Ad Clerum ["to the clergy"] on the Imitation of Christ
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a great privilege to be able to serve with you during this interim season and Angela, Rachel and I are very much looking forward to being with you physically once restrictions on travel and meetings abate. I did, however, enjoy meeting many of you through the clergy Zoom calls before Christmas and I plan to hold another series of calls in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I want to use these letters to introduce myself a little more.
I was born and educated in the gritty, industrial East Midlands of England in a small mining community a few miles north of Nottingham. Most of the homes were simple terraced houses with no indoor plumbing and our only heat source was a small coal fire that often put out more smoke than heat. Street lights were gas lit and many of the streets were paved with cobble stones that were quite a challenge in winter times. In many ways our homes were quite similar to many of the homes in and around Pittsburgh in that immediate post-war era. Our next-door neighbor was an unmarried woman of mature years who, in the tradition of that era, I referred to as Auntie Maud. She ran a small street-front general store that sold a selection of basic household supplies, lots of ‘sweets’ (aka candies) kept in large glass jars and also made her own patent medicines – they were reputed to cure all sorts of conditions! Auntie Maud’s shop was the hub of much of our common life – when someone was in need, she helped out, if a death occurred – a notice would be posted, and a collection taken to help pay for funeral arrangements. Although she was a faithful follower of Christ, she didn’t think of this as ‘ministry’ because it was simply what she did! I was quite familiar with Aunty Maud’s personal faith because every morning, as she cleared out the ashes from her fireplace, she would say her morning prayers and since my upstairs bedroom was situated so that my head was next to the connecting chimney wall, I heard every word. I knew from an early age that Auntie Maud was a friend of Jesus and that her faith impacted every aspect of her life. She also provided a place of refuge when I needed to escape from the usual trials of childhood. I never thought of her as a spiritual mentor and she would have been embarrassed by such a lofty title but in truth she was just that and I am forever grateful.
As we begin this new calendar year, I would encourage all of you to take a moment to reflect on the ‘Auntie Mauds’ in your life and give thanks for them and their faithful witness. I would also urge you to take seriously the opportunities that you have to serve in such a way in the lives of the people – both young and old, family, friends and neighbors – who are part of your community of influence. The Apostle Paul is quite explicit in his invitation to imitate him as he seeks to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and we are also inspired by books such as the fifteenth century devotional classic, “The Imitation of Christ” and the more popular nineteenth century work, “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon to take seriously our call to imitate Christ. But, as St Francis reminds us, we also share that same mandate in much more modest ways since “Our deeds, [our life] maybe the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
For the past two years I have been busy writing a series of letters to our grandchildren – who now number twelve and have been joined by four husbands and a wife – in which I describe something of our life journey and the convictions that have helped shape it. My initial plan had been to simply describe a few highlights, but the project has taken on a life of its own. I have just completed “Papa Letter #36” that has taken me to the end of 2005 and I am about to begin on 2006, a momentous year in which both Angela and I suffered the untimely death of a sibling – her brother and my sister. It was also the year in which I was consecrated a bishop in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)! Each letter is between 3000/4000 words in length and where possible I include photographs from our family archives. It has proved to be a most rewarding project but one of the great lessons to me has been just how many ‘Aunty Mauds’ there have been in my life helping shape my faith and giving me models to which I can aspire. Some of them are people whose names you might recognize but most of them are simply men and women whom God raised up to provide inspiration and guidance for me as I journeyed into the unknown.
As we look to this coming year with all of its unknown hopes, fears and promise I do remind you that we do not, we dare not, travel alone. I close with words from the poet Minnie Louise Haskins – most famously quoted in a 1939 speech by King George VI –
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
Angela, Rachel and I look forward to treading into the unknown with all of you, confident that we will do so in the company of our Heavenly Father and many of the saints of light who will illumine our path.
To God be the Glory for all that He has done and will do!
Your brother in Christ, +Martyn