Thursday, December 14, 2017


A Walk by the River (of Soul-Restoration)

“You need to take time out to de-stress. Go for a walk on a beach. Feel the sand between your toes.” Thus said the doctor to me during a conversation I had as I was sprinting toward the end of a very busy year. I skidded to a halt. She had stopped me in my tracks: “Stress? What? As an Army Chaplain?” “Yes, you have a stressful job.” I’m still in a bit of denial here, but doctor knows best! Well, I suppose I had been very busy, what, with holding down a fulltime job and at the same time writing a graphic novel based on a true story.

More than three months have passed since the doctor told me to take that break. During the intervening period, I have spent many days in hospital on three different occasions. However, none of it was related to stress. It was twice for surgery and once to be treated for a raging kidney infection, morphine included! No walk on a beach. No sand between my toes. Only catheters and cannulas.

One of the plusses of having older brothers is that they have a special affection for their younger siblings. I have two older brothers. They have been giving valuable feedback on my novel – and my health. Should I try to make a blockbuster out of my novel as my publisher was gently suggesting? Would my health adversely suffer from the extra work this would entail? Says my eldest brother,   

“I’m sorry to hear your health is not optimum, and particularly regarding the stress bit… Take the break your doctor is recommending. Wait upon the Lord. What does your Lord want you to do about this [blockbuster novel] option? A touch of Elijah here. Rest, sleep, eat, rest, sleep eat. Tune into the horizon. Wait for that still small voice… Listen to the Lord. He walked away from the crowds. Do nothing without Him. Bivouac, rest, wait for Spirit-touched intuition.

“My love to you brother. Look after yourself, emotionally as well as physically. Even the birds on the branches are imbued by God with the blessed healing instinct to have a bath in a puddle, preen and oil the feathers, enjoy the sun for a while, eat well, fly happily within God-given capacities. No shame in that. Never shame in that. It is fulfilment. It is Ecclesiastes. God is the only audience, the only readership, whose endorsement ultimately matters.” – Fergie.

“Listen to the Lord. He walked away from the crowds.” Wow! Jesus sought no adulating crowds. He sought no man’s praise! Often I’ve sung the following words of Be Thou My Vision, that ancient Irish hymn that speaks to the Celt in me:

“Riches I need not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.” (Translation by Mary Byrne.)

“Crowds of people came to hear Him and to be healed of their sickness. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke 5:15b-16. (See also Matthew 14:13; Mark 1:35; 6:45-46; Luke 22:41 etc.)

Far from the Madding Crowd was a popular Thomas Hardy novel written in 1874 and turned into a movie in 1915; 1967; 1998 and 2015. Hardy borrowed his book’s title from the 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

“Far from the Madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray,
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.” – Thomas Gray.

If Jesus needed to retreat from the frenzied crowds, then so do I – so do we all. But separately of course and not together! We need time to reflect; time to think; time to de-stress; time to pray.

I’ve had three general anaesthetics this year. Each time, before they put me under, I would pray and try to think of Bible verses that applied to my situation. Invariably the versified form of Psalm 23, The Lord’s My Shepherd would get stuck in my head, especially the fourth stanza which I would sing in my head to the tune Crimond:

“Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill:
For Thou art with me; And Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.” – Stanza 4, Psalm 23, The Psalms and Church Hymnary (Revised Edition) 1927.

“Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale…” They had pumped me full of morphine and I watched the ceiling lights flash by as they wheeled me on a gurney into the Intensive Care Unit. “What? Morphine. ICU? Wasn’t my dad when he was dying pumped full of morphine in an Intensive Care Unit?” I didn’t want to be alone, to die alone. I wanted my wife and family, my grandchildren at my bedside, just as it was for my dad. However, I was stressing about nothing. I was in the ICU, not because I was dying, but because there was nowhere else to put me at that time. Next morning they moved me to another room two floors above. Phew!

Meanwhile, back to my “blockbuster” novel. My second eldest brother Stuart had just finished reading it. Says Stuart:

“Obviously a mega-work, with so many strands of human experience; of societal development with brutality always in the next room to genteel parlour chit-chat. What is truth, the book demands, and yet more, Who is Truth? I'm off for a walk along the River Kelvin to think about this again.”

The River Kelvin is in Glasgow, The Dear Green Place, whose motto is, “Let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of Thy Word and praising Thy name.” Shortened to Let Glasgow Flourish and stamped on Glasgow’s coat of arms with its bell, tree, bird and fish. The motto was an inscription on a bell that was made in 1637 for the Tron Kirk, which church Stuart attended. Stuart was going for a walk along the Kelvin to think.

As I thought about Stuart walking along the banks of the River Kelvin I couldn’t help but also think of the words of a song by Hue and Cry called Mother Glasgow. It sums up the Protestant/Catholic sectarianism that exists in Glasgow, albeit to a much lesser extent than when I lived and worked in its environs. The song speaks of having a dander, i.e., a wee walk with Glasgow’s patron saint, St. Mungo (or Kentigern):

“Mother Glasgow’s succour is perpetual
Nestling the Billy and the Tim
I dreamt I took a dander with St. Mungo
To try to catch a fish that couldnae swim
And the tree
And the fish
And the bird
And the bell
Let Glasgow flourish" – Hue and Cry (1989)

Stuart was not trying to catch a fish that couldn’t swim. Nor was he walking with St. Mungo. He was needing somewhere quiet to go, somewhere where he could think. The banks of the River Kelvin fitted the bill.

Even Scotland’s national bard spent contemplatory time on the banks of a river as attested to by his poem Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon:

“Oft hae I roved by bonnie Doon’
To see the rose and woodbine twine
And ilka bird sang o’ its love
And fondly sae did I o’ mine.” – Robert Burns.

We all need to retreat from the hurly-burly from time to time, far from the madding crowd. What better place than the River Kelvin in Glasgow The Dear Green Place? In solitude we walk with you Stuart, with you in spirit, as you dander, not with St. Mungo, but with the Lord.

“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want,
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.” – Stanza 2, Psalm 23, The Psalms and Church Hymnary (Revised Edition) 1927.

What happens at “the quiet waters by”? The start of the very next verse says, “My soul He doth restore again…” Soul-restoration! That’s what a quiet walk beside a river can get you – soul-restoration. It’s a place where we can reflect, a place where we can recalibrate,

“By Babel’s streams we sat and wept,
When Sion we thought on.
In midst thereof we hang’d our harps
The willow-trees upon…
O how the Lord’s song shall we sing
Within a foreign land?
If thee, Jerus’lem, I forget,
Skill part from my right hand.” – from Psalm 137, The Psalms and Church Hymnary (Revised Edition) 1927.

And here’s Burns again with a faint echo of the exile's pain,

“Ye banks an braes o’ bonnie Doon
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chaunt, ye little birds
And I sae weary full o’ care?
Ye’ll break my heart, ye warbling bird
That wanton’s thro’ the flowering thorn
Ye mind me o’ departed joys
Departed never to return.” – Robert Burns.

Departed joys? The hymnist William Cowper in his hymn O For a Closer Walk with God spoke of these:

“Return, O Holy Dove! Return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.” – Hymn 455, The Psalms and Church Hymnary (Revised Edition) 1927.

It was while He was by a river, the River Jordan that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus “Jesus also was baptised; and while He prayed the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him…” Luke 3:22b.

Meanwhile back with Stuart by the River Kelvin, “He leadeth me the quiet waters by.” Yes, the noise of the city gets drowned out by the quiet of the river. Wars in the breast cease when the Prince of Peace walks beside you. We beat our hate into love upon the anvil of His compassion. There our red hot anger gets turned into mercy by the hammer of His Word.
Lord Jesus be near me too. “My soul He doth restore again.” Soul-restoration!

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