Hi, I'm the community worker at Alnwick Baptist Church and...
I turned round to the dark mysterious and- on occasions - mischevious one sat in the back seat, looked him straight in the eye and said 'whatever you do, don't mention the ashes!'. He looked back at me waiting to see if there was the slightest possibility that I might be joking but after a few seconds he could tell I was wearing my 'I'm deadly serious face'......we had a problem. I stepped out of our beaten up Discovery and ventured back down the sandtrack to the glistening white but nevertheless stationery people carrier 50 yards away.........stuck in the sand!
Welcome to Fraser Island, an idylic place with incredible beaches and crystal blue sea but no roads. The locals call them tracks but even that's stretching it a bit - the rubber certainly does not hit the road in any way, shape or form! For those of you, like me, who still enjoy 'dune jumping' off the south beach at Alnmouth........this is the type of sand that makes up the tracks; not compacted builders merchant consistency oh no! You could take your bucket and spade all you like to this stuff but you'll not form so much as a moat never mind a castle. Amazing for throwing about like your in a Timotei commercial, but far from amazing to drive on even in a 4x4.
Back to the scene......Ultra Running Man had stepped out of stricken vehicle. A lack of rain on the island had made the sand even more difficult than usual to drive on; the vehicle was neither going back nor forward with the added problem that all the tracks are single - no overtaking spots or passing places here. We tried in vain to use the spades that are mandatory with every vehicle to get him going but to no avail. 'Ultra Marathon Woman' had ventured to take photos of the memorable event but thought better of it! As a result of our vain efforts, behind us there was a steady stream of 4x4's backing up.......all Aussies. Two days earlier we'd won back the Ashes in convincing fashion #awks....I wisely dispensed of my England cap on the back seat.
'G'day' he ventured. I was cautiously optimistic....he hadn't sworn at us.....but then again we hadn't said anything! 'We've got a problem' said Ultra Man in broad Geordie. (I wondered if the Aussies knew where Mark Wood came from but decided to keep that to myself) 'No probs mate, you're not the first and you won't be the last.'.... (and relax!!) He continued 'let's get your tyre pressures down and then we've got a towrope in the 'ute' to get you out'.
Tyre pressures lowered, tow rope attached, diff setting altered and with the wisdom that comes from probably having done this many many times before, said ute moved slowly backwards and as the rope strained, the glistening white machine once more became mobile. A bit more advice was dispensed by our new found Aussie pals and with a smile and a handshake we continued the journey with only 25k to go before we reached the beach!
I'd love to say that the rest of the day was problem free but I'd be lying. Driving on the beach was the easy part and was a fantastic way of releasing the tension from 2 hours solid concentration. Getting back however we were to encounter worse. Coming off the beach to get back on the track, I managed to beach the Disco big style and at a very jaunty angle. It would be 45 minutes before once again another kind Aussie family came to the rescue and got us going. Against us now was the light i.e there was none and driving in headlights brought a whole new dimension to driving in sand. At this point, the minions in our car were now obsessed with being eaten by dingoes! The dark and mysterious one ( who has become a fount of all knowledge lately!!) gave out every fact going - true or otherwise- that did little to calm the siuation. I vaguely remember agreeing to me and Ultra Man fighting off dingoes with spades if it came to it! One way or another, we made it back and Ultra man and I headed off to lie down in a darkened room with a cool beer in hand.
On the long, long flight back to the UK, in between short naps and Biff's feet kicking me in the ribs, I thought about many memories of our time in Oz and reflected on the Fraser Island experience. The phrase 'collective towrope' came to mind as the local aussie community took time out to get the poms out of a hole.
A strong community is worth it's weight in gold. I've seen it evidenced time and again in the little pocket where we live in Alnwick. A pulling together that sees individuals and families giving and giving but expecting nothing in return. A by product of this is a deepening of relationships, neighbours that become friends as we walk with each other through the journey of life with all it's ups and downs. The result - a closer, stronger community.
As a christian, I believe that God is a great believer in community. Jesus epitomised this in his three and a half years on earth. His band of brothers, disciples, group of misfits, call them what you will - they were community. Through all their differences (and they had a few) the bond between them grew and Jesus was very much at the heart of the group; He valued their friendship as much as they valued His.
It's a model that I want the church to be more like in 2015. A few of us go to Costa on a Thursday night for an hour. It's an opportunity to do shared lives and give people the chance to ask the bigger questions. There is no programme, it is all about relationships. Journeying with each other and trying to demonstrate the community based, relational Jesus that we see in the Gospels. We've got our hands on the towrope a few times to show that this faith thing is actually a way of life or, to quote a famous bank....'for the journey'
'Put your right hand above your head and reach for the handhold' said Courtney. 'Easier said than done' I thought. I was scaling a climbing wall securely belayed but (at my own request) I'd been blindfolded so that I couldn't see how high I was. Working, as it was, by blanking my visual senses, it required an acute sense of audio in order to get up the wall, I was fundmentally reliant on the eyes of another, in this case my cousin, to make progress. For a moment my mind went back 18 years............
......... I still remember the sheer look of terror on his face- Chandler Bing, husband and father, about to throw himself out of an aircraft 4000 feet above the earth, hoping and praying that a 10 ft square peice of material attached to strings would open up and gently navigate him back to terra ferma.
It was my fault that he was here. This was my idea of trying to do something that would help cure my fear of heights as well as raising money for a good cause at the same time. I'd roped him into this and he rashly agreed. Mrs Bing merely shook her head and sighed. This fear though totally irrational was nonetheless real. Even crossing the Forth Road Bridge in a car required eyes shut or blinkers on (though not when I'm driving - that would be stupid!) and in my naievte I believed that climbing thousands of miles in a plane and then throwing myself out would be the cure - Ummm.
Crammed into a Cessna aircraft, 6 of us had made our way skyward for the third time of asking looking for a break in the cloud which eventually came. There was very little chatter as we were lost in our own thoughts about what would follow. 90% of our training had been about what to do in the event of a 'malfunction' - reassuring I thought! Dressed in our orange boiler suits (that a few years later would be associated with something a lot more sinister than crazy thrill seeking junkies) we were harnessed, helmeted and trained up to our eyeballs in preparation for this leap 'to infinity and beyond' - although it has to be said that what followed for Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story realised a rather more bumpy landing than we were hoping for! Chandler was Numero Uno and as such, he would be the first to exit the plane and prove the static line theory actually worked. As the 6th and final member of the group, I counted them all out starting with Mr Bing. Later over a cool beer, I would ask him about that look on his face and he would respond that he was happily married with two young children and, at the point in question, he was thinking 'WHAT AM I DOING??!!' Not being in his position at that time, I didn't fully understand.........I do now!
And so it finally came down to me - sat in the exit door of said aircraft, one leg out, waiting for the instructor's call call to 'jump' and trying desperately to remember the drill that we'd learned in training about a billion times earlier in the day........'1000....2000......3000.....4000.....check canopy!! I jumped! The noise that came out of my mouth would not have translated in any language as being 'the drill' but rather sounded something like......AAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHH.
What followed that sheer terror can only be described as an incredible experience. Suspended in what felt like a giant baby bouncer, the scenery was incredible. To my left I could see up towards Holy Island and the coastline taking in both Dustanburgh and Bamburgh Castles and to my right the coast led all the way down to Blyth. Content in my own world, I looked at the windsock down below and gently pulled on the handles to change the direction of the chute and roughly aim towards the airfield. Meanwhile......3500 ft below the atmosphere was a little more tense. Chandler, as the first person to exit the aircraft had had his 11 minutes of 'floating' and had firmly planted his feet on the green greeen grass of home. His ecstacy was somewhat short lived however as all he could hear was a rather irate instructor using a fair bit of anglo saxon in trying to communicate with 'number 6' on the one way channel. Number 6 was oblivious to the failed calls from said instructor to 'move away from the direction of the overhead cables on the railway line by taking a right turn......please!!' or words to that effect. This monologue was all Chandler could hear and his concern was growing.
Up above, communication was eventually restored and Number 6 was a little surprised at the sharp tone of said instructor (alright keep ya hair on) but submitted to instruction and made away from danger and towards the safety of the airfield and a perfect landing - I have the photographs to prove it!. The adrenaline high lasted a long long time..........
.........back in 2015 I heard the words......... 'well done' said Courtney 'you've reached the top'
What have I learnt over the last 18 years? (1) Despite jumping out of a plane, I still have a fear of heights. (2) I'm more in tune with my audio senses. (3) whether falling down, climbing up or stepping out, I need faith.
4 years ago, I took a step of faith to leave behind a career I'd known for 19 years and do something new. I heavily relied on the 'audio' during this period and listened to wise people but spent a lot of time trying to hear what God wanted. This is walking by faith and not sight. After all I can't see Him but I know He's there. I can't have a face to face discussion but I can still have a conversation.
Because these conversations are real I want them to impact on all I do. I often don't hear Him like I should but that's about my inconsistency rather than His. For in all the work I'm involved with, whether it be debt, poverty, social justice or aspirations, my primary aim is to point people towards the ultimate DAB audio channel where they can encounter a God, not visible, but nevertheless everpresent whose compassion, grace, forgiveness and love surpass anything I can ever offer because ultimately He IS the real deal.
'You've got half an hour to get dressed, brush your hair, eat your breakfast and clean your teeth' I said. 'OK' she said in a far away voice from the far away land which is her bedroom...... I was not confident.
Ordinarily this would be ample time for an average 8 year old to go through said list with time to spare but this is no average 8 year old! Biff is a law to herself and the many and varied techniques of both myself and Mrs F to coax daughter into being ready to leave on time often lead to immense frustration as the 'easily distracted one' majors on the minor to the point of making it an art form. I would go as far as to say that she may well do a thesis on it at university but....... between here and there are a lot of distractions!
So it was that despite regular timechecks - 'you've now got 15 minutes to do all those things' - I ventured upstairs knowing full well that because she had not ventured downstairs then at least one of said tasks had not been completed and she was going hungry! I was not helped in this by Tigger (who of course had been up for hours and was ready to go) wanting to distract his sister even more by 'borrowing' her hairbrush and then losing it!
There before me still in her PJ's and with hair that Toyah Willcox would have been proud of, sat the girl..... playing with her dolls house! I should have walked away or better still picked her up as I'd threatened and put her in the car in her jamas but no, I was 'choosing this battle' and she and I needed a chat. In the process of climbing over dolls house, I knocked the top off, so scattering numerous peices that she'd spent the last half hour carefully and lovingly putting into their various rooms. Salt and pepper came off the table, the fridge in the kitchen ended up in the sitting room and last but not least 'grannie' ended up falling from the upstairs bedroom and finished up head first in the bath! The wild haired one was unconsolable! This caught me off guard and my speech about not listening to instruction was not forthcoming as her despair that all her hard work had come to nothing came out in a very animated fashion albeit her facial expressions were difficult to see behind the huge expanse of hair! So it was that, although running five minutes late already, I spent time putting 'grannie' back in her bed and righting salt and pepper pots while the titian one finally did what she should have done in the first place and got ready.
As I thought about this later, my initial frustration was to do with her disconnect with me, but the flip side was all about her connectedness with the dolls house and her gift of creativity and imagination being put to good use (albeit at a most inconvenient time) as an 8 year old little girl should be doing. That's not to say that this takes priority over all things routine and necessary but nevertheless it got me thinking about connectedness.
Recently I've struggled with my connectedness with God. My faith is still intact but I've simply not felt 'in tune' with my running mate. This has led to a lot of soul searching and its easy for that to develop into introspection which is at best a distraction from the real issue and at worst, not healthy for soul, mind or body. I'm married to a wonderful woman who is very long suffering with me but also lovingly honest!
During this time, I've taken to looking again at Mark's Gospel. I'm a simple soul and this book is easier for me to undertsand than others - it also gives a very useful insight into the character of Jesus. He was a man for the people and on a daily basis expended a huge amount of energy of being with people and helping them physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. This meant that He needed to recharge the batteries on a regular basis and we see him either getting physical rest by getting in a boat for example and sleeping so deeply that not even a force 8 gale could wake Him, but more often just taking Himself off up a hill where He needed a 'one on one' with his Father. Then the cycle would start again as He was in shape to handle the multitude of people who would come flocking on a daily basis. He knew the importance of connectedness and being in tune and yet...........this very same Jesus would be found in such a state of depression, despair and fear crying out 'Father, where are you? I need you now more than ever' ..........and finding there was no answer.
Recently I read an article about Mother Teresa entitled 'the dark night of the soul' where she talked about the closeness and connectedness she had with God at the start of her ministry but one day that just stopped and for the rest of her ministry (and most fruitful part incidentally) to the poor in Calcutta she did not feel at all connected to her heavenly Father, the one who was her drive and motivation and reason for living.
Jesus found no answer in that dark dark moment but God's answer came, not immediately but, in an totally awesome way less than three days later when light, life and hope combined on Resurrection Day.
I suspect there's a lot of people who can relate to Mother Teresa. A lot of it doesn't make sense to me but rather than getting over analytical, as befits me I'm keeping it simple. What I'm learning is that my faith is less about feeling and more about fact. I may not wake each day with a cosy warm feeling inside but I stand on the promise that God 'is and will always be' .....and right now thats enough.
'Ou est le beurre, si'l vous plait?'...... I was impressed with myself, I could tell by their reaction that even my children were impressed and the smile from the french waitress (albeit with a slightly raised eyebrow) told me that she also was duly impressed. I stood there like the cat that got the cream basking in my linguistic glory!
'Car il est sur la table sur le cote extreme gauche' she replied.............suddenly the smile dropped from my face..............just as I could see it increasing on hers. I heard the word 'table' and looked around to find about 25 tables, one of which held the butter. I knew this of course, which I why I asked the question in the first place! At this point, the waitress had landed a big blow and appeared to be enjoying this tete a tete. Undeterred I got off the canvas and said 'je ne comprehends pas' hoping that she would somehow save my dignity in front of my now bemused children but no, she was having none of it. 'Car il est sur la table sur le cote extreme gauche'. It was a knockout punch and she knew it. 'Que' I said, hoping not to sound too much like Manuel from Fawlty Towers but expecting a slap nonetheless! With a polite sigh, she pointed behind me and said in her extremely good english.......'you will find the butter on the far left table sir'
I had been caught out by what I suspect many English are guilty of when abroad - limited vocabulary! It is all very well me asking a question in French but for crying out loud, use your extra sensory powers to work out that I won't have a clue what the answer will be so just tell me in English! I have good friends who can speak the langauge and at this point, my regret at not sitting down with Mr H (who happens to speak about 15 different languages) to work on French answers rather than questions was very evident.
The reason for my brief foray into gallic was our much anticipated holiday to Disneyland Paris. I had some idea of what to expect before going. Mickey Mouse would be there and Donald Duck also and maybe Goofy.We would also go on some rides. Beyond that I waited to be surprised. Sometimes holidays that are long in the planning can have unrealistic expectations and as a result, I've found as I've got older that the most enjoyable part of a holiday is the looking forward to it! However, this holiday proved to be as enjoyable as it was anticipated. The children had a great time and enjoyed almost all the park had to offer. There were a couple of rides where the 'dark, deep and cautious one' having carried out his own risk assessment decided that 'I will not be doing this ride Dad but if you want to go on that's fine!' Any concerns we had about queueing for 2 hours were unfounded and this meant that getting to go on the Buzz Lightyear shooting gallery 15 times over 3 days was great fun. I'm not competitive as you know so it was great to see the boy get 50300 points and Mrs F get 86000 points. Well done to both of them even though I got 129000!!
Suffering as I do from motion sickness - I get car sick playing on the Wii - I was careful to opt for rides that wouldn't cause me that feeling of nausea. In a moment of madness however, I decided to go with Biff on the Runaway Mine Train. Whether it was bravado for the sake of my daughter, I'm not entirely sure but it wasn't so much nausea as sheer terror especially when the driverless train plunged into darkness through a series of twists turns and drops that left me clinging onto a 7 year old !
But perhaps the most poignant part came in a surprising way. The Meet Mickey dinner experience had be booked in advance and I was somewhat ambivalent about it, hoping that in amongst the hype I would get to eat something being, as I was, scranny. Sure enough out came the characters. First Goofy, who appeared to have consumed a few high energy drinks but nevertheless wooed children on every table with his crazy ears and quirky moves. He (is it a he??) was more than happy to have photographs taken with the children and even sign autographs on serviettes (we hadn't got anything else to write on) before moving on to the next table. Next came Mickey and then Pluto and best of all - for me anyway - Eyeore. I was beginning to love this as much as the kids and insisted on Mrs F getting me in shot with the loveable donkey! There were smiles and laughter everywhere but what fascinated me most was the lack of words in these interactions. Mickey, Pluto and Eyeore didn't say anything - they didn't need to. They were recognisable to these children for who they were........ suddenly pictures in a book coming to life in front of them. The actions of these characters speaking so much louder than any words.
Recently I've been thinking about words and actions in my own life and how that impacts other people. The conclusion that I've reached is that the value of what I say is directly proportional to how I act and live out my life. Is the way I live my life as a husband, daddy, friend, neighbour, community worker attractive enough for people to want to have a meaningful conversation with me....or am I seen as being a hypocrite? Ultimately, does my life reflect Jesus? His actions drew people to Him like a magnet. He smashed through convention and reached out to people on the very edges of society which ticked off the religious leaders no end. People saw Him and wanted then to listen to what He had to say.
In 2014, to make christianity attractive is to make Jesus attractive. For me, being a christian is less about religion and more about a journey with Jesus. I'm making plenty mistakes along the way but I'm learning from Him all the time and His language of love, compassion, justice, mercy, healing, forgiveness, hope is not lost in translation. After all, He's been there and done that...... which is a good enough reason for starting the journey.
Many years ago, I was told a joke by an old local croonie: Geordie had a bad back and eventually went to visit his doctor. His doctor asked him 'George, can you walk?' to which Geordie replied 'work? a canna waak nivor mind work!' Now at this point, my local friends may be smiling, although to be fair they are far more likely to be groaning, whilst on the other hand, my southern friends (particularly those who live near The Fens) will be scratching their heads trying to see whats funny!
I've had to do a lot of waaking recently on account of um bongo being rather poorly. Poorly would be putting it mildly, less a tummy bug and more open heart surgery. This has therefore confined said vehicle to it's own sick bay for rather a long time. Now although I like the Bongo very much, sentiment goes out the window and in the cruel harsh world of cash, the only question worth asking was 'am I better off selling it for scrap?' Fortunately Mrs F agreed with me that we had no choice but to sort the problem and I put in a call to my Specialist Mechanic Consultant to go ahead with the operation.
So it is therefore that for the last 5 weeks, I've had to resort to 'shanks pony' in order to get from A to B. Living as we do at the top of a hill has meant that outward journeys have been, if not pleasurable then certainly not taxing. Trying to persuade Tigger and Biff to walk to school has not been too stressful although there have been mornings when I've threatened the Titian One that she would be walking (not waaking - you have to speak proper when you're trying to clearly convey a message with grave importance and impending consequences to your children!) thats right walking to school in her pyjamas unless she got a move on pronto. I thought the female species were able to muli task but this one breaks the mould, for she cannot possibly watch horrid henry whilst at the same time eating a cereal bar. Add to that the whole concept of brushing her hair or her teeth..........you get the picture. No, the walk TO school has not be the problem, it has been the return journey that has caused the issues.....or has it?
The usual scene on collection of children (on a good day) is for both of them to come bounding up to me and then promptly dump book bags, packed lunch carriers and swimming kits at my feet before proceeding to run off. I am willing to take some of the load - book bags - but the remainder will be redoposited on to said children by whatever means in takes, although I stop short of using a half nelson!....... imagine a bad day! So it was on day 1 without Bongo that I told them we would be walking home. To see the look on their faces followed by the protests, you'd think I'd asked them to go on a 20 mile yomp with the Paras carrying three times their body weight up and down Cheviot. It was a ridiculous and unprecedented reaction and it required of me - demanded even- to show proper parental control of the situation...........'How about I buy you both a donut?' I said. Immediately, the burden of impending journey appeared to lift to the extent that I was practically dragged with undue haste to low cost supermarket where my bribary would cost me the sum total of 46p - money well spent! Choose your battles as they say!
I don't remember much more about that journey home, but over the next few weeks some things came to light in a surprisingly good way. Yes, the journey home involved me putting my hand in my pocket to the tune of 46p on a regular basis but I worked out that this for the children was part of the journey home rather than refusing to walk another yard without due sustinence. Yes, I did at times feel a bit like a Sherpa carrying all the gear as the budding mountaineers strode out ahead but I enjoyed the good natured banter between them. Yes, there were times particularly with the 'why use 10 words when 100 is far more fun' little girl when she would protest that her little legs were struggling to cope but, there were also times when she opened up about something she did at school or the type of dog she would like to have ('only when I'm eleven mind Dad') and how she'd been told by Miss M that she did some great leaps in ballet. Even oldest child would quote his favourite line from Despicable Me 2 ('Hey Dad..........bottoms') before collapsing in laughter. All something and nothing stuff, and yet as I reflected, it was the walk that enabled this to happen in a very natural way. Both of them were arriving home for the most part in a far better frame of mind than when I pick them up in the Bongo and get them home a lot quicker. That's not to say that they are both sweetness and light on arriving home mind you; there is still the bickering over who sits in what chair and differences of opinion about what they will watch or do, but overall that journey home over the last few weeks has gone from a chore in my own mind to something I look forward to and, whilst they may not say it, I suspect the offspring also agree.
Will these lessons stay with me when beloved Bongo has recuperated? I hope so. It would be very easy to slip back into the old routine of filling the diary with more things on account of being able to get here and there quicker but at what expense? Would I have got to hear my daughter talking in animated terms about her day? Possibly, but would I have been in the right frame of mind to hear it? Maybe not.
I've benefitted from the walks - physically and emotionally. I'm also learning some spiritual lessons too - I think more when I walk, I pray more when I walk, I consider things with a far healthier frame of mind which have a positive impact on my decision making process, when I walk. Best of all, I don't feel guilty about building in more time to walk, I feel released. Even on dark days, I can still hear a whisper where God says 'come on Chris, how about you and I go for a wander' #itsgoodtowaak
'SAD' apparently and I'm sure many of you would concur but this isn't so much about me as the condition 'Seasonally Affected Disorder'. I don't know who comes up with these titles, but I've an awful suspicion that someone somewhere is being paid a huge amount of money to take a word and then create a nemonic which fits a condition.
Anyway, this is the time of year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere at least) when this weird condition seems to grab hold of it's unprepared victim and insists 'thou shalt henceforth go around with a black cloud over thine head until the third week in March' at which time with fair winds and increased warmth (if you're lucky) we shake it off and break free into the sun.
At this point, I should point out that I'm somewhat sceptical about this disorder and that the grumpiness that both my wife and children have had to put up with in recent weeks is down to a dismal Ashes series down under and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that it's cold, wet, miserable and all I want to do in the morning is lie in bed and pull the duvet up and hibernate till spring. Hmmm, who am I kidding?! The reality is that while some people can ride out this time of year and are sickeningly optimistic, most of us will at some point find parts of January to be dark and depressing at the very least. Looking forward can bring a sense of dread rather than excitement. The future for some is far from rosy. The warmth of summer is a distant memory and we long for the sunshine, at which point our neighbours emerge and we 'chew the cud' and find the pace of life a little easier and our own sense of well being and productivity greater.
So, confession time, I'm struggling at the minute with....whatever it is. Even those things I can usually rely on to bring a sense of 'all is well with the world' or a confirmation of why I exist on God's earth, have failed me miserably.
The other night, as I usually do, I wandered into their bedrooms to kiss my children goodnight. I had assumed, wrongly, that the nocturnal one was asleep and I was met with 'Dad, I was asleep! Don't blame me if I'm grumpy in the morning!' (This wasn't the time to tell him that he obviously lacks sleep most nights if that's the case!) Undeterred, I went next door to his sister. This can be quite humourous as when I whisper in her ear she tends to sleep talk. So sure enough, I lent over and whispered in her ear 'Daddy loves you' to which the response came back .......'whatever!'...... I kid you not. At this point, I then made my way to bed to talk to my long suffering and compassionate spouse about how useless and vulnerable I felt.............ZZZZzzzzzzzz went the long suffering and compassionate spouse!
I picked up the book passed on to me by my brother to read by way of light relief........Inferno by Dan Brown....and decided within the space of two pages that tonight was not the night to be filling my mind with the various stages of hell! Faced with that or Alex Ferguson 'My biography' I decided to check my Facebook page to find that PL, my 'good friend' down under had for the fifth and final time put up a photo of his grinning bambino to signify another win for the Aussies and the death knell of English cricket! With that happy thought, I turned the light off and waited for sleep to descend!
Sometimes though, the problem is exacerbated by another condition called IF - 'I'm Fine' and we're all guilty of it. Someone approaches us in the street when we've got the blinkers on and are in 'solitude' mode. 'Hello, how are you' they say cheerily and we respond 'I'm fine thanks, but I've got to dash' and off we dash to wherever it was we weren't dashing to before we were greeted! Sometimes, the greeters are just casual acquaintances and to be fair, we're not going to offload to every Tom, Dick and Harry but sometimes even our close friends aren't allowed in. Why do we do that? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we should dump off every time we meet true and trusted friends with how rubbish we are and how sad life is to the extent that everyone becomes miserable, but you know what, we need each other to get through these dark and difficult times. God didn't design us for solitary confinement, He created a natural support network around us called family and friends. When a community is working well, it exists to be a support framework for every one in it. Some will need it more than others but there is no hierarchical structure in place that favours one over another. The bible talks about the support structure by giving the example of how we are made and goes on to say ' the foot cannot exist without the leg and we need ears, eyes and nose. We are perfectly formed by an amazing creator God. In the same way that He wants us to have dialogue with Him, He wants us to develop and build real and meaningful relationships wth those around us. Relationships not built on superficiality but on trust and acceptance and understanding. Today you may be needed as a supporter, tomorrow you may well be the one who needs supported. We need each other.
She emerged from the bracken with a somewhat bemused expression on her face, hair in front of her eyes and her cycle helmet tilted at a jaunty angle but to everyone's relief there was no anguished crying and actually a broad smile began to emerge. Yes you guessed it, the titian one strikes again! We were with good friends in the Lake District a few weeks ago and had decided to do one of the cycle routes at Whinlatter.
With a confidence which comes from speeding around on toy tractors, the deep and thoughtful one was very much up for this trip and hit the front from the off. His sister though was less certain. She didn't say as much, which in truth gave it away! The time for asking one's daughter 'are you OK?' will usually happen only if she has stopped speaking for at least 30 seconds. This was one such occasion. For whilst she is 'Miss have a go at anything', riding her bike is the one thing where the word 'concern' is etched into her forehead. So, very much at the back of the pack with me following, she headed onto the forest trail and within 10 yards.....she was off! This was not a good start and in my head I thought 'this two mile bike ride could well end up taking a looooonnnnnngg time to complete.' Never mind, she dusted herself down and got back in the saddle. Up ahead, the group had turned down the trail and had kindly waited for her to catch up. As she approached the fairly sharp corner, the obvious thing would have been to use her brakes, but she was having none of it; round she came going way too fast and knowing she was never going to negotiate the turn saw the bracken and made a reasonably sound decision that the now orange tinted foliage would break her fall rather than break her bones! It was a sound assessment but although she came up smiling, her confidence was shot and to say that her riding therafter was tentative would be something of an understatement. I don't know who was more relieved when we got back to base. One of those trips where the word 'enjoy' quickly slips to 'endure'!!
But, twenty four hours later, things were very different. One of the activities on offer at Bassenfell was abseiling down the side of the Manor. 'Yes please' said Biff 'I really want to do this'. The boy who (as previous entries have indicated) won't be persuaded by anyone or anything, crossed his arms and defiantly said 'there is no way I'm coming down from there on a peice of rope'.....risk averse doesn't even come close!
Half an hour later, harnessed and helmeted up with red hair protruding out at all angles, she cheered and encouraged as first two of her friends made there way down the wall and cautiously came to ground. Then it was her turn. As she lifted her legs over the edge, I detected a slight look of anxiety but there was no way she was turning back now. Down she came, with the same level of caution as the others but when she touched the ground there was a huge smile on her face and an eagerness to do it all again. Second time around and with the confidence of 'been there and done that' she abseiled commando like (well perhaps a combination of my memory and being a proud Daddy means I exagerrate!) to the bottom and waved her arms in wild celebration.
What a difference in 24 hours. From tears and anxiety to smiles and exuberance, the journey of one little girl. We can all feel this sense of elation turn to despair or vice versa. Sometimes it can happen in a 24 hour period, other times we can experience it over days, weeks, months or even years. At other times those opposites in emotion can happen very quickly indeed. I went to watch Ipswich play Leicester City at Portman Road last week. It was the boy's first league game and whilst he insisted on telling me ALL the way there that he was in fact a Newcastle fan (!) I still sensed he was looking forward to it. Within two minutes we'd scored. 'Fantastic' I thought 'at least he's seen them winning' but alas it was shortlived and Ipswich went on to lose the match. That kind of up and down emotion is not as acute as it once was; possibly on account of me being older or more probably a lowering of expectations after ten years of following ITFC in the wilderness! Don't get me started on The Ashes however #hurts
We all get 'ups and downs' and for some of us, the down times can be a pretty dark place to be. Nothing so superficial as teams winning and losing but real life issues such as health, debt, bereavement or loneliness. I'm no pyschiatrist or pyschologist so I dont have some, all or for that matter any of the answers to those in these situations.....but what I can do is pray.....for my family, my friends and those I come into contact with on a daily basis no matter what they're going through as well as myself! Being a christian does not protect me from the ups and downs of life, but my faith gives me Hope and Forgiveness, as well as learning about Compassion and Peace. Sometimes (too often) I forget how much God loves us......but when I remember, then I know that on the other end of the line is an all knowing, awesome Creator God, whose mood never goes up or down, but rather listens and is concerned about every little detail of our lives and wants the very best for us........that's why I pray!
PS - Even if you've prayed beforehand, when going cycling.......... wear a helmet!
All the tell tale signs were there. Intent etched all over the face, pacing up and down, the clenched fists and white knuckles and the jutting out jaw. One word could describe this individual - tension. Meanwhile on the track, the relaxed 8 year old standing alongside seven other competitors at the start line for his heat, looked over at this spectacle and gave me a look which said 'Dad, get a grip!
This was the boy's first competitive experience outside of school sports day and here he was at Gateshead Stadium, his very own 'theatre of dreams' if you will. For my part, I'd been telling him in the car all the way down to 'enjoy the day, however you get on'. I threw in a bit of 'just try your best, thats all you can do' and realized at that point that I sounded like my Dad! BUT..........beneath it all, I secretly wanted him to run blinder and cross the line first! I am competitive. Not ultra competitive like a very good friend who will remain nameless, but competitive nonetheless. For this reason, I have to be careful about the expectations I put on either of my children. Winning and losing are put of growing up and I'm pleased they go to a school where they can compete. I'm afraid I simply do not agree with the philosophy of 'everyone comes first and no-one comes last' approach. If that attitude prevailed then we would kiss goodbye to any budding Andy Murray's, Chris Froome's or Jessica Ennis's. Three times last night I lost the ball playing 5 a side - I hate losing the ball! Hence why I returned home with a sharp pain in my right knee and a dodgy left hip as a result of chasing down my error and then ending up flat on the floor as I lunged in to, at best, get the ball or, at worst, take one for the team as due penance for my stupid error. That kind of attitude does not come from 'its time to let the other team score now so that everyone is happy and nobody cries!' - give me strength! ..........Please allow me a moment while I get down off my favourite horse!
Having said all that, this was Billy Whizz's first meet. He didnt have spikes and he'd never experienced a race with a starters gun before and I very much wanted him to come away having both learned from and enjoyed the experience. He'd started well enough getting second place in the standing long jump, then had a bit of a mare in the 400 metres (the gun went and he hesitated a couple of seconds, found himself at the back of the pack and then set off like a cheetah making up 7 places before realizing at 200 metres that he had nothing left in the tank!) but to his credit after initial disappointment picked himself up and moved on to the next event. He did ok with his howler throw which only left the 50 metre sprint. This was good. When he wants to, he can run and run fast - hence my obvious if somewhat pathetic agitation at the start line. Having been a little too vocal the first time he played football and being told 'dad, you're putting me off!' I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made my way to the finish line. 'Keep looking straight ahead' was all I whispered to him.
BANG! Off they set, I got my Itouch ready to take a photo and focused on him. He's doing OK I thought (even though he was giving his best impression of the Churchill dog and doing anything but looking straight ahead) but actually he was doing better than OK and I realised just in time to take a photo of number 1 child crossing the line in first place! He had a smile like a cheshire cat which was worth the trip alone. For sure this was just his heat and the final would be tougher but he was driven by a desire to run well and use his God given talent to the best of his ability.
Talent and drive were on show in a big way at Chester-le-Street on Monday. Mrs F had bought me a ticket to the fourth day of the Ashes Test. My good friend, aka Chandler Bing (Mr Ultra Competitive) joined us for what would be an incredible day's cricket. The day ebbed and flowed with England seizing the initiative and then Australia seizing it back before at 5.05pm....... step forward Stuart Broad. I have no idea what he had for tea but he came out with a focus and a drive that appeared to be lacking from England in the afternoon. Bowling at 92mph, he set about the Australian batting line up with an intensity they simple couldnt handle - the wicket of Michael Clarke was worth the entrance fee alone. From 169-1 the Aussies in fading light were bowled out at 7.40pm for 220 and England had won by 75 runs. It was one of those moments when you can say 'I was there' that will live long in the memory. Chandler and I were off our seats along with the Honey Monster, Kermit the Frog and all sorts of crazy Englishmen. I'm not sure how much Mrs F enjoyed it but that wasnt my over riding thought! We'd just WON the Ashes.
There was once this guy called Saul who was a gamechanger and a winner. To say he was driven would be something of an understatement. He'd been brought up to be the best at everything. He was well educated and had friends in high places. If you gave him a job, you could guarantee that he would do it to the best of his ability. He was a great leader and single minded. So when a new group of people calling themselves Christians started rocking the boat called 'status quo', Saul was over it like a rash killing and using whatever means possible to snuff out this new phenomenen. But it didnt go quite as planned. An unplanned meeting with the CEO of christianity on the way to Damascus would change everything. Saul changed. A new man emerged called Paul still with drive and passion and incite and intelliegence but now God was channelling it for good.
Later in Paul's life as he reflected on his journey to that point, he says 'Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.
What or for that matter who drives the drive in you?
Looking somewhat ashen, as well as guilty. The 'o so talkative' one was now 'o so quiet' as she presented me with a thin silver object with a sharp end that resembled a micro screw driver which, in fact, it was. 'Its a screw driver' I said, assuming that was what she wanted to know as she handed it over. It was obvious by her reaction that she knew that it was a screw driver but equally obvious was the look that said 'but I've not been using it to screw drive screws!' A little voice inside me said 'you dont want to know!' I ignored the little voice! Invariably number two child will start a sentance with 'Can I tell you something?' (if she cut that out those 5 words then her verbal output would probably reduce by 50,000 words - a day!) On this occasion however, I was willing her to tell me something........ but that something was not forthcoming. After a few seconds Mrs F appeared at the top of the stairs and put me out of my misery. It transpired that the titian one had decided that this confession was best made to her mother. 'Your daughter' began the beloved (I was now worried because surely she was 'our' daughter) decided that it would be a good idea to try and pierce her ear last night and took it on herself.....' by this point I'd got the picture and didnt need the finer detail. My first thought was 'when did she have her tetanus injection?' quickly followed by 'what damage has she done to her ear?' and last but not least 'how could she be so silly?' The just turned 7 year old was obviously using the powers of ESP, for before I had a chance to verbalise these thoughts she said..... 'Mummy's chatted to me and I'm very sorry.' My instinct at this point was to reinforce what Mummy had said with another 'chat' but a look from Mrs F told me that OUR daughter had indeed understood the message loud and clear!
Over the course of the last year or so, my family (and other animals) have given me thoughts and ideas when it comes to the ramblings you read now. Often it has been something said that has caused amusement or a reaction to a certain situation or an expression used out of context. Some reading previous blogs will have said 'been there and got the t-shirt' others will think 'lets note that for future reference' and still others will remark 'how interesting, the Friends near our prayers as well as our sympathy!'
My children are growing up. As they do, they may find and push boundaries; they will discover success as well as failure and they will begin to see where their strengths lie as well as their weaknesses. Hopefully they will learn through all of life's experiences and grow to be independant grounded young adults. They are also loved unconditionally by both Caroline and myself.
Our daughter, may well take matters into her own hands at times AND she may well talk the hind legs off a donkey AND she may well position herself at the table to eat dinner like she's reclining in a chaise lange BUT..........to hear her laugh playing 'big bear little bear' is a joy; to see the smile on her face as she walks the beam at 'nymnastics' warms the heart; to see her zest for life coupled with a heart of compassion is an encouragement and, in her Daddy's eyes, she will always be the most beautiful girl in the world.
Our firstborn is no diplomat, over analyses to the enth degree, counts the money in his money box with alarming regularity and will walk into a white walled room and convince you that it is black BUT........he is not easily swayed by others and knows his own mind which is reassuring, he has a sense of justice (most of the time) that will stand him in good stead going forward and the now 'not so little bear' loves to rough and tumble with his Daddy which brings his Daddy lots of happiness - and a few bruised ribs! They are our children and we, love them both so very very much much.
I wonder, what do others say of you and me now or what will they say at some point in the future? Maybe its just my age, but I find myself reflecting on the person I was, what I've become and what I may be. All very subjective I know but I look back on a pretty chequered past and my character tends to zero in on the failures and disappointments rather than the successes. I hope I've learnt from those tough times but I acknowledge that I still have much to learn. For example, I had great ideals as to how I would parent my children even to the extent that Super Nanny would be asking for my advice! Then I had children! And the reality is that its not so easy. I so much want to be a good parent but my patience is not as it should be and I wish I didnt raise my voice to them - someone please tell me I'm not the only one! .......... I now know a great deal less at 43 than I did at 21 !
The reality is that I'm a mixed bag just like the rest of us. Some good fruit, some fruit that has gone bad and should be got rid of and some fruit that isnt ripe yet but nevertheless has potential. I am and always will be a work in progress for my wife, my children, my friends, my community and my God. Does God cope with that? Well, think on this true story. There was once this guy who was arrogant, big headed, impatient, impetuous, and a coward who talked the talk but couldnt walk the walk. In short, his CV seemed to be a bit sparse on characteristic qualities. After 3 years, his employer called him into his office for a breakfast meeting. The employee was somewhat fretting as the last time he'd met with the Boss it had ended in tears - literally. You would imagine therefore, that the meeting's agenda would include the words 'sacked, pension or voluntary redundancy' ......Not so........this employer saw the journey this raw employee had been on and knew that this rough diamond through all the ups and downs, and seemingly catastrophic failures had leadership skills and a heart of gold; and far from demoting or even side lining him, He gave him the greatest job and with it enormous responsibility........
....The employee's name was Peter and his boss was Jesus......I thank God that He thrives on 'works in progress', dont you?...........just as well really!
I looked at the item and then I glanced over to Mrs F. She said nothing, I said nothing, there was nothing to say! I didn't know if she was joking, I didnt know if I should act surprised, I did know that I was confused. The look on her face told me that this was no joke and she was indeed deadly serious. I looked at the woman I love, to whom I've been married for 12 years, who, to this point at least I thought, knew me so well and with a deep breath I said.....'at what point did you think I would be delighted to own a pair of pink swimming shorts? Not only are they pink, I went on, but they are flowery pink!' At this point, I still hoped that her face would crack into a smile and she would utter those words of relief 'just kidding!' Alas no. She was disappointed to say the least and told me how she had spent a lot of time searching out shorts that 'were just right for your personality' and 'how could I be so ungrateful.' At that point she left the bedroom leaving me to mull over the fact that I was actually in the dog house for gently declining to wear an item of clothing that quite frankly would not have looked out of place on a Laura Ashley bedspread!
Taking them back to the shop was also an interesting experience. I approached the counter knowing that there was only one way to handle this. 'I'm returning these' I said .......'because they dont fit!' - I didnt give any eye contact as I said it - that was a mistake. The nice lady behind the till looked at me, then looked at the shorts and said ....'they are also a bit garish dont you think?!' ........'You've rumbled me' I said 'but I'd be very grateful if you could repeat what you've just said to my wife who will be walking into the shop anytime now!'
Of course we've all had situations like these where something is presented to us that is not quite as we'd hoped. Usually it is around Birthday's or Christmas where there is an old dear who means well but somehow misses the mark quite badly. I remember as a 12 and 10 year old, my brother and I being presented with knitted jumpers from a friend of the family. Mine was sky blue and his was sunshine yellow! The first thought (having said thank you through gritted teeth and a fake smile) was to try and work out how on earth we were going to lose these unwanted garments without anyone noticing. My memory of that occasion is vague but I think we avoided that Mark Darcey moment by deciding to play football in the said jumpers and managing to get them in such a state that they were not fit for purpose in public!
But the phrase 'it's not exactly what I hoped for' doesn't just apply to clothes or unwanted gifts. During half term, we took the Bongo to Scotland for the week. We had a brilliant time. We had good weather at Blair Atholl before driving through the rain to be greeted by sunshine on Skye for 4 days before driving through rain again to once more find the sunshine waiting for us at Luss on the edge of Loch Lomond. All in all it was a great holiday.......apart from one incident.
Skye, for those of you who've been there, is a simply stunning island to visit but it is also quite exposed. Mrs F was quite excited as we turned down toward the campsite situated right on the edge of Loch Greshorn. The sun was glinting on the water and it looked incredibly picturesque. However, as we stepped out of the van, we noticed something else - it was somewhat windy! Not galeforce but enough to raise concerns about putting up a fairly essential peice of our kit, namely the awning. Not to worry we thought, we'll just ask for a sheltered pitch. 'Well I can offer you three possibilities said the site manager and proceeded to show us. By the time we saw the third, I was recalling the famous phrase by Henry Ford ' you can have any colour car you like as long as its black!' For the truth was that there were no sheltered pitches.
By this stage, the joy on Mrs F's face had turned to one of concern. 'We'll have that one I said' (My choice had nothing to do with the weather so much as the lack of caravans around us; meaning that the boy's ball was less likely to knock over the glass of Blue Nun supped by pensioners on holiday the world over!) So I pushed on with erecting the awning and getting the pegs in as quickly as possible. Once up, it was obvious that our flexible awning was being well flexed but I remained optomistic that it would stand the test. Mrs F was less convinced and took herself off to the bongo to eat a chocolate biscuit and think! Meanwhile, inside the awning, the children and I looked out onto the loch and watched the wind buffeting the solitary boat on the water. With nothing else to do, it seemed like a good time to remind them of the story in the Bible about the disciples being in a storm on the water with Jesus asleep below deck. Eventually the disciples woke him up and requested fairly desperately that He do something to calm the storm. With a word he did just that and the sea became like a millpond. So, having told that story, there was an air of expectancy from my offspring so I thought it would be good at this point to pray for the wind to stop. I prayed for the wind to stop.... said Amen....and......the wind did not stop! Undeterred I went outside to have a check on the awning that was doing all sorts of contortions not seen in the manual! Across the way, a friendly pensioner waved from his caravan, put down his glass of Blue Nun and made his way over. 'I've got a storm strap' he said 'would you like to borrow it?' I would indeed like to borrow it and the friendly pensioner and I set about driving a huge stake into the ground on one side attaching a piece of nylon tape to it and then throwing it over the top of the awning to the other side where it was duly attached to similar stake - problem solved. Mrs F ventured outside and approved of the course of action with a nod and a smile.
There have been many times in my own life when I wished an uncomfortable situation would just disappear or that people I care about and those close to me would feel better instantly or a miracle would just occur. After all, I thought, 'I'm a christian and surely God should be rescuing me from such depressing situations' ........not so! For while it is true that having a faith in a Father God who cares about me deeply and wants me to communicate with Him through the good times and the bad, nevertheless, He is far more likely to provide a storm strap for the ups and downs of life than bring instant deliverance through a booming voice or flash of light. What point is there in faith if we expect problems to just evaporate by dialing a quick call to God and then having a one way conversation? As someone once said to me 'God is not so much a bridge over troubled waters as a pathway through them' - don't know what Paul Simon thinks but its great quote and very true.
Talking of waters, time to find a pair of slightly less garish swimming shorts!