Are you a marathon runner? Today’s London Marathon has been even more of a test than usual, as it’s taken place during an unseasonal heatwave.
Arsene Wenger is coming towards the finishing line of a challenging 22 year ‘marathon’ as manager of Arsenal. Her Majesty the Queen, now starting her 93rd year, has also faced many challenges in her ‘marathon’ run of a long reign.
Life itself, for each of us, is a marathon that involves short sprints, long plods, uphill grind, downhill dithers and slithers, wearying stumbles and tumbles and some scintillating strolls. These are accompanied by a mixture of physical pain, mental anguish, tears, smiles and joy.
Taking part in a marathon (and no, I’ve never done one) requires, initially, choice. Shall I? Shan’t I? For the marathon of life, choice wasn’t our shout! How we run life’s marathon is dependent on personality and circumstances. Whether thinking of life’s marathon or the London Marathon, perseverance and endurance are required. It’s also helpful, as I imagine Mr Wenger and Her Majesty might concur, to have the backing of your personal cheerleaders – family, friends and supporters – and of your fellow-runners.
St Paul likened the Christian faith to running a marathon: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith.” In Hebrews it says, “Let us run with determination the race that lies before us.” Let us. Together we can do it.
Parallel to the main road, about ten minutes’ walk away, is a byway. The narrow track links a hamlet in the east to a market town in the west. In past centuries it was the main route. Then an A-road was built, now a noisy highway of continuous traffic with its attendant fumes and noise. The byway became a by-the-way, useless for vehicles and unseen by its drivers.
Far from being forlorn and forgotten, the byway thrives as a peace-filled haven for nature. Delicate flowers of blackthorn decorate its edges. Goldfinch, robin and blackbird serenade walkers who, tuned in to tranquillity, carefully tread its path. The byway emerges onto a lane with scattered cottages and farm buildings whose names reflect the past: Cheese House, Forge Cottage, Old Barn… A little bridge – great for Pooh sticks – spans a lazy river where trout lurk in the shallows, ducks paddle on the surface and kingfishers flash past above their heads.
Highways and byways. Drivers and walkers. Townies and country folk. Noise and quiet. VIPs and by-the-ways. Somebodies and nobodies (though no-one is a nobody in God’s eyes.) Jesus used local scenes to illustrate his stories. In one he told his followers to go everywhere – highways and hedges – to share God’s message of love and grace and his invitation: “Come!” The invitation stands today – wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances.
When does Easter end? Commercially, Christmas ends on Christmas Eve though, for Christians, it is just the beginning of a 40 day celebration of the birth of Christ. What about Easter? When does that end? Easter Monday? Many people were back to work on Tuesday though, this year, with Easter being early, the school holidays have fallen entirely after Easter so children may still be doing Easter egg hunts up until next weekend!
The Easter garden in my local cathedral was bare and bleak on Good Friday. On Easter Day and ever since, it has been a colourful display of spring flowers surrounding an empty tomb. Worshippers in churches today repeated the greeting of last Sunday: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed; Alleluia!” Christians are people of the resurrection. Christ died once. He rose to new life that goes on for ever! Christians believe that, thanks to his work of redemption and their belief, faith and commitment to him, there is everlasting life and hope for today and for every day.
Easter eggs come and go all too quickly. Easter, for those who believe, doesn’t end – ever. The disciple Thomas found it hard to believe until he’d seen the risen Jesus for himself. Then he was in no doubt at all: “My Lord and my God!” he exclaimed. Jesus understood his doubt. He understands anyone’s doubt, but his invitation is still for people to believe: “How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”
“What’s going on?” “What have you heard?” “It’s all so weird!” Information, misinformation, rumour, bewilderment, doubt, fear, a sense of numbness… Such words could describe events and emotions in any news situation around the world today.
When something unusual happens, reporters gather and sound bites are sought from passers-by, local residents and visitors to a city. It’s happened in Salisbury in recent weeks. It happened in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection when the city was full of visitors. Jesus’ friends had largely vanished at his death but, as news flashed around the area that he’d returned to life, so they re-emerged slowly – with some trepidation and a glimmer of hope.
The reports varied, as they do in news stories today. Whispers of sightings of the living Christ were followed by exclamations of relief, joy, and the gradual realisation that, “Yes, of course! Hadn’t he said this would happen!” An angel told the women at the tomb, “Come and see!” then, “Go and tell!” They looked, saw the empty tomb and went to tell the disciples. Over the coming days Jesus spent time with them. So, the news was true! Nearly 2000 years later the message continues to reverberate around the globe: “Christ is risen!”
What difference does it make that Jesus is alive? The fullness of life Jesus offers is more than pretty daffodils, chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks that are here today and gone, if not tomorrow, in a few weeks’ time. His message of hope for all creation defeats sorrow, evil, fear, and death itself. His invitation is, indeed, to come and see, then go and tell.
“Look where you’re going!” Heed that warning if you walk along a crescent-shaped stretch of pavement near my home. Hawthorn trees, with low overhanging branches, border the path. In winter, and in early spring, their vicious inch-long spikes aim to poke your eyes out.
Every time I walk past one of those hawthorns, I think of Jesus Christ who had a crown of thorns rammed onto his head after his arrest. I shudder at the agony he went through – not just from the crown of thorns, but in a succession of acts of torture and then a cruel death by crucifixion.
Hawthorn buds, I gather, emerge at the point where the spikes protrude from the twigs. In May the buds burst into flower and in autumn the tree is a profusion of red berries and golden leaves that catch the sunlight of bright October days.
The bloodied head of Jesus and his dead body weren’t the end. Just as the hawthorn spikes give way to buds, so death gave way to new life for Jesus. But at such cost. Agony before glory. Why did he do it? He told his disciples, “The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them.” That’s the message that will be conveyed this week – Holy Week – as Christians remember and reflect his sacrifice for the human race.
Who are the whistle-blowers? What do they do? Why? Where? When? How?
My first whistle-blower was my year 3 teacher who, with whistle firmly lodged between her lips, flat-footed her plimsolled feet up and down the netball court’s side line. Hurricane-force blasts from her whistle frequently stopped play.
Perhaps you’ve wrapped up against the chill to go and support your child’s team kick a football around? And been glad when the referee blows for half time (cuppa: phew!) or full time (home: bliss!) Your child, on the other hand, may be delighted – or outraged, depending on which side has transgressed – when the whistle heralds a free kick, corner or penalty.
Wales ended second in the rugby Six Nations, thanks to a tense home win yesterday. A mixture of instructions, penalties and awards had the referee whistling at frequent intervals throughout the match, often with a quiet explanation to the relevant captain.
Who, what, where, when and how. But why are referees necessary? To ensure that players know and stick to the rules, that there’s fair play, resulting in a harmonious match.
A whistle-blower – in the other sense – is someone who exposes wrong-doing. Is God a whistle-blowing referee? His instructions for living were to ensure fairness for all, with a potentially good result. But he gave us free will; we’re not puppets at the end of his string. We tend to blow it – not the whistle, but the opportunity for harmony – so it’s a good thing he’s promised that one day there will be perfection, with no scowls, punch-ups, rules or referees.
There are visitors and visitors. Some you look forward to seeing but their visit disappoints; others you steel yourself to welcome and they surprise you by their affability.
There’s a bunch of visitors who always come in a group, chatter incessantly but are highly entertaining and very amusing. They’re long-tailed tits. Then there are the greedy gang of greenfinches who come together – usually five or six – and take their positions at the feeding station, dropping food onto the floor in their haste to guzzle as much as possible in the shortest time. Timid visitors, and this year reluctant to come at all, are blue tits. Are they afraid of their bigger cousins, or is the winter just too cold to venture out?
Yesterday a great crowd of varied visitors all upped and left without so much as a ‘thank you for having me.’ They’d spotted an incoming visitor whose company they abhorred. Sad though I was to see the little ‘uns go, I was delighted to see the new arrival who sat motionless on the apple tree – long enough for me to get my camera and take a picture of her. She was a sparrowhawk. What a beautiful bird! But a dangerous one. Her beady eye and fiercesome beak are enough to make anyone fly a mile.
Yes, there are visitors and visitors. The sparrowhawk went on her way, her visit short but special. The good thing is the others have all come back. They know, metaphorically, which side their bread is buttered.