Sermon at the Commissioning of Lay Evangelists at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton – January 14th 2018

Tonight our Lord Jesus Christ has given a wonderful gift to his church. He has given us the gift of Alison Hurlburt, Corinna Kubos, and Jenny Stuart to be sent out as evangelists, to spread the good news and to help make new disciples for Jesus. These are the three lay evangelists we are commissioning tonight. But I want to say right from the start that there are more people involved than just these three. Sandra Arbeau has been with us through the whole process of formation; she has recently been ordained as a deacon so will not be licensed as a ‘lay’ evangelist, but she is very much a part of our community of evangelists in this diocese. Also in that community – and here tonight with us – are Richard King and Steve London who have been with us as participants, teachers and learners together with the others.

So these evangelists are the wonderful gift God is giving to his church tonight. I’m using this language of ‘gift’ intentionally, and I use it knowing very well that not everyone would see an evangelist as a gift! Some people see evangelists as a nuisance, or an embarrassment, or a theological anachronism. Some people would see them as fitting in more easily in a Pentecostal or Evangelical setting, and wonder why we’re doing this tonight in an Anglican cathedral!

But we’re here tonight because we don’t see it that way. We’re here because we’re enormously grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the gift of these evangelists. We’re here to receive that gift with joy and celebrate it together, and to pray for them, and to ask God to bless them and guide them as they continue in the ministries to which God has called them.

Why am I using this language of ‘gift’? Because it’s the language used in our reading from Ephesians tonight. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:

‘The gifts he (that is, Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (NRSV).

In the NIV it’s even more clear:

‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

The fullness of Christ – that’s what this is all about. The job God has given to the Church is to live out the fullness of Christ before the world. But it’s not possible for each of us to do that as individuals. I by myself am not the Body of Christ, and neither are you. The Church – the whole Christian community together – is the Body of Christ, and together we live out the fullness of Christ in the sight of the world.

What is the fullness of Christ? Paul doesn’t use the word ‘love’ here, because he’s already rung the changes on that word many times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. But we really can’t start with anything else but love. What do the most famous verses in the Bible tell us?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17).

Behind the coming of the Son – behind his ministry to people in his own time and down to the present through the Church – behind all of that is the mighty ocean of the love of God – God’s steadfast, unconditional, stubborn love.

And how does God demonstrate that love? Some modern translations say “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” – which is not a wrong idea, but leaves out an important nuance in the original. “God so loved” doesn’t just mean “God loved the world so much”; it also means “God loved the world in this way”. In other words, the specific act of love the author has in mind is the gift of the Son. God loved the world by giving the gift of his Son, who would leave his place of safety and take the risk of coming among us as one of us, to save us from all that binds us and destroys us, and to give us the gift of eternal life.

So the central fact of the character of Jesus is this outgoing, risk-taking love of God. How does the Church live out the fullness of this love? Paul says that we do it by receiving the gifts he gives us – the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can’t live out the fullness of his character if one of those gifts is missing, or (even worse) if we refuse one of those gifts. All of those gifts are necessary to build up the Church so that we live out the fullness of Christ before the world God loves.

In the Anglican Church in recent years we’ve been a little hesitant to receive Christ’s gift of ‘evangelists’. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts that express love and pastoral care for those inside the church. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts of service and practical care for those on the outside. But the evangelist – the one who announces the good news of Jesus – the one who shares it with others and invites them to become followers of Jesus – we haven’t always received that gift quite as enthusiastically! But tonight, we’re redressing that balance. Tonight we’re celebrating this gift, and the way it helps us live out the fullness of Christ.

And I want to underline for you – going back for a moment to those verses from the Gospel of John – that evangelism is all about love. If it’s not all about love, then it really isn’t evangelism! We Christians believe that God’s gift of Jesus to the world is the greatest expression of the love of God the world has ever seen. The fact that God would come among us himself in the person of his Son, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to himself – if that’s true, it’s the most important event in the history of this planet. It can’t be just an incidental detail. It can’t be just one item among many in the smorgasbord of religious resources.

No – the news that the God of all creation loved us in this way –  by coming among us as one of us, and by calling people to follow him – is news that needs to be shared with others. Because if it’s true, then – as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism adviser said a few years ago – the best decision a human being can ever make is to follow Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So with love and joy in our hearts we’re called to share the good news of God’s Son with the world he came to save.

And that’s what Alison and Corinna and Jenny are going to help us to do. That’s why we’re commissioning them tonight as lay evangelists in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I can tell you, because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them very well, that each of them – along with the others who have been part of our learning community – each of them has a wonderful story to tell of how God has been at work in their lives, helping them know Christ and follow him. God isn’t just a theory to them; God is a living reality, and for each of them, the great passion of their lives is to know God better and live out his love for others. And especially to – as my daughter likes to say to her little kids – ‘Use your words!’ These three people are not afraid to ‘use their words’ to share the love of God! In fact, when they get together, we often have the opposite problem! They have so much to say that we have a hard time getting through the agenda for the day!

I can also tell you that these three evangelists are not ashamed of living as Christians outside the walls of the church. It’s important to say this, because I think a lot of Christians are shy about that. They don’t mind being identified with Christ on Sunday mornings when they gather together with other Christians, but during the week they’d rather keep quiet about it. Sometimes that’s understandable; we know that not everyone who names the name of Christ right now is necessarily bringing credit to that name, and it would be easier for us not to be associated with those folks. I know these three feel that way sometimes too. But I also know that out in the working world, and in their daily lives with their families and friends, each of them has taken the step of somehow – not aggressively, but firmly – identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. And each of them is finding ways of effectively engaging the world they live in every day, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.

So what do we hope our evangelists will do?

First, we hope they’ll carry on doing what they’re already doing – following Jesus and sharing his love with the people around them, by action and also by word. We hope they’ll keep growing in the skills they’ve been learning to help them do that. We hope that through their witness people who are not yet followers of Jesus will fall in love with him and begin to follow him.

Second, we hope they’ll teach and mentor others to be effective witnesses too. I find it interesting that in the reading from Ephesians the evangelists are included among the list of gifts Christ has given to the Church, to build up the Church’s life. That’s because all Christians, not just evangelists, are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. But most of us are scared to do this.

And this is where lay evangelists can help us. I think most of us have had the experience of going to an expert for help and then finding that he or she is so far advanced that they can’t remember what it was like to be as confused as we are! I’m conscious of the fact that some clergy are like that – we use words like ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘soteriology’ and ‘salvation history’ and ‘epistemology’, to which a lot of people respond with a blank stare and a ‘huh?’ And most clergy don’t have to live their faith in the context of a largely unbelieving or apathetic community, so it’s hard for them to relate to the struggles ordinary people have as they try to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

But these three lay evangelists know all about those struggles! Jenny’s a property manager, and Corinna works in a penitentiary, and Ali works in student services at a university. So they are well placed to help us learn to be effective witnesses in our daily lives in the world, because that’s where they live day by day.

So we hope our evangelists will continue to share their faith and make new disciples for Jesus, and we hope they’ll teach and mentor others in their churches to do the same thing. Thirdly, we hope they’ll be leaders in helping their churches connect with the world around them. Years ago, all kinds of people used to wander into churches in times of crisis, or family occasions like baptism and weddings and funerals. Nowadays, a lot less people do that. We can’t wait for people to connect with us any more; we have to find new and creative ways of connecting with them.

This is nothing new, of course! After all, in the great commission Jesus did not say “Wait for people to come to you and then make them my disciples”! He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s up to us to make those connections, and I know these three lay evangelists will be helping their parishes find creative ways of doing that.

I want to close by saying that it’s been an enormous privilege and joy for me to work with these three, along with Sandra and Richard and Steve, as we’ve gone through the formation process together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I’ve gone to our Saturday sessions stressed out and discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I’ve always – always – come away encouraged and revived and renewed in my joy in the Gospel, because of their enthusiasm and their joy. This is the gift they’ve given me, and it’s a gift I look forward to continuing to receive and share with them in the years ahead as we work to spread the Gospel together.

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 12

Link back to Chapter 11

Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.

After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.

It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.

“You think so?”

“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so”.

He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”

I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.

“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.

I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.

“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.

“I never thought of that”.

******

Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.

“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”

“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.

“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”

“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”

“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.

“Are you doing any more writing?”

“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.

“Will you write about George Eliot again?”

“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.

“That would be excellent!”

“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”

“I still am”.

“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”

“I still really like him”.

“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”

I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.

“I know – I’m sorry about that”.

“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.

“Me too. How’s Emma?”

“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.

“I would enjoy that”.

“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.

“She’s made some friends, then?”

“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.

“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.

“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.

“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.

“It would be fun to compare notes”.

“I’d like that”.

“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”

“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.

“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.

“Yes, it would”.

“So when were you thinking?”

“Would next weekend work for you?”

“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.

“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”

“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.

“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”

“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.

“Is that why the party’s over there?”

“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”

“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.

******

She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.

Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.

“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.

“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.

“I remember”.

“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”

He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.

“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.

“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.

“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”

He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.

We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.

“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.

“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.

“As a doctor?”

“Yes”.

“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”

“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.

Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.

“Are you still a churchgoing family?”

“We are”.

“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.

“Tom told me that”.

“My dad’s pleased, of course”.

“Where do you go?”

“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”

“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.

“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”

“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.

“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.

“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.

“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.

I nodded; “There was”.

“Do you mind me asking about it?”

“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.

Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.

“We did”.

“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.

“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.

“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”

“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.

“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“They are”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”

“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.

“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.

I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”

Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.

“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.

“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.

“It was mutual”, I replied softly.

“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.

“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.

“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.

“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.

“I can imagine”.

We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.

“That must have been stressful”, I said.

“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.

“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.

“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.

“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.

“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.

“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.

“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.

“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.

I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”

“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.

“I think there is”.

So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”

“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”

“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”

“I’m on it”.

The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.

For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.

Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”

Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.

“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.

“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.

“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”

Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.

Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”

“That’s what I thought!”

“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”

“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.

“Right”.

Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.

We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.

“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.

“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.

“Thanks!”

“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.

Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”

“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.

“Thank you – I would love that!”

I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.

“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”

“What sort of event?”

“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.

“A Christmas carol concert?”

“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.

I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.

“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.

“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”

She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course”.

“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.

“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.

“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.

“I’m sure we will”.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11)

Today I want to talk to you about Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I’m guessing some of you might be puzzled by this phrase. I can almost hear you thinking, “What the heck is ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’?” We all understand baptism in water – we’ve seen it lots of times. Sometimes it happens when adults come to faith in Jesus and then step forward to be baptized to seal their commitment to Christ. But most often it happens to babies, when parents present them to be baptized, or ‘christened’ as it’s still often called. But what on earth is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?

If you feel confused about this, you’re in good company! In our reading from Acts today we heard that when Paul was traveling through what is now Turkey, he came to Ephesus and found some people who claimed to be Christian disciples. But when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).

Christian people today often share their confusion. We understand about God the Father who created the world and everything in it. We understand about Jesus the Son of God who lived and died and rose again to save us. But we find it hard to understand or even imagine the Holy Spirit. This third person of the Trinity seems shadowy and vague, and perhaps it seems appropriate to us that we once called him ‘The Holy Ghost’! And as for the idea that you can somehow be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit in the same way we’re baptized in water – well, that sounds really strange to a lot of people. But in fact it ‘s clearly taught in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

So let’s think for a few minutes about water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in water is something we got from Jesus himself; Jesus teaches us that it’s part of the process of becoming his disciples. He says in Matthew 28 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (18b-19). The early Christian missionaries enthusiastically obeyed this command; they traveled all over the known world preaching the good news of Jesus. People heard their message, and some believed it and wanted to commit their lives to Jesus and become his followers. So they were baptized and they joined the Christian community where they learned to put his commands into practice.

At first all those who were baptized were adults. Later on, many Christians came to believe it was right and good for children of Christian parents to be received into the Christian community by baptism, so that families could be united as followers of Jesus. But whether adult or infant, from the beginning baptism has been a missionary act. The Christian message goes out and those who believe and want to practice it are baptized – along with their children – as a sign of being reborn into the new life in Christ. It’s part of the process of becoming a Christian.

One of the difficulties about reading the Bible is that the different books were written by different people, and they don’t always use words in the same way. This is true with this phrase, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’: it’s used by Paul in one sense, and the gospel writers in another. Paul only uses it once, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, and it’s clear that he means exactly what we’ve just been talking about – the experience of becoming a Christian. He says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

He’s talking about the experience of becoming a Christian: you put your faith in Jesus, you’re baptized, and you receive the Holy Spirit – in whatever order those things come for you! We’re all alike in this, Paul says – all of us Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should never take this incredible gift for granted. In Advent we were thinking about Mary becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and carrying the Son of God in her womb for nine months. She was literally a human temple – a place where God lives. But what was true of Mary in a physical sense is also true of you and me in a spiritual sense: as Paul says in another place, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul means by being ‘baptized by one Spirit into one Body’ – we put our faith in Jesus, we are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So a baptism service isn’t just about parents and godparents standing up and making promises. And an adult conversion – when a person turns from unbelief and commits themselves to becoming a Christian – isn’t just a human process either. It’s not just about human reasoning, human decision, or human willpower. No – the Holy Spirit is at work, coming to live in you, marking you as belonging to God, connecting you with God, giving you the power to follow Christ. It’s actually quite miraculous! So please – let’s not take it for granted! Let’s thank God every day that we’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let’s learn to recognise his presence and follow his leading.

And this leads me to ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the second sense – the sense in which the gospel writers and the Book of Acts use the phrase. In our gospel for today we heard about John the Baptist and his preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came to him from all over the place and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins for all the world to hear. It was a powerful religious revival and it had some people wondering whether John was the Messiah that they’d all been waiting for. But he said ‘no’. Look at Mark 1:7:

‘He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”’.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to be totally immersed, to be surrounded and filled with water, like a sunken ship sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean – or to be overwhelmed, like a house swept away by a flood. This, says John, is what the Messiah is going to do for you. Baptism with water may seem pretty exciting, but it’s pretty tame compared to what you’re going to experience when the Messiah comes! You’re going to be totally flooded, overwhelmed, immersed, and filled to overflowing with the power of God’s Spirit!

In the Book of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection, he himself confirmed this promise to his disciples. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for ‘the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And so it was; a few days later we read that the early Christians were all together in one place, when ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:2-4). People heard the noise, and a crowd gathered, marveling because they could each hear the Christians speaking in their own language. Eventually Peter got up to speak, and the Holy Spirit used his words so powerfully that three thousand people decided to become Christians that day. They saw that God wasn’t just a theory or a theological symbol: there was a real God who did real things in the real lives of real people. They had seen it in the newly Spirit-filled Christians, and they wanted it for themselves.

And by the way, this wasn’t just a one-off thing in the lives of these early Christians – they had a similar experience in Acts 4, after they’d been persecuted for the first time by the religious establishment. We read that they gathered together and prayed, and when they were finished ‘the place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31).

Experiences like these seem to be just part of normal Christian life in the New Testament. In our reading from Acts this morning Paul notices immediately when the Spirit seems to be missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asks, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. On further inquiry he discovers that they haven’t actually received Christian baptism yet, only the baptism of John, so he baptizes them. Afterwards we read that ‘When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:1-7).

So in the New Testament there’s this strongly experiential element to Christianity. It’s not just about belonging to an institution called the church, and going to its services on Sundays. It’s not just about reading the Bible and believing the creeds and the doctrines of the Christian faith. It’s not just about trying to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in your daily life.

No – New Testament Christianity is also an experience – an experience of knowing God. It’s an experience that makes absolutely no sense unless there’s a real God who does real things in the lives of real people. It’s about my life and your life being touched by the hand of God. It’s about God coming to live in us in a spiritual sense, so that we become temples of the Holy Spirit – places where God lives.

Some Anglicans are afraid of this kind of talk because it sounds rather Pentecostal to them. They think “That’s not why I go to an Anglican church; if I wanted that kind of thing I’d go down to Millwoods Pentecostal!” So let’s address this for a minute: is this sort of spirituality only for Pentecostals, or is it for us too?

The thing about reading the stories of the earliest Christians is that they weren’t Roman Catholics or Baptists or Anglicans or Pentecostals – they were just Christians. Their Christianity had a strong sacramental flavour to it – they had a very high view of sacraments like baptism and Holy Communion – something we associate today with the catholic traditions. They also had a high view of scripture and the importance of teaching, like modern evangelicals. They took the teaching of Jesus seriously and tried to put it into practice in their daily lives, loving their enemies and living simple lives with few possessions – something we associate today with Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions. And they also had a strongly experiential element – they expected the Holy Spirit to touch them and do remarkable things in their lives – just like modern Pentecostals.

Nowadays we’ve split up these emphases and made different denominations out of them, but the Holy Spirit won’t go along with that. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have many churches, he has one Church, the Body of Christ. All of these truths are part of the universal Christian faith, meant for all people in all places. We Anglicans are happy to share our gifts of liturgy and sacraments with other Christians. And we also need to be open to receiving from the treasures other Christians have been given.

I’m not going to describe for you this morning what an experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is like, because there isn’t just one experience. God works in many different ways in the lives of many different people. Some people have experienced something very dramatic – an overpowering feeling of the love of God, maybe accompanied by something like the speaking in tongues described in our Acts reading. For other people it’s been something much more quiet and gradual, perhaps deepened as they’ve given more time to silent prayer on a regular basis.

But I do want to say something about the fear factor. I can understand it, because I’ve felt that fear myself. I like a form of Christianity where everything’s under control, where everything’s predictable. I can preach a pretty good sermon and do a half decent job of running a parish all by myself, thank you very much, without having to call on God for help! God’s so unpredictable; if I pray for the Spirit to come, he might and he might not, and I’m going to look pretty foolish if he doesn’t. So I’d rather just avoid the whole thing.

But I don’t think avoiding it is normal Christianity. Read through the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, and see the place of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians. See how Jesus promises this gift to his followers, and how he reminds us that the heavenly Father gives good gifts to those who ask him. Ask yourself, “If I pray to be filed with the Holy Spirit, would God give me something bad in response?” And if you decide – as I’ve decided – that this is meant for us today too, then pray, and keep on praying, trusting the Father who loves you, until you also experience baptism in the Holy Spirit, as the early Christians experienced it and as Christians down through the centuries have experienced it.

Let me close with this thought. In Psalm 34:8 the writer says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. He doesn’t say, ‘Think about eating’ or ‘Do a study on eating’, or ‘listen to the experiences of others who have eaten’. He says, ‘taste’. In other words, for this Old Testament writer the experience of the presence and power of God was as tangible as the taste of his food.

Now whether you’ve experienced that for yourself or not, I think you can agree that it would be a life-changing experience. So let me encourage you to cultivate your hunger for God. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the touch of his Spirit. Ask, and seek, and knock, and keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until the Lord answers your prayer – and then come back and tell your brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has done for you.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 11

Link back to Chapter 10

Through October and early November Emma and I gradually fell into a pattern of going out to Northwood at least one evening during the week to visit my parents. We usually went out for part of the weekend as well; if we went on Friday night we would stay until late afternoon or early evening on Saturday, and then go home so that we could attend Banbury Road Baptist Church the next morning. If we went out on Saturday morning we usually went to the village church Sunday, had lunch with my parents and then went home early in the afternoon so that I could finish my school preparations for the week ahead.

One weekend in mid-November we drove out to Northwood for supper on Friday night, intending to spend most of the weekend. Becca was on call but she was planning on joining us for supper on Saturday, and so was my Auntie Brenda. My father was getting over a mild stomach bug and was still feeling a little nauseated, so he went to bed early. I had brought some work out with me, so I asked my mother if she and Emma would excuse me for a couple of hours; “If I get this work done tonight I’ll be able to forget about school for the rest of the weekend”, I said, “or at least, ’til Sunday afternoon”.

“Of course” she replied; “Would you like to use your dad’s study?”

“Actually the kitchen table will be fine, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all”.

So I sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours, marking assignments and then doing preparation work for the week ahead. In my early days as a teacher I had found marking tedious; reading thirty papers one after another, each one dealing with basically the same material, had a tendency to drag after a while. But gradually over the years I had come to see it as an opportunity to get inside the minds of my students; not all of them would let me in very far, but some did, and they gave me insights about themselves I would not have been able to discover in any other way.

When the marking was done I made a few general notes to cover with the classes the following week, and then did a little re-reading of some material I would be introducing to my Year Elevens on Monday. I was almost finished when my mother slipped her head around the door. “Can I come in?” she asked with a smile.

“Of course; I believe it’s your kitchen!”

“I’m just going to put the kettle on. Emma’s reading her book in the living room but she tells me she thinks you might be just about ready for a cup of hot chocolate”.

“She knows me well. I’m nearly finished here”.

“I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“No – I’ve got about five minutes to go, so by the time you boil the kettle I’ll be done”.

She came into the room, glancing at the files on the table in front of me. “I remember you talking with your brother about these long working evenings”.

“I’m used to it. Usually I’m at my desk for two hours at least two nights a week, but with this unfamiliar curriculum it’s more likely to be three. I try to keep my weekends free until Sunday afternoon but this week I got a little behind, so that’s why I’m playing catchup tonight. On Sunday afternoons I start work around three or four and I usually put in at least three hours”.

“It’s a time-consuming job”.

“True – but as Dad used to remind me frequently, the holidays are good”.

She went round to the kitchen sink and poured water into the kettle; “I’ll just put this on the stove to boil”, she said, “and then I’ll leave you alone for five more minutes”.

“Thanks”.

******

As usual I was awake early the next morning, and I went out for a solitary walk before anyone else was up. My mother was making tea by the time I got back; I took Emma a cup and then, as sometimes happened on a Saturday morning, I sat in her room with her while she was drinking it, talking with her about all kinds of things. After about half an hour she glanced at the clock beside her bed and said, “Well, I suppose Grandma’s waiting patiently to make us some breakfast”.

“Probably”.

“What about Grandpa?”

“I haven’t seen him yet”.

“He’s starting chemo again soon, right?”

“Next week, if they think he’s well enough”.

“Do you think his stomach bug is chemo-related?”

“I doubt it; it’s been a couple of months since his last dose”.

“Well”, she said, swinging her legs out of the bed, “I’m heading for the shower. Tell Grandma I’ll be down in ten minutes”.

******

By mid-morning my father had still not appeared downstairs. My mother went up to see how he was feeling, and she came down a few minutes later to tell us that he sent his apologies and would probably not be joining us for morning coffee; he was still not feeling well enough to leave his room.

“So this is a little more than a mild stomach bug”, I said.

She shrugged; “It’s persistent, anyway”.

“Should we call a doctor?”

“I’ll wait ’til after Becca comes; if she thinks it’s more serious I’ll do whatever she suggests”.

“Good plan”.

Emma had been sitting quietly in the corner reading; now she closed her book and said, “Would you like me to make him a cup of herbal tea, Grandma? It’s a lot easier on the stomach. Do you have any in the house?”.

“I think there might be some chamomile somewhere in the kitchen. We very rarely drink it; I don’t know what he’ll think”.

Emma got to her feet; “Shall I put the kettle on?”

“Alright, then, I suppose there’s no harm in trying”.

They went out to the kitchen together. I sat in the living room alone for a while, sipping my morning coffee and enjoying the sunshine pouring in the windows. It was a fine late-autumn day outside, and the weather was beckoning me; I was already planning a long walk that afternoon. I glanced at the book Emma had been reading; since finishing Wendy’s introduction to George Eliot, she had begun to slowly work her way through Daniel Deronda.

After a few moments I heard the creak of the staircase as Emma and my mother made their way upstairs, and then for a long time all was quiet. I could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock out in the hallway, and back in the kitchen the faint sound of a radio playing classical music. Finally I heard footsteps coming down the stairs; my mother came back into the room, a smile on her face, and sat down beside me. She leaned over and poured herself a cup of coffee. “I know I’ve said this before”, she said, “but you’ve raised a wonderful girl there”.

“She’s charmed her way into Dad’s good graces again, has she?”

“He was surprised, of course, but she sat down beside the bed and asked him how he was feeling. The next thing I knew she was helping him sit up a bit and putting some pillows behind his back; then he started to drink the tea she’d poured for him and she started asking him questions about this and that, and now they’re chatting away like old cronies up there”.

I smiled and nodded; “I’ve seen that happen many times. She just seems to have a way with older people, especially when they’re feeling under the weather. Kelly was like that too”.

“Yes – she’s so very much like her mother, isn’t she?” She glanced at the book in my hand; “What are you reading?”

“It’s Emma’s book actually. She’s on a George Eliot track right now”. I told my mother about our discovery of Wendy’s book, and our meeting with her; to my surprise she remembered Wendy very clearly from our student days. “Yes – you and Owen brought her out here a couple of times; you played a concert for our music society one night, didn’t you?”

“We did – I’m surprised you remember!”

“I remember it very well. It wasn’t often I got the opportunity to hear you and Owen play after you went to university, and then when Wendy joined your group – well, I think that was the only time I heard the three of you together in a concert setting. She had a marvellous voice, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did”.

“Do you think you’ll be seeing much of her?”

“I’m not sure; she seems fairly busy”.

A few minutes later I heard Emma coming down the stairs. She came into the living room, put two empty cups on the coffee tray and said “Well, I think chamomile tea was a hit”.

My mother put her hand on Emma’s. “Thank you; you’ve brought a little bit of sunshine into his life this morning. I know he sometimes seems hard and unfeeling but he’s actually really very pleased that you’re here”.

“I know he is”, Emma replied.

******

Emma and I went out for a walk for a couple of hours after lunch. She enjoyed having me show her the country walks Owen and I had taken when we were teenagers and she especially liked the footpath along the bank of the Thames, which had become a standard part of our afternoon outings. Also, it had become customary for us to drop by for half an hour at the home of George and Eleanor Foster. Eleanor’s hip was giving her a lot of trouble but George often joined us for part of our walk; he had discovered that Emma enjoyed good books and he liked talking with her about her reading.

When we arrived back at my parents’ home later in the afternoon my father was sitting in the living room with my mother. In answer to our queries, he said that he was feeling a lot better, and perhaps there was something in chamomile tea that could be marketed to the National Health Service. Then, sitting in his easy chair by the fire, he looked across at Emma and said, “Speaking of the National Health Service, what’s happening about that little glitch you ran into when you were applying for your nursing training? Have you got it sorted out yet?”

“Yes and no”, she replied quietly. “They’ve admitted I don’t really fall into either of their usual categories, so they’ve agreed to let me begin nursing training next September after only a year’s residence in the UK instead of three. But they won’t waive their policy of not funding me until I’ve lived here for three years”.

“That won’t be a problem”, I added; “As I said, I’ve got the money to cover it”.

“Where will you be going for this training?” my father asked Emma.

“Oxford Brookes – the School of Health and Social Care is right in Marston and the teaching hospital is the JR”.

“So you’d be living at home?”

“Yeah – that’s one of the nice things about it”.

“And is this a degree program or some sort of diploma?”

“A degree; that’s what I want to do – or at least make a start on, depending on how long we stay here”.

He nodded his approval; “Very wise. Now tell me – exactly how much per year is this going to cost?”

“Dad, you don’t need to worry about this”, I cut in. “As I said, I can handle it, and the chances are that before too long Emma will be able to get a paying job too, so she can help”.

“Will you just answer my question, please? How much money are we talking about?”

I was determined not to let his insistent manner irritate me. “For an overseas student it’s around six thousand pounds a year”.

“Emma’s considered an overseas student, is she? Even though she’s a British citizen?”

“Yes”.

“And that cost probably doesn’t include textbooks and other incidental expenses?”

“No, it’s just registration and tuition”.

“That’s a lot of money”. He turned to Emma; “I’d be glad to pay those fees for you”.

“Dad!” I exclaimed angrily; “Haven’t you been listening? I’ve got the money – we don’t need financial help!”

“But there must be many other things you could spend the money on; if you end up staying  for a longer period of time you may want to buy a house, and the Oxford area’s very expensive. If I cover Emma’s fees you’ll be free to use your money on other things, won’t you? And why shouldn’t I do this for my granddaughter? Surely you’re not saying you don’t ever want me to give her anything?”

“Of course I’m not saying that”. I frowned; “Are you planning on doing this for Rick’s children too?”

“They probably won’t need it; Rick’s making a lot more money than you are”.

“Dad, I really would rather you let me handle this in my own way. I’ve got enough money to cover it”.

He eyed me in silence for a moment, his face hardening. I could feel myself reverting to my fifteen year old self, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful his overbearing manner would provoke me to lose my temper.

“I don’t understand this”, he said slowly and coldly. “I’m offering to pay Emma’s fees through her time at university. This will be a real help to her because she won’t have any financial worries through her nursing training. It will be a real help to you because you’ll be freed of the expense of her education and you’ll be able to use the money you’ve saved to get ahead in other ways. And it will be a benefit to me too, because I’ve hardly seen her at all for most of her life and I haven’t had the opportunity to do her any good. But you’re sitting there telling me you don’t want this help. I find it hard to attribute that attitude to anything other than unwillingness to accept anything from me, and I find that quite offensive”.

“You’re wrong”, I said quietly; “That’s not the reason”.

“Then why?”

“As I keep telling you, I have plenty of money to cover Emma’s education, and at the moment I don’t really have any other pressing financial needs. We aren’t planning on staying here permanently so I don’t need to buy a house, and I can cover our monthly rent from my teacher’s salary with a little help from what I’m earning in rental income on our house back home. Emma and I are living simply – which is the way we’ve always lived – and we really don’t need a big infusion of cash right now”.

“Don’t be ridiculous. That car of yours won’t last very long – it’s already five years old – and anyway, I’m sure you’re going to want to make some trips over to Canada to see family and friends some time in the next couple of years, and those trips will need to be paid for. There isn’t a person alive whose daily living couldn’t be made more comfortable with a little more money. Why not let me cover Emma’s fees, at least? That way you’d have another six thousand a year as a cushion”.

I shook my head slowly. “I really don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how else to convince you that I’m fine and I don’t need your help”.

“But I’m not asking you to let me rescue you from financial difficulty; I’m asking you to let me give you a gift, so you can use some of your money on other things or save it for a rainy day. Why won’t you let me give you a gift?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes – honestly”.

“Because I know there will be strings attached”.

He looked at me coldly; “What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ll assume that providing the gift gives you the right to exert control over our lives, just like you tried to do when I was in university”.

“Don’t be ridiculous! How could I possibly exert control over you and Emma? You’re proving the absurdity of that remark right now!”

“You’ll find a way”.

He stared at me for a moment and I saw the anger in his eyes. “And you wonder why I find your attitude offensive”, he said.

“You say it’s a gift?”

“Yes”.

“Then why aren’t you planning on giving the same gift to Rick’s children?”

“As I said, Rick’s in a much better financial position than you are”.

“Maybe so, although you don’t really know anything about the financial position I’m in. But Emma’s got some advantages too; for instance, her dad’s not a workaholic. I don’t spend all my time at work and when I’m home I’m not constantly answering work-related phone calls; Emma and I actually get time to do things together. That’s got to be worth something”.

“This is not about Rick’s busy life; that’s an entirely different subject”.

“Not really; this is about you comparing your two sons – the older son who refused to go along with your plan and went off to Canada to find his own way, and the younger son who dutifully went along with the path you had planned for him and who’s now very successful and very wealthy”.

“Well, you must admit there’s some truth in that – Rick’s financial position is very good and his children will have no worries when it comes to university. And as for you refusing to go along with my plan for your life – well, I still think you made a big mistake there. If you’d stayed in England and gone into Law, Emma would be a UK resident and the NHS would be covering her fees now, and you’d be a lot better off financially than you are”.

“If I’d stayed in England”, I replied softly, “Emma wouldn’t be Emma, because I would never have met her mother, and she wouldn’t have had all the benefits of being part of the Reimer family – one of them being that in that family I never once had this kind of argument”.

He shook his head slowly; “I see”, he said coldly; “I spent your high school years being unfavourably compared to George Foster, and now I’m going to have to sit here and listen to you telling me I don’t measure up to the saintly standard set by the Reimer family. Don’t forget – I paid every penny for your five years at Oxford, even though you refused to follow the career I wanted for you! I didn’t force you to do what I wanted, or refuse to fund your education unless you went along with my wishes; I paid for the whole thing. And I was able to do that because I worked hard in the job you never approved of. Lots of parents need to ask for government help to fund their children’s education, but thanks to the career I had chosen I didn’t need to ask for handouts like that. There wasn’t even any real need for you to work in your summer holidays – you insisted on doing so, but you didn’t need to. So I’m getting rather tired of you getting on your soapbox and criticizing me for my wealth without acknowledging your debt to that wealth. I find that attitude hypocritical in the extreme”.

“You’re calling me a hypocrite?”

“In this instance, yes”.

I could feel my heart pounding. “Well, perhaps I’m not such a wealthy man as you”, I retorted, “but at least I haven’t been too busy to spend time with Emma while she’s been growing up!”

Emma had been listening quietly, but now she spoke up. “Dad”, she said softly, “please stop”.

I turned to face her; “But…”

“I think you should both stop”, she said, looking from me to my father. “This has gone a lot further than my tuition fees, and honestly, if you’re going to go after each other like this, I’d rather not go to university at all”.

“Em…”

She shook her head. “I think you should tell him, Dad”.

“I would really rather not…”

“I know, but he’ll understand”.

“Tell me what?” my father asked.

Emma fixed me with her eyes. “Please, Dad”.

“But…”

She reached out and put her hand on mine; “Then let me tell him”.

I looked at her in silence for a moment, and then I shook my head; “I’ll do it”.

“Do what?” my father demanded.

“Hush, Frank”, my mother said softly; “He’s about to tell you”.

I squeezed Emma’s hand and then sat back in my chair. “I don’t need any financial help from you, Dad”, I said. “I have a hundred thousand dollars, plus two years’ worth of interest, in a savings account for Emma. It came from Kelly’s life insurance policy. After her first bout with cancer back in 1986 she insisted on taking it out. She said it would be the smart thing to do, because…” I paused for a moment, feeling the sudden surge of emotion I had been dreading; “Because cancer sometimes recurs, and we had a child to think of”.

I saw the sudden understanding in his eyes. “Of course! I should have realized that! That’s exactly the kind of thing Kelly would have done”. He frowned thoughtfully for a moment, and then he said, “Well, that was very wise of her, but I still don’t see why you won’t let me pay Emma’s fees; then you could save that money and use it for something else in the future”.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Dad!” I cried, blinking back the sudden rush of tears; “Can’t you see that I could never live with myself if I used it for anything else? Don’t you get it, even now?”

“Oh Tom”, my mother breathed.

I wiped my eyes angrily with the back of my hand. “How could I possibly allow myself to benefit from Kelly’s death? Don’t you understand that I’d give up every penny I had, and far more besides, if I could only get her back? The only reason I haven’t given every cent of it away is that I know Kelly would never, ever want Emma to be deprived of a good education just because she’s not here any more to help me pay for it. But I can’t possibly use it for anything else; I just can’t”. I got to my feet quickly; “I’m sorry”, I said; “I need to…”

My mother reached out and put her hand on my arm. “Go”, she said quietly; “Take all the time you need”.

I nodded gratefully at her, and then turned and left the room.

******

About half an hour later I was sitting in the wing chair beside my bedroom window when I heard a quiet knock on the door.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s me, Tommy”, Becca replied.

“Come in”.

She slipped into the room, closed the door quietly behind her, and then came and knelt down on the floor beside me. “Hello there”, she said, sitting back on her heels.

“Hi; did you just get here?”

“I’ve been here for about ten minutes; Auntie Brenda came out with me. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine”.

She put her hand on mine. “I heard what happened. Emma’s worried; she told me she was the one who suggested you tell Dad about the money”.

“And she was right. I should have told him a long time ago, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it without breaking down – which is exactly what happened”. I looked at her; “Is he down there still?”

“Yes, but he’s not saying much”.

“I still don’t think he understands how I feel”.

She frowned; “I wouldn’t be so sure, Tommy. I’ll be surprised if he brings up the idea of paying Emma’s tuition fees again”.

“You think?”

“I do. It took him a bit longer to get there, but I think he’s there now”.

I gave a heavy sigh; “I hope so”.

She squeezed my hand. “Come on”, she said; “Every minute you spend up here by yourself makes it harder for you to come down. Mum’s made a pot of tea and she and Auntie Brenda are working on dinner; let’s go down and give them a hand”.

******

Emma and I drove back to our place early on Sunday morning to go to church. Later, when we were sitting at the table eating a light lunch, she was strangely quiet. Eventually I said, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah”.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m just thinking”.

“About anything in particular?”

She nodded, looking at me seriously. “Why do you and Grandpa have such a hard time getting along with each other? I sometimes think you really hate each other”.

“That would be a pretty strong word”.

She shrugged; “I’m just telling you what I see”.

“Fair enough”.

“So – what’s it all about?”

“Well”, I said reluctantly, “that’s a big subject”.

“I thought it would be”.

“You want the whole story, do you?”

“Yes”.

I looked down for a few minutes, collecting my thoughts; then I said, “Okay, but it’s not a pleasant story, Em”.

“I understand that”.

I took a sip of my coffee and looked down at the plate in front of me. After a moment I said, “I don’t remember him being around much when I was little; he was busy building up the law firm, and he worked long hours and often brought work home with him. He pretty much left the day-to-day upbringing of his children to my mum. I have no memories of walks or games with him when I was a kid”. I paused for a moment; “Are you really sure you want to hear this?”

“Yes; I want to understand”.

I nodded; “Okay. Well, despite his absences, he was the kind of father who likes to control his kids’ lives and likes to push them to go further and achieve more. Nothing was ever good enough for him; no matter how hard you tried he’d always be able to find things to criticize. He had a wicked temper too; when he got angry he’d say things he shouldn’t have said, really hurtful things, and I was a sensitive kid, although I did my best to hide it. And like I told you a while back, he had definite plans for me”.

“Becoming a lawyer and taking over his practice”.

“Yes”. I gave her a wry grin. “That’s how ‘the Great War’ began; that’s what Owen called it. It started when I was fifteen. I had known since my early teens that Dad was raising me to be a lawyer, but by then I’d met Owen and his dad and I’d begun to realize for the first time that maybe my relationship with my dad wasn’t a normal one. Owen’s dad was my first taste of what a father is meant to be like; he was the one who first inspired me to want to be a teacher, too.

“I told Dad when I was fifteen that I wanted to become a teacher and we fought about it for two years. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps, and he’d just assumed I’d do the same. He was determined to stop me from screwing up my life, and I was just as determined to do what I wanted to do.

“It all came to a head in my last year of high school. We had a spectacular shouting match that lasted for hours, but in the end Mum took my side, and Dad knew he was beaten. From then on he very rarely spoke to me. I studied in Oxford for five years and every day he drove into Oxford to work, but he never once came to see me or asked me out for a drink or made any attempt at all to contact me.

“But even though I hardly ever saw him I could still feel his disapproval. Whenever I went home for holidays the atmosphere in the house was ice cold. He made no secret of how he felt; he was paying the bills so he ought to have the right to tell me what I should be studying and what I should be doing with my life. In his eyes paying for my education was a claim on my future, and I was rejecting that claim. After I finished my three-year English degree he put the pressure on again; he said it wasn’t too late for me to change my mind and I could still transfer to Law.

“But I refused, and for a few months after I started working on my PGCE he was angry with me again. But then he changed tactics; he started to try to control my teacher training and my plans for the future. He criticized the schools I chose to go to for my practicums – especially the one I went to in south Oxford, because it was in a poor area of the city. And then he started looking at job advertisements for me. Once toward the end of my second year of training he even called a school on my behalf to try to arrange an interview. He had no sense at all of how inappropriate that was; when I challenged him on it he said he didn’t want me throwing my life away teaching in third-rate schools on council estates. That’s how far he was willing to go in trying to control my life”.

“And that’s one of the reasons you don’t want him to pay my fees – because you’re afraid he’ll try to control my life too?”

“Yes”.

She put her hand on mine; “Oh, Dad”, she whispered.

I was quiet for a moment and then I said, “In the end I decided that the only way to be free of his interference was to leave the country. There was a student from Canada at our college and he told me about openings for teachers on the prairies. I made all the inquiries in secret, I applied for jobs and initiated the immigration procedure, all without telling Mum and Dad. I knew that once Dad found out he’d go ballistic.

“And I was right – he did”. I stopped talking, took a sip of my coffee and stared off into space. “I had lied to the whole family and told them I was going to get a job in Reading. Then a week before I was due to leave I told them the truth. We were all in the living room, including Rick and Becca; Becca was eleven at the time. I told Mum and Dad I had some news for them: I’d decided to move to Canada and I had a job at a school in Saskatchewan. Mum started to cry, Becca started to cry, and then Dad started to shout. He called me an idiot and a fool and a sneaking liar, and then he took his walking stick and attacked me with it”.

“Oh my God!”

“He struck me three times across my shoulders and twice across my lower back. Mum was crying and pleading with him to stop, but he didn’t, not until I managed to get out of the room and out of the house”.

I had avoided this scene in my memory for years, and as I was retelling it the raw anger was resurfacing. When I was able to continue I said, “So a week later I flew to Canada. I avoided home for that last week; I stayed at Owen’s. And as you know, since then I’ve only come to England a few times and dad has never been to Canada to visit – not for my wedding, and not even for your mum’s funeral”.

She looked at me for a moment without speaking, and then she squeezed my hand; “I don’t know what to say”.

“There isn’t really very much to say”.

She shook her head slowly; “You’re amazing, Dad”.

Amazing? Where did that come from?”

“When you heard that he was dying you came over here anyway, despite all you’ve told me, and you’ve been doing your best to be patient with him. And you’ve been so different in the way you brought me up – so patient and gentle and loving. Where did you learn to be such a good father?”

“Sometimes I’m not sure I am”.

“Yeah, you are”. She frowned; “I remember you told me once that you and Auntie Becca had a quarrel when she was younger”.

“Yes; she felt really hurt because I hadn’t told her what I was going to do: in fact, I’d lied to her about it. I’d told her the same thing I told the others – that I was moving to Reading to take up a teaching job there. She felt like I’d betrayed her; she refused to read any of my letters for the next two years. It was the only time in our lives that there was ever anything like a breach between us”.

“What brought you back together?”

I smiled at her; “Your mum, of course”.

“How?”

“We came to visit here two months before we got married. We attended Rick and Alyson’s wedding, and two weeks later Owen and Lorraine got married. But in between times we stayed at Northwood, and your mum was just herself; she spent time with Becca and listened to her and won her trust. And eventually she got Becca to talk to me, and we apologized to each other, and after that things got a lot better”.

“Auntie Becca’s in your wedding pictures”.

“Yes, your mum asked her while we were here if she’d be one of her bridesmaids. Becs was pretty excited”.

Emma leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I love you”, she said.

“I love you too, honey. Do you understand a little more about Grandpa and me now?”

“Yes”.

“Would you like some more coffee?”

“You sit tight; I’ll make it”.

She got up, picked up our mugs and went across to the kitchen sink; she rinsed out the cafetière, and then filled up the kettle and plugged it in. I watched her for a moment, and then got up and went to stand beside her as she was taking the ground coffee down from the cupboard. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this since yesterday, and I’m wondering if I’m not just being stubborn”.

She rinsed out the mugs, wiped them with a tea towel and stood them on the counter; “You think you should let Grandpa pay my fees?”

“I don’t know. What I said is still true; I honestly don’t know if I could bring myself to use your mum’s life insurance money for anything else”.

“I understand”.

“But maybe I’m wrong about your grandpa’s motives. Maybe at seventy-two, with terminal cancer, he really doesn’t have the energy to try to control people’s lives any more. He certainly hasn’t shown any desire to control yours; quite the opposite, in fact”.

“What do you mean?”

I smiled at her; “Well, you have your mum’s way with you. I think he really likes you”.

She shrugged; “Maybe. I know he’s old and tired and he feels ill a lot of the time, and somewhere down inside there he must be scared, even if he won’t admit it. I try to keep that in mind when I’m with him”.

I bent and kissed her on the forehead. “Emma Dawn Masefield”, I said, “you are one special kid”.

She grinned at me; “You’re not bad yourself, Dad!”

“Thanks”.

“Do you have time for a walk after we have coffee, or do you have to get right down to work?”

“I have time; let’s wash the dishes up while the kettle’s boiling, and then we can have our coffee and go out for a while”.

******

Link to Chapter 12

Be Mery and Glad This Gude Newyere!

Here’s a medieval New Year’s carol.

What cher? Gud cher! Gud cher! Gud cher!
Be mery and glad this gude Newyere!

“Lyft up your harts and be glad”
In Cryste’s byrth the angel bad;
Say eche to oder, yf any be sad:
What cher? Gud cher! Gud cher! Gud cher!
Be mery and glad this gude Newyere!

Now the kyng of hevyn his byrth hath take,
Joy and myrth we owght to make.
Say eche to oder, for hys sake:
What cher? Gud cher! Gud cher! Gud cher!
Be mery and glad this gude Newyere!

I tell you all with hart so fre,
Ryght welcum ye be to me.
Be glad and mery for charite!
What cher? Gud cher! Gud cher! Gud cher!
Be mery and glad this gude Newyere!

The gudman of this place in fere
You to be mery he prayth you here;
And with gud hert he doth to you say:
What cher? Gud cher! Gud cher! Gud cher!
Be mery and glad this gude Newyere!

(From a manuscript from Balliol College, Oxford, MS.354. Described as ‘Richard Hill of London, commonplace-book in English, Latin and French, including transcripts of late medieval poems and carols, London annals, family memoranda, etc., first third of the 16th century.’ Original here. The Clerk of Oxford has a modernized text here.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

Yes, I do believe in these things. I think the reason most people fail is because they make resolutions without making a plan to keep them. But I learned in the first half of 2016 that if I make a plan, I can keep it. And I also know myself well enough to know that if I do these things at times when there is a natural ‘new beginning’, it gives me an added psychological impetus.

So, the Lord being my helper, here are my three 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:

Resolution #1: Get back down to 165 lbs by the end of February (I’m currently at 174).

Plan: use the same diet and exercise regime I used January to June 2016 when I succeeded in losing 52 lbs.

Resolution #2: Don’t buy any new books in 2018. Instead, read the dozens of unread books on my shelves.

Plan: sign out of my Amazon account and let Marci change the password! (Just kidding: she knows about this resolution and will help me stick to it! Although, come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea…)

Resolution #3: Each week, plan and implement new ways to love my neighbour as myself.

Plan: Pick a day of the week to journal about this (probably Saturday) and, having decided what to do, put it on the calendar. I need to do this because I’m very selfish and this is the command I (can you believe it?) get most bored with.

Books I read (or re-read) in 2017

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2017, in the order in which they were read:

Stephen King: On Writing
Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples
Mark Ireland & Mike Chew: How to Do Mission Action Planning
Elma Schemenauer: Consider the Sunflowers
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker: Making New Disciples
C.S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms
Harry Mowvley: 1 & 2 Samuel (People’s Bible Commentary)
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William Paul Young: The Shack
Duane Pederson: Larger than Ourselves
Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Oliver: Blue Horses
Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987
Seamus Heaney: Human Chains
Timothy Keller: Preaching
Michael Harvey: Unlocking the Growth
Barbara Tuchmann: The Guns of August
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Michael Frost: Surprise the World
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
W.O. Mitchell: Roses are Difficult Here
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
Jennifer Robison: Goodnight from London
Adam S. McHugh: Introverts in the Church
Clive James: Injury Time
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
Loveday Alexander: Acts (People’s Bible Commentary)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
T
remper Longman, Philips Long & Iain Provain: A Biblical History of Israel
Kate Rademacher: Following the Red Bird
Yuval Noah Harani: Sapiens
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon
Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
Justin Brierley: Unbelievable?
Chaim Potok: The Chosen
Chaim Potok: The Promise
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves
Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
Ros Wynne-Jones: Something is Going to Fall Like Rain
Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
Stephen Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
Melvyn Bragg: William Tyndale: A Brief History
Chaim Potok: Davita’s Harp
Siddhartha Mukharjee: The Emperor of All Maladies
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
David Daniell: William Tyndale: A Biography
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
George Pitcher: A Dark Nativity
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely Andrew Marr’s We British: The Poetry of a People. Marr is both a good historian and also a lover of poetry, and he manages to combine them both in this volume, which is part anthology, part history of English poetry, and part a social history of Britain and its people. Marci and I read it together and we hugely enjoyed it. And – here’s the rub – Marr introduced me to some poets I knew little about, but who I have since read more of and thoroughly enjoyed.

Honourable mention must go to Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, which not only helped me to understand myself better, but also made me think about the way we do church and what we ask of people – which may be less well suited to the introvert temperament – and how we might make it more inclusive of all temperaments.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, but this third and final book just didn’t cut it for me. There was plenty of horror in the first two books, of course, but it was contained by the device of the Hunger Games. The third book, however, describes in horrifying detail an all-out war, in which child soldiers fight and commit acts that will give them (if they survive – most don’t) nightmares for the rest of their lives. Collins is a wonderfully skilled writer, but I thought she could have imagined a better and stronger ending to the trilogy than this.

I found myself comparing Katniss’s role in the war against the Capitol with Frodo’s in the War of the Ring. Like Katniss, Frodo is a small and seemingly insignificant person, and the major battles happen in places where he is not present, but in the end, because of the plot device of the Ring, he turns out to have the decisive role in the story. What a pity that Collins couldn’t have thought of a way to make Katniss – supposedly the heroine of the novel – the actual centre of the story! Most of the significant moments in the struggle for freedom actually seem to happen when she’s unconscious (she spends a rather large proportion of the book lying convalescing), and in the end, her role in the struggle seems rather peripheral – she’s the centre of the rebels’ P.R. efforts, but that’s about it.

Important discoveries:

Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air. I can’t say ‘His first book’, because there won’t be any more – he died of cancer before it was published. An amazingly honest account of what it feels like for a brilliant doctor to become a cancer patient himself. And while we’re talking about cancer, Siddhartha Mukharjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a brilliant history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer from earliest times to the present day. I learned a huge amount from reading this book.

On a completely different subject, Michael Frost’s Surprise the World describes a simple rule of life for missional Christians based on the acronym ‘BELLS’: ‘Bless’ three people this week, ‘Eat’ with three people this week, ‘Listen’ to the Holy Spirit for one period this week, ‘Learn’ Christ for one period this week, and journal this week about the ways you have been ‘Sent’ in mission. I read it twice and then lead a book study on it in our church which was very well received. I highly recommend it.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns were both excellent reads. I’m a little late in discovering Hosseini; he is my first encounter with a country I knew almost nothing about – Afghanistan – and his books have given me a vivid picture of what life is actually like in that long-suffering country. They are not easy reads – they describe hard events in the lives of people – but they are powerfully written and I look forward to reading more from him.

Finally I should mention Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust which I read just before Christmas, and hugely enjoyed; it is certainly one of my favourite theological reads. I loved his description of the Christian life as learning to believe that God can be trusted. He covered some pretty basic theological themes – creation, incarnation etc. – but as my friend Clarke French remarked, over and over again as I was reading the book I found myself saying “Wow – it’s never been said quite as well as that before!”

And now – on to 2018!