Burdens laid down

Is it wrong that I’m enjoying this?

Heavenfield

Ok, this has been the hardest post to write so far and so should come with a health warning!  The walk4andy was meant to be about Andy, about celebrating his life and doing something positive in his memory.  And yes, I am spending a lot of time thinking about him and talking about him, but if this was meant to be a hardship endured out of love for him or for some other wonderfully holy, altruistic motive, then I hate to disappoint but that’s not how it really is.

 

I have loved the walking and the fresh air, I have loved the stunning scenery and the time to think, I have loved the company and the conversation, the sense of achievement at the end of each day.  But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, is it?

It’s not the first time I’ve felt a lot of guilt on account of Andy…

It started when I was just a few years old and managed to cut off the end of his finger in the chain of his bike.  Oops!

Then there was the time I hit him in the eye with the cricket ball, chased him round the house with a pair of scissors and there was the ‘sleeping bag’ tobogganing down the stairs incident which left him with a bleeding head wound!

But as we got older, and Andy was diagnosed with VHL, I too was taken for regular testing, put through CT and MRI scans, blood tests, eye tests and so on to make sure it was caught early should I too develop VHL.  I was well aware that Andy was ill but not really how that might impact me, but it felt like a shared experience to some extent at least.

Around the time I went to university I was offered the option of a blood test.  The faulty gene had been identified and I could have the DNA test to see if I was likely to develop VHL in the future or at risk of passing it on to my children, not something that was high on my agenda at the age of 18.

The test came back clear some time during my first year in Cambridge and I still have the letter telling me the news in a very brief and official kind of way.  I’m quite surprised I kept it, as it didn’t really mean a lot to me then.  I just carried on with all the fun of being a student!

It has only been later in life, as I’ve gone on to get married and have children, to work and make friends, to meet others whose lives have been affected by complicated illness or family tragedy.  Over the years, the guilt began to take root – why Andy?  why not me?  Apparently, it was 50/50 either way.

There was a part of me that was relieved when I was diagnosed with diabetes at 28.  Finally, my life wasn’t the perfect world I thought it must seem to Andy, and I had my own inherited illness.  I’m so ashamed that I felt that way but it’s the truth.

Of course, when Andy died, it was worse.  Much as I missed him, the pain at losing him was mixed again with what I guess could now be called ‘survivor’s guilt’.  It could so easily have been me that had had VHL, that had died at 38, leaving Andy to mourn my passing.  What would he have done?  How would he have marked the ending of his brother’s life?

Guilt is something Christians can be particularly bad at handling, which is something of a surprise when you think that our whole belief system is built on God’s grace removing our guilt and sin, setting us free through Jesus’ death on the cross from those burdens we like to carry around with us.  The Bible says that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far ha he set our sins from us.’

As I walk from the west coast to the east, I am learning to see that it is not my fault that I was the lucky one, but that I can choose what to do with the life that I have been given now, the post-40 life that Andy will never see.  The culmination of 3 and a half years working through all those emotions is the walk4andy.

This is why it matters so much to me.  Yes, it is an opportunity to do something positive in his memory but, perhaps selfishly, it is also about freeing myself from that burden of guilt and finding my own path to forgiveness and freedom so that I can do what I know in my heart Andy would have wanted which is for me to squeeze every drop of hope and joy and love from the years of life that God has granted me in his unfathomable wisdom.

Words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim:

Must here the Burden fall from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

Feast and Fast

Ramadan Mubarak to all my Muslim friends, neighbours and blog readers!

Having taught in Peterborough for several years with a class of children who were all Muslim, I know it can be a real challenge at this time of year so prayers for a blessed and fruitful fast, that you discover what Rumi called the ‘hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness’.

Much as I admire people who take fasting very seriously, I struggle with it.  Partly because of my diabetes and I’ve written and talked about that before (e.g. https://youtu.be/i7XSirBJFYo)

But I’m also something of a binger if I’m honest and not just when it comes to food.  I think I have one of those personalities, like Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  I get obsessed with something and then suddenly find I’m bored and want to move on to something else.  I have tried to train myself out of it but I think it’s still my default position!

People I know who struggle with mental health issues have told me how the drugs they are given often take away their ability to feel at the extremes.  They neither experience the depth of sorrows not the heights of joy.  Instead life becomes somewhat grey.  The trouble is we seem to crave for intense emotional experiences as human beings. And if we want to be able to experience intense joy we also open ourselves up to intense pain.

As I come to the end of the first three days of my journey, I am already aware it has been something of an emotional rollercoaster.  And now my quiet solitude has been replaced by the joy and delight of having lots of my family join me.

The fast and the feast.  But sometimes I think the feast can make us feel more intensely the pain of the fast.  Seeing everyone gathered together I find can be something of a bittersweet experience as I can’t help noticing who is missing…

The Reading Room Café in Walton

More words from that Celtic prayer:

 

You are the door that’s open wide

You are the guest who waits inside

All by myself …

I have discovered it’s possible to feel lonely even when you are not alone and to be alone and not to feel lonely at all.

This morning – #walk4andy day one – I was up with the larks to get to the Ascension Day service at Carlisle Cathedral.  As I went bleary-eyed for communion, I offered up to God the day ahead and all the planning that has gone into this #walk4andy.

Afterwards there was a delicious breakfast and some good company from as far away as Argentina!  I also got invited back to evensong when Michael, the brilliant Canon Missioner, kindly prayed for those suffering with VHL, remembering Andy in the Cathedral intercessions, and even gave me tea and a few beers!  It’s always good to be reminded that we are not alone, and the Church extends well beyond our parish and across the world (NB. I drafted this before I heard the news from the Philippines but that makes it even more poignant – when one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it…)

I then took the bus out to Bowness on Solway to find the beautiful Pavilion where I could stamp my passport to prove I’d been. En route I made more friends on the bus and a visitor from Norway kindly took my picture.

Thereafter I was pretty much on my own.  The route to Burgh by Sands was pretty quiet.  I didn’t feel lonely though. I had my thoughts and the messages from so many friends and loved ones wishing me all the best.  I even had a text from one of my churchwardens with a picture of the smiling faces of my  wonderful  congregation back at St Denys this morning!

But it was hot and sunny (Andy wouldn’t have complained!) and there wasn’t a lot of shade as I walked alone by the marshes.   The cap and sun cream did their job but I felt very exposed to the elements.

It set me thinking about how exposed and vulnerable I have felt since losing Dad and Andy.  I adore the women in my life – Wendy and my two girls, my mum and stepmother – but Dad and Andy can never be replaced and without them this little brother and youngest son does, if I’m honest, feel lonely at times, even though I know I am far from being alone.

This friendly fellow didn’t want to leave me alone!

I came across a beautiful prayer which I am going to use as I walk and try to learn by heart two lines at a time.  It comes from the Celtic tradition and it begins like this:

You are the peace of all things calm

You are the place to hide from harm

As I searched for shelter from the heat of the sun along the still, deserted marshes of the Solway, these words came alive and I found peace with my ‘alone-ness’.

#headstogether

Last night I had the privilege of talking about mental health with a fantastic group of young people from my local air cadet squadron.

As their padre I wanted to encourage the cadets to think about St George and his dragon alongside the courage needed to fight our own dragons whatever form they may take.  I have a number of friends and colleagues who have inspired me over the past few years with the courage they have shown in talking openly about their own battles with the dragons of mental illness.

We looked at how we can improve our mental health and that of those around us, be honest about it when we are unwell and how we can support friends who are struggling.  This video got a powerful response. https://youtu.be/SE5Ip60_HJk.

There has been a lot of publicity recently around the Princes’ #headstogether campaign, tackling the stigma often attached to mental health (not least in churches I have to say where it can be especially hard to admit that things are not ok).

I was able to talk with the cadets about signs to look for and possible triggers for a deterioration in mental health, including exam pressure, bullying, moving to a new place and of course losing someone we love.

I know when Andy died in 2013, just three months after my dad, I fell to pieces.  I was angry with a God who would let this happen to those I loved when I selfishly thought that I had given up so much for him.  I didn’t want to go out or see people in the parish because I felt they would expect me to be able to deal with it.  I had to take time off work and was offered a course of counselling which helped me begin to put the pieces back together again.  I was especially thankful for very supportive and sympathetic bosses (my bishops!).

What we concluded last night was that the people around us make a huge difference to how we deal with our mental health, whether they are supportive, take us seriously and will listen sympathetically, or whether they feel awkward and make jokes about it to defuse their own discomfort.

I’m with the Princes (and the Duchess) on this.  We really need to put our #headstogether to find more ways to improve the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health of everyone in our communities.

As for me, I’m hoping that walking Hadrian’s Wall will have a positive impact in all four areas!

Sundays

‘Vicars only work one day a week, don’t they?’  I’m not convinced every person who says that to me is joking!  But I can assure you it’s definitely not true.

Me at work!

However, this Sunday I am not working, I am not taking a service or standing in the pulpit at St Denys.  I’m coming to the end of my post-Easter break and have spent the week beginning to get my head and body into a good place to take on the challenge I have set myself.

After hearing the great stuff our Royal Princes have been saying is week, I think I can safely and freely admit to having shed a few tears … again!  The more I think about this walk, the more I think about Andy. And just as I thought I had got a handle on my grief, it comes back with a vengeance.

I know I’m not the only one to lose a brother, I’m not the only one to lose family members to VHL, and I’m certainly not the only one to struggle with grief, but I’m a vicar!  Aren’t I the one who is supposed to have an endless supply of comforting words and messages of hope for everyone else?

Image result for boss baby posterWell, yes, I do have hope in God and I hope I can offer some comfort, but more often than not, I just want to say that grief is crap.  It’s unpredictable and it’s overwhelming.  Last week we took our children to the cinema to see The Boss Baby of all things, and I wept buckets in the foyer afterwards just because the big brother in the film wrote his new little baby brother a letter at the end telling him how he’d always be there for him and promising that they would grow old together.

Sunday for lots of people is a day to stop and take some time out, maybe to think about God, maybe to spend time with the family, but one way or another it’s about time to process the rest of life.  Sundays are rarely like that for me – my busiest day of the week if not my only working day!  But this Sunday I too have a chance to reflect, and as I continue to prepare mentally and emotionally as well as physically, I’m discovering there’s a lot to think and pray about.