The Lord’s My Shepherd

On 27th January 1974, a anthem was born: and on 26th June 2017, that same anthem came full circle.

The Lord’s My Shepherd. The 23rd Psalm.

The ’74 event was an FA Cup tie between Everton and West Brom, one of the first ever football matches to be played on a Sunday. Why it was a Sunday is somewhat unclear, but popular legend traces the tale back to the miners’ strike and its subsequent power cuts causing havoc during the winter of discontent.

Football fans have always had an affinity with random behaviour bordering on the eccentric and this occasion was no different. With the game stalemated at 0-0, the Baggie faithful in the 53,000 crowd chose to lighten the atmosphere with a hymn, seeing as the game was being played on the sabbath and they were at their own special kind of church.

Now I suspect that football fans don’t know many hymns so the choice would have been pretty limited. From my early days at primary school, I remember that Praise The Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him, to the tune of the German national anthem, was number 24 in our hymn book. But that was never going to do as a terrace song. Anyway, I wasn’t there.

So the obvious choice was the one where nearly everyone knew the first verse:

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.

The game at Goodison indeed finished 0-0 and at the replay three days later, those same parishioners who lit the fuse at Goodison led the chorus at the Hawthorns: and the Lord was obviously listening because a Tony Brown goal won the game 1-0.

For the next 25 years, TLMS came and went on the terraces before it finally emerged as an anthem to salute every West Brom goal, home and away. Today, whenever you watch Match Of The Day and the Baggies score (which doesn’t happen very often), pay close attention to the uncerebral celebration from behind the goals. It’s our anthem.

So when my brother presented me with a list of three hymns, in our mam’s own handwriting, that she wanted played at her funeral, it was a dagger through the heart moment when TLMS was on the list. I remember thinking “how on earth am I gonna get through this”. This, of all hymns. For nigh on two weeks, ever since we fixed the date of the funeral, I couldn’t get those couple of minutes out of my mind.

So I went in search of context and looked at how I might use that to explain not just my affinity to West Bromwich Albion, but rather to transpose the meaning onto LCFN.

The story compares us, as ordinary folk, to sheep and relates how we are just as likely as our fluffy friends to wander off the track, go astray and become lost. Indeed, it goes further: as followers, we are just as likely to follow the leader, and if the leader gets lost, then we will become lost too. In terms of the hymn, the Lord’s job, as our shepherd, is to keep us on the straight and narrow and show us the way.

I think back to the early days of LCFN when I knew the basic route from Stewarton to Glasgow and very little else. There was a time in that first winter of 13/14 when I labelled my front light as Oscar when I went off in search of new routes (in the dark) in pursuit of extra miles. Little did I know back then that Oscar was indeed my guiding light, showing me the way when it was perilous to pursue new routes in the dark, in winter.

My soul He doth restore again;

And me to walk doth make

Within the paths of righteousness,

Even for His own Name’s sake.

As I grew into LCFN, I learned to listen to my body, find my limits, then push them. For three years I never stopped pushing. Then came the day almost twelve months ago when I pushed too far. The thigh injury that I suffered going for a King Of The Mountains on tired legs is as bad today as it was when I took seven weeks out to try and shake it off last September and October. Even as I’m keying this, there’s a dull aching pain in the front on my right quad. How I could use being restored again, rebooted back to factory settings.

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,

Yet will I fear no ill;

For Thou art with me; and Thy rod

And staff my comfort still.

This is the bit where I draw strength. This is the verse that keeps me moving forward, no matter what. This is the command that kept LCFN on the road twelve months ago after I lost my job, and finally restored the mileage to something like its former self, through belief and support. And it’s also the verse of Psalm 23 that must resonate with the parents of children with cancer. These are the words that are subconsciously guiding Gail in her darkest days.

My table Thou hast furnishèd

In presence of my foes;

My head Thou dost with oil anoint,

And my cup overflows.

My table is my bike. My foes are the obstacles that have robbed me of key components along the way: a dozen chains, half a dozen wheels, a similar number of derailleurs, not to mention brake blocks and countless punctures, every one primed to test one’s resolve and commitment. But my belief in LCFN remains as strong today as it was on that first morning. Guidance and experience are hardy bedfellows indeed. My chain thou dost with oil anoint.

Goodness and mercy all my life

Shall surely follow me;

And in God’s house forevermore

My dwelling place shall be.

And so to continuity: there is a subconscious part of me that never wants this to end. I don’t know and I cannot explain why I didn’t stop at 25,000 miles. That had always been my goal, but with children being diagnosed with neuroblastoma in the UK at the rate of three a week, it seemed almost blasphemous to walk away at the time, and right now I cannot see an end in sight: there is so much still to do.

I survived our mam’s funeral. Just. Two of my sons, along with two of my brother’s sons, carried the coffin into the chapel, and it was all I could do to take Jane’s hand and feel the tears streaming down my face. Fortunately however, the minister made the service into a celebration of all that was good in our mam’s life: I even found myself nodding in quiet approval as things that I’d long forgotten were highlighted as testimonials of a life well lived and with good intention. Our mam was as down to earth as they come, and really didn’t have a problem telling you what she thought, even if sometimes it wasn’t as welcome as she’s intended it to be. I can be a bit like that myself: I guess it’s in my genes to follow the leader, as sheep surely follow the flock.

I took Monday off (the bike). I’d headed south with kit and the best of intentions to bag a load of miles after the tribe had departed to the far corners of the land but in reality, my motivation was nowhere to be seen. I had a couple of beers instead and fell asleep in the chair. Just like the previous Monday, I was emotionally wiped out and bagged an early night in search of rest.

Come Tuesday, my resolve to re-commit to LCFN was put sternly to the test. As Jane and I drove the 250 miles back up the road, the weather steadily deteriorated and by the time we got home, it was wet, not very warm and basically miserable. Heading out in the late afternoon under those circumstances was always going to be a test of resilience. I needn’t have worried. Apart from the familiar nagging pain in my thigh that just whispers “lower gear, lower gear” all the time, it was fine. Rubbish weather and 30 miles is a good combination. It makes you feel like you’ve achieved something: you can never experience that same feeling on a nice day.

LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma remains true to the 23rd Psalm. Though I ride in the weather’s dark vale, I fear no ill. Through ongoing support and encouragement, my cup overflows. And on my bike forevermore, my dwelling place shall be…

The Lord’s My Shepherd.