What a Legacy!

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…”

Teresa found this in the front of an exercise book on Allen’s desk. His words. The way he lived his life. The legacy he leaves for those who will take the baton and run with it.

Goodbye, Grandma Betty

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.

With Grandma Betty, Summer 2021

“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 Everything’s On Fire

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.

Who would have thought

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!)

Wishing all my readers a very Happy Christmas

Goodbye Joan

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.

Goodbye Joan.

I saw… but now I see

I saw the cold, inflexible dryness of correct doctrine… now I see a God who will not be restricted by what I believe. I cannot believe that I settled for cold and dry for so long, when the warm rivers of relentless love have always been there.

I saw the barrenness of religious duty and habits… now I see the idea of intimate relationship breaking out. My daily walk in The Secret Place has brought to life the garden of my heart, a place where my Papa and I can share hearts, dreams and visions. And I see the crazy world that we find ourselves in today as a call for the church to hibernate and rediscover The Secret Place.

I saw the edges of the broken glass of division, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, manifest in the church over centuries… now I see the incredible gentleness, love and joy of the kindness of my God being manifest, not only in his family, but in our nation trapped and imprisoned by the lockdown of Coronavirus.

I have seen over the years, in me and others, a harshness and unkindness that inflicts wounds and leaves scars… in the last few days, I have seen the kindness of a nation, honouring the NHS staff for all they are doing, the quiet “thank you” to nurses, bin men, supermarket staff, and so many other things.

I have seen and felt in the last few days the pain and hurt that we can inflict on each other… Today I see and feel the unbelievable healing of so many, who love and support when others are hurting.

“No one, no one is blinder, than he who will not see.” (U2)

I can see clearly today, where before I would have fumbled around in the dark. And it is not so hard for me to see what my Papa is doing as the world goes into lockdown. I can see a church pushed into The Secret Place, to rediscover what it means to be loved and then to love. I can see an outpouring of kindness, bubbling up to become, a torrent of love and gentleness and compassion… a church and a nation forever changed.

Of Straight Lines and Boxes

At the grand old age of sixty, I have been launched into a landscape that I have never seen before, and rather than it being frightening, it is exhilarating. The opportunity for exploration and discovery and adventure has invigorated me in my journey of faith.

I have seen it in my own life, and more recently in the lives of others that straight lines and boxes end up becoming tightropes and cages that squeeze the life and hope out of far too many. As a child, I was brought up to believe certain things without question. My faith (if that is what it was) evolved into something rigid and inflexible, which then expressed itself in ways of relating with others that was just as rigid and inflexible. My faith then became a cage or a prison in which I was trapped. Which is okay, until something goes wrong, until the inevitable pain and darkness of life hits you so hard it floors you.

For the fearful, for those who find themselves without the courage to face their pain and darkness, straight lines and boxes become a comfort and a safe place. The danger is that you then accept the tightrope and the cage as life, as the best it can be; hope soon dissolves before your eyes. And you are left with a God who is also trapped in a cage – the cage of your rigid and inflexible beliefs and doctrines.

And it is only from the straight lines and boxes that the fearful then declare their beliefs as the only right ones. Which makes everybody else wrong. Which is where we get denominations, tribes, within “the church” and if you are not in a certain tribe, then you are wrong. And why so many Christ-followers have abandoned the tribes and find themselves homeless.

Today I find myself walking a path, less travelled than any I have been on before. The scenery is new to me, but I am discovering the presence of my God, in all sorts of places, places I had decided they couldn’t possible be. My tightropes and cages have gone… most of the time. And I am free to explore and live with the mystery that God has to be; free to think the unthinkable, to dare to ask questions, to explore and play. It is a great place to be.

For the record, many of my beliefs look the same. I have not abandoned the historical Christian faith. In fact, I would suggest that I am discovering the depth and riches of this faith in ways that were out of bounds to me before. But look beneath the lid, and peep in my conversations with my PAPA, and with the next one, and you might wonder. Go ahead wonder… Wonder and mystery are incredible things, tools to lead us to love, which is the only thing that remains…