attend the funeral, I realised something. I don’t ever remember having my dad all to myself for that length of time. Nobody’s fault. Just the realities of life. We both told the other that we had enjoyed a great time together. I suspect dad has forgotten. But that memory will stay with me for a very long time.
Rewind to Tuesday afternoon. Eltham High Street. Costa. Barry, my cousin, had offered to meet up. Something we had never done before. Barry is still the spitting image of his dad – the clothes he wears, the way he talks and laughs, the way his personality filled the room, even in Costa. In the past, I would have felt intimidated, but not anymore. Probably an age thing – put in before Barry makes some joke of the ten years gap we enjoy.
The old me would have had a metaphorical crowbar hidden behind my back, to be used to prise open a big enough gap to shove God into the conversation. And as the conversation would have gone, I would have become more and more anxious, and even more determined to find the opportunity to shove my faith down Barry’s throat. But those days are gone. And because they are gone, I was able to enjoy the moment, the coffee, the man and the conversation.
And then to my shock, almost the first question, “So, have you had some kind of epiphany?” “You what?” No crowbar needed. I talked briefly about the hills of Northumbria in the freezing cold of February 2008, the circumstances that led up to it, and what happened. I could have talked for hours, but the conversation moved on.
I discovered that Aunty Joan, belonged to a Nordic walking group for years. I had no idea. We talked about the pain of broken relationships and the voids that are left when people die, or walk away. And we talked about Barry’s new career venture. A city banker for as long as I can remember, redundant, and now training to be a paramedic. There is so much more to this man than I had realised.
11.30 am. Falcon wood crematorium. As people gathered outside, there was a group of about twenty women, all dressed in purple hoodie’s – the Nordic walking group! It made me smile, and I heard Joan laugh! I met Barry’s three kids, all adults. They didn’t even know who I was. A sad indictment. In my very limited experience, funerals without faith (as far as I know), can be very depressing affairs. Not this one. There were plenty of occasions for smiles and sniggers along the way.
Both Barry and Julie said something, carefully scripted. Barry struggled, tears of sadness threatening to engulf his speech. He made it through to the end. And I know it sounds strange, but I was proud of him.
And I enjoyed the gathering at the pub, not just because of the food. I was able to relax and be myself, not feeling out of place. Barry, as expected, the larger than life character filled the room. Of course, he did. He had been trained well.
It was only as I reflected, driving home, that I realised something. Joan’s funeral and things written in the book of remembrance painted a picture of a woman, who loved life and family and friends, as best she could. She was a good friend, a leader, and somebody that anybody could turn to for advice and help. Pause. More tears.
And then I realised something else. The distortion of faith that I was brought up with, categorised people in two camps – in or out. In meant that you agreed, down to the last full stop, with a position of faith that has become for me quite ugly and distorted. And if you didn’t? I’ll leave you to work that out. The result of it all is that relationships, within family, within church, can very easily become toxic and broken. Whatever I thought I knew of Joan was only part of the story. And I will leave it there.
I had a text conversation with Barry the next day. The pivotal one simply said, Paul, hope you understand that a conversation last night (in Costa) was a huge support to me today. Thank you. Keep walking on the beach, it is good for you and us.
Partly in honour of my sorely missed Aunt Joan, and partly to stop me from tripping over while walking! I’m thinking of getting a pair of Nordic sticks for Christmas. Photographs to follow in due course!
And in the meantime, I want to do love, grace, kindness, beauty, wonder and mystery. Being myself. Nothing to prove or earn. Just being myself.
I am a son, a husband, a father, a friend. I am, a recently retired, local authority foster carer, a member of a crazy, creative, frustration and joyous “church” family. I am a pilgrim, a traveller, an explorer, an avid reader and novice writer.
And I am wounded and scarred, broken and damaged. And yet healed and loved beyond recognition. On a good day, I am Papa’s Little Boy and Papa to “the next one.”
On a bad day… I am self-righteous, self-absorbed, religious, judgmental, critical, negative, determined to be right and let you know that I am right, at all costs. On these days, my scars have been prodded and poked enough for them to hurt all over again. And when I hurt… here comes another bad day.
Why am I writing?
I have always dreamed of writing. So, when somebody prays that past dreams be fulfilled, including writing, and then somebody comments on my writing skills, it felt like a nudge, a heavenly elbow in the ribs.
I am certainly not trying to persuade, convince, convict or put right. I have had more than enough of that in my life, both as a giver and a receiver. Neither am I claiming some superior revelation and experience; it is my journey and my story, not yours.
I do want to explore and discover, provoke and stimulate, encourage and support… fellow travellers and storytellers. I am not looking to force our paths together, but if we should bump into each other? Well, let’s walk and explore together for a while and see where it takes us.
A man who refused to be defined by his disability. Restricted by, for certain, but never defined.
A man who lived his life to the maximum. You might say that his maximum was less than an able bodied man, but you would be hard-pressed to prove it.
A man whose resilience sometimes morphed into stubbornness; whose pride in his appearance, and in his work could have been misunderstood to be OCD.
There were two strands to Allen’s life; multicoloured and vibrant with sound – his family and his work. In both strands, he fought hard to leave a legacy; children and grandchildren who he championed to become the best version of themselves. It worked.
In supporting the work of several charities, he gave disabled people hope and reason to cracking on with their lives. “He saved my life,” was not just a one-off, but a common theme, and you knew they meant it.
A man who loved Manchester United – you suspect his patience with them would have been tested to the limit in the last few weeks! And yet that patience spurred him on to work on the family history, hour after hour. (As I write, his oldest daughter, is sat on her iPad trawling through and organising pages and pages of information, trying to make sense of it all.)
It is exactly a week ago that we said our final “goodbyes,” all one hundred of us – wheelchair users squeezed into every available space, others craning their necks from outside the back door of the chapel. There was humour, sadness, the passing on the baton. For sure, a deep sense of loss, gaping holes deeper than we could have imagined. But the memories, the images, the sounds of this man who had a bigger impact than we could have realised, call us to be who we are, to not be defined by our past or our present limitations.
Allen often referred to our family as “the God-Squad,” always with a smile on his face. He never claimed to have any faith – I wouldn’t blame him either. His hard life constantly chucked boulders of questions and challenges in the road ahead of him. And yet… to those who would see and hear, The Inherent Presence was obvious, tangible and comforting.
“Allen, thank you. Thank you for showing me what courage and resilience look like. Thank you for the wonderful gift of your oldest daughter, who has taken up the baton and is living the legacy. Until…”
The “always there” human North Star of the Compass of my spirituality has gone. Through the door that we call “death,” a horrible word that fails to tell the truth.
“Goodbye for now. You have filled every day of my sixty-three years with your kindness, with your prayers and with your interest.
I feel very sad and little bit lonely today, but it will pass. And I will press on to the higher calling of my Eternal Star.”
Grandma Betty. Not really my grandma, but absolutely my Grandma.
I remember 1963, just about, waving goodbye on London’s dockside, as the ship carrying Betty and Cyril out to Jamaica, slowly but resolutely disappeared onto the horizon. Jamaica, a place blessed by their missionary calling and their kindness for many years.
Whenever they returned for a break, they would come to stay with us, or holidays would be arranged so that they could come with us. The conversation has, repeated itself over and over, throughout the years:
“How is school going?”
“How is college going?”
“How is work going?”
“And how is church for you? Is there a youth group? Etc, etc.”
And then, “How are the children doing at school?”
Conversations that have marked me for life. Not by their intellectual or theological muscle-rippling; not by their holiness or their doctrinal accuracy. But by their kindness and by their interest. I would write to them, on those old airmail letters, waffling on about nothing. And always Grandma Betty would reply. Always.
As I struggle to come to terms with the loss and the sadness, I wonder (prompted by my brother), would we even have become a family if Betty and Cyril had not taken mum and dad under their wings, and loved them with gallons of kindness into some kind of normalcy? I’m not sure.
I stayed in Betty’s home about a month before she left us. She was already in a care home. I was staying there so that I could look after dad, who lives, literally, round the corner, for a few days. It felt weird being in Betty’s home without her being there. I stumbled across some books written by an author who has become such a dear friend to me, helping me to negotiate a deconstruction and then reconstruction of my faith. I was shocked. I thought I knew what kind of books Grandma would read, and these certainly did not fit what I thought her theological leanings were. Shocked and impressed. Even at the end, Grandma was full of surprises.
Postscript: It is a few weeks ago now that some of the family stood, sombre and stoic, some fighting hard to hide the tears that refused to remain behind our grey faces. I had forgotten how heavy coffins are. And how empty of hope and joy the words of a Christian burial are.
We resumed our thoughtfulness at the Thanksgiving Service. It was somewhat weird because it was held at the church I was dedicated at, and where my first Sunday School lessons were heard. Not much had changed. Everything bar the pews were in place as I remembered. And some of the people were still in place. The tributes that were read were full of the Grandma Betty that I will always remember – a woman of persistent kindness and fierce loyalty.
Waiting for me when I return home from holiday is a box of photographs, the precursor to several more boxes. Cyril was an avid photographer – all 11,800 of them. I am sure as I go through, deciding what to be kept and scanned, other memories will flood back. All I want to remember is the character of this short dynamo of a woman, who loved our family into a world of kindness and grace. And for that I will be forever grateful.
The human North Star of the compass of my spirituality:
“Goodbye for now. You have filled every day of my sixty-three years with your kindness, with your prayers and with your interest.
I feel very sad and a little bit lonely today, but it will pass. And I will press on to the higher calling of my Eternal North Star!”
When you don’t see any startling marks of your own religious condition or your usefulness to God, think of the Baby in the stable and the little Boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there which was to change the whole history of the human race.
And that is a profound thought.
Who would have thought that the baby that yelled his first scream in a dirty old stable could possibly be The Messiah? And who would have thought this same child, learning to walk in the dirt and dust was the Incarnation of YHWH, his Father in heaven? Even more, who would have thought that the teenage boy, getting into teenage mischief and learning how to carve wood, would show me, two thousands year on, what real love actually looked like.
And then there is an even more profound and astounding thought.
Who would have thought that this boy, who endured school as a nightmare due to his stuttering tongue would one day speak in countless churches, and tell stories about his Great Papa?
Who would have thought that this teenager, struggling with social ineptitude, not knowing how to engage with people, would one day become a Papa to so many?
And who would have thought that this man would, for six years, be part of an amazing double act who, together, poured their lives and their love into the broken lives of little ones and watch as the miracle of their healing emerged before his very eyes?
Who would have thought that this man imprisoned for most of his life in theological, doctrinal and moral cages would emerge one day into a place of adventure and discovery, and into the freedom of what it actually means to be loved, unconditionally, as he is and not as he should be by a God who, whatever else he is, is the God who is LOVE.
Who would have thought?
So that, today, he is basking in one of the greatest compliments ever given to him: “I like you because you are a self-confessed wonky saint!” (Thank you, Steve!)
At my age, you start to look back more often, and more reflectively, than you may have done in the past. You notice things you wouldn’t have noticed before, and spotted greater significance to some events that you had previously.
As I write, it is Monday, February 15, 2021. We are almost twelve months into a global pandemic with its accompanying lockdowns. It has affected everyone in all kinds of ways. As I look back, I see that it has changed how I perceive so many things, not least the idea of church. To put that into context, I have been around church for the vast majority of my life. The shape of those churches, inside and out, are a wide variety of flavours, smells, shapes, textures, routines, rituals, rules and regulations, belief systems and paradigms… and all have had an impact on my life.
There have been times when I have stayed away. Deliberately, struggling to deal with the pain that this institution and the people who are part of it, have inflicted. Other times, I have been just plain bored, struggling to see the relevance of it. And there was a time when church leadership appealed to me. Don’t ask me to explain or justify that now – I can’t.
During the last year “church” has been reduced, for the most part, to Zoom meetings. Meeting together, singing together, praying together… I have almost forgotten what that feels like; and taken the opportunity to reflect about the institution and organisation that church has become. And wonder whether it is supposed to become something else in the future. Let me explain:
Two men sat in a pub on a Monday evening. Football is in the background. We talk about our lives, our families, and our personal struggles and those occasional victories. We share stories about God and our different friendships with our God. Often there are tears, as we remember the goodness of our God, My Papa, and wonder where we would be without… I will leave that to your imagination. Always, at some point in the conversation, we would come to the same conclusion, that two great commandments that Jesus talked about are all that really matters – to love God with all that we are and have, to love ourselves as He loves us, and then to love The Next One as we love ourselves. That is more than enough to be going on with! “AT THE TABLE.”
A car parked in a beach car park. It is dark except for the lights of a passing ship. Strangers walk their dogs. In the car, there are tears, sometimes raised voices, lengthy discussions about the challenges and opportunities of life, and whether and how faith interacts with the lives of a father and his daughter. Same time next week? “AT THE TABLE.”
On the cliffs overlooking a seaside town in Cornwall, an evening BBQ for a crowd of teenagers. The food is great. A song sung well, about the God Who Is Love and what that might mean. Teenagers talking to leaders and each other while they eat. “AT THE TABLE.” And on the long walk back. And on those evenings, decisions are made or not made, that will change the direction and destiny of many a young life.
Costa. And coffee with my spiritual dad. We talk for maybe an hour this time, but there were and will be many other occasions. When important questions are asked, and life-changing decisions are made, that shaped and formed the person I was then and am today. “AT THE TABLE.”
A very rare trip to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon, followed by food together. Little one being looked after. As we ate, we talked together. With each other. And with Papa. And concluded that it was time to retire from fostering. “AT THE TABLE.” That was a whole year before the pandemic hit. As I write, it is a year since K, our final little one, left us. No regrets about the decision, but the quiet and emptiness of our home still remains. And the photographs on the walls still smile at us. And remind us.
Now it is Zoom and Coffee. Before it was Lounge and Coffee. Or Garden and Coffee. Once a week, first thing in the morning. We are as different as chalk and cheese, but the friendship that has grown is more valuable than either of us realised. We talk about our families, our lives, and all things pandemic. We talk church, faith, politics, books, films. Sometimes we pray. Not that it matters, because our Papa is part of the conversation anyway. “AT THE TABLE.”
And I could go on – airports and flights. Driving to and from airports. Walks along the beach Eating at our table. Or their table. Phone conversations. Etc, etc. Each one “AT THE TABLE.”
I have listened to countless sermons and talks, attended hundreds of church services, and been to many conferences. There have been times when Papa has ambushed me in those places, and my life has been changed. Again. But those times have been few and far between.
I could talk and write for hours, about those times, “AT THE TABLE,” when my life has been turned upside down, by the conversation, by the prayers said, by the laughter and the tears, by watching somebody else breathing and living their life and doing friendship with their Papa.
AT THE TABLE is about food and friendship, about sharing and being real, about dialogue not monologue, about diversity and difference. It is about relaxing and being yourself, wrestling and grappling with the issues of life faced today. It is about being a shoulder to cry on, or finding a shoulder to cry on. AT THE TABLE is about honour and respect, love and kindness, about humility and grace. About Papa, The God Who Is Love.
And so I wonder… how church would be, if we spent more time, at the table, eating and drinking and talking together? Instead of doing “church” the same old way, because that is the way it has always been done, give or take a bit? And I am sure that as lockdowns are eased and things return to normal, that I will reflect and ponder and wonder… is this really how life and church are supposed to be? Watch this space.