The last six months have, I have to say, been some of the strangest in the 30 years I have been serving God and God's church in ministry. They began with a Sabbatical: a three month period free from the normal activities of ministry that the church gives to its ministers every seven years. That I was on sabbatical is not that strange, in that it was the third such break I've undertaken, but for a good part of the time I was away from home, and for five weeks I was in the USA, which gave me a fascinating insight into this diverse, beautiful and at times troubling nation. On the whole it was 3 months well spent, with plenty of time for myself and my particular interests, as well as for family, friends and travel.
On my return to 'normal' ministry there was much to catch up on in the lives of the churches I serve, as both the Circuit (a geographical grouping of 8 churches that I oversee) and the main church that I look after were undergoing strategic reviews, and much work in these areas had been done while I was away. But early on in that time of catching up, in consultation with the Lay leaders in the circuit, it was decided that the gifts and leadership style that I had to offer didn't quite fit with where the circuit were at the present, and that the best thing for both them and me would be to curtail my appointment (I've written more about this here). That then launched me into the church's stationing process, which came up with a new appointment for me from September 2017, based around Castle Donington.
So, December began with plans for the future, both of the churches in Kendal and for my ministry, beginning to take shape. Alongside that were preparations for celebrating what would be my final Christmas in Kendal, and starting to look ahead to the new year and the Methodist practise of renewing ones Covenant with God. At the heart of that service is a prayer, which has in it some of the hardest words we're called upon to pray (I have written a little about it here): "put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all thing, let me have nothing..."
"...laid aside for you..." Those words seemed so much to speak of those past few months. Laid aside from the normal work of ministry to explore other areas; laid aside from the work in a particular place to take up the calling elsewhere. But there was to be more 'laying aside', and I don't think I was quite ready for this.
On Tuesday 6th December I went for my normal early morning walk around Kendal, and at around 07:40 I was about half way round when I was knocked down by a van as I was crossing a zebra crossing. I know this only because people have told me, as I have absolutely no recollection of the event whatsoever - the first thing I remember is waking in Lancaster hospital on the morning of December 7th. I was left with some facial scarring and stitches to the back of my head; damage to the ligaments of my left knee which, 8 weeks on and counting, is still causing considerable pain and inconvenience; and bruising and slight bleeding to the brain, along with concussion. 8 weeks later (as I write) I am still not recovered.
What do I make of all this? As a Christian minister of 25 years experience, where is God in all this and what is God saying to me through this? These are questions that have been perplexing me in the many quiet moments I have spent on my own over the past few weeks. (I'm not after a sympathy vote, by the way, and if I come across as a whining self-pity merchant, please forgive me - I don't mean to.)
The last 8 weeks have, naturally, been a struggle for me. I am (or have been) quite active for a 55 year-old, walking around 4 miles a day, and now I'm quite pleased when I clock up 1 mile! Consequently my weight is creeping up. As a 'religious professional' there have been a number of issues that have dominated my thoughts and prayers: why did God let this happen, especially just at one of the busiest times of the year? The selfish part of me asks 'why couldn't God stop the van from hitting me?'; the grateful part of me says 'thank God the driver wasn't going any faster!'
Although I have always looked at my role as a presbyter as being a two-fold thing of being and doing - one is ordained to the office (being) and work (doing) of a Presbyter in God's church - much of my value as a minister comes from the work - the 'doing'. Now that, for the moment at least, that 'doing' is either not possible or seriously restricted, what does that do for my self-worth and identity? Part of this 'laying aside' has been about learning to 'be' again - to see my value is in who I am more than in what I do - and not just to learn to 'be' a minister but to learn to 'be' a disciple afresh as well. There are still things that I cannot do, as there are things that I can't do as well as I used to, but I still believe I am valued and loved for who I am by the God who created me, redeemed me, called me and knows me in a way no-one else ever could.
I have had to rely on others, particularly my wife, Jude, for things that I would normally do myself, most notably transport, as I'm not allowed to drive at the moment and can't walk very far. I've had to learn how to receive rather than to give, particularly over Christmas, when for the past 25 years I have been the one giving. I have received much love and understanding from God's people, across the town, across the country and across the world, and by 'God's People' I would include those who don't see themselves in that way as well as those who do: the love and care and counsel of many friends, of all faiths and none, has been a great source of strength and hope to me. If you're reading this, thank you!
Last Sunday I preached for the first time since the accident (as part of a phased return to work which looks like taking place over many weeks), and the text was Paul's words to the Christians in Corinth: "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." That foolishness and weakness, says Paul, is seen in the Cross, and in these days I've been drawn closer to that place, for there my pain, my frustration, my weakness, my looking for answers, take on a whole different context. I appreciate that my 'laying aside' may only be for a season, but it must, for me, be seen alongside that of Christ, in whom is life, healing and hope.
I pray that this will sustain me, though it's still tough, painful and frustrating. And not just for me!