A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of a friend, a Christian servant in our city, an Anglican priest who, according to his wife was essentially ‘a missionary caught up in clerical garb.’ In his latter years he was strongly involved in a local movement of ‘prayer, revival and mission.’ His name, Alan Stansbury, 1929-2013. He and Molly had chosen to serve mostly in small country parishes in South Africa. I have the funeral brochure before me, a collage of small photos of Alan from his early school days in the Eastern Cape until his latter years as retired priest: his face always beaming, exhuberant, kindly.
A number of things struck me at his deeply-moving funeral Service…
First, the large crowd of people who came to remember him – many hundreds of people crowded into the church building and hall. I arrived 20 minutes early, but had to stand throughout the Service with many others. He had served in relative obscurity but was remembered fondly by so many of different cultures, denominations, church groups, etc.
Second, the Service was full of light and joy! Yes, tears were shed as two daughters, a grand-daughter and his son (also an Anglican priest in our city) reminisced about him.
Third, the immediate family spoke so powerfully of the influence of Alan’s life on them. Always it was about a husband, dad and grand-dad whose everyday behaviour was shot through with Jesus! He lived Jesus, so often sang about and to him, laboured for him. He lived joyfully, simply, honestly and frugally. His son David stated during the Service, ‘I am in the ministry because of my Dad.’
Fourth, he wasn’t necessarily remembered as a brilliant preacher, orator or charismatic leader, etc: he was remembered as the servant of all. Humble and gentle.
Fifth, according to David, Alan was often misunderstood for his firm convictions, even persecuted. A man ahead of his times in terms of a ‘free-er’ style of worship, someone who honoured all people at all times, especially the poor and oppressed. Remember, he served as priest during the dark days of Apartheid…
Was he perfect? Of course not! But what a shining example for us all.
One of the most prominent 20th century Roman Catholic theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar (quite a mouthful!), reflected (in his Heart of the World) on the heart of Jesus: ‘I say to you, Blessed is he who exposes himself to an existence never brought under mastery, who does not transcend, but rather abandons himself to my ever-transcending grace. Blessed are not the enlightened whose every question has been answered and who are delighted with their own sublime insight, the mature and the ripe ones whose one remaining action is to fall from the tree. Blessed rather are the chased, the harassed who must daily stand before my enigmas and cannot solve them. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who lack a spirit of cleverness. Woe to the rich, and woe to the doubly rich in spirit! Although nothing is impossible with God, it is difficult for the Spirit to move their fat hearts. The poor are willing and easy to direct. Like little puppies they do not take their eyes from their master’s hand to see if perhaps he may throw them a little morsel from his plate. So carefully do the poor follow my promptings that they listen to the wind (which blows where it pleases), even when it changes. From the sky they can read the weather and interpret the signs of the times. My grace is unpretentious, but the poor are satisfied with little gifts.’
The kind of life modelled by Alan, is one I aspire to through the indwelling Christ. Hopefully I can then also die as well as he did…
PS With reference to my last blog ‘The Temple Talisman,’ some may feel I am over-stating the challenge facing the Church in the 21st century. This morning I came across this adroit observation by N. American blogger, pastor and author Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity): Evangelical Christians seem to believe – indeed they insist – that ‘their ship is listing to one side because it gives a more interesting look at the iceberg!’