“You can’t see the kerb over there!” The man, standing at the bus stop with me, pointed across the street. I glanced over the road. Sure enough the kerb was completely hidden by layers of autumn’s fallen leaves. “Dangerous, that is,” he continued. “Could break your ankle.”
Whatever the season, there are hidden hazards. Life is a risk. My dad, recently departed for a hazard-free life in heaven, used to tell a story against himself of how, on one occasion when lecturing to an august gathering of scientists, he fell up the platform, scattering papers all over the place, as he headed for the podium. On another speaking engagement, he visited the toilet, only to find that his radio mic was still turned on… On woodland walks, he’d warn about tree roots. “Mind the trip wires!” he’d say with a smile.
We can go through life with infinite caution, but there’s no guarantee that hidden hazards – physical or metaphorical – won’t appear and topple us from time to time. Nobody is exempt from sad or bad things happening to them. How do we deal with such happenings? We may cry, or laugh, or say a rude word, or simply put irritating or calamitous happenings down to life experiences: the good, the bad and the ugly that make up the rich mixture of life on earth.
The man at the bus stop negotiated the step onto the bus OK and I trust that he hasn’t succumbed since to the hazard of hidden kerbs. But I hope, too, that while acknowledging the “pesky leaves,” he can also rejoice at the beauty of this colourful season.
My grandfather, having signed up with the Army in August 1914, was invalided out from France just two months later. Back in England he went to serve and teach at the Military College of Science where he was based until 1935. He later served with the Territorial Army, rose to the rank of Colonel and was awarded the Territorial Decoration and OBE.
If my grandfather hadn’t been injured in Ypres, he might have become one of the many soldiers whose memory is symbolised in red poppies and white stones. And I might not have existed.
The tragic consequences of conflict, disease, accident or disaster, impact us as we face the often unexpected and sobering reality of human mortality. All of us face the personal loss of loved ones and, at some point, our own demise. Today you and I are alive! Let’s be thankful for the gift of each new day of life and opportunity and pledge to:
“Leave no tender word unsaid; love while life shall last. The mill will never turn with the water that has passed. And the proverb haunts my mind, like a spell that’s cast: the mill will never turn with the water that has passed. Power, intellect, and strength, may not, cannot last; the mill will never turn with the water that has passed. Take this lesson to your heart; take, oh hold it fast! The mill will never turn with the water that has passed.”
Travelling around Great Britain under a duvet is a daily delight. As someone who habitually wakes around 5 am, listening to the Shipping Forecast at 5.20 is a perfect start to the day. I picture the map with its angular Sea Areas marked out: Forties, Dogger, German Bight… and the numbered Coastal Weather Stations: Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, Valentia, Malin Head… before the bit that is necessary to keep alert for: the forecast for Inshore Waters. If I miss Selsey Bill to Lyme Regis, I don’t know whether I’ll need an umbrella or a sun hat.
There’s a romanticism in the names alone, including the wonderfully named Ardnamurchan Point on the west coast of Scotland. Its name (whose spelling I had to look up) derives from Scottish Gaelic and the Point itself is almost as far west as you can get on the British mainland. It wasn’t until on holiday in Oban, when visiting nearby Salen, that I realised where I’d heard the name before: ah, yes, the Shipping Forecast!
Modern technology, one might think, would have rendered the broadcast Shipping Forecast redundant, but no; mariners still, apparently, check their instruments against the broadcast details. As a landlubber, I simply enjoy the imaginative travelling in a clockwise direction around Britain, the sound of the words spoken and places visited, and the assurance that someone out there is keeping a watchful eye on the awesome weather systems that swirl around the beautifully crafted blue orb that we call planet earth.
If I had to run a marathon, I’d choose The Snowdonia Marathon. This year’s race happened yesterday and is unlike any city marathon. The scenery is spectacular, the terrain formidable, and the long and steep ups and downs a test of character, strength and endurance. The route encircles Wales’ highest mountain and, unlike most city marathons, involves a total climb of 838 metres (2749 feet) over its 26.2 miles.
This particular marathon mirrors life’s marathon. We start with enthusiasm, puff our way up challenging roads, stop to admire views from high spots in our lives, then plunge deep down into valleys of despair, illness or grief. Some parts of life’s marathon are more steady, neither nasty nor notable. Then comes another uphill part, and so on.
John Bunyan, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, describes the ups and downs that Pilgrim faces on his way “From This world to That which is to come.” Readers discover “his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the Desired Country.”
Whether or not we’re marathon runners in London or Snowdonia or any other marathon place, we’re all participants in the marathon of life. How do we face it? How do we prepare? How are we sustained? How are we at perseverance? The characters in Pilgrim’s Progress are ordinary people striving to hold onto their beliefs in an often hostile and uncomprehending world. The book’s message is as relevant now as it was when published in 1678. For the Christian of any era, words from Hebrews are a spur: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
Foggy mornings are not unusual in autumn. Cold, clammy and all-enveloping, fog can confuse our sense of direction, oppress us and compound anxiety. Real and metaphorical fog can smother, leaving us rudderless and floundering, longing for the sun to pierce the mist and give us a glimpse of future security.
What sort of fog might you be in today? An unclear future for yourself or someone you love? A change of home or job? Tiredness where you can’t focus properly on anything? Illness? Unanswered prayer? World-weariness? Status anxiety? Any of these things, and many more, can plunge us into a fog of bewilderment, anger, fear or despair.
How, and when, will the fog lift to take us into the realms of light and clarity? “Sometimes a fog will settle over a vessel’s deck and yet leave the topmast clear. Then a sailor goes up aloft and gets a lookout which the helmsman on deck cannot get. So prayer sends the soul aloft; lifts it above the clouds in which our selfishness and egotism befog us, and gives us a chance to see which way to steer.” (Words of 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon)
We sometimes use prayer as a desperate last resort: “God help me!” At that point we relinquish self-dependence.The fog may not clear immediately but God is there in it with us. A case of “Let go, and let God…”
I live in a red light district. No… not that sort. From my house I can see the red light that tops the cathedral spire. It’s there to warn aircraft of the spire’s presence poking up into the sky. Every so often the light bulb has to be checked – and changed. What a task! Daunting, but essential.
There’s something comforting about the sight of that red light. In this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the light is sometimes obscured by mist – but we still know it’s there.
Sometimes it seems that comforting lights are hidden from us in our life situations. Depression, grief, uncertainty, redundancy, an unwelcome diagnosis, floods, poverty… can hang like heavy cloud cover over us. The light that brings a sense of well-being, safety and security, disappears – like the sun that is hidden behind a blanket of cloud, or like a red light hidden by fog.
When all seems lost, obscure and uneasy, we have to try and remember that the sun still exists above the cloud, that lights come back on after power cuts, that a torch will work with fresh batteries, that a dead light bulb may be changed, and that stars shine – in darkness.
I’m not trying to make light (pardon the pun) of the reality of difficult circumstances, but to present some hope: Jesus is described in John’s gospel as the Light. “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.”
Harvest is often celebrated on this, the first Sunday of October, though the UK grain harvest began early this year following the heatwave of June and July. How do you celebrate harvest?
I recall, as a child, having harvest festival at school and at church. A vast and colourful display of fruit and vegetables would be arranged beautifully at the front of the school hall or church sanctuary. A loaf of bread in the shape of a sheaf of wheat would take pride of place in the centre. When my children were small, we would rub apples from the garden until their skins shone, and take them to the harvest festival, thankful for God’s provision.
‘Harvest’ is good for making different words from its letters. And some of them have harvest connotations: tea, eats, have, share, earth… All very positive. But the word ‘starve’ is also there. For those of us who have plenty, it does well, in our thankfulness, to also remember the estimated 815,000,000 people worldwide who are malnourished.
God created a magnificent world of landscapes, plants and creatures and appointed human beings to be stewards of his world. When we’re tempted to think that planet earth is our world, we do well to remember whose it really is – God’s – and to honour him by taking seriously the privilege and responsibility he has given us. How good are we at sharing what we have and working for the good of all for God’s sake?