Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: This talk was from early December 2012 as feedback from my Sabbatical. The question in my mind was, "How do we run the race when we can’t run?" I spent time talking to and reading books by people with various impairments. This is some of what I learned.

For the purposes of this morning I’m going to assume that none of you knows about the illness that left me almost bed ridden for 7 months back in 2008. I’ve only met some of you recently and so that seems to be the best way to proceed. When I visited Kenya recently I said, “I have 1 wife and 3 children and I’m sure you’re glad it is not the other way around.” This was greeted with chuckles. I worked in the Banking Industry for 14 years between 1986 and 2000 before spending two years at a Church of England Vicar factory, known as Trinity College Bristol. For the last 6½ years I have been and will continue to be the Vicar here.

I was first ordained, or licensed as a Minister in June 2002 in Winchester Cathedral and after 10 years of service we are allowed to apply for a sabbatical or extended study leave. I took mine from 25 June to 6 October 2012 and I’m sure what I learned and experienced will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A few weeks ago I was preparing a version of this talk for my Dystonia Support group and I was very aware that my head was pulling towards my right shoulder; a reminder of this frustrating Dystonia thing began to affect my health just four months after I moved here. The Dystonia in my neck is treated with Botulinum Toxin and my only complaint is that despite 4 years of Botox into my neck I still don’t have the neck of an 18 year old! When I was finally diagnosed in June 2008 with cervical or neck dystonia I sent an email to some friends. One of them, a joker, my good friend Ian Fletcher said, “That explains it Warner. We’ve always known you were a massive pain in the neck!”

I wonder how you react to such a joke. To me, with a sense of humour that helps me to make sense of life, or sometimes just to make nonsense of life, that joke helps me to laugh. Even though technically the joke is on me, because Ian knows it is precisely my type of humour it actually shows me he cares. However, people without dystonia don’t tend to find it funny.

In June 2008 before diagnosis I was almost bed ridden. Walking, sitting, and moving around, was agony in the neck region. So, the sofa, or the bed were the only semi-comfortable places for me. Fast forward two years and in June 2010 I completed a 5 km fun run in aid of St. Luke’s Hospice, although both of my sons thrashed me in a sprint to the finish line!

As I considered my progress, I recalled that during 2008, the worst year of my life physically, I had grown and developed as a person. Whilst horizontal, I had listened to more music, read more books, and listened to more talks on the internet, than ever before in my life. Physically, I hadn’t run or walked for months. However, in my mind and my spirit I was making progress along the road of life. There were days when I felt mentally low, but the sense of peace and purpose in my life, and the sense of progress as a person were tangible. Why? And why did I not feel as peaceful 2 years later after completing a Fun Run?

After discussion with people I know and trust, and a helpful conversation with a colleague I’d never met before I applied for a Sabbatical, and came up with a title. In some ways the title is ironic. There is a tinge of humour in it, but the title is entirely serious, especially in the light of my experiences, your experiences, and the lives of many other people – Paralympic athletes for example. The title was: How do we run the race when we can’t run? The Bible talks about the life of faith being like a race (12:1), and it’s more like a marathon, not a sprint. The Bible talks about training our mind, training our character, training the person that I am; as an athlete trains and prepares for the games (1 Corinthians 9:25-26).

My Sabbatical or Extended Study Leave had to include certain elements: Renewal, Retreat and Rest. I was able to enjoy all three in abundance, and I am very grateful to you, my clergy colleagues, and to the Bishop, for agreeing to my request. Thank you!

So what did I do? I began with a retreat at a Roman Catholic Monastery – St. Augustine’s in Chilworth, Surrey. It was a wonderfully quiet, peaceful and relaxing time and I especially enjoyed my conversations with Brother Thomas, a monk from Madagascar. The hospitality of the monks was humbling, and their way of life was such a challenge.

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