I Didn’t End Up Where I Expected

Apologies for the slight delay in delivering this post to you today.

The truth is, I felt a bit bereft of ideas so I decided there was only one thing for it…

A morning walk up on to the South Downs, despite the frost and freezing temperatures.

I’m so glad I did it, even though there was a point, on a long, drawn out steep incline, where  I began huffing and puffing a bit – realising I am not quite as fit as I was the last time I came here in September. Back then however, I was accompanied by a band of brothers who love walking together once a month.

Somehow, it is simply easier when you have people in front and behind you.

But it didn’t take long for the glories of rural, winter scenery to help me maintain my motivation.

I pressed on, sensing that it wasn’t too much further before the ground would plateau out and the worst part of the walk would be over.

It is always well worth the extra effort of course. If only for the views across the hills that begin to reveal themselves. The ageless fields in the foreground, the magical mist hovering over the land beyond and the clear blue sky providing a beautiful back drop.

Once I got to the top of the hill, I was instantly reassured it had all been worth the effort. An appreciation for the beauty of creation – right on my doorstep – and the resolve to do this more often echoed in my mind.

I then began the descent – but down a different route, although I felt sure, very similar to the one we had all taken in September.

I recognised some of the beautiful country houses and was convinced where I would end up.

But no, it was not to be.

As in life itself, you often learn many, many things about yourself and others and you think you are going to get to a certain destination.

Somehow, and you may never discover how, you end up somewhere different. It may be very different indeed to what you expected.

Or, as in my case this morning, I didn’t end up where I expected but it was only about a quarter of a mile to the east.

I doubt very much if there is anything significant for me in that slight miscalculation.

It didn’t hurt me, It didn’t upset me or annoy me. It didn’t even confuse me.

I simply accepted it.

I did however, walk a lot further than I think I would have done if everything had gone to plan.

I still don’t know how it happened.

Next time I may take a map or more likely, I will simply look for clues and enjoy the views.

 

Trust the Signs

On the first day in Tirana, Albania this week, I decided to walk back to my hotel for lunch. Partly because I wanted the exercise of a brisk walk through the city and also because I love the challenge of remembering a route.

I was staying in a new hotel for the first time and so was unfamiliar with the short drive to the office in the morning. I therefore paid much closer attention than normal in the back of the car, while we spent much of the time in the relentless, rush hour traffic of Tirana.

So, when it came to walking back to the hotel, I was up for the memory challenge!

It wasn’t that difficult to be honest. I had a pleasant lunch and then looked forward to the walk back – this time keeping a look out for the various landmarks I had taken even closer notice of an hour or so before.

What struck me about this exercise was that the landmarks – let’s call them ‘signs’ for the purpose of this blog – were not always obvious at the large junctions, where I had thought they might be. Or rather, I had tried to notice something at a certain junction but in fact, the ‘sign’ I did recognise came after I had made the decision to turn right for example, at a set of traffic lights.

The mural I had registered in my mind only appeared a bit further along the road – not at the corner.

If you’re anything like me, you want the signs to show up and point you in the right direction when you expect them or would like them to be there. You probably don’t know or can’t remember what that sign looks like but you hope to recognise it when you see it.

In life however, the signs usually show up when they need to be there – not necessarily when you expect or prefer them to be there.

Sometimes I find at least, you need to be prepared to go with your inner sense that “this feels right”. Soon after, you very often see that yes, it felt right for a reason. The sign you were hoping for does indeed show up – just not where you thought it would be.

With or without an active, daily faith, the reality is, we all have to live by faith one way or the other.

Faith in our subconscious memory, faith in our ability to find our way back, faith in that often dormant ability that enables us to be as good as we can be – if we learn to trust the signs.

 

 

 

When I Woke Up, I Couldn’t See!

One morning, when I woke up, I couldn’t see.

I called out to my Mum (I was only about eight years old at the time!) who came in to see what the matter was.

It turned out, I had conjunctivitis. The nasty pus that comes with it had effectively congealed over my eye-lashes and therefore, I could not open my eyes in the normal way.

Imagine for a second, if you woke up one morning and the effect was permanent!

As Helen Keller famously said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

At the beginning of this year of all years – 2020 – why not look around you and begin to imagine what could be a reality at some point during this year?

Could it be the realisation that your life is far more impacting than you previously imagined?

Perhaps the reconciliation of a relationship that you need to see happen?

Maybe that creative idea you’ve been putting off for so long has finally clambered its way to the top of your To Do list?

Whatever it is, let’s all do our best to ensure that when we look back on 2020, we can confidently say it was a year when we really pressed in to our vision for life and all that can happen within it.

 

 

A Year To Be Very Thankful For…

Yesterday, I created some time to sit in a seaside cafe and reflect on the year that is almost over, and think about the year that is to come.

It occurred to me that almost exactly five years ago, I did the same thing and today my life is almost unrecognisable. I am truly thankful for all that has taken place in between.

Outside, the weather was wet and windy.

Inside, I was made warm by the heating and the coffee no doubt but more significantly, my heart was warmed by the mere writing of a list of things I am thankful for.

Here are just a few of them…

The kindness of my wife

Moving to the countryside

Tash & Rob’s wedding

A whole month in Italy

Lorenzo, Paolo & Salvatore

Steve Carell’s acting in My Beautiful Boy

My Beautiful Boy becoming beautiful again

30 years since I first believed!

My dear Mum (who always provides positive feedback)

Liverpool overcoming all odds to defeat Barcelona

Confirmatory, encouraging word about re-writing The Hearts of the Fathers

Gift of a car

Safe flights to various places & back

Time with Mark & Vanessa

Liverpool winning the Champions’ League

Redemptive meeting with loved ones

XCC Leadership weekend

Terry & Maria

Impacting workshops

Andrew & Wendy

Watching Liverpool win from The Kop with Isaiah & David for the very first time

The Marriage Course @ Home

All three children finding their way in the world

James Tetley

Mike & Dot

Lunches with Dad

James & Lou

A community of believers in Ashington

Patrick & Philly

I could go on, I really could…

I was so encouraged when I began remembering so many different things throughout the year.

You will no doubt notice that interspersed throughout my list  are all the people I am enjoying getting to know, the people I have known all my life and some who I may never see again.

Without these people and many, many others like them, my life would not be worth living. With them, in whatever way and capacity it plays out, every single day has purpose.

Why don’t you make a similar list before the end of this year?

Once you have done that, turn your attention to 2020 and expect to get a vision for it as befits this year of all years?

“This Story Has Obvious Motion Picture Potential…”

I haven’t always had a study but now that I do, I never want to be without one.

Having only recently furnished it with a couple of pictures and most of my favourite books, it finally feels like a home from home.

A place of peace.

Somewhere to work, write and read.

 

As I embark on rewriting a novel I wrote almost twenty years ago, this is crucial for me at this time in my life. Needless to say, the original draft did not get published (even though one well known literary agency was initially very enthusiastic, while someone else in America offered me a contract with the unforgettable words, “This story has obvious motion picture potential…”. Sadly that ‘offer’ turned out to be a scam).

I eventually gave up on it and continued in my day to day life, occasionally wondering what might have been.

Recently however, I have been doing a bit more than merely wondering what might have been and actually returning to the novel that took me two years to write (early mornings before work and late nights after putting young children to bed).

I asked someone to read it and they eventually came back with some honest feedback, which confirmed what others had said, and made me realise how much I wanted to not simply leave the manuscript as it is, gathering dust, going nowhere.

Some things in life are better left alone. Acknowledge what they were, be grateful for the good they ushered in and then move on.

Other things deserve a touch of resurrection.

A fresh breath of life, perhaps with far more maturity attached. Maybe a more secure and stable structure could make a huge difference and who knows what that could lead to?

For me at least, I can apply that to the novel as well as my life in general.

What about you?

 

A Tale of Two Old Men

The other day, I went in to my local Costa coffee shop. As my favourite coffee shop chain, I was very happy when I discovered that our nearest one is literally a three minute walk away from our front door.

Working from home on a couple of intense, ongoing projects meant that I needed a change of scenery to help with some ideas. To be honest, even if I didn’t need the change or the ideas, I don’t usually require an excuse!

I got my coffee and looked around for somewhere to sit. Thankfully, it was early afternoon and not too busy.

I was about to settle on a spot near a window when I saw an old man respond to another old man a few tables away. The second man had been speaking with someone else and they had now left. He called across to the first old man (are you still with me?) and invited him to come and sit with him.

I only took notice because the first old man I had seen accepted the invitation and was vacating an even nicer spot for me to occupy.

I had barely sat down when I noticed a small sofa was also now available and I rather fancied that even more. (It doesn’t normally take me this many attempts to get settled!) Whilst it took me further away from the two old men, I was able to observe them without appearing to be nosy.

I couldn’t and didn’t want to hear what they were talking about but a good one hour later, they were still busy chatting away.

Normally perhaps, I wouldn’t pay much attention to such things.

That is what people do in coffee shops isn’t it? Chat, catch up…

Discuss a variety of things with each other, make each other laugh here and there.

It is in fact, becoming increasingly rare and we all know why…

We gave someone a birthday card recently that said across the front:

Dance like no one is watching,

Because they’re not,

They’re checking their phones.

So, back to my tale of two old men…

I marvelled at how one minute, one old man can appear to be looking a bit lonely and the next minute, he is engaged in a lengthy conversation with another person of a similar age (I have no idea if they are friends, acquaintances, former customer/supplier or merely familiar pedestrians on a village high street).

Maybe as I get older, I am learning to appreciate such mundane but I believe marvellous small things.

Maybe, as Remembrance Sunday approaches, I am once again reminded of the sacrifice so many made on our behalf, and am therefore noticing my older, fellow villagers more.

I know that sounds rather random but it’s not really is it? Not when you take a moment to consider how much older generations have been a blessing to us.

Perhaps I was also being reminded by the two old men that no smartphone, tablet or any other future form of electronic distraction can begin to compete against a spontaneous coffee shop conversation.

Ever.

 

Hurry Up Or Else!

Last week, I was working with my friend Andrew in Albania again. During one of the sessions he was delivering, I was completely taken by surprise to learn that my primary ‘Driver’ is Hurry Up.

Some of you may not be at all surprised, while others may be completely shocked – especially given that I spend a lot of time encouraging people to slow down and find some healthy balance in their lives. And well, stop ‘Hurrying up’!

Living in the countryside is supposed to be all about ‘peace & quiet’ and a great deal of slowing down, so I am satisfied that we have made the right decision moving to where we now live.

There are however, regular challenges for someone with the Hurry Up ‘Driver’. Things like drivers (no pun intended) of all ages, driving extremely slowly, especially when they arrive at mini or even larger roundabouts. I have written before about the art of roundabouts and how so many people don’t seem to get it.

Well here in the Sussex countryside, there are many people who don’t get it.

I am however, coming round to believing that they are crossing my path in order to help me slow down.

Just yesterday afternoon, I went off in search of some duck eggs at a nearby farm my wife recently discovered. Alas, according to the owner, the ducks are primarily concerned with mating between now and April and therefore, supply is going to be a bit sporadic it seems.

On the way back home, I pulled up behind a queue of cars along the country lane. This time it wasn’t someone dithering at a roundabout but a long trailer ferrying a large tractor somewhere. The trailer was so wide that whenever the road narrowed even slightly, the driver had to stop and allow the oncoming traffic to pass by.

Talk about slow!

Thankfully, I was not in a hurry of any sort and I attempted to use this as a bit of test.

I am happy to report that I passed (according to my own set of criteria of course) and happily ambled along until the very considerate trailer driver pulled over, put his hazard lights on and allowed the by now, very long queue of cars to overtake on a wider stretch of road.

The more I think about it, the more I strongly fit the profile of a Hurry Up. I could give you more but here are just four examples of my symptoms of the Hurry Up driver:

always skip through the adverts and never watch live commercial TV if I can possibly avoid it (doesn’t everyone nowadays?).

I will always try to choose the queue (on the road or my feet) that I think is moving the fastest.

When I rode a bike, whilst living in London, I would see the lights turn red for the adjacent set of traffic and then peddle as fast as I could, to see how much distance I could create between me and the cars coming up behind me.

I became an expert in knowing precisely which part of the tube train to get on in order to get off, bang opposite an exit (at many different stations) and be away, ahead of the crowd.

I must add at this point that for a season, this was an essential skill due to my role of camera assistant/delivery boy for a Friday night arts & entertainment programme called This Way Out. After the final edit had been completed in the offices of the London production company, I would be given the video tapes to be used to broadcast across three sub-sections of the South-East of England.

Normally, this was a simple case of carefully guarding them in my bag, travelling by train to the broadcaster’s base in Southampton and handing them over to the relevant staff.

The tricky bit came whenever the edit took far longer than normal and I was still expected to deliver the crucial merchandise on time. Failure would mean no programme that night – literally!

Most people would find that kind of pressure extremely stressful to say the least.

I on the other hand, LOVED it! I would deploy all of my ‘natural ability’ (now known to me as my Hurry Up ‘driver’), fly past the crowds on the underground – this being rush hour on a Friday night. I would then grab the first train I could board. Then straight into a taxi to the broadcaster’s station, and finally, run into the building and hand over the tapes.

The adrenalin rush of completing my critical mission in time was a regular highlight of my working week.

That was in 1990 and if my memory serves me, the latest I ever got there to deliver the goods was perhaps half an hour before transmission. No doubt the station boss would have instructed his team to start looking for something else to put on everyone’s TV that night, just in case I didn’t make it.

What about you?

Just to prove to you that I am learning to slow down, here is a picture of a T-bone steak I ate whilst in Albania, where I was forced to slow down to stand any chance at all of finishing it…which I did!

And finally, the day after I got home, I went on an early morning five and a half mile walk with some friends, that thankfully began just three minutes walk away from my house. Here we are waiting for breakfast to be served – the perfect antidote to the Hurry Up ‘driver’!

Come Sun or Cloud…

Given that I’ve not long been back from an extended holiday period in Italy, I found it interesting that I should have the following insight in my own back garden only a couple of days ago…

It is very simple and frankly, I’m amazed it has never occurred to me before but then that is the nature of some thoughts – one day it simply dawns on you doesn’t it?

Anyway, the other day it was shaping up to be quite a pleasant sunny afternoon. So I took my lunch outside, sat on a chair and picked the bits of meat and cheese off my plate. When I had finished, I realised it was a lot hotter than I had anticipated and removed my shirt, soon followed by the t-shirt I had on underneath also. I rarely miss an opportunity to maintain a recently acquired tan!

I sat there for a good while, truly appreciating a bit of sunshine and thinking about a specific situation I am facing.

With my eyes closed, I was deep in thought when the sun went behind a cloud. At this point, I invariably grab my prescription sunglasses and ascertain how long the sun will be absent. If it’s a huge cloud, I normally go back inside and return to whatever I was doing before lunch.

On this particular occasion, the cloud was not too big and so I waited, sunglasses having been returned to the table.

Ever since I can remember (probably beginning in the famous, seemingly endless Summer of 1976) I have loved the feeling of the sun eventually emerging from behind a cloud and the sheer warmth landing perfectly on my closed eyelids.

It is almost magical and I love it every single time.

This time, when it came, I suddenly realised something that went deeper than my eyelids.

It went all the way to my heart.

Things can be extremely difficult when there are clouds in your life.

Sickness, relationships, business, work (or lack of). Anything that is causing delay and the ensuing frustration that follows can be tiring as well as a source of great stress and pain.

But when the sun finally comes back out, all the darkness can be left behind. Not always easily forgotten for most of us but bask in the sun long enough and it becomes easier to imagine a brighter future. Remembering how good it felt can help you to patiently wait for it to return yet again.

And it will. Always.

Come sun or cloud – and there will always be plenty of both – it is a wonder of creation. You can only do what you can do and then you simply have to wait.

(This is not my back garden!)

And the best bit of all is, you don’t have to go to Italy or anywhere else to have your eyelids licked by a ray of hope.

Simply look up, close your eyes and be encouraged when the warmth comes.

 

 

 

 

One of the Biggest Honours I Have Ever Had…

Almost one year ago, one of my best friends called me and said, “You know Tash (his eldest daughter) is getting married in Tuscany next August?”

“Yes, I know. You told me a few months ago,” I replied, instantly wondering why he was reminding me.

“Well what you don’t know is you’ve been on a shortlist of four and she’s been asking God for a sign as to who she should have to officiate at the ceremony.” he went on, my curiosity climbing higher and higher. “And she believes she’s had a sign and she wants you to do it!” he exclaimed.

I laughed out loud, and continued to laugh for the rest of that day. And for a good number of days after that.

The plan was as follows: the engaged couple – Rob & Tash – were going to ‘do the legal bit’ in a London registry office shortly before flying out to Italy, and then have a full-blown, Christian ceremony in the middle of the beautiful Tuscan hills surrounding the medieval town of Volterra.

I was highly flattered, honoured and massively excited at the prospect of marrying my friend’s eldest daughter and her beloved fiance, who I had not even met at this point.

I have led plenty of church meetings in my time but this was going to be a first, and I was thrilled at the prospect of such a task.

Come the day itself, there was all the usual last minute rushing around, changes of plan (except for the ‘main plan’ of course) and the wonderful sense of building anticipation.  In a bid to remain highly organised,  I wanted to remind the groom’s sister to step up to perform her reading as soon I had finished the prayer that would end my Address. I thought I spotted her, and so went to give her the gentle reminder.

“Remember to come up and do your reading as soon as I finish the prayer then, yes?” I quietly said to the increasingly nervous-looking lady. Her reply surprised me to say the least, “Er…I’m not coming up anywhere, and I certainly won’t be doing a reading,” she said in that hushed tone that carries with it an air of assertiveness that tells you there is no persuading this person.

It quickly transpired that this was NOT the groom’s sister. In my defence, I had only met the lady in question briefly the previous evening – but still, it didn’t bode well for other things I would have to remember… I comforted myself with the fact that it would be hard to make the same mistake with the bride and groom.

Thankfully, the service went wonderfully well. A truly beautiful version of Amazing Grace was played – the sound was heavenly and I was almost overcome with emotion before we’d even started!

Here’s a snippet of the Vows that my wife tried to video

Tash, the bride – a truly beautiful person, inside and out – and her dashing groom, Rob, were brilliant throughout. The day eased into the evening reception at a wonderful villa nestled in the Tuscan hills, just outside Volterra. The sky was one of those ‘Artist’s palette’ perfections that you truly marvel at – I paused during one conversation to point out the sheer beauty of it.

Truly moving, as well as hilarious, speeches were made; the cake was cut (after having been made before our very eyes); the stage was set for the first dance at around midnight, accompanied by a great two-piece band who had flown in from Canada, and the party truly began. At the point where they played Sweet Caroline, the bride’s entire family were all dancing at the front and, for a divine moment, it was as if they were in a kind of ‘wedding heaven’ – inviting anyone who was there to partake in their unbridled joy.

I’m glad to say that many of us did and it was genuinely wonderful.

I was further heartened by the several times people told me how lovely they thought the service had been, when normally they couldn’t wait for that part to end, and to get on with the reception.

Best of all, (for my ego at least!) the groom told me later on, that a number of different people had asked him in all seriousness, “Where did you hire that Ibiza rock star vicar from?”

Our two weeks in Tuscany before the wedding had obviously helped with the so-called Ibiza look and as far as the rock star bit was concerned, I was glad I had chosen not to hire a dog collar for the day.

It was definitely one of the biggest honours I have ever had.

Will it be a one-off? Probably… but I’m open to offers!

 

 

 

 

Develop and Deploy

Well, I survived. No, it wasn’t anywhere near as physically demanding as last year’s adventure in the highlands of Scotland but it was not easy either. I should have guessed by the slogan on the website ‘Develop and Deploy’. I am fascinated by so many military things but when it comes to actual deployment, I find myself wondering what on earth I was thinking! I had to constantly remind myself, ‘It’s not meant to be easy. No pain, no gain’ and all of that.

James Ray, the hugely likeable, charismatic but also naturally contemplative leader and founder of 4MUK– the organisation that organises these Extreme Character Challenges in the UK called it a “self facilitating journey”.

In other words, this was going to be a classic case of “however much you invest in the process, you will reap a huge personal dividend.”

As with before however, I can in all integrity, only reveal snippets of the experience as one of the primary drivers of all XCC experiences is the element of surprise and how you as the individual deal with that challenge that is suddenly looming in front of you.

I prepared as meticulously as I knew how and was feeling very high levels of excitement and anticipation all the way to Liverpool Street Station. After a couple of cryptic clues to oil the wheels of wonder and intrigue still further, we were finally given a platform number and six minutes to get on the train.

Despite my preparations however, a great deal of this went out of the proverbial window after the first RV point. I can’t exactly tell you why but suffice it to say, when I look back, a lot of life simply does not pan out the way we planned does it?

The question then becomes, ‘What are you going to do about it, and how can you work towards turning it around as a positive?’

As ever, there was a lot of walking but this time, it was mostly warm and sunny – always my preference – in contrast to freezing fog, wind and rain.

There was however, plenty of water involved and surprisingly, I loved every minute of it! Many of you will have hopefully read my blog about what it felt like to complete the Blenheim triathlon and how much pain that put me through. My attitude towards swimming has never been the same since and this held me in good stead over the course of this leadership challenge, put it that way.

Another obstacle that I think I can reveal to you was a herd of steers who didn’t take too kindly to our gang of five ushering them away from the gate we needed to access. Our elder statesman, Geoff (see below) took charge at this point and bravely came through the gate last and survived.

Along the way, we shared stories of our lives and the journey we have been on until this point. In the midst of the struggles and potential sources of stress, this is the ultimate leveller and instigator of true camaraderie, heart to heart intimacy and is always my favourite element of experiences like this.

In our group alone, we had a man who had raised £20,000 for international charities on two different occasions and is now energetically raising money for a defibrillator to be installed outside their local convenience store.

Another guy who survived being blown up in his military truck that landed nose down in the road and lost none of the men under his command. His latest mission is to help rescue 1000 addicts off the streets of Brighton.

Someone else who left their native country because some bad people were potentially coming after his Dad and therefore him also.

I could say more but that would involve revealing things that are not so obviously anonymous.

What I will say is we all went in at the deep end, shared our hearts as well as our hurts, and this always helps the next man to step up and be honest and vulnerable.

Finally, we stood in a circle of five and stepped into a metaphorical but equally, very real arena where we declared our dreams, plans and intentions going forwards and why they mean so much to us. Our small band of brothers then challenged us, forcing the questions that we often refuse to ask ourselves.

‘Why do you want it? How much are you willing to give? Tell us the plan and when you are going to deliver it? Is that realistic? Who else is going to help you?’

With barriers broken down by all that had taken place before, these men were driving each other deeper still, towards the destination that lies inside the heart of every man if he has the courage to confess it and dare to be challenged.

Develop and Deploy‘ is the headline for this experience and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who like me, needs that push to go further and for longer.