Irons in the Fire

After a recent Thursday morning communion service at St Matthew’s, we had a conversation over coffee about the BBC TV programme, The Repair Shop. It’s an unlikely hit: a programme about people mending things. Watching someone painstakingly remove a layer of rust from a lawnmower doesn’t exactly sound riveting. But what makes the programme is the characters and the stories behind the objects that turn up in the repair shop’s barn. The show is presented by furniture restorer Jay Blades – Blades had a tough upbringing and was hindered in his education by undiagnosed dyslexia. He attributes his success as a TV presenter to the fact that, until the age of 51, he couldn’t read. This meant that, rather than learning facts about the people he was going to meet on camera from the written notes he was given, he had to talk to them, to ask questions. His interest in people draws us in to their stories. Jay is supported by a regular group of highly skilled craftspeople and occasional guest experts who seem to love their work. Their enthusiasm for their craft is infectious and the things they are able to do become fascinating.

Our chat over a cuppa was about the recent special episode featuring the former Prince of Wales (now King Charles III, of course). The Repair Shop had been given two pieces selected by the Prince: an 18th Century clock (which we learned was created by rescuing parts from other clocks) and a Scottish ceramic piece made to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. This had been damaged when someone opened a window and knocked it over. We didn’t find out who had opened the window. The Prince wasn’t saying.

In the episode we also met Jeremy the blacksmith. Jeremy had trained as part of a building craft programme run by the Prince’s Foundation at Dumfries House in Cumnock, Ayrshire. Jeremy said he had been blacksmithing for six or seven years. He spoke about the two key things required for smithing: “the first is to get it hot. The second is to hit it.” We saw him doing both. He had tried blacksmithing on a one-day course that someone gave him as a gift. He told us that he hadn’t done particularly well at school, hadn’t got good grades, but, when he discovered blacksmithing, he found what he loved and came into his own.

“Working by a fire – there’s no place I’d rather be in the world.”
“In blacksmithing I have absolutely found my calling.”

As someone has said, in a Christian context, our calling is where our gifts and passions meet human need. In a sense, our primary calling is to be ourselves. There is wisdom in the quote:

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

I’ve written before about the idea of vocation. People often think about the clergy as having a vocation – a calling. But the truth is that each of us has a calling. The Church of England talks about understanding Christian vocation in three areas:

  1. Social (our place within the community, where we contribute to the common good);
  2. Relational (our calling in relationship to God and to others, like family, friends, and neighbours); and
  3. Ministerial (our calling to serve and build up the church community and equip it for mission).

As I said when I wrote about this previously, I would put them in a different order: I would start with my ‘relational’ vocation. Who am I called to be? (Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.)

As you perhaps know, by the time you read this (or shortly after, at least) I will be on a three-month Sabbatical, away from parish duties. To prepare for this, one of the things I did was to meet with my spiritual director. (Clergy are expected to have a spiritual director, or adviser, and to meet with them on a regular basis.) One of the things that my spiritual director asked me to think about was my calling. You might think that, at my age, it’s a bit late to be asking questions about my calling, but that’s the point. We may have a sense of calling but our understanding of it will inevitably change as we, our circumstances, and the world around us change. I am called to be me – and to be me in the context of my marriage and family life. I am called to be a priest in the Church of England. And I am called to be the vicar of St Matthew’s and St Cross. All of those are things that I am fairly sure about. But what do they mean now (compared with, say, 35+ years ago when I was ordained) and what might they mean in the years ahead?

I don’t know that even a three-month Sabbatical will allow me to come up with definitive answers to those questions, but I hope for some growth in my understanding of each that will empower me better to live out my calling on my return.

The month of November begins with the Church celebrating the Feast of All Saints. We might think of a saint as someone especially gifted or committed, probably a martyr. But I would rather say that a saint is simply someone who has discovered who they are and what their calling is, and who is trying – however imperfectly – to put that understanding into practice. Like Jeremy the blacksmith or Paul the Apostle or me or you. Find what you love, and come into your own.

The jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane, struggled with addiction but wrote in the liner notes to his iconic 1965 album, A Love Supreme:

During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time in gratitude I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

Tragically, Coltrane died from liver cancer in 1967. The previous year, while touring in Japan, he was asked what he wanted to be in ten years. His answer?

I would like to be a saint.

Every blessing as you continue to discover your calling.

Alan Jewell