Tuesday, December 06, 2011

farewell, old friend

I have just heard that my old friend, John Murphy, has died.

John was warden at St Catherine's back in 2000 when they were last looking for a vicar, and it was he who chose me to fill that post. He had turned down various worthy contenders, men of age & reputation, telling the bishop he "wanted a young man who won't change anything".

I remember Barry (the then bishop, now archbishop) telling me this at the time with his usual exasperation. "Doesn't he realise the Gospel is about change?" he asked me. Well, I thought to myself, if he gets me, my guess is he'll get change-a-plenty... And I think that knowing this, Barry sent me off to see John as something of a 'teach you a lesson' candidate. A little joke.

Which backfired.

Because John & I hit it off immediately. John, for reasons known only to the Lord (given the church St Catherine's was in those days), was acutely aware that without some remarkable intervention, his beloved St Catherine's was going to go the way of all the congregations around and fizzle out. He was desperate before God that this should not happen; it wasn't that he didn't want change - that was just his language; what he actually meant was that it wouldn't be changed into a High Church Anglican parish like everything else for miles around.

I assured him that wouldn't be our direction of travel.

We managed to find a Bible (eventually) in the church, and I read him a passage of Isaiah about the Lord restoring the fortunes of his people, and John was sold. He rang the bishop - we'll have him. The bishop was, understandably, taken aback. And pleased. And so it came to pass.

I hope John won't mind me sharing this next story.

On my first Sunday at St Catherine's - and you have to understand, St Catherine's was text-book "civic Anglican": two candles and a surplice. Not evangelical. Certainly not charismatic. Goodness, the very thought of it... They still had a robed choir, organ & chanted psalms back then. Anyway. On my first Sunday, John was walking to church from his home on the Common, when he got as far as the park gates and suddenly he heard a voice.

There was no-one there, and he was not given to flights of fancy, but he heard a voice, and he knew who it was.

And the voice said, clear as day: "You did not choose Marcus, and the bishop did not choose Marcus, but I have chosen him for St Catherine's."

In all honesty, for a new vicar with a million ideas and all of them totally radical and off the scale in terms of anything his church has ever experienced, that kind of backing is pretty much gold-dust. And John backed me 100% from that moment on. Even when he disagreed with me. Even when he was right to disagree with me.

He was more than a friend. I could trust him with anything. Every vicar needs a John Murphy.

When he became house-bound, I used to call on him & tell him what was on my mind. The plans I had, the things I wanted to do, the stuff that troubled me. He would listen and advise, and usually his advice was sound. Rarely would I walk away and not act as we had agreed. He was old-school Anglican, and I don't recall hearing him pray out loud much, though he would sometimes offer a few words, yet he was a deeply, profoundly prayerful man with a rich relationship with his Lord.

Some people just have a habit of listening to God; somehow John had it. And of speaking what he heard, though he might not have put it in those terms.

He loved golf. I played him once - on the Wii. He was proudly displaying his skills to me (in his eighties), and I'd never done it, and after two holes I hit something on the control & it reset. Generously, because I had been awful, he said, "Don't worry, we'll start again, you'll get the hang of it." Of course, for a moment my competitive edge had simply slipped his mind. Poor John. I beat him hollow. It took him ages to forgive me...

There was a time when we made a decision together - I think he may even have talked me into it - which turned out bad. It made things difficult for me, and actually became quite painful. He agonised over it; I told him off, gently. The responsibility had been mine. And if it had gone wrong, so what? We stood together through the good & the bad. He helped me cope with the aftermath and gave me a shoulder to lean on. We did it together.

Ken Hayward would make merciless fun of John's foghorn tenor; John would play his own tricks on Ken. I never met Walt, the third member of their life-long gang. When one hears of friendships that go back decades, there is real pleasure in the strength of the bonds of human kindness and love. When one finds friendship with surprising people, across the decades, there is also remarkable joy.

My world is brighter, bigger, better for my friendship with John. He has gone before me to his Joan, to his friends who are already waiting in his & their Lord's company. My eyes are filled with tears as I type, but they are confused tears, mixing the natural sadness of hearing this news with the ongoing simple, true joy of what Christian fellowship & the communion of saints is all about. He is not gone. He is gone before.

After John's health stopped him coming to church on Sundays, I placed his kneeler in my vicar's stall. So I could keep it warm for him. Now John, keep a place warm for me. Till we meet again.

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