Making our relationships work
"During these years as your Queen, the support of my family has, across the generations, been beyond measure. Prince Philip is, I believe, well-known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout he has been a constant strength and guide."
So addressed the Queen to Parliament on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in March, 2012. Clearly, as her faith in God sustained her during her remarkable life, so the support of her husband was a key component.
As it happened, a week ago today, the first full day of the reign of our new King, Jacqui and I celebrated our Golden Wedding. Some fifty years ago Jacqui pledged herself to a life-time project, one abandoned by my mother, one of improving me. (We’re not quite there yet.)
Quite an achievement, if you think about it – at least from Jacqui’s point-of-view. As playwright Jean Kerr observed: “Marrying a man is like buying something you’ve been admiring for a long time in a shop window. You may love it when you get it home, but it doesn’t always go with everything else.”
Marriage, of course, is a particular exercise in maintaining relationships, something at the very heart of being human. As writer Tim Clinton teaches: “The simple truth is that we are made for relationships and that in all those relationships we are called to reflect the love of God through our behaviour.
“I’m not going too far, I trust,” he adds, “when I say that this is nearly the meaning of life.” Well, it is – for God has revealed himself as trinitarian. Relationship is in the very heart of God himself, and he has made each of us in his own image.
And every relationship, especially in marriage, is an exercise in ongoing selflessness, something which as human beings, so prone to selfishness, we find particularly difficult.
You have to think about this quote which I came across during our time in Rochdale – and which I have used in conducting wedding ceremonies ever since. It was when a wife complained that she and her husband were both deeply in love with the same man.
So strangely we find relationships both essential and difficult. Of course, as Jesus repeatedly taught, forgiveness is entirely necessary if we are to thrive as human beings. Not just seven times but seventy times seven. In other words we are to lose count of each time we forgive. That’s basic.
As her Majesty reflected: “Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”
However, there’s more to a relationship than the willingness to forgive. For the apostle Paul it was essential to have “the mindset of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” (Philippians 2:8).
He urges us to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2). And the apostle continues, as in the Message translation, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
And as he wraps us his letter to the Philippian church Paul adds a very personal plea: “I urge Euodia and Syntyche to iron out their differences and make up. God doesn’t want his children holding grudges. And, oh, yes, Syzygus, since you’re right there to help them work things out, do your best with them.” (Philippians 4:2)
It’s not that Euodia and Syntyche had done anything wrong, even to the extent of forgiving each other. It was simply a case of these two feisty women getting along - and clearly they needed some help from good-old Syzygus.
As we become disciples of Jesus, we bring with us all kinds of baggage from the past – which we need to unload at the cross of Jesus. And as we surrender our lives to Christ, so he assumes a life-time project of improving us, above all in our ability to make and maintain relationships. And like Jacqui, the Holy Spirit – undaunted - does not give up.
I often think about a conversation I had with Jean, the wonderful head teacher of our school in Rochdale, on how she secured the job. The school, it seems, was struggling, mainly because no one could get on with the then head teacher, a rigid and forceful individual. However, Jean took the job as his deputy, knowing it would only be for a few years, because as she explained, “I can get on with people.” She could. So could the Queen.
I thought then this is the kind of person I want to be, someone who can get on with people – and here, I hope, the Holy Spirit with Jacqui’s invaluable help is making some progress, albeit uphill.
Above all we see this in Jesus – he was someone who clearly could get on with all sorts of people. He seemed oblivious to status, as the Pharisees observed. ‘Important’ people, of course: Nicodemus, Simon the Pharisee, Jairus and the unnamed centurion whose servant was ill. But more especially, those at the bottom of the heap: demoniacs, lepers and of course, women.
As I have mentioned before, it seems that Jesus spent most of his ministry having meals – not because he loved food but because he loved being with people. He enjoyed their company. Even when he needed to be alone, as at Gethsemane, he asked his close disciples to stay with him.
So during this time of national mourning we can bless God who has called each of us into a close, intimate relationship with him – and with each other.