Life will never be the same again
Main index page
Today we celebrate Candlemas, one of the important occasions in the narrative of the Gospels, redolent as it is with numbers, and a key milestone on the road. For the Celts, it represented one of the Quarter Days on which rents and other dues are settled. And if you were an Anchoress in medieval times it would mark one of just fifteen occasions during the year when you could take Holy Communion. The point at issue is a simple one. Forty days after giving birth, a mother went with her child and husband to the Temple to receive ritual purification and these are the events of the day that we celebrate from Luke’s Gospel 2:22–40:
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”)
So why is this so special for me this year? A few weeks ago, I had been invited to preach Sunday’s sermon for the Eucharist service. As a Lay Reader in the Church of England, I have had a number of opportunities to preach this sermon over the years, but a couple of small things had so far escaped my notice: the facts recorded haven’t changed but our perceptions do, especially influenced by outside events of the day. God moves in mysterious ways was a favourite saying that came back from my past and, once again, a curious train of events brings me to the invitation to write this blog.
Some years ago, I read a poem written by Mark Greene, until recently the Chief Executive of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, who published a collection of Christmas poems under the title Adventure. This poem was simply titled ‘Simeon’; it appeared on one of the regular mailings from LICC. But the book was out of stock on their website for a while. I had a nudge to look again and, in the early part of December, there it was at last: I ordered two copies immediately for Christmas presents, both gratefully received.
Three weeks ago, at the end of a Prayer Group meeting, one of the intercessors mentioned another prayer meeting which had concluded that, in this pandemic, we have not moved into a new season but into a new era: this touched my spirit. My interest was also aroused because I lead a Julian Prayer Meeting and Julian of Norwich lived through not one, but two, episodes of the Black Death.
Curiously, Julian’s writings, the Revelation of Divine Love, contains none of the detail of her ordinary life at all. We know virtually nothing about her beyond the occasional comment from another of the Mystics of her day and what we learn from history books. But we do know that she survived both major waves of The Black Death. That pandemic was held to be responsible for bringing about a seismic shift in the way of life for the whole population, coming as it did in the midst of the longest continuous war that England had ever fought, the 100 Years War. It changed the landscape of the country and the movement of labour: life would never be the same again was the simple outcome.
I wanted to use Mark’s poem at the end of my sermon and therefore sought permission from the hitherto unknown publishers. Whilst looking at the intriguing website, I found two books of great interest and without appreciating the outcome, promptly put in an order. Muddy Pearl were generous with their permission and that is nearly the end of story because an email the next day produced some detail on one of the books I had ordered, Amazed by Jesus by Simon Ponsonby. Within seconds, I had joined up the trail of dots that had been laid before me: we have a kind God who looks after all our needs. The book arrived in time and I had permission to extract a few words for the sermon.
Of course, for Simeon and Anna, life would never have been the same for either of them. And how they waited. I once tried to work out how old she must have been, having been widowed for eighty-four years. And Simeon’s age? We don’t know but from the brief description we have we can only conclude that we are taking about a very godly man. Life for us, post pandemic, may never be the same again.
The bible passage continues:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Last Sunday’s sermon has been filed away and I am left with Simon Ponsonby’s book as a permanent reminder of an extraordinary train of events. And now I have time enough to read it. The whole of Chapter Five is devoted to a Simeon-eye view of the events of that day, a powerful exegesis of Luke 2, and verses 28 to 31, covering part of the Evening Prayer and Compline canticle, the Nunc Dimittis which has formed a cornerstone of our liturgical life since the fourth century. Simon Ponsonby has woven into the narrative profound theological reflections, a reminder of history and much more, all beautifully written and allowing the author’s heart to shine through the text: this is real relationship with Jesus on display. Pearls of wisdom will be found in every paragraph.
I should end this piece with a few words from the end of the Preface, ‘He Turns Water into Wine’:
Water into wine, and Jesus saved the best wine till last.
Maybe your life feels like you have run out of wine. Or maybe the wine of your life has turned to brackish dishwater. In this book I want to show you that Jesus is there, and Jesus cares, and Jesus can make a difference. He can turn it all around – it’s what he does.
He is amazing.
Amen to that, I say. My life will never be the same again: I believe it will be better.
Over the last few months I have found myself wanting to shout at the TV almost every day. It’s the news. They report turmoil, but I find myself despairing. “Where are the leaders?” There are so many world issues that seem to be mis-managed. So many mis-placed priorities. Such short term vision. Such lack of humility. We need good leadership; the world is desperate for it, but sadly it seems to be in short supply, especially during recent times of need when weaknesses have become even more exposed.
The world view of what a leader should be seems to emanate from the caricature that has been peddled by the likes of TV shows such as The Apprentice – that leadership is about being the best, the most successful, the bossiest, the loudest, having the most self-confidence and arrogance. This will surely create a charisma that everyone will be so attracted to, that they will follow. Plus, never being able to acknowledge or be seen to make a mistake. Mistakes are for losers. It is about “me the leader” rather than “you the led”.
This is, of course, meant to be entertainment, not reality. It was created for us to mock, to scoff at, to make us feel better about ourselves and say smugly “look at them – look how wrong they are!” However, isn’t the joke on us? We have taken the lie and engaged with it. We see prominent world leaders managing to convince the electorate that these sorts of leadership qualities are entirely appropriate for the most powerful offices in the world. Much of my recent ranting at the news has been based on my dismay that major countries, with educated and sophisticated populations, have often not managed to put forward credible alternative leaders to fill, what I consider to be, a void. The famous quote that tells us “in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve” is a harsh judgement but perhaps one that rings true.
It seems that good leadership is a rare and precious commodity. Leaders have an expectation placed on them that is often unattainable for a human. They are constantly judged, frequently disrespected, derided and rarely beneficiaries of forgiveness. In fact, it is clear that the enemy has taken leadership and twisted our attitudes, to the extent that we don’t know which way is up. In the same way that he has stolen away and messed with our attitudes to other amazing parts of God’s creation and plan for us, like marriage, sex, art or music. He steals, perverts and distorts.
When I read Karl Martin’s book, Lead, it was a refreshing step back into truth and reality. Flying in the face of the metaphorical train wreck that I am observing on the news, Karl’s thinking is the crane that lifts the derailed train back on the track and points it in the right direction. He talks through the concept of Servant Leadership that is modelled by Jesus. It may not be new, but it is so counter-cultural to what we are witnessing all around us that we need to be reminded of the importance of Christ’s leadership attitudes and values.
Karl takes his principles directly from scripture, studying the model that Jesus presented in His words and actions, presenting this perspective on leadership in a church setting. The principles are clear and applicable. Karl writes with honesty, humility, humour, wisdom and experience, sharing the mistakes as well as the successes.
For any reader who is already engaged in church leadership, there will be many nuggets in this book for you to chew on. They will prompt you and remind you of Jesus’ teachings, and may well challenge and reshape your own attitudes and actions. It seems to be foundational teaching that can be revisited regularly. It will not go stale.
Imagine what our churches would be like if we were constantly on the look-out for mistakes, shouting “you’re fired!” from the pews
The principles that Karl goes through are also applicable more widely. I am a leader of myself (such a key point that Karl starts and finishes the book with), a leader in my work and a leader in my family, as a husband and parent. The leadership principles Jesus presented are not limited to use within a church. In fact, that was not where they were originally being displayed. The principles of servant leadership, if played out fully in our families, neighbourhoods or workplaces, will be such a powerful witness. It is a leadership that should encourage, edify, bring out the best in others, nurture and support, creating people who can take the baton you have presented and run further with it than you ever could. That is quite some legacy.
Our churches, which for many of us are a sanctuary, deserve to be protected from popular attitudes and thinking towards positions of leadership. Imagine what our churches would be like if we were constantly on the look-out for mistakes, so that we can shout “you’re fired!” from the pews, only to bring in the next candidate who has promised us the earth. We need to value and treasure leadership. It is precious and fragile and needs support. Those of us who are not in a direct leadership position in a church can garner a clear understanding of what our leaders are trying to do, the pressures and difficulties they are facing. We need to empathise with their challenges, not stand back and watch. We are to support, nurture, encourage and love. We are loyal and uphold the people who put themselves forward to serve, often when we are not willing or able. This book offers an insight into those challenges of leadership so that we can stand alongside.
It is the sort of counter-cultural attitude that can be so powerful in the world and certainly one that cuts across the grain in many work settings.
For aspiring leaders too, Karl’s heart is clearly to train and nurture people with a calling into leadership, to support them to be the sort of leaders who follow Jesus’ template. The book clearly lays out the principles that will point you in the right direction and show you a course that will help guide you. The world needs strong, true, Godly leaders, trained in the church.
This book is helpful for all of us who want to understand, honour and support leadership. At the very least, let this book speak some truths over you and minister to your soul.
There is a danger that if we don’t take the subject seriously, then maybe we will only have ourselves to blame? Maybe we will settle for the leaders we deserve? I hope not. I want to stop having that urge to shout at the TV.