Journeying

Pilgrims on the Road to Emmaus by James Tissot 1832-1902 (public domain)

When I was very young and the urge to be some place else was on me, I was assured that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy was middle age. In my middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships whistle will raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clip of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself…

…in this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to try to control it. I feel better now having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Sadly, not my words (I wish!)…but those of John Steinbeck written in the early ’60’s as he started to recount his Travels With Charley: In Search of America, published in 1962.

Once upon a time I was a missionary. The mission I worked with was unique in that it was very similar to a monastic community of old. Like Illtydd of the 6th century it trains up recruits in a rhythm of prayer and work, then sends them out along the highways and byways of countries near and far, open or closed, to pray, to serve and to pioneer new openings with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Journeys were important to the Celtic saints of old and many were supernatural in nature and intent. As Jesus did in Luke 10, our mission often sent out small teams with simply the clothes they wore and the little money they had, to prayerfully set off on journeys of simplicity returning a few days later with amazing tales of God breaking out and making a way for them to share the gospel, to commit acts of kindness and to see healing and provision of a miraculous nature. I, myself, did several in areas as diverse as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Southern Carpathians in NE Romania and also a couple of times in Malaysia. In each case God did amazing things for us.

I even set off once on a journey to the Far East, knowing the destination in theory, but not having a clue to where it actually was in the world! I had to turn to the inflight magazine for that information.

I’ve been blessed to have travelled the world over and lost count of the countries I’ve visited and lived in. But the most difficult, marvellous journey I have ever taken was the Interior One. It began with all the excitement and passion described by the Nobel winning, Steinbeck. It has been impossible to control, and the destination uncertain although guaranteed. And in the fact that my journey guide is persistent, sometimes silent, often seemingly distant and at odds with my opinion, very like a marriage!

The Celts memorised and sang the entire canon of Psalms for their worship life and would sing them to encourage their souls on journeys (although they walked or sailed and not taking planes).

Somethings never change…and that’s a good thing.

Union

The interior of Union Chapel, Islington, London.

The interior of Union Chapel, Islington, London.

I recently found a piece of writing that describes the personal experience of the journey towards faith brilliantly!

From the book, All The Hopeful Lovers by William Nicholson, it tells of the wonderings of a character called Roddy. It takes place in Union Chapel (a real place, see above) in Islington, London.

I share it in the spirit of another quote of William’s, “We read to know we are not alone.” May it touch you today on your wondering journey…

“Roddy Dalgliesh sits at the end of a pew at the back of the Union Chapel, which is just a few streets from his home. He’s taken to dropping in here, not for the services or the concerts, but for the quietness. He needs space to think, and the Union Chapel is a grand space.

For prayer too, perhaps. Roddy is reluctant to call what passes through his mind by the name of prayer because he has no clear notion of a recipient of his prayer. He has left unbelief behind, but has not yet arrived at belief. This is what is so hard to explain to others. He is embarked on a great adventure.

Keep thyself as a stranger and a pilgrim upon the earth*.

Roddy finds these words profoundly moving. They move him emotionally, but also physically, too. They make him want to move. They make  him want to disburden himself and pass as lightly as a bird or a cloud over the landscape. He want to cut all ties, to shed all responsibilities, to float free. Impossible, of course. But when the longing struck him, when he stopped, literally, in his tracks – he was walking down Ludgate Hill at  the time, heading for the tube station – he knew that something he had been resisting for most of his life could be resisted no more. This life is not all there is. This world is not all there is.

Not an intellectual capitulation. There’s no theory to it. Just a sudden acceptance. His response, standing there on Ludgate Hill as the home-going crowds brushed past his motionless figure, was to say to himself: Of course. Once he had let go of his petty insistence that there be answers, which is after all no more than one of the many forms of vanity – for why should he, or anyone, understand such mysteries? – once he had humbled himself, it became easy to surrender. The act of surrender an act of trust, like falling into water. Like falling in love.

Just stop fighting. Just release the controls. Just let go…

…So much now looks different. The injustices of the world, great and small; the apparent futility of human activity; the anxieties that grate on us and make us fretful even in the midst of security and plenty; all can now take their place in an utterly changed landscape. Down in the valley the mist seems to have no end, but from the mountain top it’s no more than a puddle in the land. There is more, so much more. Maybe heaven. Maybe eternity. Maybe God.”

William Nicholson is one of my favourite authors. His bio is below. I share this here, by permission, as I know from experience how difficult is to describe these deeply intimate, personal wonderings of the heart in a way that is meaningful, helpful but without saccharine or prejudice. I think he has done it here magnificently!

I share for those also wondering but not lost – at all…

***

William Nicholson bio…

William Nicholson was born in 1948, and grew up in Sussex and Gloucestershire. He was educated at Downside School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and then joined BBC Television, where he worked as a documentary film maker. There his ambition to write, directed first into novels, was channeled into television drama. His plays for television include Shadowlands and Life Story , both of which won the BAFTA Best Television Drama award in their year; other award-winners were Sweet As You Are and The March . In 1988 he received the Royal Television Society’s Writer’s Award. His first play, an adaptation of Shadowlands for the stage, was Evening Standard Best Play of 1990, and went on to a Tony Award winning run on Broadway. He was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of the film version, which was directed by Richard Attenborough and starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

 

Failure

CCO Public Domain

CCO Public Domain

Here’s a thing, see. (That’s how we broach a subject, often a difficult one, here in Wales. One always holds one’s breath for what follows!).

I’ve been on this Journey of Life for thirty plus years and I have just walked through one of the darkest periods of my life…a period that has covered a little over ten years or so.

I’m not going to bore you with all that but I read a blog this morning that described much of what I’ve experienced. She called it “Holy Disillusionment“. As she says:

It has been a decade of growing up into holy disillusionment, where God allows life to dis – illusion us. I’m not talking about cynicism or bitterness or resentment.  I’m talking about the peeling back of our illusions until our vision is clearer, the cost of following more evident and the choices we make to continue to give Him our yes way more intentional.”

So it’s been a steady downward walk into the depths of despair, disappointment and faith sapping failure. Oh and the odd moment of wonderful, awe-filled, life giving, life changing triumph.

But with every step the temptations been there to stop and wallow in those awful, twisted roots, which are the enemy of new life and progression, every time another failure looms.

That’s: Every time I fail to meet expectations. Every moment of dishonour. Every rejection. Every betrayal. Every attempted manipulation. Every time the biggest struggle of my life seems about to overwhelm me and bring disaster in its wake.

But as I finally (hopefully) find myself awakening again to new vision, new insight and new direction, I am free of all that has weighted me down, at least in this past season.

I had a hard talk with a loved one this morning. It was about failure, as it turned out. Y’know 20+ years of marriage and family life teach you a few things about that. But as we chatted, stormed, were humbled and struggled to make sense of our lives together, I became aware of a strength in my spirit that is way, way beyond that which I’ve known before.

The freedom to fail!

I can fail and Hear his song over me!

I can fail and know I am eternally loved!

I can fail and know that He is still so pleased with me!

I can fail and still be kind, good, loving, faithful, blessed, secure and all the many other things he says about me!

For someone who grew up in an abusive family situation, with the hashtag #its-all-your-fault written over her, who continues to suffer that label from wider family from time to time, this is major revelation and freedom.

I found myself being me. Warts ‘n all and it was ok…I’m ok!

Anyway, yay for me but here’s the bigger thing I thought this morning as we talked.

The spirit of this age infuses so much of todays Christian literature. I’m not saying whether it’s intended, misguided or simply because our filters are so out of kilter that we receive it that way.

But so often as we read, the subtext is:

  • Todays Christian should (O Lord, I hate that word with a passion) be a wonderful, affirming, accepting, loving parent and see their children grow up to be wonderful, vibrant, generation-changing believers.
  • Their marriage should be a witness to the world, warm, loving, welcoming, AND have the most amazing sex ever!!! (This definitely is a result of the world, coupled (excuse the pun) with the church rediscovering great sex is actually a thing AND God is really OK with it!)
  • They should have an evangelistic, supernatural ministry and discover and fulfil their destiny in Christ cos, boy-oh-boy they sure have one!
  • They should fall into line in church and honour (code for “never question”) their leadership. Be whole heartedly behind the vision of their local church regardless of whether it encourages, disciples and develops the personal faith of that believer as a result.

Well the truth is that Christian children do not always grow up and do what you have hoped and prayed for, no matter how hard you tried as a parent to love and nurture them, marriages fail to live up the billing in every area and a more realistic, balanced and measured relationship needs to be negotiated or the sad alternative optioned. Ministry can actually turn out to be a deeper walk with Jesus, lived out in silence, in the prayer closet, doing small things with great kindness (to use St Theresa of Calcutta’s words). And church! Well, church can turn out to be something else entirely!

And you know what?

That’s OK!

Jesus said we would have troubles in this world (John 16:33)

He also said in the same breath that we should take heart, be of good cheer for He has overcome the world.

Big deal, you might say, whilst in the midst of those troubles…I have, often. But so long as I picked myself up and kept walking those troubles have, when surrendered and given to him, enabled me to overcome too.

Because everyone who is born of God overcomes the world.

It is our faith in the midst of trouble that overcomes, enabling us to drag our weary spirits, (kicking and screaming, in my case) onwards! Does anyone else want to shout ‘Amen’! to that one!!

And in the end there is only one thing that overcomes…? So, do you know it? It’s simple really…

Only the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God.

And I do.

And being simple is an honour for me.

Thank you!

****************************************************************************************

Whew it was good to get that one off my chest!

Let me know if it resonates with you.

Lastly…

So much of Christmas fun is anticipating the time to come.

Once here, it is gone before we know it…slipping like morning mist through our hands, and hearts.

But one day the anticipation and wistful memories of THAT Christmas, will pass away, overtaken by the fulfilment of something even more anticipated.

As a Celtic believer I value the importance of living in the now, in the moment, but even more I long for, yearn and experience the feelings of Welsh word *Hiraeth for His return.

Maybe this year…

Carol For the Last Christmas Eve

The first night, the first night,

The night that Christ was born,

His mother looked in his eyes and saw

The maker in her son.

 

The twelfth night, the twelfth night,

After Christ was born,

The Wise Men found the child and knew

Their search had just begun.

 

Eleven thousand, two fifty nights,

After Christ was born,

A dead man hung in the child’s light

And the sun went down at noon.

 

Six hundred thousand or thereabout nights,

After Christ was born,

I look at you and you look at me

But the sky is too dark for us to see

And the world waits for the sun.

 

But the last night, the last night,

Since ever Christ was born,

What his mother knew will be known again,

And what was found by the Three Wise Men,

And the sun will rise and so may we,

On the last morn, on Christmas Morn,

Umpteen hundred and eternity.

 

by Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson (1914 – 1987)

available on Spotify as a recording

 

*Hiraeth is a Welsh word for which there is no direct English translation. Various attempts to define it include: homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire and emotional hunger for the Wales that is home.

Hiraeth bears considerable similarities with the Portuguese concept of saudade, Brazilian Portuguese banzo, Galician morriña, Romanian dor, Russian тоска (toska) and Ethiopian tizita. Greek and Gaelic also contain words with similar meaning. There are probably more…

 

 

Wonder

Public Domain

Public Domain

Celtic saints knew that Jesus came to save the whole world. In John 3:16 the Greek word for world is ‘cosmos’.

So often this verse is interpreted in a Western, ego-centric, individual way which is reductive in the extreme. He came to redeem all of creation.

And creation knows it – even if we forget or remain ignorant.

The Shepherd’s Dog

Out on the windy hill

Under that sudden star

A blaze of radiant light

Frightened my master.

 

He got up, left our sheep,

Tramped over the moor.

And I, following,

Came to this open door.

 

Sidled in, settled down,

Head on my paws,

Glad to be here, away

From the wind’s sharpness.

 

Such warmth is in this shed,

Such comfort from this Child,

That I forget my hard life.

Ignore the harsh world,

 

And see in my master’s face

The same joy I possess,

The knowledge of peace.

True happiness.

 

Leslie Norris (Welsh poet, 1921 – 2006)

Bells

460

In these uncertain days, and the midst of our Christmas preparations, I have pondered the awfulness of warfare.

Our Minister of Foreign Affairs, renowned for his ability to put his foot in it, lately made an outburst against Saudi Arabia for its meddling in the Middle East. He got his hand smacked by the PM because they are also major allies.

We, as a nation, have major sales contracts for weapons with that nation. We are also being asked to send money for aid agencies to spend in Yemen. A country in which our home manufactured weapons are daily raining down upon causing great suffering! So, a rather disingenuous outburst even for him…

Celtic Christianity understood that justice was implicit within faith. And I long for righteousness to reign down, with mercy, upon us as a nation. So I call him out on this outrage. Not in hope that he’ll listen to me but as an act of faith that ultimately all will be well.

Some will call that pathetic, conscience salving mumbo-jumbo.

But as we wait for the silent miracle of Christmas, I remember one of His names is Prince of Peace.

Here is a poem that echoes my thoughts…

 

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song,

Of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

Till ringing, singing on its way

the world revolved from night to day –

A voice, a chime

A chant sublime

Of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

And in despair I bowed my head;

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong

And mocks the song

of peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

‘God is not dead; not doth he sleep!

The wrong shall fail,

The right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Father

Wouldn’t we like to approach Christmas on top of everything? Food bought and prepared. Tables laden. Our tree resplendent in light and sparkle. The hearth and home warm, welcoming. Presents bought, wrapped and safely under the tree.

It is a nice thought but most of us settle for something approximating that…if we’re wise and kind to ourselves!

However, although doing ok on the practical side I find myself approaching the most wonderful time of the year in emotional and spiritual depression.

Its been a long year.

For all of us: a worrying and fast changing world…

For my family it began with redundancy for my husband, the search and uncertainty of potential new jobs, financial worries, the need for relocation to another part of the country and the ups and downs of house sales and purchases…(we are on our second attempt and still no guarantee of a deal succeeding, let alone a moving date)…

Our eldest, successfully graduated from high school then waved us off from her University, leaving my heart and soul bereft, even as I cheered her on…

Then discord and upset among my wider family…

So while I feel down, I can rationalise the cumulative effects of larger life events that have brought me here.

These words helped to heal my heart a little yesterday, as I worshipped.

I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
And you tell me that you’re pleased
And that I’m never alone
***
You’re a good good father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
***
I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we’re all searching
For answers only you provide
‘Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word
***
You’re a good good father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
***
Because you are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways to us

 

They kind of sum up what this blog is about too: when it comes to answers…

Happy Saviours Day and wishing you much Shalom in 2017.

“Good, Good Father”
(Written by Pat Barrett and Tony Brown)

©Chris Tomlin