Article of the week: The family silver
2 May 2020
Ron Thomlinson treasures the lessons learnt from past sermons
BEING the proud custodian of the family silver, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I cannot sell it or pawn it, as it has no visible hallmark. In fact, to the naked eye, my family silver is just a pile of old papers waiting to be thrown away.
A recent purge of our attic revealed three thick packets of sermons my mum and dad had preached during a combined total of nearly 80 years as corps officers. What do officers’ kids do with their deceased parents’ sermons? Orders And Regulations is silent on the matter.
I am not lobbying for my parents to receive a lifetime achievement award for their preaching. They, too, had feet of clay. Like many a contestant in the Eurovision Song Contest, some of their meetings will undoubtedly have received nul points from congregations.
It took me several days to read them all. Though they were words from and for a previous generation, they constituted a treasure trove of all kinds of information. What I discovered affected me deeply.
Though Mum sometimes played the ‘I’m only a simple mill girl from Batley’ card, she was a clever woman with a spiritual presence and authority on the platform. She knew how to lead a meeting. Her sermon material carried the signature of a teacher. She wrote her talks out in full and in longhand without crossings out or alterations – an amazing display of self-discipline. After Dad died, she took over his sermons, preaching them with her own life experiences and illustrations added to his text in tiny letters. It was beautiful to observe.
Dad’s talks were quite different from hers: they were full of human interest. His material came alive with stories about the people he had met or read about in the Bible. His listeners could easily identify with the portraits he painted. He signalled changes in society and tried to find a Christian response to scientific discoveries. Newspaper cuttings were essential.
Perhaps his most challenging sermons were created in the face of human tragedy. One holiness meeting in 1961 wrestled with the issue of a 20-year-old Jamaican building worker being persecuted for Christ’s sake. For six months the young, shy man had been so viciously victimised for his faith that, in a moment of desperation, he killed one of his tormentors with a seven-pound hammer. When the newspapers reported the trial Dad dealt with this spiritual dilemma without any sense of judgment on his fellow believer.
Reading Dad’s material, I was captivated by his ability to bring Old Testament stories to life and apply them to a congregation. Incidents in the lives of Josiah, Ezekiel, Elisha and King David were combined with fascinating, lesser-known stories, such as Absalom’s handsomeness and vanity, and Michal in 1 Samuel.
Dad’s love for the Army hall and worship was reflected in a text from Leviticus 6:13: ‘The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out’ (King James Version). When some Salvationists started to miss meetings he pointed out that the citadel was their temple ‘and not a Holiday Inn’.
My father’s self-confessed passion was for the backslider: ‘For me, there is a greater regret in my heart for backsliders than for those who have never known… Your heart must break if you are to win souls.’
He was always grateful for his experiences of God’s presence. Occasionally he spoke of his failures as a leader, his fear of public speaking, his anti-establishment behaviour and the fact he had never forgotten his humble beginnings.
In the corner of the talks are small letters, such as ‘SH’ for Seaham Harbour and ‘K’ for Keighley. As corps were recalled, people whom I know are still alive and heard those words came to mind: Connie White, Brighouse; Mary Fowler, Willenhall; Bob Batchelor, Halifax; Alf Ward, Birmingham Citadel. Precious memories.
Though this is all true, the question still remains: What on earth am I to do with these pieces of paper?
I have decided to save a few of these talks in my ‘special memories’ box. Then I will hold an altar service. I will light a candle to help me become quiet, after which I will slowly and thoughtfully put the papers in a shredder. Upon completion I will pray a gentle, silent ‘Amen – so be it’.
Why this ceremony? It is because this family silver, though made of paper, bears the hallmark of the Holy Spirit.
RON LIVES IN THE NETHERLANDS