My big fat Facebook Christmas…

Last night I was having a couple of conversations with different people at the same time. Trust me. It can be done. One of the friends was having a ridiculous earworm song fight with me via a messaging service, while the other was making me giggle as we ranted and vented together in an hilarious fashion. These two people – although they don’t know each other – share an ability to make me laugh until I cry at the content in their messages. Sometimes we fall victim of autocorrect or fat finger syndrome which results in the kind of sentences that used to reduce us a family to fits of giggles when we played Consequences in the 1970s at Christmas.

One of the friends once asked me if I’d been ‘stroking the car while watching Poirot’ and then corrected that to ‘Do not STRIKE the car,’ then ‘STROKE,’ then ‘Good grief.’ Last night, the shoe was on the other foot as I confidently tried to tell the other friend that I’d refused a cup of tea at my Mum & Dad’s house and my mother said that proved ‘I was Will.’ Cue snorts of giggles and outbreaks of ‘I think I’d better leave right now’ gags. Sometimes autocorrect has a sense of timing that makes you wonder whether it as a sense of mischief. Well of course it doesn’t, but it’s still very funny.

I’ve recently seen a number of posts from people on other social media platforms explaining in great depth why they will be closing their account. More often than not, it’s a strange feeling to read those posts and wonder what motivates it. I mean, I get why social media can be frustrating, but to me, if you don’t like it, just go and find something else you do like to do. Not difficult.

But there’s something else. Quite often these posts will allude to the fact that they’ve got nothing from it. People will do the same when they join a club and then leave, or go to a church and come away. ‘I didn’t get anything from that,’ they’ll say. And my question back is always going to be the same, ‘But what do you give to it?’ It’s a very fine line this old giving/receiving thing, but I’m pretty sure you only really get out what you’re prepared to put into something.

These are not the only reasons to join anything but they are more likely to be driven from the heart. Here’s the truth – wait for it: social media isn’t bad. But then it isn’t good either. It is just a thing. It is what people put into it that makes it what is and what it could be.

This has been a weird Christmas. I’m currently calling it the #NoPigsInBlankets Christmas because I’ve been too ill to eat any of the things that I would normally love. I’m not the only one having a slightly weird Christmas, whether it’s through bereavement, serious illness or life changing events, or work related call outs. My illness is very tiny in scale compared to those things. But it did mean I had a very quiet with no outwardly celebratory Christmas

I’ll tell you something thought. Watching other people’s Christmas unfolding on Facebook was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in a long time.  From the opening of stockings in the early mornings, to the family meals, walks across moorland, fens and hills, seeing children on their new bicycles (I LOVE that), to the happy faces all marking a snapshot in time, my Facebook friends created a beautiful community to be a part of. I felt like I’d not missed out on Christmas at all.

The Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft said on Christmas Day in his sermon, that people don’t have to forget their sorrow or their pain or their questions, even in the joy of Christmas. We don’t come to escape, he said.

He’s right. The child in the manger, his mother and father anxiously watching over him as all new parents would, probably had a few questions of their own. It must have been baffling and bewildering when all those shepherds burst into the stable. And yet, there was something joyful in that moment for all as they shared the birth of this most precious child with the community beyond the walls of the stable door.

Share your good news. Share the joy. Don’t ignore the pain and bewilderment or pretend it’s not there. That doesn’t work. Trust me. But when you look for the light you will find it, when you shine your light, someone else will see the way to go. And you’ll never know – they may need to see your light just as much as you needed to see theirs.



Thankful it’s Friday… (other days to be thankful are also available)

The guard on my train this morning was very cheerful. Don’t get me wrong – the staff on GWR train that takes me to work early in the morning are more than often cheery and up for a bit of banter, but today she was very bright and bubbly.

‘It’s Friday,’ she said with a big grin. I grinned back: ‘I’m guessing you’ve got the weekend off.’ ‘I have’, she replied with an even bigger grin.

There is something tangible in the air on a Friday. When I used to work weekends for BBC Wiltshire, it used to be a bit of a weird feeling when people around me were celebrating the end of the week when it was – technically – only the middle of mine. But I understood the statement.

I often use the hashtag #10000Reasons. It’s a phrase from a song by Matt Redman which talks about how we have thousands and thousands of reasons to be thankful to God for. I know not all of you share the same kind of faith as me but I know equally that you’re people who understand the principle of appreciating what you have rather than hankering after what you have not.

A friend and I were having a mock-rant yesterday about the sometimes too picture-perfect lives that appear on social media. ‘I’m convinced,’ she said, ‘That they are sometimes just the same as me by the end of the day, rocking in the corner and reaching for the wine.’ I’m sure they are.

I love Christmas but this year it’s going to be difficult. Christmas is a lovely season – I love the reason for it but heartily detest the consumer-binge fest it has become. When people are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas televisual offerings or a lorry that’s essentially selling a sugary drink, I feel sad that we’ve lost something. When so many adverts are offering up images of the perfect Christmas implying that without this product or that lifestyle, you won’t have reached the acceptable standard, many of us will be doomed to failure. That’s not Christmas.

Today is Black Friday. Never was anything so aptly named. It’s ironic that a spending splurge which leaves grown men and women fighting over a discounted TV in a shop, follows a day in the USA, where people have been encouraged to be thankful for what they have.

Black Friday encourages a love of things, rather than people. It encourages a hankering for things we don’t necessarily need rather than to appreciate what we have.

Today I’m making an appointment with friends at work to walk across the road to a cafe and splurge out a massive amount of cash for Black Friday. We will buy Christmas coffees or chocolates and probably accidentally buy cakes. More importantly, we will laugh, spend time together out of the office and remind ourselves why friends matter. In the midst of a difficult week that’s more than enough to say thank you. In fact, it’s enough to say thank you ten thousand times…


The Buckaroo Principle

As a child, I loved the last day of the primary school term when you got to take board games into class. I took Mousetrap. I loved Mousetrap. You rolled the dice, you moved your mice and built an exotic plastic trap made of buckets, old drainpipes, a bath and some broken old steps. You hoped you’d be the one to turn the crank handle and – bang – someone else’s little plastic mouse would be caught in the trap.

Other people brought other games. One of my absolute favourite games that someone else brought in was Buckaroo. You had to put bits and pieces on a mule and hope it wasn’t your go when it decided to kick everything off. It was quite tense as you carefully placed the bucket, the pick or the rope onto the side of the plastic animal and then – boom – off it all came and scattered all the bits across the table and classroom floor.

You never knew which bit would make the mule kick off. You just knew that one bit would. It might not be the heaviest thing. It might be the tiniest piece of equipment. But there was an awful inevitability that it would eventually have had enough and throw everything off.

Over the past few months I’ve talked a lot about what I’ve started calling the Buckaroo Principle. AA Milne once said in his Winnie-The-Pooh books, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.’ We don’t know how brave we are or how resilient until we’re really tested beyond what we know or have previously experienced. But we aren’t bombproof. We are never bombproof. The trouble is that – as with Buckaroo – we really don’t know what will make the mule kick off. We just know it will.

It might be the big thing. It more likely won’t be. But all the stresses that you’re dealing with build up and build up until finally it’s like the equivalent of a tiny water bottle is put on to the mule and – boom – everything scatters, leaving you to pick up the pieces spread far and wide. Sometimes that will leave you with a wry apologetic grin as you pick up the bits that have fallen into a friend’s mug of tea. Other times it will leave you weeping because you accidentally trod on the plastic pickaxe in your bare feet.

One of the things I’ve learned over the last few months is that pretending everything is all right is like pretending the Buckaroo mule will take everything that’s put upon it. It’s not going to end well.

As a man called Paul once said to a church in Corinth two thousand years ago : ‘If you think you’re standing firm, be careful you don’t fall.’

Admitting you can’t cope, admitting that some days you’ve had enough of being a grown up, admitting that you’d like to scream at someone is not a sign of weakness, but a realistic statement of where you are. And it’s fine to be honest. It really is. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with those you love and trust.

You may find out that they already knew. You may find they were worried for you. But what you will definitely find is that they’ll be the ones on their hands and knees beside you on the floor helping search and pick up all the pieces to put them back where they belong.


Don’t worry, I’ve got your back…

You know, it’s a strange old thing. You think you’ve got a handle on life and where you’re going and suddenly you find yourself in a whole different place from where you thought you would be. Five years ago I was working my notice from the BBC, three years ago I was working my notice from an international development charity called USPG. I foresaw neither of those things. Equally, I never foresaw that I’d end up working for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and nor did I foresee that because of that move, I’d now be less than 48 hours away from playing my first ever gig with a band called Steam Shed.

What does all this prove? Not much probably, other than to show you’d be best off NOT asking me to pick your lottery numbers.

Yesterday, we had our final Steam Shed rehearsal before the music festival gig we’re playing on Saturday. The other band members Doug, Paul and Richard are amazing musicians who make it seem easy. All I had to do was get the right words in the right order. How hard could it be?

Well, apparently it can be very hard when you’re trying to remember the words of a song that you co-wrote. I’d love to say it was because it was filled with complicated and complex grammatical amazingness. But that would be a big fat lie. After the fourth attempt of trying to sing the same few lines with a complete lack of success, I just looked at the other three and said, ‘I’m going for a walk.’ I walked across the yard to where there was a field full of sheep and watched them for a few moments, while the cool breeze and silence around me helped put the world back on its axis. They’re only words, I told myself.

When I walked back into the studio to continue the rehearsal, Paul the drummer looked at me for a moment: ‘Tea?’ he asked. Tea, of course, makes things infinitely better in my world. Then this drummer who’s played in front of huge crowds, supporting very famous musicians, looked me straight in the eye and said, more kindly than I probably deserved: ‘Whatever happens out there on Saturday, we’ll keep playing until you find your place again. We’ll keep playing and no-one will know. Don’t worry Heth. We’ve got your back.’

‘We’ve got your back.’ Reassuring words. You are not alone. Steam Shed might be made up of four very different people, but together we’re a team. We’ll stand together on Saturday afternoon and we will give it our best. Together.

If I’d not left the BBC, if I’d stayed at USPG, if I’d not impulsively accepted a temporary contract with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency… if… if… if… The fact is all of these things did happen and now the man who was on the interviewing panel for my current job has become the friend I write Steam Shed songs with. He and the other two will have my back, just as I will have theirs on Saturday afternoon. I’ve got no idea how well – or not – this gig is going to go either. Just as well really.

I never foresaw any of this. Who would? It’s all so unlikely. In those darkly difficult last few months of 2014 when I couldn’t foresee where my next job would come from, I remained quietly confident that the faith I’d held so dear for so long was right. In 2017, I can look back and be reassured of that kindly light that’s led and continues to lead through more dark and difficult times to come. After all, I know who’s got my back…



The end of the world as we know it…

This morning a commuter who had been about to get off the train at Salisbury came rushing back into the carriage. Surprised just for a moment, we watched with increasing understanding as he – slightly sheepishly – picked his laptop case out of the luggage rack. ‘This would probably help,’ he grinned ruefully, before then making his way off the train. ‘Lucky you remembered,’ said my friend Martin. ‘I’d have had to chase it to Southampton,’ replied the now relieved commuter.

For him, it would have been more than a slightly hashtag awkward moment to have got to a meeting, reached down for his laptop and had that awful realisation that he’d left it on the train. Thankfully he remembered. But for the thousands of people who – it seems – leave all sorts of important things on trains every day, it’s a different story. For some it’s an irritation, for those who lose something of great sentimental value it might feel as if the world has come to an end.

I once took my then six-year-old nephew on an outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine. Unfortunately my car broke down on the way there and I had to call one of those nice men from the breakdown services. As he inspected the engine, soon identifying what was wrong, my nephew made all of us laugh by announcing, ‘This is the worst day of my life.’ ‘At his age,’ remarked the man carefully putting my car to rights, ‘It probably is.’

Quite often I’ve heard people say about something, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ Usually that’s a coverup for the fact that they feel like it actually is the end of the world. It’s sometimes – not always – something minor.

These days my perspective on what counts as being at the end of the world is different. There’s a reason for that. The thing is that I have been to the end of the world and I know what it looks like. Most other things that go wrong really don’t matter that much. In fact many of the people that I know read this blog have also been to their particular end of the world and know that terrible darkness and devastation of being in that place. REM’s song ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it,’ goes on to say ‘And I feel fine.’ Actually, at the end of the world no-one feels fine. It’s dark there for a reason.

But what it does do is gives you a different, possibly sometimes better, perspective of life around you. When life as you know it changes beyond recognition and you have to adjust to what one of my best friends refers to as ‘the new normal,’ it does tend to put other things in context. These days I have to admit that problems and difficulties that I may face tend to sit in a wider context that makes me feel less affected by them. That’s not to say that I don’t have days when I could happily shut people in a room with someone learning to play the bagpipes (my current favourite idea of punishment). After all the splinter in my thumb hurts momentarily just as much as my broken leg…

What I do find myself thinking and sometimes saying now though is, ‘It’s not the end of the world. I’ve been there and I know what it looks like. And I am, though bruised and bearing still quite raw wounds, thanks to the love with which I am surrounded, still here.’

Farm Gate

Farm Gate

Dealing with the thing in front of you

In the old days, when children’s television was filled with programmes about a community of youngsters living on a double decker bus, a soup dragon living in space with a bunch of pink long-nosed woolly creatures and a man who went to a fancy dress shop and had adventures, there was a programme called Crackerjack. (Go on, put your hand up if you just yelled out ‘Crackerjack’ in response…)

‘It’s Friday, it’s five to five and it’s Crackerjack,’ would come the shout from host Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart. And like a Pavlovian response, back would come the screamed cry from several hundred excitable ten-year-olds all crammed into a studio: ‘Crackerjack!’  Trust me, we all loved it and regularly quoted it in the playground. And we all wanted one of those Crackerjack pencils they gave away on the programme…

Yes, I know, maybe we were easily pleased.

double or drop

Anyway, one of the regular features of the programme was a quiz called Double or Drop where two contestants had to answer questions. If they got it right, they got a prize, but if they got it wrong, they were given a cabbage.

The difficulty was that they had to hold everything they were given and if they dropped anything, they were out of the game. Quite often you could no longer see the child for the pile of prizes and cabbages they were holding as they struggled to carry everything at once. The more they were given, the more difficult it became to stay in the contest.

I have to be honest and say that just lately I’m beginning to understand how those youngsters must have felt. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve had a whole lot of rotten old cabbages thrust into your arms and have just been left to get on with it. The sheer scale of what you are holding on to can be overwhelming.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given in the last six weeks was from a close friend who knowing the situation I was in, said this: ‘Heth, the best thing to do is just to deal with the thing in front of you.’

Deal with the thing in front of you. Not what’s past, not what may or may not happen in the future, but just deal with whatever’s currently in front of you. It’s a tough piece of advice to take on board. As someone whose day job is all about managing the risk and looking out for future problems and what could possibly go wrong, the idea of just looking at the current challenge and nothing else is not something I’m used to.

However. Dealing with one thing at a time does two things. Firstly, it helps to focus on the here and now of what’s important and gives a slightly less alarming perspective. Secondly, it’s practical and almost always achievable. Instead of looking back into the past that I cannot change or borrowing trouble against a future I cannot really predict, it forces me to focus on one thing at a time. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan for the future, but it does mean you shouldn’t be so caught up with it that it affects your ability to look at the present.

I once told someone that I’ve never thought I was being asked to change the world, only to work to try to make a difference in the bit of it that has God has entrusted to me. That’s all any of us can do. It doesn’t mean we’re not aware of the rest of the world or shutting ourselves off from it, far from it. It means we’re looking at the thing in front of us right now and dealing with it. It won’t be easy but trust me, it’s easier than trying to deal with all the piled up cabbages in your arms at once.

You might even win a Crackerjack pencil…

The greatest of these is love … actually

I have to admit that I often struggle with the letters written by a man called Paul to the early church and recorded in the Bible. One of my friends says he has a long list of things to argue with Paul about when he finally gets to meet him. But sometimes Paul gets it spot on. Yesterday I went to a wedding of a friend where one of Paul’s most famous letters was read which he wrote to a church in Corinth. I don’t know much about them but clearly they needed to learn a lesson or two about what love is. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 contains everything you need to know about love – it’s almost a manifesto for it.

Lately I’ve learned a lot about what love looks like in practice and I have to admit that Paul was right. He said that words and actions without love behind them are just a lot of old noise. He went on to say that love is patient, love is kind, does not envy or boast, it is not proud, does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Like all manifestos it contains some tough challenges within it. And like most manifestos that get signed up to, it inevitably gets broken. However… it contains some great promises within it to hold onto. Love always protects and trusts, it always hopes and perseveres. Despite everything that gets thrown at it, love never ever really fails. Ever.

An act of love and kindness can be the difference between giving up or going on. When you’re on a dark bewildering path, you’re in desperate need of some light: the light of kindness and love reminding you that wherever you are, you’re not on your own. At church this morning we sang Stuart Townend’s version of Psalm 23 which says, ‘And though I walk the darkest path, I will not fear the evil one, for you are with me and your rod and staff are the comfort I need to know.’

The idea of God’s staff is meant to conjour up a vision of a shepherd keeping all the threats at bay with a massive stick. However… lately I have a view of God’s staff actually being more the people who appear sometimes out of nowhere to carry out an act of love that keeps the wolf of despair at bay.

It can be anything. When a little girl runs across a room to give you a hug. When a friend puts your favourite cake and a mug of tea in front of you that says more than their words ever could. When a friend makes you laugh because she offers you a Nando’s serviette ‘because that’s all I have’ for you to wipe your eyes with. When a friend who lives two hours away just ‘happens’ to have arrived in your neighbourhood and makes time to have a chat.

Never ever underestimate the power of your act of kindness to shine light into someone else’s dark places. After all, we are pilgrims on a journey and companions on the road; we are here to help each other, walk the miles and bear the load. Faith, hope and love are sometimes all we have left. And the greatest of these – without a shadow of a doubt – is love.