When God drops you in it
“Surprise,” observed Boris Pasternak, “is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” That certainly was my experience yesterday afternoon. The cathedral was packed for the carol service: great atmosphere, a real sense of occasion. The choirs were getting into position, final sound check. Clearly a lot of preparation had gone into this service. I arrived in good time. After all I was leading the service along with Father Peter. So we took a service card to see what we were tasked to do. Peter was doing the bidding prayer at the start of the service, just like last year. Naturally I assumed I was taking the concluding prayers as well as a few prayers during the service. But my name wasn’t there. Puzzled I looked through the whole service order until I found these words: Homily: Canon Ross Moughtin. I was preaching. In fact, I had been preparing for such an event for the last 40 years, on speaking – preaching, even – without any notice. As well all know, things happen. A colleague gets stuck in a traffic jam or goes into labour. Or someone forgets to tell you. So on a fairly regular basis at the Sunday 8.15 service I will deliberately preach without any preparation. And not just me. Over the years as we walk in to take the service, I whisper to my curate “You’re preaching!” It’s important to nurture the gift of extempore preaching, speaking without any notice. And on a fairly regular basis I am asked to speak without any notice but it is usually a fairly informal occasion and everyone understands that I am speaking off the cuff, so to speak. But this was different. A full cathedral. However, the congregation was in good heart and I was on familiar territory – Christmas. No difficult facts to master or names to remember. I had done it before. In fact, only this week I had been reading the words of Jesus to his disciples, preparing them for testing times. “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” (Matthew 10:19) Now this is a very different situation, being dragged before governors and kings because of Jesus. But the basic principle remains the same – Jesus promises the resource of this Holy Spirit whenever we speak for him. Guaranteed. To quote my swimming instructor” “Ross, just relax.” So I decided to relax and rely on God keeping his promise. Which he did. You will be relieved to know, for the sake of the congregation as much as for me, it went very well. Several people came up after the service to thank me for my address. Even Jacqui thought it was good. But, as we all know, you never know. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” writes the apostle Peter. “But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15). I remember reading some years ago how to survive in a plane crash, not as difficult as it may sound. You imagine the scenario and then in your mind run through the various options open to you. It may be crawling on the floor counting the seats until you get to the emergency exit. The very fact that you imagine it means that you instinctively do the right thing should it actually happen rather than simply freeze up. And that applies to any emergency including being asked to address a full cathedral without notice. However, what keeps this from becoming yet another worry, a further anxiety to weigh us down, is that we can legitimately anticipate the help of the Holy Spirit. And over the years I have found God faithful. So again, only yesterday in a very different situation, I learned of an unexpected setback. But we had been there before and what seemed an insuperable problem at the time turned out to be no problem at all. One of my great heroes of faith was the founder of the China Inland Mission, James Hudson Taylor. He learnt to trust Christ in all manner of situations. “Many Christians estimate difficulty in the light of their own resources, and thus they attempt very little and they always fail. All giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His power and presence to be with them.” So next time you find yourself in a daunting situation, realise: God has put you there. He won’t let you down. So we can handle any surprise. Notices attached.