As I reflect on the last 18 months since I have been with you, I do so with a feeling of joy and a profound sense of gratitude. As we hit September, like many of you I find myself sitting back and wondering where on earth the time goes but the communities of the Benefice – both the churches and the villages they serve – have very much embraced Naomi, our children and myself with their love and welcome.
As I journey around the Benefice and spend time in each of the villages, I come across the most wonderful people and the most wonderful community spirit. It’s a great place to be; a lovely place to live, to work, to raise children, to make friends – and for me, naturally, a wonderful place to share with some of those folks in praying and worshipping our loving Creator God. Even amid the inevitable challenges of ministry, this sense of joy and gratitude remains.
At the end of September and the beginning of October, our churches host a number of Harvest Festivals. I recall with fondness a church in my previous post, at East Harling – I would always pop by to say hello to the wonderful team busily setting up the church ready for their ever-popular Harvest Festival the next day (there was always plenty of beer and cider on the go!) And what a sight! Every windowsill, bench, niche and church furnishing lavishly and beautifully arranged with the most amazing variety of colourful fruit and veg, foliage and berries.
And as I spent time with the folks there, seeing their obvious enjoyment, hearing and watching the fun and banter they were having together as they worked, and how much it meant to them to arrange everything so beautifully and give their visitors a warm and unforgettable welcome, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with thanksgiving to God and, also, to give thanks for having the opportunity to anticipate and enjoy a rural Harvest Festival as it was always meant to be.
Harvest festivals are the more obvious opportunities during which communities come together to reflect on and give thanks for God’s gifts and blessings to us. Throughout the Bible we’re encouraged to have a thankful heart and there’s no shortage of psychologists and behaviourists who tend to agree that thankfulness is rather a good disposition to keep. When life is good, when joy seems to abound, then being thankful ought to be quite easy – but we can often forget to give thanks for the goodness and the elements of life that we enjoy. Sometimes we can be in danger of seeking ‘the next thing’ and forget to reflect in thanksgiving for what we already have; when ‘the next thing’ doesn’t materialise, we can become disappointed or even angry or bitter and so we forget the many things we can already be thankful about. We can become profoundly ungrateful.
And sometimes we have to dig very deeply to be thankful; there are many times in life when we might feel sorrowful or anxious, when either ourselves or those dear to us are ill or we come across difficulties in our work or our relationships. The occasions when we mourn the loss of loved ones are naturally ones where we might find it very difficult to be thankful, but, in time, grief gently turns to thanksgiving; the bitterness or anger over the time we couldn’t spend with them gradually turns to gratitude for the gift of time that we did spend with them and all the ways they blessed our lives.
I, like many of you enjoyed the coverage of the Olympics in Tokyo and no-one could fail to be inspired not only by the extraordinary performances of the athletes but also, very often, by their personal back-stories, many of which leave us amazed at the resilience of humankind. This is especially so with the Paralympics.
I like motorsport and I remember a young Alessandro (Alex) Zanardi making his F1 debut for Lotus before later racing the ovals of the US IndyCar Series. I also vaguely remember him involved in a ‘candid camera’-style stunt on prime-time Saturday night TV when, at a disused Norfolk airfield, he pretended to be a novice learner for a driving instructor, before proceeding to scare his teacher witless at 130 mph, with cornering slides and handbrake turns!
In 2001 he suffered a horrific crash in a Series race in Germany that so nearly claimed his life. He lost both legs in the accident but has since moved into para-sports and racing hand-bikes. Having won two gold medals at the London Paralympics in 2012, he won a further gold in 2016 at Rio in the H5 hand-bike road time trial, on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of his accident. After his victory, he shared his reflections with a BBC journalist:
“I feel very lucky, I feel my life is a never-ending privilege…normally I don’t thank God for these type of things as I believe God has more important stuff to worry about, but today is too much, I had to raise my eyes and thank him.”
Sometimes we realise that we don’t thank God as much as we’d like or as much as we ought; sometimes we forget how blessed we are, sometimes our circumstances and sorrow mask those blessings for a time, and understandably so. Wherever we are, however, perhaps as we take time to reflect carefully on the positive areas of our life and circumstances, we may yet find something or someone for which we too can raise our eyes to God and give thanks with a grateful heart.