Better Late Than Never: The 12-Month Late Blog

NOTE: This time last year I was preparing to go to Zambia. At the time we were in the middle of European elections and I voted before I went. But while I was in Africa I wrote this blog. It was never published because of a difficult internet connection. Instead I put it to one side and forgot all about it until tonight when I re-read it and decided it was appropriate to publish it.

Written in May 2014. 

It’s a hot sunny afternoon in Zambia. We’re about a third of the way through a journey that will take most of the day. Lusaka, the capital, seems a long way behind and the city soon gave way to the grassy vistas, trees and farmsteads that make up the views I’ve come to associate with Africa.

The UK seems a long way away geographically and you would have forgiven me – perhaps – for wondering whether it’s a long way away culturally too. I hoped it would be different, because otherwise what’s the point of travelling to new places if they’re just the same as the ones I’ve left behind? The people, on the other hand, well… they’re not really that different.

Yesterday I was talking to the driver who’s very quickly become a friend. I’ve discovered he has a passion. For Liverpool Football Club. His dream is to see his team play – perhaps against Manchester United at Anfield. Or even better to see them play here in Zambia at the incredible Chinese-built stadium near Lusaka.

As we talked we shared our experiences of our own countries, finding more and more in common. The Zambian and the Briton. Only over the weather were we divided – I love the sunshine, he prefers to hide in the shade. But then, as he pointed out, Zambia has a lot of it whereas England has rain. And cold. And then more rain.

Then I noticed a few scattered holes in the road and remarked that in England they were called potholes. He laughed: “They’re called potholes here too,” he said. “And ours don’t get repaired either.”

We carried on comparing notes – he was fascinated to discover that the British education system is free and that only those who go on university have to find the money to study there. Here it’s free for primary school age children but older children have to pay to go to secondary school and it’s only the children of the wealthy who can afford to go on to university.

At one stage he said: “Zambia is a lovely country, but we are poor.”

I thought about that for a moment: “You might be poor in some ways,” I remarked, “But you are rich in the things that matter.”

He looked unconvinced.

“If you ca1A_The office todayme to England and waved at total strangers out of your car,” I explained,

“People would – in the main – look at you as if you were a bit strange and turn away.

“I’m smiling and waving at people here and they wave back. And everyone greets you as if they’ve known you a long time.”

I love the friendliness that means my attempts to write emails and even this blog are constantly interrupted by my new friends asking how I am.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know I’ve made some friends amongst the commuting fraternity – but that’s the exception, not the norm.

I’ve often felt we were a suspicious lot in the UK, regarding outsiders as “Not from round here,” and treating them accordingly. In Wiltshire, and in many other places across the UK, there are quite a few places called Coldharbour, which I’m told, were where people were put when they first arrived at a village to make sure they were disease free. I wonder whether this shared memory is where the suspicion of outsiders comes from.

I’m currently travelling to see some work around tackling gender-based violence which is being led by the Anglican church in Zambia. My understanding is that much of the work is being done across whole families to bring about an realisation that all are valuable and all have worth. There is no such thing as an inferior human being.

Back in the UK, people are voting. Democracy is and always has been something worth fighting for. I’ve always thought that just because someone else’s viewpoint isn’t the same as my own doesn’t mean it’s not any less valid and I stand by that.

However, in an election which has seen people’s fears exploited by the closet and openly racist, it is worth reminding all that there is no such thing as an inferior or worthless human being.

And if you’ll forgive the slight misquote of the apostle Paul: “There is no Greek, no Jew, no slave, no free, no Briton, no Zambian, no politician, no political pundit, no voter, nor candidate, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 

What is truth?

I love Yes Minister. And its successor, Yes Prime Minister. One of my favourite bits is when Jim Hacker realizes he will have to go back on something he’d promised to do. His private secretary Bernard Woolley listens sympathetically, before offering these words, ‘They were only political promises Minister.’

‘What do you mean?’ asks a bewildered Hacker.

‘I mean, like your manifesto promises, people understand,’ explained Bernard.

It makes me laugh again when I think of it. But I was reminded of that sketch this week when some friends were talking about politicians.

‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for,’ said one friend, ‘Whoever gets in always forgets about their promises or says the previous administration have mucked things up so badly that they need to sort that out before they can start making new things happen. How can we believe a word they say when they never do anything they promise to?’

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If you live in the UK, you cannot fail to notice that we’re now into the rush towards the election.

I’ve already found myself putting my head in my hands as I hear yet another politician explaining how their party will be the ones to sort out the economy, grapple with immigration, help the homeless, do away with the need for foodbanks, give compulsory days off when the sun is shining and unlimited chocolate supplies to writers of blogs.

I may have made a couple of those manifesto promises up, of course. But there is a feeling of cynicism that the political manifesto doesn’t contain real lasting truth. Just short-term promises that may or may not last the course.

And our distrust isn’t just limited to that.

Politicians. Estate Agents. Journalists. Three professions that people associate with spin and often accuse of bending the truth to suit their own purposes.

‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ is often bandied about as a joke in newsrooms. Except that sometimes it isn’t a joke. And sometimes however much we pretend otherwise by calling it a fib, a bit of spin or an exaggeration, it is – in fact – a downright lie.

I once said – not very kindly I admit and in a rush of frustration – to a friend whose relationship with honesty had always been at best sketchy, ‘You wouldn’t know the truth if it got up and bit you.’ But sometimes I wondered whether this person truly believed their own lies and whether the ultimate success of the untruthful person is to believe their own spin. Or – perhaps as we’re being honest and transparent here – they need to believe their own lies to justify their behaviour to themselves.

But what is truth? And how do we find it? How do we pick out the truth in the spin and skewed words that fill our ears and our minds every day?

I’m not sure these are the right questions. We believe what we want to hear. We search for a truth that we want to believe. Or as one of my friends – quoting his father – often says, ‘We can only be easily led in the direction we want to go.’

So where is truth found? I believe that truth is only really truth when it’s backed up with action. Let me explain: I wrote previously about my friend Alan and how he showed his love for his daughter by fixing her car (The Mechanics of Grace, January 2015). Alan might tell his daughter he loves her and I’m sure she knows that. But the truth of that love is shown through his actions towards her.

That truth of a father’s love is easy to unpick. The truth of a political manifesto is harder to find.

Also the perfect political party is like the perfect church or a seat on the Friday afternoon train service to where I live: impossible to find. Finding truth in the everyday whether it is in the workplace or amongst our friends is also a tough place to be. Avoiding lies and half-truths and fibs and spin is also tough. If you think I’m wrong, wait until one of your friends says, ‘I’ve had my haircut. What do you think?’ Or you have to fill in your next timesheet or tax return.

We should still search out the truth. We should still tell the truth in a society that’s made an acceptable habit of avoiding it.

It is said that many years ago a group of monks wrestled with how to make an anagram out of the question asked by Pilate when Jesus was put on trial before him. The question – ‘What is truth?’ – apparently translates into Latin as ‘Quid est veritas?’. It’s said that the monks worked long and hard to create the answer ‘Est vir qui adest.’ Those words translate as ‘It’s the man who is here’ or ‘The man who stands before you.’

1_trapped15Jesus was and is a man who inspired truth. His own disciples burst out with things they couldn’t help themselves saying.

Faced with that honest truthful gaze, lies would be impossible and more than once people walked away rather than face it and its gentle challenge. And he also pointed out that it was truth that would set us free.

And on a bleak Friday many years ago a hard-bitten centurion watched a cruel execution and was led to shout out a truth he had only just realised: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’

So by all means, let’s challenge our politicians, governments and business leaders to be transparent and open in what they say and how they work. But let’s also remember that a commitment to honesty needs to begin a lot closer to home.

Now… ain’t THAT the truth…

 

Curious Distractions…

Just lately I’ve been adjusting to a change in my life – a new job that I never expected to have. It is inevitably taking time to make that adjustment. Although the commute is much shorter than the one I used to make to London, it still means that I’m out of the house for 12 hours. That’s definitely not a complaint, by the way. A commute that meanders its way through west Wiltshire, the Wylye Valley, Salisbury and beyond it Hampshire with its winding streams and rivers to eventually arrive in Southampton, is never going to be dull.

The commute might be the same route every day, but the landscape is always changing. I remain excited about a journey that could mean spotting hares racing across fields or deer calmly grazing in the early morning light. The pheasant showing up as a garish slash of colour against the white frost-tipped grass and the heron patiently waiting for a fish to approach slightly too close to its lightening-quick beak. The rooks nests hanging like puffballs in the trees and a row of bee hives standing in perfect perpendicular order on the edge of the wood.

You see? No such thing as a dull commute. I can see why Jerome K Jerome got carried away with his descriptive passages in Three Men in a Boat and kept having to bring himself up short and bring himself back to the point.

Distractions aren’t always bad. Although, I did once famously almost miss my station as I was watching the film ‘Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists’, but that’s a whole other story.

No. Distractions aren’t bad when they pull us away from things that take up too much of our time. Distractions aren’t bad as reminders that some things are more important than what we are currently doing. Distractions aren’t bad when they cause us to raise our heads and look around us.

I made the mistake of buying one of those fitness bands. It now – often mercilessly – tells me whether I’ve met my targets of steps and aerobic steps (yes, there is a difference). There’s no room for complacency. If I meet my targets it sneakily raises them. If I fail to meet the targets it informs me in a message that seems both sorrowful and shaming in its tone.

What this has done of course is made me walk a lot more. I walk to the station, but now I also walk around Southampton where I work before I go into the office. Sometimes I take a proper planned walking route to a specific shop or place. Other times I just find myself taking another path ‘just to see where it goes.’

Lord Mountbatten's statue, Grosvenor Square, Southampton

Lord Mountbatten’s statue, Grosvenor Square, Southampton

Yesterday I found a monument to the last remaining survivor of the Titanic, Milvana Dean. A few days before that I found an unexpected tribute to the war dead with a statue of Lord Mountbatten in a square in another part of the city. And there’s a clump of daffodils hidden away from the roadside and only accessible by walking to it. I wouldn’t have found them if I’d not got bored of the same old route and been distracted by pathways leading off into unknown and potentially exciting destinations.

Occasionally I do run into a dead end and have to turn back and start again. But nothing’s lost or wasted. I’ve racked up a few more steps to shut my exacting fitness trainer up. And I’m meeting and greeting people on these walks. The young and beautiful Somali mother whose face lit up with a massive smile when she greets me. The Polish leaflet deliverer whose mastery of banter livened up my morning two days ago.

And I’m learning a lot about the geography of the city where I now spend a sizeable chunk of my week. Geography I wouldn’t have learned by walking straight from the station to the place where I work.

Following the distractions caused by curiosity can be a risk and some times a dangerous one at that. But imagine if no-one in human history had ever taken a risk. If there were no explorers because everyone kept to the same old well-used and well-known pathways. Or no inventors because no-one had ever wondered if there was a better way to do that thing that had been done in the same way for the same time. Or no breakthroughs in medicine because no-one wondered what would happen if you used that method to treat that sickness.

Faith and vision often combine to form glorious risk taking. The disciple Peter took a massive step into the unknown when he stepped out of the boat onto the stormy sea: ‘I wonder if I can walk on water.’ He could have stayed in the boat and been safe. But instead his curiosity, his wonder, his vision and his faith led him to step out of the boat into the unknown where risk met faith and promise and resulted in a miracle.

I don’t expect miracles from my walks of distraction. But I have learned that taking risks is more likely to end in joy than sadness. That nothing I do is wasted. And even apparently dead ends will lead somewhere I’ve not been before.

Sorry. Must go. The train’s arrived at Southampton. I have a walk to do and a few more distractions to follow…

The Mechanics of Grace

My friend’s daughter recently had a car accident. Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt.

But her car was left seriously damaged in the incident and this young woman knew two things. Firstly, that the car would in all probability be written off by the insurance company and secondly, she couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Her situation was looking desperate. She needed the car to get to work as public transport wasn’t really a credible alternative.

Added to that was inevitably some feelings of guilt: after all, the accident had been her fault.

It was all a bit of a sorry mess. Her car was broken. She had no money. Everything must have looked particularly bleak.

So she did exactly what I would have done in the same situation: she rang her Dad. Knowing my friend, I have no doubt that he listened and sympathized and understood. I also suspect that he was more than relieved she wasn’t hurt. He may well have gently established that it had all been her fault – but I suspect he wouldn’t have admonished her.

And then he did something practical. He offered to fix the car. As he told her, it was something that he could do and help her with.

I am sure that his daughter was instantly reassured. She had handed over a broken and sorry mess to the person who knew how to fix it.

And she knew he would.

It may well be that he didn’t promise to have it done by a particular time, but his promise remained a faithful one. ‘Leave it with me,’ he might have said, and his daughter, knowing from experience that he would do what he said he would, trusted him to do it. I’m sure it didn’t stop her occasionally texting and calling – maybe slightly anxiously – to find out how the project was coming along, but underneath was the assurance that her Dad had promised to help her and – in his own good time – he would.

Today, I saw a picture of that repaired car next to one of the car as it had arrived on my friend’s drive. I was astonished that such a bashed in, sorry-looking mess could have been transformed into something so shiny and special.

And as I stared at the pictures, I felt a real lump in my throat.

The car had been repaired. But it had been MORE than repaired. There was something very beautiful about that photograph. It wasn’t just the difference between the broken car and the fixed one. It was the knowledge that my friend would have taken extra special care in the work that he had carried out because of the love he bore for his daughter.

He wanted what was best for her. He knew the need that she had and the challenges she would face if that need wasn’t met. He met her pain and upset with unconditional love and grace.

And he stepped in and he sorted it out.

There is something very encouraging about that.

I’ve been out of work now for more than two months. It’s beginning to really hurt that I can’t find the right job in the right place. I have the ongoing concern about how I’m going to make ends meet. And to be honest I feel more than a bit lost at times.

What is my faith for? Why isn’t God listening? Where is he and what is he doing?

I wish I had the answers. But I don’t. And I have no intention of trotting out trite answers to either myself – or anyone else come to that. I’d rather be honest and admit I don’t know why we find ourselves stuck in dark places where the battery on our torches to show the way out seems to be fading fast with no sign of somewhere to get a replacement.

All I believe I can do is keep taking the whole sorry mess to the one place where I remain convinced that – in the right time – it will be dealt with. Where a gentle smile and the kind, loving words, ‘Leave it with me,’ will send me away reassured that through love and grace something very shiny and special will come out of what seems like a wreck and a disaster.

Happy New Year…?

There’s a rather dead looking firework this morning on the green next to my house. It just looks like a bit of soggy cardboard, with no indication that last night it was causing quite normal people to shout with excitement as it burst into starry golden lights, raining sparkles down on the world.

It’s just a bit of cardboard. That’s all. The illusion of gold has completely gone this morning.

Sometimes it’s hard to speak the words Happy New Year. They don’t always trot tritely off the tongue. And sometimes it’s extra hard to speak those words out loud when you know for many people 2015 is going to be filled with challenges and problems. And that was BEFORE the clock tower that houses Big Ben even got to its twelfth chime.

More than 30 people have died during celebrations of the New Year in China. In Indonesia the celebrations were cancelled as the consequences of that horrific air crash begin to sink in. In the UK there are people waking up to a New Year in which they know they will have to find a job after the collapse of City Link.

Father Mulcahy, the ever patient chaplain in M*A*S*H wrote a war song in one episode, which finished with the poignant line, ‘With the pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?’

And it would be a fair to ask a similar question. Why have we just spent millions of pounds sending explosives and plastic into the air to shower glitter over our heads? One of my friends remarked that he’d watched thousands of pounds worth of arts funding going up in smoke. I found myself comparing the cost of what had been spent on celebrations with all the adverts across Christmas appealing for funds to help tackle the Ebola crisis and children suffering abuse over the festive period. Or paying redundancy money to those who’ve lost jobs.

Now, I appreciate that we’re only a few hours into 2015 and this already looks like a blog written by someone who’s a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Eeyore.

And yes, I admit it: I’ve never been a big fan of New Year. I admit I’ve often felt it was a night of expensive forced gaiety. That’s not to say I’ve not enjoyed individual New Year’s Eve events, but as a rule, it’s not been something I’ve looked forward to with any particular excitement.

In fact, it is more likely that the excitement of New Year’s Eve soon leads to that cold grey feeling of being overweight and overspent.

The next few days and weeks will be littered with broken resolutions, massive credit card bills and – often – a massive feeling of anti-climax.

And yet. As I watched the crowds gathering for New Year’s Eve in London and as I read the texts and messages coming in before and after midnight I was reminded of what makes us fully human. It is this: Our hope and optimism that things will get better. The hope and optimism that 2015 will be a new and exciting chapter. The hope and optimism that brings many of us through the most difficult times as well as help us to celebrate those exciting moments.

If we knew what was coming we might run and away and hide under the mountain of cardboard boxes and bottles filling up our recycling boxes.

But we don’t. We experience each day as a new one. Yes, 2015 will be filled with challenges, but it will also be filled with the kind of moments that will leave us laughing until our ribs hurt.

I had no idea at the beginning of 2014 that I would be losing the job I love. But then neither did I know that I would be jumping out of a plane. Or making a whole lot of new friends. Or know how my old friends would step up to the plate when it really mattered. I never foresaw the pain of leaving people behind. Or the pain of receiving a whole lot of rejection letters from potential employers. But equally I never foresaw the joy of receiving a note from a member of the youth club saying how much she appreciated what I did for them.

There’s a really old hymn that says ‘God holds the key of all unknown and I am glad. If other hands should hold the key… or if he trusted it to me… “ Well, can you imagine? If we had the key to our own futures? No thank you – or perhaps ‘No Fear,’ would be a better response…

So. Happy New Year to all of us. May we step out in hope and optimism and faith in 2015, may the laughter outweigh the sadness and may there be more light than darkness for all of us. And may we know what we are singing for…

And as the former UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold once said, ‘For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes!’

Or as one of my youth club might say, ‘Bring it on, 2015.’

The Advent of Hope…

‘We are not simply at the mercy of the hopeless and often bad experiences that we have in the everyday world.

These do not ultimately determine what we are and what we may become.

New and unexpected things can always rise up out of our lives because there is, despite all the anxiety and unhappiness that surrounds us, a source of salvation from an unexpected place – a stable in Bethlehem.

Something that is bright and pure and not simply superstitious or wildly enthusiastic is proclaimed in this age old Christmas message.

It is this: That despite all the evidence that exists in the world as we know it, there is a way from darkness into light – there is a light shining in the darkness.’ *

I first used these words in a BBC Wiltshire carol service in 2007. Seven years on, out of work and facing an uncertain future they have never mattered so much. I know I’m not the only one in a tough place. So I commend it to all those facing their own demons of darkness and fear, in the sure and certain knowledge that whoever it was that brought us this far will continue to shine a light on each step forward until the night is gone. Or as my great and wise friend Ronnie remarked earlier today, ‘Let’s pray for the GPS (God points souls) signal for where we go next.’

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Happy Christmas.

(* Source unknown; altered by Heather Skull 2007)

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I believe I can fly…

On Friday I jumped out of a plane. Twice.

You have no idea how fantastic it feels to be able to write those words. Four years ago one of my friends told me I should think about skydiving and I thought about it for 30 seconds and said ‘No fear,’ or words to that effect.

But this friend mentioned it again and again on a regular basis and while I was still saying no in my head, my heart was already thinking about flying above the earth. I saw his pictures as he trained to be a skydiver, secretly looked on YouTube at other people’s skydiving efforts and wondered whether I should – literally – take the plunge.

He stopped mentioning it and I stopped thinking about it. Until the summer when an e-voucher dropped into my inbox, offering me the chance to do an indoor skydive. I looked at it for a moment, bought it without thinking and booked to do it on my birthday. My head was saying ‘This will prove once and for all whether you want to do this thing.’ My heart was saying, ‘Yeh, yeh, yeh…’

I did my two minutes at the centre in Basingstoke. As I went in to the vertical wind tunnel, I felt a thrill of excitement. As I came out I booked another six minutes. And then some more after that. And then – after being put in touch with a skydiving instructor by my friend who was really encouraging me – booked some more time with with him in the tunnel.

And in between all this tunnel time I booked a skydiving course in Spain. I lost weight. I worked hard to master the position that my skydiving friends were telling me would keep me stable in the sky. I booked the course for October. Those three months between the summer time and heading out to Madrid seemed the longest of my life.

From my previous blogs you’ll know that for the first six days I was at the dropzone where the skydiving course was held, we were all grounded by the weather. It wasn’t until Friday, two days before most of us were due to go home that the weather was anywhere near good enough to jump.

I was assigned to an instructor and waited my turn to go up in what seemed like a very tiny plane considering the eight or nine bodies stuffed into it. Slowly we climbed into the sky until at last we reached 13,000 feet. An alarm sounded to let us all know that the door was opening and I watched as the others in the plane – the more experienced jumpers – disappeared.

By now I had a real understanding of fear. I’d have given anything to get off that plane. In fact I’d have given anything for someone to shut the door and tell me the whole thing was just a joke and we could all go home now. If I’d not been warned that’s exactly how I would feel, I’d have felt ashamed. As it was, I crawled to the entrance, lingered for slightly too long but finally pushed myself out of the door and into what felt like an abyss.

I have no idea what happened for the first few seconds as I fell out of that plane. That’s common too. Your brain is refusing to recognise what has happened and you are experiencing what’s called sensory overload. I was aware of the two instructors either side of me, holding on and sorting out my position in the air. I tried valiantly to do all that I had been told to do but my brain was refusing to believe that I was falling through the sky at 120mph.

I was checking my altimeter every five seconds and looking into the horizon as I’d been told. At six thousand feet I knew I needed to pull my parachute. I couldn’t find the pull for it, despite having practiced several times on the ground. I kept searching but knew I was running out of time.

Just as I thought that, I was suddenly pulled away from the two men either side of me and realised it was my canopy opening and that one of them must have pulled it for me. Forgetting for a second what I was supposed to do, I realised that my falling had stopped and then remembered what I was supposed to be doing and looked up. I’ve never been so pleased to see a piece of material in my life. It was orange, but more importantly it was big and symmetrical and – when I moved the steering toggles – it was controllable. As those were the things I’d been told needed to happen, I was able to take more of an interest in the things around me.

And then it hit me. I was flying. Flying six thousand – no, now five – thousand feet above the earth, with my feet dangling and a smile as big as the canopy over my head. To nobody in particular, I announced that I rather liked this game and sang several choruses of Oh What a Beautiful Morning.

Not for long of course. I had my instructions and looking down, identified where I was supposed to be heading to begin my pattern of descent. Pulling myself around so that I was heading towards the olive trees where I’d been told to hold on until it was my turn to come down, I was quite pleased to hear the voice of my instructor asking me to do a couple of pull downs on the steering toggles (known as flares which cause the canopy to brake) so he knew I could hear him.

I listened as he guided me to where I needed to be next, marveling that this piece of material could respond so sensitively to my pulls. Dropping slowly to one thousand feet and turning left, dropping gently to 500 feet and turning left so that I was facing the wind seemed easy. I watched the ground come closer and closer, listening intently to the instruction from the man on the ground who told me when exactly to put my brakes on to land. It was a perfect text book landing. Or would have been, if I’d not put my feet squarely onto muddy ground and stood uncertainly upright for a second before the squelchy mud inevitably pulled me over so I landed in an undignified heap causing my instructor to laugh through the radio while he asked me to raise my hand so he knew I was uninjured.

As I stood up to collect up my now collapsed canopy, I realised that I was crying. Crying because I really could fly. Crying because I could actually throw myself out of a plane. And crying that someone who wouldn’t even climb a ladder when she was 19, had descended through 13,000 feet of space.

I hope I never forget the day that the earth was spread out under my feet. I hope I’ll never forget the moment that I brought a parachute canopy down to earth. I hope I never forget what it truly means to live life to the full.

Epilogue

I did go up and do a second skydive but for various reasons was unable to continue the skydive course after this one. Sometime in the future I hope to return to the accelerated freefall course, but until then, I shall hold the memories in my heart and smile from time to time as I remember the day I believed I could fly.

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