Saturday, June 28, 2008

How I have changed

My wife has a picture that was taken of us on the damp cold March day in 1969 when I was ordained deacon in an equally damp, cold church in North London. I was looking at that picture the other day and wondering how much is left of that couple setting out on life together, grinning broadly, and with their arms around each other. Every morning when I stare at the mirror I recognize that beneath the surface somewhere is that skinny man with a thick mop of dark hair, but these days I feel the face I am looking at is more like my fathers did than that twentysomething uncomfortably clad in his brand-new clerical collar.

Today's waistline isn't anything like it used to be, my collars are several sizes larger, and I have less hair and it is turning pepper and salt gray. I am still pretty fit for a sixtysomething, but my back and knees tend to creak a little, if left to my own devices I drop off to sleep in my chair around 8.30 pm, and the beauty to whom I had been married for only seven months when that picture was taken is now a grandmother -- which, come to think of it, makes me a grandfather!

Back then I would have considered someone my age now incurably old -- but the funny thing is that despite the occasional aches I don't feel old. In some ways I feel younger now than I did ten or fifteen years ago. Certainly, our concerns are those of any couple our age, like how we fund our old age so that we are not a burden on our children, but I still have that same sense of excitement that goes with having something useful to do in God's Kingdom.

There was a similar excitement back then when we were setting out on our life's journey, and whilst a seasoning has taken place over the years there is still essentially the same flavor. I don't know how I would be feeling if I was staring down the barrel of the gun of retirement because that is not something to which I am looking forward. Spending and being spent for the Kingdom is a lot more fun!

Neither has the substance of my theological presuppositions changed much. Again, there has been a maturing and I have wrestled with my share of doubts and agonies related to the faith over the years, but at the heart is still the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the Scriptures -- which I maintain now as back then to be God's Word Written. Part of that maturing has been discovering a richness that I didn't know was there when I was first ordained, and an exposure to scholarship and attitudes that have forced me to think through my own positions very carefully, modifying some of them, but whose foundation is firmly laid and stands firm despite all my sins and shortcomings.

I think that points to another factor: I am more conscious today of my sinfulness in a way that I am not sure I was when I was young. I grieve that while I might have made some progress in the process of sanctification, there are so many flaws in my character and personality that I had believed then I would grow out of. They are still there, and like Paul's thorn in the flesh they harry me daily. I press on toward the goal of God's call, but as I perceive the holiness of God when compared to my own innate fallenness I realize just how unworthy I am of God's grace.

Most of those years since that picture was taken were spent in the USA, and coming back to England points up just how much my American experience altered me. The other day a friend was comparing me to another American who we both know and who has lived in England for a long time; he said that this individual had become as British in his attitudes to the same extent that I had let go of my Britishness to become American. Most of the time I can see it in myself, but there are occasions when I say and do something that is quintessentially "New World" and it has to be pointed out to me.

I have shed a lot of the middle class English conditioning that had shaped that newly-minted deacon in the photo, and instead a middle class American conditioning has taken its place. I was never particularly comfortable with a lot of those English attitudes that once shaped me, but it wasn't until I got back here that I recognized just how many of them I have during my American years shed.

My political bias in the 1960s was of a distinctly more radical and leftish flavor than the one I adhere to now. In those days I believed the Conservative Party for which my family had consistently voted for ever and aye was so far to the right that no thinking Christian could possibly support them and retain their integrity. By contemporary American standards I suppose my political views are now perhaps slightly in the center or, perhaps, slightly to the left, but while I have changed so have the political parties here. These days I look at the three main parties here and consider them all a bit too progressive for my liking. I am not particularly comfortable with the 'nanny state' and neither do I have a lot of time for a lot of the social engineering that is so chi-chi in all quarters. In my youth I thought I knew what the political values appropriate to citizens of the Kingdom might be, now I am far from certain!

I was talking to my old liturgics professor a while back (one of the pleasures of returning to England has been remaking links with folks of whom you had lost track), and said to him that I felt that I had left England as one who was gently radical when it came to Christian worship and had come back three decades later as a hopeless traditionalist. I was not here for the full-scale Vineyardizing and Wimberization of the evangelicals in the Church of England took place, and from whose worst excesses Anglican evangelicalism has yet to recover.

What the Episcopal Church did was to allow me to realize just how much liturgical worship can sing and it formed me away from the overly informal approach to worship that English evangelicals have tended to glory in. Interestingly, I probably have an approach to liturgy, ceremonial and ritual that condemns me to minority status everywhere. In Tennessee I was considered a snake belly low churchman, while among evangelicals here I am a tad further up the candle than most would like... and don't get me talking about the quality of the lyrics of so many of the more contemporary pieces of music that we sing -- and the endless and unthinking repetition of verses, choruses and phrases.

I don't know how the young man in the picture would respond to what I have just said because there was no such thing as contemporary music of that kind in church settings back then -- we listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones sing that stuff!

I know that the seeds of what I was going to become were there back then, but I'm not sure that I would have guessed how the youth would give birth to this older man. If God gives me another quarter century of life then it will be interesting to see how the even older man then will look back on the relative youngster I am now, and the mere babe in arms I was then. I hope to goodness that I am not a bad-tempered old curmudgeon!

No comments: