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’.

 

 

Advertisements

Being present to the journey

I was reminded by a wise acquaintance this morning of the importance of being present to the journey.  This was in response to my explanation as to why I was taking so long over walking Hadrian’s Wall.  It has been a recurring question.  On my first day I was told the story of one man who had run the entire Wall in just 16 hours.  Why on earth should I take nine days to do the same?

My answer to the question includes the fact that for me what matters is that I complete the journey not how long it takes.  As a society, and sadly sometimes as a church, we seem obsessed with speed, doing things faster and faster.  We want instant results or else we think what we’re doing isn’t working.  But just as when I drive along the motorway, the hedgerows become a blur, so we can easily miss seeing all sorts of things when we travel too fast.

Today I was accompanied by Hilary, my youngest daughter, who is just 9 years old.  Hilary was concerned that I not be on my own so committed to walking with me for the whole of Day 7.  I confess this came as a surprise since she is not the world’s greatest walker and usually tires quite quickly and would much rather be sat in front of a TV or an iPad!

However, Hilary also has a very important gift, one of the many things I cherish about her but rarely get the opportunity to enjoy.  Hilary is never in a hurry!  On a school day when trying to get out of the house on time, it can be and frequently is infuriating, but on a day like today it was an absolute delight.

We stopped to wonder at the lapwing flying overhead, at the cute newborn lambs in the fields, and at the mating damselflies in the hedgerow.  We stopped to listen to the chaffinches singing and see the swallows swooping.  Hilary insisted on taking photos of the tiniest flowers and the vast panoramic landscapes.  I think we spent a good twenty minutes stalking a butterfly which kept moving further down the path every time Hilary got a little too close with my phone camera.

Large red damselfly

 

Speedwell

 

 

Newborn staying close to mum

 

All of this meant the journey took longer than it might have done and we ended the day at the Robin Hood Inn, not quite as far as I’d planned but I really don’t mind.  We had a wonderful day as Hilary taught me to notice things again, not to be afraid to stop and wonder.  This is what I think it means to be present to the journey, to savour this moment, this experience.  It’s what our Walks with Wonder back at St Denys are all about, and I am as much in need of being reminded of that as anyone else.

To quote Danny Pink from a previous serious of Doctor Who: ‘I don’t want to see more things, I want to see more clearly the things I have in front of me.’

The Celtic Christians were much more aware than we are today I think of the significance of the ‘now’.  In the final lines of that Celtic prayer I’ve been learning:

You are the light, the truth, the way

You are my Saviour this very day

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?

Health Update

One or two folk have been asking how I’m doing physically as I reach the middle of my walk4andy.

Well, I’m pleased to report that all is well.  My feet in particular are completely blister-free thanks to great boots and a lot of prayer!

On Day Three my legs were very stiff and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage the walk but that morning I received a text from a friend praying for healing and after about half an hour the stiffness wore off and I’ve been fine since.

The diabetes is not such a good story.  It’s been a bit like the terrain here in the middle part of the Wall – very up and down!  Although my Freestyle Libre scanner means I can check blood sugar levels very easily, it means I tend to respond too quickly I think and so it starts to ping pong.  Interestingly the problems have been worse after the day’s walking rather than during.

But if you are the praying kind, I would very much value prayer for better control over the last few days as the massive fluctuations can be exhausting.

The friend who texted sent me this verse from Habakkuk:

‘God, the Lord, is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.’

I’m not quite a gazelle leaping gracefully along the Wall, but I do know that I am finding healing here as I walk and not just physically.  Thank you again for all your prayers and support.

Sworn Brothers

I am a big fan of the Game of Thrones.  For those who are not GoT fans, the stories by George R.R. Martin include ‘The Wall’, a huge edifice protecting southerners from the dangerous monsters north of the Wall. (I’d just like to point out that I am on the south side of the Wall in this picture!)

The Wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a band of sworn brothers from here there and everywhere, of every race and class.

The reason I tell you this is because the Wall in GoT was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall.  I have been reading a bit about the people who guarded it, the auxiliary units made up of a mixture of people from across the empire and more locally.  The old gods and the new are worshipped together.  Few would choose to go to this Godforsaken outpost of the empire, the back of beyond, about as far as you could get from civilization in Rome.

Of course, many now choose to visit this beautiful part of the country.  Today I was delighted to be joined on my Wall by family members from Leicester and London, some of whom are facing their own battles right now and so it was really special that they gave up time to come and walk.   I was also joined by a friend from north of the border, a brother in faith, who I haven’t seen for ages and so it was very special to catch up, put the world to rights and to pray together.

But the big surprise was at Birdoswald where I saw again the party from Argentina I had met on day one at the Cathedral.  Not only was it a joy to reconnect but also humbling to have Danny pray for me out on the Wall.

The sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch abandon their old lives to ‘take the black’.  They form a new family based on the vows they have made and their common purpose to protect the Wall and guard against evil.  They’ve got one another’s back.  Our police and armed forces do a not dissimilar job, much of which goes unseen, and for which we should be grateful.

I had a wonderful company of ‘sworn brothers’ on the Wall today, people who have got my back just as Andy did when I was growing up, people who will love and protect me, who will pray for me and walk with me, and for whom I am grateful.

At the end of the day outside Greenhead Church, Nathan and I said evening prayer together in the warm late afternoon sun.  I was reminded of the words of the evening service of compline which includes the prayer:

As the night watch looks for the morning

So do we look for you, O Christ.

Psalm 65

This morning a friend sent me some verses from Psalm 65 and they were so appropriate as I walked I thought I would add them here with pictures from today’s walk (amazingly a dry one!)

‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’

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