Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Two Roads

Over the last few months I have been thinking quite a lot about a poem written by the American poet Robert Frost, which is called 'The Road Less Travelled '. It goes like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And, sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
One of the problems with doing two jobs – my day job in the community and the job I'm actually paid to do in the Church - is that there are only 7 days in the week and 24 hours in the day. So, more or less since I arrived, I have been squeezing my work for the Church into weekends and stolen hours. It has been possible for so long partly because I was relatively young and energetic when I arrived, and mostly because of the patience and forbearance of my family.
Someone once recalled how, growing up in a manse, he scarcely ever saw his father. He was always told that his father – who was the minister – was busy and wasn't to be disturbed. I don't think it has been quite like that in our house. One of the privileges of being a minister, in fact, is that you can work flexi-time and be available to do the school run and attend every concert and prize-giving. I once missed a colleague's induction service, at which I was supposed to offer him a welcome on behalf of the Circuit, because I clean forgot about it and was standing on the touch line watching my younger son play rugby. But nonetheless, there have been many times – especially evenings and weekends – when I have not been available.
In the first circuit where I worked, as the minister's assistant in a large inner city church, a member of the congregation described the minister's wife as a saint, because she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to enable him to devote long hours to church and community commitments. Well, despite having her own career as a community worker, my wife has been that kind of a saint too. She even decorated our manse, virtually throughout and in baking hot weather, while I continued working on the preparatory stages of the Building Blocks project and on many other things.
Much as we have enjoyed our time here, and relished the opportunity to work alongside people who needed and appreciated our help and support, we have been uncomfortably aware for a long time that our lifestyle has been unsustainable. It has lacked what people now call work-life balance. And so I have found myself standing at the fork in the road which Robert Frost describes. In fact, it has been more like a crossroads, because I have also been doing ecumenical work and inter-faith work for the Church alongside the community work and the circuit work. Often I have found myself wondering which way to turn.
I have always had the feeling, which is doubtless shared by a great many ministers and lay people, that if I went further down any one of these roads, much more could be achieved than is being achieved now. By dithering at the crossroads I have prevented many things from reaching their full potential, whether it be ecumenical opportunities here in Leeds 11, or opportunities for fresh expressions of mission and evangelism both here and at St Andrew's, or opportunities for greater engagement with people of other faiths, or opportunities to make our community work more secure. There has always been the feeling of doing a little bit to advance a great many things, without ever being able to do enough about any of them.
Of course, this is a dilemma which we all face to a greater or lesser extent. There is always too much to do and too little time to do it. Team work has relieved some of that burden – such as the very welcome way in which Steve stepped in to take over the task of organising circuit young people's work, just at the point where my wife and I were beginning to feel too middle aged to sleep on any more church floors! Doubtless I could have carried on with the eternal juggling act here and in future circuit appointments, as many other people do, if something hadn't happened to force me to choose which path to take.
The thing which has finally compelled me to choose, as many of you know, has been the need to spend more time with my mother. It's always been a struggle for ministers to weigh the comparative importance of marriage vows, baptism vows, ordination vows, and the injunction – in the Ten Commandments – to honour your father and mother. Jesus himself faced the same dilemma and actually said that, at times, it is necessary to leave our families behind in order to do the will of God. So it has been a struggle to know what to do about my mother's illness, and that struggle has resulted in yet more compromises. We have visited her less often than we really feel is right while, at the same time, neglecting the manse garden, which has inevitably become more like a natural garden and – at times – more like a rain forest.
I have found that I could not travel all these paths and be one traveller. And so I have looked down the various paths as far as I could, and wondered where they might lead. And sometimes I have tentatively explored them, without going so far that I reached the bend in the undergrowth which would have left the crossroads behind. That is, until now.
I suppose that, in choosing to spend more time on community work and less time on circuit work, I am taking the road less travelled – at least by Methodist ministers – though I hear of more and more ministers branching out into new areas of work. Also, I have to say that it wasn't our first choice – since we actually decided that I would move to be the superintendent of a larger circuit, closer to where my parents live, only to find this particular road was a dead end.
I expect one day to return to full-time circuit work, perhaps sooner rather than later. But having said that, I'm also aware of Robert Frost's description of the way one road leads to another, so drawing us further and further away from the place where we began. It is often difficult, and not even desirable, to retrace our steps
It has been a great privilege to be a minister here, despite the many tensions and stresses which the work has brought. Although I know that, once we have passed the bend in the road, it won't be possible to look back, we shall miss you all and carry you in our thoughts and prayers.
We came here because this circuit was a priority appointment and we were especially asked to come. I'm not sure the reasons why the circuit was made a priority were the right ones, but it was certainly the right decision. In my view the work here should remain a top priority for the Church and I am only sorry that the category of priority appointments has been abolished!
Last summer, someone from the Anglican Church described Faith Together in Leeds 11 as one of the most important projects attempted by the Church anywhere in the country, and I don't think they were far wrong. When those four young men blew themselves up in London they put this community under an intense media spotlight which still searches us out from time to time. Only last week the cameras were back in Beeston when the Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain visited Hamara, but last year – when Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to shoulder as fellow believers from our community, at impromptu news conferences, and at the two minute silence and at the tributes to the victims in St Pancras Church, I think part of God's reason for our coming to live and work with you was revealed. It remains a source of amazement to me, actually, that when I told the Principal of my training college that I was going to study Islam as part of my preparation for ministry, he laughed! That decision, to study Islam, was probably one of the most significant decisions I have ever made.
The groundwork which members of this church, and this circuit, had carefully prepared with our Muslim neighbours and colleagues over the years, showed its value at that crucial hour. Our work and witness together was an important – and very concrete – part of the community's collective 'No!' to what the terrorists were trying to achieve and helped to provide some of the binding which held people together through the crisis.
I have described the work we have done together here as a collective achievement, in which I believe we have all worked together as a team. I am grateful for your prayers, help and encouragement, as we have sought to know and do God's will. I am mindful that if the work here had depended on me, it would have failed completely. Instead, many people have played key roles in helping the circuit to achieve milestones such as the Investors in People award, the enduring success of our Live at Home Scheme, the creation of the Building Blocks and Faith Together projects and the memorable and inspiring acts of circuit worship which have breathed new life into our tradition of circuit rallies.
One of my guiding principles has been the teaching of the Chinese sage Lao Tsu, who said, 'Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say "We have done this ourselves.”'
When we look back on the past achievements of this circuit, if you find yourselves saying, 'See what Steve has done, or what Neil has done,' then we will not turn out to have been very good leaders. For these milestones to be enduring, you need to feel, 'Steve and Neil may have helped us, but we have done this ourselves.'
And, of course, even our most enduring achievements are not ours alone. Our work will only succeed if it is inspired and guided by God. We need to be wise, and the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians defines wisdom as 'understanding what the will of the Lord is.' [1] In his best moments, that is what King Solomon managed to do. In return, we are told that God rewarded him with long life. [2] Well, it isn't always so. But if we do the will of the Lord, God will sustain us and encourage us, which is why the Letter to the Ephesians says that we should aim to get drunk with the Spirit of God, like the first apostles on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came to them at nine o'clock in the morning. The Spirit which the writer has in mind is the Spirit of thanksgiving and rejoicing in the power and presence of God. So let us, whether w e are looking back or looking forward, go on 'giving thanks to God the Father, at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[1] Ephesians 5.17
[2] 1 Kings 3

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