24 April 2020

Gifts in abundance

By Clive Marsh

This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on April 3rd

 

As I write we are close to lockdown. Apart from online ‘meetings’, the remainder of the invitations and visits for the Vice-Presidential year have disappeared from the diary and I am taking stock three months earlier than expected. There will be positive aspects for many of us from the enforced staying at home.

Within that time, I trust we shall be praying ever more fervently for those who cannot stop, and on whom the rest of us will depend: healthcare workers and food distributors above all. Gratitude will take on new depths in the coming months, so it’s the theme for this month’s reflection.

I like to call myself frugal. Apart from books, CDs and the occasional concert ticket it’s probably true. Close family-members, though, might prefer the word ‘stingy’. I sometimes forget (or it never even occurs to me) to show gratitude in material ways. For won’t words do? I find it easy to say ‘thank you’ and really mean it. Isn’t that enough?

In this Vice-Presidential year, however, I’ve been materially challenged. Barbara and I had been tipped off to think carefully about what, if anything, to pass on to anyone we greeted formally, or who played host to us. It could get complicated (and too expensive!) to be over-elaborate anyway. This was music to my ears. A firm handshake and a heartfelt ‘many, many thanks’ would surely do the trick.

And it has done – unless I personally have left in my wake a whole list of hosts who’ve been aghast at my lack of gratitude. (Will I ever know? Please tell me if I got it badly wrong!) We did leave behind a copy of our book, So What’s the Story…?, sometimes, and I’m sure Barbara will have been more generous than I on her individual visits. But otherwise I’ve mostly left words to be enough.

The material symbolism of gifts has been challenging me in the other direction. For the Vice-Presidential Cupboard has been filling up with all sorts of interesting things: a Chinese cloth which could easily grace the top of the Vice-Presidential Cupboard, a large soapstone Zimbabwean sculpture, a keyring from Argentina, a Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest mug from Tilbury, chocolate and coffee from Wolverhampton, plus a whole stack of goodies from Queenswood School.

To remark that I don’t deserve any of this goes without saying. To say I am humbled by such gifts is a cliché, but’s it’s true too. It’s also a bit embarrassing when, as in many of these cases, I was giving nothing in return, other than the fact of showing up.

Of course, the gift-giving may well have been tangled up with lots of other motives than just to say ‘we’re pleased you came to see us’.

I’m a realist. Many of the institutions, churches and projects Barbara and I have visited must raise cash just to survive, let alone prosper. In the present health crisis this may be true even more.

I am therefore quite happy to ‘name-check’ the kind donors. But let’s also be clear: I have been given gifts on my travels with absolutely no guarantee that I would give, or do, anything in return. In that sense the ‘thanks for coming’ message is paramount. I just hope it’s also a way of saying ‘thanks for taking the trouble to try and grasp what we’re about’.

For surely that’s the most important thing. Beyond the smiling, the hand-shaking (remember those days when we were able to shake hands?) and the appreciative nodding there was also the listening – keen listening – and the asking of questions. Whoever we’ve met and wherever we’ve been – and as all Presidents and Vice-Presidents have always tried to do, I’m sure – we’ve tried to ‘get’ the people, projects, churches, organisations and institutions we’ve found ourselves amongst.

In what ways is God present here? How can we pass on the message about the nature of God’s presence to others? How can we, on the Methodist Church’s behalf, affirm people here? And sometimes too: what awkward questions is it our job to ask here?

Perhaps, then, the best way I can give back to those who’ve given me gifts this year is to weave something of their stories into my story, or to use snippets from their stories in my story-telling as a preacher.  Stories, as we know, bring things to life and help us make connections.

So stay tuned for tales, for example, from the bridge (of a container ship in Tilbury), from the future girl/young women tennis-playing scholars at Queenswood, from the ground-breaking ceremony for the new church in Harare and from the post-film discussion at Wolverhampton’s film theatre.

‘Stingy’ may well be my middle name. But I can at least try and express my own gratitude to those who have given me gifts with some fresh words. There’ll be quite a lot of times, it seems, in the weeks and months to come to do some reflecting and writing.

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