Taking ourselves too seriously

Many years ago I was working for a few months as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital. As I was walking through the corridor one morning a patient stopped me. We had had a few conversations previously and she said very gently, “Jono, are you ok?” I assured her that I was, but she remained unconvinced. She said, “I’ve noticed you have been looking a bit down these past few days and I’d like to give you this.” She took out of her pocket a little booklet of God’s promises for difficult times in our lives and she suggested I take it with me and read it. It was full of encouraging words. In due course I was able to pass it onto someone who was suffering with a terminal illness and was having a particularly difficult day. 

Sometimes our faces reveal our true feelings. We think we are managing but inside us there’s a sadness we can’t explain. Perhaps, through her own experience of suffering, my friend could see that all was not well and, in her generosity, she wanted to offer something of value and worth that might restore my joy. 

I’ve sometimes heard the criticism that if Christians are so convinced that they have good news why do they all look so miserable?! The second fruit of the Spirit that Paul mentions is ‘joy’. In trying to understand and explain what he is talking about it’s a joy that goes beyond our circumstances. I have had the privilege of spending time with people whose lives are really challenging yet they have something deep within which gives a resilience and joy that I believe comes from the Holy Spirit.

I want to suggest two places of blessing in my own life that have helped me to discover joy in a new way. By nature, I would tend to be quite serious and I find this truth that people should see something of joy in my life quite a challenge.

The first blessing that brings me in touch with joy is my family. They take great delight in pointing out I was singing through the microphone in church (again!) and it really isn’t that great. They see when things are weighing me down and take me away for a while to the swing or the football nets and, after a while, the thing that was causing great anxiety and stress doesn’t seem all that important any more. 

If there are any individuals or households reading this blog who do PE with Joe Wicks, you might be familiar with the ‘Silly Billy’, an exercise where he asks you to dance in the most ridiculous way possible, kicking your legs, waving your arms and generally being a bit of a ‘silly billy’. Last week, as the children and I were working out, I was giving it socks for the Silly Billy, air guitar, legs and arms everywhere and, while I was exhausted by the effort, it made us all laugh. Then, to add to the merriment, the doorbell rang and there was our pharmacist’s wife delivering some prescription that was owed to us for Lucy. She took one look at the red faced middle aged man who had been dancing like a lunatic around the front room and beat a hasty retreat!

The other place that taught me amazing lessons about Joy was the L’Arche community for adults with learning disabilities and their assistants. I had a very life changing year living as an assistant there about 20 years ago. While community life was very intense, it was filled with a deep sense of joy in the simplicity. I’ve never been to as many parties and celebrations in my life. Birthdays, people’s anniversary in L’arche, guests from other communities, major festivals like Christmas and Easter all involved joyful and meaningful celebrations.

During Holy week 2000 I remember the community walking the way of the cross together. I was the penitent thief! We enjoyed a Passover meal together, we washed one another’s feet, we sang powerful songs and one of our core members explained the significance of Easter to me in a way that I have never heard surpassed by the most learned and eloquent of preachers.

What sparks the joy in you? Do more of those things. Who are the people who you enjoy being with? Stay in touch with them as much as you can during lockdown, whether it’s by phone or by Zoom or by dropping them a card. 

We have begun the process of working through our return to worship document. It’s likely that, as we all try to set in place the requirements, church life will seem pretty strange. There will be stewards showing us to a seat, there will be systems for coming in and leaving so we maintain proper distancing. We will have to keep records of where people are sitting and their phone numbers in case people subsequently become unwell. We won’t be permitted to sing initially and yet the prospect of seeing everyone again and worshipping God together fills my heart with joy.

I’ll be saying more about how it looks as we get more of the measures in place. We are aiming towards a date at the end of July, but we will not be opening before we feel confident that we can keep all who come as safe as we can. We ask everyone to be patient and bear with these new measures which are required of us all at this time and above all we ask you to pray.

During lockdown, one of the blessings is sampling teaching and worship from other communities and I have been richly blessed by the teaching of pastor David Varney from Foundation Church, Belfast. Can I recommend his current series on the Book of Ezra which is on the Foundation Church Facebook page? It’s inspiring, it’s challenging and it’s all about what happens when a community tries to rebuild and open up after a time in exile. It has a lot to say to us, I believe, in these days as we look forward to getting together again.

I’m sad to announce the death of a dearly loved parishioner who made an enormous contribution to parish life over his lifetime, serving as a church warden, parochial nominator, parish treasurer and someone who went out of his way to welcome new people. Robbie Gallagher will be sadly missed by us all and we remember his wife Margaret and his daughters, Lesley and Ingrid and the extended family circle in their sad loss. 

If you would like to take part in our Thursday prayer meeting at 7pm, please send an email to zoomtostfinnian@btconnect.com and we will send you an email with the log in details.

Look forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,