Thursday, 22 January 2015

Two dates and a dash

I have this one life, and I like it.

I like being alive. I know how fortunate I am to live where I do, how I do, with the people I do, and have the freedom to do what I do. I know that many, many people don't have any of the things that I take for granted. I could have been born in a part of Africa where I had to walk miles for water, and when I found it, it was dirty. I could have been brought up in a place where life expectancy is so short that I'd have died before reaching the grand old age of forty-four. I might have been in Iraq, fleeing for my life because of my faith, or terrorised in Nigeria, or crushed, uneducated and oppressed just because I'm a woman in Iran or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.

I try to grasp these truths and respond with gratitude and humility and to make the most of the opportunities that I have.

I am an introspective kind of person; definitely an over-thinker on occasion. I find myself spending time mulling over things like this - looking around the world and wondering what sort of person I might be if I had been born in Gaza, or in China, or Afghanistan. Or if I'd been in Jerusalem around 33AD, or in Stalin's Russia, or a Jew in Nazi Germany. What would life have looked like? What would it have made me?

Perhaps that's a completely different thing.

I have been born now, into this world, in Derbyshire in the UK and I have the life that I have. I didn't have anything to do with it - I had no choice in where and when I came along.

What even to call it, the fact that I have been born with so many advantages in nutrition, healthcare, education, freedom?  To say that I'm fortunate is inadequate as 'luck' or 'fortune' have connotations of chance and randomness about them, and I believe that God put me here, now, and I know that He doesn't make mistakes. There's nothing accidental about my birth or the circumstances surrounding them. I am also unsure about 'blessing', as I know that God loves those children trekking miles for water, and He loves the people in the vast prisons of North Korea, and He loves them no less than He loves me. I find it hard to believe that the God I know would withhold treasure from one of His children while giving so richly to others. The sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous alike, as they say... and sometimes when I see the simple joy of the impoverished African church in comparison with the apathy and discontent of many Western Christians, I wonder who is more blessed?

Opportunities and so-called accidents of birth aside, I am alive. I have been given the gift of a life - but I don't know how long it will be.

I'm checking the time and the date on my watch, now, and I will never have this moment again. Pff. There, it's gone. And another, and another.

Someone said that life was just two dates and a dash. I want to make the most of that dash.

I get to choose how I spend this life that I have. I make a myriad of choices every day; some that shape my life in a tiny way:

 - Scrambled eggs, or an omelette?  This shirt or that one?

Some that have a more profound impact:

 - Should I commit myself to writing this book, even if it means saying no to other things?  I am out of breath after walking up the stairs; should I do something about that?

Some that affect people around me:

 - Should I offer my help?  Should I stand up for that person?

Some that might have consequences that I may never know about:

 - Can I be bothered to pray for him/her?  Shall I send that letter? 

Split second decisions that can have huge effects:

 - Shall I respond angrily, or calmly?  Shall I pass on that piece of gossip?

I spend my days, and once spent, I don't get them back. A morning spent on Facebook, idly refreshing the page to see what gems appear on my feed next, or a morning spent reading God's word and asking Him what He'd like to say to me. An online quiz entitled, 'Which Tyne & Wear Metro Station Are You?' versus a two way conversation with the Creator of the universe.  Why on earth would anyone opt for the former?

(I am Central Station, apparently. Always preoccupied and in a hurry but more relaxed at weekends. See? That was worth doing, wasn't it?)

I was given a beautiful silver pendant a few years ago with a quotation from Jane Austen's 'A Prayer for Sunday':
"Teach us ... that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes..."
The importance of every day. I've heard it said that what you do in an average day is what you do in an average week, or an average year. Today matters. This moment matters. I won't have another chance to do today better than I am doing it right now.

It's worth putting the Jane Austen quote in its context because she made this exact point:
"Father of Heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer. Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable. Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past."
Amen to that. Better use indeed. I doubt whether God was overly impressed that I took two minutes to establish which Tyne & Wear Metro Station I am most like.

It's not all about worthiness, though. I can't live a momentous life every minute. What am I doing right now?  I need to work and I need to play because that's how I was made. I cannot be 'on' all the time. It's about being aware, it seems to me. About being wise, not wasting, making good choices. Doing what I do for the glory of God, even if it's defrosting the freezer or watching my daughter swim. I can live my life in a thoughtful way, or I can fritter it away aimlessly.

I have been amazed and distressed in the last six months or so to hear that so many of my friends and acquaintances have been ill. I can think of ... eight people right around me now who are just beginning, in the middle of, or coming to an end of a course of chemotherapy for various cancers, along with a couple of people celebrating the end of such a chapter in their lives, and someone for whom the treatment did not work. I passed church this morning and noticed that it was set out for a funeral later today.

It doesn't last forever, this life of ours, and we don't know when that second date is.

She lived from this date - that date.

I want to make the most of that dash. It's my life.

At Christmas we had family staying with us for a few days and we ate, drank and laughed. On several occasions we laughed until we cried, and I have a few photos that can start me off again. Laughter is a wonderful, exhilarating, healing thing.  Late on Boxing Day the snow began to fall and the children dashed outside in excitement to roll about in it, throw it at each other and squeal with delight in the wonderland. I stayed inside for a while, thinking only of the difficulties and dangers of driving in the snow, the forecast that temperatures were dropping and the fallen snow would freeze and all the ominous implications. Then I realised that I was indoors feeling grumpy and they were outside shouting with joy.

I put my coat on and my boots and went to join them. Down the road the neighbours were out helping stranded motorists on the main road and we talked, pushed cars, scooped snow and we laughed.

Its all about choices. Little ones and big ones. Too often I only see the choice I didn't make in my rear view mirror.

People are dying in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Africa. Bad things are happening to people who deserve it no more than I do. People are writing heartbreaking blog posts on how it feels to live when terminally ill - and their loved ones are adding the post-scripts.

When I hear of a ten year old girl strapped with explosives and sent into a crowd, or someone dying of Ebola, cut off from their family, or a friend diagnosed with a tumour, it hurts my heart. No man is an island, remember - we are all part of the main* - and pain and suffering affect us all. But for me, safe in my kitchen, coffee and the internet on hand, all the comforts that I am used to, what should I do?

I have to live life. I have a responsibility to.

I have to try in my limited, complacent western way to grasp what I have been given and make the most of it. Lose the apathy; don't let it slip away.

To laugh and weep and feel and learn and celebrate and sing and love and grieve and see and ask and listen and rest and give and receive and grow.

There's a time for each of these things and so much more.

Notice what there is to be noticed, write it down, because that's what I do.

A million stars on a cold, cold night, whorls of frost on top of the car, a rainbow, the feel of my daughter's hand in mine.

Greenfinches on the bird feeder, an aloe vera plant that gave birth to no less than thirteen smaller plants, a pigeon the size of a football weighing down a branch of the elderly apple tree.

The sunrise - another day that nobody promised me, to add to my collection.

Notice and give thanks. Don't let them just slip away.

Psalm 90:12 tells us that an awareness of the brevity of life makes one wise:
'Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.'
After this life, there is something much better. That must be a comfort for those whose time on earth is full of pain and suffering, and for me it puts things in perspective on the days when my troubles seem big and complicated, but we are here to live until we die. To have a rich life full of the things that we are given to enjoy.  I know that I cannot do all the things I'd love to do but I must cut my coat according to my cloth. I have what I need to live the life I am supposed to live.

I want to live my life, not just watch it passively as it slips away. Carpe diem, I think. While I'm alive - live.

I want to make the most of that dash.

* John Donne, Meditation XVII 'No man is an island...'


  1. Hi Helen - I loved reading this as so much of it resonated with how I feel. Since I had an "incident" with my right knee in early October, I have been much less mobile, and I have been questioning God about what is happening in my life. He has been reminding me that HE is the source of my life and HE is the one I should be spending time with.

    I keep hearing this from different quarters and I don't think it is a coincidence that I have read this today. God keeps nudging me and I keep walking away and doing my own thing. I don't actually do those sorts of quizzes on Facebook, but I do "waste" time on there and God knows that.

    So thank you for being so honest and reminding me that God needs to be the first in my life rather than friends on FB - some of whom I have never even met. I think one of the problems these days is that we have such quick access to the internet, both on our phones and computers and we feel that we need to do things immediately - I too love the life I live - being retired, my time is my own - or is it??

    Thank you for making me think and be blessed this week whatever you are doing and as you are blessed, I pray that you will bless others.

    With love

    Maureen xx

    1. Thanks, Maureen. It gets complicated because Facebook can be a real blessing; I have found several deep friendships among people that I know only on social media - it doesn't have to be superficial and time-wasting. However, I sometimes get to the point where I can spend ages doing the most trivial things because I can't get my head in the right place to get on with the important things!
      Thanks for reading and commenting - so reassuring to know that I'm not alone. x


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