March Letter



Dear friends, idle passers-by, and beloved enemies,

Have you heard of the Adirondacks? Until the middle of November last year Bridget and I certainly had not. The Adirondack mountains form a massif in North-Eastern New York, its boundaries corresponding to the perimeter of Adirondack Park, the area where we spent a brief but very warmly convivial few days with our oldest son and his wife a couple of months before Christmas. The weather was wintry in the extreme, but our rented cabin was perfect, and the hillside setting was truly beautiful. Matthew and Elena took a brief but exhilarating morning swim in the freezing waters of a lake at the bottom of our snow-covered garden. We did not. We watched them and marvelled.

Broadly speaking all four of us enjoy variety in our lives, but there are limits. On holiday, if possible, we want our breakfasts to be prepared by the same people in the same place at roughly the same time every morning. On this occasion we were very fortunate. At the bottom of our hill, on Cemetery Road, stood The Southern Adirondack, General Store & Café. Run by Steve and Cheryl, this splendid establishment, the only one of its kind in the immediate area, was stocked with just about everything anyone might need in the way of foodstuffs, practical aids and such bizarre items as a bearskin rug that hung heavily on one wall. The café, or diner, looked very inviting as we entered for our first morning visit, and as we seated ourselves at one of the long trestle tables we noticed that another man was sitting at the table next to us. As we chatted to him we learned that his name was Don, that he had been born in the area, and that he expected to stay there for the rest of his life.
‘So,’ one of us asked, ‘you’ve never been away from New York State?’

Don smiled, and explained in his warm, gentle voice, that he had been in the army for some years and in the course of his military travels had particularly enjoyed visits to England, and warm friendships formed with the people he got to know there.

It was a real pleasure to meet Don, and so good to know that his memories of our country were good ones. We turned to our satisfyingly tasty breakfasts when they arrived, and by the time we polished them off Don had slipped away.

When we asked Cheryl, co-owner of the establishment with her husband Steve, for our bill she smiled and said, ‘You don’t have to pay anything, Don’s already paid for the whole thing.’

Surprising. Charming. Faintly disturbing.

The next morning we discovered Don sitting at a table near the door when we arrived for breakfast. Of course, we thanked him for his unexpected generosity. He simply smiled and nodded in his quiet way, and must have left soon after that, because by the time we asked Cheryl for our bill he had disappeared.

‘No,’ said Cheryl, ‘with an even broader smile than before, ‘Don’s paid this one as well.’

‘Well,’ we replied through our smacked gobs, ‘it’s really, really kind of him, but tomorrow, whatever happens, we’re not going to let him pay.’

We wondered what would happen the next morning. All we knew was that we had the dollars in our pockets and that our new friend was not going deal with the check. We were determined to be tough.

‘Right! Please give us the bill, Cheryl. Don is not going to have anything to do with it.’

‘He doesn’t need to,’ smiled Cheryl, ‘Steve and I are paying for your food this morning.’

We were beginning to like this part of America. The people were amazing. But the level of embarrassment was rising.

Here’s a question. Would you have gone back to that diner the next morning, the last day of our holiday? We had enjoyed three free breakfasts. Could we handle a fourth? We had one more chance to actually part with some money before leaving for the city. We made a decision. We were going to do it. This time we worked out the bill for ourselves, left more than enough money on our table to cover the total, and after a brief but profound expression of gratitude to Steve and Julie, our kind hosts, drove away with a tinge of sadness towards another part of the state where you almost always pay for your own breakfast.

So, what was going on there? Hard to say for sure, but there is one thing that Bridget and I have learned, especially over the last couple of decades. Most people rarely find an opportunity to tell their story, and to believe that they are truly being heard. All of us genuinely warmed to Don. We love people’s stories. We drink them in as travellers drink water in the desert. We don’t have to pretend. Perhaps Don was somehow enjoying and celebrating an inner reunion with a land he had visited and loved at a different time in his life. We shall never know. Nor will we ever know if he actually paid the third bill through Cheryl because he knew we might not accept the gift yet again.

There’s one thing I know. They were lovely people. If ever you get to the Adirondacks drop in to the General Store and Café on Cemetery Road. They do a very good breakfast.

And speaking of genuinely listening when we are spoken to, here’s something that I’ve been trying to put into words for some time. Cue rather typically annoying Christian metaphor.

We need to upgrade our spiritual Sat Navs.

I’m not going to go on about Bridget and I finding our lives changed by the use of a Sat Nav. I’ve written far too much about that benevolent shock already. Suffice it to say that, after years of continually risking divorce through map reading conflict, we suddenly found ourselves being gently steered by a nice lady called Katy through bewildering urban mazes to those churches and halls that are, for some reason, carefully hidden to avoid the danger of being located by itinerant speakers. Many people say they are not really sure how these devices function. I’m not like them. I have not the minutest scrap of a scintilla of a notion how they work. I am just grateful to satellites and NASA scientists and the universe and God and Amazon that we are now able to get from Upper Dicker to Pratts Bottom via Godmanchester without killing each other.

Having said all that, there were certainly times in those early Sat Nav days when we discovered that we had come perilously close to abandoning common sense. Our trusted technological guide would bring us to the bank of a canal, or the edge of a cliff and indicate that, ignoring all sane considerations, we should continue in a straight line, just as Katy’s gentle voice was directing. The fact, ridiculous as it will seem to those who have not experienced this phenomenon, is that on these occasions both of us experienced a momentary, lunatic urge to launch into the abyss. Why? For heaven’s sake, why?

Something to do with a misguided respect for technological authority perhaps? The calm assurance of a familiar voice that is nearly always right? We were never sure.

We are now seriously planning to invest in an upgrade to one of the new-age Sat Navs that are able through wi-fi connection to offer travellers immediate notice of changes, problems, obstacles and all sorts of other things connected with events happening in real time on the route that drivers like us are faithfully following.

Over the last two thousand years the third person of the Trinity has commonly and frequently been replaced by a whole host of alternatives. I think I understand why that happens. When, for whatever reason, God doesn’t seem to be turning up in person, other schemes and initiatives, many of them quite valuable in themselves, can get shoved in to fill the gap. Here is a selection of the ones we’ve come across.

Father, Son and human skills and talents.
Father, Son and an amazing new initiative that’s helped thousands of people.
Father, Son and discipleship courses.
Father, Son and a very attractive presentation.
Father, Son and doing what Jesus would have done.
Father, Son and sensible, considered, prayerful decisions.
Father, Son and randomly sprayed out speeches that sound vaguely prophetic but are actually like those so-called toilet fresheners that fill the air with something worse than the smells they’re supposed to be covering up.

Ironically, another of these is, or can be ‘Father, Son and the Bible as a handbook for life.’

All right. Take it easy. No point getting cross with me before you know what I’m going to say. There is, of course, some truth in the idea of the Bible helping to guide us through our lives, but, to return to my fascinating metaphor, there are some Christians who would argue with Jesus himself about scripture having a greater claim over the course of their lives than he himself does. I’ve met them. They can be impenetrable. I remember talking to one man who was convinced that his recent analysis of the teaching of Jesus indicated clearly that a need he was about to express in prayer would logically qualify to be supplied in full.
‘Could I just ask you something?’ I said.
‘Yes, of course,’ he replied.
‘Okay - well, suppose Jesus was sitting here in the flesh now, on this chair between you and me.’
‘And he said - very nicely, “George, I understand why this prayer is important to you, but the fact is that I cannot give you what you want at this particular time, nor can I explain the reason for my decision.’’ How would you react?’
George furrowed his brows. A puzzled expression appeared on his face.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I would definitely have some questions.’
Christianity has always been hugely enlivened by an awareness that there is actually a real God, alive and active, working with people and situations, being represented here on Mother Earth by the Holy Spirit, who is quite likely to do something on Wednesday that would have been a complete waste of time last Thursday, and may well never be repeated again.

The idea of upgrading our spiritual Sat Navs will seriously disturb some people. Just as we thought we’d got God safely contained in systems and traditions and theories and stuff we’ve carefully worked out, and prisons made of words, up he pops, asking us to do the thing that actually needs doing, and to go in the direction that he chooses. Others will embrace the upgrade, scared and excited at the same time, relieved and liberated by the leadership of the Holy Spirit, who is alive and well, and is the only one who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. Nothing ever is. Nothing ever was. But I wonder how many Christian initiatives, small and magnificently large, have ended up at the bottom of a canal or the foot of a cliff. Worth a thought, isn’t it? That’s all I wanted to say.

Lots of love to everybody,