It is a tradition that our Minister writes a letter every month which is printed in our magazine, "The Messenger". Here is Revd Stephen's letter which appears in the December/January double edition.
There’s a modern retelling of the Christmas story, which involves a photographer trying to get the Instagram-perfect picture of everyone at the birth of Jesus. Each time, however, the picture is not quite good enough. The shepherds have to gather together a little closer. The animals have to be cleaned up to look their best. Still it’s not right. The gifts of the Magi are angled ever so slightly to catch the light better. Joseph - I need a sort of loving, yet awe-inspired expression. Hmm - Mary, can you just turn your head a little? No, it’s still not quite right. I know - get rid of the manger and that crying baby. That’s it! Click!
There has been one particular highlight in my ministry this year which stands head and shoulders over everything else that has happened. On Friday 15th November, our friend and brother at Four Oaks, Lazarus, was granted Asylum status to remain in this country indefinitely. The Home Office had rejected the claim to Asylum on four previous occasions (December 2014, March 2015, March 2016, June 2019). As a Minister at his Church, I have been asked to work with his brilliant and tenacious Solicitor ever these past months, and was among the small group of witnesses prepared to testify in Court. When it came to the day of the Tribunal, however, the Home Office withdrew its objection in the face of overwhelming evidence in Lazarus’s favour. As befits his adopted name, Lazarus was dead, but now he is alive! Alleluia! You will have to forgive your Methodist Minister for taking Lazarus and his fellow witnesses to the nearest pub for a much-earned bottle of bubbly.
I have been reading a great deal recently about other people facing death, but this time those who know their final days are coming as they wait in the hospice. The dominant topic of conversation between these people and the hospice chaplain turns out to be not fear of dying, but regret. Regret that they didn’t live life more fully. That they didn’t call their Mum more often, or play with the grandchildren less grumpily, or wear those pretty clothes or use that best china. In short, that they had missed all those opportunities to live in the present moment. So often, we all fail to “carpe” the “diem”.
In my teaching days, my third and final post was to a brand new school called Oaks Park in Ilford. When we opened the gates on that first September back in 2001, we didn’t even have a school as there had been problems with the building, so we spent the first year in Portakabins. They were memorable days. Within ten years that school had grown to be recognised as ‘Outstanding’ for the second time by Ofsted, and quickly became the most sought-after school in the area. Recently we had a reunion evening for pupils and staff, and many of these former students recognised me and came up to say Hello. (It was much harder for me to do the recognising since in many cases these ‘children’ were now bigger than me!) It was a delight, of course, to be told how much they had enjoyed their Maths lessons, with many recounting deep memories of things I had long forgotten (Bananaman, for example, who was the Superhero who expanded brackets in Algebra). Even more moving than that, were the huge men who came up to me to apologise for their awful behaviour in my lessons all those years ago. Without knowing the vocabulary, these were people who had been carrying a burden of guilt all this time and were now seeking forgiveness. I assured them that their behaviour as children did not in any way define them as an adult, and that any past behaviour records were not only forgiven but forgotten. As I near-suffocated in their subsequent massive bearhugs, I could sense true relief in their hearts. They had encountered grace.
As we enter a new year, it is good to ask ourselves what is really important. Let’s stop before we throw out the baby. Let’s think about the literally life-changing work we can do for refugees and asylum-seekers in our midst, perhaps through the work of Birmingham’s Restore project, who have supported Lazarus through so much of his journey. Let’s focus on the really important things in our own lives, telling and showing our loved ones that we love them while we still can. And let’s look for ways in which we too can show grace through Christ-like reconciliation and forgiveness.
May God bless you this Christmas and into 2020
Reverend Stephen Froggatt