Going back to my old School: The voice that says “Follow Me”.

On the 1st July 2016 I was given the honour of speaking at Founders Day at Hitchin Boys` School in Hertfordshire. The following is the text of my address…. I thoroughly enjoyed going back to my old school.

I`d like to begin if I may by thanking Mr Brown and the Governors for inviting me to be here this morning and I want to congratulate you young people on everything that you`ve done and achieved over the past year… In particular, to those of you who are moving on to something new after today I`d like to wish you every success and happiness in all that you do.

But can I also tell you of my surprise. Firstly, the really happy surprise at being given the honour of joining you today and of having the opportunity to come back to a place which holds so many very good memories for me…. And secondly as I`ve been thinking about coming here today I`ve also had a very strong feeling of surprise at how things have turned out.

You see it`s almost forty years since I sat where you are… at my final Founders Day … that was then followed by the exam results… (I did OK- not brilliant but OK) and I went off to University…. Now, I was all set, MY plan was to become an Architect… but my surprise is that all these years later I`ve become a Christian Minister. I almost want to say to you that my last appearance here at Founders` Day was when it all started to go wrong…. at least as far as MY plans were concerned. In other words, as I look back on it ……my last Founders Day was probably the beginning of things turning out very differently to what I had planned.

That morning I was asked to give the Bible reading…. (John 21.15-22) It`s the same one that Joe read a few moments ago… And as I finished that reading I heard something that I couldn`t quite get out of my mind. That reading is the record of part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciple Peter.

As you might know, just before Jesus was crucified … three times Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus … basically Peter deserted his friend and ran away. Anyway, after the first Easter Day…. After Jesus rose again here they are on a beach, having breakfast and Jesus is trying to rebuild their friendship. The conversation is really all about failure and love and forgiveness ….. and the different path that Peter`s life was going to take from that moment on. And at the end of their conversation Peter`s feeling a bit defensive so he looks over his shoulder at one of the other disciples and says to Jesus, “Yes, but what about him?!” And Jesus turns to Peter and says never mind about him… YOU follow me.

What stuck in my mind all those years ago were those two simple words: “Follow me!” And over several years after that Founders` Day those words just kept coming back to me….. So much so that I began to think it was just as if Jesus was saying them directly to me…. and as all MY plans started to unravel…. I wasn`t very good at doing architecture actually! I realised that I had somehow to explore what was going on…. And what that voice meant.

Cutting the long story short instead of becoming an architect I`ve become a priest….. and on reflection I feel surprised and incredibly fortunate that`s how things have turned out. I`m still exploring what it means to hear Jesus say “Follow me”… but now part of my job is to help others do the same….. Maybe he`s saying that to you today…? Like me…you might get a bit of a surprise and be led somewhere very different from what you`re planning…!

But what it boils down to I think is that by nature we like to plan for the future. We are encouraged to dream, to plan and to achieve… and that`s fine. That`s fine …..as long as we remember that we`re really not in control of that future …… And far more important I think is always to be aware of the kind of person you are becoming as you make decisions and decide what your goals might be… It`s not that you care any less about achieving your dreams… it`s just that sometimes you have to realise that you might be wrong, and that maybe there`s something else in store for you (and THAT`S OK!)

What helps I think is learning to listen to yourself; and especially to the way you react to the perhaps unexpected or surprising things that happen…. Because again, as I say, you might begin to see things differently… you might find a very different path opening up for you.

We sometimes use the word `intuition` or `hunch` to describe this kind of thing but I think it`s more than that …. It`s much more like a voice. At Founders` Day I had the surprise of a voice that said, “Follow Me” and it kept repeating itself until eventually I had to do something about it.

Let me give you an example… Around the time I was feeling very unsettled at University one of my teachers told me off. She said “Mr. Wilmot you really must learn to chance your arm!” (she meant `take a risk`) Now, she was actually cross because I couldn`t make up my mind about what I thought in an essay that I`d written for her… I ran out of time and I handed it in unfinished….. I know it might sound strange but what I actually heard her say was nothing to do with the essay but about the kind of person I was becoming. I heard her tell me that I had to chance my arm in life… I had to take a risk that what I heard on Founders` Day WAS actually Jesus calling me to follow him….. and I had to explore a totally different direction from the one I had planned.

Part of the problem is that life can easily become so filled with noise and activity that you`ve no time or space to really listen to yourself or to what`s going on. You can become so driven, so focussed, so good at climbing what some adults call `the greasy pole` of success …..that when you`re much older you end up wondering what it was all for anyway….. But this is why the surprises; the unplanned stuff… the unexpected things and the difficulties we face are so important. Very often they`re just like a gift… because through them we hear the voice… that says “Follow me”.

This is something of what was happening to St. Peter in that reading. His plans for his life…. And the plans he had for Jesus as well …..all came to nothing.

But Jesus comes to him and calls him while he`s struggling with failure and change.

Jesus comes to him and calls him while he`s trying to understand what it means to love.

Jesus comes to him and calls him while he`s wrestling with how to forgive and be forgiven.

Jesus comes to him and says “Don`t be looking over your shoulder and comparing yourself with others….. You follow me”.

And these are the kind of surprising, unplanned and yes, difficult moments we need to look out for. It`s at these times that God is very close to us.

Because we are surrounded by a very loud world…. a world that`s so full of voices calling us in different directions it can be really hard to work out which ones are true; which one`s you`re going to listen to… or which ones you`ll follow… in other words, what`s worth giving your life for.

But what I`ve discovered is that you have to listen for that voice and chance your arm. And not to be put off by the surprising or frightening things that happen…. …especially the things that throw your plans out of the window. It helps to learn to listen to them …. Because God is in times like these and in the middle of them Jesus`s voice will be heard saying “Follow me”. Learn to trust that voice…because he won`t let you down.

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