Since I had my recent heart attack my life has literally been on hold. Having been discharged from hospital around 10 days or so ago I have heard nothing at all from the hospital … until today that is?! I was sent home with a small sack full of drugs – I think I actually have drugs that help me remember which drugs I have to take when, and drugs that stop all the drugs inside me from rattling around – and strict orders to do as little as possible. The Cardiac Team were meeting the day following my discharge to discuss my case and I would hear from the hospital in due course. Eventually I got fed up waiting and, earlier this week, I phoned my local doctor for an appointment. He too had heard nothing from the hospital – he hadn’t even received the letter informing him of the fact that I had been rushed into hospital after a heart attack and providing him with all the information as to the results of all the tests I had had, together with what drugs I was now on. Fortunately I had been given a copy of this letter on my discharge so I was able to show it to him!? Ten out of ten to the doctors and nurses who looked after me – they were all absolutely wonderful – but nought out of ten to the admin staff?!
Anyway, cutting a long story short, my visit to my doctor produced the goods. One phone call from him and information started coming through at the rate of knots! I had a really helpful phone call from one of the Cardiac Team Nurses who has been assigned to look after me. Apparently the Cardiac Team have decided, because I am so ‘unique’ and so ‘complicated’ (but you all knew that already), that heart bypass surgery is the best way forward. It will take place at Southampton Hospital approximately 16 weeks after I have seen the consultant at Southampton … but I will have to wait for an appointment to see the consultant?! In the meantime I am not do anything strenuous … just keep taking the tablets?! I have to cut down on some of the things I do for the church, college and denomination, for a while. Neither am I to be too adventurous … and camping on the continent in France for the Summer is definitely out of the question?! So, once again, my life is literally on hold for the foreseeable future!
In some ways my life was already ‘on hold’ and has been since we left Beckenham three and a half years ago. Going from leading a very active life, as the Senior Minister of a large and growing suburban London church, to living a very quiet life in ‘retirement’ in a small hamlet of around 12 houses in the Dorset countryside took quite a bit of getting used to. From numerous meetings, pastoral visitation, evangelistic outreach, leading worship and preaching regularly, and so on … to doing virtually nothing proved very difficult for me. I simply wasn’t ready to retire – it had been ‘forced on me’ rather than something I willingly ‘chose to do’. I tried to get involved in my local Baptist Church as best I could … but its not easy being a ‘retired minister’ in a congregation, and the last thing I wanted to be was a ‘problem’ for our Pastor (as a lot of ‘retired ministers’ can be). I took on some ‘extra mural activities’ such as being an On-Line Tutor for Spurgeon’s College, and writing a column for the Baptist Ministers’ Fellowship Journal, but none of these are particularly demanding. Some of the things I did initially take on at church – such as being part of the Prayer Ministry Team – I had to let go again (in the Prayer Ministry Team case I couldn’t hear what people were asking prayer for, partly because I am getting deaf and partly because the Worship Band were playing so loudly). I am sure than lots of people – including a number of Ministers – would envy me living quietly in a beautiful part of the country with little or nothing to do other than enjoy ‘retirement’. Unfortunately I am not built that way. I retain my passion for the Gospel, a strong desire to play my part in building the kind of local church that God wants his Church to be, a real conviction that ‘God hasn’t finished with me yet’ and that I still have a lot to offer in the work of the Kingdom. I appreciate that I am probably not the only ‘retired’ minister who feels like this, but I also feel that as a denomination we are guilty of ‘ageism’ and that we write off older ministers far too soon. There are many churches in the UK that would benefit from having an older, experienced minister rather than looking for someone in their 30s with 2.4 children who can revive their dying or non-existent children’s and youth work. Julia also passionately believes that I still have a lot to offer – and she is my fiercest critic as well as my greatest supporter. We have a deal anyway … she will tell me when I really am ‘past my sell-by date’. But I digress … and getting back to the subject at hand, whatever the future may hold for me, my life at this precise moment in time remains on hold!
Much the same could be said for Julia. She also went from leading a pretty active life as the Associate Minister at Beckenham to a much quieter life. It is true that she has had the major responsibility of caring for her elderly mother and running the home here. It is equally true that she has been asked to do a bit more than me in our local church, and has also busied herself improving her IT skills, her French conversation, her water colour painting, and learning to repair antique furniture. But she did not ask to be ill, or to have to ‘stand down’ from the pastorate and take a year’s ‘leave of absence’ from the ministry as a result. She did not ask to have to lay her ministry – she is an excellent preacher and caring pastor – to one side, and still be waiting three years later for the right opportunity to pick it up again. But stuff happens! And for Julia too, life is equally on hold as well!?
Reflecting on all this I am reminded of a story Jesus told called ‘The Parable of the Talents’ (Matthew 25:14-30). In this story a wealthy landowner goes away on an extended business trip and leaves three of his servants with varying amounts of ‘talents’ to make best use of in their Master’s best interest – one is given five talents, another two, and the third one talent. In Jesus’ day a ‘talent’ was a unit of weight, in gold or silver, used as legal tender in trading transactions. In many of our modern translations of the Bible the word ‘talent’ is therefore replaced by ‘bags of silver’ or some similar phrase. In the story the first servant invested his five talents and doubled the amount before his Master returned. Similarly the second servant put his two talents to work and also doubled the amount. But the third servant was so fearful of his Master, and so petrified of wasting what he had been entrusted with, that he just buried it in the ground, so that when his Master returned he had made no losses but made no profit either. As a result the first two servants were rewarded for their efforts, but the third servant found himself in serious trouble for neglecting to make best use of his talent, and ultimately found himself cast out from his Master’s presence?!
Interestingly enough the Greek word talanton (used in this Parable) is the root of our word ‘talent’ – used today to denote various ‘gifts’ or ‘abilities’ that we may find ourselves blessed with as human beings. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this particular Parable has been understood more widely over the generations to cover making best use of our God-given gifts and abilities and not just best use of our money. The interpretation of Parables is notoriously difficult, and it is best not to try and find a meaning behind every phrase or character in the various stories. Essentially, Parables are ‘earthly stories with a heavenly meaning’ and therefore we need to concentrate on the ‘core message’ at the heart of this particular story – the importance of making best use of our own particular God-given gifts and abilities – rather than finding parallels with the rather harsh Master in the story and the character of God himself for example?!
Having said that, I have to confess to feeling really sorry for the third servant in the story – increasingly so as, in my present predicament particularly, I find myself identifying more and more with him!? This poor man was clearly totally overawed by his Master – scared stiff might be an appropriate term – and needed a lot of help and encouragement from his fellow servants to see that although his Master was indeed a ‘hard’ man he was also a fair man. One suspects that this support and encouragement was not forthcoming and that his fellow servants were quite happy to ‘climb’ over their unfortunate fellow servant – always good to have a ‘fall guy’?! And then this poor man clearly suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’. He was not as ‘gifted’ as his fellows – he only had ‘one talent’ and the others had at least double that. He needed to be encouraged to see that even though he only had a single talent, that one talent could be put to good use for the Master’s benefit. Surely the other servants must have witnessed this poor man’s dilemma – perhaps they had even known that he had buried his talent – and they could surely have helped him to see that he could make better use of it. The first servant could have helped him to invest it perhaps, or the second servant could have shown him how to ‘put his talent to work’? But both these servants appear to be so caught up with themselves that they didn’t recognise the need of their fellow servant?! And to be honest I am not even sure that the so-called ‘advice’ from the Master on his return – far too late to have been of any use to this poor man – that ‘you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest’ (v.27) was that helpful? It certainly wouldn’t have been so in the current financial climate?!
We cannot excuse this poor man entirely, however. To some degree we are all ‘masters of our own destiny’. He certainly was not helped by the people around him as he should have been, but perhaps he could also have done more to help himself. He could have reflected more on the character of his Master, and responded accordingly? He could have observed his fellow-servants and learned from their methods and industry? He could have ‘thought outside the box’ and come up with an alternative and productive use for his one talent? Sometimes we find ourselves with our ‘lives on hold’ through no fault of our own … but sometimes we contribute to this state ourselves. For how long had this particular servant been avoiding direct contact with his Master, leaving as much of the work as possible to others, repeatedly putting himself down, thinking he had nothing much to offer, and so on?
The parallels between the essential message of ‘The Parable of the Talents’ and the use of our own God-given gifts and abilities in the service of God and others are obvious. Clearly we need to make ‘best use’ of our own gifts and abilities and encourage and help others to do the same. We need to recognise that none of us are useless and that we all have something to offer. We need to stop putting ourselves (and others) down and embrace our God-given talents (even if we only have ‘one talent’) whole heartedly recognising that God can make good use of even the little we feel we have to offer, just as he did with the small boy’s loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21) and the poor widow’s two copper coins (Luke 21:1-4). Even if we feel that for us, life is on hold through no particular fault of our own – as Julia and I both do – we also recognise that we can all ‘contribute’ to this by our own inertia.
It is easy to be ‘wise in retrospect’ but following my recent heart attack I recognised that this had in fact been coming on for some time. I had been ‘slowing down’ over a period of time, feeling easily tired more often, dragging behind Julia when we were out walking simply because I couldn’t keep up. Some of the aches and pains I had been feeling I had put down to age, or indigestion, or trapped nerves, etc., but the reality was I failed to recognise that all these were in my case symptoms of heart trouble. In a similar way, although there may be those who deliberately ‘opt out’, bury their talent, even turn their back on Christ … the majority of those who suffer from ‘spiritual inertia’ do so as a result of it creeping up on them, slowly but surely. As W T H Richards used to say many years ago, ‘There are many who start well in the Christian life, but few who end well!’
Despite all of this I remain very positive about the future. Although I have to be patient and wait at least 16 weeks for my heart bypass operation, and then at least another 12 weeks before I am considered fit enough to get back to ‘doing stuff’, I am anticipating that in God’s great scheme of things I will actually end up fitter and stronger than I have been for a long, long time, and able to take an active place alongside Julia in the ministry that we both believe that God is going to open up for her in due course! Life may be ‘on hold’ for us at the moment … but only for a moment! As we read in the Prophet Jeremiah, ‘I know the plans I have for you, declares, the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11).