You may be aware that I recently had the sad privilege of taking part in the Thanksgiving Service for Marine Adam Brown. In the days that have followed I have tried to reflect on the experience, including on what at the time I regarded as a pastoral ‘fail’.
After the service I was able to talk with some of the bearer party who I thought had taken a particularly difficult role in the day. One of them sought me out for a second conversation. He made it clear that he had no use for God stuff, because of unspecified circumstances in his life; I said something naff (but true) about believing God is there when we are shocked, hurt or lonely, whether we can acknowledge it or not – a stumbling reflection on the loss of my own mother.
But, he spoke movingly about the sense of brotherhood shared by all Royal Marines, who are by each others side in all the laughter and trauma of life. It was this that had led to him to volunteer for the bearer party.
I don’t suppose Royal Marine’s choose their brother Marine’s; but they certainly spend more time with them, at close quarters in difficult conditions, than most of us spend with either our own colleagues or our own families. It is no wonder that the image and experience of ‘brother’ is so important to them.
What he said got me thinking: who is the ultimate brother?
When we see Jesus in the Gospels encouraging (little children to meet with him), correcting (often Peter) and comforting (Matthew 8), and telling stories with those whose life he shared, he was being a brother. In his resurrection, Jesus stood like the bearer party, on the shore of his “brothers’” grief (John 21).
Jesus is for me the ultimate brother, because of many things: he is a 24/7 companion; a strong, dependable, constant presence; someone who both comforts and challenges, encouraging us to go the extra mile as we serve alongside him. But although a Royal Marine does not choose those he serves with, it was Jesus’ choice to serve alongside us, and he asks that we allow him that privilege of being our brother.
Now, why couldn’t I have said all this at the time? Perhaps, because it wasn’t intended that I should. When I exchanged a de-brief email with the lovely Royal Naval Padre who led the service, he told me this:
Don’t feel inadequate about your response to that lad, ministry with the armed forces really is cutting edge stuff (dare I say real pioneer ministry!) and you really get honest reaction, not just “nice sermon vicar” type responses…. He took the courage to be honest which is the starting point, and had you responded with religious stuff, however sensitive, you might have confirmed all his suspicions. Remember it’s God who calls and converts, we only play a little part when he wants us too.
Thank you God for my ‘little part’.