Homesick

This song by MercyMe was the one I chose for us to come in to at Andy’s funeral.  It’s a song I came across at a funeral I did some years back for a wonderful and dearly loved man at the church where I was a curate.  Here are some of the lyrics.  Hopefully you can see why I chose it  …

You’re in a better place, I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
But the reason why I’m broken, the reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me, the hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

My home for the week

I’m not feeling especially homesick here in Pittsburgh as I’ve been very busy, although speaking to the family on FaceTime earlier this afternoon did leave me feeling a little sad.  But I have been thinking about home because the theme of the conference is ‘God in the Neighbourhood’.  We were asked to think about where our home is.

 

For the first 11 years of my life, I lived in at least seven different places in the UK.  I’ve always found it hard to say where I come from.  I spent the longest time in Leicestershire, that’s what I usually end up saying.  But increasingly I have found myself happy to answer that I come from Leicester.  That is my home at the moment (leaving aside discussion of my heavenly home for now!).  And I do feel a long way from it here in the USA.  However, it has been fascinating to discover so much that is common in the experiences of colleagues here from Denmark, Norway, South Africa and of course America itself.  Many of our churches are experiencing the same trends and so sharing our responses to the changes we are seeing in the world is exciting and stimulating a lot of thinking for me.

One of the many huge Presbyterian churches here

The idea of ‘home’ is really important to us as human beings, and if we are feeling homesick, I believe it’s true if a little simplistic that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ as St Augustine said.  It can be hard as itinerant clergy to minister to a congregation who have never lived anywhere else.  Their sense of rootedness and place is stronger than we will ever know.  And yet, as the world becomes an ever smaller place, that also means perhaps that we should be able to feel at home wherever we are in it.

 

In one of today’s presentations I learnt of the sociologist Hartmut Rosa who writes about our need for ‘resonance in a world of acceleration’.  Where in our neighbourhoods can we help people to find resonance that might offer a cure for that feeling of loss and unease we sometimes call homesickness?

Anxious Times

A sunny morning at Heathrow
A very wet afternoon at Philadelphia

It’s been a long day.  I’ve already been up for nearly 24 hours, having left home in a taxi at 3am!  From there to the bus station to the airport and across the Atlantic to Philadelphia where thunderstorms have delayed all onward flights.  So an anxious time of waiting once again …

 

But my anxiety is as nothing compared to that felt within the community at Finsbury Park and in muslim communities all over the country after last night’s terrible attack.  My heart goes out to my own community in Evington and the many families I know through the local school who will be feeling increasingly threatened and unsettled by these events.  We live in anxious times.

I haven’t been to the United States since I was 17 and haven’t flown much at all in the intervening years, certainly not long haul.  So I admit today has been a nerve-racking experience.  I wasn’t really expecting to have to strip off jacket, shoes, belt and empty pockets, to be swabbed because of my insulin pump and to be questioned a number of times about the purpose of my visit.  I have felt under close scrutiny and that feeling has been added to by the numerous signs encouraging people to report suspicious behaviour, not unlike some of the wartime posters that led to increased suspicion between neighbours and a generally mistrusting atmosphere.

Airport rocking chairs to help you relax!

 

All of this makes for an interesting background to the conference I have come to take part in, looking at how the  church can engage better with the local neighbourhood, seeking transformation and the common good.  I felt prompted by some of the comments I have read from muslim friends to write to the trustees of my local mosque back home and offer them some reassurance of our continuing desire as Christians to work together for the wellbeing of all.

 

These may be anxious times, but time and again the Bible tells us not to be afraid.  The way to dissipate the anxiety is not by giving way to fear and withdrawing more into our homogenous communities.  Instead we need to be drawn by hope and love, to be reaching out in friendship to our neighbours to offer one another reassurance that we have more in common than what divides us.  I love this CBBC video.

https://www.facebook.com/cbbc/videos/1319326988102600/

Children are wonderfully blind to the barriers we put up as adults, and it echoes one of my favourite quotes from Nadia Bolz-Weber: ‘every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side.’

Dads

Father’s Day has been a bit weird since Dad died.  I walk past the displays of Father’s Day merchandise each year and think I have no one to buy it for.  I’m spoilt of course by my lovely daughters and for that I’m eternally grateful but it’s odd not to be giving as well as receiving.

This Father’s Day has been different as I was privileged to preach in my Dad’s church in Wisbech.  It was a very moving experience and many people in that congregation too who knew my dad have given generously to VHL and followed my walk4andy.

St Peter’s Church, Wisbech

After lunch with my stepmother and my dad’s brother and his wife we went to visit my dad’s grave in Newton where my dad’s dad is also buried as well as my dad’s dad’s dad and I think my dad’s dad’s dad’s dad! 

It was boiling hot and so finding some shade was the number one priority but I was struck gazing at the gravestones by the passing of time and the knowledge that I am just one more dad in that whole sequence, a product of many fathers with all sorts of different approaches to fatherhood.

St James’ Church, Newton

Largely because of the VHL, my dad wasn’t in a position to father me like I have my girls.  Certainly after his first major op, he couldn’t take us out on trips or just muck about in the garden.  I don’t blame him for that of course.  He was still an inspiration in so many other ways and I knew he loved me. That, for me, is the most important gift a father can give – the knowledge that you are loved unconditionally…

I know he would have been very proud of me today standing in the pulpit at his own church, and I can even be pretty sure (since I’m told by my children I’ve inherited his terrible sense of humour!) that he at least would have chuckled at my joke about Jesus’ bowels being moved!!

The Waiting Game

Waiting is hard, but it is one experience that is shared by everyone who at some point has to have something done in hospital.

This week my wife was due to have an operation.  Having waited for the appointment to come through (actually much sooner than we’d expected!), she then had to wait for the day to arrive, and finally sit in her very attractive nightgown and hospital pants waiting for the doctor to come and tell her when she would be going down to theatre.

After all this waiting, it was then very frustrating to be told that her operation had been cancelled and she would have to go home and wait some more for another date to come through!  Argh!

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But for people like Andy with VHL, this isn’t just a common experience, it’s normal life.  Every day there seemed to be an appointment or procedure or something VHL-related that he had to attend.  There were kidney-specialists and brain-specialists and eye-specialists, then there were the genetics specialists and, as he became more disabled, the occupational health teams and physiotherapists.  There were speech therapists and district nurses, community health visitors and so it went on.  If it was all added up, he must have spent days, weeks, even months of his life waiting in hospitals!  An endless round of health-related appointments filled his diary and his life revolved around them, always waiting for the next one to come through.

Inside St Michael’s, Burgh-by-Sands
None of us like to be kept waiting, but I remember at the end of my first day on the walk4andy having to wait for my lift back to Carlisle.  It was a boiling hot day.  My phone had died.  The church in Burgh-by-Sands was locked and so I couldn’t fill my time with having a look around.  Instead I took off my boots and sat on the wall in the shade.  I probably sat there for the best part of an hour or more.  It was liberating actually not being able to do anything and I was struck by the creeping feeling of contentment which had grown on me as I walked alone across the marshes.  There was nothing I could do but wait.

I’m not very good at waiting but maybe I can learn.  Andy always seemed quite relaxed about having a diary full of waiting time.  Perhaps he learnt to live in those moments rather than always feeling that they were taking him away from something more important.  Perhaps what I need to learn is that this moment, this time, is what matters, and we don’t have to wait to make the most of it.

Wounded healers

‘In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.’ The words of Henri Nouwen in his book ‘The Wounded Healer’.

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The passion flower in the Vicarage garden

In the aftermath of election night, amid the many voices trying to make sense of what has happened, I heard someone comment that the electorate would have been more forgiving of Theresa May if she had just admitted she made a mistake over the so-called ‘dementia tax’.  Easier said than done.  Few of us find it comes naturally to make ourselves vulnerable in that way, to be open about our mistakes, our failings, our wounds, especially when we are in a privileged position of power.

When I set off on my walk4andy, I had a number of goals.  First and foremost I wanted to raise the profile of VHL and raise funds for research and support for families living with it.  Second, I wanted to do something memorable in Andy’s memory, something I could point to and say ‘I did that for you, brother’.  In doing so, I hoped that it would also help me work through my grief at losing both Andy and Dad so close together.

2105_47477263866_5713_nThirdly, I wanted to give a kind of witness, a witness to my faith which has taken some battering in all this but is stronger than ever at the end of my journey.  I also wanted to be a witness in the sense that I wanted to speak openly and honestly about my own struggles, in the hope that something of what I have been through might encourage or comfort others experiencing similar journeys.

Since I finished, I have been humbled by the number of people who have spoken to me and said that something in my blog had touched them or moved them or resonated for them or even helped them a little in their own walk with grief and God.

I know some people still regret the rise of the therapeutic age and the constant need to talk about our feelings but it really does help.  The alternative is a myth that we are all just fine, thank you very much; the stiff upper lip that the English are renowned for.  This creates a veneer of overcompetence hiding the real fear that many of us have that we are just one slip away from being found out – the ‘imposter phenomenon’.

It also generates a false belief that everything can be fixed.  Even in church there have been times where I’ve felt forced to bounce up and down be jolly and happy and pretend that everything’s ok because Jesus loves us, when what I really want to say is more like ‘God, I feel crap right now, actually I’ve no idea if you’re even listening, I don’t understand why my life is such a mess, what have I done wrong and why don’t I feel happy like everybody else?’

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Even where there are thorns, new buds form

I long to see a Christian community that can be honest about its weaknesses and failings, where you don’t have to be perfect to have a go at something, where those who appear very competent and confident can reveal their own woundedness to those who have been frightened to put their head above the parapet for fear of stepping on someone’s toes.  This would be a community with space to grieve and cry and question as well as celebrate and praise and give thanks.  After all, we find that whole range of emotions expressed in the psalms of the Bible.

Henri Nouwen writes, ‘A Christian community is a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.’  It shouldn’t really be a surprise from a Christian point of view that the wounded make the best healers.

Andy knew all about wounds.  He had plenty of them – staples, stitches, glue, all leaving their scars and bald patches.  In the last few years of his life, Andy began to see how his suffering, his wounds, might be turned into a gift rather than a curse.  (That’s not to say I believe for a moment that God wanted to cause him pain, any more than he wanted Jesus to die in agony on the cross, but I do believe that suffering and pain are never the end for God.  They can be transformed by His grace into something new.)

303638_10150899928223867_1767193478_nIn one of the last conversations I had with Andy he told me that he had begun thinking that maybe he had a calling to be a hospital chaplain, that maybe others might find hope and faith through him.  From talking to people who knew him, I know that that was already happening, and, even as I share his story today, I’m sure that God is still at work through him, kindling hope and faith in a broken and wounded world.

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.