I was in the supermarket just before Christmas and they were playing all those cheesy ‘Christmas Songs’ (that you either love or hate). Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea was the current single being aired and it set me thinking about our forthcoming return to Rodden in West Dorset where, prior to our recent move to Knaphill in Surrey, we had been living for the previous five years. Would we be ‘driving home for Christmas’ or actually leaving home for Christmas, I wondered?
Well, now we are back in Knaphill and I am reflecting on where ‘home’ actually is for Julia and myself now? Once I had adjusted to the virtual isolation of living in an extremely small hamlet (just a dozen or so houses and cottages and a couple of farms at either end of the village), the peace and quiet (well, when the tractors and farm equipment were not passing, that is), and the fact that (after living a hectic life as a Baptist Minister of a largish church in a London suburb) I virtually had little or nothing to do on any given day … I actually began to enjoy life as a country gent. After a time, however, I began to get really bored with life in the country. Although officially classed as a ‘retired Baptist Minister’ (a complete misnomer by the way since you cannot really ‘retire’ from a vocational calling such as God’s call to ‘minister the Gospel’) I had never felt that my ‘ministry had come to an end’. I never for one moment believed that (as far as ministry was concerned) ‘this was it’. Quite how we had come to leave Beckenham Baptist Church (a church we loved, and continue to love, and where we felt so ‘at home’) remains a ‘mystery’ to us but nevertheless was a sad reality for us. I knew, however, that ‘God hadn’t finished with us yet’, and that Julia’s official ‘leave of absence’ from the Baptist Ministry was only temporary not permanent. I recognised that (despite everything that had happened) we still had that same passion and enthusiasm for the work of ministry, for sharing the Good News of Jesus with others!
Leaving what had been our ‘home’ in Beckenham for a number of years, to ‘house share’ with Julia’s elderly, widowed mother in Rodden was to be given the opportunity to live in a beautiful five bedroom, three reception room, two bathroom, thatched cottage set in its own substantial grounds in idyllic countryside. In many ways this was a ‘win-win’ situation for all of us. We had a beautiful home to live in and Julia’s mother had someone to care for her. Of course we knew the house well. We have been coming down to Rodden several times a year for 20 years or so ever since Olivia (Julia’s mother) and Ken (Julia’s late father) had moved down to Dorset. Once the move was over we all settled in well and (what turned out to be) our five year sojourn proved to be a very happy period in our lives. Of course, we never expected to actually live there for five years. We anticipated that (once Julia had fully recovered from the bout of illness that had partially generated the premature conclusion of her ministry in Beckenham) we would return to ‘ministry’ somewhere or other in the not too distant future.
Every Christmas (with just one exception), whilst we were in the Baptist Ministry, for the last umpteen years we had driven down to Rodden to spend Christmas with Julia’s family. As soon as the Christmas Morning Service was finished we would say our ‘Goodbyes’, jump in the car (already packed with cases and presents), and drive down to West Dorset as quickly as possible. The aim was to get down before the rest of the family (who had already arrived by Christmas Eve) consumed all the champagne and caviar with which we traditionally begin our family Christmas celebrations. It was easier in the days before everybody had mobile phones. A normal three and a half hour car journey could often be accomplished in under three hours on a Christmas morning with little traffic on the roads so we often managed get to Rodden before the rest of the family had actually started on the ‘goodies’. With the advent of mobile phones however, they got into the habit of ‘checking up on us’ en route … just to make sure we were ‘making good time’ of course … so that surreptitiously they could ‘squeeze an extra bottle in’ before we arrived (and then hide the evidence)?
For us to actually be ‘living at Rodden’ radically changed the dynamic of everybody ‘coming home for Christmas’ however. On the plus side it meant that Julia could ‘take over’ from her mother in ‘doing Christmas’ for the rest of us (Julia is a marvellous cook, by the way), and we were thus enabled to imbibe our fair share of the champagne? We were also able to bring the rest of the village together by inviting everyone who lived in Rodden to come to our cottage for ‘Christmas drinks and nibbles’. In this way everybody got to known everybody else (which strangely they hadn’t before) and this has now become an ‘annual event’ in the village with different Rodden residents ‘hosting’ the ‘party’ each year. Christmas remained still ‘fun’ for us what with putting up the Christmas trees, setting up the Christmas lights, making the Christmas puddings, and so on.
This year, however, the dynamics have changed yet again. Back in the summer Julia received an approach from Knaphill Baptist Church, Woking, Surrey, and … cutting a long story short … eventually accepted a call from the church to be their new Minister. Julia’s younger sister, Livy (and her husband, Jack) had earlier moved from London to a village the Dorset side of Salisbury only an hour or so from Rodden. The whole of Julia’s family were adamant that Julia should fulfil God’s call, and return to the Baptist Ministry, and Livy was willing to take on the role of ‘principal carer’ for Julia’s elderly mother. This, in turn, freed us up to look somewhat wider than the limits we had set ourselves for settling in another church. Although Julia had had a number of ‘possibilities’ for settlement during our time in Rodden none of them had ‘worked out’ for various reasons. Some situations were not right for Julia, or Julia was not right for other situations. The call to Knaphill, however, was very clear cut and everybody concerned felt ‘God’s seal of approval’ on the whole thing. The church very generously redecorated and re-carpeted the Manse for us, and invited us to move in (with full pay) a month early (in December) so we could ‘get straight’. So a week before Christmas we found ourselves ensconced in our new home – a lovely, bright, warm, modern, little three-bedroom end of terrace house – which we just love!
Because Julia doesn’t commence her ministry at Knaphill until the beginning of January she had the whole of Advent and Christmas off! This meant that (much to Julia’s family’s relief) we could return to Rodden to ‘do Christmas’ for everybody else once again! Julia’s mother (and her sisters) were regularly on the phone in the ‘run up’ to Christmas enquiring, “When are you ‘coming home’ for Christmas?” To be honest, as much as I have loved Christmas in Rodden over the years, this year I really didn’t want to go! I really wanted to stay in our own little house in Knaphill. Although we had been here less than a month it was ‘home’ not Rodden! We both felt that finally we were ‘back on track’. Finally, we were home!
Christmas in Rodden went well. We arrived early in the week before Christmas and set everything up. We did our best to ‘make Christmas an enjoyable time’ for everybody who came. We left a few days beyond Christmas (after the rest of the family) so that we could ‘clear up’, take down the decorations, etc. But celebrating Christmas at Rodden this year never for one moment felt like ‘coming home for Christmas’? We were so pleased to get back to Knaphill. To our lovely little bright, warm, house … and the adventure awaiting us in the New Year as Julia takes up her role as Minister of Knaphill Baptist Church (and I take up my new role as unofficial ‘Assistant to the Minister’). Why do we feel so ‘at home’ here in Knaphill? Well, as the old saying goes: ‘Home is where the heart is!’ And our heart is in being where God wants us to be … back doing what God called us to be as ‘ministers of the Gospel’ in the place where God has called us to ‘minister’ in Christ’s name!
In some ways our ‘journey’ over the last few years resonates with certain aspects of the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary forced to go firstly, to Bethlehem (despite Mary being heavily pregnant) because of the demands of the Census, and then secondly, to flee to Egypt because of the slaughter of the innocents at the hand of King Herod fearful for his throne. How relieved the Holy Family must have been when eventually they found their way to Nazareth. Matthew tells us (in his Gospel) that ‘After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene’ (Matthew 2:19-23).
Nazareth and the Galilee is my favourite part of Israel. The city of Nazareth pulsates with life and activity and the Galilee boasts so many wonderful sites. It is difficult to actually put into words but there is just something about this whole area. Nazareth was ‘home’ for Jesus for the vast majority of his earthly life and it was the launch pad for his ministry. Perhaps my favourite place in Nazareth itself is the reputed site of the old synagogue (now a Christian Church) where Jesus preached his first recorded sermon (Luke 4:14-30). But Jesus did not just love Nazareth because it was his home town. He loved it because (at that time) it was the place where God wanted him to be and where God wanted him to both reveal himself as ‘God’s anointed’ and commence his ministry. For Jesus too, ‘home is where the heart is’ and for Jesus (and for Julia and myself) the ‘heart of the matter’ is found in being where God wants us to be … doing what God calls us to be and do as ‘ministers of the Gospel’ in the place where God has called us to ‘minister’ in his name!