Saturday 28 October 2017

My Grandad drove a tram

Crossing the Line – Part 1

So where do I start? 

Perhaps with the people who made me and brought me up.  We were a small family.  I am an only child of parents who were both the only child in their families.

I only knew one of my grandparents.  The others were all dead before I was born.  And for the first 8 years of my life I hardly saw him either.  He was so totally different to my parents (or so it appeared) that it was sometimes difficult to believe that they had anything in common. 

A while ago, I remember doing one of those rather frivolous on-line quizzes which are supposed tell you something about yourself.  In a few questions, this one purported to reveal what social class you were, and my result was “Solidly Working Class”.  I laughed.  I am a clergyman, educated at Oxford, from an independent school, born of a vicar and a teacher.  Surely you can’t get much more middle class that that?

But as a thought about it, I also remembered that my parents were not from middle class homes, far from it, and neither were their parents.  Perhaps this frivolous quiz was revealing something about me which I had not identified before?  Perhaps I was more working class that I realised?

Grandad (back left) with friends before the War
My grandad was staunchly working class, deeply proud of his Lancashire working man’s values.  My parents had climbed the social ladder.  They had moved beyond their working class roots, aspiring to something more refined.

He lived in a rented bedsit in the same neighbourhood in Bolton where he had always lived.  We lived in a huge Victorian vicarage with a tennis court, bluebell wood, orchard and rose garden.  Our vicarage had old servant’s quarters in the attic which were bigger than his entire home.

He was a man of few words – preferring to keep his thoughts to himself most of the time.  He smoked 40 cigarettes a day and collected his Embassy tokens for treats or presents from the catalogue.  My parents were always talking – their jobs required it – and hated anything to do with smoking.

He loved working with his hands and the tool bench which he had made, contained the tools of his trade.  When my dad had become the first person in the family ever to go to university, grandad made him a beautiful desk out of old ammunition boxes.  By the time he had finished, no-one would have guessed the wood’s former purpose and today the desk is where I often go to write sermons or blogs, having been passed down to me, by my father in turn.  It still shines with that deep dark lustre of mahogany that has been lovingly worked to perfection.

He also made radios, and other ‘modern’ gadgets.  He did the whole thing, from designing the circuits to combining the components and making the cabinet which housed them.   I remember one in particular.  It had something like a liquid crystal display above the tuning dial with two glowing bars which came together when the radio signal was strong and drifted apart as the signal faded.  “To find the best signal” he would say, “you tune the radio until the bars are as close to each other as they can get”.   It was like magic to me.

When I was seven he gave me a model railway – not in a box, but laid out on an enormous table with a station, goods yard, village and level-crossing.  It was like my own small version of Legoland but made in wood and metal, and painted with loving care. 

When I was about 8, ill health brought him to live with us, and he made a 36” racing yacht for me, engaging me to help him at every stage.  I remember being given the awesome responsibility of pouring the molten lead into the mould he had made for the keel.  I remember him showing me how to steam strips of wood so that they would bend around the frame he had made to form the sleek lines of a racing hull.

These were the things he had done with my dad when he was a child – model train sets and racing yachts were the pinnacle of their relationship, but my father had left these far behind as sixth form led to university, and then on to theological college and ordination.

That is not to say that grandad didn’t have his faults.  He could be deeply moody and his few words could move almost imperceptibly to sullen depression at the drop of a hat.  His dark moods could last for days when he would shuffle around in a world of his own, speaking to no-one. 

When he came to live with us for the final 5 years of his life, his smoking drove my mother mad, and his working class pride was the antithesis of everything she aspired to.  It wasn’t that her upbringing had been pretentious or snobbish – far from it.  In many ways it had been significantly harder than my dad’s.  Her father had been an unskilled, alcoholic labourer in Sheffield.  Work was casual and unreliable, and when he did get paid, he would drink the money on the way home before beating her mother savagely.  My mum had a childhood characterised by poverty, fear and malnutrition in the slums of Sheffield and I don’t know if she would have survived but for the kindness of a local prostitute who used to give her money for chips.  Where grandad enshrined working class dignity, she only knew working class misery and she had fought with everything she had to leave it far behind.

Perhaps the reason they clashed so often was that he reminded her of the things she had escaped from.  He didn’t drink, but his room was always thick with smoke.  He would watch ITV - she watched BBC.  She had a modern cylinder vacuum cleaner – he loved his old upright Hoover and he would tell me over and over again how and why it was different and better than these modern plastic gimmicks.  He was content to sit quietly in his chair in his room with his ashtray and his telly.  He didn’t care if he was on his own, and resented coming downstairs to family meals.  She wanted to go to dinner parties, talk to educated people, and develop her career to get as far away as possible from the origins which he continued to represent.

 And when he got moody, he really got moody.  I am sure that part of the reason for building model train sets and yachts with my dad, was to avoid really talking to him.  He was a very guarded man who had seen almost everyone he loved die, and he had built a wall around his heart to stop it ever being broken again. 

After his early 20’s were stolen in the trenches of the First World War, seeing his friends and comrades die, he was one of the very few of those who enlisted early to return home.  He then married but his wife died after giving birth to my dad.  He withdrew within himself more and more.  Then my dad almost died when he was 2 years old from an ear infection.  He was only saved by his grandmother taking him out of hospital when they had given up on saving him, slowly loving him back to life.  

He did eventually allow himself to love again, but could not show it, because his love was for his wife’s sister, also widowed.  The taboos which remained about such relationships were still strong in his community – when he was born it was still illegal to marry your dead wife’s sister and it was expressly prohibited in the Prayer Book.  Although that changed in 1907, the stigma and disapproval of such relationships was still strong, and it was only after the death of his mother-in-law many years later that they dared to express their love and get married.  She then died only 3 or 4 years later.

I suppose that his job as a tram driver suited him for that very reason.  Isolated in his cab, he could just get on with life without having to engage with other people.  He simply got the tram from A to B and back again as the world went on around him.  I think he started on the horse-drawn omnibus, moving to electric trams with the advent of new technology.  But when the trams were replaced by buses, he was unwilling to make another technological leap by learning to drive.  Instead he became a bus conductor for the rest of his working life.  I can imagine him as a character in the TV comedy “On the Buses” – suspicious of change, proudly working class, resentful of authority, and resistant to anything which would threaten his fragile status quo.

As a child, I do remember that whenever I got too close – whenever I started to penetrate the wall which he had erected around his heart – he would quietly distance himself again, not in a cruel or manipulative way, but to shore up his self-defence.

He died when I was 13.  The smoking finally got him and he had a stroke, aged 81.

After 3 months of an air purifier running non-stop in his room 24 hours a day, it still smelled of stale cigarettes, and when we took the pictures off the wall, they left clear rectangles like oases in the darkening layers of tar and nicotine which surrounded them.

Yet I learnt so much from him about enduring adversity and about retaining the right kind of pride & dignity, no matter what anyone else thought. 

I still have the yacht.  The train set went when I was a teenager because I needed money and space for a settee and a hi-fi.   But I still have the yacht we made.  When I look at it, I see a man who took pride in what he did – a man who was self-contained and resilient – but also a man who cut himself off from others out of fear of getting hurt again.

My grandad drove a tram.

Grandad, mum and me

(With Thanks to Sam Emms for the title graphic - thanks Sam!)

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line

Monday 23 October 2017

Coming soon... Crossing the Line

One result of reflecting on life and my cancer diagnosis over the last couple of months, is a desire to write an account of my days, starting with where I came from, the family I was born into.  I know I am not alone in wanting to do this at a time like this.  It may be vain, even presumptuous, but I am going to do it anyway.   I am going to publish it on my blog, a bit at a time.  Don’t worry, I don’t expect lots of people to read them.  I am doing this for me.

Part of wanting to do this comes from my personality.  I like to be ready for things.  I don’t like having things sprung upon me.  I remember a time in my teens when my friends organised a surprise party for me before I moved away.  For the first half hour, I was furious, because I had other plans for the evening!  So perhaps I am preparing for the possibility that one day, my life will flash before my eyes, and I don’t want any surprises! 

But I also want to do it because I am constantly in awe of the things that God has allowed me to experience in life.  I don’t even pretend to understand the verse in Psalm 139 that says, “all the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be”, and like the Psalmist, I find myself echoing his words, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”.  I am deeply grateful for the wonders He has shown me, and that no matter where I have been, or what I have been doing, I know God was there.

I have thought long and hard about what to call this series of blog posts.  “Confessions of a turbulent priest” came to mind, but my life can’t even hold a candle to Thomas Becket, the original ‘turbulent priest’.  I also thought of “A life less ordinary” but again, that has already been taken by someone who has moved mountains rather than my paltry molehills.

In the end, I am going to call it “Crossing the Line” inspired by a song by American Christian band, Superchick.  As I look back, my whole life has been about crossing lines, as were my parents’ lives.  Refusing to be pigeon-holed, refusing to be confined by ‘the norm’, refusing to back down when principle was involved.

As the song says,

‘Try to change the world, they'll think you're out of your mind Revolutions start when someone crosses the line’

Not that I have changed the world in any significant way, but I am proud to have played my small part alongside many others who have been determined to do the same. 

For me, this has been life in all its fullness. (John 10:10) and I thank God for the opportunity to live it.  The song has another lyric which I hold dear.

‘Everybody dies, but not everyone lives!’

Even though I am facing the prospect of a much shorter life than I had imagined, I am proud to say that I have definitely lived.  Despite my failings and inadequacies, I have seen and done things which still bring a smile to my face, or make me pause to reflect.  God has taken my rebellious personality and used it for His Glory and I am truly grateful.

The last thing which confirmed this for me were some of the kind comments which people wrote on my recent Facebook posts about having cancer.

 Sam wrote:

“In my mind’s eye, you're still in training at St Paul's, twenty plus years ago, breaking all the stereotypes of what a prospective vicar should look like as you revved your way to the services on a motorbike & donned in leather & Mel, again breaking stereotypes of what a vicars wife should be, as you walked down the aisle in a plum red wedding dress.

The pair of you have broke from convention times over & consequently have touched & spoken into so so many lives, who otherwise wouldn't have heard of this Jesus dude & all that He is & brings.”

And Charlene (who I have never met outside of Facebook) wrote:

“I was so disgusted with “God speak” of angry-call-themselves Christians, but treat whole groups despicably, when you became my Facebook friend and I felt like there was sanity again in Christendom for me.  And I felt like it was ok again to have a bit of faith - faith and trust in the power of prayer.” 

So thank you Sam, Charlene and so many others who have encouraged me and crossed the line with me over the years.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Radiotherapy, Chemo and God

So my treatment has suddenly moved up a gear.

In addition to the hormone therapy I am receiving, I start 5 days of radiotherapy later this week, and chemotherapy next month.  Like other cancer patients, I am going to have destructive beams and chemicals pumped into my body on a regular basis.  Suddenly, it has all become very real.

The hope is that these treatments will kill enough of the cancer cells to keep everything under control. 

The other hope in my life comes from prayer.  Since my last post, I have been overwhelmed by people saying they will be praying for me, and I am acutely aware that hundreds, if not thousands of people are praying for myself and Mel, Isaac and Iona.

I have to say that I have a chequered history with prayer for healing.

In my teens and twenties, I saw some remarkable answers to prayer.  I saw people healed, physically and emotionally.  I saw heroin addicts come off drugs with little or no side effects in response to prayer, when they had tried many times before and given up, because withdrawal was unbearable. 

Yet when my wife was horrifically injured in 2003 with excruciatingly painful and life threatening injuries, I sat by her hospital bed day after day for months, praying for God to ease her pain – all to no effect.

Coming on top of questions about why God let her accident happen, this daily disappointment left my prayer life scarred for years.  I became unable to reach out to others in prayer, and only began to find my own healing last year, for the scars this left on my soul.  (See Healed to Pray for more.)    As a result of that inner healing, I have felt able to pray for others again in the way I used to.  I have not seen dramatic results, but have been aware of God moving in and through those prayers.

When it comes to praying for myself however, the block still remains.  Why would God answer prayers for me, when he wouldn’t answer my prayers for Mel?

So while I have valued all the messages of prayers from friends around the world, I have found it difficult to believe that God would answer.  My name has been added to prayer lists and candles have been lit in all kinds of Christian communities, from Pentecostal intercessory prayer groups, to Convents and Abbeys, and I am deeply grateful.  I just wish I had more faith that God would answer them.

Yet when I visited Southwark Cathedral last week, around the anniversary of my ordination there, I felt drawn to light a candle and much to my surprise, found myself simply praying “Lord, in your mercy, heal me”.

As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that I don’t know how effective my radio and chemo therapy will be, but I am still going ahead with them.  I hope they will have a beneficial outcome and extend my life, but I don’t know how much good they will do.  Similarly with prayer, I don’t know how God will answer the many prayers being offered on my behalf, but why should I be any less hopeful that they will have a positive effect?

I find myself standing alongside a man who brought his child to Jesus to heal him.  When Jesus said to him that everything is possible for one who believes, he replied, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9)

Not that prayer is predictable, of course.  It does not follow clearly defined rules.  It is not like a political petition, where the greater the number of signatures, the better the chance of being noticed.  In the end we are all subject to God’s will, both active and passive.

I am reading ‘Fear No Evil’ by David Watson at the moment.  It is his story of his struggle and death from cancer at the height of his ministry.  He had seen God heal many people at services he led, and hoped for God’s healing for himself, all to no avail.  John Wimber’s story is not dissimilar.  So even if there seems to be no discernible answer to prayer, I feel that I will be in good company (if a little overshadowed!).

All things considered, I am choosing to be hopeful.

Hopeful in the radio and chemo therapies I will soon be receiving, and hopeful in God for the prayers which are being prayed for me.  They are part and parcel of my treatment and I will embrace them both, with a mixture of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, hope and realism.

So thank you to everyone who is praying for me, and if you have time, please continue to do just that.