Hospital evangelism – a tribute to my step-father (an unwitting Franciscan!)

Last Wednesday the Rev’d Mike Withers died. I learnt a lot from Mike, my step-father. 

The way he died, Bible in hand, (placed there by a wonderful Sue Ryder nurse) was so fitting for someone who had confessed the faith since his ‘conversion’ at Billy Graham’s 1955 Wembley rally. It was a privilege, an enormous privilege, to pray with him, anoint him and give him his final Eucharist. These things all make ministry seem so ‘sacramental,’ so worthwhile. Next week (Monday) is his funeral; please pray for my mum as she mourns her loss. 

The most important lesson I learnt from Mike during his last few days was simply this: His (Jesus’) divinity is revealed through  humanity (His and ours). It’s worth saying this again, ‘His divinity is revealed through humanity.’

Not the diminished, self-serving, self-promoting version of humanity that we often present to the world but, the fullness of our humanity. The humanity that is redeemed by Christ and restored through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

Doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, chaplains, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, commented on the grace with which Mike bore his illness. He was able to talk openly, without self-aggrandizement, about his faith and his hope. You see in some way others in the hospital, and then for a few hours in the hospice, saw that Mike was somehow different (and this is not to claim that others do not bear their illnesses with incredible fortitude).

Two other priests, one from a more Protestant Evangelical background, the other a self-confessed Liberal Catholic, made passing comments to me last week on the challenge of contemporary evangelism. The gist of both their arguments was that now is the time for the church to stop talking, stop criticizing and to start showing that true Christianity offers a different, more humane way of life.

Pope Francis has recently linked the sustainability of the Roman Catholic Church to it’s ability to simply be the arms of God’s love in the world. As a Benedictine it pains me to say it (it doesn’t really!) but perhaps now really is the time for the Church listen to St. Francis’ advice to ‘preach the Gospel, using words only when necessary.’ This is what Mike did, and, the way he carried himself invited verbal clarification about his faith.

This model is of course thoroughly biblical. St. Matthew reminds us that our way is to be the way of humility and service (see Matthew 20, 25-28). St. Paul in the letters to the Philippians and the Colossians stresses that His divinity is revealed primarily through His humanity. 

‘And being found in human form, he humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend……………..’ (Philippians, 2, 8-10).

‘He is the image of the unseen God (i.e. the human image) the first born of all creation………’ (Colossians 1, 15).

But, I hear the wordsmiths say, aren’t we called onto proclaim the Gospel, the very Word or Logos, well yes, I suggest is the answer. But, only when invited, as a consequence of the difference in the way we carry ourselves as redeemed and restored human beings, otherwise we run the risk of appearing shallow and attracting the poor and needy (spiritually and materially) for our own psycho-spiritual benefit.

Jesus knew that this would happen, that his name would be used and abused. St. Matthew provides the starkest of warnings to all in Christian ministry writing that ‘on that day many will say ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” There is a huge, tectonic warning in these questions:  that is the propensity to equate works of power with God’s favor and our salvation (for the really interesting point is that deeds of power did take place, despite the ‘false motives’!) But listen to the reply: ‘Then, I will declare to them.’ I never knew you; go away from me you evil doers,” (Matthew 7, 22 &23).

So perhaps my two priest friends are right. That we need to adopt an increasingly Franciscan approach to mission and ministry? Such an approach requires that we trust in God’s love for all mankind, allowing His love to bring us to the pinnacle of our humanity. Mike certainly did this from his death bed.

Will you join with Mike in becoming a ‘Franciscan Christian?’

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