A letter to the St Mags family
I am not a slave to tradition, but there is a particular ceremony I experienced during my time in the Navy that I continue to cherish - the 'hail and farewell'. It was meant to be a definitive marker - to honour those who were leaving the squadron right alongside those who were to be welcomed.
It is on this occasion that we find ourselves saying 'farewell' to one family that has been part of St Mags for quite some time. We also take this opportunity to celebrate the arrival of another.
In the space separating the departure of the Garners - and the arrival of the Leaches (Sam will be our new vicar come September 2018), I am reminded by some words from Jason that we are 'surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses'. These are just the kind of witnesses, I think, that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews had in mind.
Jason Garner has asked me to forward a letter to the St Mags family - it is my firm belief that sharing this serves the good of the wider church family.
Finally, it marks the Garner family's departure from St Mags for foreign shores. On behalf of the Mags family, I wish them fair winds and following seas.
Torquay, 28th April 2018
Dear Church Family,
It’s been over a year since I spoke publicly in St Mary Magdalene. That year of silence has been, perhaps, the most challenging of my life. But, as with all challenges that follow on from a person’s acceptance of the calling of the Lord Jesus Christ, I look back - even before I have left the country - and recognise that every trial, every frustration and every sorrow has been worth the struggle. I say that even before I have seen any empirically observable fruit from this chapter of my life. I am immensely grateful to God for the trials I have faced over the last year.
I feel a certain urgency in writing this letter. There are, essentially, two things that I would like to communicate to you, who are so dear to me. One of those things relates to my personal journey and the other relates to journey of the life of the church that I have had the privilege to serve for the last fifteen years.
Firstly, I would like to share what I believe to be the most important thing I have learnt personally this year. It is this: I have come to understand that God desires for us to serve Him simply because we have recognised and accepted that the greatest joy we can experience as humans is to be found in the act of serving Him. This fact - that the greatest joy we can experience is to be found in serving Him - is, despite all my years of sitting through sermons, reading religious books, preaching and leading worship, something of which I was largely ignorant of until this year. It sometimes seems that I have spent a lot of my life trying to convince myself that serving Him is likely to be the best thing, whilst concurrently I have held out against Him inwardly, frightened of what it would cost me.
God knows very well that even those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour are often still far from being convinced that a life of service is the very best thing. For this reason, He calls us to do certain things, and these callings provide us with the opportunity to start walking a path that will lead to the epiphany of joy in service, even if the calling is something as innocuous as accepting a request to apply for a job in New Zealand.
Accepting God’s call to apply for that job led to challenge; challenge led to me to personal failure and personal failure led me to recognising the inescapable fact that I have no ultimate control over my fate, from the very smallest things all the way up to whether I live or die. This recognition was the catalyst that enabled me finally to let go. This is, of course, what God always wanted me to do - to let go. Our letting go has a great historical precedent: the model of Jesus Christ himself, whose documented life story communicates with great beauty and simplicity a man’s willingness to let go on a daily basis, all the way to the cross.
Christians sometimes refer to ‘the way of the cross’. I have come to understand that the way of the cross is nothing mystical or complex. It is simply the decision to continue choosing to walk the next little steps along the path on which He leads us. This decision sometimes involves denying aspects of ourselves - saying ‘no’ to ourselves - at times when, with all our heart, we long to say ‘yes’ to ourselves. The pain of saying ‘no’ to ourselves is very real. It really, really hurts to continue moving along a path away from the instant gratification, easy solutions and quick fixes, towards a goal that cannot be seen and that is guaranteed only by God’s promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.
The story of Jesus Christ plainly shows us that even the Son of God was not spared the most appalling ignominy, sorrow and pain as he created the greatest precedent for a life template that a person can follow. We choose to believe in the resurrection - it is a fundament of our faith. That faith in the resurrection is a choice to believe that we, too, will receive the fruit of God’s good promises if we let go and walk the path that he has for us. It is not easy to do this. And here, the only advice I have is to say that God will not allow us to be tested beyond our capacity to stand firm, even though we can feel, in the trial, that we are being broken on a daily basis.
This all sounds very challenging and very unmanageable. But the message I would like to convey is that, although I still can’t see the end of the path that I am on, I already experience a joy and a peace that far outweighs the pain of the challenges. There is something extraordinary about the peace connected with knowing that compliance to the will of God is the best, the most exciting, and the most perfect path that a person can walk. Whether I actually get to New Zealand or not is somehow - strangely - by the by. Understanding that compliance is the source of the greatest joy has become a goal in its own right.
The one thing I would like to say in connection with compliance is that my natural propensity to wallow in the guilt of commiting some sin or other has sometimes kept me from apologising quickly to God and turning my face back to the path ahead. Depending on the nature of the sin I have committed, I have sometimes decided to keep myself in exile from God's presence for a period of time, as if I knew best how much time of hiding from Him would constitute an acceptable period of penance, while I wallowed in guilt. Of course, this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel and God's mercy, and is, in fact, nothing more than human arrogance, plain and simple. I would therefore urge anyone who has ever fallen into this trap to shake themselves clear of this habit as quickly as possible. I liken it to tripping on a stone on the path of God's leading and then deciding to stop moving forward altogether so as to focus on the stone and lament the tripping over: all completely pointless. The thing to do is to recognise the error, apologise, trust in God's mercy and continue to walk forward confidently, trusting in His grace.
The second thing that I would like to share relates to the character and fabric of the church, St Mary Magdalene. I am not talking about the fabric of the buildings, but the individuals who make up the community that is the church.
When I joined the church 30 years ago, I was aware of a certain personality profile that seemed to characterise the majority of people who attended the church. I was a teenager and I did not completely understand the subtle nuances of this profile, but I have subsequently come to see it more fully over time. I would define it as follows: the people who are drawn to St Mary Magdalene seem to share - or resonate with - these characteristics: they love Jesus Christ and allow that love to be channelled through them to others without embarrassment or fear; they have been broken by life in a way that confers on them a peace that passes understanding and that is not rocked, or shaken, by temporary changes; they are not in any shape or form interested in human ambition or self-promotion, rather they go about the business of loving and supporting those in need instinctively; they welcome anyone and everyone and are truly unconcerned with outward appearances; they recognise that the position of St Mary Magdalene is relatively lowly in the local Christian community and they are quietly grateful for this because, were it to be otherwise, they would be exhausted by the pressure of having to service the facade of external human expectations of how a big successful church should look.
Over the last three decades, I have observed God honing this character profile, bringing together a ragtag bunch of the most eclectic and fascinating people I have ever seen in a church community, all sharing - to some degree - the traits I have described. Vicars have come and gone; visions have been publicized and proclaimed. Some of these have come to fruition in whole or in part and others have quietly faded away and have been forgotten over time.
As I have turned over in my mind the dichotomy between the experiential aspects of the church (those elements that can be seen or heard or read about) as opposed to its invisible commodities (those elements of the church that can be felt intuitively but not easily defined in words), I believe I came to understand part of the secret of what it is that God is doing in this church. The empirical elements of the church are the human plans, the visions, the initiatives, the undertakings - all things that are the fruits of human labour. These are like shares in companies. People buy and sell shares with great urgency, stockpiling one minute and then wholesale dumping the next. The volatility of shares reflects the whimsical nature of the stock market and those who invest in it. However the invisible commodities of the church are the connections and shared spiritual characteristics of people who, without fully grasping or understanding why, have been drawn into the community of St Mary Magdalene in ways that may appear utterly coincidental or circumstantial on the surface but that are actually part of an extraordinarily meticulous master plan to create a unique community that provides services of sacrificial value to the Kingdom of God without fanfare or self-congratulation. These invisible commodities are like bonds that are generated at the inception, or early in the life, of a company and that accrue value in little increments, perhaps so slowly that those interested in the lure of a quick dollar would be unaware of their existence altogether.
My reason for wanting, so urgently, to communicate this message about stocks and bonds is because I am convinced that God has firmly invested in the bonds of this church. I can recall movies in which protagonists discover bond papers so old that they have been drafted in calligraphy and sealed with wax. Hidden and forgotten, they have accrued value incrementally until they are worth a hundred, a thousand, a million times more than when they were generated. I believe that we can often be distracted by the fickle up and down of the shares, to the extent that we turn our eyes away from the intangible assets of the church. I would like to reiterate that God’s investment - which is secure - is in the little incremental additions represented by the people who come to the church in ones and twos, often uncertain as to why they even wound up there, but nevertheless resonating fully with the spirit that God is nurturing so meticulously and so precisely.
We are at a time of intarregnum when the various ministries of the church are still somewhat disconnected. There is a shared desire, often unarticulated, for there to be greater unity and communication among the disparate ministries and the thing that will draw these ministries together, of course, is the joint epiphany that we members of the church actually have far more in common than we may think, regardless of which ministry we primarily serve. I believe that this summer will be a time of rest and peace for the church and I praise God for the way in which Rob, Simon and Nathan have led the church with such wisdom and humility that it has flourished during this time without an official 'incumbent'. However, I believe that the ministry of Sam and Jo will pick up and nurture all of those things that Rob, Simon and Nathan have done to build cohesion in such a way that the link into Sam's incumbency will appear completely seamless. I am convinced that, under Sam, there will be a unity among the ministries of the church the likes of which it has never known.
Sue and I will be thinking and praying for you often and we would like you all to know that it has been an honour to serve the church these last fifteen years, since our return from Finland.