Sunday, May 29, 2016

old friends and family


There's a piece I wrote on here, years ago, which finishes with the story of the passing of Gladys Gregory. A saint of God.

Her son was Stuart, warden & treasurer alongside John Murphy of fame and memory when I first arrived at Pontypridd. The photo here has them both at a picnic lunch we had in the vicarage garden there to celebrate the re-opening of church after the interior renovations in 2005. Alongside them, Gwyneth Williams, and behind her, Anne, Stuart's wife.

If ever I have to explain what keeping the fifth command looks like I need only describe Stuart and his mother. She cared for him beyond measure as he grew up; he repaid this love every day as she grew older. He watched over her decline, and (with heartbreak) the passing of Anne as well.

A quiet Anglican, he never really shouted about his faith. But worshipping with his fellow Christians was the bedrock of his life. He sang in the choir at St Catherine's from boyhood days till the choir morphed into music group in my time, and then he sang in the music group. He knew all the hymns; he had no idea on many of the worship songs, yet he stood at the front and worshipped any way.

He would tell a story of his grandmother's funeral - a time when the presence of Jesus was so thick in the room, that he expected to open his eyes and see him.

On Friday I drove to Pontypridd and attended Stuart's funeral. All the folk in that top photo are gone now. Like Gwyneth, St Catherine's was Stuart's home from home. Like Gwyneth, I expect he is overwhelmed by the wonders of Glory, and the joy of hearing those words - "Well done, good and faithful servant." At last, he's not outshone by John; at last, with his devoted Anne, he is now opening his eyes and seeing the great Love of his life.

I spoke a few words at the service in church and finished by saying: Stuart, we will miss you; thank you for being one of us; see you again one day.

Gill Tuck took the service, and she went on with the family to Glyntaff; I got waylaid. I hope Stuart wouldn't mind. I see the folk at St Catherine's so rarely, and one of the joys of remembering those old friends who go before us is that we do so with old friends still around.

So I took a little time with those who lingered in the church.

I'm often dumbfounded by those who say - "I don't need a church to worship God." I guess they actually mean "a church building", and if so, I completely agree. But a church is not a building, it is a people. It is relationships. It is - as Stuart and Gladys both knew so well - a family. Families have their moments; but we are bound together by something stronger.

I do need a church. I am not built to worship alone, though I do pray and worship and live with God daily in my own walk. But I belong to Jesus within his family. The process of leaving Pontypridd was  enormously hard because this was my family; I regularly get asked if I miss Wales, and the honest answer about the place is - no. But the people? Ah...

Here are Derek and Pauline, and Joyce and Gill and Stewart and Jason, and Jane and Teg. Ken and Trish and Julie and Alan and Andy and Enid and all sorts of others had already left by the time we thought to take the photo. I debated with a group of curates here recently about how close you get to folk in your parish; friends, or just friendly?

As I chatted over coffee and watched and listened and looked and saw, I thought of those who I saw through Ponty to Glory: Stuart and his mother, of John Murphy and his best mate Ken, of Gwyneth, of Cynthia; I thought of those I saw through Ponty to ordination: of Martin and Chris, of Wayne, of Miles, of Karsten; I thought of those I saw through Ponty to places far and wide, and of those who shared the journey for a while: of Dan and Kirsty, of Richard and Naomi, of Matt, Matthew & Sion. I looked at the people around me and thought of the folk back in the Shire.

Friends, just friendly, or...

Another question occurred: when folk meet me, I am often asked - Do you have a family? They mean are you married, and my usual answer is - No, it's just me and a Springer. But seriously, next time I get asked "Do you have a family", I really must reply -

O yes. So many of them. You wouldn't believe it.  

Monday, May 02, 2016

friends, shysters and BBQ tests

So my holiday slowly draws to a close.

I've had a great time. Later this year, I hit one of those, you know, "significant" birthdays, and so I decided I would spend all year catching up on friends. When I planned this trip I hoped I'd be able to see a few folk as well as Gill and Ben, and so it has worked out.

It's a long list - in addition to the Owens family here in Florida, I've had time with JD Walt and his family in Franklin, Tennessee, with Tom Fuerst from Memphis, with Jared and Krystal Ribble from Nashville, with Mark Benjamin in Asbury Seminary and Sean and Rebecca Gladding in Lexington, and with Tory and Elizabeth Baucum in Virginia. That last stay gave me chance to catch up with a few other friends in the DC area - especially Graeme Chambers and Karen Wilson - and to lecture at the Truro Church, Fairfax VA, version of the St Paul's Theological Centre on "Romans in an Hour" for Matt Hemsley and his eager crowd of Saturday morning theologians.

These are fascinating times to visit the US. There is an election going on that defies reason. I have met no-one - no-one - who supports Donald Trump, yet he seems to have the Republican nomination sown up. I have met several who sort-of support Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presumptive nominee, though I have yet to meet an out-and-out Hillary enthusiast. I have met Bernie Sanders enthusiasts - including some who know it's crazy to be so enthusiastic about a man who is clearly unrealistic, but who remain amazingly motivated by him anyway. And I have met folk who deeply support the (very much) third placed Republican, John Kasich, a man we in England know almost nothing about.

(Interestingly, the story I heard about Kasich, and from different sources, is of a man of deep principle, a man of faith but not bigotry, a man who draws different sides together, and a man whom one Democrat I spoke to would vote for if he were the Republican nominee given either Bernie or Hillary as the Democratic candidate simply because they see Kasich as a far better option for the country.)

It's hard for a foreigner ever fully to understand an election in someone else's country. Having visited here many times, and lived here briefly a long time ago, I guess I dare risk my ignorance (and your patience) just a little. And the folk I've spoken to seem to think my thoughts not so wide of the mark as to be ridiculous.

So: I just don't get Trump. I don't get why so many folk have voted for him. I do understand that sometimes America can be brash and insular, and that in the wider world today there is a rise of fear and isolationism that wants us to put up barriers and hide from everyone else. Trump plays to those fears. But the majority of Americans I have always known have been typified by politeness, kindness, good manners and speaking well of each other. This is the best of their country and it is a reality within it. Why would anyone elect a man who trashes the best of their country with a slogan (Make America Great Again) when everything he does is about broadcasting the opposite?

One of the people I spent time with here actually worked for Trump at one time. Their judgement was far, far more condemnatory than anything I offer. Yet people are still voting for him.

I'm left wondering if Trump is a shyster or a Hitler. I don't know if he speaks without thinking and every word that comes out is thoughtless to the future, an opportunistic grab for present power, unscrupulous, unethical, but also unplanned. Or, if he is methodically sowing dislike and hatred of others, and through this methodical sowing of hatred, bringing violence as a commonplace into the political arena. And once he has power, the way in will be the way on. The power of the mob that got him elected will be the power of the militia that keeps him in place. God help us all.

To my shock, I have found folk here who fear exactly the same.

So I sit out in the Florida sunshine and pray - God bless America. Don't grant her the leaders she deserves, but the leaders all of us need at this time. We should all get off our backsides and on to our knees because this fairground sideshow election has the power to change the world for everywhere and for ever. I am not saying - pray for Hillary. Or (heaven help us) Ted Cruz.

I am saying that sitting back and passing comment on the electoral process of another nation (as lots of us in the UK are doing) or even of your own (my US friends) and not getting down and asking God to help us at this time is to risk re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. I don't know what the "right" answer is. I might suggest however what a right question could be:

O Lord, please help the US as it completes this electoral cycle, to make good choices. And deliver us all from evil. Amen.

When it comes to the election in November, I have a very confident prediction for you.

Simply apply the BBQ test. America votes for the president it wants to go to the BBQ with. Every time. They did not want to go to the BBQ with Mitt Romney four years ago. I'm not sure anyone wanted to go to the BBQ with Michael Dukakis, back in the day. Al Gore fell foul of this. Presidents Carter and Bush Snr too. And this time, I don't think Hillary is a particularly good BBQ candidate; though she may just be a better option for many than Trump. If, however, the Republicans can yet use their byzantine process to come up with someone else, this simple test may yet work in their favour.

Or we could club together and buy an island in the South Pacific somewhere and sit it all out...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

thanks

The Llandaff Clergy School is in Oxford this week, and I took a trip into town to see if I could catch a few folk whilst they were there.

It was lovely to see Peter, still working on building projects at St Catherine's; Irving, whose wisdom helped me through some difficult days in my first curacy; Chris, who was once a neighbour; Roger, who used to live in one of my parishes.

Archbishop Barry gave a moving address at the recent Church in Wales Governing Body, speaking of the impact of his wife's death at the start of the year. It was typically honest of him, and filled with faith and yearning, and a very Welsh sense of God and Gospel. I found it beautiful.

I was delighted especially therefore to catch both Barry and also Christopher Smith, Archdeacon of Morgannwg.

When I was at my lowest, in 2010, broken and ill and needing help, these godly men supported me in all sorts of ways. There were days when I was not charitable toward them at the time - there were days I was not charitable toward anyone at the time - but they went out of their way to help, to give me time, to give me opportunity and to provide for me so that I could begin the road to recovery. I am healthy and thriving in ministry now largely because of them.

It is always a pleasure to spend even the briefest of moments with them, and it was a special delight to be able to thank them yesterday for their role in those weeks and months and to talk about life now. Barry ensured I had space and provision to go to Asbury for a season which began my healing; Christopher believed in me when I had forgotten how to. In the pain of those days, I was sometimes quick to tell folk how I felt wounded by the church. It's only fair in the light of these days that I point out I had an archbishop and an archdeacon putting time and money and belief and commitment into helping me through...

Barry has been Archbishop of Wales since 2003. When he eventually comes to retire, I hope he is judged kindly. He has certainly not hidden from controversy! But for me, he was always thoughtful, caring, an inspiring preacher and a real friend.

And he, and Christopher, along with many others, will always, always have my thanks for all the life-affirming care they gave me.

I recently preached a sermon in which I commented on those who say "I don't need to go to church to worship God". Remembering that church is the people, not the building, my response, especially as I meet up with friends like these is -
"Well I do".

congratulations



The Gospel reading in our Sunday services this week was the story from John 21 about Jesus and Peter having breakfast on the beach after the Resurrection. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and tells him to follow him once more.

It's a story I love for all sorts of reasons, but largely because it reminds me of an occasion years ago when I was almost overcome by the struggle of life.

It was my second year at theological college. I had to pull out of the degree course and swap to the certificate course because I was unwell and needed less stress. I had been asked to join a mission trip to Jerusalem to work with the two Anglican churches there, and my doctor thought it would do me good. But I still felt like a failure.

After the mission week, we got to tour around Galilee and other sites, but still I was grumpy. Everywhere we went, we just got out of the cars, took a photo, got back in the car and drove off. I wanted to take time, to breathe the air Jesus had breathed, to smell the scents, to take it all in.

So after we stopped at the Mount of Beatitudes I stomped off in a sulk. I know, can you believe, me in a sulk..?

One member of the group came to me and told me it was OK - if I wanted time alone I could have it. Everything was close together on the lake. There was a bus back to Tiberias where we were staying. I'd be fine.

"Good," I said, the embodiment of grace. And they left. Taking my lunch with them.

So I wandered down through the orange groves to the lakeside and sat on the beach by Tabgha, the site of the breakfast story. I was all alone. It was a grey day, with a mist on the lake, no other tourists anywhere in sight, and I cried out to God. I wanted to serve him, I wanted to be ordained - but I couldn't even succeed in training for ordination. I was failing at everything.

And in my misery I felt him whisper in my ear. Find a stone. I paused, bent down, picked up a rock from the beach. He whispered again. See how it looks like an arrow head? So I am sending you. It will be OK.

And I got up, popped the rock in my backpack and walked back up to the road - but time had passed, and the evening was setting in, and I needed to get home. I found the bus stop - and discovered the timetable was entirely in Hebrew. I never quite made Hebrew class at college. For the first time, this caused me some regret. I had no idea if there was a bus, what time it would come, or if I would be standing there till Tuesday week. So I decided to start walking the eight miles back to Tiberias.

Maybe I'd thumb a lift?

Maybe I'd be shot for that gesture in Israel...

I put my hand out occasionally as cars passed me by. And then one stopped. An old red thing. A Nissan I think. And the driver seemed nice enough. He was, it turned out, a professor at a Hebrew university, a philologist - and he spoke five or six languages. English was number five or six.

We chatted in pigeon English and pigeon French, and he asked what I did. I told him I was training to be a priest.

And then he said words which completed my day. My week, my year. Words I have never forgotten. Words, the like of which I thought only ever got spoken in the movies. But they were spoken to me. On the beach I had felt like a failure. By the time we got to Tiberias I felt ten feet tall.

No longer was God whispering in my ear. He was driving me home.

Those simple words which pierced my soul were:

"If you want God's want, you are - how you say - Congratulations."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

bach to the future


This afternoon I attended a memorial service for a friend from college. Nigel was at Merton for eight years, starting before me, and was CU Rep there the year before me. He died two years ago. He was a kind, gentle, generous man.

Nigel was softly spoken and always thoughtful. He constantly encouraged me as I organised the CU with Karen Wilson, and when he and I would occasionally bump into each other through the years that quiet encouragement would always shine through.

The last time we met was in the college chapel in Merton just before Easter in 2014. He was as gracious as ever. We shared stories briefly. He smiled his melancholy smile; our parting words were that we would meet there again at  some other choir event.

The gathering today was filled with friends from thirty years ago. It was lovely to see familiar faces - and also to suddenly realise that one or two unfamiliar faces were in fact also simply familiar ones subtly obscured by the mists of passing time. Some folk have hardly changed at all; some of us (I include myself) are pretty obscure now.

David, Andrew, Claudia, Carolyn, Mike, Ann, Frances, Louise, Ruth - it was like Wednesday nights of old; how marvellous to see you all and to hear the tiniest fragments of the last thirty years. Thankfully most will be back in Oxford for the college Gaudy (reunion) after Easter. Louise reminded me of an occasion I had all but forgotten; I did the same for her. Her reading of Ephphatha in Mark's Gospel has never left me... One person recounted seeing a gathering of former students from the 1950s when we were undergraduates and thinking how ancient those folk were.

Of course, they were from thirty years before our time. We are now their equivalents. It's back to the future. Our faces almost fit, our voices almost match, our smiles almost work - even in memoriam - though the Porter's Lodge has electric doors, and there are chairs at some of the tables in Hall rather than benches, and someone has landed a behemoth of an organ where once in chapel there was a dainty faux-baroque thing on stilts.

Yet: this afternoon I discovered that now again in Blackwells Music Shop it is possible to acquire LPs - genuine vinyl. And so it was Bach to the Future for me, as just before the service I bought Alfred Brendel playing JSB. I think it's illegal now to play Bach like this, but you can get a permit to own a recording if it comes at 33 1/3 rpm.

Nigel was a fine pianist, and he loved Bach. I think he'd enjoy Brendel's playing, and the warmth of the sound I am listening to as I type this.

It has a gentleness, a soft melancholy, a kindness to it that is rather wonderful. My world is all the better for it.  

Friday, January 01, 2016

blessings

As midnight struck, and gathered friends all wished each other "Happy New Year", I realised with a surprising depth of shock that this year brings another Birthday.

Not a birthday, you understand. A Birthday. One of those Birthdays that make you ask, "How did that happen?"

How did that happen?

Too many blessings to number. Too many kindnesses received. Too many mistakes forgiven and forgotten. Not enough good done by me, and too much good done to me. And though there are times I wish I could blot out, wipe away, go back and tell myself to avoid or do differently, there are more times - so many more - that I cherish beyond words, with folk near and far and gone before who make all these days glorious.

I stood at midnight with a surprising depth of shock at what this year promises to bring; but on reflection the deeper surprise lies in gifts already received.

Ahead can only be hope that such blessings might not yet run dry.

Here's a seasonal song - the saddest of all Christmas songs - but the wish behind it is that we might get the chance to be together; as I start this year, I offer a Happy New Year, and a hope that I do indeed get to see as many friends near and far and old and new as possible in the months ahead. You are always the blessings I seek.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

happy

The remarkable news is that many people again received actual Christmas cards from me this year.

Unfortunately, you probably weren't one. 

That's because "many" actually means "more than three". So this is my appallingly weak apology to the rest of my friends and family. It's not that you are second best or that I love you less. Well, not much less. It's just that I looked at the list before me and realised you knew already in your heart of hearts that the chances of getting a card from me was very slight, and so I didn't want to disappoint you. By overachieving.

Anyway, nothing I could have written (and those who got cards realise that all I wrote was "squiggle, squiggle, even more indecipherable squiggle") could have beaten some of the Christmas letters I received. 

I haven't changed nationality, species, hair colour, address details with Barack Obama, my mind over anything all year. That apart, it's been a very exciting twelve months.

So exciting that I can't really find the words to describe it. Which is a mercy to all of us. So really, all I can do is exclaim - 

Happy Christmas! Which is the point of this message. Or, to those of you who became Corbynites this year, Happy Christmas Comrades! Or to this of you yet to see the new Star Wars movie, ***** ******** (plot spoilers removed). Or to Man United supporters, Happy Christmas 2016. Hopefully. 

God bless us, every one. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

younger

I'm slightly confused by the cards and Facebook messages that are coming today referring to 'age'. It may be my birthday, but I've been doing these things for a while, and I'd like to make a small but significant adjustment to the general thinking on these matters.

Birthdays are in fact celebrations of youth, not age.

For if this day marks a significant moment, it is not the accrual of years: the thing that I have learned with every passing celebration is -

Today I am younger than I ever will be.

I intend to enjoy this.

Happy Birthday Ryan Giggs, by the way.

Monday, October 19, 2015

blessing

 So I spent a weekend back in Pontypridd.

There's a new vicar's name on the noticeboard. And more Welsh, too. And, gloriously, the hall I once knew as a building next door to the church where the Social Services worked, is now a living, breathing outreach centre for all the the church does in the community. The connection between the two is physical and more. That was just a vision in my day; it's a reality now.

Peter (the successor; we've known each other since I was at Merton & he was at Pembroke) bought me lunch at the Bunch on Friday. That's changed too. It's not just the awards it gets these days - the old spit & sawdust front bit of the bar has had something of a makeover, but the food is still wonderful and there's nothing like a pint of O1.

I managed supper with the MP & his wife. Owen came back early from a party in Newport to spend the evening with the vicar. I'd feel honoured, but honestly faced with that choice (Newport/vicar - which, let's face it, can be rephrased as "Hell's suburb/Heaven's friend") I think we'd all probably risk Friday evening on the M4.

And then to business.

I was in town for a wedding. Best part of a decade ago I baptised two lads that Kirsty had nurtured in faith through a youth alpha course. She had wanted to start a youth group; the only thing was, we had no youth. So I said she should give it a go - & she got an amazing group together, a group which grew in faith and experience and life together.

They were a musical lot, and from time to time I got to encourage them a bit. Matthew Truelove was part of this group. Matt was (without doubt) the most gifted young singer I ever worked with. He wrote songs, he played guitar, he had a voice to stop angels mid-flight. If he'd wanted to, he'd have been the best known singer Wales had produced in a generation. At his side, Sion Carver was a terrifically gifted pianist who would never sing a word for me - and I pushed! Though I always suspected he might have the performer's gene - he certainly had the attitude. Matt now works behind the camera in film, and Sion fronts a band as keyboard player & singer.

On Saturday I married Matt to his amazingly lovely bride Liz, and also got to spend wonderful time chatting to Sion and his terrific girlfriend Kim.

Standing at the front of church as Liz walked down the aisle, seeing Matt take his place, and remembering so many occasions when he had stepped up to that spot to sing, to speak, to be baptised - and now to promise his life in love to his wife, I felt the glorious privilege that every priest has rise in my heart and almost overwhelm me. I had chosen one of the optional blessing prayers in the latest Welsh wedding service, and it almost undid me.

One of the fundamental roles of a priest is to bless people. When you do it, and know you re doing it, and know that the people you're blessing know themselves to be being blessed, there is a powerful spiritual sense that is simply beyond words. It is glorious, and on days when a PCC gets snarky, you just bring this to mind and it helps you keep doing the job.

As the afternoon turned to evening, and Matt & Liz danced and chatted to all their guests, Sion & Kim & I sat under the stars, beer in hand, and told stories of life and experience and faith and I was just glad to be there. Sion is a good guy, and I am so glad we had time to catch up.

I wish there had been more time.

I saw Jane & Teg, Julie & Joseph, Derek, Gill, Joyce, Barbara, Peter & Martine, David and others in Pontypridd all too briefly - and some not at all. Stewart, Trish: next time. Gemma: we'll find some Christmas trees to decorate on another occasion. My wonderful, wonderful OF friends - I cannot tell you how I miss you guys & look forward to catching up. Sorry it wasn't this occasion.

But for all its brevity it was perfect. It was, in every sense, a blessing.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

with all your heart

In September 1978 I walked down from West Park Road in Blackburn in my new school uniform to Blackburn Cathedral. With me were friends from Peel Park Primary School in Accrington who had also made it to the grammar school. Ian and Duncan. When we got to the cathedral, I saw my Mum there, and Ian's too. We were all rather overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I still have the order of service from that rainy Thursday. The preacher was Philip Hacking, who certain people might recall as a rather conservative evangelical Anglican of that period. I don't remember anything of the service itself.

Today, I didn't walk. I was driven with the Headmaster from the school to the Cathedral, and I was the preacher. It's the first time I've preached in a Cathedral, and how lovely that it should be at a service for the school where I came to faith. 

It was a great experience. I was made very welcome by the Headmaster, by the Dean of the Cathedral, by the whole school & Cathedral staff. There was one member of staff there from my schooldays, and a couple of staff who were students when I was. 

I got to choose the title, and the text. So I chose words from Jeremiah 29 which I heard spoken by our chaplain all those years ago, and which played their part in my coming to faith. Here's the Scripture text, and beneath it, my sermon for those really keen...

Jeremiah 29: 10 - 14
This is what the LORD says: "...I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations ..." declares the LORD.
  
A Hope And A Future
I first walked down from West Park Road to this Cathedral when I started at QEGS in 1978. 
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, that’s a very long time ago, and it set me thinking - about how different things were in the past, and how we could never have guessed what the future might hold. 
For example, In 1978, the school had no computers; count them - not one. 
In 1978, the school had no swimming pool.
In 1978, half the girls in school left all at once. But then we only had girls in the sixth form, and I think the thirteen or fourteen that left in 78 were the first girls who ever came to QEGS.
It was a different school. It was a different world.
This is how different: In 1978 the Queen overtook her grandfather George V to become the 13th longest reigning monarch on the English throne. The 13th longest reigning monarch.
As I sat there (point at south transept) in 1978, I had no idea that I’d come back and stand here in 2015 less than a week before the Queen becomes our longest reigning monarch ever. 
1978 to today has been that long!
In 1978 we really did fear that the world would end with a nuclear war between the USA & the Russia. The school Debating Society held evenings with titles like, “This House Would Rather Be Dead Than Red”. We genuinely thought we might be invaded by the Soviets.
We never dreamed we might one day have a family holiday in Croatia - 
mostly because in 1978 we’d never heard of Croatia; it was still called Yugoslavia, and it was still run, as it had been since World War Two, by a chap called Marshal Tito.
Actually, Fred Bury, Deputy Head in 1978, had been an RAF pilot in World War Two, and when Tito died in 1980 I seem to recall Fred telling a packed school assembly an amazing story about flying Tito to a secret conference in Italy... That’s what you (indicate Deputy Head) have to live up to: we had Second World War RAF pilots who flew future Iron Curtain leaders on clandestine missions.
Here’s a list I made of things we could never have imagined in 1978 - just so you might begin to realise how impossible it is to begin to work out how your future will look in 40 years time. 
We’d never have imagined so many girls in school.
We’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets with more computing power than frankly we could ever have imagined.
Actually, we’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets. 
We’d never have imagined the internet. So no Facebook. And no Google. Or Amazon. We had to actually go shopping for everything. That’s what school lunchtimes were for.
In 1978 we’d never seen MacDonalds.
We couldn’t have imagined Ant & Dec. 
Or Saturday evening TV without Bruce Forsyth or Cilla Black; thank goodness Doctor Who keeps going...
We couldn’t have imagined two Iraq wars; or ISIS; or refugees and migrants pouring across the Mediterranean, locked in vans in middle Europe and desperate to get across the Channel. 
Writing to a people far from home, in a world two and a half thousand years ago where everything was changing & no-one could tell what the future would bring, the prophet Jeremiah wrote two things that still hold true today. I’m going to ask you to listen just a bit longer as I tell you what they are. 
Because all of us always face a future that is normally beyond our control.
I mean - There are small things we all have power over.
If you’re in the cricket team, you know when a ball comes at you whether you should play a defensive shot or whack it out of the park. But not till it’s coming right at you.
If you’re in the school play, you rehearse and rehearse and you know your lines and think you are ready but till there’s an audience out there, you don’t know if you’re going to smash it or what it will feel like when you do.
And those of you facing GCSEs and A levels this year already have the power to shape next August. It’s not just your summer brilliance in the exam hall, it’s choosing to be your best you now that makes the difference. 
But at the end of the day, these are the relatively small things we have some power over.
The truly big things - from our own health to world events - are not in our own gift. 
We face a future that is always uncertain and frankly normally beyond our control.
Jeremiah writes to us, as to the wandering and lost people of his own nation so very long ago:
First he writes: “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.”
You may not know what the future holds, as I didn’t when I sat there in 1978; but you may know who holds the future. Again: You may not know what the future holds, but you may know who holds the future. That’s the amazing assurance of Jeremiah’s message. I’d never heard anything like it till I heard it here at QEGS. 
I didn’t know that there was an alternative to ignorance or fear or arrogance or apathy. I didn’t know. But suddenly I heard that in the midst of everything, we could know the One who holds the future. The One who has plans to bring us hope even when everything else is so uncertain. Hope. Such a precious gift.
In Emily Dickinson’s beautiful words:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

 
For Christians, this Hope is one of the key changes that first the birth and gloriously the Resurrection of Jesus makes to the world. Let me speak from my very long experience from 1978 to today: Hope changes the darkest day. As you all sit here on the threshold of your future, it’s a gift God offers to each and every person in this place.
How do we receive such a gift? Well, I remember sitting in school assembly one day and hearing our then chaplain, Brian Underwood, speaking about words from this same passage of Scripture. This is the second thing we’ll take from Jeremiah today. He tells us that finding hope isn’t about keeping the rules or fulfilling expectations or being outwardly religious or making a fortune or having thousands chanting your name.
Jeremiah writes, This is where hope is found - 
God says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
 
Look: Do not fear the future, and do not try to control it. No point. Do your best with the things within your power, and for the rest, seek to find trust and hope wherever you can and you will be people who bring trust and hope into this world.  
And seek God with all your heart, because when you do, you will find a future filled with more hope than you can begin to think or imagine.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

three down

I'm preparing a sermon for the start of the new academic year at my old school. I sort of know what I'm going to say, but thought I'd browse through the school website as I marshal the right words into the right order.

There in the OB section is notice of the passing of one of my History teachers, Alan Petford. He was just thirteen years older than me. My school was his first posting.

Scholarly, enthusiastic, endlessly giving of his time to encourage students who showed any flicker of interest or initiative, Alan was old school when old school was already out of fashion. I remember being driven to a sixth-form History conference in Lancaster in his old (and I mean 1950s) Rover through the Forest of Bowland (no motorways for us) and simply being grateful he hadn't chosen to drive his more familiar Landrover to school that day.

He was a stickler for punctuality and politeness in class. No chewing in Mr Petford's class... And his academic gown (it was that kind of school) brought its own cloud of dust wherever he went, as he never saw the purpose of a board duster when the edge of that scholarly garment, when not wrapped round him for warmth, was perfect for the job.

The photo from the school site shows his craggy features and piercing gaze. It misses the slightly crazed hair of his youth. And of course, the angle of his eyebrows when quizzical or intense or crossed or...just being Mr Petford.

When I started at grammar school, I had David Ramm; and then Lynn Martindale the year after. They returned as my sixth-form history teachers. But Alan Petford taught the years in between (French Revolution; England & Ireland in late 18th & early 19th centuries), though in the sixth-form I had him for an extra Local History AO level. These days I seem endlessly to be renewing, re-ordering and renovating church buildings; it was Alan Petford who first taught me church architecture, albeit of a mostly Lancastrian and mostly seventeenth and eighteenth century bent.

A few of us wanted to form a debating society. There existed one for sixth-formers, but nothing below that. I think I was in 2X, and we asked our form master if he'd help us, and he did - but he quickly passed us on to another teacher whom he thought would do a better job. The "another teacher", of course, was Alan Petford. Alan gave us time, energy, ideas, patience, encouragement and much more. He put up with us when ill-prepared and beamed when we triumphed. He found milk and tea before meetings and helped us wash up afterwards. He even sat and offered wisdom when we bothered to realise that he was always ready to help before the event. I suspect my weekly public speaking now owes more to his early interventions than I am even vaguely aware.

I was of course a History Boy. Seventh Term Oxbridge entry exam, after A levels, followed by a train journey from Preston station and then interview at Merton College.  David, Lynn and Alan all played their part in that term, with Mr Ramm heading it up. I tried to keep contact with them afterwards, when I went to university. But first Lynn passed, and then David, and of course getting an email out of Alan Petford was never going to happen.

Now it's three down.

Funny, at junior school I was top of my class and my year every year. At grammar school I never topped a class again. Well, in the sixth form I once came top of English; I was of course in the History set so that was unfortunate. But I had three History teachers who made me feel top of the class every time I was with them, and who gave me an academic direction I'd never otherwise have known. It's a commonplace to talk of people who touch our lives, but they did. And though it's a long time ago - I left school more than thirty years ago - their touch remains with me and I remain, always, thankful.