We've all seen those 'before and after' photos. Whether they are advertising an new diet or fitness regime or what our dentist can do for our teeth, they look soooo inviting, but after a moment's reflection are almost certainly very unlikely - or photoshopped.
Those 'before and after' moments can arrive at very surprising moments indeed though.
So here's how it goes.
We're the sort of parish where doing the 'round' of home communions is a central part of the pastoral ministry of the church - a ministry shared with some skilled and trained laity too, but I bear a burden of that load. And I love it.
I love doing home communions. As a Curate I did loads of them. They were a staple part of monthly ministry. Sometimes they were a burden - especially when leading the service became more about 'liturgical shouting' than leading the well crafted words; or I struggled to find somewhere clean (ish) to lay the corporal. Most of the services that I led were a joy.
Over the years my understanding and appreciation of this ministry has grown. No longer is it about me (somewhat arrogantly perhaps) taking Jesus to the sick and house bound, but more about me recognising now that He is already there with them.
This enables the sick or house bound to receive Christ in Word and Sacrament and find themselves nourished, and I leave having been fed by Him in strong tea and a soft biscuit and the same conversation that I have had every time I have visited.
This recognition of Christ already present extends to much of the ministry which I have the privilege of exercising. My role as a priest becomes more and more about discovering God already present amongst His people, and pointing Him out.
This should not be surprising. Scripture is talks again and again of God siding with, showing a bias to, dwelling specially with - the poor, the broken, the dispossessed, the ill, and the grieving; with those whom society tends to push to it's edges.
Over the last couple of weeks, God already present, acted in a way that has left me speechless.
It was my day off, and I was wandering into school to collect my kids, when one of the mums stopped me and said did I know what was happening to C because there was an ambulance outside her house and she was being rushed to hospital. Having taken home communion to C and her family many times, and knowing that she has been blighted with significant ill health over the years.
Instinctively, I decided to try to call the chaplain at the hospital that she was likely to be taken to. It was 5pm. Would anyone be there?
Miraculously, the Chaplain answered the phone. 'I was just out of the office but I somehow felt compelled to go back in, when the phone went, and it was you', he said. 'I would normally be in the car park by now. Of course I'll go and see what I can find out.'
A while later, my mobile phone rang. It was the Chaplain again, He had found C and her family, had talked with them and prayed with them. They expressed real thankfulness on receiving that ministry and were amazed that he was there as quickly. God was already present - the Chaplain was simply responding. He suggested I go to see her soon. I made noises about going then, his reply left me in no doubt of how serious this was - I should go, but I shouldn't leave it til Monday as that might be too late... Sobering stuff.
I went to see C on the Sunday afternoon after a full morning of services. Nothing could have prepared me for what I found. She was in ICU and was 'all wired up.' She was awake but clearly very very ill indeed. At her bedside was her husband who looked pleased to see me as did she.
The three of us talked, and as we did, C lapsed in and out of consciousness - her body reminding us of how close she was to God already present. Seeing she was not well at all I took her hand as we talked. At least she would know I was there.
I know that there was only so much more C could take of me being there. She fought to stay awake. I decided to lead prayers for her which included anointing her with oil for healing and wholeness. This in itself in some ways was unremarkable - but it is about acknowledging the presence of God already there with her. C's husband saw me out of ICU and I fully expected to hear within a few days that she had gone to meet her Maker.
We went away on a few days holiday.
On my return I hear stories of how C is back home! Flabbergasted I make arrangements to visit her and take her Home Communion.
Following our ‘liturgical shouting’, otherwise known as a service if her mother is there, we share a cup of tea and it’s then that the miracle of God already present is disclosed.
C recalled her time in hospital and my visit. She recalled snatches of our conversation as we shared in the Eucharist at her bedside. Then she revealed that she had made up her mind to give up on life at that point. She was tired and very ill. She had no more strength to fight on.
Then she recalled my offering to lay hands on her and to pray for healing & to anoint her with Holy Oil. She went on movingly to describe how, as she felt my oily thumb trace the sign of the cross on her forehead and I uttered the words
‘I anoint you in the name of God who gives you life, receive Christ’s healing and his love. My the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ grant you the riches of His grace, His wholeness and His peace’
We can believe all manner of things to be true - especially the most unlikely when stirring from a waking dream or being roused to consciousness again. Yet the fact that C was now at home and retelling this, is testimony to the power and presence of the already present God at work.
Those of us who have the privilege in offering or receiving this ministry should never downplay the power and significance of what God, who is already there, is up to.