Nothing planned

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the curious things about living abroad is that the ‘obvious’ special days, the instinctive milestones on your calendar, mean nothing to anybody here. Days which have formed part of your emotional and psycological landscape for as long as you can remember simply do not feature here. My online calendar reflects exactly that truth today:

For just about all my adult life, this day has been an opportunity to celebrate the difference my beloved Fiona makes to the world. Every birthday present bought, every candle snuffed, every ‘happy birthday’ sung has allowed us to rejoice that the world has truly been a better place with her in it. Her fierce loyalty, her brilliant mind and her steadfast love have touched our lives in a million untold ways.

Today, she is not here to celebrate. All those benefits linger on, of course – but who feels like celebrating a birthday when the guest of honour is unable to come? Maybe in future years I will find myself able to celebrate this day once again. Maybe it will become a kind of ‘Fiona day’ to cherish those things which she also cherished. Not this year though.

This year, I walked with Ginny beside the sparkly sea. This year, I laid a single sunflower on the waves and watched until it was washed from sight. My beloved sunflower stands tall, I know – but not where I can see her. 

Stand tall, my love. Happy Birthday

Seventy reasons

To be thankful

Last year on the 69th birthday of the NHS, I published a list of 69 reasons to be thankful.  125 days later, my #bravestandbest died of cancer. Throughout the years of her illness, she was the recipient of the meticulous professionalism, warm compassion and downright humanity which make the NHS so wonderful. She was proud to serve the NHS as an information professional, and one of  the hardest days was surely that on which she could do so no longer. This year, 69 reasons has become 70.

1. For every hand held
2. For every restless researcher, in pursuit of an elusive cure
3. For every patient receptionist, calming the anxious arrival
4. For every porter, expert in negotiating emotions as well as corners
5. For every play therapist, busying imaginations whilst bodies rest
6. For every phlebotomist, extracting the stuff of life in order to give it back
7. For every cleaner, fighting a battle with the invisible enemy
8. For every medical student, eager to join the fray
9. For every GP, meeting whatever comes through the door with professionalism
10. For every nurse, working out the meaning of care by delivering it
11. For every anaesthetist, measuring life by breaths.
12. For every surgeon, wounding to heal
13. For every tea poured
14. For every chaplain, speaking volumes, sometimes with words
15. For every physiotherapist, moved by movement
16. For every pharmacist who regards precision as the best medicine
17. For every radiographer, looking hard at what cannot be seen
18. For every occupational therapist, paying extraordinary attention to the ordinary
19. For every paediatrician, with big patience for little patients
20. For every hand washed
21. For every paramedic, always quick, never rushed
22. For every midwife, treating each birth as if it were the only one
23. For every theatre technician, using tools and loving people
24. For every audiologist, savouring the sound of sound
25. For every breath monitored
26. For every oncologist, fighting a battle cell by cell
27. For every medical school lecturer, honing tomorrow’s talent
28. For every manager, balancing competing needs whilst life hangs in the balance
29. For every volunteer greeter, lowering the threshold for those who fear to step over it
30. For every immunologist helping each me to fight back
31. For every nurse practitioner – caring, advocating and communicating
32. For every endocrinologist, whose moans are hormones
33. For every psychologist, whose landscape is the mind
34. For every prosthetist, whose best limbs are not their own
35. For every brow furrowed
36. For every caretaker who takes care that others might deliver it
37. For every secretary who controls a diary to set its owner free
38. For every cardiologist, never missing a beat
39. For every volunteer driver, getting people to places
40. For every chiropodist, healing the heels
41. For every caterer, feeding those too tired to taste
42. For every geriatrician who believes getting old should be getting better
43. For every Community psychiatric nurse whose patch is people
44. For every bed manager who rarely sees their own
45. For every ward clerk who keeps track because they keep up
46. For every ward housekeeper who keeps house like it was home
47. For every opthalmologist who sees what seeing is
48. For every practice nurse jabbing flu in the arm
49. For every speech therapist, who wants all to have a voice.
50. For every dentist, by gum
51. For very heartbeat counted
52. For every dietitian , fed by a desire to help
53. For every staff nurse, professionally compassionate
54. For every ward sister, compassionately professional
55. For every dermatologist, whose care is more than skin deep
56. For every gastroenterologist, sick to the stomach at preventable illness
57. For every medical librarian, who wields information like a scalpel
58. For every first cry
59. For every Orthopaedist, bone tired but mending bones
60. For every neurologist, who minds
61. For every tear shed
62. For every counsellor whose door is open
63. For every pathologist, for whom the worst disease is inaction
64. For every obstetrician for whom every birth is a triumph
65. For every estates manager for whom the building is a medical instrument
66. For every unpaid minute worked
67. For every music therapist, for whom the sweetest notes are not on a patient’s file
68. For every last breath
69. For every day

70. For giving your best for my bravest and best.


Of chameleons and rainbows

The place of emotions in church

Did you ever hear somebody voice this little truism? ‘If we want to get OUTsiders IN to the church, we must turn the church INside out’. The sentiment is laudable, and calls for an end to a preoccupation with the machinery of church and its replacement with an intentional focus on the world beyond the church.  On a Gospel basis, there is very little with which one could disagree there.

However, there remains an awkward entail to this.  If we do turn the church inside out and we do get the outsiders in, what do we do with them when they get there?  A friend of mine used to talk about our expectation that new Christians will be like chameleons – taking on the colour and hue of those who were in the church before them.  They may well do just that – but if those colours are drab, will we succeed only in growing the drabness?

To return to the Inside Out theme for a moment – church is an environment where we would prefer not to show what is going on inside, thank you very much.  In a church whose holy book includes furious prophets, angry leaders, passionate kings and a weeping Messiah – we would rather check our emotions at the door.  Whilst I abhor those forms of Christianity which have traded on emotional manipulation to elicit conversion or donation – I find the cult of blandness to be unbecoming in a people whose God painted the rainbow.

In what may be Pixar’s most unusual film to date, Inside Out depicts the life of the emotions inside the head of a little girl: Riley.  Inside her head are: joy, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.  Interestingly, each is depicted in a different colour. Joy is yellow, anger is red, fear is purple, disgust is green, and sadness (not surprisingly) is blue.  The inside of Riley is a colourful place.

What if we let those characters and their colours out to play in church?


Anger is the short, squat, straight-talking and fiery member of the emotions team inside Riley’s head.  In church we like to leave him to the Gospels where we point him out gingerly in the temple.  ‘There’ we say ‘we have room for righteous anger – right there in the Gospel’.  I’m not sure he’s welcome in church, though.  In all my years of ministry across various churches, I am not sure I have ever seen righteous anger.  I have seen self-righteous anger, holding hands with his cousin, indignation.  They sit at the back with their arms folded and mutter to each other under their breath.  I would like to propose that we invite anger along to the church prayer meeting.  I propose that we should encourage him to speak up whenever we pray for the lost.  I hope he will give it all he’s got when we pray for those who corrupt power or who confuse wealth with importance.  I hope he will pray loudly, and that the rest of us will learn to crank up the volume of our “amen” so as to keep pace with him.


Fear in Inside Out is thin, wispy and fragile.  He is mainly purple, but wears a check shirt and an old tie.  Fear comes to church, but he rarely gets beyond the front door.  He’ll talk to people on the step, or in the car park, but once inside he finds the loud voice of faith just a little too grating and prefers to wait until the worship is over.  In truth, he’s been scarred by people calling him by the wrong name once too often. How can people mistake fear for doubt, he wonders? They don’t even sound the same!  I would like to encourage fear to join the worship team.  I would love to hear his reedy voice singing.  I would love to hear him tell us why we are going to sing this song ‘anyway’.  I would love to hear him sing a duet with joy, one day.


Joy wears bright yellow and radiates light, a bit like a sunflower.  I have sat next to her in church on more than one occasion.  Sometimes I have had to blink because her brightness hurts the shadows in my eyes.  She loves to be up the front and sometimes she hides amongst the children whilst they are singing.  Once in a while, though, I would love to drag her away from the limelight.  Could we persuade joy to pour the cups of coffee or stack the chairs, I wonder?  Let’s sit her down with the church treasurer once in a while and see what happens.


Disgust wears clothes which are a little too green, like peas on e-numbers.  You won’t see that colour in church, though, because she tends to cover up so that she can blend in.  Outside, it’s a different story.  When reading the paper or discussing the sermon her colours are fully on display.  She is a prolific letter-writer, although rarely signs her name.  I would love disgust to join the outreach team.  I would love all that passion to come tumbling out whenever we realise that there are people perishing within a stone’s throw of the church.  She would like John’s description of Jesus in John 11 v.33 where he ‘snorts’ in his spirit (a word used of a horse rearing up in alarm) when he sees what loss does to people as Mary mourns her brother.


Sadness is blue, with big owlish glasses which only seem to magnify her sorrow.  Sadness comes to church, but tends to sit at the back.  She can’t help herself creeping in, but she is unsure about whether she is welcome, so she stays near the exit.  I would love sadness to sit down with the church leaders when they discuss what’s going on in the church’s life.  I would love her to have a seat at that table when they talk about the sticks in the spokes of the Gospel’s progress or their own walk with their saviour.  Hers would be a gentle and welcome voice, I think.

Years ago, I visited a church in India planted the previous century by British missionaries.  Outside all was noise and colour – a bewildering sensory assault of sound, sight, taste and smell.  Inside, the suits were grey and the harmonium played grey music for the grey people to sing.  It seemed like such a waste.

Would you let the colours out to play in your church?


Click for the ‘colourful church’ in full size

Reasonable adjustment

Another postcard from the land of grief

When you first start to live abroad as a foreigner, people make adjustments. For the most part, they realise that you know things are ‘done differently here’ and that you might be unaware of the unwritten rules. If your turn up too early or too late; if you wear clothes which are too formal or too smart; if you bring a gift which is inappropriately large or small – people will make allowances. These things are only to be expected from a new resident here.

Throughout the first months of living here, in this land of grief, people have done just that. They have understood if I am a little more cautious or fragile than I used to be. They have accepted that my appetite for change and progress has been muted, as if a taste bud had been removed. They have understood if occasionally the victor in the battle for today’s small wins is sorrow rather than strength. To be honest, they understand it still – but I fear the day when they will not. I fear the day when I will do something like a foreigner making a faux pas in an unfamiliar situation and my supply of understanding will have run out. I am grateful that they are more tolerant of me than I am.

Today, I have had cause to rejoice when I look at the two photos below. What a difference has come over my rescue dog, Ginny, in the time she has been with me (134 days). The caution and timidity has almost gone. The eyes are those of hunter rather than hunted, and the coat bears the gloss of a contented animal. All the same, I sometimes fear that the slack people cut her ‘because she is new’ will run out one day. Maybe not yet though…

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Rock Music

A review of ‘Under the rock’ by Benjamin Myers

Years ago, on a second holiday in St Cast le Guildo, Brittany, my curiosity got the better of me. I could no longer resist the pull of an information sign which directed me towards the ‘pierres sonnantes’ (‘singing stones) on the river bank. It turns out that this collection of boulders sitting on the river bank failed to live up to their legend. Tapping a stone on their mossy surface produced not the promised song, but a dull and uninteresting ‘clack’.

Benjamin Myers, on the other hand, has made his rock sing. The book’s 350 pages are what could best be described as a lyrical encounter with Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire. In the author’s company we scramble up through bracken and undergrowth, we fall headlong onto yesterday’s rubbish in the tip, and we gaze out at the darkening landscape from a shelf on the rock. The rock is at once brooding presence, cipher, landmark and home. If it is true that the author makes it sing, what is less certain is the genre of the music. Is it the warm jazz of a summer’s evening, the strident violin scratching down a sky of steel, or a half-remembered spiritual? Each reader will have to decide, and each reader will doubtless hear it differently. As a person with an interest in the journey walked, this line will be a recurring refrain for me, I think:

Walking is writing with your feet.

Nature books can be twee. Poetry books can be self-indulgent. Autobiographies of a ‘move to the country’ can shut the reader out at least as much as they let them in. This book defies all those descriptions, and whatever it is called – it made the rock sing.

Ginny the lurcher keen to read...

Ginny the lurcher keen to read…

A cross-border confession

Another postcard from the land of grief

When I used to live in that other place, holidays to France were an annual feature. The rumble of the wheels down the ferry ramp and the first sight of a French flag fluttering over the port always brought a frisson of joy. So, too, did speaking another language. The sheer fact of speaking a different language and saying different things made me feel like a different person. I could say them ‘over there’…

I am about to write something from ‘over here’ which I could never have written ‘back there’. I could never have written it because it would have been embarrassing and awkward. I would never have written it because it would have been untrue. Nonetheless, I write it now. I am lonely. Married to Fiona for 30 years, and in love with her for longer than that, life without her by my side is shockingly different. One day last week a 24-hour period passed where my only conversations were on the phone or with a cashier at the supermarket. Mine is by no means a unique experience, and I have endured it for a far shorter time than many.  All the same, it is a shock to find that it is true.

For those who are scrolling for the comments box even as they read this, I wanted to write a message or two. Firstly – thank you. Your kindness and warmth are a reflection of God’s image in the foxed mirror of humanity, and it is wonderful to see.

Secondly, please be assured that my loneliness is neither your problem nor your fault. You did not cause it and I do not count it as your duty to rectify it. Your attempts to distract me from it are always welcome, and the place in your heart from which they come is very dear.  Please don’t be surprised, though, if I do not always accept them. The reason for my refusal has everything to do with me and nothing to do with you. Part of the collateral damage of bereavement is a wastage of the confidence muscle, if there is such a thing. That muscle which heaved body and soul up over the parapet of home has shrunk, you see. I look out over the threshold of home to a landscape filled with life, laughter, food, drink and conversation and I both move towards it and quail from it. I will learn, and the muscle will grow back, but it may take a little time.

Thirdly, please don’t let the sea-mist of sadness which sometimes rolls off me put you off from telling me about your life. I want to know. I want to hear the shrill sound of laughter and the clatter of ordinary dishes and the occasional curse! It reminds me that there is a life out there, beyond the mist – and I still belong to it.

Finally, I may be lonely, but I am not alone. My God is ever with me. His people carry me in their hearts and prayers, which is an act of the truest love. I live here now, but so does He.

A decoration which used to hang on the mantlepiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree...

A decoration which used to hang on the mantelpiece at Christmas, and now hangs on a very special cherry tree…


Blessings and regrets

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the features of living unexpectedly here is that you occupy what is now your permanent home country as if it were only temporary. You make only short or mid-term plans, but never long-term ones. You shop erratically, as if not wishing to fill cupboards you might leave behind. You make rapid friendships, as travellers often do. You eat like Moses’ Exodus people of old – staff at the ready and more mind on the journey than the plate. You tidy things away in a hurry too.
I have a drawer I am filling with regrets. Some are like a tiny scrap of paper, torn off the bottom of a leaflet. Others are more like essays – filled front and back with tightly packed handwriting. I have been stuffing them in the drawer in such a way that you can squeeze more in, but never open it to take them out. If you try it, the papers curl against the edge of the drawer and it jams half open – mocking your attempt.

The other day, I shoved a blessing in with the regrets, and now I cannot seem to take it out again. A family with two small children had been to visit me, and I had brought out the big box of Lego we keep for such occasions. I say ‘we’ – but it was her idea to keep it. Thinking ahead, she rescued the box from the charity shop and said we might need it one day – which we did. When the children had gone, it was time to put the scattered Lego away.  Scraping up handfuls and pouring them into the crate, tears fell with the little bricks as I regretted bitterly that she had not heard the children’s chuckles of delight.

It was only later that I realised what a blessing it had been to have those children here – filling my all too quiet house with their laughter and noise. Can’t get it out of that drawer now, which is annoying.

I really must write a clearer label for my drawer of blessings, or put it in a more obvious place… or both.


Charmed by Phoebe

A review of Paula Gooder’s latest book

For people like me, who have worked in the Christian church all our working lives, the Apostle Paul can be a bit like a slightly embarrassing family heirloom.  We know it is precious, but we don’t really want it on display.  Seen in its original context the heirloom would assume more sensible proportions, and maybe even look more attractive.

At this point, enter Dr Paula Gooder, with her fine scholarship, brilliant research and articulate imagination.  In the person of Phoebe, a Deacon from the church in Cenchreae, she introduces us to Paul, his world and his philosophy as effortlessly as if we were stepping from a time machine.  In the pages of her book you will smell the streets of Rome, sit at the back as the early church pray, laugh and cry together, and watch as the Gospel changes lives of great and small alike.

If I had one word to describe Phoebe, it would be charm. In the person of this exquisitely drawn character, Paula introduces us to the New Testament world as never before.  This is a New Testament theology with a heartbeat and a backstory.  It will appeal to both Bible scholars and Bible enthusiasts alike.  Few are likely to read Paul’s letters in the same way after meeting Phoebe.  I know I will not, and I hope one day Paula Gooder will introduce me to some more of Phoebe’s friends.



Another postcard from the land of grief

It was Winter when she left. Not a crisp and hopeful Winter, full of sparkling promise as it had been the previous day. No, this was a Winter day of dwindling light and remorseless rain, streaking the windows and bouncing off the pavements. Colours were insipid, light, muted – as if the day were muffled.

Yesterday was a Spring day, apparently.  The calendar says that Summer is nearly here and everywhere there are splashes of colour, like guests arriving dressed for a party which has not yet begun. Yesterday I visited a special place, my little bit of there which is here. The rain drummed on my coat and the grass squelched beneath my feet. Right there though, above the spot where she will be forever remembered, her cherry tree was flowering. Some of the bigger flowers had been felled by the rain, unable to resist the onslaught. Some of the newer, tighter buds were holding on, the droplets of water making jewellery out of them.


Showing fragile beauty in the storm and insisting on colour in the drabness seems such a fitting memorial for the bravest and best. Spring is coming.



Home advice from abroad

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes shops in holiday resorts would offer postcards with no picture. Instead, the front would contain a checklist of postcard style information which could be deleted as applicable. This might include:

  • Weather is good/ bad/ indifferent
  • Food is too spicy/ too bland/ interesting
  • Hotel is smart/ shabby/ comfortable

Very soon, I shall have been living here in this land of grief for an inconceivable six months. This being so, I am sending a list back to that other place. These are lessons learnt here which count so very much there.

  • Never believe that money is worth more than time – it is a poor trade
  • There are many conflicting duties, but the primary call on you is love
  • The things which have the highest value are those which have no price
  • A beautiful view shared is a view immeasurably enhanced
  • It is never too soon to say sorry nor too late to swallow your pride
  • Every conversation has value, no matter how trivial its content
  • Faith, hope and love endure, to coin a phrase
A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira