Lasting relationships are not lucky or unlucky

In the last blog, I left a mystery. What is it that Alison and I have in common which is odd and possibly unique?

Here’s the answer.

I was five years old, and playing with my older brother Alan in our front garden. Mum told us to stay there while she talked to the lady at the house opposite. Alan and I chased each other – the front garden was very small – I didn’t want to be caught any more – I unlatched the gate and ran to the safety of mum.

Except I never got there. All I remember was glimpsing something coming fast towards me. My mum remembered a screech of brakes, a massive thud, and seeing her son in the air, landing twenty feet down the road. I was conscious, so she got me to my feet and helped me indoors. (Moving someone just hit by a car isn’t an example to follow!) I was put to bed, and a doctor was called. Apparently all my ‘vitals’ were sound, but I was kept in bed for two days. The utterly blameless car driver returned the day after the accident to see how I was, and left relieved that I was well.

Alison was five years old. She was playing in the front garden, while her mum was across the street talking with a neighbour. Alison wanted to be with her mum, so unlatched her gate, and ran across the road.

And never got there. Her mum heard the bang, turned, saw Alison bouncing on the front of the car before being pitched forward down the road. Alison was helped up, taken into the house, perched on the kitchen worktop, and bumps and scrapes cleaned. Alison doesn’t remember a doctor being called but, thankfully, she was perfectly fine.

So I was five and run down by a car, and Alison was five and run down by a car. If we lived in the same town, you might think there was a crazy driver targeting five-year-olds. But those accidents were 400 miles apart. We grew up in very different places, but met, married, and eventually discovered we had nearly identical accidents when we were five. That may not be unique, but is highly unusual.

What is also unusual today is for relationships to last long-term. The divorce rate in both the UK and the USA is heading towards 50%, and a high percentage of unmarried couples also don’t stay together for as long as they first planned.

I’ve heard many talk of being either ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ in marriage, as if there’s a marriage lottery where chance decides if you win or lose. It really isn’t that simple. Certainly, you should make a wise choice, but there are also important beliefs, attitudes, principles, practices which determine how a relationship will go. I shared two of those in the last blog – commitment and dependency – and, in a moment, I’ll add two more. (And another two next week.)

One more thing before launching out. I believe almost every relationship can work out well, but that requires willing people. I’ll explain. Early on as a pastor, I hurried to meet with Lauren who’d walked out on husband Bernard the previous day. I never got the chance to share my good advice. As soon as I began talking about healing the marriage, Lauren said ‘I don’t want it healed. I don’t love Bernard any more’. And though we talked for longer, that was Lauren’s position and nothing I said or Bernard said could change that. She was determined to go her own way.

Three scenarios, therefore:

  • A troubled relationship can be restored when both want it.
  • A troubled relationship will likely dissolve when neither wants it.
  • A troubled relationship is also likely to be lost if only one wants it restored.

So no-one should think ‘If only I’d done more my relationship would have lasted’. Where two are willing to work at it, there’s an excellent chance. But if one won’t try, nothing the other does will compensate. That’s sad, but reality.

All that said, here we go with two more important principles for a lasting relationship.  

Sharing – being a couple, not two individuals

Chris and Janice’s marriage didn’t survive because Chris had an eccentric idea of what sharing meant. Half of the furniture was his, and half Janice’s. Half of the space on a window shelf was where he put his things, and the other half was where Janice put hers. Half the cups and mugs were his, half hers. He washed half the front steps of their house, and Janice should wash the other half. I don’t know if Chris thought half the TV screen was his, and half Janice’s, but he likely believed half the time he could watch his programmes and half the time Janice could watch hers.

Chris had no concept of everything belonging to both of them. For him, it all came under a Chris heading or a Janice heading. I tried to help him see how a deep relationship meant just one heading with both their names, but he couldn’t compute that. Janice found his rigidity intolerable, and the marriage ended.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for sharing. What matters is they think as a couple, and work that out in ways mutually comfortable. So, for example, Alison and I have never thought of having personal money or personal property. What we have is ‘ours’. When our children were very young, Alison’s full-time employment centred on the home. In later years she earned a wage. But nothing changed regarding money. When either of us thought we should buy something exceptional, we discussed it and agreed a way forward. It worked, and still does. Others will have their own ways, and that’s fine too providing both are content.

Intrinsic to what I’ve just written is openness and honesty. At one time I longed to start a club to train people in advanced motorcycling. (If you read the last blog, you’ll know my path to being an ‘advanced motorcyclist’ was rocky to say the least, but I got there.) But I couldn’t do that with the underpowered bike I was riding. My eyes were set on a 900cc Yamaha. Alison studied our annual budget. The unwelcome news was that we simply didn’t have the money for the Yamaha. I was disappointed but accepted that. But a month or two later, Alison said, ‘I’ve redone the budget, and if we make some changes there’s enough for the motorbike’. I asked lots of questions. I didn’t want the wrong kind of sacrifices just so I could have a 900cc motorbike. Alison showed me the figures, reassured me, and the Yamaha 900cc was bought. (A good investment – that was more than 30 years ago and I still have the bike.)

Three things made that possible – communication, honesty and flexibility. Communication – we talked about the situation. Honesty – both about the desirability of the purchase and the reality of the budget. Flexibility – I would have accepted a negative decision, but Alison made the effort to reorganise our finances to make the new bike possible.

Sharing feelings, dreams, fears, possessions, money all centre on seeing yourselves as one couple. Get that right, and most things fall into place.

Forgiveness – finding a way to move forward

A and B are a couple. For A never to wrong B, and for B never to wrong A, either A and B must both be perfect, or A’s and B’s relationship must be entirely bland and boring. Since all relationships exist between imperfect people, the first of these isn’t possible. And, since two people will inevitably pull in different directions sometimes, the second isn’t possible.

So we have to be able to forgive each other.

This isn’t the place for a comprehensive thesis on forgiveness. But I have preached and counselled about forgiveness for decades, so I’ll set down three key statements.

Forgiveness isn’t only what we need to give another, it’s what we need ourselves.

Larry has plunged himself and Lizzie into debt. He’d assured Lizzie he was on top of their finances, and they could afford the foreign holiday, the big screen TV, the second car, the bikes for the kids. But, while rummaging in a drawer, Lizzie found letters making final demands for payment, and threats of court action against them. Confronted, Larry admitted he’d been weak and greedy, hoping somehow it would all work out. But it hadn’t.

Lizzie, a disciplined and organised person, resents Larry’s folly. How can she forgive recklessness which has jeopardised their financial future? And then she remembers how, last week, she ranted at one of their children’s teachers, and claimed their daughter’s poor exam marks must be the result of incompetent teaching. But once she got home, she calmed down, realised her allegations were unfounded, and she was venting her own guilt and disappointment on an easy target. She’d have to apologise and ask forgiveness.

So, just as Lizzie is thinking that Larry is in the wrong, she realises she’s also in the wrong, albeit in a different way. Larry needs forgiveness; Lizzie needs forgiveness. Neither is perfect. ‘We are all sinners’ says the Bible (Romans 3:23). We need forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, and need to give forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us.

Forgiveness isn’t ignoring a wrong, but an essential step towards putting things right.

I learned violin from ages seven to twelve, and played in concerts organised by the violin teacher, Mrs Black. One evening we played in a village community hall, and though we were all string players one piece needed the sound of a church bell striking eight times. I was handed a musical triangle, and at the right moment I was to solemnly strike the sound of the bell. I got it spectacularly wrong. When the pause came in the music, I began with firm strikes on the triangle: BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) – and then, realising I was going far too slowly, I quickened my bonging – BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG. Three slow strikes, five super fast strikes – the strangest church bell ever. The concert finished, and what Mrs Black said to me was … absolutely nothing. She didn’t speak to me at all. But she did bring it up at the next rehearsal, scolding me in front of others in the orchestra. And my relationship with Mrs Black never recovered.

I knew I’d messed up. A private word would have sorted it out, and I’d have played in that orchestra under Mrs Black’s leadership for years more. Instead I left.

There’s no need to pretend a wrong hasn’t been done, but forgiveness is a vital early step to restoring a relationship.

Forgiveness is not only a gift for the other, but one for yourself.

Jenny’s relationship with Martin was completely broken. That wasn’t surprising because she only found out Martin was having an affair with her best friend when Martin announced he was leaving. For months Jenny was in a state of shock, then gradually began to get life together again for herself and their two children. Around then I got to know her, and Jenny was very clear she could never forgive Martin for his betrayal.

The bitterness I heard in Jenny’s voice was unmistakeable and understandable. We talked over a lengthy period, and she accepted she hadn’t moved past the pain Martin had caused. She wasn’t sure she ever could. I reassured her it was possible. Then one day she told me she wanted to forgive him.

‘But I can’t feel anything but sadness and anger,’ she said.

‘Okay, I recognise that. But keep acknowledging you want to forgive even though you don’t feel forgiving.’

And that’s what she did. Over time, Jenny’s desire to forgive became a decision to forgive. And that’s when healing began, the bitterness eased, and a seed of trust was planted. That seed grew, and after some years she met Jack who was a wonderfully steady, loving man. Jenny responded to his love, they got married, and last I knew they were enjoying years of great happiness.

Every story won’t be like that. But the principle is sound: forgiving someone isn’t just a gift for them, it’s also a gift you give yourself.

That’s almost where I’m ending on this theme of lasting relationships. There’ll be two more important principles in the next blog. Please join me for that.

But finally, there’s one more factor that Alison and I have in common.

I left home aged 16 to become a trainee journalist with Scotland’s premier quality newspaper. Two years later I became a Christian, and soon sensed a new direction for my life. But I needed more qualifications for admission to university, which added another two years before I could enrol at the University of Edinburgh.

Alison finished school at age 18 with great qualifications for university, except that her university of choice was revamping the course she wanted to study and enrolling no-one that year. Rather than go anywhere else, Alison deferred her application and meanwhile searched for work. She lasted three weeks in a cigarette lighter factory, after which she felt so brain dead she resigned. Instead she worked the rest of the year as a checkout operator with the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. The work wasn’t exciting, but she enjoyed meeting customers, especially those who made a deliberate choice to bring their purchases to her checkout. Then her year was over, and she enrolled at (you’ve guessed) the University of Edinburgh.

Lots of factors could have been different about when and where each of us went to university. But they were what they were. We enrolled at the same time, met three weeks later, and so it all began… It must have been meant.

How a motorcycle crash changed my life (but not in the way you think)

I was 21 and at last had a motorcycle. Back then you could ride anything up to 250cc with only a learner’s licence. I’d found the money and bought a new Honda CB175.

My CB175 was a beautiful gold colour, electric start, 4-stroke engine, five-speed gearbox, dual exhausts. It accelerated fast, and had power to spare for overtakes on open roads. Bikers would call it ‘naked’ (no screen) so I nearly froze on cold days, but otherwise it was a thrill to ride. I loved it.

Then I crashed it after just five days.

I’d set off mid evening to ride out into countryside to the west of Edinburgh. Traffic was light, the road was wide. Up ahead I saw a tight bend to the right. No problem. I eased off on the throttle, and pulled the left brake lever to slow down gently. Except that lever wasn’t the rear brake. On everything I’d ridden before it was, but on a grown up motorbike it’s the clutch lever. Suddenly, instead of the engine slowing the bike, I’d ‘released’ it and speeded up. I reached the bend going far too fast. Half way round I ran out of road and hit the kerb at about 40 mph.

The next thing I remember was hearing voices. They were coming from all around me, and I realised I must be lying on the ground. Someone said, ‘I don’t know what happened. He just hit the side of the road and went flying in the air’. I began to stir, and another bystander asked how I felt. I mumbled something about being all right, though I’d no idea if that was true. There were no shooting pains, so I staggered to my feet (a very bad thing to do without being assessed by a paramedic), removed my crash helmet, assured my small audience that I’d be okay, and gradually they drifted away.

Right then I was more concerned about the bike than myself. It was on the grass verge several yards away, looking sadly crumpled. The front wheel and the handlebars were seriously out of shape, so there was no way I could ride it. I pushed the bike to a safe place and caught a bus home.

My flat was up two sets of stairs, and every step hurt. Once inside, I got a good look at myself. No bones were broken, but my neck was stiff, my arms bruised and gently bleeding, skin scraped away on both legs with grit embedded in the wounds. Since I’d likely somersaulted through the air, that wasn’t too bad.

I’d no idea how to sort myself out, so I phoned a friend. She said she’d come immediately, and arrived with cotton wool and antiseptic. She filled a bowl with warm water and gently bathed the areas where the skin was broken and eased the road dirt out. That evening, more than ever before, I realised what a good friend she was and, actually, much more than a friend. I was grateful for her tender loving care. So grateful I married her and Alison has kept blessing me with her tender loving care for decades since. I’m not glad about the motorcycle crash, but very glad it helped me realise who my life companion should be.

I have crashed more motorcycles since, but I promise it’s not been to keep earning Alison’s care. So have there been foundational beliefs and principles that have sustained our relationship down the years?

I’ve identified six, but four of them will be next week’s blog (when I’ll also tell you what Alison and I have in common that is not only odd but perhaps makes us completely unique).

You may be surprised that ‘love’ isn’t in my list, even though it has been present daily in our marriage. It’s not listed because love is like a foundation on which you build, and the principles I’ll list rest on the foundation of love but, for want of a better phrase, they’re the next level up. Besides, if I was even to try to describe love I’d need space for at least another million words.

Also, I’m acutely aware that many don’t have a life companion. So, knowing what I’ll be writing about, if the rest of this blog could be unhelpful for you please feel free to stop now. I have no wish to cause anyone pain.

So, here are the first two things Alison and I have found super-important.


Years ago, I spent two weeks with a church in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles, and got to know the young adults there. One evening, after all the pizza had been eaten, we started talking about relationships and I was asked, ‘Alistair, what does “commitment” mean? We don’t understand it.’

I knew that none of the group were currently married (some had been), and many of them had lived through the divorce of their parents. Perhaps their backgrounds explained the question.

They were all dedicated movie watchers (we weren’t far from Hollywood), and many films included the romantic line ‘I have feelings for you…’ So I began with that concept of love, and explained that of course love involves feelings, but that can’t be all. Lasting love isn’t just a feeling but a decision. It’s the deep and serious decision to love someone through good times and bad times no matter what. I quoted a song by Don Francisco (a Christian musician) in which the dominant line is: Love is not a feeling it’s an act of your will.

In other words, I told them, to love someone is a choice, one of the toughest but most wonderful choices you can ever make. That’s what commitment means.

It’s something I learned from my father. Mum died when she was 55, and years later Dad remarried. He and Anne enjoyed a good relationship, but then Anne had a stroke which left her almost unable to walk or do much. She plunged into a deep depression. For two years Dad did everything to care for her at home, but his health declined and his doctor told him Anne must go into care. Very reluctantly, Dad eventually agreed. But Anne became even more depressed and took out her frustration on Dad. Yet he visited every day. Anne was his wife, and, though every visit hurt, he cared and never stopped going, never stopped listening, never stopped being a faithful husband. When Anne died, Dad grieved deeply.

I saw and will never forget my Dad’s model of commitment. And it’s the no-matter-what-happens commitment to each other which has been a bedrock of our relationship.  


I also learned something about dependency from my Dad during the one and only ‘relationship’ conversation I ever had with him.

Not long after my parents celebrated 25 years of marriage I asked Dad a question: ‘So, has the love you and Mum have for each other changed from when you were first married?’ My Dad was the strong, silent type when it concerned personal feelings, and, in any case, he couldn’t have had a ready answer to a question like that. So, there was silence. He was thinking.

Then he spoke. ‘When you’re first married, you’re new to each other. You know you love each other, but now you’re building a life together. The situation is different after 25 years. Yes, love is still there, but now your lives are tied together. You share everything important. Your Mum and I depend on each other for everything. Dependency is right at the heart of the relationship.’

My parents’ lives had become interwoven. I understand some people don’t think of that as ‘healthy’, but my Mum and Dad both found it important and satisfying. They didn’t think of themselves as two single people but as one intertwined couple.

And that’s why Dad felt tragically alone and helpless when Mum died four years later. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t boil a potato or scramble eggs. He’d lost the person with whom he shared everything, the one with whom he’d raised two sons, the one he’d talked to about small and big things, the one from whom he got advice, or with whom he shared anxieties and aspirations. My brother and I did all we could for Dad at that time. And he appreciated that. But he’d lost the person above all others on whom he depended.

Alison and I also know what it means to need each other. It’s not just a longing; it’s feeling your life depends on the other.

For me it was during dark months of depression. I saw no value in anything I’d done, and no future worth living for. I’d lie awake through the night terrified of facing another day. At the worst of moments I’d reach across the bed for Alison’s hand, and she’d take it and hold on to me. She was there. And she’d be there when morning came, and there through that next day, and the one after, and the one after… I depended on her and survived.

Alison’s dark months came after a terrible accident. Workers were installing super-heavy office furniture in our home in America. A heavy unit was dislodged, and fell on Alison’s back. She was rushed to hospital – scans showed broken vertebrae – fragments of bone were now dangerously near her spinal cord – eventually there had to be an operation. Alison was on the operating table for nine hours while they took bone from a rib, reshaped it in her back, and built a titanium cage to support it. For months Alison was disabled and in severe pain. Movement was greatly impaired. She needed help to walk, to climb stairs, to get to the bathroom. She couldn’t stand to shower herself so we bought a shower chair on which she sat while I sprayed water over her. And every day and every night the pain was intense, with no guarantee it would ever be better. I gave her as much practical help as I could, but maybe the greatest thing I gave was hope. Over and over I told her that this would pass, and a new normal would come by Christmas. She clung onto those words. And they came true. At Christmas she wasn’t free of pain or able to do all she wanted, but she was much better than before. It was the beginning of a new normal. Today that new normal is a good normal, which includes walking the dogs and spending hours tending to our garden. I couldn’t heal Alison’s body, but I could help her hope for better days ahead. She believed me – trusted me – depended on me – and we got there.

We keep getting there every day. Our lives are no more free of problems, puzzles and pains than anyone else’s. So we still hold hands, share our struggles, and draw strength from each other. Jesus said ‘the two will become one’ (Matthew 19:5) and we’ve found that as ‘one’ we’re stronger than the two we used to be. Dependency can be a good thing.

That’s enough for this blog!

I’ve four more bedrock principles for lasting relationships still to share. But, if I wrote only a sentence or two about each I couldn’t begin to do them justice. And, if I wrote as much as each deserved, this blog would be so long no-one would ever read it!

So, those principles will be at the heart of the next ‘Occasionally wise’ blog. Please join me when it’s posted. And, as promised, I’ll also tell you the oddest of things Alison and I have in common – and it’s not that the first four letters of our names are the same; it’s much stranger than that!

How we caused a plague of frogs

My wife, Alison, could be called a batrachophile, or a ranidaphile or, more comprehensibly, a frogophile. They’re all terms (somewhat made-up) for a lover of frogs. Alison doesn’t quite love frogs. She’s not into kissing them hoping they’ll change into a handsome prince. But she likes them enough that if we’re out for a late evening walk and she sees a frog sitting on the footpath or the road, she’ll hurry over to pick it up and make it safe before it’s flattened. (Then she’ll expect me to hold her hand again. That’s a test of love.)

So, when I dug the beginnings of a pond in our back garden, and it rained, and our clay soil didn’t let the water drain, and the frogs filled it with frog spawn, Alison called a halt on my construction work. ‘You can’t do any more for now. You mustn’t disturb the frogs.’ Therefore I began work on a second pond, so that eventually I could move the frogs to a new home and finish the first pond.

Finally both ponds were built and the frogs and Alison were happy. Except we now had a lot of frogs. So much so that when Alison mowed our grass I had to walk in front of the lawnmower and shuffle my feet from side to side in case the whirling blades decapitated a frog. However, most frogs weren’t hiding in the grass waiting to die. They went roaming. One evening our doorbell rang. I answered, and one of our neighbours stood there holding two bulging plastic bags. He held out the bags, saying ‘I believe these are yours’, and walked off. I looked inside. Each bag was filled with wriggling frogs. So, you know you have a plague of frogs when special measures are needed before cutting the grass, and when neighbours carry bags of frogs back to your door.

That’s when I suggested we should have fish in our larger pond. I thought gazing at fish swimming lazily in our pond would be relaxing. But my frog-loving Alison saw a problem: ‘Fish will eat the tadpoles’.

I’m not someone who takes every statement for granted. ‘Maybe fish actually don’t eat tadpoles’, I thought. So I searched the internet and found there were several organisations dedicated to preserving frogs. I called one of them, and explained I wanted fish for our pond but my wife said they’d eat the tadpoles, but surely that wasn’t true. The delightful lady who’d answered the phone hesitated, perhaps deciding if I needed marriage advice or frog advice.

Then she uttered the words I didn’t want to hear: ‘Your wife is right. In general, fish will eat any food they can get in their mouths, which will certainly include tadpoles.’

‘Really?’ I said, ‘But lots of people have fish…’

‘Yes, but then they don’t have tadpoles.’

Thwarted. But my frog-preserving-advisor wasn’t quite finished.

‘I don’t know if I should be telling you this…’ she continued slowly. ‘But, out in the wild, only about ten out of every thousand tadpoles ever survive to become frogs. If you protect tadpoles from all predators, you’ll be overrun with frogs.’

Yes! I reported back to Alison what I’d heard from an official source, and the idea of fish with very small mouths got onto the agenda. (I’ll report on the outcome later.)

It was only later that I grasped a principle illustrated by our plague of frogs: What you don’t control may soon control you. What you don’t get on top of may one day get on top of you.

Here are some examples I’ve seen.

Clutter    I’ve visited people whose homes were hard to navigate. There was ‘stuff’ everywhere. In Fred’s house, newspapers and magazines were heaped on almost every flat surface: on counter tops, tables, ledges, chairs, sofas, and, of course, on the floor. Fred lifted a pile off a chair for me, and I followed a narrow path between the heaps of paper to reach it. In Willie’s home, years of paper and no-longer used objects were stacked on free-standing shelves. When one set of shelves was filled, another set was installed. They stuck out into the room at right angles, so I had to weave this way and that to reach a seat. I visited a lawyer whose office was a little better than those homes, but only a little. All his ‘briefs’ (legal paper work, not underwear!) were on the floor. To get to the chair in front of his desk required exaggerated steps to clear small mountains. I felt I was treading between land mines.

These folks may have seen their heaps as organisation. But it was out of control. They’d kept buying new things without getting rid of old things. More came in; nothing went out. Clutter now controlled them.

Addictions    We could talk about many things under this heading, all of them sensitive issues. I’m not competent to write about addictive medications. My only advice is do what your doctor says, no more and no less.

But the problem for the addicted young man with whom I was having coffee was not about medications. He was 25, hoping to get married, have children, own a house – all delightful things. But he was tens of thousands of pounds in debt because of gambling. He’d begun using online gambling sites as amusement. But as he lost money he gambled more than he could afford to try and recoup his losses. He just lost more. On he went, month after month until he’d emptied his bank account and maxed out every source of credit. Now his hopes and dreams were all jeopardised by the need to pay off a huge debt. He’d failed to control minor gambling so it became major gambling and now controlled him.

About ten years ago, the United States’ FBI and equivalent agencies in other countries conducted a major international investigation into online child pornography. They prosecuted people who’d used the ‘dark web’, evil sites with illegal and disgusting images of young children. The users thought they could never be identified, a remarkably naïve and stupid idea since many used their personal credit cards to pay for access. Many held prominent roles in business and civic life, and some in their churches. They became known to their families and communities only when they were arrested and went to prison. I’m guessing, but I imagine they never thought their habit would take them so deep into the dark world of child exploitation. It was a habit that should never have begun, but once begun gripped them. Only being arrested and jailed stopped it.

Workload    I’ve written before about the friend who could never break away from the office until so late into the evening that he wouldn’t get home until half way through the meal with friends he’d invited for dinner. And, when it was family vacation time, he wouldn’t join his wife and children until midway through the first week. He couldn’t, likely wouldn’t, control his workload; so it controlled him.

Tidiness    In a sense this is the opposite of the ‘clutter’ problem with which I began this list. But tidiness has to be controlled as much as clutter does.

Alison and I visited our friend Noreen. She showed us round her modest-sized home. Everything was neat and clean, very neat and very clean. There were no stray cups or plates lying around the kitchen; in the bedroom no clothes strewn over a chair and no overcrowding of the wardrobe; no cushions out of place on the sofa in the lounge. We had to ask: ‘How do you keep everything so perfectly in place like this?’ Noreen’s answer was simple: ‘If I buy something new, I remove something old.’ That’s why her wardrobe and chest of drawers would never overflow. It was hard not to admire Noreen’s ruthlessness but, over time, it wore down her mental health. Her tidiness was out of control.

At their invitation, we visited Chris and Sally just one day after they moved into a new home. I’d protested we shouldn’t visit so soon, but had been assured it would be fine. It wasn’t just fine; the place looked like a show home. Nothing was out of place. At a quiet moment Sally gave away the secret. At the old house, Chris hadn’t allowed a single item to be packed for removal without it being labelled exactly where it was to go in the new place. On arrival, the removers opened the boxes, and laid each item down where prescribed. That’s why, when we visited next day, there were no unpacked boxes, no unhung pictures, nothing lacking a location. It was all perfect. Wasn’t that wonderful? No, it really wasn’t. Time showed that the obsession with tidiness had got out of hand, with serious consequences for our friends.

Something very different had got out of hand for George beside whom I worked in a government office. He spent the first 45 minutes of each day decorating his ‘to-do’ list with fancy calligraphy writing. Impressive, but it wasn’t what he was being paid for, and most of us wished he’d just get on with his work.

Alison and I have been tidy enough but well short of obsessive about it. When the children were small, we hung a plaque on the wall in our kitchen. It read: ‘Our home is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy’. That was our philosophy. And our children thrived.

Who’d have thought tidiness could ever be a problem? But uncontrolled tidiness can end up controlling us. It had sad outcomes for most of those I’ve mentioned.

I could list more examples, but I think the point is clear. What you don’t control may soon control you. Some impulses are good, but when uncontrolled they take us to bad places. Self-control isn’t easy. It often runs counter to our desires. But where would the sheep be who graze on land close to a clifftop if there was no fence? Healthy self-control is our fence, saving us from the disaster that uncontrolled impulses would wreak on our lives.

So, did we end up with fish in our pond? The answer is ‘yes’ but only for a short time. We bought minnows because their mouths were so small a good number of tadpoles could hide and survive among the plants we’d put in the pond. And that worked. But we hadn’t allowed for other factors. One, after only a few weeks I gazed at shoals of tiny minnows in our pond. I’d bought only a few, so where did all the rest come from? I hadn’t known that minnows reproduce every four to five days, and some lay up to 700 eggs per spawn. Two, we didn’t have running water or enough oxygen in our pond, which is especially bad for minnows. Three, wading birds feasting at the edge of our pond had a good time; the minnows didn’t. Four, some kinds of minnows eat their own young. I call that incestuous cannibalism.

The minnows disappeared, and have never been replaced. But other vertebrates have moved in: newts. They’re fascinating little creatures who live in and out of water. We didn’t import them; they imported themselves into our pond. They’re welcome to stay.

Being true to your word (and suspicious of your car nav system)

I’m sure you’ve been told not to rely too much on your SatNav (your car GPS system). That’s not just true; it’s very true. But it’s a lesson you learn only from experience, in our case bitter experience.

I’d preached on the Sunday night to a large congregation in the south of Illinois. Alison and I stayed in a local hotel overnight, and set off in good spirits first thing on Monday morning. There had been rainstorms in the early part of the weekend, but the new week had begun dry and sunny.

Part of my role as seminary president was to cultivate ‘contacts’, new and old, so ahead of time we’d arranged to make two visits on our way back north. We’d plenty time to arrive at the first in early afternoon and be at the second by late afternoon.

It didn’t happen. Not then.

Our first mistake was not realising for the first half hour that we were going the wrong way. The car GPS had been trying to direct us, but we weren’t paying attention. We stopped, thought about turning back, but then I uttered the fateful words, ‘Let’s just follow the GPS from here. It’ll know the best way’. That was the second mistake: not realising the GPS’s definition of ‘best way’ wouldn’t be ours.

We started well, but then got directed on to more minor roads. And then on to a particularly narrow road. We stopped, thought, and made our third mistake. I saw a sign saying this road was a ‘County Road’. That sounded important. It must soon get wider. It didn’t. It got narrower, and flooded, and very, very muddy. I couldn’t see potholes but we certainly felt them.

Alison wanted me to turn the car around. The road wasn’t wide enough to allow that, but I could have reversed. Then my fourth mistake. I told Alison, ‘We’re in a Subaru which has 4-wheel drive. We’ll be fine.’ And we were, almost. We bounced, banged and splashed along until only three hundred yards from a better road surface, and then the car lurched into a super-deep pothole and all forward progress stopped. I quickly tried to reverse. The car did not budge. I tried forward again, reverse again. No movement at all. Blame was equally attributed to the GPS and to my stubbornness.

I sat thinking but my only idea was to wedge branches from the nearby hedge under the wheels. I swung open the car door, stepped down and sank in mud right over my shoes. I waded across, got some branches, and pushed them under the wheels as best I could. Then I paddled to the rear of the car, ready to push as Alison drove. She put the car in gear and gently accelerated. The wheels turned, but the car stayed exactly where it was, and I got muddier than ever.

After an hour of failed attempts, we phoned a rescue service. ‘They’ll be with you in two hours’ I was told. Two hours! I managed to call the folks we were due to visit, and both assured us not to worry and we should just come another day. ‘No, we’ll be there, just later than we said.’ I’m not sure they believed we’d ever make it.

Two hours later and we saw movement in the distance back down the road. A truck was offloading a strange looking smaller vehicle which moved slowly through the mud towards us. As it got nearer I could see one person inside a continuous tread (a caterpillar tread) vehicle. Clearly the perfect transport for Illinois county roads.

Our friendly rescuer told us he’d already pulled three others out of mud that day. I was almost encouraged that we were not alone in our folly. He hitched a chain to our car, and we were dragged the remaining three hundred yards to a decently paved and dry road. With a friendly ‘hope the rest of your journey goes well’ he was off, perhaps to save some more.

It was now afternoon. I phoned our contacts, said we were still coming, just several hours late. They sounded sceptical. There were still many miles to cover, and we’d mostly be on minor roads.

Thankfully we soon reached a town with a row of car washes. An elderly man was supervising, took one look at our mud-covered car, and said, ‘You’ll be wanting the premium wash’. It was definitely a statement, not a question. Thankfully the premium wash was only $4 – prices aren’t high in rural Illinois. So the jets sprayed and the brushes whirred, but when I drove the car out, the supervisor said, ‘That won’t do. Go through again.’ Jets sprayed, brushes whirred, but again I was told, ‘Take it through another time’. Really? Really. Jets and brushes did their work a third time. The wash supervisor was still not happy. ‘I’ll give it a manual jet wash as well.’ So, he picked up a jet hose, and directed it into every corner and under every wheel arch. I think we were his project of the day.

‘How much do I owe you now?’ I asked.

He looked puzzled. ‘It’s $4’, he said. We had just had the best investment possible for $4.

One other stop was necessary. It was at a ‘gas station’, not really for the petrol we put in the car but so I could wash my shoes in the toilet. I mean ‘wash’. They were caked in mud, and all I could do was run them under the tap, over and over again, and then use paper towels to try and get them clean. I was very unsuccessful. They still looked dreadful. But we had to get moving, so I pushed my feet into sodden shoes, apologised to the counter attendant that I’d left his toilet ‘in a bit of a mess’ and on we went.

Finally, in late afternoon, we got to Ralph’s door. Only once before had I even said ‘hello’ to Ralph, so I’d no idea how we’d be received. He opened the door, gave a wide smile, and said ‘Come on in.’

‘I’d better leave my shoes outside,’ I said.

‘No need…’ he began to say, but then looked down and saw my shoes. ‘Yes, that would be a good idea.’

So, with my not-very-dry socks on full display, we sat talking to Ralph. His wife had died just three weeks before, and he seemed grateful for our company and concern.

After an hour we were on the road again, reaching Ray’s home about 7.00 in the evening. He was a graduate of the seminary from about 1950, and seemed honoured that the president was visiting him, no matter how late the hour. We had a great conversation before finally getting on to the Interstate road north. We reached home just before midnight.

The tailpiece to this tale is that Ralph and Ray became firm friends of both the seminary and of us personally. There were many more visits, each of which was a truly enjoyable experience. And what came up in conversation several times with each of these men? That first visit. The stuck-in-the-mud occasion. And the phrase used by both Ralph and Ray was: ‘After all that happened, I couldn’t believe you still came’. That meant so much to them. We’d said we’d visit, and we’d kept our word. They never forgot that.

In my experience, being true to your word matters for at least three reasons.

First, for our own integrity. We all know stories of people who promise but don’t deliver. It might be at the level of ‘the cheque’s in the post’ or ‘you’ll have your delivery on Monday’ but the cheque hasn’t been written, and the customer may get their order on some Monday but not next Monday. I’ll never understand how people can lie like that.

Then there’s another level, such as the character in one of Jeffrey Archer’s novels who proposes marriage, says the engagement announcement will be in the Times next day, and he’s about to pick up the ring, all to persuade the girl into bed before he goes off to war. There’s no engagement, no newspaper announcement and no ring. Just a broken heart and an unintended consequence… That’s callous selfishness, words that speak of love but come from a cruel heart, promises made that will never be kept. Whatever the short-term gain for the liar, there’s long-term loss for everyone else.

I don’t know how people who do that can live with themselves. They have a serious integrity deficit.

Second, people depend on us keeping our word.  We invited friends to come for dinner at 6 p.m. They said that would be lovely. Six o’clock came but our friends didn’t. Alison began a rescue plan for the meal. Surely they must arrive soon, but no-one appeared. The food rescue plan became one of life support. Not a sign of our friends at 6.30, not at 7.00, not at 7.30. Finally they arrived at 8.00, bright and cheery. There was no apology, other than from Alison that the food wasn’t quite as good as she’d hoped. It’s possible they got mixed up about the time to arrive, but the invitation was crystal clear. If they were unsure, they could have called.

Our friends’ late appearance happened literally decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten. You wouldn’t either if you’d carefully prepared a beautiful meal and experienced the stress and disappointment of trying to keep the food edible two hours longer than planned. (I should be clear, Alison was the cook. But we shared the stress and disappointment.)

When a delivery is promised by a certain date, people believe it and depend on it. It might be a cake for a birthday party, or a gold watch for a long-serving staff member’s retirement event. That cake and that watch matter. For those kinds of occasions, these are not small things. And when a cake or a watch don’t come because someone made false promises, it causes deep disappointment. People depend on us keeping our word, and there are sad and serious consequences when we don’t.

Third, being true to our word builds lasting relationships.  That’s what happened with Ralph and Ray. If the car had been wrecked or we’d been hurt, of course they’d have understood that plans had to change. But the bad time we’d been through just made things difficult, and made us late, but we still prioritised these two elderly men. Because of that, they decided we were people worth knowing, people who could be trusted, people who cared about them, people who would do what they said they’d do. And the friendship begun that day lasted until each of them died several years later.

You can’t buy relationships like that with slogans, or slick advertising, or gifts. It takes commitment, and a big part of commitment is being true to your word.

Therefore I should end with a warning. Be careful what you promise, because you’d better deliver on what you promise. Your words represent who you are, so when your words fail people believe you’ve failed. And there’s no way back after that.

Be true to your word. That’s my wisdom for this blog. Oh, and be careful about believing what your car nav system tells you.