Gratitude and Giving Back: A theme for the New Year

Posted by on Jan 5, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

Given that if you aim at nothing, you invariably achieve it, it is probably wise to set some goals for the New Year. In the past I have worked away at detailed plans, trying to set precise markers that will help me assess if the year can be classified a success or otherwise. But this year I have opted for an alternate strategy. Rather than great specificity (like lose 5kg, publish 2 articles, see Vose enrolment grow 7%) I am hoping to follow through on a theme, and to see where it leads. I have a gentle conviction (in other words, not a lightening bolt revelation, but just an ongoing sense that this is right) that I should build my year around the motif of giving back.

Perhaps it was the slightly sobering end our family had to last year that has seen me cast my mind back to the people and events that have led me to where I am today. They have included past teachers and youth leaders and pastors and colleagues and congregations and friends and family. And I can truly say that I feel a deep sense of gratitude when I look back. There has always been someone to encourage or to inspire or to challenge or to teach me.

And there have been those who have opened doors for me.

One of the first was when I was just 15 years old, and my religious education teacher, Al Pitchers, organised for me to preach at the New Forest Congregational Church. It was a huge leap of faith on his part – motivated partly by his having double booked himself with preaching appointments that day, and needing to find a substitute. He carefully poured over the message I wrote making polite and useful suggestions, and assuring me that the folk at New Forest would be blessed. I still have a copy of those sermon notes. He must have been sweating when he read them. Al Pitchers is a solid theologian (he went on to be a senior lecturer in theology at the University of Durban-Westville), and would definitely have noted the huge deficiencies in the script of my first homily. But he chose to keep silent about them, and the congregation at New Forest invited me back again and again – and I’ve been preaching ever since. I am grateful for that door that was opened. As I think about it, I ask myself if I have been as generous in opening doors for others.

It was Peter Holness who opened my door to working in theological education. I had recently been appointed as the pastor of Stellenbosch Baptist Church (this was 1985), and Peter invited me to be a guest preacher at chapel at the Baptist Theological College of Cape Town where he was principal. The service was held the week before Easter – a fact I remember well because I entitled my message ‘A week before Easter’ – and explored the somewhat chaotic world of Jesus and his disciples in that original week before Easter. It has turned out to be one of those sermons worth re preaching. At any rate, Peter enjoyed it, and on the strength of it organised for me to teach pastoral care at the Baptist College the next semester. I’ve been involved in theological education ever since – often (as then) on a very part time basis; for the last 12 years, full time as principal at Vose Seminary. At all times I have loved it, and still feel I need to pinch myself to see if it is true. Do I really get paid to do this work that I love so greatly?

Mike Parsons opened the door to writing for me. I had just been appointed principal of Vose (then called the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia), and Mike was compiling a festschrift in honour of the previous principal, John Olley. He asked if I would contribute a chapter. My writing up until that stage had been very limited. David Crutchley, whom I met when he was at the Baptist Theological College of Cape Town, had organised for me to write an article for the South African Baptist Journal of Theology which he edited, but that was about it. I had to confess to Mike that I really wasn’t sure I was up to it, but his confidence in me boosted my own, and a pleasing chapter resulted. More followed and then there was a whole new step taken after Mike left Vose and was appointed commissioning editor at Paternoster. Suddenly I found myself writing three books for them, and yet more opportunities have since opened. First it was David’s affirming – ‘you should contribute an article’ – then Mike’s insistent, ‘you write very well. You should write more,’ that saw me take a path that would otherwise have been untrodden.

My door to preaching, teaching and writing were all opened by others. And there have been other seasons as well. There was a period of radio broadcasting (a door opened by a colleague at Rosebank Bible College, Vic Graham), and I currently serve on many boards (a real privilege, and each because of a door opened by another) and… well, I am richly blessed.

And as of yet, I have not even spoken of my family. Those of you who know them, know that blessed doesn’t adequately describe it.

Gratitude is a relatively rare commodity in our overly cynical world, but when I look at my life, I feel overwhelmed at the kindness God has shown to me and to my family. And so I come to the start of 2016. And I know what the theme must be… Time to give back. True, I have tried to in the past. But I have never really had as a mindset, ‘how can I enrich those around me? How can I use what I have been given to help others?’ I’d like to cultivate that as my default this coming year.

‘Very interesting,’ you say, ‘but what has that to do with me?’

During my teenage years an often sung hymn at my home church, Bulwer Rd Baptist, was ‘Count your Blessings’ – with its memorable chorus, ‘count your blessings, name them one by one (x3), and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.’ An elderly saint, Granny Smith by name, would warble her way through it, always changing the chorus to ‘count your blessings name them one by one, count your blessings name them two by two, count your blessings, name them by the score, and it will surprise you there are millions more.’ When finished, she would turn around, beam at me and say, ‘It’s true young man, it’s true.’ And as I watched her hobble away at the end of each service, her body wracked with arthritis, I often wondered what she had to be so thankful for. But I did learn from her that if we decide not to sweat the small stuff, we spot blessings all around us. And I guess that is my way of saying, at the start of this year, why not consciously note the many things you have that bring you pleasure, and aware of your blessings, why not commit to giving back in to the lives of others. At any rate, I hope to do that a little better in 2016…

And should it be that your gratitude list is notable only for its brevity (and I do not want to trivialise the remarkably difficult lot that falls to a few), this truth remains: Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. And for that, we can all be grateful.

As always, nice chatting.

4 Comments

  1. I’m surprised at how many opportunities I’ve been given by people who saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there. I need to spend more time seeing what sits under the surface for others and helping them draw it out.

  2. Reading your blog, Brian,I was challenged to retrace my own life and remember those who opened doors for me. Did I ever thank them? Did they know the outcome of the seeds they had sown? I also wondered if Jesus had not “opened the door” for the twelve disciples, seemingly unlikely choices, how different the outcome might have been. Make 2016 a year of gratitude and opening doors.

    • Thanks Audrey. A great goal to have a year of gratitude and opening doors.

  3. Nice article. Really good observation, “Gratitude is a relatively rare commodity in our overly cynical world”.

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