Monday, 14 May 2018

The Art of friendship

I recently went to the theatre in Bath to see a play called “Art!” Set in Paris in the current day, the story revolves around three friends—Serge, Marc and Yvan— who find their previously solid 15-year friendship on shaky ground when Serge buys an expensive painting. The canvas is totally white, apparently with a few white lines.

Serge is proud of his 200,000 euro acquisition, fully expecting the approval of his friends. But Marc is very dismissive about the painting. And in fact Marc becomes very angry.
At first it seems that Marc’s anger is about the painting and the waste of money. But as the story is told maybe he is angry at his friend Serge for other reasons?

For the insecure Yvan, burdened by the problems of his impending wedding, his family and a job he dislikes, their friendship is his sanctuary. He dislikes the tension between Marc and Serge. But his attempts at peace-making backfire. Eager to please he laughs about the painting with Marc but tells Serge he likes it. Eventually Yvan is pulled into the disagreement and a blazing row takes place between the three.

They square off over the painting, using it as an excuse to relentlessly batter one another over various failures. As their arguments become less about art and more personal, the friends are close to destroying their friendship.

It all sounds a bit grim, yet it is a very funny play which contains many truths. On one level the play points a finger at the art world and its pretentions. But at another level it looks at friendships and all their complexities. Especially when friendships are under strain.

Friendships can be so important. Some are brief, perhaps typified by those made in school or at work. Some are for a season. But others stand the test of time. And real friendships are those that remain strong despite the turmoils of life. Despite disagreements. Despite seeing the faults in the other.

And those long, strong friendships may have an influence on our lives that we don’t realise.

Going back to the play, this is something Yvan tries to explain (unsuccessfully) to his friends. Yvan has been seeing a counsellor for some time. And he shares with his friends something his therapist recently said to him:

“If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you’re who you are because you are who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. But, on the other hand if I’m who I am because you’re who you are and you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are …” Art by Yasmina Reza translated by Christopher Hampton Faber & Faber 1996

Yvan friend Marc replies somewhat tartly “How much do you pay this man for this advice?”

And yet, there is a truth there. Our friendships can determine how we look at life. We are who we are because of the influence of others and interaction with others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his truth and reconciliation work has spoken of the concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a concept meaning “I am because you are.” It embraces the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community, and caring — simply, we cannot be without each other. This philosophy requires a conscious shift in how we think about ourselves and others, especially at a time when our nation is more divided than ever. (I am grateful to a friend of mine for mentioning this idea to me very recently.)

We know that Jesus placed a great emphasis on friendships. We see it in his relationships with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And of course, we see it in the disciples - especially James, John and Peter.

Jesus of course had an influence on his friends. They changed how they saw life by having been in contact with Jesus. That is something of an understatement! Though in being fully human as well as fully divine Jesus may well have been influenced by his friendships.

Jesus’ friendships were tested following his arrest and crucifixion. He felt let down and rejected by his closest friends. However, following his resurrection he comes to them, he forgives them, and he reinstates them.

From time to time we may find ourselves let down by friends. We are then faced with choices. We can cut those friends off for the harm we feel they have done. And that may be the right thing to do. Or we can look at what they have done for us in the past and forgive them.

A verse of an old hymn gives good advice:

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious saviour still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms He’ll take and shield you. You will find a solace there.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Called by name

This is an abridged version of a sermon preached on Easter Day 2018 at Central Methodist Church in Chippenham

I don’t know about you but sometimes I get a bit annoyed when I phone up say British Gas or another company like that, I give my details and then you get “What can I do for you today David?”

Wait a minute. We’ve not been introduced. You don’t know me. Why are we suddenly on first name terms? But then I think of the alternative “What can I do for you today Mr Gray” and I immediately assume they’re talking about my Dad!

And perhaps you’ve noticed how in some restaurants waiters and waitresses give their names. We were in a restaurant in Southampton recently and the waiter introduced himself and then wrote his name on the paper table cloth, so we wouldn’t forget!

Call centre staff are trained to use a customer’s name. It’s not meant to be impolite it’s meant to make them human and to make us as a customer feel valued. Whether it has that effect or not I’ll leave up to you to decide.

In 2013, the late Dr Kate Granger was in hospital. At that time Dr Granger was being treated for terminal cancer and this meant frequent stays in hospital. During a hospital stay in August 2013, Kate Granger realised that many staff looking after her did not introduce themselves before delivering her care. In Kate Granger’s words “It felt incredibly wrong that such a basic step in communication was missing.”

Kate Granger decided to do something about it. And following her discharge from hospital Kate and her husband started a campaign, mainly using Twitter, to encourage and remind healthcare staff about the importance of introductions in healthcare.

Again, in Kate Granger’s words:

"I firmly believe it is not just about common courtesy, but it runs much deeper. Introductions are about making a human connection between one human being who is suffering and vulnerable, and another human being who wishes to help"

Sadly, Kate died in 2016. But the effect of her campaign was noticeable. During my stay in hospital in autumn 2016 I can’t think of one member of staff, from the lowliest porter to the most senior consultant surgeon, who didn’t introduce themselves by name. It did make a connection and it put me at ease.

The social media site Twitter has now had 1.8 billion contacts via the #hellomynameis campaign.

Using our name and being invited to call someone by their name is such an important part of making a connection.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection as told in John’s Gospel chapter 20 has Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus. BUt although they have a conversation, it isn’t until Jesus calls her by name, that she recognises him.

14 At this, Mary turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’)
. John 20: 14 - 16

Although she sees him. Although she talks with him. Mary doesn’t recognise him. Why that should be the case John doesn’t tell us. It’s not something to get hung up on. After all, Mary would not have been expecting to see Jesus alive in front of her. She’d seen him die. She’d help bury his body. We all know that people who are dead and buried don’t appear again.

But when Jesus calls her by name she recognises him.

Perhaps there is an echo of what Kate Granger said going on then

"Introductions are about making a human connection between one human being who is suffering and vulnerable, and another human being who wishes to help"

Of course, it’s an analogy we can only take so far. Jesus is both human and divine. But somehow when Jesus uses Mary’s name, things change.

I think it no coincidence that John includes this account. Because in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and we his followers as his sheep we hear these words:

The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. John 10:3
And later in the same passage Jesus says:
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me
John 10:14

It’s not surprising therefore that Mary recognises the risen Jesus Christ when the Good Shepherd’s voice is heard calling her by name.

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

To be known by name, to be called by our name, is so important to our well being as humans. To be called by name by the Good Shepherd, the Risen Good Shepherd is more so.
To not have our name called or known means we go unrecognised and unnoticed. Go back to school days and remember the agony of not having your name called out to be on a team or take part in a play. If you remember such an occasion, you’ll remember too the feeling of being left out. Of being an outsider.

When nobody knows or calls your name, you stand outside the community. When your name is known and called, you are enfolded in the community. Thus, when Mary’s name was called by the risen Jesus, she is brought into the family of the Easter people. The people who believe in the Risen Jesus. But from her point of view she recognises for herself the power of the risen Jesus and all his resurrection means. Love and Eternal Life.

Christians are sometimes called the Easter people or Easter community. We have heard the Good Shepherd calling our names. Yes, sometimes we might think his call isn’t so much a call as a whisper. Nevertheless, we are believe because the Risen Jesus has called us, and we’ve responded to that call. Jesus, the risen Good Shepherd has called us to him, to share his love and to join him in the hope of eternal life.

The Easter people, the Church family, join Mary in being enfolded in the divine life and presence of Jesus. And being called by name into Jesus’ community. By being called by name into Jesus’ community means we take on something for Jesus - the importance of knowing and calling the names of those we encounter. Whether it is the newest member of our congregation or a person in distress seeking our help and love, we are Easter people. And Easter people are reminded of the importance of speaking the names of all we encounter. For by speaking their names, we enfold others in the Easter people community both human and divine.

30 years ago there was an American sitcom on the then new Channel 4. The sitcom was called Cheers and it was set in a bar in Boston Massachusetts. It pretty much revolved around the customers and staff of the bar. A strange assortment of people but they congregated in the bar for company and companionship.

The theme song of that sitcom contained a chorus which said:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Those words could have been written about being part of the Church family.

Though sadly we know that isn’t always the experience found in some churches.

American Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy once told about a young girl who lived in an apartment in a big city, and after supper in the summer the children on the block gathered in the streets to play. But after a while one would say that she had to go home because her mother told her to be in before eight o'clock. Or a father would whistle, and a boy would have to leave. A mother would call, and others would have to go. The girl said, "They would all go. It would get dark and I would be there all alone, waiting for my father or my mother to call me in. But they never did."

There are children of all ages who don't know, or have never known, the voice of a caring parent, who never get called in or called home. When what they really want, what they really need is someone to care. Someone to call their name with love, someone to reach out and let them know they matter.

Among the many joyful, hopeful messages of Easter is that the Risen Jesus Christ calls people by name. He calls them into his loving, forgiving arms. He calls them into life in all its fulness. He calls them home. He calls them by name He greets them

Hello, my name is Jesus.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Passchendaele the story of a friendship 100 years on

I’ve been reading a book called “Passchendaele – a new history” by Nick Lloyd.

I read a lot of military history. Mainly about the Second World War. But when I saw this book recently I decided to buy it as although about the First World War, Passchendaele resonates with me.

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was a campaign of fought by the Allies against the German Empire.[a] The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders.

The reason Passchendaele resonates with me is that I believe that my maternal grandfather Ira David Thomas fought there and was seriously wounded. I say believe as I did not know Ira (he died 2 years before I was born having suffered the physical and mental effect of his wounds all his post war life.) And by all accounts he never spoke of his experiences. My only clue to his war service is a framed certificate I came across on one occasion. The certificate mentions that Ira was “Mentioned in dispatches” for an act of bravery. (Ira was a first aider and went out under fire to bring wounded in.)

The certificate suggests this took place during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Several years ago, now I visited Ypres with my wife and son. It is a pretty little town reconstructed after the First World War. And it is at Ypres every night that the dead of the First World War are remembered when the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate was one of the entrances to old town and after the war it became a war memorial with the names of over fifty thousand dead who have no know grave, inscribed on it. (To attend that ceremony is hugely moving.)

I have then (I think) a connection with Passchendaele. I’ve know this for several years. But it is only when reading the book I’ve mentioned, that I realised I have another connection.

Ira’s wife (my grandmother) was Phyllis. She clearly had loved Ira dearly and during his last years she had cared for him constantly. But again, she said very little about him.
In the last couple of years of her life Phyllis had several serious strokes. These left her paralysed down her right side and unable to speak apart from one or two words.

In 1980, I’d just finished my “O” levels. Some friends were hosting a German student whose family they’d met on holiday. The student (I’ll call her Barbara) came from Bavaria, and during those weeks of the school holiday, Barbara and I became friends. And it is a friendship that exists to this day. (In fact, all being well, this summer my wife and I will be going on holiday with Barbara and her husband Peter)

On several occasions during that 1980 summer Barbara came to my house and met my grandmother. We explained to Grandma that Barbara came from Germany. And I could see Grandma trying to form some words. Eventually she said “Ira” and shook her head.

I was a bit concerned, would Grandma display some hatred of German people? I should have known my loving, caring, Christian, Grandma better. For she looked at Barbara and I, smiled and said “Friends. Good. War bad. No more.”

Like people of her generation who lived through two World Wars she knew the cost of war. And she knew it personally. She did not want to see me (or her other grandsons) fighting. She wanted to see peace and friendship between countries.

On reading “Passchendaele – a new history” I made another connection with Passchendaele. Many of the German troops at Passchendaele were from Bavarian regiments.

I’ve no idea whether Barbara’s grandfather fought in the First World War (or the Second World War for that matter.) But to think that Ira could have been fighting Bavarian relatives of Barbara or at least people who came from her town, makes our friendship even more important.

Micah 4:3 New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Christian Today article " A Methodist Minister describes how he survived a devastating illness - through God's Grace

What follows is an article I was invited to write for the online magazine Christian Today. You'll find the link to that at the end of the blog.

2nd September 2016 was going to be a lovely day. My wife and I had it all planned out. We’d go to a garden centre in the morning to see if they had any patio furniture in the end of season sale. Then drive up into the Cotswolds for lunch, before heading to Stratford-upon-Avon in the evening for a friend’s wedding. That was the plan …

Returning to the car after shopping, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my back near my kidneys and collapsed. My wife (a senior nurse) suspected a kidney stone but as I was drifting in an out of consciousness she called an ambulance while some fellow customers and a first aider from the shop kept an eye on me.

A paramedic arrived and checked me over. He was concerned that my blood pressure was low and felt I needed to get to hospital in Bath (about 20 miles away.) There was no ambulance available, so he decided to drive me in his car. With me hanging on to a saline drip with one hand and the door handle with the other.

We got to Bath, and I was seen quickly. Time blurred but I remember a doctor sending me for a CT scan. As I came out of the scanner I knew something was seriously wrong. There was a resuscitation team on standby and I was moved from the scanner to the trolley very carefully.

Back in the A&E the doctor told me that I had a “Triple A” (abdominal aortic aneurysm). In layman’s terms the aorta was leaking and was on the point of rupture. “It’s very serious Mr. Gray. In fact, 50:50. We are transferring you to Southmead Hospital Bristol for urgent surgery.”

I had enough time to say goodbye to my wife, before being placed in an ambulance.

Lying in the back of the ambulance, all I remember is feeling really at peace. I knew I was in God’s hands. I wasn’t afraid. I was worried for my wife and son. But as for me, I was with God. I gave myself to God, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

(With hindsight this peace and tranquillity was literally a Godsend. I’m sure if I’d been stressed it would not have helped the condition at all.)

I remember arriving at Southmead but after that nothing. In fact, three weeks went by before I knew anything again. (I spent three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit having had several emergency operations. My wife tells me the first 24 – 72 hours were “touch and go”.)

I woke to find that due to having a deep vein thrombosis, my right leg was paralysed. (The blood supply to the nerves was cut off and the nerves severely damaged.)
I remained in Southmead until early November before being transferred to a rehabilitation ward at our local cottage hospital. By the end of November, I was back home.
It was only on coming home that I think the enormity of what had happened hit me. Having to be brought into the house in a wheelchair up the ramp now built at the rear of the house has that effect.

Over the next six months or so, I received incredible support from community physiotherapists who got me from being reliant solely on a wheelchair, to walking with a Zimmer frame, to walking with crutches. All the while my wife did the exercises with me and cared for me.

By the autumn I was driving our now adapted car and this gave me a sense of getting back to normal – or at least the new normal. And finally, on 7th January 2018, I started back to active ministry (on a part time basis) by leading the powerful Methodist Covenant service. My right leg still isn’t fully functional but it is vastly improved.
During the first few months at home, two of my frequent visitors were fellow clergy but from different denominations. They both prayed with me and talked with me. And one of them asked me one day “So how are things between you and God?”

It was a very good question. But I was able to answer straight away that things between me and God were fine. I didn’t blame God for what had happened, I’d felt God’s presence with me from that moment in the ambulance and I was at peace. I also had this real sense of my ministry not being over but it looking (inevitably) different.
I realised years ago that God doesn’t speak to me directly, but He speaks through other people. He spoke at various times through the two clergy I mentioned. He’s spoken through Methodist colleagues. And I’ve been blessed to have many wise Christian friends who have been beside me over this last 16 months and who have often given me words of encouragement.

And throughout God has sent others to be beside me. There was the Afro Caribbean ward orderly who came into my room one day whistling “Give thanks with a grateful heart.” There was the physiotherapist who was a Christian. There was the close friend who gave me a holding cross “for when you ae frightened” (which I was from time to time.)

On coming home from hospital, initially I had to have a bed downstairs. The only place to put it was my study but that left the question of how I could manage to get to a toilet and sink for washing. One of the occupational therapists who assessed the house before coming home had a bright idea. Remove the wall between my study and the downstairs cloak room. Genius! (The wall was only plasterboard.)

Now I am back at work, the wall has been restored. But as yet the study isn’t back to normal. There are still bookcases to be put back and pictures to hang. One picture that will have pride of place is a beautiful piece of calligraphy that my wife commissioned when I entered ministry. It is Jeremiah 29:11 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

I will soon look at those words every day and wonder anew what those plans are. But I know that I have hope and a future.
As I mentioned earlier, my first service was the Methodist Covenant Service. I conducted most of the service sitting on a perch seat.
The liturgy contains these words
“Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.”

I’d rather not have gone through these last 16 months. And I certainly wish my family and friends hadn’t gone through all the heartache they experienced.
But I can say with certainty, that by giving myself “to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace” I am here to tell the tale.

This is the link to the article

Sunday, 7 January 2018

I have set my rainbow in the clouds

The following is based on a sermon preached at Central Methodist Church on 7th January 2018 as part of the Covenant Service.

Just before Christmas, I went to the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol to see an exhibition of work by Grayson Perry. Grayson Perry is an English artist, known mainly for his ceramic vases. There were examples of his pots but there were also sculptures and tapestries he’d made too.

One tapestry that held my attention was one he made in 2017 called “Battle of Britain.” It was a large tapestry 3 metres wide by 7 metres long.

In the foreground we see a teenage boy, mobile phone in hand. Sat on his bike overlooking a depressing landscape.

To the boy’s left is a railway line and backing on to the line is a row of houses. These are clearly meant to represent something like a run-down council estate.

Taking up the centre of the tapestry is the scene of a park. But the children’s playground features broken equipment and a concrete skateboard park is covered in graffiti.
Beyond the park is some farmland. A lone tractor ploughs a field, but the tractor churns out dirty black exhaust smoke. Somehow the land looks poor and it is partly flooded.
In the distance we see electricity pylons. There is an elevated section of motorway clogged with traffic.

It is clearly winter as none of the trees have leaves and there are black, ominous clouds in the sky.

All in all, it is a very depressing picture. And yet, a large rainbow straddles the centre section.

I was transfixed by the tapestry and the story it told. For to me the desolation of the landscape conveying hopelessness, was transformed by the rainbow. A rainbow symbolising hope. A rainbow serving as a reminder of God’s love. I don’t know if Grayson Perry meant it in that way. But that is what it conveyed to me.

We all know the story of Noah. The building of the ark, the animals going in two by two. The flood. The rain lasting 40 days and nights. The birds flying out to see if there was any land. And then finally the rainbow.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9: 8 – 11

After the flood sent to punish the earth for sin, God showed his love and forgiveness by establishing a covenant, an agreement between God and Noah and his decedants and through them all people in future generations.

And the promise was at one level that never again would God punish the earth in this way.

13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind Genesis 9: 13 – 15

But God’s covenant made with Noah, and symbolised by the rainbow, is much more than that. God’s covenant with Noah is designed to show the world how much God loves the world. Every person, every animal, every fish in the sea, every plant. God loves everything. God’s covenant, God’s promise, is built on his love for each one of us. It is a promise that runs throughout the Bible. It is a promise that is shown in Jesus.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

God loves the world so much, God loves each one of us so much, that God no longer seeks to punish the world but seeks to save the world through his son.

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:17

I’ve used the word Love, but perhaps we should be thinking more about God’s grace.

Grace is God's unmerited favour. It is kindness from God that we don't deserve. There is nothing we have done, nor can ever do to earn this favour. It is a gift from God.

Webster's New World College Dictionary provides this theological definition of grace: "The unmerited love and favour of God toward human beings; divine influence acting in a person to make the person pure, morally strong; the condition of a person brought to God's favour through this influence; a special virtue, gift, or help given to a person by God."

Or as I’ve heard it explained with this acrostic:


As part of the service the Methodist Covenant service we sing a hymn by Charles Wesley

“Come let us use the grace divine, and all, with one accord, in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord.”

Through God’s grace to us, through his Covenant stretching back to Noah and forward to today and beyond through Jesus Christ, we are assured of eternal life. And in return for this gift of grace, this gift of salvation, we promise to set aside ourselves and do what is right for Jesus Christ.

That is what Wesley’s hymn is saying and that is what we promise in the Covenant service. As the words of the service have it.

“Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.”

Over the last 16 months since I have been ill and unable to participate in active ministry, I have had much time to reflect on those words.

“Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.”

That’s not to say I knew them off the top of my head. It is only in re-reading the Covenant service that the words registered. But I was very familiar with the sentiment.
One thing I hope not to do now I am back in semi harness, is to dwell too much on what happened to me and my family when I was taken ill. But that said, I want to touch on something I have experienced time and again over these 16 months.

When I was rushed into hospital on 2nd September 2016 the doctor at RUH told me what was wrong, that I would have to be transferred to Southmead for an immediate operation and that what had happened was life threatening. At that moment I experienced a peace like I have never known before. I gave myself to God, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

Now believe me, I’d rather not have gone through that. And I certainly wish my family and friends hadn’t gone through all the heartache they experienced.

But I can say with certainty, that by giving myself “to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace” I am here to tell the tale.

Over New Year we spent time away with some close friends staying on a farm in Carmarthenshire. On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk in Laugharne – Dylan Thomas’ home. It is a pretty little place. The sun was shining on the river estuary. There were flocks of sea birds and wading birds on the mud flats including my favourite the oystercatcher. As we got back to the cars and took one last look across the estuary I was the first to see a rainbow. I think to everyone else, it was just a pretty sight. But to me, it was a reminder that God is good. And by his grace I am restored to you.

13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Keep ploughing on

For my daily Bible reading I tend to follow the Lectionary (a series of daily Bible readings used by much of the Protestant Church.) Today’s readings included a passage from Luke’s Gospel Luke 9: 57 - 62. The passage finds Jesus giving advice to those would seek to follow him.

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

In some translations of the Bible the passage is headed “The cost of following Jesus”. The verses are not comforting words. They are a reminder that if we wish to be followers of Jesus, at times we must make hard choices.

One verse jumped out at me this morning. Verse 62.

I read this verse as Jesus saying that to be a follower, we must look at what lies ahead (Jesus, and his Kingdom.) If we keep looking back there is a danger that we won’t keep our focus on Jesus. We could become distracted.

(By the way, I’ve listened to enough editions of The Archers to know that someone skilled with the plough looks ahead in order to plough a straight furrow.)
Reading this verse this morning made me think about how over the last year I’ve been looking back to 2nd September 2016 (the day I was taken ill) and the following months in hospital. The verse seemed to suggest this was a bad thing.

As it happened, I had a visit today from a wise friend. I shared this with him and he had a different take on things. He pointed that in our lives there is often a Before and After. It is natural for us to reference such things. And very often the After is very different than the Before
Ploughing on

For me, the After is post my illness and surgery. But for others it could be After the birth of a child. It could be After the death of a loved one. It could be After a marriage. It could be After a divorce. Life will be different After because the event happened.

My wise friend asked if a I knew a poem by U. A. Fanshaw called “BC:AD”. I know it well and have used it many times in Advent and Christmas services. I do not have permission to reproduce it here but Google it.

The poem reminds us that after the birth of Jesus Christ the world changed. “This was the moment when Before Turned into After” Fanshaw writes. (BC – before Christ became AD – Anno Domini ‘in the year of our Lord’.)

My friend was helping me to see that we all have reference points and we will all have a Before and After. (We may well have a number of such memorable events.) There is no harm in remembering life Before but we need to live in the After (and look to the Future too.) Living in the After will be different to the Before of course.
In fact, living in the Before can be emotionally dangerous. For example, following a bereavement there can be a tendency to look back at what was and this can be damaging emotionally.

A few years ago, the place where I was working brought in a “Motivational Speaker” as part of a management team building exercise. When I read the “invitation” to this event my heart sank – especially when I Googled the speaker and saw a really cheesy photo of him presenting.

But I was wrong and that session with Nigel Risner, well over 10 years ago, has stayed with me. One thing he said was “The past is a place of reference not a place of residence.” (The quotation is attributed to various people but I had not heard it until Nigel Risner mentioned it.)

In other words, it is OK to look back at what has been but we must not become fixated upon it. We can learn from it. We can look back fondly (or not) but we must not remain there. We need to live in the present all the while looking forward.

Often, we use the phrase “to plough on” in the sense of toiling on or plodding on. But referring back to my Bible quotation I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. He seems to suggest that ploughing is a worthwhile exercise, a rewarding exercise, as long as we keep focused on him and what lies ahead with him. It is only when we look back that our ploughing goes adrift.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Moving story

One of the slight peculiarities of the Methodist Church is that unlike most other churches, as ministers we serve for a fixed time in one place. This is usually for 5 years. That can be extended, or on some occasions ministers move early. But generally, we serve for 5 years. And the 5-year term ends around the middle to the end of July.

Therefore, next time you see a removal van over the next few weeks it could be moving the belongings of a Methodist minister (and family) to their next appointment.

I’m in a slightly odd position in that I’ve bucked the system. In my first appointment, I was stationed (that’s the term we use) as a Probationer (trainee minister) to Swindon for 5 years. Having been a probationer for 2 years I was ordained. Coming up to the time of considering a move (a year in advance) I felt God wanted me to stay on longer in Swindon. With the consent of my churches in Swindon I asked to stay for an extra 3 years. This request was accepted.

During that extra 3 years I was asked by senior church leaders if I would consider moving to Chippenham to fill a post that had become vacant. This I did. But I moved during February not the usual late July / early August. Not keeping to system? Outrageous!

Why am I telling you all this? It is because in the last few weeks I’ve seen posts from Methodist colleagues on various social media sites, saying how they are attending the final service in one of their chapels or attending a leaving party. Or mentioning problems with removal companies. Or sharing their excitement about moving. Or sharing their regrets at leaving. Or their nervousness at what lies ahead.

I see these posts and I wonder what the future holds for me? On one level, the Methodist system means I am here in Chippenham until July 2019. But it’s not as simple as that. I am still off on sick leave. I hope to return to work in January 2018. But of course, I don’t know whether I will be well enough. I think I will be well enough (and I hope I will be.) But I don’t know. If I’m not, what then?

If I’m honest there is also a pang of jealousy. Ordinarily I’d be fine. I love the appointment I’m in. It feels the right place to be. But then seeing friends and colleagues posting about what is happening to them makes me wonder whether I’ll ever do that again. In particular, I wonder whether I will be stationed as a Superintendent.

I need to explain. The Methodist Church in Britain doesn’t have bishops. We are not particularly hierarchical. But we have Superintendents and Chairs of District. In lay person’s terms, a Superintendent is a minister who supervises a Circuit (a collection of churches) and the ministers. He or she is responsible for the Circuit.

I didn’t go into ministry wanting to be a Superintendent but I have realised I would be able to serve as one if that’s what God and the Church wanted. (Inevitably being a Superintendent means a lot of administration and church business and I am not fazed by that.) You offer to be a Superintendent and I would have done so and would have been pleased if accepted. But is that a possibility in future? Only God knows.

Then again only God knows what is going to happen in terms of ministry. Will I be fit enough to resume in January? Does God have other plans for me?

I’ve blogged before that a Bible verse I hold on to is Jeremiah 29:11

11 For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

That’s all I can do at this stage. Hold on to that promise.

But God, I wouldn’t mind you letting me in on your plan if that is ok?