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...