Friday 8 May 2020

Dear Gwen,

On reading your last letter I am afraid to say a recurrence of my frequent attacks of nostalgia and remembrance has been almost overwhelming.  But don’t worry; this is not a bad thing.  I was a little concerned to read you had once used Tipp-Ex to camouflage a minute chip.  We’re all different, I suppose, as minute or large it’s always salt and vinegar for me!


I’ll come back to your letter in a moment, but I’ve begun to write to you after the two minute silence to commemorate VE Day on 8 May 1945.  I know a lot of parallels are being drawn to our current experiences through the Coronavirus pandemic and what the war generations went through.  There’s certainly a battle raging and the dedication, commitment and the shocking degree of sacrifice offered by those on today’s front line is a source of profound astonishment and awe, mixed together with thankful appreciation and rapturous applause on Thursdays at 8.00 pm and beyond.


I was listening to a man being interviewed who had lost his wife to Covid-19 infection.  They had been married a lifetime and the loss was immense.  He spoke of the help and care that many people had shown him, some of whom were neighbours and yet until now had been almost complete strangers.  As is often the case with those who are overflowing with the wisdom and grace that comes from long years of living life, he made the observation, regardless of these current days, on the inherent kindness of people.


This awareness and appreciation of people’s inherent kindness must surely be one of the key lockdown legacies to hold on to.  There is so much good in the world.  There is so much loving kindness that for me mirrors the steadfast loving kindness and compassion of our heavenly Father.  All these acts of random kindness (ARK – if I remember Morgan Freeman’s quote in his portrayal of God in a film awhile back) will not be forgotten and I trust will help shape our neighbourliness (thinking back again to the Good Samaritan) forever.


Another lockdown legacy for me is an achingly deep understanding of what or more precisely who is really important in my life.  So often we may speak of work-life balance and the problems that result when we get this wrong.  If these weeks (and months) of lockdown teach us nothing else, then this time, this season, is making so many of us reflect on priorities.  One final thought on all of this for now is the recognition of how little control we have on all that happens in our lives.  This isn’t necessarily a depressing realisation.  Rather it is an opportunity again to reset the balance, or to get things back into kilter.  Forget about building bigger barns; focus on the harvest you can achieve.  The Letter of James is wonderfully practical in helping us live our lives.  The opening caveat to all we say and do needs to be ‘if the Lord wills’ (James 4:15).


Returning to the nostalgia evoked in my memory on reading your letter, it may surprise you that your observation on the chaffinch and its scarcity is bound very closely to your choice of poetry by Robert Frost.  The poem ‘Birches’ certainly caught my attention, but not for the reasons you may have in mind.  In our manse front garden there is, as we’ve been told by the tree preservation order, a Himalayan Birch.  It’s a beauty and a frequent point of reference in providing directions to anyone coming to visit.  Now I have mentioned on an earlier letter the super scent of the pittosporum perfume in our garden.  As it turns out the birch is equally overpowering.  However it is not overpowering in this instance, if I have got this right, to the olfactory system (aka noses).  Instead this year there has been a deluge of shed catkins.  After one windy night I stepped out to find car and path covered in all these pollen-filled catkins.  I’ve swept up buckets of them.  This will I know be followed; much to the delight of the car’s paintwork, by a persistent drizzle of sticky sap falling from the canopy of young leaves.


But for me the chaffinch and Robert Frost’s ‘The Pasture’ take me instantly back to wonderful summer holidays spent on the farm.  I am certain, and possibly it’s a North Cornwall term, my grandmother always referred to the chaffinch (I guess with the male of the species in mind) as copper heads.  As for the poem, the opening verse always takes me back when, as a young boy stumbling behind in my uncle’s footsteps, we went down the steep hills to the river to check on the hydram, bringing its steady flow of water uphill to house and water troughs.  It may not be what Robert Frost was picturing, but the poem brings this memory to my mind:

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;

I'll only stop to rake the leaves away

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):

I sha'n't be gone long. — You come too.


I'm going out to fetch the little calf

That's standing by the mother. It's so young

It totters when she licks it with her tongue.

I sha'n't be gone long. — You come too.


I see what you mean about a potential third verse.  How about this:

I’m going out to feed the orphaned lambs;

So vulnerable and fragile on their straw beds.

Their tails wag thankfully as they are drinking.

I sha'n't be gone long. — You come too.

Yes, I agree, best leave it to Robert Frost! What would you write?


This poem brings a cross-infection of nostalgia for me.  I may have read ‘The Pasture’, but my memory is of singing it during my male voice choir days. It is as beautiful sung as it is read. It’s one of a series of seven poems by Robert Frost set to music by Randall Thompson in his composition of seven country songs called ‘Frostiana’.


Amid all these special memories I am also taken back to the Tuesday nights spent at the Crescent Church in Belfast, under the anointed Bible teaching of the late Derick Bingham.  Before becoming a full-time Bible teacher, writer and broadcaster, Derick Bingham was an English teacher at the somewhat amusingly named school Down High.  Possibly from his English teaching background, one Bible study series took a line from Robert Frost’s poem ‘The road not taken’.  It was ‘the road less travelled by’.  I haven’t read what Frost meant by his poem, let alone what others might have seen in their dissection of the text.  What strikes me is the choices we have in our lives; at all the crossroads, junctions, twists and turns we face.  In following Jesus it can often be seen as being countercultural, though possibly less so at this moment in time.  The dual commands to love God and to love our neighbour are at the forefront of our minds.  Yet following Jesus is to choose the narrow way, even the unpopular way for some.  ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’ is both a line from a hymn and a personal testimony.  It is the road less travelled by.  Your letter has again been amazingly timely (a God-incidence once more) for this week I’ve been reflecting on John 14:1-14, as one of this Sunday’s Lectionary readings.  The disciples were struggling to understand all Jesus was doing and saying, but He makes it very clear to them and us.  Jesus said, ‘you know the way to where I am going.’ He might have added, ‘Can’t you see it’s me!’  But Jesus tells us:  ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.’


‘I took the [road] less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’

No turning back, no turning back.

With love in Christ,


Truro Methodist Circuit, Cornwall    |   01872 262907