Celtic Prayer

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St Cuthbert’s Isle
On this Election Day as we try to work out how best to use our vote to make a positive difference in our world, I thought I would share the full text of the prayer I tried to learn as I walked Hadrian’s Wall.  I understand it comes from the Celtic oral tradition some time in the first millennium.

You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm

You are the light that shines in dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark

You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside

You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling of the poor

You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill

You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day.

Austin Seven

I know Andy liked fast cars but I’m sure even he would have appreciated this little Austin Seven which we came across at the Great Central Railway’s 1940s Weekend.  I was quite taken with it, and Hilary certainly enjoyed playing the part too as you can see!

The small family car of its day, I was reliably informed, getting up to about 45 mph on a good day.  Compare that to the huge family cars on our roads today that go a lot faster.  But what have we as a society sacrificed for speed?

As you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog, one of the things that struck me during my walk4andy was the need to slow down.  Despite coming back to a pile of work, I am trying very hard not to lose that spirit of taking things at a more gentle pace, a pace that will allow me to notice what is important rather than just what is in front of me.

While the wartime weekend was great fun, including singing ‘Land of hope and glory’ in a bunker with Winston Churchill, I couldn’t help wondering if all the joy and excitement of dressing up and having a nice day out on the trains really did justice to that period of history.  As a nation I think we are inclined to wallow in rosy-tinted nostalgia at times.

But the moment it hit home for me was after a very loud battle re-enactment at Rothley station, when the officer in charge led us in a minute’s silence to remember those who gave their lives in that war, those who died for peace, and also those who had died in the recent terrorist attacks.  Suddenly, the wartime experience of holding on to hope and celebrating life in the face of real fear and anxiety about the future was brought bang up to date.

I don’t want to get nostalgic about my walk.  It was tough up there on the crags in the rain!  Nor do I want to get too rosy-tinted about Andy’s life.  I know he had his failings like any of us, and I’ve already written about the times we fought.  Remembering the struggles is important though because it reminds us that they didn’t last forever.  The journey continued beyond those difficult days out of the shadows and into the light.

It’s a privilege every year for me to lead our community’s act of remembrance in Evington.  Even though fewer and fewer survivors of the Second World War are still with us, I believe it is still vital that we remember because it can give us hope in the face of today’s adversity and encourage us to celebrate and not to miss those special moments when we do experience life, love and peace in our time.

Walking in the Spirit

Today it was great to be back at St Denys celebrating the feast of Pentecost, when we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus’ disciples and filling them with a new power and passion.  It was a good day to return to church after my walk and a wonderful way to mark the end of what has been a very special period in my life.

It was especially moving to be welcomed back into the arms of my church family with such love and warmth, knowing that they have been praying for me while I’ve been away.  Together we remembered all the walking and praying that had gone on over the past ten days as part of the #ThyKingdomCome initiative, and church members, including me, shared testimonies of where prayer had been answered.  We prayed too for those affected by all the recent terror attacks in this country and across the world, praying for the Spirit of peace to fill the earth and its people.

Here is a slightly abridged version of my sermon from this morning:

I’ve said before that the book of the Acts of the apostles is much more about the acts of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is living and active so verbs give us a good way of describing what the Holy Spirit is all about.

First, the Holy Spirit SURPRISES – the disciples must have been pretty surprised to see flames on their heads and to hear one another speaking different languages.  Even though Jesus had told them he was sending them another comforter, did they really expect him to come like this?  And the people around them in Jerusalem were certainly surprised.  The Spirit can surprise us too and disturb us, he can shake us out of our complacency.  The response to the walk4andy has been amazing and there have been some lovely surprises along the way such as my encounter with a priest and his party from Argentina, a reminder that we are part of a worldwide church.  

But life can throw us nasty surprises at times such as sudden bereavements or changes of circumstances, or the terrible tragedies we have seen in Manchester, London and other places in recent days.  I believe the Spirit can work in those situations too and that in itself can come as a surprise as we learn to trust again in God’s power to transform us.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit POINTS back to Jesus – the Bible talks about different kinds of spirits as do a lot of people today and while we shouldn’t be afraid of tales of spirits, we should be wary.  The Spirit of God, the Bible tells us, will always point us back to Jesus.  I did have a little map book to guide me on my walk but the National Trail acorns were a very helpful reminder of which way to go if I was ever unsure.  There were some wonderful moments too where I could see the Wall snaking off over the hills into the distance pointing the way I should go, giving me confidence to keep going.  The Holy Spirit also points out the path we should tread, the path that follows in Jesus’ footsteps, and leads to life.

The Holy Spirit INSPIRES – an obvious one as the two words are connected, meaning breath.  There were times climbing the Wall when I felt quite out of breath and had to stop to get my breath back.  The disciples had lost Jesus again, they were waiting around in Jerusalem with no idea what would happen next, probably feeling a bit fed up.  After all the excitement of the previous few weeks, maybe this was a chance for them to get their breath back too.  Suddenly, the Spirit comes upon them and they are inspired to go out and speak to people about Jesus and all he had done.  People think they are drunk but that doesn’t stop them.  Look at Peter, an uneducated fisherman, suddenly preaching a blinder of a sermon all about Jesus and thousands respond by committing to follow him.  It’s amazing what a bit of inspiration can help us achieve.  My brother Andy was an inspiration to many, and if you’ve been following my blog you’ll know how his inspiration gave me the determination to walk 84 miles to raise money for people like him with VHL.

The Holy Spirit REVEALS (at this point I stripped off my red Pentecost clerical shirt to reveal my ‘I walked the Wall’ t-shirt!) – there were many points along the Hadrian’s Wall path where the Wall couldn’t be seen which felt very strange.  Sometimes bits of it were hidden in houses or churches where people had used stones from the Roman Wall for their own buildings, sometimes it was under my feet where the Military Road for example had been built over it, in other places you could see where the grass had grown to cover it and leave a long grassy mound.  But when it appeared, you couldn’t miss it.  The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth as Jesus says in John’s gospel, can reveal to us all sorts of things about God, sometimes in surprising places, where we don’t expect it.  The Spirit can also reveal things about ourselves that we might be uncomfortable about but things we need to face up to and deal with.

The Holy Spirit INSTRUCTS – I learnt a lot on my walk, a lot about the Romans but also a lot about the people I was walking with and about myself.  And the Holy Spirit can teach us to work through those things he has revealed in us that need to change.  He can help us to learn new ways, ways of life, ways that bear fruit, the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things we need to learn and the Spirit can help us do that.  Paying attention to the Spirit in prayer might lead us to different decisions about all sorts of things in life, like how we might vote in the election on Thursday or thinking about how best to respond to the news that America are pulling out of the global Climate Change agreement.  How can our decisions, our actions, be Spirit-led so that we see more of those fruit in our lives and in our world?

Finally, the Spirit TAKES us on a journey – one thing the disciples discovered was that the Spirit never leaves us where we are but takes us to some place new.  For many of them, that meant travelling physically to other places, taking the news about Jesus out to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the world.  But for others of us, maybe that journey is one that leaves us physically in the same place but spiritually and in other ways in a very different place.  I know that the 84 mile journey I began in Bowness hasn’t really finished and the Spirit has much more work to do in me, continuing to move me on but I am excited about that journey now, knowing that I am not alone.  Like the Wall was my ever present companion on much of the walk4andy, so the Spirit of the risen Jesus accompanies me on my journey through life.  Sometimes I’m much more aware of his presence than others but he is always there as Jesus promised to the end of the age.

So the Spirit Surprises us, Points us back to Jesus, Inspires, Reveals and Instructs, and finally if we allow him into our lives and try to walk in step with him, the Spirit can Take us on a journey from where we are to where he wants us to be, transforming not only us but the world around us.  Come, Holy Spirit, come.  Amen.

 

Back to earth with a bump

In the stocks at Hexham

This morning Hilary and I set off for home along the A1(M) but not before one last trip out into Hadrian’s Wall country to the beautiful town of Hexham.

After breakfast and a last bit of shopping, we hit the long 150 mile stretch of road down to Newark and then onto the A46 for the last run home to Leicester.

Actually, it was a pretty smooth run and on the way we listened to some stories together – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Cat Mummy’ and a retelling of The Lion King.  Interestingly, both are stories about coping with death.

In the first, Verity tries to secretly mummify her cat Mabel in the wardrobe, having been given the impression by her family that death is something that is too upsetting to talk about.  Her mother died when she was a baby and only at the end of the story does her father begin to realize that for both their sakes he needs to talk about her.  I was reminded of the inspiring programme earlier this year about Rio Ferdinand and his family.

The Lion King too is a story of bereavement and a kind of ‘coming of age’ journey that the young Simba goes on to become the king after feeling to blame for his father’s death.  In the end, he returns from exile to find that his pride are starving.  The reality is hard for him to bear.

Arriving home felt a bit like coming back to earth with a bump, the stresses and strains of my normal routines beginning to creep back into my consciousness, anticipation of a packed diary this coming week and my next trip to Pittsburgh coming up soon (I might blog more about that another time), facing the unpacking and sorting that needs doing, the jobs I left behind that need to be picked up again.  Twenty one phone messages, a pile of post and countless emails to wade through … but maybe not just yet.  There is nothing that can’t wait until Monday!

The long road home

The journey I have been on between Ascension and Pentecost continues on the long road home.  It’s here that some of those memorable moments and thought provoking encounters will bear fruit in the days and weeks and months to come.  It’s important I take the time I need to remember where I’ve been and what I have achieved in Andy’s memory, to look back at the photos and my blog.

The beautiful ceiling at Carlisle Cathedral where my journey began

That’s why things like certificates and T-shirts are important.  Remembering where we’ve been when we get home from time away is often difficult.  The photos just don’t quite capture the mood and spirit of that special moment or even the journey itself.

There is some evidence that Dante’s contemporaries genuinely believed he had been on a physical journey through Hell to Heaven.  Once he had written about it, people avoided him in the streets!  As the Pilgrim arrives at his final destination and comes face to face with God, words fail him too but he recalls the sensation, the love that moved him and held him spinning like a wheel (or dare I say it, a fidget-spinner!) in equilibrium – moving constantly while also at rest.  This is the love within which all other loves are held, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.

 

Thanks

The walk4andy has of course been a labour of love but I could never have achieved it on my own.  This is my opportunity to thank all those who have supported me (I just have to hope it doesn’t sound too much like an Oscars acceptance speech!) and it goes without saying that I wouldn’t have got very far at all if it hadn’t been for the man who built the Wall in the first place …

Publius Aelius Hadrianus

Thanks to all those who have joined me on my walk: Julie, Ian, Nathan, Erica, Scott, Tamara (and Charlie the greyhound!), Tony, Sue, James, Benjy, Hilary, David, Jonathan, Benjamin, Wendy and Val

 

Thanks to those who have helped with lifts and being around during the week: Allison, Will and Dan, Yvonne, Chris, Catherine and Anna, Mags, Matthew, Daniel and Lucy, and especially Barry (and Zac!)

Thanks to those who have given us hospitality, especially Michael and the folk at Carlisle Cathedral, and Benjamin and Stephanie, Elizabeth and Matilda.

Thanks to those I’ve met along the way – Michael, Dany, Clare and countless others whose names I never found out.

Thanks to Andy at the ATC who lent me his camel pack so I didn’t have to stop to drink.

Thanks to my Diabetes team at Leicester General who gave me my continuous glucose monitoring kit making it so much easier to avoid the hypos.

Thanks to Geraldine’s chiropodist who provided a kit for my feet which amazingly I haven’t had to use at all!

Thanks to those who have been praying for me, especially everyone back at St Denys who have been walking and praying in solidarity.  I have felt held in a way like never before.

Thanks to those who have been reading my blog and sending comments and words of encouragement.  It has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks to those who have supported by sponsoring me.  That is the most important part of this whole journey and I am gobsmacked to have raised nearly three times my target of £1000.  Thank you thank you.

And thanks to my family for putting up with me, not only through this week but through all the planning and practice walks, for agreeing to holiday in Carlisle and Derbyshire last year so that I could do some walking.  Thank you for your endless patience and your support this week.  To Erica and Hilary for your companionship on so much of the walk, and to Wendy for encouraging me and humbly getting on with the most boring job of bag-carrying, fetching and dropping off.  I know you had lots of tea and cake in pretty places to make up for it, but it did mean you had to get up when we did!

 

And finally, thanks to Andy, without whom I would not be the person I am today and would never have found the inspiration and determination to do something like this.  I laughed out loud when I read a comment from someone who knew Andy very well saying ‘I can’t help thinking Andy would want to know why you’re walking that far when you could drive!’  So true!  But I hope that this will go some distance to helping others with his condition to get more support and maybe help those who are working to find a cure for VHL.  Huge thanks to VHL UK/Ireland for all the work you do for families like ours.

 

 

Heaven in ordinary

84 miles, about 240,000 steps (thanks Fitbit!), nine days, sixteen walking companions (plus a dog), through marsh  and valley, along road and river, over hill and stile, in city and country, town and village … to end at the appropriately named Wallsend around 2pm this afternoon!

It is finished.

My feet were particularly sore after a lot of pavement pounding today along very ordinary streets and paths through Newcastle.  That’s not to say there weren’t some glory moments, such as the Swedish deli we came across, the views of the Tyne, the fisherman who caught a crab as we passed and the Quayside where we timed it just right to see the Millennium Bridge in action!  But after all I’ve seen over the past nine days, the end of the walk4andy felt very … well, ordinary.  The pathways and pavements could easily have been in Leicester and looked very similar to the ones I walked just two weeks ago to get to Mountsorrel in fact.

There was something very ordinary about walking that last section with just my family too, with Wendy my wife, and my two daughters Erica and Hilary.  All of us found it a bit wearing and hard-going on the feet and there were the usual family arguments as we began to rub each other up the wrong way.  All very ordinary.

We arrived at Segedunum to see where the Wall ended and the fort has been partly excavated and we wandered round the excellent exhibition there.  Again it all felt like a very ordinary family day out.  And yet it was anything but.  I had just walked 84 miles across the country from one coast to the other, in memory of Andy and raising awareness (I hope) and money (about £2500 I think now) for VHL.

My pilgrimage had come to an end in a rather unspectacular way with a pot of tea and a plate of scrambled eggs on toast!

Then after waving goodbye to Wendy and Erica at Newcastle station, Hilary and I went to evening prayer at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, again the routine ordinary prayers said day in day out by Anglicans all over the place.

But in its very ordinariness I think there was something quite extraordinary going on.  I have said how much I don’t want this journey to end, and the challenge with these sorts of experiences is always how to carry them back into ‘ordinary life’.  Here today I found the ordinary right here in the extraordinary journey and when I let go of my anxiety for some amazing bolt-of-lightning revelation of what this has all been about, I saw the beauty in the ordinariness and felt the peace that came from it.

Towards the end of Andy’s life, it was the very ordinary things that made him happy – the bacon sandwich, a visit from a friend, the trip out to do a bit of shopping, the Earl Grey tea and proper coffee.

It is not for nothing that George Herbert, another of my favourite poets, described prayer as ‘heaven in ordinary’.  This whole walk4andy has been one long prayer, a prayer for my family and for all those struggling with VHL, a prayer for myself and my struggles with grief, a prayer for the church and the churches I have had contact with en route, a prayer for God’s kingdom to come – in me, in us and in our broken world. #thykingdomcome

May that prayer continue to grow and bear fruit as I return home, the kind of prayer George Herbert also called ‘The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage’ and yes, ‘heaven in ordinary’.

 

 

My mum

‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ – words from the psalm set for evening prayer yesterday, which I was able to say in the beautiful church in Corbridge after finishing day 8 of my walk4andy in the company of my eldest daughter and my mum.

My mum came up to join me last weekend and has been able to do part of the walk with me.  She is a great support and has even raised sponsorship herself.  But yesterday was the first opportunity I had had to really talk to her and ask her all sorts of things about what it was like when Andy and Dad were both diagnosed with VHL.  I was around Hilary’s age at the time and don’t really remember much at all.

As we walked side by side, Mum told me stuff today I had never known, about the time when Andy, aged 11, was in hospital next to Dad, both of them having cryotherapy treatment on retinal tumours.  And the time she went to Manchester with Andy about ten years ago to a VHL support meeting for those with VHL and their carers.  At that stage he was still reasonably able, and meeting others at later stages of the illness came as a huge shock to them both.

I knew my mum was brave but hearing her talk about those times filled me with a whole new appreciation for her courage and determination in the face of nearly losing both her husband and her son.  Now as a parent myself, I can’t imagine the pain of seeing your child suffer like Andy did.  He probably wouldn’t have realised at 11 what VHL meant, but Mum would have had a much better understanding of how it might progress which must have been terrifying.

She has been witness to more operations and emergency procedures than she can count, she has visited hospitals all over the country and sat in on numerous consultations bearing bad news.  But she also speaks so highly of the nurses on the wards who cared for Andy, how they became like family to her and remembered her each time Andy was admitted.

On her 60th birthday!

Mum has held close all of that heartache for such a long time.  More than ten years ago she nursed my stepfather through an agonising few months as he died of cancer at just 54.  And then shortly after Andy died in 2013, she also lost her mum, my grandmother, who she had been caring for.

How anyone can go through so much and still want to open their heart to the risks that come with love, I cannot guess, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to marry her to her new husband Barry last January.  This has been a painful journey for me but it is as nothing compared to the journey my mum has been on.

Mum and her boys in 1999 at my wedding

Andy, Dad, my stepfather and grandmother are all now on that farther shore, safe in the arms of the God who created them and loved them.  As Mum left last night before she travels home to Leicester this morning, we hugged one another tight, struggling to hold back the tears, like a pair of shipwrecked sailors clinging to a piece of driftwood as they are tossed and thrown by the waves around them.  But maybe, just maybe, we can see a bit of land coming into view now, something to look forward to and give us hope and peace.

God bless you, Mum!