Today, October 6th, I turned 65, preached and presided at Communion, had a wonderful communal feed (as Richard would put it) — and then retired from pastoral ministry. Here is the last “letter” I wrote to my congregation in our church magazine.
You shouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that I’ve been reflecting on Acts 20:17-38, Paul’s farewell speech to the elders at Ephesus. In it the apostle warns his friends to watch out for truth-twisters, and urges them to hold fast to his own teaching. Sounds good to me! Then he reminds them to be particularly attentive to church members who, one way or another, are struggling. Absolutely. Then, after prayer, the elders launch a communal cwtch, crying, “Don’t go, Paul! Please, don’t go!” But then they are thinking – rightly as it turns out – that they will never see Paul again. Kim – he’ll still be around. So, yes, not only elders but everyone at Bethel, maybe remember a sermon or two, and certainly look after each other, especially, yes, the struggling ones – and those who are still anxious about our future with the Methodists. But as for the “Don’t go!” – well, perhaps you’re actually thinking, “It’s about time!” In any case, it certainly is time for you to let go of me – and for me to let go of you. Paul’s farewell speech was rhetorically sophisticated. From me you get 10 bullet points.
• Be kind to everyone, even the jerks. The woman who pushed ahead of you in the queue, the shop assistant who was rude to you at the till, the guy who cut you off on the Oystermouth Road – you never know what is going on in their world: they might be distracted by a personal crisis, or wrestling with some inner demon. They may need your patience, not your reproach.
• Never take yourself too seriously, and go easy on taking pride in your achievements. In the imagery of baseball, just because you find yourself on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple. So much of life depends on circumstance (place of birth, social and economic position, etc.); that is, so much of life is just fortune or luck, good or bad. And remember: God is especially fond of losers, and boasting really gets on his nerves.
• If you ever think that Christianity is easy – that faith is uncomplicated, that truth is not odd, that the Sermon on the Mount is undemanding – then you can be sure you’re not doing it right. Christianity is not only not easy, it is quite impossible. That’s why God gives us the Holy Spirit – to do the impossible – beginning with prayer.
• Don’t be afraid of anyone or anything. Fear is not only self-crippling, fear is the infernal engine that drives our most distorted and destructive desires: anger, envy, greed, hatred, violence. They are all the smoke above the factory of fear. Ultimately, all fear is the fear of death. But Christ has conquered death. So what is there to be afraid of?
• Sorry, dear Methodists, but John Wesley was wrong: cleanliness is not next to godliness. Silliness, however, is. That’s why God created children: to keep people silly. And grandchildren to make them sillier still! Silliness is a serious matter. A wise intelligence is always laced with silliness.
• Never stop asking the Big Questions. Asking the Big Questions is a sacred obligation. And be worried, be very worried, if you never change your mind. God forbid that, looking back over your life, you can say that you have no regrets, that you wouldn’t have done anything differently. Frank Sinatra was an idiot: “I did it my way” means you did it the wrong way.
• Our biggest illusion is that we are free. In fact, we are the slaves of no end of possessions and obsessions, wants and worries. We are always on the way to freedom. Only those who are utterly unconcerned about themselves, blithely indifferent to what other people think about them, but totally committed to those who suffer and experience injustice, are free. Only the forgiving, merciful, and compassionate are free.
• Everyone is made in the image of God. Therefore everyone has an inherent and ineradicable dignity, a dignity that no sin can efface and that commands our respect and attention. Dividing people into “the deserving” and “the undeserving” – don’t go there! Go there and you are in danger of losing your soul.
• Gratitude: there is no characteristic more definitive of being a Christian. The entire Christian life flows from gratitude. God doesn’t owe you a thing. All is gift. The thankless bear bitter fruit; only the thankful harvest strawberries. The German mystic Meister Eckhart was right: If “Thank you” is the only prayer you ever say, that is enough.
• Finally: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And Jesus again! Not the Jesus who is a projection of our and needs and wishes (Jesus “the Friendly Ghost”, as the stellar American theologian Robert Jenson put it). No, the Jesus who stalks the pages of the gospels. Only this Jesus can deliver us from a fantasy Jesus. Only this Jesus is Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the Stranger who meets us daily and says, “Follow me!”
For the rest, the wonderful Czech theologian Tomáš Halík speaks of “getting a second wind” in the life of faith. So: let’s all take a deep breath …