‘My eyes fail with watching for your promise…’

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I sat through that funeral earlier this week.

I must have conducted around 500 funerals: each one is different and it is never an act- it is impossible not to be touched by any of them (and if you are not, perhaps you should consider giving up conducting them), but this one really got to me; my first contemporary to go and a lovely chap; so full of life.

It was when his oldest son got up to speak and talked with the kind of raw honesty that his dad had about how his dad had told him how two friends had prayed that one day he would see him again (a relationship breakdown had led to no contact) that I lost my equilibrium. I remembered those days- 2 years- when 3 of us met for an hour a week to be vulnerable, pray, swear and try and be honest. I remembered prayers prayed for us and the possibility of children that at that time seemed so unlikely and prayers for my other friend’s child in difficulty.

I struggle with prayer- always have. I struggle with the simplistic ideas of ‘God has answered this’ or ‘God hasn’t answered that’. I think of people that have died (my friend, whose funeral it was), people who haven’t got better, relationships that have broken down etc etc etc….oh and that whole issue about a suffering world. I struggle with some of the triteness in Christian culture that can’t be honest or lament. I get the silence, the stillness and the openness to God and sitting with the Big Questions and knowing that somehow, although things will fade and die, that somehow you are held.

…and yet… in this service. lamenting a life that had faded and gone too soon, I was aware that I was unexpectedly in the presence of answered prayer: in my family’s life and in the life of a young man who was talking honestly and showing the broken beauty of redemption.

I don’t understand- I really don’t. Sometimes-often- as the psalmist says, my eyes fail watching for the promise. I could dismiss it, or walk away, but just at that moment, I glimpsed a shaft of light and the grace to live in the light of the big and beautiful questions.

My friend: Rev Peter Knight 1965- 2018

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I’m travelling to Oldham today, but the funeral of a friend: my first funeral for a contemporary.  Others have put it better than I can, but this is an edited version of something I wrote to him when I last saw him, 2 months before he died. If it was a fuller address, I’d have dwelt more on Felicity, his wife and his children and grandchild.

I miss him so much: one reason why this is a good deal longer than I usually post.

Pete: my friend.

I think I first met Pete in 1991; I bumped into him on a cricket field for a scratch team that we were both playing in. Funnily enough, I still use that kit and think of him every time I wear it and still will.

We trained as local preachers in the same circuit, although not at the same time. What I remember about him then was something that marked him all of the time that I knew him; his enthusiasm and zeal. ‘Zeal’ is a strange word and it conjures up images of wild-swivelled eyed loons who have no connection with reality. Nothing could be further from the truth with him: he was always well earthed- even earthy.

It was at Hartley Victoria College, Manchester that I really got to know him. Three of us shared a study: ‘The Room 69 Experience’. I learnt many things from this time. Most of that came out of the desire that if we were to be formed as ministers, we had to learn to be vulnerable and accountable; we’d seen too many who weren’t. I appreciated his part in that and especially the sense that if we were Christians and male we’d have to learn to bring the two together. I think I’d imbibed the idea that somehow ‘maleness’ was separate from your Christianity. Those times together were amazingly vulnerable and honest but also, at times, extremely crude. That is something that I’ve carried from that time into any strong friendship; honesty, lack of pretence and extreme crudity: he was formative for me.

We talked a lot, but we also managed to pray- sometimes as long as we talked! I can remember in particular about families; estranged children, health issues and the desire for a family. It was quite emotional a few months back, talking with my sons about him and these prayers and them allowing me to photograph them and send the picture to him.

I recall many things from lectures that we shared. The one I remember most was when he agreed to get the phrase ‘When I was a bedhumper at Slumberland’ into a seminar on ‘Basic Christian Believing’ (which we called ‘Barely Credible Bumbling’). He managed it, completely poker-faced and neither the butt of the humour got it nor the lecturer, but everyone did.

We saw each other a few times after college and he was always the same Pete: honest, encouraging and not frightened of asking the direct question or issuing a challenge, but always in a way that made me feel built up and not torn down. After that life, geographical distance and family life meant that most of our recent contacts were through social media, but through them, I saw the same person, albeit one who had grown in stature and maturity. Our paths were now very different, but in the ministry I now have, I need to see people like him who have remained within The Methodist Church system as a reminder of our shared calling. I also need to have a questioning of what I’m doing (I don’t believe an unquestioned life is worth living). He showed me in what he did, both grace and dignity in bucketloads.

His ‘sitting down’ celebration was deeply moving for everyone there (even though ‘band led evangelical worship’ has not been my thing for many years…). Aside from the love for him that filled the room what got to me was what I’d missed: he was still so much ‘Pete’ but with a deeper and richer authority in the way that he led worship and preached. Also, the things that I’d appreciated about him were still there but amplified by the years and the relationships that he’d made along the way. He did not make it all about him and chose to spend individual time with everyone there; even taking time to needle me gently.

It was Sartre who talked about individuals who act in ‘bad faith’; people who play a role, adopt false values and live inauthentically. If I was to pick individuals who did not do that whom I have known, I would pick Pete.

At that service he said ‘I’m about to take one of the most amazing journeys that a human being can take’. He did and is doing and one day I hope to see him again.

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad part 1.

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My good friend Ian has two podcasts out on how he moved from Christianity to atheism. It is powerful and honest stuff (find it here http://voicesofdeconversion.com/home/  . His name is Ian Redfearn and the podcasts are 34 and 35- I get a lovely tribute at around 31:30 on number 35).

My friendship with him has often caused me to question things that I believe. I can often hear his voice in my head if I preach or prepare to preach. I can hear him if I slip into ‘Christianese’ or get too far into the Christian ghetto.

I was listening to his story and reflected that although lots of his friends sent him books when he ‘deconverted’ or tried to argue him out of it, I don’t think I ever did. I’m not always good at this, but I try to keep at the forefront of my mind something that a minister once wrote (I’ve slightly adapted this) ‘You tell me your beautiful names for God/Life and I’ll tell you mine’. It removes the alpha male aggression from apologetics and it is really lovely to experience. Also influential to me is the idea that you listen to someone so closely that you run the risk of being won over by them.

It has got me thinking, because there are parallels between his story and mine of leaving and loss; what still sustains me and how could I talk about it in a way that anyone could read (I’ve read enough angry Christian blogs or ones that just preach to the crowd)?

One thing in particular struck me when I heard him talk (and these are my words, not his); he referred to that sense of panic when he had left organised religion: how do I live and what do I do as I can’t see any models for where I am. I experienced something of the same sense myself: how do I live- what do I do?

What I’m hoping to do for a while is talk about some of the stuff that keeps me going in this new place that I find myself.

To be continued…

 

Last night

Okay we *may* have had more than our fair share of dry sherries.

There *may* have been some loudness.

One or two intemperate remarks #may* have been made.

But this was our official Christmas do: a raggle taggle group of blokes that have existed together since 2008. Drawn together by our shared geographical location and the ethos that no one (if they are male that is) is ‘in’ or ‘out’.

These people have kept me grounded for years, taken the piss out of me, been there for me and occupied more Fridays than I care to count.

A good night….

‘A drunken weekend’

I only put that title as I thought it would make you read it, but a friend said to me a week ago ‘O your drunken weekend’

Well, it’s not entirely true…

A couple of years back, a group of friends who gather at the pub every Friday thought it would be a good idea to go away for a weekend together. They have done so for the last 2 years, chartering a boat in the Lakes. This kind of weekend is way above my income level, so one of them suggested a more accessible weekend this year and booked a camping barn.

A strong hint was made that it was done for me, so thanks to my forbearing family and me  managing  to cobble together two days off and set off at 9ish yesterday, planning to come back, bright eyed and bushy tailed to preach at 10.30 tomorrow…

I have never been on a weekend like this before. Most of the (rare) weekends since I have been on apart from family have been spent at Christian stuff/ with friends who were Christian. That is really sad: never thought that God called us to be separate but maybe we have managed that.

Two stories:-

I remember as an adolescent being in Boys’ Brigade and a minister coming to talk to us about someone who befriended a group of people who lived on the streets/squats and he lived with them and shared their lives. As a child I wondered how someone who was ‘holy’ could do that- wouldn’t they be better being apart? I came to realise that I was wrong, so wrong; at the moment I have more friends who have no faith than do. I am immensely grateful for that.

Ok- a group of street thieves is subtly different to a group of middle aged, middle class British blokes but you get the picture.

Years ago I was part of a church where we used to get occasional visits from a Baptist Minister. I think he had had some kind of breakdown but now he was the licensee of a pub. He told of conversations that he had had with people in his former church:-

‘So you run a pub?’

‘Yes’

‘Does it sell alcohol?’

‘Yes: it’s a pub’

‘Do people drink in it?’

‘Yes, it’s a pub’

‘Do people sometimes get drunk?’

‘Yes, it’s a pub’

I think I am going to have a good time of getting to know people, eating together, walking, laughing and maybe the occasional small sherry, as befits a conscientious clergyman…